An Ode to Leh

Written by Marryam H. Reshii
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Tour an exotic bit of our globe

I have one piece of advice for people who are going to Ladakh for the first time: make your first trip as long as you can. The sense of feeling like a tiny speck amidst the grandeur of nature—these are emotions that you will never be able to conjure up on subsequent trips.

My very first visit in 1996 took the wind out of my sails literally and figuratively. Just the mere act of de-planing made me unsteady on my feet. For that, I had to thank the lack of oxygen at 11,000 feet above sea level. It was the thin air that made walking up a hill a task that required supreme effort. Multiply that by ‘n’ because the whole of Leh was nothing but a series of steep inclines! But it wasn’t just the hills and slopes: it was the beauty of it all. The landscape was largely brown, but if you think that brown is a boring colour, see it in Leh. Myriad hues will be visible to you if you focus and concentrate. By the time I left the town after that first visit, I was convinced that brown and its various constituents was a fascinating colour. It was the same with the weather and even the sky. At one minute, sitting in the garden of Shambha-La Hotel with the charming owning couple who have now morphed into close friends, the sky would be a cerulean blue. “Yippee” I’d crow to Pinto Narboo, the owner of the gracious guest house, one of the three finest in town. “Now I can go to Thiksey in half an hour” and wonder why I’d receive an inscrutable smile in reply. A few minutes later, it would become obvious as fleecy white cotton-wool clouds scudded across the sky, to be followed by more ominous grey cumulus ones making their stately progress through Ladakh’s vast sky. Light and shadows would chase each other: Sometimes I would be baking in the strong sunlight, a moment later freezing in the shade. Occasionally, it would be even more unusual: my head would be in the sun and my feet in the shade, feeling hot and cold at the same time. In 1996, tourism to Ladakh was almost aimed at foreign tourists and there was a sense of camaraderie in the charming garden cafe’s and terrace restaurants in town. You could overhear seasoned travellers hold fellow tourists spellbound about the exotic corners of the globe they had visited: Machu-Pichu, Mustang, Ladakh. When I took a taxi with four western tourists (in those days, sharing cabs to far-off locations was the norm) to Pangong Tso, I thought my heart would burst from so much beauty. There were long roads that swept through miles of countryside dotted with monasteries atop craggy hills. There were vast semi-circular arcs of wasteland strewn about with boulders of various sizes, as if a couple of giants played marbles at some distant point in the past. Apart from green, we saw every other colour of the rainbow – mountainsides that gleamed silver with mica or blood red with iron ore; mountains that appeared purple because of a trick of the clouds, or pink because of the presence of minerals. Pangong Lake itself was at the very end of the district of Leh as well as at the border of India. In fact, we were told that whatever we could see without the benefit of binoculars fell into Indian territory; after that was across the Chinese border.

No matter where my travels took me, it was a relief to come back to the coziness of Shambha-La’s upstairs living room with its colourful Ladakhi tables and comfortable sofas and exchange notes with the other guests. The highlight of the evening was the dinner that Tsering Narboo would have masterminded for us. Tsering is from Tibetan aristocracy with close family ties to His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, while Pinto is Ladakhi. Food tended to be western with a Ladakhi dish of lamb sausage or a hearty Tibetan noodle soup. And when the Narboos dined with the guests at the hotel, conversation would take a surreal turn. Pinto’s father, the late Sonam Narboo, was a minister in the Jammu and Kashmir cabinet and had laid down the plan for the Leh airport. Pinto’s mother and several other high-born ladies used to rhythmically stomp on the airfield to make the mud settle down, in order that the tarmac could be laid! Tsering’s stories of travelling on horseback at the age of three from Tibet to Kalimpong is the stuff that films are made on.

I’m glad that on that first trip I visited all the monasteries I could. Phyang was where I was let inside the huge cavernous kitchen where two cook-monks worked mountains of dough for the evening meal. Thikse was where I visited at the crack of dawn for morning prayers. All those years later, when I close my eyes and concentrate, the almost metallic chanting of sonorous voices comes back to me. Hemis was where the interiors were being readied for the festival, so thangkas were being taken down and rolled carefully. Alchi was where wild roses grew in profusion around a monastery whose walls were painted from floor to ceiling in painstakingly drawn iconography. Chemrey, Spituk, Stakna, Thaktok—I set off to see them all at a stage in the tourism evolution where enthusiasm would get you further than merely proffering a few rupees against a “donation receipt”.

I have been back to Ladakh three times since, but I must confess that the initial wide-eyed wonder had faded. I have walked down the main Fort Road of Leh with the shops selling all manner of exotica, and felt a pang that the merchandise was not as attractive as before. I have wandered around the dun-coloured buildings at the foot of Leh Palace, now crumbling, and sighed that they looked like ruins now, more than living culture than they originally did. I even climbed up the steepest incline in the whole of Leh right up above Leh Palace, to the small gompa where thousands of coloured prayer flags fluttered furiously in the wind, sending messages of peace to the valley below. But the day I chose was far removed from the bright, sunny, breezy day of my first visit, and in the grey clouds, the mass of prayer flags took on a sombre note. Leh is now chock-full of hotels, large, small and luxurious, the better to accommodate the film crews that are now an annual feature. What remains is the genuine warmth at Shambha-La and Tsering’s cooking.

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