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.

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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’.

Prayer Flags

Prayer flags are found wherever Tibetan Buddhism is found. As they flutter in the breeze, they use this wind to send blessings out into the world. Through many parts of the Himalaya they adorn monasteries and humble homes, chortens and bamboo flagpoles. They are tied in their hundreds and thousands to bridges, above mountain peaks, and in the courtyards of every conceivable building.

Elsewhere, they are to be found wherever exiled Tibetans live, and wherever their school of Buddhism flourishes.

The makers of the flags intend the prayers and blessings that adorn them not for their own benefit, but for the benefit of all beings.

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Prayer flags in the Yumtang Valley, Sikkim, India.

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Prayer flags, Observatory Hill, Darjeeling, India.

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Prayer flags outside a monastery in Sikkim, India.

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Prayer flags adorn a pair of chortens and walls of prayer wheels in Khumjung, Nepal.

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Prayer flags at Tengboche, Nepal.

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And adorning a bridge of the Dudh Khosi, again in Nepal.

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.

A Week in McLeod Ganj – part 1

2009. Blimey, that’s almost 8 years ago, now! Doesn’t seem that long! So here’s a couple of extracts from my journal, plus apologies for only taking a few photos.

Friday 27th November 2009

(I’d not been well, and couldn’t face a 12 hour bus journey, so I took a flight to Dharamsala) It all goes smoothly, and we get away just about on time. The plane is a twin engine prop; lovely, and the flight is marvellous. We are crossing the North Indian plains for a while, then all of a sudden the Himalaya jag up like freshly whitened teeth, from side to side across the horizon. We slowly approach, the ground beginning to rise up into hills and the towns disappearing. We pass Shimla atop a ridge, with its airport running along a second ridge, looking for all the world as though the top has been sliced off – and perhaps it has.

Eventually we come into land – another tiny airport where the aircraft taxis up to the small building, switches off, and then when we get out all is quiet, the mountains staring down at us and the air clear and cool. Pick up baggage, out to get a taxi to McLeod Ganj (or Gunj).

At first, the roadsides are crowded with troops of monkeys – I quickly lose all idea of how many. We pass hundreds. But as we gain height, they disappear and we are surrounded by forest.

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In about half an hour, we get to McLeod Ganj and I check into my room at Hotel Ladies Venture. It is basic, but is clean, has hot water, a bed with lots of blankets, a table and a chair. For RS 200/- a night I’m in no position to complain.

So the first thing that I do is go off to explore. I am surrounded by a busy little town full, largely, of Tibetans. Lots of shops and cafes, monks, monasteries, gompas and chortens. No hard sell. In my mind, I turn cartwheels. At the moment I am sitting up on the terrace at Village Meeting Point café, finishing apple pie and Darjeeling tea, watching the sunset amongst the mountains.

This is better.

Later, it gets colder.

Saturday 28th November 2009

I slept pretty well – it didn’t get as cold as I thought that it might. The shower was good, although the hot water didn’t last for too long. This morning I have wandered up through the town to Green Hotel for breakfast. Probably like most places here, it is filled mainly with westerners, discussing Tibetan politics. Most of the more upmarket places, that is. The Tibetans will be in the cheap eateries, since most are not exactly well off.

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There is a large ex-pat community of all sorts here, and one of the consequences of this is that such things as real coffee are served all over the place. Also Italian food, etc., etc. It is certainly no hardship for westerners, here. Everywhere offers yoga classes, meditation classes, massage, cookery lessons – you name it. Opportunities of all sorts for volunteering, too.

Today I am just going to wander around and get to know the place a bit. Try to feel the pulse of it, as it were. Like other, similar, places (Bodhgaya) it seems like several separate communities living side by side, interacting occasionally, but still separate. Or should that be different layers?

A sudden commotion beside me, as a monkey nips in through the window and nicks a bowl of porridge off of an adjacent table, making its escape out of the same window. No one seems too bothered.

After breakfast, I change some money and then stroll the kilometre or so uphill to Dharamkot village. The track goes through forest and I pass first through a troop of Macaque monkeys, who chunter a bit at me, but keep out of my way, and then pass lots of birdlife, including a small flock of birds that look a little like tits, with a mainly black head with a small black crest, and one beautiful bird, a little larger, an iridescent turquoise (mainly) like a kingfisher or a roller.

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Teashop, this way!

At the top of the hill is a little teashop where I get a lemon tea and join the other few people sitting there in silence. It is perfectly peaceful, a good place to watch the world go by, except that the world decides not to pass that way for the moment.

Back into McLeod Ganj, past the chuntering macaques, to Jimmy’s Italian restaurant for lunch. The rooftop has fantastic views over the town and across the mountains, and I watch a couple of kites slowly circling and calling nearby. If it wasn’t for the fact that I want to explore this fascinating place, I think that I could just sit here for the whole afternoon with a book.

In the event, I don’t do anything much more constructive than that. I read, I wander around; I go for tea and cake. After all, I’m here for ten days or so, so there is no rush to do anything.

I plan to walk to Dal Lake tomorrow, which is no more than half a day there and back.