Any of you who complain about the slowness of your internet connection should come here and learn what slow really is! Last night, after two days of not being able to get on line at my favorite internet cafe, I wrote a long blog at a competitors, only to have it lost in cyberspace in an instant. So count your blessings. But I am also aware that the Himalayan and Krakoram mountain ranges, to name only two, make it difficult to reach the outside world. If you’re going to be surrounded by such beauty, you sometimes have to pay the price! So, too, when it comes to international calls. James was unable to get on a plane to Delhi, along with hundreds of other stranded tourists, because of the weather, and you cannot imagine what he went through trying to change his Delhi-NYC ticket. This, by the way, is why I’m leaving for Srinigar tomorrow or Sunday, so I can be sure of getting to Delhi to catch my Newark flight, and see my daughters and two eldest grandchildren before they leave for India. Besides, I’ve wanted to go to Kashmir for years!
I forgot to mention when I wrote about my birthday that Stanzin made special veggie and paneer (a type of solid cottage cheese that I love) momos, because he knew we were tired of rice. It was a superb meal! We also passed around a little chung to add to the festivities.
On June 4th, which I always remember as my parents’ wedding anniversary, we started with our usual breakfast of tea, curd (excellent homemade yogurt), and chapattis with butter and apricot or mango jam. I needed the energy for the last day of climbing, first down into the rocky valley, then up a cliff with narrow switchbacks to the top of Bong Bong Chan La, its prayer flags fluttering encouragingly. Here it turned cold with snow flurries, but soon warmed up as we climbed down to Ang village. We had negotiated the pass in record time, so after stopping for the usual tea and soup, decided to spend the next hour exploring the area all the way to the small town of Temisgam.
The streams were very full because of the melting glaciers, and were expertly directed into the fields to irrigate the recently planted crops. We were absorbing the life of the farmer in action. The cows wandered freely in search of vegetation, and large stone houses, whitewashed over cement or clay, commanded the landscape.
Phunchog finally arrived in his van and we headed for Thekchan Chosling, a woman’s nunnery and school. I was especially impressed with the primary teacher, educated in Manali and Leh, who was in charge of five grades and twenty classes a day. She taught them all together at various levels–Hindi, English, Tibetan, and Math. History and social studies would be added later. You couldn’t have found a more dedicated, enthusiastic advocate for the young nuns. We arrived during recess and enjoyed a lively game of cricket as well as good old-fashioned jumping rope like what I did as a girl. The teacher said she didn’t really know the cricket rules, since they change every year, but she really enjoyed seeing the girls have so much fun.
After visiting another temple and palace nearby, we headed up a steep mountain road, passing the Indus River, which flowed rapidly way down in a gorge on its way to Pakistan, and delighting in the unusual rock formations on both sides. Just before arriving at Lamayuru Monastery, we passed through a section called “moonlands,” which can be seen glowing on a moonlit night.
The monastery is one of the most striking in Ladakh, positioned on top of an eroded crag, complete with rock pinnacles and caves. It stands over the small village below and is probably the oldest site, having been declared a holy place in the 16th century. It now belongs to the Kagypa sect.
After visiting a couple of chapels, we decided to stay overnight, and with the help of Stanzin and his friends, got a reasonable pre-tourist rate for a huge room and hot showers. And the restaurant, run by Nepalis, offered us spring rolls and garlic/spinach soup, a real treat. No rice!
The last monastery, Alchi, was really special. Known for its authentic old wall paintings, it’s the only monastery situated in a valley, and quite different from any other we’d seen. Being in the valley may be the reason that it is so well-preserved and was never ransacked or destroyed. We visited several very old chapels with diminutive carved doorways and extensive small repetitive wall paintings. It was dark inside and no photos were allowed, with or without a flash. There were also elaborate sculptures and a giant thangka rolled up and ready for the next festival day.
This chosker, as the religious enclave is called, is one of the most important cultural sites in Ladakh. Build in the 11th century, it’s a treasure trove of early Buddhist art in the Kashmiri tradition, quite unlike other monasteries we had seen.
After lunch, and a tour of the new tenting facilities with another one of Stanzin’s friends, we headed home. Upon arrival we noticed a great many more tourists in Leh, and a plethora of new shops that had been completed in the five short days we’d been gone. I’ve never seen such rapid construction, most of which was done by hand. We also discovered an excellent new restaurant, The World Garden Cafe.
For the past few days James and I have discovered several new areas of Ladakh, the latest being the Tso Moriri area (Tso means lake), reached by following the Indus River until Mhae, then picking up various tributaries and climbing through rock canyons to 15,000 ft. There is no way to capture the vastness of the unfolding mountains and cliffs, but the ride was as scary as any I’ve already reported. It’s hard to get used to narrow roads where meeting oncoming traffic means passing on curves and near edges of ravines that reach hundreds of feet below.
Unfortunately, we did not know that there had been violent wind storms that heaped sand over the roads, making it impossible for our small van to pass. We got as far as Kiagar Tso, a beautiful aqua salt lake, and, after pushing the car for an hour, decided it would never get through and we’d better tent in a pasture nearby. It was, indeed, an adventure! But also a big disappointment. We had so wanted to see Lake Moriri!
Karin, James, and I squeezed into a small tent after having a dinner cooked by James–rice and canned veggies, the remainder of which we ate for breakfast. No comment. Oh, yes, we also had two cantaloupes of questionable quality. We were a bit short on water and, of course, couldn’t use the lake water, so found a small stream on a high slope, where we could use James’ purifier to advantage.
Early the next morning we were assured by our driver that TsoMoriri was only about 7 kilometers away. Yeah, right! An easy walk, uphill in the broiling sun. Three hours later, having stopped a returning jeep, we were told it was about 30 kilometers more, so we turned back, walking past several nomad enclaves, and staggering through the sand to the van. I couldn’t understand why I was so tired, but climbing dehydrated at 15,000 ft. was, ultimately, the reason. Couldn’t have been that birthday.
Despite our disappointment we enjoyed the scenic beauty of the trip and were glad that the little van made it over the steep passes to Leh.
Two days ago was a day of bus riding, loud music, and two more phenomenal monasteries. We reached Shey Palace first, the old capital and home of the kings of Ladakh before the new capital was established in Leh. It sits in a strategic position on a spur jutting into the Indus Valley. The main temple contains a large Buddha statue sculpted by Nepalese craftsmen. In the courtyard there’s an impressive gold-topped stupa and on the top of the palace, reached by some very dilapidated steps, are excellent views of Stok and Spituk, as well as hundreds of stupas on the desert to the north-east. At the bottom by the road, from where we started a four kilometer walk through the field to Thiksey, were large ponds full of ducks, swans, and those large-mouthed carp I had seen last year at Tso Pema.
The walk to Thiksey monastery was very hot, but we passed an interesting mani wall as big as any I’ve ever seen. Pastures full of grazing horses and cattle, and rock walls stretched for miles on either side of the road. I was actually glad to face the hundreds of steps up to the monastery so as to get into a chapel and out of the sun! It was also nice to meet the assistant lama, again, and have him remember me as “one of the courageous ones” who actually walked up the stairs. There were quite a few tourist groups who had come in cars.
We had planned to see the huge sand mandala that was being constructed in the main temple, but discovered to our dismay that it was to be unveiled the next day at an all-day puja. What a disappointment! Still, it was nice to have lunch with Mark Manning and catch up on his teaching and meditation practice. If I have time, I will return to view the completed mandala. The bus ride back was long and noisy and very local. I liked it. James wasn’t that enthusiastic.
That evening we celebrated James’ final Ladakhi meal at Sheldon Green Restaurant, another open-air eatery we enjoy. We’ve added a few new restaurants to our list, including Flambee, The Himalayan Cafe, Zen Garden, and The Tibetan Kitchen (superb). There are also numerous fine coffee and espresso shops where you can sit and relax during the day. And don’t forget to try chai, the milk tea of choice in Ladakh. I’m becoming quite addicted.
I forgot to mention Choglamsar, a small Tibetan refugee village near Shey, where the Mahabodhi Meditation Center is located. Karen Skogstad will be living there this summer and teaching yoga. Across the main road in a field is the beautiful temporary residence where the Dalai Lama will stay when he visits this summer, and where the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies is based. All the stupas are being repainted in anticipation of his coming. In fact, we’ve noticed a great deal of painting and refurbishing going on all around Leh.
I’m convinced, as I see the tourists pour into Leh, that I planned my trip perfectly. And the beauty of this kind of travel, where you come to a place and stay for seven weeks, is that you get to know the people and observe how they live day-to-day. They greet you like a family member when you return from a trek or a trip. They talk to you about the dzos that Dawa’s husband just walked up to the high mountains and freed for the winter, knowing that they will return on their own in late September. They show you how to make chapattis, Tibetan bread, and tsampa (from their own barley flour). They let you try on their wonderful Ladakhi clothes and even help you buy them. And you are a part of the evening meditation, which, even though you don’t know the language, is calming to you as well. I spent a long time listening to Dawa and her children talk about the months of bitter cold winter endured by these people. And the hardships and the joys and the challenges of living in a place that is fairly isolated for six months of the year. How do you keep warm? How do you get water when the pipes are drained so they won’t burst? The Goba family has a type of plastic greenhouse that heats up during the day, so they can shower and wash. School is out from December to March. What activities do they engage in? All of this is fascinating and so new to me.
This is a perfect country for solar heating, and it’s unfortunate that the Indian government would rather collect monthly payments for hydroelectric generated energy than encourage the one-time expenditure of solar panels. Expensive, to be sure, but reliable. And it will give heat and light all year long.
Tomorrow I leave my new “family” and drive to Srinigar, Kashmir. I plan to stay on a houseboat, but will probably not write about it until I return home.
I must say, before I close, that I have been helped, immeasurably, by the superb and very computer-literate staff of my favorite internet cafe, Get Connected Travel and Cyber Cafe near the SBI in the Main Market. It’s always packed because these guys know their stuff! They even made me two CD’s of Ladakhi classical and pop music as a farewell gift. And just gave me chai. How about that? Look them up if you’re ever in Leh.