TRAVEL: INDIA IMMEMORIAL MAGAZINE/LADAKH, A MOONSCAPE PILGRIMAGE

Moonscape Pilgrimage


                                     
                                            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 of India.

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.


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