Thursday, July 17, 2008

Ladakh Trip: Day Six. Acclimatization in Leh

Unfinished stories are dangerous things. This month, it will be close to a year since I went for the trip I'm writing about. A year ago, I stopped the story half-way, abandoning my fictional self at Little Tibet, deep inside the Himalayas - tired, stiff, hungry, light-headed on the rarefied air and excitement. A year passed, with office, daily commutes, work, friends, etc. Not that it's been boring - in fact, it's probably been one of the most exciting and eventful periods of my life. Yet somehow - none of it made it's way to here. Maybe because my protagonist is still up there, frozen in time... it's time to bring him home.
It's time to continue the story.

Leh is 11,500 feet high, almost twice the height of most hill-stations I've been to in my life. The air's perceptibly thinner, the sky bluer, the sun more dazzling - literally closer to heaven in the very real as well as the metaphysical sense.
This means that I, born on the Doab plains, barely a couple of hundred feet above sea level, need to let my body get used to the climate. Acclimatize. I've packed my diamox and other such anti-nausea stuff, but let's keep that in reserve. Use the oldest and best technique to deal with change and recovery - sleep.
Last year, on a similar trip, I'd coined the phrase 'Chandro-isms'. Tonight marks the first appearance on this blog of a similar creature - the Rocky-ism.
Rockyism # 1: Tonight at 7:30 you are cordially invited to my ureter. Yurt. I meant yurt.

Ten hours flat out, and today morning, I can walk without gasping. Good deal. Now, I just need to take it easy for a day or two and I'm fine for the rest of the trip.
We went one better. On the Sixth Day, we rested.
Which means not running around all over the place, but also not sitting on our asses at the hotel. It means a nice, pleasant, relaxed day of roaming around at the monasteries near Leh... Shey Palace, Thiksey Gompa, and Hemis Monastery.

Shey Palace was built in 1633, and is the first one on our route out of Leh. Under the clear blue sky, the whitewashed clay brick walls shimmer in the bright sunshine, glaring radiance.

Spectacular views from the top of the palace, overlooking the Leh Valley. There's a sense of... I don't know how to describe it. All around, in the far distance, there are mountains reaching up for the sky, the valley spread below, and there's this silence, cool breezes and hot sun, wisps of cloud... there's a timelessness. A sensation of how nothing has changed for hundreds of years... but it's a calm pool, not stagnant. You can't imagine anything stagnant here... it's a place that has found it's niche in time. That's really all there is to it.
And the constant hurrying through our lives we do, everyday, seems a lot more hard to understand, standing on the terrace and looking out at the Leh valley. Listening to the wind, turning your body to bring the shade-chilled half into the sun's warmth.

Prayer wheels line the gompa's walls. Cool shade, faint grind of wood on stone and plaster.

Ancient walls, dazzling white, reach into the blue.

The sun glares down, shimmering off the rocks and the walls - combined with the slight dizziness that hits on the first day of acclimatization, it's a dream-like, unreal feeling.

Om Mane Padme Hum.
Ubiquitous, everywhere.
An integral part of Ladakh.

Golden chorten with a silver halo, brilliant sunshine.

A three-storey high statue of the Buddha, built first and surrounded by the building later. In this arid cold desert, flowers are not offered; instead, translucently thin silk scarves, decorated with prayers, are draped on and around the statue.

The ancient and the modern, coexisting together.
And somehow, it's just not incongruous.

The second prayer room. We witnessed an interesting little incident here - a tourist, armed with a guidebook, wanted to see the third prayer room. The monk in charge told him that there was no such room. The guy started and kept insisting, until finally he was unceremoniously shooed out by the exasperated brother in maroon. 'Agli baar thappad lagayega, saala...' was the little gem that was shared with us at the end of the story when we asked him what had happened... These guys rock.

The room of a thousand and one Buddhas. 1001 paintings adorn the walls and ceiling of this chamber; I've visited one of the most famous Buddhist temples worldwide, the Temple of Dawn in Bangkok, and even there the imagery, the finish, the sheer atmosphere compared to what I felt here was nowhere near as good. The room spoke of centuries of love, dedication, and reverence.

Thiksey Monastery. A large hive of structures atop a hill, one of the larger monasteries of Leh. It felt larger, cleaner, bigger... swankier. And a lot more visited; definitely more tourists around.
The tranquility I sensed in Shey gave way to a feeling of being in a school outing, not helped by the fact that a large group of twentysomething Europeans was paying a visit. I also realized how being too much into trekking can affect and damage your fundamental priorities in life. I stood there, admiring the structures, and several beautiful young women walked past. My eyes automatically followed them - that's normal, yaar - but I was horrified to find that, while I might have been watching admiringly, my mind was going... "Man check out the compression straps, the pockets and loops, the wireframe support, the raincover... that's one damn nice daypack." It was an orange-black Dexter, if you're interested.

I couldn't resist this one -check out the reflection on the photo.
The Dalai lama's eyes glowing.

A bird's eye view of the Leh Valley from the roof

Stark contrasts - and a dramatic example of what irrigation can do.
Farmlands and natural environment, and a knife-edged terminator.

Warmth seeps out of everything inside - the rugs, the colors... what I would't do to be in this room when a howling winter wind blows outside the windows.

And East meets West. The Marlboro Man in Leh.


Prayer items - the bells, the drum, the books, lamps.

The Hall of Protectors. This was a dim, close room, with no windows, a single disturbingly heavily-reinforced door, and filled with large, brooding statues. An indefinable sense of power, of menace. The statues were dark, rough, heavily armed, and all hooded. It gave me a sense of being in a roomful of hunting falcons. While the hoods are on, they're dormant. You can walk among them, approach them. Yet, in the flickering light of the single oil lamp, the shadows would... move. You would breathe shallowly, and tip toe, and keep your distance lest you inadvertently touch one... and it twitch in response.
The protectors are supposed to ride out in defence at the time of the Apocalypse. In that room, They didn't feel like statues - there was too much belief crackling in the air. They felt alive, asleep.
For now.

Hemis Gompa
Hemis is some distance out of Leh, and when we arrived, was completely deserted. We'd arrived during lunch hour; an unexpected advantage, because we really got a sense of the peace of the place. In the others, there was a faint whisper of traffic from the road, since they're actually adjacent to the Manali highway; Hemis, it was pure silence, crystalline and perfect. You could hear individual leaves whisper in trees.

The real deal

A traditional prayer wheel, built for use, not display. Leather and wood. This prayer wheel is not to be admired by tourists; it's a working wheel.

I wandered around the empty monastery, exploring the passages, halls, stairs and courtyards. It was an eerie experience. Complete silence, the sighing of the wind, occasional birds... everything was so old. Cracked, peeling, twisted wooden pillars and floors, stone walls and yards, stacks of dessicated firewood... prayer flags, sun-bleached and faintly stirring in the breeze...

We sat around for a while, talking. We met a caretaker, a guy called Sonam - a very popular name for men in these parts - and he told us about the history of the place, himself... he's been here his whole life. Born in the village, studied at the monastery, working here...

There's also a museum here, with some very interesting artifacts. You aren't allowed to take photographs; but it's an amazing experience. Traditional clothing, ritual items, little slices of life; and as I was wandering through, I had saw an incredible sight. Innocuously tucked between a painting and a suit of clothing, there was a large, three-foot golden silk banner in a glass display case. It was the letter written by the Dalai lama certifying Nima as his official successor. I though of the history that revolved around this single item - China, Tibet, the displacement of the Tibetan people, worldwide movements... and here it was. Right here, a few inches away from my fingers. In real life.
How many more such things are all around us, which we never come to know about because we don't know what they signify?

There's a school associated with the monastery - here's some children from there, playing in the afternoon sunshine. Monks in training.

Back by late afternoon, we napped and and headed out to Leh Market in the evening.
All the shops are similar. Silver jewellery. Yak-bone artifacts. Brass curios. Thangkas. T-shirts. Woolens. Embroidered bags. Cameras and batteries. Beads.
Interesting thought - centuries ago, the white man traded land from the natives of the continents he landed on by offering beads and narcotics. Now, it's the other way round, as money, clothing, and equipment changes hands in return for souvenirs and keepsakes.
Talking of narcotics, did you know Himachal is the world leader in high-quality weed. There's two types - Malena and (milder) Garda.
Make lots of interesting finds - a T-shirt with the route we took to get here printed on it. (Bulk orders! Bulk orders!). An original Thangka shop, beautiful mandalas in water-colors, hand-painted on canvas.
As it gets darker, the air chills, fills with a faint touch of kerosene fumes and the hum of gensets... and lights blossom in the chilly dusk, steam rises from hot chai and momos. A tiny island of warmth, brightness, and chatter blooms in the vast dark chill night of the Himalayas.

1 comment:

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