On top of the World
Ladakh, Kashmir, India, 2008-09-18 12:00 by Laerke
We escaped the hot plains and retreated to the Himalayas; our early morning flight gave us a great first introduction to the great mountains, we saw the sunrise above the clouds and reveal a moonscape of out-of-this-world scenery. As we exited the plane the fresh, cold air hit us – as soon as we got our luggage we quickly dug out our jackets and scarves!
Our first day in Leh (the main town in the district of Ladakh) we did nothing but eat and rest. You have to be very careful not to strain yourself up here in the thin mountain air; otherwise you might risk getting “acute mountain sickness”. We suffered nothing but mild headaches and on day two we were ready to go exploring! We trekked up to Leh Palace that looms over the city. The view from up there was amazing; prayer flags swaying gently against the incredible blue sky. Even though we were “only” at 3505m it felt like we were on the top of the world.

The next day we were to experience some real heights. We took a jeep safari across “the highest motor able road in the world” that peaks at the the Khardung La Pass at 5602m and leads to The Nubra Valley. The Khardung La Pass is crusted in permafrost even in summer and a whole army of road workers fight to keep the road open throughout the year. After crossing the pass, we descended down into The Nubra Valley which at first looks parched and dry, but it is actually fairly fertile and the farmers grow lots of red apples and apricots. The valley is crisscrossed by the winding Shyok River which has the most remarkable gorgeous icy blue color – our photos do it no justice. The nights we spend in small villages where the locals were so friendly; everyone greets you with a “Julley” which is Ladakhi for hello (and goodbye as well as thank you), a very handy word to know around here :-)We were sharing the jeep with two Spanish guys and a girl from Chile – all really nice people and we had a great time together. One morning we went for a walk in the fields which were a hive of activity, people milling everywhere. Most were collecting the already harvested wheat from the fields, heaping it into big piles and then strapping it to their backs to carry home. We hung out, and to great amusement for the farmers, we helped out, stacking hey and carrying it off to their houses. The locals were so great, all smiles! I made friends with an old lady – we compared hands, hers all rough and brown from working in the soil for many years, mine all white and soft - we looked at each other’s jewelry too, she had some beautiful turquoise rings and big chunky necklaces with more turquoise and coral.

In the small village of Sumur we visited the local monastery and Gompa (which is like a temple). It was a beautiful building, with a very atmospheric prayer room with old, colorful murals on the walls and brightly colored cloth as decoration – and of course a picture of the Dalai Lama. We were very fortunate to be granted a little meeting with the Baby Lama. He is two years old now and will grow up to become the Lama for the Leh area. He was the cutest little thing, with a little Tibetan style hat and a playful demeanor; he had us throwing a little ball to him so he could kick it, shouting “phong” which means “throw” in Ladakhi. He was so sweet, and it also seemed like all the older monks adored him. He lives with his family in the village and only comes to the monastery on certain days, so he still pretty much leads a normal life.
There was also a school for novice monks at the monastery; they thought it was great to get a visit from us and were all goofing around - a big flurry of bright red robes everywhere. We were allowed to watch them do an exercise where one monk is yelling and trying to agitate the other monk who is sitting on the ground. The goal for the latter is to remain calm and in self control. It was quite loud and great fun to observe.

Many of the guesthouses in this area have beautiful gardens blooming with wild flowers. We had our meals surrounded by pink, purple, yellow and orange flowers – everything just tastes a little better in these surroundings and we thoroughly enjoyed our momos (a semi dull Tibetan dish). The tea in this area is particularly good as the locals make it with cardamom and cinnamon. Some places they even add ginger, as it is supposedly good for altitude sickness.

On our way back to Leh the weather started acting up and once we were approaching the Khardung La Pass it had started snowing. At one point we were caught behind another jeep; its wheels kept slipping and couldn’t make it up the steep and muddy road. To one side we had the sheer rock going straight up and to the other side a vertical drop down! Cars started gathering behind us, all the while the snow kept falling. Eventually our driver expertly managed to maneuver our car around the other one and we slowly continued up to the pass. As we crossed safely down the other side we all clapped and cheered inside the car :-) What became of the other jeep is unknown...

Many people here in Ladakh maintain their old tantric Buddhist ways and traditions. Monasteries and gompas dot every available hill – it seems as though every little village around here has one or the other. Some of them are deserted some are still teeming with monks in red robes. The big prayer wheels scattered around the country side is diligently used, and many people sport traditional clothes, hats and jewelry. Whenever a free moment presents itself, people will pull out their prayer beads and silently start to chant in Tibetan.

The combination of the lovely people and the great scenery makes Ladakh one of the most incredible places we’ve been in India so far!