With Tashi's help, we escaped from the madding crowd of beggars and touts and took a taxi to another part of the city where we stopped for dinner. It was a leisurely affair as we had a lot catching up to do. By the time we located and made our way to our hotel, which took nearly two hours given Delhi's traffic, it was close to midnight, and we decided that it was futile to check in for a few hours since our flight left at 5AM. Instead we continued on to the domestic airport, where we met an interesting and erudite Indian headhunter who was waiting for his own flight to Hyderabad. We spent most of the night chatting with him about Indian and American politics.
This was my second attempt at getting to Leh, but it was easy now with the daily flights. The first occurred more than ten years earlier, when I had started out with Tashi in Manali. Our plan was to hike over the main Himalaya range via a challenging glaciated route, continue on through the Zanskar Valley and end up in Leh. We never made it. The monsoons should have been over in late October, but even then the weather was screwy, and we had more or less continuous rain shortly after we started out, and then, when we got higher, it started to snow. We tried going a different way, but it still necessitated crossing a high pass of 17,000 feet and a day or two of glacial travel. We got to the height of the pass in the middle of a raging blizzard, and we had to down climb a steep section of several hundred feet to the glacier floor. On dry rock this wouldn't have presented a problem, but now it was slippery and the visibility was down to a few feet in the midst of the white-out. I was concerned that one of the porters, heavily laden, and walking only with sneakers might slip, or worse, that my friend David who I had more or less talked into accompanying me, would fall. If anything happened to him his wife, Patricia, would never forgive me. We had one rope between all of us, ten porters, David, myself, and Tashi, so if we had taken the time to rope everyone up for the descent, it would have taken hours, and by then the snow would have been much deeper. And if we all got down in one piece, the crevasses on the nearly flat glacier would have been snow covered and therefore invisible until someone stepped into one. Unroped, this would be a disaster. It was a heavy responsibility, and in the end, I decided we had to turn back after almost a week of trekking. After retracing our route, we got to a town along the one road in and out of Ladakh. It was then a mad rush to take the road trip from hell, but we were lucky to get out at all, as the road was being closed early because of the weather and constant landslides. It would stay closed for six months. I shouldn't complain too much as we made our way from Manali to Dharamsala, where we set out for another trek after a brief meeting with the Dalai Lama, but that's another story.
This time I was going to attempt a similar trek, but in reverse. I would start out in Ladakh, go through Zanskar , and then over the High Himalaya to Tashi's village on the other side. After ten years, I was eager to meet his wife and children and the rest of his extended family. Nanette was going to trek for the first eight days as well as a Spanish woman who had previously trekked with Tashi, and then I would continue on my own with the rest of the support team.
The flight over the mountains was impressive, but after no sleep and a day running around Agra, the altititude of 3500 meters, about 11,500 feet, knocked us out totally on the first day. We managed to find our way to the Shanti Guesthouse, which has proven to be a delightful place to stay. From our room we have a great view of the mountains and the highest gompa in Leh.
Leh Valley from Stupa behind Shanti Guesthouse
The environment here is, in a word, otherworldly. It is extremely dry, as Leh is essentially high desert, located on the Tibetan plateau. It is surrounded by 6000 meter mountains, most of which are also very dry, though several are topped by snow and glaciers, catching the storms that manage to make it over the Great Himalaya Range further to the south. Those moutains, which are even higher, create a rain shadow and block most of the monsoon moisture from making it this far. The light is constantly shifting and playing on the greys, greens and purples of the surrounding rocks. It is a photographers and painters dream.
Road to Leh at Sunset
We have spent several days getting acclimated and just wandering around the town, which has about 25,000 people. It is a mix of Ladakis, who are Tibetan Buddhists, a few Muslims who attend the mosque in the old town, Kashmiri and Indian shop owners, and a fair number of European trekkers and tourists, not to mention the ubiquitous Israelis who seem to be everywhere. The internet cafe has Hebrew letters pasted next to the English. There are lectures on Buddhism, massage emporiums, DVD movie theaters, great restaurants, etc. After being an isolated outpost for centuries, it is now quite cosmopolitan. The old town with its Tibetan Style houses made from clay,mud and stone, many of which are in various stages of decay, is quite charming, full of outdoor markets, Ladakhi women selling apricots and beans, tailor shops, momo restaurants, etc. Nanette just picked up her two shalwar kamizes after picking out the material and having it custom sewn by Kumar, Muslim tailer, for the sum of 500 rupees, about $12 US.
More used to the altititude, we have hiked up to the Leh Palace which vaguely resembles the Potala Palace in Lhasa, lovingly restored by the Indian Government,and then made our way high above to the monastery, or gompa, perched on the cliffs. From there we could see the entire verdant Leh valley, an oasis of green among the parched rocks, as well as to the snow peaks of the Ladakh Range and then over to Shanti Stupa, some 500 feet straight up from our guest house. We could hear chanting in the distance along with the faint call to prayer in the nearby mosque.
Distant View of Palace
Monk on Palace Steps
Our hotel is full of interesting people, some of whom have been here many times. We went out one day at dawn with a small German and Swiss group to the Thiksey monastery, about an hour a way, to hear the monks chanting and welcoming in the sun. They blew horns from the roof of the monastery that sounded and looked surprisingly like shofars. Perhaps the Israelis have had their influence here as well. So different than the Zen tradition, the monks chanted robustly, especially the 5 and 6 year old boys, while they slurped butter tea and the head monks passed out spending money There were plenty of tourists, but somehow the monks carried on as usual, more or less ignoring the gawking and picture snapping westerners observing the whole thing. The monastery was, like so many here, carved into the cliffs with a commading view of the valley.
On another day, we went with the same group to Fiyang, another monatery that was having a festival, though we didn't really know the occasion. The monks were dancing slowly to crashing cymbols and drums with big masks and costumes of different Tibetan dieties. Interesting, but the crush of tourists was so great that it was hard to see through the crowds. Looking off into the distant mountains, spinning the many prayer wheels, and gazing at the enormous Maitreya, was more than enough to keep us occupied.