If you like heat and pollution, go to Delhi. If you like clean, cool mountain air and beautiful sunshine, go to Ladakh. Just getting here was an adventure, and probably the two most miserable days in my long travel experience. Traffic in Delhi is legendary and getting worse every day with the advent of the mini-car. Add heat at temperatures exceeding 100 degrees F. and an unfortunate one-and-a-half nights in a beautiful ashram that had everything including bed bugs, and the scenario was complete when the 5:50 A.M. flight to Leh was unable to land because of cloud cover. So back to Delhi we flew with a plane full of discontented passengers. The flight wasn’t a total loss, however, since my seatmate, an Indian army computer specialist, explained my new digital voice recorder to me during the return.
The ensuing chaos at Deccan Air, when it was announced that there would be no return flight that day as promised by the pilot, was of such high decibels that I fled the airport, assuming that the voucher I’d received was good for the next morning’s flight. A delightful Canadian traveler, Christy Willoughan, and I hunkered down at the Peterson family standby, Majnu Ka Tilla, a Tibetan enclave one hour through knotted traffic from the airport. This time it wasn’t bed bugs, but tiny virile mosquitos, whose poison was still with me days later. Note to travelers in India: always get prepaid taxis at the airports. The difference in price was as much as 1600 rupees for the trip to Majnu that cost us 230.
Three A.M. and back at the airport the next day, we discovered that neither of us was booked on the morning flight. Christy called Deccan and there was only one seat left. In a gesture of pure generosity she gave it to me, thus earning a place in heaven with the good angels!
Back we went to Leh, only to be confronted with heavy cloud cover dictating a return, once more, to Delhi. All hell broke loose! The uproar in the cabin was intense! One man stood up and urged us all to stay in our seats until the plane had refueled in Delhi and made a second attempt to land in Leh. This was the first “sit in” I’d experienced on an airline, and guess what…it worked! The plane landed and nobody moved. Soon we returned to Leh, with dire projections from a rather disconcerted pilot. But here I am, happily settled in the Oriental Guest House in Changspa, run by a joyful Ladakhi family, and enjoying this mountain paradise after two days of a very difficult adjustment to the 12,000 ft. altitude. My room is on the third floor with a panoramic view of the snowy mountains, and just walking up the narrow stone steps (with no hand railings) to my room was a chore.
Happily, my stamina and positive attitude have returned. I am surrounded by utter peace and quiet (except in the central market), and the only sounds at night are the pidgeons outside my windows. There is a feeling here that is so reminiscent of Tibet, and the people are as warm and welcoming as anywhere I’ve traveled.
Wherever I go I find that the most meaningful experiences happen in an unplanned way. I spent yesterday on a family farm in Thyang, helping plant potatoes and barley as a father and son plowed with a handmade plow pulled by two dzos (a cross between a yak and a cow). This resulted from a chance meeting on the street, when I asked directions from a young man, a student of mathematics at Jannu University in Kashmir. We talked about the disturbing changes in the family life of the old traditional farming communities, and the harsh economic changes brought on by compulsory westernization, and he said, “Maybe you’d like to visit our farm tomorrow with my father, mother, and aunt. We’re going to plow our field.” I was ecstatic! I had my first taste of climbing in the country and seeing the small farms, bisected by miles of mud brick walls. We ate at intervals during the day and when it became cold we huddled around a small fire, drinking butter tea or chai, and eating rice and veggies with our fingers. All of the food had been cooked in Leh and carried here. Sharif, the father, explained to me that the team of dzo were not his, but loaned to him by his neighbor. “He does not charge me. We help each other.” I recorded the various songs used to direct the dzos as they worked. Father and son had distinctive styles. They were lilting songs, chants, and shouts. It was hard work, but there was great joy in the effort. The ladies did not speak English, but we communicated through laughter and joking, as we competed to see who could plant the fastest. What a day it was!
I’ve been told to keep my blog entries short. I will find this difficult, but I will try. Every day is so full of new experiences and impressions, and I want to share them. If any of you are interested in this country with its fascinating culture and history, I highly recommend the book, Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh, by Helena Norberg-Hodge. It’s very unsettling as is the vast cultural upheaval going on right now in this small part of the world.