June 28, 2005


We just left the beautiful region of Ladakh (for those of you on my yahoo group, you already know a little about my journey out of there) and are now in McLeod Ganj to participate in the Dalai Lama’s teachings. We had planned to stay up there for a month so that we could do a long trek and rafting, but seeing the Dalai Lama on his home turf seemed like a once in a lifetime thing. When we get to a better connection we have a few things to post, including pictures of our 18 hr turned 28 hr road journey of being trapped on top of a mountain. For now, this is an overview of our time in Ladakh (links to pix at the end of each section). Later we will post some text & pix from a short trek we took.

Ladakh is a region in northwestern India that borders with Pakistan and China (Tibet). Culturally, it is more Tibetan than Indian, which is the reason I have always wanted to come. We flew from Delhi to Leh, the capitol city of about 25,000 people. The flight was spectacular - we first came upon the mountain range then started to descend into it until the mountains were surrounding us. Leh sits in a valley at about 12,000 ft above sea level and doesn’t seem that big when you’re trying to land a plane in it. The pilot did a few figure 8’s to finally land us, which was very impressive. Thankfully it was a smooth ride as well.

The town of Leh is a little hectic - the narrow roads are filled with cars, cows, donkeys, dogs and people, but everyone is always smiling and shouting “Jullay!!” (hello) when you walk by. Kids have perma-red cheeks from the cold, dry environment, which puts them in a second place for my “cutest kids in the world” list (first is Cambodia). Older adults all have those beautifully worn Tibetan/Ladakhi faces with infinite, deep-set wrinkles. The “cutest old people” list is a little harder - Chinese, Japanese and Tibetan/Ladakhi people all look beautiful and wise when they age.

One of the weirdest things was the massive military presence. With 2 very sensitive borders, it’s essential for the region. Apparently the 18,000 ft mountains aren’t enough protection (similar to Tibet in a way I guess). So you walk down the street feeling like you’re so isolated, then you turn a corner and there are 2 men carrying assault rifles & sub-machine guns (most of the times pointing out toward you, which I learned to get used to….sort of). Outside of town there are numerous bases and many of the supplies in town have labels that read “for defense use only”. Apparently the military makes some $$ selling these things to Ladakhi’s who have no other way of obtaining them when the road is closed during the winter.

The first few days were given over to acclimatizing. This included sitting in bed or laying around the guesthouse while drinking huge amounts of tea and water. For entertainment, we read, watched movies and farted. Yes, farted. Apparently there’s a term for this kind of thing - HAFE (High Altitude Flatulence Emissions). It happens when you ascend to high altitude too fast, maybe a pressure thing. Nate and I ripped it into the triple digit’s the first few days and it was hilarious. It makes great conversation with other travelers and we’re happy to educate newbies who arrive and have never heard of this “condition“.

We stayed at the Oriental Guesthouse in Changspa, which was about a 20 minute walk to "downtown" Leh. This meant it was much quieter and more remote. Perfect for us. The guesthouse is family run and I am constantly amazed at how gracious and cheerful they all are, all the time. Even if it’s an act, it’s amazing b/c the effort would have to be so great. At night they serve family-style vegetarian fare, which makes a great place to talk about the days events and swap stories with other travelers. This homey atmosphere attracts long term visitors, like ourselves, which has rewarded us with many friends (some of whom are from the Bay area). Our room was a large corner room with 50% windows and killer mountain views. The size and beam ceiling allowed us to put up 2 hammocks so that we can properly lounge while taking in the view. It also has turned our room into the party room with our international friends here.

During our stay the Indian Prime Minister made a visit to Leh. The purpose of his visit was to follow-up on an energy grant that was granted to Ladakh a while ago. In addition, the Ladakhi people are hoping for autonomy so this was an important visit for this topic as well. We decided to attend his speech, which was held at the polo grounds (the highest polo ground in the world apparently). It was interesting to see the people gathering there, but we soon lost interest since we couldn’t understand a word anyone was saying. Upon trying to leave, we found out that there was no way to get out. All the exits were blocked, yet people could still get in. The logic in this was beyond us and we soon started feeling like caged animals. Normally in this situation I would hop a fence or something, but with the area being guarded with gun carrying, turban wearing military, I felt a little intimidated. Finally we found a way out.

All pix from this can be seen at:

Morning puja at Tikse Monestary

We woke up at 5:30 to make the 6am morning puja (prayer) at Tikse Monestary, which is about a 30 minute drive outside Leh. Once we arrived at the monestary there were 2 monks playing horns outside (maybe as an alarm clock or calling to the beginning of the service). Soon the monks all piled into the hall with their empty bowls. First, each bowl was filled with butter tea then with some kind of ground meal. The monks then ate and started praying/chanting. This lasted for about an hour. During the service, one or two monks would get up and refill everyone’s bowl with the tea and/or meal. The monks covered a wide range of ages. The youngest ones joked around a bit during much of the ceremony, similar to what I experienced in Laos while sitting in on a service with a young monk I had met.

Putting a damper on what would have beena perfect morning was a jeep load of ugly tourists that barged into the hall to take pictures and video with their big cameras. These people had no qualms about getting into a monk’s face to get that perfect shot, forgetting that it was a prayer service and not a national geographic set. We tried to focus on the monk’s prayers but it was hard to ignore when one of the tourists almost spilled a monk’s tea while trying to squat and take a picture (Molly you would have died if you were there! I'm so glad I had Nate with me b/c you and I would have probably been laughing out loud).

See the pix:

Hemis Festival

We were lucky enough to catch one of the festivals in the region at a town called Hemis. The Hemis Tse-Chu, as it is called, is a 200 yr old tradition. The event features a series of mask dances performed by the lamas, which culminate in the destruction of sacrificial offerings on the last day. The masks represent the various guardian divinities of the Drug-pa order and the dances depict the magical feats of Padmasambhava. Seven of us piled into this small van (see the pix for a view of how crowded it was for our legs) and hit the bumpy road to Hemis. The costumes, masks and music were amazing. All performances were held in the courtyard of the monastery with people piled up along the sides and roofs to observe.

See the pix:

June 28, 2005 at 09:21 PM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack