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

Ladakh 3

 

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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.

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!