ALL PHOTOS BY SHEILA KUMAR
It’s been called the moon desert, Desolation Station, the
last outpost. The truth is, there isn’t quite another place like Ladakh in all
My first impression is that everything here seems in sharper
focus, larger than life. The sky is so blindingly blue, it dazzles. The
rarified air up in Leh, at 11,500 feet above sea level, is one that carries
unseen icicles, caressing the face with a cold bristly glove. The dogs prowling
about, handsome pariahs all, seem to be at least double the size of the largest
German Shepherd seen down in the plains; the same goes for the choughs, the
loud-mouthed local crows. And at night, the stars shine like moonrocks in a
midnight blue sky and a huge fat moon skims the rooftops.
This is beauty seen up close and personal. “But of course,”
laughs Rinchin, my new Ladakhi friend, delivering the line beloved to people of
the hills all across India. “Up here everything is bigger. You see, up here we are that much closer to God.” And
somehow, you cannot argue with such simple profundity.
As the daughter of an army engineer who served many a tenure
in this area and constructed roads and bridges to connect parts of Ladakh with
one another, this journey is a sort of pilgrimage for me. I decide to head to
Leh by road from Delhi via Udhampur, crossing the spectacular Jawahar Tunnel at
Banihal, attempting to drink in every little visual vignette glimpsed on the
trip. The forest of pine and fir, the gurgle of the many silver-tipped streams,
the umpteen picnic spots of mossy boulders continue to form a hedging pattern
alongside the road past postcard-pretty Sonmarg, right up to the Zojila Pass,
and to Dras, which ranks as the second coldest place in the world, the first
being Verkoyansk in what was formerly the Soviet Union. Even in summer, Dras is
an icy hell with banshee winds shrieking and rattling the window panes; in
winter, temperatures dip to -50 degrees C.
In sharp contrast, Kargil is a lush verdant valley, with the
muddy Suru river gushing through the village in full spate, leaping, twisting,
turning, a wet fury, awesome to behold. It is also a place where snaps of the
Dalai Lama hang alongside those of the shrine at Mecca, a silent tribute to
peaceful religious co-existence. On the surface, all the excitement of a few
years ago has subsided, Kargil is back to its paced existence again.
Immediately after the fabulous Hangaroo loops, hairpin
curves that would make a hairpin seem ramrod straight in comparison, it is as
if the traveller has crossed some unseen Rubicon into another dimension. The
topographical changes become more marked, with a gradual lessening of
vegetation, a steady encroachment of desolation. This is craggy austerity,
startling landscape, long stretches of navy-ribboned road with dust bowls on
either side, the mountains looming brown and purple on the horizon.
Before we touch base at Leh, though, we take a diversion and
go to Batalik, the hamlet rumoured to be the last bastion of the true-blue
Aryan. Stories abound the fertility festivals and about a brace of German girls
who came looking for consorts to sire a new Aryan bloodline! To reach the
miniscule plateau of Batalik, one has to climb a sheer cliff face, with the
Indus roaring like a dervish below, a thoroughly intimidating journey. At this
time of the year, apricot trees are in full bloom, and here and there one
glimpses rugs of red on black boulders, apricots drying in the sun. The
villagers lead an insulated, isolated life in stone dwellings, marrying within
themselves to preserve the purity of the race, with no tangible signs of
outside influence having penetrated here yet. And to pre-empt the reader’s
question, I didn’t see any ‘noble Aryan’ about, just the archetypal Ladhaki in
his grimy goncha robes, smiling eyes
disappearing into slits in a leathery, weather-beaten face.
Leh itself could easily belong to some spaghetti Western, a
bleak barren stretch nestling in the folds of softly- contoured hills with the
Himalayas looking down impassively; except, no Western outpost has temperatures
dipping to -15 degrees C in winter. In June though, after the mandatory three
or four days of acclimatisation, one finds light woollens are adequate for
roaming the town itself. The acclimatisation period is important for those who
would journey on ahead because, with the body’s intake of oxygen being cut down
by as much as 50 per cent, physical performance too comes down, sometimes by as
much as 60 per cent.
All over Ladakh, you see chortens or burial mounds, the size
of which varies according to the importance of the person buried inside with
his relics. As befits a people who till recently followed the animist way of
life, in many parts of the region, usually
just outside villages, one comes upon piles of animal skin, teeth and horns, an
ancient form of appeasement to the unseen powers.
There is much to see in this moonscape. There are winding
mani walls, the brooding gompas, monasteries almost carved out on steep cliffsides:
Tshe, Theksey, Spituk, all calm repositories of the world of the Buddha. With
colourful pennants flying in the ever-present breeze, giant prayer wheels being
spun continuously by many an orange-robed hand, the life-sized statue of the
Padmasambhava, lamas moving about in their version of the moonwalk, cloth tankhas (paintings) that depict the life
and times of both the Enlightened One and Buddhism, scores of lamps filled with
yak butter and lit as votive candles, these monasteries seem to hang suspended,
caught in a time warp. Further north is the Alchi gompa with an 800-year-old
mural; the Hemis gompa, known the world over for its annual festival; and the
picturesquely located Lamaruyu gompa, the oldest in the central Ladhaki region.
To one side of the town lies the local Crafts Centre where
Ladakhi women can be seen weaving distinctive rugs and shawls; the District
Jail which wears and appropriately deserted look for a place with near-nil
crime rates (long may it stay that way) and the highest polo grounds in the
world, where frequent matches draw large crowds of locals and tourists alike.
Further ahead is the Field Research Laboratory where the greenhouse holds some
fascinating specimen of plants, vegetables and fruits which are trained to
withstand the often cruel climbdown of temperatures.
The Indus slows to a sluggish crawl in Leh, almost as if
going in for an enforced rest but quite a few rivulets lend charm to this cold
desert. The Namgyal Palace, the residence of the Gyalmo (queen) once no-doubt a well-appointed manor, now sports a
shabby-genteel look and one feels the mandatory forking out of an entrance fee
is just not worth it when weighed against the commonplace artifacts within the
wooden multi-storied structure, unless you discount the lovely view of the Stok
Kangri, the highest peak in the Ladakh range, seen silhouetted in one of the
many windows in the palace.
There is only one main bazaar but the town is chockablock
with winding, cobbled lanes where the seeker will find all sorts of silver
jewellery, coral, turquoise, silks from China, strands of rice pearls, velvet
the colour of blood and midnight, gaily hued sashes for the Ladakhi robes,
Tibetan masks, the mini bazaar where suddenly impecunious Westerners sell their
clothing, all of it a bargainer’s paradise. And, of course, there are all those
little stalls where you can take in a plate of steaming hot momos. Ladakhi food
is not for the conventional eater, the yak butter flavours the food in a strong
manner; even the momos in Momoland aren’t as tangy as say, the ones to be found
at Vasant Vihar in Delhi!
The elaborately studded headgear (perak) of a passing
Ladakhi woman, the archery contest being held in a town square and a hastily
gulped cup of tea flavoured with yak milk (another acquired taste, if ever) of chang, the local barley beer, all lodge
itself in the mind’s eye as Lehscapes.
Just outside Leh town
lies the tsos, still, translucent lakes packed with snow trout that makes for a
delicious al fresco lunch before the next road trip on bone-jarring travesties
of roads cut into mountainsides. We are off to Darbuk, en route to the border.
However, one needs to cross Zingral and
press on to stop at the roadside shrine of Chang La (‘la’ is a pass in Ladakhi)
at the height of 17,350 feet, which, with its fluttering prayer flags is a
sharp burst of colour in that mind-numbing whiteness. And in what seems like
divine intervention, in order to show me the not-so-benign face of Ladakh, a
blizzard has started up even as we draw near Chang La, a vicious slurry of
brittle snow and sleet, whipped by howling gales of incredible velocity. The
ominously looming snow-covered peaks of the Himalayas look positively
forbidding. There is, of course, no going ahead without murmuring a plea or
safety to the indeterminate deity at the shrine, where passers-by of all
religious persuasion bow their head.
Our prayers are heard, the snowfall imperceptibly lessening
and drying up as we reach Darbuk, which is most picturesquely placed inside the
cup of the valley, the Tsangtse Bowl. Here, the scenery is straight out of one
of Ram Kumar’s Leh paintings, with patches of green co-existing amiably
alongside stretches of sand, a stream packed with trout, daisies and violets
pushing through in patches on the hillsides.
Onto Chusul and historic Rezang La, a site of the 1962
carnage when the hopelessly outnumbered Kumaon regiment put up a valiant, if
desperate, defense against the marauding Chinese. Chusul has what must be
arguably one of the world’s highest hot springs; outsized yaks graze the
marshlands and once a year, the black-necked crane comes to nest here, a fact
that was a source of much delight to the late ornithologist Salim Ali. Ahead of
Chusul, the Chinese outposts are a mere kilometers away, and it is a passing
right for visitors to wave to the imperturbable Chinese guards who do not wave
back. Of course.
En route to Chusul at Lukung lies an unforgettable sight;
the Pangkong Tso, a 136-km saltwater lake of almost indescribable beauty which
we share with China. The waters of this lake, perched at a height of 14,500
feet above sea level, defy imagination with bands of Prussian blue, turquoise,
indigo, emerald, amber segueing into one another, gleams of gold and silver
streaking the waters. Even as we watch,
flocks of wild geese take off in perfectly synchronised formation and fly off
Chinawards. The lake meanders between brown, russet and jade hills, one of
which is the Garnet Hill, where the instantly enthralled visitor can pick up
uncut chunks of garnets embedded in grey rock.
Ladakh has other lovely tsos- Tso Morari, Tso Kar – but Pangkong is surely
the queen of them all. To the north lies the fabled Nubra valley, which
requires a whole article for itself!
Where the Kashmir valley offers a riot of colourful flora,
exotic fauna abounds in Ladakh. Snow leopards, civet cats, orange-beaked
chakors, herds of ibex and kyangs
(wild asses), curious-eyed marmots have all made this terrain home.
Of course, stripped of the overpowering opulent trappings of
its natural beauty, Ladakh is a region which is wretchedly poor. This is a
people who till recently bore their poverty with a stoic pride; this is also a
place which is slowly, inexorably changing with the steady influx of tourists;
satellite TV has arrived, as has a lot of other stuff. The Ladakhi will offer
you a pack of French-made Gitano cigarettes with nonchalance and if you catch a
glimpse of photographs of the Dalai Lama, you will perchance also stumble
across heated arguments about the politics of Tibet. Tragically, priceless
antiques are slowly being smuggled out of the gompas.
This, then is our
very own Shangri La. Go, check it out before it joins mainstream India and
loses its exotic, alien feel.