Long weekends are for exploring the North. From Delhi’s pulsing heat and short sleeves to Kushok Bakula Rimpochhe, one of the highest airport’s in the world at 10,682 ft serving Leh, Jammu and Kashmir in northern India, where woollen hats and thermals are essential.
When we landed, the other passengers pulled out knitted jumpers and pashminas. The men wore socks underneath their flip-flops. You arrive during the descent over what seem to be doll’s houses and watch a mass of grey sand emerge with little houses scooped into the rim. If you want to find G-d, go to the mountains.
There is a starkness to Leh, particularly visiting out of season, when most tourists are still to arrive. The German bakeries are closed. Tours are not running. The trip to famous Pangong Lake is available, but the water is frozen over. We bought permits to go, but felt sick when the day came. We arranged a cycling tour of the surrounding hills, including a thirty kilometre downhill section, but couldn’t muster the energy for that day either. I made plans to meet a friend at Lala’s famous Art Cafe in town and cancelled.
Leh came to me as India often does, in a sequence of interpretations, trying to do things, but ending in Plan B. Plan B for me was lying in room 104 at the guesthouse with the window pushed open, staring at the changing sky and waiting for the pins and needles in my head to subside.
In reality, being grounded in Leh simply meant seeing it from a humble perspective. Guide books advise 48-72 hours immediate rest for a reason. Husband and wife team, Sonnam and Padma ran the guesthouse and a sweet Nepalese man would come to my room every few hours, clean the bathroom, squeeze out the flannel for my forehead, bring me another bucket of cold water and a tray of altitude adjusting black and mint tea before clopping back down the stairs and pulling the door shut.
All the way along from Changspa Road are guest houses with a slanting view of the Kunlun mountains to the North and Himalaya range to the South. My friends and I stayed near the top of the town in Silver Clouds, a wooden guest house near the Ladaki Women’s Alliance and Lamdan public school with a view of Shanti Stupor, the Peace Pagoda, identical to one in Nepal’s Pokhara district.
It is easy to see why the Ladakhi people smile with such ease: Leh averages three hundred days of sunshine a year. Breakfast on the terrace was fluffy omelettes, a flask of mint tea and freshly baked bread with locally pressed apricot jam and the ever present, but well received Nutella.
Ladakhi school children wondered down our lane each day, wearing blue button down shirts, black trousers, navy jumpers and baseball caps, carrying square backpacks branded with Adidas or The North Face. Girls had a single plait pulled to one side, and often we’d see groups jogging together up a hill that we were too out of breathe to walk down. When they saw us they would shout ‘gillet’ a traditional greeting meaning everything from ‘hello’ to ‘mind out for that cow!’
We discovered a shortcut into the town, tramping through dusty fields, newly logged trees and weaving via tiny temples glazed with orange paint and donation baskets. Ladakhi’s walked around the town, and moved in crowds twisting prayer wheels in their hands, murmuring ‘Om Mani Padme hum,’ the mantra for compassion and wisdom.
Leh seemed vastly different to the rest of India, magical in its mystery and open landscapes. Darjeeling in the East, with its mythical tea plantations has a huge Nepali and Gurkha population, with Nepalese as the unofficial language. Leh has a large Tibetan Buddhist population with some Shia Muslims and completely different sounds are heard. Their faces are less angular, softer. The first local we met was called Ani, the second Karma. In Hebrew ‘Ani’ means ‘I am’, meeting I am Karma was a nice way to start.
From the top of Shanti Stupor, the sound of Buddhist chanting and birdsong fills the air, otherwise Leh is almost silent. Prayer flags in all colours line the path way to the top. You cannot help wondering what is going on just across the mountains though, to places the news report as conflict zones.
The Chinese invaded the edge of the eastern frontier the week before we arrived, so it was an interesting time when locals asked our opinion who has the right to Leh? We spoke to two men by the public bathroom, us wrapped in five layers, dizzy from the thin air. Why do the Chinese want a piece of this landscape? This is the place where traveller’s have flocked to since its opening in the 1970’s, and here is the edge of the North, before India grows more dangerous. The in- case- of- natural- disaster- or- emergency- evacuation- zone is a series of empty fields out near the airport, almost awaiting tragedy. What would become of the empty houses in a town coated by dust?
We drank chai with Kashmiri shop owners, were invited to stay on their house boats that autumn, holding delicate cups laced with threads of saffron, and drenched yellow. It was chai at its sweetest, and their scarves were beautiful ranging from 300-18,000 rupees.
Around the edge of the town, street vendors sat toothless and wrapped in puffa jackets with bags of dried fruits split open in multi kilo rice sacks. Every trader had the same goods, and they would dig their wrinkled hands into the mass and weigh you 100 grams or half a kilo of almonds badam and raisins Kishmish, before pouring them into a newspaper bag stapled together at the edges, and you would be glad you hadn’t gone to the Amritsar Dried Fruit shop and spent double on 50 grams, paying for cleanness.
Later, we searched for the most moist cake and failed. At 10,000 feet closer to the sun, everything was dryer, the skin on our faces, and the suddenness of a nosebleed. The plum cake pretended to be chocolate, but disappointed us with mottled edges. The cheese cake was not cheesecake but ancient butter sponge, with all the warmth and richness drained out. The biscuits cracked when we put them to our lips, left stale crumbs around our mouths in whisker lines.
The plain puff was thin with the undercurrents of a kiln that had blown it inside out days ago. The counter top was thick with the complexities of Ladakhi air, both a triumph and a curse, drying out our skin making us peak early and need rest often. Our most prominent position that weekend was lying flat on the ground, on stones, near monuments and always under a blazing sun.
We hired a private car to drive out to Thikse Monastery and had Maggi noodles at the temple doors. The monastery was a faded white from the sunlight built in the fifteenth century, with little windows revealing the surrounding panorama. A medicine man tried to sell us pellets for altitude sickness. The smell; a pungent mixture of horse stables and an injured camel made us re think our rupees.
Semi-precious Ladakhi jade stones were on sale in the nearby Tibetan market. To make my bargain, I said ‘I’ll pay you in cash right now’ despite this being the only accepted payment method. The market seller laughed, looking at me with ancient eyes and a huge smile as I reached for my purse, giving me a good price.
Four days later, as we boarded the plane to leave, a BA pilot turned to us and described Leh as ‘The Highlands of India’. Just over a year ago I was living there on the edges of Scotland, and felt right at home with his comparison. We flew out of heaven’s highway to the fluttering of prayer flags and calls of Tashi Deli, take care.