Repost – A Day In Ladakh

As promised, I’m putting up an old post on India. This one I originally posted just over five years ago, so you might not have read it.

Wednesday 13th April 2005

This morning, there is a clear blue sky, with just a couple of clouds sitting on top of the Stok Mountain Range. It doesn’t seem quite as cold in the morning as it has been recently.

I go for breakfast at the Budoshah. I don’t really know why I eat here (I certainly don’t always), unless it’s because the morning sun warms the corner that I’m sitting in. I’m the only person here and when I walk in, the waiter always seems frightened to see customers. When I’m eventually given a menu (and everything is always ‘off’ – it’s a Kashmiri restaurant, so two thirds of their dishes are chicken or mutton. The day before yesterday, people were being told ‘no chicken no mutton’.), I ask for scrambled eggs on toast.

I’m told no, they can’t do it. Fried, boiled or omelette, yes. But the cook obviously can’t scramble them.

And black coffee.

‘Pot?’

How big is the pot? I ask.

‘Ah…I get one’. He disappears back into the kitchen, never to return. I sit back and contemplate the Ladakh Mountains in the sunshine, prayer flags waving lazily beside the temple. With luck, it will be another warm day. I think I’ll catch a bus to Thikse Gompa.

My coffee arrives. In a glass.

The toast arrives with heart-stopping chunks of Ladakhi butter – like everything here that calls for butter. I thought at first that it must be cheese. It seems to be the Ladakhi/Tibetan way. I made a mistake and had a cheese sandwich the other day – the cheese is just like butter, so you can imagine what it was like for my poor western tastebuds. I had to scrape most of it off.

leh street

It’s 12.45, and I’m sitting on a rock in hot sunshine at the foot of Thikse Gompa. The bus ride here was remarkable (and where else in India would you find that the driver would wait a few minutes whilst a passenger nipped off the bus to buy some bread?). All the way here, we passed through this wonderful desert scenery, with fairy-tale castles and palaces and the like clinging precariously to the tops of cliffs.

The Ladakhi buses are like all Indian buses, though. Today’s had plenty of pictures inside and on the windscreen (The Dalai Lama, Buddha, etc.), two vases of flowers and a fancy piece of wooden scrollwork on the dashboard, and several drawers incorporated into this.

At the moment I’m having my apricot and water lunch to the accompaniment of drumming in the background; a ritual going on somewhere. There are so many gompas here, and every private house performs their own pujas, that it could be coming from anywhere.

We passed through Shey on the way here. More of this tomorrow, I think. I intend to spend the day there.

I ‘strolled’ up to the gompa, and was shown around by a monk. We chatted in a mixture of Ladakhi, Hindi and English. He is a Ladakhi, in fact all of the monks here are. There are no Tibetans. In fact, despite the large Tibetan population here, he says that there are only two monasteries with Tibetan Lamas.

Untitled-TrueColor-01

We watched a group of young monks kicking around a football, a hundred metres or more below us.

Do families still send one son to be trained as a monk?

No, but there are still many coming.

I was first shown the giant statue of Maitreya Buddha, which is fairly modern, then the fourteenth century gompa, which is very dark and unlit, which made it difficult to properly see the wealth of thankas and statuary. I had to tell him about my family, job and anything else he could think of. That was quite hard going, and I don’t think we totally managed to get through. A pigeon flew into the gompa and started a discussion (not literally, you understand). In Ladakhi, pigeon is (I think) Po-ro, fairly onomatopoeic. In Arabic, I told him, it’s Bulbul, also onomatopoeic. Possibly it is the same in Hindi and Urdu.

Untitled-Scanned-01

Back for tea and a bucket shower.

Later, I’m walking around the market. How strange to go around market stalls and shops in India, not getting pressured and hassled at all. At times it seems almost unreal. You wonder whether suddenly it’s all going to crash around you and normal India will be resumed as soon as possible. The longer that you spend here, the more laid back you become. I don’t think you can help it! Everyone strolls around smiling and Julay-ing you and each other. I know that Ladakhis consider it the height of bad manners ever to lose one’s temper, but it really does seem unreal. I think it would be easy to just sink into the ambience of it all and find you’d suddenly missed your flight out and had overstayed by weeks, or months…

Andrew Harvey said, and I’ll have to paraphrase because I can’t remember the exact quote, ‘The wonder of Leh is that there is absolutely nothing to do. Nothing to do except slow down, switch off and just observe. Just be.’ I understand that, now. I realise that that is what I have been doing the last few days without realising it.

trees

I had Phung Sha and rice for supper at the Amdo -a Tibetan dish. It is a sort of thick vegetable stew, which I shall certainly have again.

I have always wanted to read Rumi, the thirteenth century Persian mystic and poet, and I picked up a copy today from the little bookshop. I am now wrapped up in my blanket reading it by the light of my candles.

Downstairs, my hostess is singing again. Last night, I tiptoed out to the landing to listen to her singing what I was told this morning were Ladakhi folksongs, and I creep out again to listen now.

This time it’s ‘Bob the Builder’.

Deadlines and Breadlines

My loyal follower will have noticed that I have a tendency to drop off of the grid for a while from time to time.

I do that, yes. Sometimes I feel I don’t really have anything worth saying, and at other times I feel there is just too much (self-imposed) pressure on me to come up with a new blog post or to keep up with all those I follow.

Some people thrive on deadlines and work best that way. Others dread them, especially those who have regular confidence and anxiety issues.

Dreadlines, indeed.

I’m lucky in that I’ve never really had the kind of job where I have someone shouting at me constantly to produce plans or reports by this or that deadline, or else I’ll be sacked and out of work and the family will be thrown out of the house onto the streets and starve boo-hoo. Yet I set myself the task or writing a new blog post once a week or twice a week, or whenever I feel I should be doing that.

Preposterous, isn’t it?

I enjoy blogging, and enjoy following other blogs, but every now and again I wonder why on earth I don’t just go and spend the day walking in the countryside or cleaning the house or exercising the badger or something.

And that is why I’ve been rather quiet for a week or two.

So, here’s a picture of a small boy and three sharks on a donkey in the desert as some sort of recompense for you.

shark boy crop

You’re welcome.

Annapurna Circuit, Nepal – 4

Part Four – from 30 years ago.

IMG_0037

On the western side of Thorung La, the climate is much drier and in places the scenery is very much that of a desert landscape.

 

IMG_0039

As you descend, though, you soon come across settled areas where meltwater from the snows and glaciers higher up enable vegetation to grow.

 

IMG_0038

Mani stones plus a fine set of argali horns on top of a wall in Kagbeni. The argali are the wild sheep of the Himalaya.

 

IMG_0040

In Tukuche, at 2590m – less than half the altitude of Thorung la, which we had crossed just two days before.

 

IMG_0041

It was in places like this, that we really felt we could be in another century. Buildings of stone and beautifully carved wood, ponies for transport, no wheeled vehicles, and the two fellows to the right of the picture are busy crushing lengths of bamboo to a fibrous pulp, ready to make into paper.

It was in places like these, actually, that I felt I could just leave the world behind and spend the rest of my life. Yes, totally impractical, I know, but…

 

IMG_0042

We came for the high peaks, but the mountains lower down have a breathtaking beauty of their own.

 

IMG_0043

Sunrise on Poon Hill is a treat most trekkers ensure they don’t miss. Unrivalled mountain views, and in the spring the massed flowers of the rhododendron forests.

 

IMG_0044

Ah, yes. Did I just mention the rhododendron forests?

 

IMG_0045

Photos just don’t seem to do them justice.

 

IMG_0046

And then a few days later it was over, and we were back in Kathmandu…

…and that is a different kind of wonderful…

The Collector

Inspiration, writers’ block, ideas…I could write about all or any of these topics. Instead, I thought I’d simply post another poem – plus, of course, a picture (with far better weather than we’re having here) – and let it do the job instead.

337a

I’m a collector of images long stored in my memory,

A desert inferno of razor-sharp rocks.

A mountain breeze rippling an icy cold puddle,

Thick mists and thin soups, flowers, trains, and old shoes.

 

I’m a collector of memories, both mine and ones borrowed,

The harrowing journey, the lovers’ first kiss.

There’s betrayal and loyalty, flatulence, hope,

There’s a child being born, and a wolf at the door.

 

I’m a collector of stories, the stranger the better,

Believable, odd, and ridiculous too.

Close to home or historical, alien, fanciful,

Some to keep secret and some I can tell.

 

I’m a collector of moonbeams and of chance reflections,

A collector of sadness and bittersweet pain.

A collector of strangely shaped stones in a circle,

And dreams that tell stories I don’t understand.

 

By Popular Request (2)

First of all, a huge ‘thank you’ to all of you who contributed to the comments thread on my post earlier this week, ‘Religion or Philosophy.’

I thought it made it the most interesting so far, and all of your comments certainly given me much food for thought about what I had written and my feelings around the subject.

So, today, a couple more paintings. I didn’t paint much when I was in Oman, apart from a few sketches and watercolours, so these ones were worked much later, from some of the photographs I took.

It is in the desert that I have been most aware of the contrast between light and dark, and that is something that I wanted to bring out in these paintings.

P1050093

Oman #1 Acrylic on board. 24 ins x 36 ins

There is something about ruins, by their very nature, that is stark. They have been shaped by human hand, but are now broken. Designed and built for a purpose, but now with that purpose gone. There is a sadness, or at least a feeling of melancholy.

There is a sense of emptiness, which is frequently a feeling that comes upon the traveller in the desert.

And in the desert, there is not that softening growth of ivy, for example, to soften the harsh and fractured edges of ruins.

P1050094

Oman #2 Acrylic on board 37 ins x 23 ins

The second painting, Oman #2, was also an exercise in the use of triangles in composition.

Oman (1)

Prior to 1970, Oman was, in many ways, still a medieval country. There were no more than 3 miles of tarmac road in the whole country, the gates of the capital, Muscat, were still closed between the hours of sunset and sunrise, and it’s exports were largely confined to dates, limes and frankincense. Oil had first been discovered as far back as 1956, and then in commercial quantities in 1962. Production began in 1964 and led irrevocably to massive changes, although these would not come about until 1970.

boat

This launch (Omanis never use the word Dhow) was on the shore at Yiti, just east of Muscat. It would most likely have been used for trading and was probably still seaworthy when I took this photo.

Mindful of these changes that had happened virtually overnight to other Middle Eastern states when oil had been discovered, the then Sultan, Said, was determined that Oman would not go the same way. Unfortunately for everyone concerned, his solution was to stash the proceeds in the royal coffers, whilst the country and its people remained poor. It was a situation that could not last for long, and in 1970 his son, Qaboos, overthrew the old Sultan.

Baushar Fort

Old fort at the village of Baushar, near Muscat.
baushar door
Carved wooden door in Baushar Fort

I lived there between 1985 and 1988, during which time the country was making large strides towards being a modern state, although many parts of the country still felt as though they belonged in another century. Around Muscat and along the Northern coast, there were new towns springing up, modern shops and hotels, main roads, and much of the development that might be expected. There did appear to be an emphasis on the building of facilities such as schools and hospitals, however, along with a good deal of restraint, which was a refreshing change from the way that many other states used their oil wealth.

pottery kiln 1

Pottery kiln at Bahla.

Bahla has good quality clay and produces large numbers of pots, which are thrown on simple foot-operated slow wheels and fired in large mud-brick kilns, which are fueled with brushwood.

Pots at bala

Newly-fired pots

Away from the towns, to visit most of the villages was like stepping back in time. Buildings were often still mud brick and palm thatch, and many of the traditional cottage industries were still followed.

falaj

Falaj.

The Falaj system of irrigation originated in Persia and was spread throughout the Arab world. I have even seen examples in Spain. The system consists of a series of underwater channels bringing water from where it arises, usually in the mountains, to where it is needed, where it is distributed by overground channels. These channels, both underground and overground, have been built on a very gentle gradient and show astounding technical skill, being built only with primitive tools, often very deep underground. Many of the Omani Falajes are reckoned to have been built by 500 BC.

dates

Dates spread out to dry near the town of Quriyat.

Dates are an important crop in Oman and were the main export until the discovery of oil there. They are still dried in the traditional way – in the sun.

shark boy crop

Boy on a donkey with sharks. The sea has also traditionally been a major source of food for Omanis. I passed this boy just outside Quriyat.

deserty desert

Coastal mountains, SE of Muscat.

For a long time after I finally left Oman, I harboured a strong wish to go back there. But recently I watched several videos on YouTube, which have cured me. Many of the places that I knew as small settlements with dirt roads and small houses, have become places of great wealth with wide boulevards, modern houses and cars, and tourist hotels. It is, no doubt, a development that is welcomed by the majority of the population, but it is not the Oman that I knew.

Oasis

There you go. A picture of an oasis.