An Indian Shangri-La?

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September 16th 2017
Published: October 8th 2017
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I fell in love with Leh before I’d even got there. The mountains, the views, the people, the air; its whole aura, somehow. If I lived in Delhi, this would be my bolthole from the summer’s heat.

On a clear day, the view from the Delhi flight is phenomenal, snow-capped peaks and winding streams of glacier-flow, no apparent sign of human activity until you near Ladakh’s capital and spot the first signs of cultivated fields beside grey-green rivers, a stark contrast to the barren, unforgiving landscape around. As with Paro in Bhutan, it seems incredible that there’s any stretch of flatness big enough for an airstrip, and indeed the airport itself is up the hill from the planes.

Too excited to remember to check my seat pocket before getting off the plane – you’d have thought that I’d have learnt by now after inadvertently donating one mini-CD player (remember those?!), two CDs and one iPod over the years – I had to wait around for a kind crew member to reunite me with my glasses, so found myself practically the last to leave the airport, and emerged entirely un-hassled. In fact I had to find someone to ask about a cab to my hotel. A far cry from the craziness of the madding crowds outside most airports in this country. I could have been forgiven for missing the taxi “desk”: it’s the back seat of a parked car, the sign initially hidden from me by the men around it. While waiting for someone to decide if I was worth the fare, I looked around. The airport looked as if it was closing up for the day, business done by lunchtime. The asphalt outside had been so newly laid I picked up my feet gingerly, half-expecting to stick to the ground. The sky was that brilliant blue of the unpolluted mountain atmosphere, and the air clear and energising after the enervating late-monsoon heat and humidity in the capital.

On the short journey to my hotel, images crowded my mind. “It’s a bit like San Pedro de Atacama,” I thought, looking at the narrow mud wall-lined streets. “No, the Wakhan,” spotting the carved pine window frames and mud-brick construction. “Or Bhutan,” looking at the shape of the houses. Or in fact something just a little bit different. With its poplars, willows and apple trees, and network of irrigation channels, the Leh valley is remarkably tranquil. A town of 30,000 people, it is wonderfully easy to leave the (limited) crowds behind and scramble up a hillside or walk up a deserted lane.

Assuming the altitude hasn’t hit you, that is.

Flying to an elevation of just over 3,500 metres (11,500 feet) without acclimatisation (I’m not sure that a week in McLeod Ganj and Shimla, down at 2,000 metres or so, count for much) is likely to affect most people, even if only briefly. The airline and airport staff make announcements to the arriving passengers, warning them of the dangers of altitude sickness, and my wonderful hosts were most solicitous of my wellbeing, keen to test my oxygen levels with a small gadget they keep readily to hand, and regularly asked after my health. Because, for once, it was hitting me. Not badly – only to the tune of a headache, an extreme reluctance to eat (hugely uncharacteristic!), and persistent light-headedness – but enough to make me appreciate the way that my travelling companions have been affected in the past. I knew what to do: take it easy, drink lots, eat regularly, and sleep. That last bit was very easy, and I road-tested the bed in the lovely Adu’s Eternal Comfort almost as soon as the taxi driver had put down my bag.

Waking a couple of hours’ later, I took stock of my surroundings. My vast room looked north to the mountains. Only a few houses punctuated my view and those were as spaciously set out in their flower-decorated grounds as my own guesthouse. On the landing outside my room I was surprised to see a bare set of concrete steps leading up to the next floor… or what might be the next floor one day. In the meantime, the opening above the steps was covered by a blue tarpaulin. Behind me, the impressive marble staircase that curved up from the front door arrived unadorned at my floor – no bannisters, walls or anything to shield the unsuspecting person from making more of a gravity-assisted descent than they might have intended. The room on the far side of the staircase wasn’t a room, just a blank open space, as if awaiting further construction, and a door at the end of what would have been a corridor were it not for the current open-plan design, led me outside onto the roof of the floor below, pipework stretching across as though waiting for a floor to be put down on top. When I met my hosts later, I asked Mrs Adu (to my chagrin, I never found out her actual name) how long they’d been there, expecting an answer in terms of months or a year or two. “Ten years,” she answered brightly. “Oh, um, it’s lovely,” I struggled to reply. Perhaps, like London’s Lloyd’s Building, they are leaving it unfinished so as to be able to expand easily if and when the need arises.

It’s not the only thing that’s unfinished in Leh: the roads would test any vehicle’s suspension. Tarmac hasn’t made it this far, at least not in any quantity. This is an extremely arid area – with less than half the average annual rainfall of my occasional home in the Australian Outback – so shopkeepers regularly dampen down the road surface to reduce dust levels, though I felt they might be doing so a tad generously in the circumstances. Water feels plentiful here with the number of streams running through the valley and alongside paths, but these are the product of generations of hard work creating irrigation channels, and tourists are urged to be cautious with water consumption. The use of plastic is very gradually being reduced around India. Delhi, for example, has been officially plastic-bag free for more than six years and the same ban has recently been implemented in Himachal Pradesh. Here in Leh you are encouraged to refill your water bottle for only a few rupees at one or other of the places providing purified water. (I have to admit, I still added my own purifying tablet – I just didn’t have time on this trip to accommodate any gastrointestinal difficulties.)

So much for my intention to take things easy. The next morning, after a late brunch of excellent porridge at a Korean restaurant – obviously – I mooched slowly up Changspa Road, away from the centre of town. I had no plan, just to stretch my legs, and found myself walking up a dirt track from which I could make my way cross-country through a field of chortens (was this perhaps some kind of graveyard?), towards the path up to the Tsemo Fort. Yes, the Fort. The highest “sight” in the immediate vicinity of Leh. What was I thinking? Not feeling so good, so let’s go higher, feel worse, come back down, and somehow feel doubly better? I laughed at myself, but plugged on, taking it v-e-r-y slowly. And it worked, or at least I didn’t feel any worse. The reward for ascending each of the town’s three “elevated sights”, the Fort, the Palace and Shanti Stupa is, of course, the stupendous views, and, visited in this order, in my opinion, they just get better and better. Snow-capped peaks twenty miles or so across the valley provide a perfect backdrop, and the only wrinkle in the near distance was a large car park I hadn’t noticed before and which now seemed to dominate the view every time I looked. Between me and the mountains was the dun-coloured stone of the flat-roofed buildings, the brilliant green of the trees, the turquoise of the distant river, and the bright colours of the prayer flags. And only a couple of other tourists. Tearing myself away from here at the weekend was going to be tough.

The people were as lovely as their surroundings. Ethnically diverse, with – to my untrained eye – at least Tibetan and Aryan influences (some fabulous green eyes!), as well as people from other parts of the country here for the short summer season (one café I visited was run by Goans, for example), they were delightful and somehow more considerate, if that’s the right word, of the tourists amongst them. Or was it a lack of materiality, a more “Zen” approach to life? No hassle here to buy stuff, book trips or visit particular restaurants. Sure, I’d be greeted as I walked along the street – “Mam, you want to shop?” – but this would be called out from a seated position watching the world go by from his front step, or from the middle of a conversation with a neighbour, almost cursorily, as if doing the minimum necessary to attract business. If I demurred and carried on, there was no follow-up except perhaps an “OK, bye”. Greeting people on my peregrinations around town with the ubiquitous “joo-lay” – simultaneously “hello”, “goodbye”, “please” and “thank you” – would reward me with a warm smile. By my last afternoon, I felt as if I was bidding farewell to friends, with a hug from the girl at the Lehling book/coffee shop, good wishes from the waiter at the Bon Fire restaurant, and the hope that I’d come again from Mr and Mrs Adu.

I can be a creature of gastronomic habit when I’m on the road. If a place works for me – location, service, food and drink – I’ll go back. Often repeatedly. After all, I’m not writing a culinary guide to the area. Whether a subliminal desire for a “home”, however temporary, somewhere I’m recognised and greeted, the lone traveller briefly not alone, I don’t know. More prosaically, in Leh I was simply lucky enough to find two places that suited me admirably. The Lehling shop on the first floor above Main Bazaar provided wonderful people-watching potential. Its coffee could kick-start the dead, while its bookshelves could have added a lot more weight to my luggage than they did. Bon Fire provided several of the “Ladakhi dishes” that the Book had mentioned (as far as I could taste, each one seemed to involve some form of pasta or noodles with vegetables in a thin broth of varying spicy-ness, but I wasn’t complaining), and was within easy reach of my guesthouse, no mean consideration when street-lighting is limited and power cuts not unknown. And one evening it also produced Coke-the-badly-behaved-but-mega-cute-puppy, who spent most of the evening attempting to eat either my bag or my jacket, and made a fair attempt at pulling off the tablecloth a couple of times, though without the adeptness of the expert who would have left the crockery in place. In between, he fell asleep on my foot, so I couldn’t be cross for long. If he wasn’t so clearly owned and loved by my waiter, I’d have been sorely tempted to smuggle him home.

The one plus of being a bit altitude-y was that I didn’t feel at all guilty about not venturing further afield. Of course, trekking is “the thing” here, trekking companies and outdoors stores outnumbering souvenir shops in places, but I was content to meander around the town. The alleyways and side streets provided something new and interesting at each turn. From an unexpectedly large and beautifully decorated single prayer wheel, to a shop that bore my own surname. I’m told “POSH WEIR” means flower garden in Ladakhi… who knows? But the owner regarded my appearance – my name confirmed by a glance at my passport – as a good omen. He told me later that, just after I left the first time having purchased a token couple of pairs of earrings, he sold a number of pictures to some Italians, and, when I returned to reconsider a fabulous wall hanging that had been preying on my mind all afternoon, he was mid-negotiation over a rug or two with an Australian. He and I came to an agreement over the price of the hanging unexpectedly quickly and, from my point of view, extremely agreeably. He was having a good day, and I went away very content with my purchase.

Such was my ninth trip to India. I left with promises to my Delhi friends not to leave it another six-plus years, and even tentative plans to return next November. There’s so much more to see.

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The Jamia Masjid and Gurudwara Shri Datun Sahib Ji

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