Leh & Ladakh

My head was just starting to spin as I climbed the last steps to the crumbling castle, just up the ridge from Leh's Tsemo Monastery. I'd just hopped off the plane less than two hours earlier, and dropped into the medieval town's maze of mud-brick alleys, its waking streets littered with prayer flags and sleeping shepherd dogs. An enormous blue morning sky promised a long sweep of cloudless day ahead, and had me restless from the moment I dropped my bag off in town. I rushed through the narrow pathways of town and then up the barren mountainside until I had a commanding view of the valley. Finally I stopped to fill my lungs with a few breaths of thin air, suddenly afraid of passing out on the steep ridge and smashing my head open on the rocks below. I was standing at about 12,000 feet. When I pushed on I no longer bounded like a madman but slowly paced the hill like the old monks that trailed me, probably confused at the white kid racing up the mountain. When I heard the music though, I immediately bolted off again.

I sprinted from complex to white-washed adobe complex to find the source of the sound. Finally, this time much closer to collapse, I spotted a pair of red-robed, yellow-hatted monks on a monastery roof with cheeks puffed taut and mouths wrapped around long blaring thighbone trumpets, welcoming me into a scene right out of Kundun. Seconds later, lungs spent and big cheeks deflated, they dragged their telescope instruments away and disappeared. I followed them, entering by the door rather than the roof, and found myself invited by a trio of Ladakhi girls to chai and then asked to join an annual revealing ceremony of some kind, something to do with a powerful protector diety. Inside a smoky room a handful of monks sat crowded in the far corner banging goatskin drums and ringing bronze bells and cymbals, shaking their heads and chanting in a droning invocation.

Leh, Ladakh's medieval capital, was for centuries a trading crossroads between Kashgar, Kashmir and Tibet. A fossil of a town, it nestles itself between desolate craggy peaks that might as well be in the wastelands of Utah and Nevada, but for a few facts: they're about 10,000 feet taller than the highest of those ranges, they're often capped with ancient fortresses and monasteries, and there is no interstate highway connecting these parts to the outside world. What they've got is a grueling narrow track winding along steep mountainsides all the way to Srinagar in the west and Manali in the south, two days each by bus.

I wandered a couple days to the south on local buses and on foot, keeping in the vicinity of Leh. Hiking to the monasteries of Thikse and Shay I exchanged juley's (all-purpose Ladakhi word) with a few dozen Ladakhi monks, dirt-smeared kids and old people spinning prayer wheels. Then I decided to head north.


Shery said...

I've got Kundun, but haven't watched it yet. I 'll look for that welcoming scene in it.:-). why don't you keep all your posts on Adventure journey?

Nat said...

I love how descriptive you are when you write these entries of your adventures...I can't stop reading! Love you, Joey