A Journey to Ladakh

I will never forget her. It was October and like so many young travelers she had come to Nepal.

We met at Kopan Monastery in the hills above Kathmandu, Nepal. We were but two out of a group of about forty people gathered to take part in a ten-day meditation and Buddhist study retreat, itself a unique and wonderful experience.

But she stood out. A beautiful young woman of nineteen or twenty, she had just spent the summer living with a Ladakhi family.  The story she told was captivating, as much for the way she told it as for its content.

This was a wonder-filled narrative, conveyed with a mystical quality that assured the listener of the irreversible impact the people and the place had on her. Clearly she'd had an experience that would shape who she would become, providing her with stories that she would tell herself, and others, for the rest of her life. I felt fortunate to have met her.

Ladakh. To be quite honest, I had never heard of the place. "Where is it?" I asked. "Behind the Himalayas" she said, "at the edge of the Tibetan plateau." She told stories of a timeless culture, of people who were just as eager to meet her and learn from her as she was from them. It was then that I knew that I would journey there, someday soon.

Stretching from the crest of the Great Himalayas, across sections of the Zanskar, Kailas-Ladakh, and Karakoram ranges, Ladakh is a land of extremes. Extremely high peaks, extremely blue sky, extremely stark beauty. It is a land of foreboding landscapes and of an extremely friendly and welcoming people. People who live today as they have for centuries, unchanged for the most part by western consumerism. While some change is clearly evident, Ladakh still maintains a timelessness found only in a few places on the planet still largely inhabited by an indigenous people.

Cut off from the rest of the world by the great Himalayan range, Ladakh, now politically a part of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, has for centuries been a crossroads for pilgrims and traders. Once a major trading center on the "Silk Road" that linked TibetIndiaChinaCentral Asia, and Eastern Europe, today Ladakh remains an "other worldly" place. Called by some "The Last Shangri-La" it is a land of curious monasteries perched on spiraling peaks and ancient fortress palaces built upon steep rocky slopes. The stark landscape is broken only by patches of green, the result of the cleverly executed tapping of mountain streams and an intricate system of irrigation canals that, beginning in the springtime, brings life to the fields from the the melting glaciers and snow-capped peaks above. Villages are scattered among the valleys between ranges connected only by mountain passes which tower as high as 6,500 meters(18,500 feet). Therefore, the name Ladakh, which literally means  "the land of passes."

It was nearly two years later, during July, one of only three or four months in which Ladakh is truly accessible to the outsider. I had read, thought about, and planned for my journey. Now it was time to go. Using some accumulated frequent flyer miles, I traveled on Korean Air from Los Angeles to Bangkok, via Seoul, connecting to Thai Airways International for the onward journey to Delhi. While traveling within India can be a confounding challenge and the use of a local travel agent is indispensable, from Delhi it is only a short one-hour flight on Indian Air Lines to Leh, Ladakh's capital.

While the actual flight covers only about three hundred miles, the contrast is astonishing. Upon arrival in Leh one feels that he or she has traveled back in time. The difference in the people is even more remarkable. Friendly and helpful the Ladakhi people offer a complete change-of-pace from the constant badgering that is so characteristic of Delhi.

In Leh one finds dozens of "guest houses" and small and medium sized hotels to choose from. With prices ranging from $2 too around $30 per night there is something for everyone.

We were met at the airport by the affable Shockut Ali, a young Islamic-Ladakhi man who, along with his mother and father, run the delightful, middle-range, "T-Suru Hotel."  With five spotlessly clean rooms all with attached tiled bathrooms, the "T-Suru" is nestled around a garden and is located just below the town. It was exactly what I had hoped it would be.

The very charming Zorabi, Ali's (as he likes to be called) mother, loves to show off her culinary skills, preparing, upon three hours notice, traditional Ladakhi meals. The food that she prepares, and her obvious delight in her guests' enjoyment of it, are equally enchanting.

While predominantly "Lamist" Buddhist one finds Moslems and Tibetan Buddhists living side by side in integral respect of one another's beliefs. But, while the Muslim way of life is evident, Buddhism, its traditions, its monasteries, its people, its chortens and its mani walls, dominate the culture and panorama.

Looming large over Leh is the five-hundred-year-old Leh Palace. Looking up from the town, the Palace looks like a miniature version of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. Sold, some years ago, to the Archeological Survey of India (India-Forts & PalacesMonuments) by the Ladakhi royal family, the deserted palace is in obvious need of repair. The short walk up to the palace rewards you as the view from it is striking and its interior, haunting. The Zanskar mountains, across the Indus River, loom large and seem as if they are closer than they actually are. The interior of the palace, including the "Du-khang," or central assembly hall, invokes feelings of strong Buddhist traditions.

Although it is no longer the center of a great trade route, Leh has much to offer the visitor.  The main "bazaar" is full of shops with Tibetan, Kashmir, Afghani and Indian goods for sale. Ladakhi women, dressed in traditional costume and adorned with turquoise, amber and coral jewelry, line the sidewalks where they sell all sorts of vegetables and fruit. Cabbages, carrots, small, brilliantly purple eggplants, apples and apricots. Everywhere, during the summertime, apricots.

Venturing out of Leh one has the possibility of taking day or longer trips to Hemis Gompa, one of Ladakh's largest and most important monasteries. Lying on the western side of the Indus River some twenty-eight miles out of Leh, Hemis is famous for its annual festival that takes place each year during Late June or early July and its huge forty-nine foot high thanka unfurled and shown to the public only once every twelve years (next showing 2010). At other times the monastery is open to the public and the visitor may view its library, Buddha figures and its other wonderfully well preserved thanka paintings.

Situated on a hillside just ten miles from Leh is the picturesque "Tikse Gompa," it main feature an extremely important collection of Tibetan books and some wonderful art work. At Tikse, early each morning, visitors may join the monks and lamas as they practice their traditional "puja," a religious ceremony composed of the chanting of prayers, drumming, the ringing of bells, and the long haunting sounds of traditional Buddhist prayer horns.

Even closer to Leh is the old summer palace of the kings of Ladakh, Shey Gompa. Built nearly six-hundred years ago it features a huge seated Buddha image nearly forty feet high. Perched prominently on a hill top above the Indus River is the Spitok Gompa, about six miles out of Leh near the end of the airport runway. The trek to Spitok and the view from it, affords a perspective of part of the large Indian Army presence, a feature of Ladakh's unique geographical location and political situation.

About fifteen miles east of Leh, up a short road off the main highway, is the village of Phyang and its monastery which is notable for its collection of Mongolian, Tibetan and Chinese weapons and armor. The display is contained in a museum room said to be nine-hundred years old. Rivaling that of Hemis, Phyang's colorful annual festival also attracts throngs of visitors. The village, with its three storied houses gives one a glimpse of typical Ladakhi rural life.

Frequently, when traveling to far-away places like Ladakh, one has unusual experiences. Occasionally those experiences are downright mysterious and mystifying. Sometimes these encounters with people and unusual situations test our ability to absorb and fully understand that which we have witnessed. A visit to the "Saboo Lhamo," or oracle, is just such an experience.

With my daughter (then 18 years old) in tow, our friend Ali, against the rules of the local taxi drivers association, drove us to the village of Saboo, some five miles outside Leh. We found the house of the Lhamo after parking the car and crossing through a rushing, ice-cold stream. We were fortunate to have Ali with us as he spoke enough English to adequately translate for us. We had no idea of what to expect.

After waiting for a few minutes we were shown into the Lhamo's kitchen. A room that also serves as her meeting room. It seemed to be a typical Ladakhi kitchen except for the altar in the corner and the woman who sat before it, chanting. Her chanting continued as she became "possessed" and began to channel spiritual energy.

In the Buddhist tradition an oracle is part healer, part astrologer, and part fortune-teller. After their appearance, and the confirmation of other oracles, this person becomes regarded as a demi-god and commands the faith of local people who seek his or her treatment for everything from miraculous cures of both man and beast to solving day-to-day business disputes. The Ladakhi people look to this lay person, for he or she is not a lama, for advice and prediction of the future when confronted by all important matters.

As seven or eight Ladakhi's sat quietly, and the few foreign visitors in attendance sat transfixed, the Oracle chanted for what must have been an hour. Sweating profusely and rocking gently back and forth she suddenly interrupted her chanting and called for her first subject. We witnessed a middle-aged Ladakhi women, who, Ali told us, complained of abdominal pain, open her dress and expose her belly to the Lhamo. Without hesitation the Oracle picked up a small, thin wooden tube. Placing one end of the tube into her mouth and the other against the belly of her "patient" she began sucking. After ten seconds, or so, she finished. Picking up a small bowl she dispensed into it what appeared to be a small stone. The "clinking" sound was unmistakable.

Chanting intermittently, she treated a small child and a man who said that "business enemies" were disturbing him. Next it was my turn. After presenting her with a customary "katak," a white silk scarf, I told the Saboo Lhamo that I had a sore throat. Suddenly she lunged at me and for what seemed an eternity, but in reality was ten to twelve seconds, she sucked, hard, on my throat. When finished, she retreated, spitting a mouthful of blood into the same bowl that she had used to dispose of the stone she removed from the Ladakhi woman's belly. Startled, I returned to my place beside my daughter who confirmed that there were no marks on my neck. My sore throat was gone.

Sometimes, on occasions like these, our modern sensibilities simply will not allow us to comprehend what has happened. We have to remind ourselves that this is not some theme park adventure ride synthesized to give tourists a sense of adventure. This is the real thing. In this case, the practice of a very old tradition, followed, and believed in, by the faithful for centuries.

Venturing further from Leh requires some planning. Whether rafting, trekking, touring by vehicle, or, ideally, a combination of all three, traveling west of Leh gives one the opportunity to travel down the storied Indus river and to cross "The Highest Road In The World." It is here that you realize how Ladakh came to be known as "Moonland." Traveling through what is surely some of the most spectacular terrain on the planet, the extremes of the Ladakhi landscape becomes glaring. The soaring snow-capped peaks of the Ladakh Range loom over a desolation that is so dramatic that one is left in breathless awe of jut how great a force created our garden planet.

No matter how much you have traveled, whether you have seen great mountains, sailed vast oceans or explored tropical islands, nothing you have ever seen or experienced will have prepared you for the grandeur and magnificence of Ladakh's landscape. Intense shades of auburn, red and purple color jagged soaring rock walls of shapes, height and breadth so grand that one is stunned by such majestic beauty.

Natural wonders abound. The eloquence of total silence misleads one into forgetting the violence wrought by moving glaciers that millions of years ago formed such an extreme landscape. Both during the day, and at night when billions of distant stars seem close enough to touch, one is brought to a point of total humility by the sky's crystal clarity.

Traveling east from Leh you journey along "The Highest Road In The World" toward the ancient and strategically located village of Bozgo. Long an important center, Bozgo, today, offers a further look into Ladakhi antiquity. The ancient fortifications built into the ridges above contain the ruins of a royal residence with ages old places of worship and the remnants of a painted temple.

Just beyond Bozgo is Likir Monastery which is situated on a hillside above a lovely village bearing the same name. The monastery, dating to the 12th century, is the main  monastery of the Dalai Lama's brother. Though he is not in residence, the monastery is active and well maintained and the valley below is, during spring and summer, lush and green.

Forming an oasis just across the Indus River from the town of Saspul is the village of Alchi and its marvelously preserved "shos-kor," or religious enclave. Administered by the monks from Likir, Alchi contains a marvelous record of Buddhist iconography which seems to date to the 11th century. It is not to be missed.

While there are accommodations at Alchi, just beyond is the the delightful "tent camp" at Ulley Tokpo. Featuring very comfortable lodging, spotless bathroom facilities (hot showers) and surprisingly delicious meals, Ulley Tokpo offers a much needed respite from the rigors of the road.

Beyond Alchi and Ulley Tokpo, about two hours drive, is the monastic site of Lamayuru. Believed to be the oldest monastery in Ladakh, Lamayuru was, before the advent of Buddhism, a holy place of the Bon-chos, the predecessor of Tibetan Buddhism. Dramatically picturesque it lays in symmetry with the village below. The main "Du-kang" is built around the entrance to a cave said to have been the meditation place of the sage Marpa.

Whether you travel independently or as part of a group, Ladakh has much to offer and many lessons to teach the casual or more studious visitor alike. It is a place of unparalleled beauty and tradition and is unmatched for the friendliness and hospitality of its people. This surely must be the place that Kipling had in mind when he wrote "Something hidden, go and find it. Go and look behind the ranges-something lost behind the ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!"

Maurice Bretzfield is a Digital Inbound Marketing Consultant located in New York City. He has traveled the world extensively. 

Contact Maurice at maurice.bretzfield (at) gmail.com  

(C) Copyright 1993. Maurice Bretzfield. All Rights Reserved.

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