Two Books On Ladakh

Just a short post, today. I’ve posted about Ladakh in the Northern India Himalaya several times before, and was reading a couple of these posts back this morning when it struck me I’d written, but never posted, reviews of a couple of books that did much to inspire me to travel there. These are really brief reviews, put up mainly to encourage anyone who might have any interest in Ladakh to read them and then perhaps visit this most remarkable and beautiful place for themselves.

Ancient Futures by Helena Norberg-Hodge. This book is what amounts to a long essay on the culture, history, peoples and development of Ladakh. Helena Norberg-Hodge was one of the first people to travel to Ladakh when it opened up in the 1970’s, where she learned to speak the language and got to know the people as few outsiders have ever done before or since. Returning regularly each year for six months at a time, she watched as Ladakh began to ‘develop’ a Westernised society at the expense of its own centuries-old sophisticated rural culture. And watched in what amounts to horror. This book charts the so-called progress made by Western ideas there, and how much is being done to halt the worst excesses by careful encouragement of traditional means of farming and living by the Ladakhis themselves. Both depressing and inspiring, this is by any measure an outstanding book.

There is also an absolutely beautiful video, available on YouTube, which was based on this book and which I would strongly encourage anyone who has any interest in this area and its history, ecology, and development to watch.

A Journey in Ladakh by Andrew Harvey. In 1981 Andrew Harvey travelled to Ladakh in order to study the Tibetan Buddhist society there. He found a fascinating community of gentle people beginning to collide with Western values but retaining a deep, sincere belief in their Buddhist culture. Part spiritual journey, part guide to Ladakh, this book has been a favourite of mine for over thirty years and the dog-eared, tatty copy on my bookshelf was a major reason for my travelling there myself.

And if you’d like to read my previous posts on Ladakh, you can find the main ones here and here.

Stereotypes and Misunderstandings

In countries such as India, there is frequently an impression that Western visitors and therefore, by extension, all Westerners, own vast wealth and have massive amounts of leisure time at their disposal.

After all, they arrive on holiday, perhaps for a month or more, and they go around staying in places that are far beyond the means of the average Indian, spend the equivalent of several month’s wages on souvenirs, often hop on an aircraft to take a journey that would be one hundredth of the price by rail, flaunting expensive cameras and watches and phones and designer clothes. So who wouldn’t think that?


This is not helped by the impressions given by many Western films and programs, where work seldom seems to get in the way of whatever action the film is depicting.

This often affects how local people interact with visitors, and their feelings about them.

I suspect it even drives a certain amount of international migration, too.

And so I think it very important to highlight a few facts;

Basically, the differences in exchange rates of different currencies give the impression of great wealth which is not, in fact, true.

A few numbers:

The average annual wage in the UK is currently £28,000, or $34,400. This sounds a lot (even to me!) but that hides a huge variation, of course.

It is quite hard to find figures that agree about the average annual Indian wage, with estimates varying from around $600, up to around $3500, although this may well reflect the massive difference between the rural worker and a worker in, for example, the IT industry. For sake of argument, I’m going to use the figure of $2000, which could still be slightly on the high side, looking at some of the sites I’ve gone to.

This would give the average UK worker a wage 17 times higher than the Indian. Sounds good for us, but the average cost of a house in the UK is now some £300,000 – that’s $369,000, and it is now almost impossible for young people to buy their own house unless they are helped by well-off parents, and they have very well-paid jobs. The average rent, otherwise, is around $12,300 per year. About a third of the average wage.

To find an average cost to rent in India is also difficult (for me!). I scoured a lot of sites, and seemed to come up with a figure of somewhere around $1,200 a year, although there were massive variations, both between cities and within them. If I have got these figures correct, that is around a half of the average wage.

The prices of basic commodities such as foodstuffs or power vary a lot between India and UK, too. Whereas I have bought street food in India for a rupee or two, making a lunch for perhaps 15 or 20 cents, it would cost me at least $2.50 to $3 in UK for the equivalent.

This isn’t to draw up an accurate comparison between the two – it would be quite a study to do that – but to try to make the point that the average person in the UK is better off (materially) than the average person in India, but not by nearly as much as many might think.

India has more of a problem with poverty, but the West has quite a bit, too. And whilst the poor in the West are emphatically not as badly off as their cousins in India, they still endure considerable hardship. Even with the existence of the supposed safety net of Social Security. There is homelessness. There is malnourishment.

Incidentally, and I pose this as a question to my Indian friends, I frequently read articles that focus on aid and development in poor (especially rural) areas of India, highlighting the fact that a large percentage of the population have to survive on around two dollars a day.

In the light of the above, I wonder whether this isn’t a little disingenuous, since that figure may not be as far below the average wage as many in the West believe, and wonder what you think?

I think it matters, because I believe this might distract attention from where work is needed more, such as improving sanitation, work conditions and medical care.

The Mad Woman of the Hill Station

A few years ago I was staying in a town in the Indian Himalaya; one of those towns that would have been described as a ‘hill station’ in the days of the British Raj, where the climate is tolerably similar to that found in Britain, and the Colonial masters were able to retreat for that half of the year that the temperatures on the plains became just too hot for them to endure. When that happened, they would load up themselves and their possessions, even down to plants in plant pots, so that native servants could drive them or carry them for weeks on end, on the long journey up into the hills. Nothing would be too much bother…for the servants and ‘coolies’, that is. At that time, the Westerners considered themselves to be utterly superior to the ‘native peoples.’

       coolie 1

Of course, that kind of attitude has been consigned to history, now, hasn’t it?

Anyway, it is a lovely town, this town that I am referring to, full of historical buildings associated not only with the British, but also with Indians (of course), Nepalese, Tibetans, and several other races. For this reason, amongst others, it attracts a goodly number of tourists, Western and otherwise.

hill station 2

One day I sat eating breakfast in a restaurant there, when a group of five other Westerners entered and sat down at a table nearby. Within about half a minute, they had begun to complain bitterly to each other about their travels. They appeared to think that the whole world was a freak show, put on for their benefit as they travelled around viewing it, but everyone that they met in these backward places (‘I don’t miss Western civilisation at all.’ Remarked one of them, whilst playing with his i-phone) were either out to fleece them, or to thwart their plans in some way or another by pretending not to have what they were asking for, or by taking ages to do what was demanded of them.

However, I was distracted from listening to their conversation and wondering how best I could kill them all without being arrested, by the arrival of another Western lady, aged, I would think, about sixty, dressed in a slightly odd mix of Indian and Western dress. She had appeared the previous morning in the restaurant, and had a shouting match with the same group of Westerners, although I had been on the other side of the restaurant that morning and could not understand what it was about.

Today, she popped her bag down on the table next to mine, disappeared for a while, and then returned, with a loaf of sliced bread that she had obviously gone out especially to buy. She took out four slices, turned to me and said ‘Try these; they are much nicer. Are you a priest?’

‘Thank you.’ I replied (I was in t-shirt and trousers, nothing particularly priestly). ‘No, I’m not.’ Our conversation continued for about ten minutes. She was a Plantagenet royal, brought to 2013 by a time machine, which the CIA discovered in 2000. That is why so many people are unhappy; they have been sent away from their proper times. She apologised for not being able to hear very well, although I could see no problem in that respect, but she had been hypnotised. Then she wished me goodbye and went out again.

What a splendid woman. She was a breath of fresh air, and unknowingly saved the lives of five other Westerners that day just by being there.

Unfortunately for me, though, that same evening I chose to eat in a restaurant that was empty when I arrived, so that when a couple of girls came in and sat down two tables away from me, I could hear every word that they said, whether I wanted to or not. There was a Swiss girl, whose role in the conversation was to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and very little else, whilst the other girl, who was British, just spouted on and on and on…

It appeared that she was travelling around the world. If I was a relative, I would have given her the money and said ‘go off for a few years. Enjoy yourself.’ And then moved house. She had been to Marrakesh. To Cairo. Thailand, Cambodia, Australia…I forget where else. Almost everywhere, she hated the food. It generally made her sick. She hated the people. They were horrible. Rude. She was excited because someone was shot in a bar in Cambodia whilst she was in the bar. It seemed to have been the highlight of her travels so far. ‘Was he killed?’ ‘Of course!’ she said, excitedly. And on and on and on…

Perhaps we should all be made to stay at home.