The Joy of Unknowing (2)

As soon as I had written my last blog post, I thought of this piece I wrote quite a long time ago which offers a similar take on travel and navigation. I am tempted to tidy it up a bit and perhaps update it to mention GPS, but instead I’ll leave it as it is.

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When I was a teenager, I began to use maps, although in rather an ad hoc, hit and miss manner. They were there for me when I was really stuck, or just wanted to know which general direction something lay. It would be a very long time before I began to use them in a careful, detailed way, able to predict the exact lie of the land, navigate in the fog or the dark, find my way through complicated landscapes with the map and compass. And, do you know, since I’ve learned to do that, I feel as though I’ve lost something rather magical, although I don’t suppose that I can blame it all on that. The maps that I was using as a teenager would tend to be the Bartholomew’s touring maps, small scale with little detail. I would feel, as I headed along a Cornish footpath, that I only knew roughly where I was going. It felt like an adventure, an exploration.

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Now, I need to be more and more remote to get that feeling, and even then it does not always work. Having just spent some time in Ladakh, in the Himalaya in the far north of India, I was surprised at just how easy all of my walking was. Setting off with map and compass, I always knew exactly where I was, only confused at times by the multiplicity of tracks criss-crossing the landscape. Even then, reference to mountains and villages with map and compass would invariably allow me to set my position. It doesn’t mean that I wanted to get lost, just that there was a small part of me that said ‘even this is all tame!’ Equally, I can be put off, by using the map, by the knowledge that over the interesting looking ridge that I was heading for, lies a motorway or building estate, and so I spend ages trying to plot a route that I try to get perfect, rather than simply heading off in the direction that I want to go and exploring as I go, correcting my course as I travel.

Nothing can tempt me more than a track leading tantalisingly into the distance, perhaps meandering through Mediterranean scrub towards a notch in the skyline, perhaps leading through a glowing archway of trees. Even now, when using map and compass to navigate, I often have to resist the temptation to ignore the map and head off to follow an interesting looking track. I think that this must be a part of my ‘I wonder what’s over the other side of the hill?’ nature. It is another reason why I’ve never been able to lie on a beach – apart from the fact that it seems a particularly pointless pastime in any case. Any time that I’ve tried it, it never seems to be more than a couple of minutes before I begin to think ‘What’s round the cliff?’ or ‘If I head back up the river, I think I might find a way through those hills.’ And then I just have to go to find out.

Leh Old Town

Fourteen years ago I went up to Ladakh, in the Northern Indian Himalaya. Crikey, fourteen years! Where did that go?

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This is a painting I made in ink and watercolours of an area of the Old Town of Leh, the Main Town of Ladakh. It shows part of a Buddhist shrine, next to another old building. Most of the buildings are a mixture of stone and wood, the wood frequently carved and / or painted.

Although there were quite a few new buildings in the town, the majority of them were old and the whole town had the feel of belonging to another century. I travelled in early April, before most visitors arrive and when Ladakh is still bitterly cold and wintry – certainly overnight. During the day the temperature just sneaked a little above freezing. This meant that I seemed to be the only Westerner there – I certainly don’t remember seeing any others – and I was never hassled by touts of any description, possibly because it was still too early.

But, above all, the people were among the friendliest I have ever met.

Regretfully, I doubt I’ll get another chance to go there, but it is certainly a very special place!

Picture available on my Etsy shop site here

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The Wheel of Life, Tibetan Buddhist wall painting, Thikse Gompa. The Wheel represents the cycle of being, the various realms of existence, and the three poisons (desire, ignorance and hatred).

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View of the Stok Mountains, Part of the Himalaya Range, above farms and poplars on the edge of Leh, Ladakh.

From my diary, Friday 15th April 2005:

Outside, my hosts are planting their potatoes, today. It’s been fascinating watching over the last week, as they’ve dug over the whole vegetable garden (about an acre), then divided it up into a total of about fifty smallish and four large plots, all neatly divided with earth walls, between which are carefully dug channels to the stream that runs along the side.

Then, over the last couple of days, half of the plots have had compost dug in and the channels opened one by one to flood each plot for a set time, then closed and the water allowed to soak into the earth.

The first of the large plots is now being planted with potatoes, presumably saved from last year’s crop, and some more digging is commencing at the far end of the garden, where so far there are no small plots.

I’ve just noticed what’s happening at the far end of the garden. It’s going to be one huge potato patch. Dad is digging, Mum is planting, whilst Granny is sorting the potatoes ready for planting. The little girl is happily employed in making mud-pies, like small children anywhere in the world under these circumstances!

 

The monastery at Thikse, Ladakh. Virtually the whole of the hill is covered in buildings belonging to the monastery, whilst the Gompa or temple crowns the top. Founded in the fifteenth century by monks of the Gelugpa, or ‘yellow hat’ school of Tibetan Buddhism, to which the Dalai Lamas belong.

Wednesday 13th April 2005:

12.45 and I’m sitting on a rock in hot sunshine at the foot of Thikse Gompa. The bus ride here was remarkable. Where else in India would you find that they don’t bother charging anyone for just going a couple of stops, or that they’d wait a few minutes whilst a passenger nipped off the bus to buy some bread? All along here, passed all this desert scenery, so similar to Oman. And so many fairy-tale castles and palaces and the like hanging precariously to the tops of cliffs. 

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Building at Thikse Gompa.

If it is so beautiful now, in winter, then what must it be like in the other seasons? I’d dearly love to come back to see! And after all the heat, dust and pollution in Delhi, well, need I say more? I’ve not even been asked once for baksheesh, either. 

Mandala painted onto roof of entrance to Shanti Stupa, Leh. The Shanti Stupa, or Japanese Peace Pagoda, is one of more than 70 built around the world by the Japanese Buddhist Nipponzan Myohoji Organisation, which was run by Fujii Guruji. They were built to promote world peace.

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The River Indus at Choglamsar . The Indus originates in Tibet, near Lake Mansarovar – a lake sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists – and after flowing through Northern Kashmir, including Ladakh, passes into, and flows the length of, Pakistan, to the Arabian Sea. So, ironically, the river that gave its name to the state of India, flows mainly through Pakistan.

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Trees on the edge of Leh. Trees are highly important to Ladakhis – they provide timber for building, fuel, food in the form of walnuts and apricots, and fodder for animals. In all of Ladakh, the only trees that grow are willow, poplar, walnut and apricot.

Ladakh (2)

Long ago in the misty depths of time – that’s last year, actually, I posted a piece about Ladakh (you can find it here if you’d like to read it.)

This, then, is another mixture of photographs and entries from my journal of my 2005 trip to India, which included a couple of weeks spent in Ladakh. I went comparatively early in the year, when the nights are still extremely cold and very few visitors have made their way up from the plains.

 Just the way I like it!

Ladakh is high. If you fly in from Delhi (the only way to enter Ladakh for 8 months of the year), you travel from around sea level to 3500m in no time at all. Ladakh means ‘The Land of High Passes’, and is aptly named. Leh, the capital, at 3500m, is one of the lower areas of Ladakh. It’s all uphill from there. Winters are incredibly harsh and the summer growing season brief, yet the Ladakhis traditionally are self-sufficient in everything they need – food, clothing and shelter – and have only recently collided with the western consumer society. In contrast with most of the rest of India, the religion and culture of the majority of the people there is Tibetan Buddhism.

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The Roof of the World – View across the Indus valley at 3500m, Thikse, Ladakh.

 Friday 8th April 2005

I’m in Ladakh and, hey, wow!

At the airport for 4.30am, to find the flight postponed until 8am, due to weather conditions. It all looked ominous, but just after 7am we were told to check in and after numerous baggage checks, body checks, baggage identifications, etc, we were away at 8.30.

I’ve heard the flight described as one of the most spectacular in the world. I’ve also heard it described as jaw-dropping. I can imagine that it could be bowel-dropping. As we approached the Himalaya, clouds steadily built up and we flew through with tantalising glimpses of great snow-covered ranges below, through the occasional gaps in the cloud. After a while the turbulence built up and we were buffeted quite considerably. Then as we began to near Leh, we slowly lost height, the turbulence increased and we got more views of peaks at under-carriage height. Once we had dropped out of the clouds and the whole valley lay spread into the distance surrounded by snow-swept mountains, it was indeed jaw-dropping.

Then into land after three slow circles around the airstrip. The outside temperature was 2C, we were told, but it certainly didn’t seem that cold.

Once we’d gone through the formalities of registration and baggage reclaim with the refreshingly friendly ground staff, I walked out into the front of the airport and found a taxi. Yousef charged me RS 100/- to go to my choice of guesthouse (The Ti-Sei) and left me his mobile number. He also gave me all the usual (sensible) advice about taking it easy for a day or so.

I’m now sitting in a splendid light and airy room, looking out across the vegetable garden (covered in this morning’s snowstorm) to lines of bare poplars, traditional houses and some splendid mountains, also covered in snow.

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Cairn at top of mountain north of Leh.

After a Ladakhi lunch of apricots, apple juice and water, headed north past the Shanti Stupa towards the first line of hills. Reached there at 1.15pm and stopped there for a breather. Silence. Apart from the pounding of the blood in my head. Absolute silence. After a few minutes the call of the muezzin drifts up from Leh, from the Jama Masjid. Then a few bird calls from the crags. Perfect peace. A perfect desert landscape, with pockets of snow. I’m sitting on a boulder, warmed by the sun, my feet in patches of fresh snow.

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Gompa just below Leh Palace, Leh, ladakh.

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Man spinning prayer wheel, Leh. To Ladakhis, their religion is not somehow separate from their daily life, but an essential part of it.

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Leh Palace. Very similar to the Potala in Lhasa, although smaller, this was the home of Ladakh’s royal family from the 17th century, when it was built, until the mid 19th century when they moved to the palace at Stok, on the other side of the Indus Valley, as a result of an invasion by Kashmiri forces.

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Gateway to Gompa at Leh Palace.

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Old buildings on the outskirts of Leh, ladakh. Traditional Ladakhi buildings closely resemble those of Tibet. In fact, there are so many similarities between the two areas, that Ladakh is often referred to as ‘Little Tibet’.

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Temple Door at the Monastery at Thikse, Ladakh.


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Statue of Maitreya, the Future Buddha, at Thikse Gompa. This statue, 2 stories high (15 metres) in it’s own temple was completed in 1981.

A Week in McLeod Ganj – part 2

Apologies for the weird changes of tense – it was how I wrote the journal (in fits and starts), and I’ve not altered anything, merely missed out a couple of extremely uninteresting entries.

Sunday 29th November 2009

I didn’t get off to sleep for a few hours last night. There was lots of noise outside; lots of revellers going past. And then when I felt that I was almost off, a couple of vehicles crashed into each other just outside the gate. Lots more shouting. Then every time that a vehicle went past after that, I was waiting for another crash.

And the monastery across the road has its first puja at around 4am – the crashing of cymbals and the sounding of foghorns – that always wakes me, too.

So, I’m not entirely refreshed, but back in the restaurant at Green Hotel awaiting breakfast and just perking up with the first coffee.

I think I’m going to put off the visit to Dal Lake until tomorrow, and sit and write this morning. I’m tired and still feeling a little unwell. And read. It’s easier than having to think. I bought a big, thick, book yesterday, which should keep me going for a while.

Then in the afternoon, I mooched. Partly wandering the roads and hills around McLeod Ganj, and partly going for tea and coffee here and there. I have planned to go to the Tibetan music concert at the nearby school at 6pm, and after a shave and shower I head off there, find it, and take a seat along with about a dozen other westerners.

We sit and wait, and about a quarter of an hour or so after the scheduled start time, a chap comes in and announces that he’s sorry, but the musician isn’t coming. He has phoned to say that he couldn’t make it. He apologises to us again, and we get up to go. Because it was organised by a recognised NGO, and was intended to raise funds for the needy, I go and offer the guy RS 100/- towards the costs. In return, he gives me a long, meandering talk about volunteering and costs that I can’t really follow. It’s obvious that he’s been on the whisky and he presses me to meet him tomorrow to talk about the project. I waver, and then agree in a cowardly sort of way.

Once I have escaped, I go up to the Tibetan restaurant where I ate last night, since I rather liked the ambience of it. Unfortunately, tonight it proves to be full of a bunch of hard-drinking Tibetans, which I hadn’t really realised when I sat down to order. I get a beer and a thukpa, and am surrounded by whisky-swilling, chain-smoking Tibetans. This does nothing for my appetite, so I drink up, eat up and go.

I then wander up to the main part of McLeod Ganj and go to ‘Excite’ – the bar looks quite inviting from the outside.

Inside, though, it proves to be otherwise. I get a beer and order some masala peanuts, but don’t think much of them when they arrive. They are simply fried with a few bits of onion and tomato and seemingly no spices at all. I am offered a hookah which I decline. There are no other customers, and no music, in a plain, tatty room. I drink up and go.

Monday 30th November 2009

I cannot find the place that I agreed to meet the Tibetan chap and so, relieved, I go off to Dal Lake instead. It is a very pleasant walk of three kilometres or so each way, mainly through wooded hills, becoming quite autumnal in places. Magnificent birdlife – as well as the familiar ones, I see one with a very long tail that I take to be a Lyre Bird, and a very large eagle passes overhead, quite white underneath.

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I pass the church of Saint John in the Wilderness and go in to have a look. It says that it is the largest ‘cathedral’ in the Himalaya, in the diocese of Amritsar. It is big, and nice inside. There is a monument to Lord Elgin outside, but I am more interested in one of the plates inside, to a Thomas Knowles, who met his end at Dharamsala, courtesy of a bear.

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I rather like the ambience both inside and outside of the church. It is very peaceful and I linger. I think it is very hard to shake off the spiritual part of you that was formed when you were young, and I felt that I wanted to just stay there all day.

But I didn’t. I walked on to Dal lake, passing through the army training area, full of army personnel training, and along to the lake. It is a lovely spot, surrounded by deodars, and probably even more beautiful when the lake is full of water rather than full of bulldozers and mud.

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So I return to McLeod Ganj and go to lunch and, oh dear, food is beginning to taste a little rank, again. Not a good sign.

It is McClouding over, now. So far the pattern of weather each day has been the same – morning warm and sunny, with clouds beginning to come over at lunchtime. By late afternoon it is quite cool.

Later, I go down to visit the Tsuglagkhang Complex; the temples and the residence of the Dalai Lama (he’s out, at the moment). Outside the main temple, there is a puja going on involving a fire. I watch for a while, wander around the temples and then wander out.

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Tuesday 1st December 2009

Another visit to the Tsuglagkhang Complex, where I wander round and sit for a while, finishing with a visit to the sobering museum, telling the story of the rape of Tibet.

It is now evening. I am sitting in McLlo’s, looking out of the window down onto Main Square. There are a couple of liquor stores, with plenty of people, especially Tibetans, patronising them and milling around. But there is no trouble. People are peaceful, gentle. One would have to put this down to the influence of Buddhism. People have a code of behaviour that is based not on fear, but on an understanding of what is the right thing to do, for respect for others. There are no rowdy crowds; people don’t feel threatened. That is just one of the wholly benign influences of religion here.

It’s a gorgeous full moon, tonight.

 Wednesday 2nd December 2009

After breakfast I decide to sit up on the roof with my book for the morning. Some hours later, I am interrupted when two troupes of monkeys leap onto the roof and begin fighting each other. Honestly, how is one meant to concentrate? I give up and go down.

The cold develops. I spend most of the rest of the day in my room reading.

Saturday 5th December 2009

I still have a bit of a cold/sore throat/headache, but am feeling better in myself. Indeed, walking around the town this morning, I feel that I shall really miss McLeod Ganj. I love the ambience; the only place in India that I have visited that that felt more laid back than here was Ladakh, and this runs it close. The Tibetans are brilliant, and the Buddhist attitude to all things tends to come through all of the time – even the stray dogs get fed and petted and seem much better off than elsewhere, although I suppose that might be because they chase off the monkeys!

And having ranted about westerners enough times, last night the chap at the next table to me called the waiter over to say that he wanted to pay for the supper of the two monks on a nearby table, and I’ve been in conversation this morning with a great group of Americans who are working with the refugees here.

The Travel Bug bit me – part 1

Travelling! My first inclination to travel to remote regions came from my Grandmother, when I was probably six or seven years old, despite the fact that she had never travelled very far at all in her whole life. In fact, I don’t think that she ever left England.

But she would tell me stories of China, inducing images of Emperors and pig-tailed mandarins, peasants and bandits, and this was coupled with a children’s book; an encyclopaedia I presume, with grainy, black and white pictures of strange scenery. It was extremely evocative, although at the time I did not understand that. I was just excited by the mysterious, the strange and the unknown.  I was hooked, and wanted to go there! Ever since then, the places where I’ve most wanted to travel, other than Britain and Europe, have almost all been in Asia.

The list of places that I have at the moment that I would like to visit, are almost exclusively Asian.

Yes, she has a lot to answer for, that sweet old lady.

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When I was a teenager, I began to use maps, although in rather an ad hoc, hit and miss manner.

They were there for me when I was really stuck, or I just wanted to know in which general direction something lay. It would be a very long time before I began to use them in a skillful way, able to predict the exact lie of the land, navigate in the fog or the dark, or find my way through complicated landscapes with the map and compass. And, do you know, since I’ve learned to do that, I often feel as though I’ve actually lost something rather magical, although I don’t suppose that I can blame it all on that. The maps that I was using as a teenager would tend to be the Bartholomew’s Touring Maps, small scale with little detail. I would feel, as I headed along a Cornish footpath, that I only knew roughly where I was going. It always felt like an adventure; an exploration.

Now, I need to be more and more remote before I can get that feeling, and even then it does not always work. Some ten years ago, I spent a couple of weeks in Ladakh, in the Himalaya in the far north of India, and I was surprised at just how easy all of my walking was. Setting off with map and compass, I always knew exactly where I was, only confused at times by the multiplicity of tracks criss-crossing the landscape. Even then, reference to mountains and villages with map and compass would invariably allow me to set my position.

That doesn’t mean that I wanted to get lost, just that there was a small part of me that said ‘even this is all tame!’ Equally, I can be put off, when using a map, by the knowledge that over the interesting looking ridge that I am heading for, there lies a motorway or building estate, and so I then spend ages trying to plot a route that I try to get perfect, rather than simply heading off in the direction that I want to go and exploring as I go, correcting my course as I travel.

Nothing can tempt me more than a track leading tantalisingly into the distance, perhaps meandering through Mediterranean scrub towards a notch in the skyline, perhaps leading through a glowing archway of trees. Even now, when using map and compass to navigate, I often have to resist the temptation to ignore the map and head off to follow an interesting looking track. I think that this must be a part of my ‘I wonder what’s over the other side of the hill?’ nature. It’s another reason why I’ve never been able to lie on a beach – apart from the fact that this seems a particularly pointless pastime in any case. Any time that I’ve tried it, it never seems to be more than a couple of minutes before I begin to think ‘What’s round that cliff, I wonder?’ or ‘If I head back up the river, I think I might find a way through those hills.’ And then I just have to go to find out.

There are plenty of other things that can destroy a sense of adventure in travelling, other than over-familiarity with maps, of course. I remember the shock and the sense of let-down I received in Germany about 35 years ago, when I spent the best part of a morning struggling up an ill-defined track through thick woodland to the top of a berg in the Black Forest (I was using a tiny touring map at the time, which showed main roads at best). My elation at arriving at the top and surveying the panorama of hills and mountains around me was completely destroyed within a minute, as a coach roared up the other side of the hill, came to a halt a few feet away from me, and then disgorged about 30 Japanese tourists. They spent about two minutes firing off photographs of everything in sight, including myself, before leaping back on board the coach, roaring off down the hill and leaving me gob-smacked in the sudden silence and slowly settling dust.

 

Dodgy digestion in Dharamshala

I am not sure why, but I frequently think of the room that I stayed in when I went to McCloud Ganj in 2009. It was not my best trip to India, since it was the one time that I have picked up a bad stomach bug that I could not shake off for the entire duration of my trip. I had a few days in Jaipur, the condition of my digestive system rapidly going downhill despite medication and fasting, and finally took the bus back to Delhi where I felt strangely comfortable in the familiar warren of Paharganj.

When I felt that my stomach had at least stabilised, although it was by no means cured, I decided I was well enough to go and spend a week or so in Dharamshala. Or McCloud Ganj, which is what most people mean when they mention Dharamshala. McCloud Ganj is where the Dalai Lama and many Tibetan refugees actually live; Dharamshala is a town close by. Anyway, instead of taking the bus – a twelve hour journey that I just couldn’t face – I splashed out and took a flight.

Actually, the flight was wonderful.

The plane was a twin engine prop, rather than a jet, carrying just a few passengers. If one has to travel by air, then I think that there is no nicer way of doing it. We were crossing the North Indian plains for a while, then all of a sudden the Himalaya jagged up like freshly whitened teeth from side to side across the horizon. We slowly approached, the ground beginning to rise up into hills and the towns disappearing. We passed Shimla atop a ridge, with its airport running along a second ridge, looking for all the world as though the top had been sliced off – and perhaps it had.

Eventually we came into land – a tiny airport where the aircraft taxied up to the small building, switched off, and then when we got out all was quiet. After the hum of the engines during the flight, the sudden silence with the mountains staring down at us, and the air clear and cool, was breathtaking and almost indescribably beautiful. I just wanted to stand still and drink it all in, but was eventually ushered into the terminal.

And the aircraft terminal was small enough to feel that it was built on a human scale. A few rooms and halls, and not too many people around. And even those people appeared to be in no real hurry, unlike the larger airports that I usually find myself in.

I thought immediately of Leh airport, in Ladakh. That had the same feel.

So I picked up my luggage, and went outside to get a taxi to McLeod Ganj (or Gunj).

Once in McLeod Ganj, I checked into my room at Hotel Ladies Venture. It was basic, but it was clean, had hot water, a bed with lots of blankets, a table and a chair. For RS 200/- a night I had nothing to complain about, and if you wish to read this as a recommendation, then feel free to do so.

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I shall write a proper blog post on McCloud Ganj at some point, but suffice to say I did very little during the week that I was there, other than wander around and look at the mountains, read, eat and drink, and visit the Tsuglagkhang Complex; the temples and the residence of the Dalai Lama (who was out when I visited).

But my guest house room has stuck in my mind.

By the end of my second day there, I had slightly rearranged the room to get it how I wanted it. My few books were lined up on the windowsill. Various belongings were on the table. I had hung a string of prayer flags along the wall. Little touches.

I have stayed in far nicer rooms. I have enjoyed better health at other times. But every time that I feel my life is too cluttered; too full of unnecessary junk and too complicated, it is this room that suddenly springs to mind, and I’m not entirely certain why.

It might have something to do with the fact that I do travel light, and so have nothing with me but essentials plus a few books and my notebook (although I would argue that they are also essentials!).

It might have something to do with the fact that my room that week felt like a bit of a refuge, partly because I still felt unwell, although I am not entirely convinced by this since I loved the town, the people were lovely, and I was completely at ease there.

I think that it is simply symbolic of the feeling that I constantly have that I need desperately to declutter and simplify my life. I think that when feelings of stress and anxiety threaten to overwhelm me, then it is an image of a refuge. I think that it is a reminder of much that I love about India and its people.

Dammit, I need to get out there again!

My First Long Trip to India (6)

There seemed to be so much rain falling in Sikkim that I began to wonder whether they had their own private monsoon.

It sounded as though it was raining all night, although ‘raining’ does not really do it justice as a weather phenomenon; that would rather be like suggesting that Lapland has a little bit of snow in the winter, or that it could sometimes be quite sunny in the Kalahari Desert.

It was hammering down.

It started whilst I was out in the evening, and it only stopped around dawn. When I went out to find some breakfast, thick, black clouds were still filling the sky, and it was much cooler than it had been the previous evening. Small rivers seemed to be hurtling along the sides of all the roads, and random lakes occupied much of the lower areas.

At first sight, I was really disappointed in Gangtok. It appeared very modern, with lots of new buildings and virtually nothing that appeared to be old. It was very clean (possibly due to it being extremely well-washed) and tidy. There seemed to be really very little for the visitor to see.

I decided to arrange to go on a trek as soon as I could.

Just to make it a little more difficult, though, all treks had to be arranged through officially approved agents, and there was technically a requirement for a minimum of four people per trek, although it was possible to do it with less.

And it wasn’t cheap.

Eventually, I ended up with a three day trip to the Yumthang valley – as far north in Sikkim as you are allowed to go – leaving the following morning. There were three of us: myself and a pleasant Swiss couple. After a lot of form-filling and passport photocopying, I handed over my money, and walked outside into the torrential rain.

The next day at dawn there was a blue sky, or at least as much of it as I could see from my window. A rain-washed blue, I’d be tempted to say. I packed, and then went off to the hotel where I was to meet the others. There I had breakfast, stored a bag for my return, and sat around reading and waiting to go.

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We set off just after ten o’clock in a jeep, and I was excited to be travelling again among the high mountains with Nepalese style villages. We stopped for lunch at an inn, which again was very clean and modern. And so far, the weather had been good. We had a good view of Kanchenjunga when we left Gangtok, and by lunchtime there were just a few clouds over the mountain tops. By one fifteen we had reached Mangan, the capital of north Sikkim, and another police check post, to show our passes. Only, this time the check post was empty – apparently, the fellow was at lunch, so we had to kick our heels for twenty minutes.

I was making quick notes as we drove along, which seem to give a good snapshot of the area. And so:

Gangs of women breaking stones to mend the road.

Suspension bridges.

Huge clumps of huge bamboo.

Bell flower bushes.

Masses of butterflies.

Gompas.

Landslides.

Rivers rushing across roads.

Good and bad bits of road.

Bottlebrush trees.

Orchids!

Buddhist symbols painted inside and outside buildings.

Long, long lines of prayer flags beside the road.

We reached Lachang, at 4pm, at an altitude of 8500ft or so. The hotel we were booked into was very smart and new, constructed and decorated entirely in Tibetan style. They gave us a supper of Tibetan vegetable soup, cheese momos and fruit, and then I went off for an early night.

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I awoke to blue skies and snow covered mountain peaks, and at seven o’clock the sun was streaming around some awesome jagged peaks towering over the village.

Seven thirty and we were on our way by jeep again. The last twenty one kilometres was through an area that is designated a ‘prohibited area’ – no one is allowed in without a permit, and cameras are strictly prohibited. Naturally, when we got to the valley there were plenty of people snapping away, despite the presence of numerous soldiers. When I saw soldiers actually posing for photographs, I decided it was probably safe to get my own camera out.

More notes:

Glaciers.

There are thirty one species of rhododendron in Sikkim.

Landslips.

Tibet just a few miles away.

The valley is at an altitude of 11500ft.

There was a cold wind blowing up the valley from the south. Yumthang is 140km from Gangtok by road. I wonder what it is as the crow flies?

Butterflies – clouded yellow, painted lady, tortoiseshell – they all seemed to be ones that I knew from UK.

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We walked 8km back and then the jeep picked us up. It was beautiful.

Hot springs just below Yumthang – a malodorous, sulphurous pool in a stone shed!

Clouds were dropping down as we headed back to Lachang for lunch.

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There were a number of tall mountains to the south of the valley, and I asked our guide their names. They have no names, he replied. They are all less than 6000m, so they don’t bother naming them in Sikkim (although I’m sure that traditionally they must have had names – all the mountains seen from a town or village would have had names, even if just local ones).

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I think it was at this point that I decided I would have to visit Ladakh.

In the afternoon we drove up the other side of the valley to visit Lachang Gompa. It was not a ‘working’ monastery, since the monks live down in the village. Therefore it was locked, as it is only used on full moon days and festivals. But we could at least go around the outside, to see the huge prayer wheels (and spin them) and see the beautiful frescoes.

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The following morning we left at 6.30 on a fine, clear morning. The idea behind leaving so early was to go to a viewpoint high above a valley, but by the time that we got there it was the usual mass of clouds drifting above and below us. Some rain at times. Sunny periods. Outlook changeable.

And so back to Gangtok.

That night it poured with rain again, and the following morning, as usual, there was thick, low clouds filling the skies and the valleys. This was followed by another heavy overnight rainstorm.

Time to move on.

I had breakfast, checked out, and went straight to the jeep park. Just after midday, I was in Kalimpong. On the way, the sky soon cleared, and it was hot sunshine long before we reached West Bengal.

By Popular Demand

A few weeks ago I put up a couple of pictures of paintings that I had made of Indian subjects, and a number of readers were kind enough to say that I should put up some more.

Today, then, a couple more.

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Ladakhi Door #1

Doors are a favourite subject of mine, and this one is from a monastery in Ladakh, Northern India. Ladakh is sometimes known as ‘Little Tibet’, and in some ways, now, it could be said to be more Tibetan than Tibet. Historically, it has been a part of Tibet, and I have an old book of a journey that was taken in 1904, ‘Through Western Tibet’, by Jane Duncan, a doughty traveller, which places Leh in Western Tibet, although I am not certain of exactly where the border lay then.

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Mosque

There was quite a bit of artistic license employed in the making of this painting. It is based on a mosque in Bopal, but I have never been there, instead relying on photographs. I have made no attempt to depict it accurately, but instead I interpreted it to create a totally new aspect.

Both of these paintings are in acrylic, on canvas, and measure 24 inches by 36 inches.

A Day in Ladakh

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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’.