If you’ve ever wanted to travel to the moon, consider a trip to far-northern India. There, in Ladakh, Keith Bain touches down in another world
On a rocky outcrop atop Tsemo Hill, I sat beneath strings of prayer flags fluttering in the breeze. The light was sharp, the air clear and thin, and my eyes transfixed by the strange, numinous beauty of the surrounding landscape. Rising up in all directions, the peaks of tall mountains tipped by snow loomed high above the grey- and dun-streaked desert, etching a jagged line against the blue sky.
It was a scene at odds with my usual image of India, which always involves a riot of colours so bold and intense that they strike me like a hallucination. Wedged in between Tibet and the Kashmir Valley, and tucked into the folds of the Karakoram and Greater Himalaya mountain ranges, this time-trapped pocket of northern India (known affectionately as Little Tibet) feels more like the surface of the moon than anything that belongs here on Earth.
Below my feet sprawled Leh, the Ladakhi frontier town that fans out from the base of the hill. It segued into an oasis of fields and leafy groves that formed a shock of emerald against the outline of barren desert. When such colours do appear amid the desert’s pallor, they are wondrous, even magical to behold. Such was the effect of the burgundy robes of the young monk who suddenly materialised, singing out the standard, sing-song Ladakhi greeting.
‘Julay,’ he said, his weathered, ruddy face consumed by a toothy grin.
‘Julay,’ I sang back.
And then he pointed at my camera and said the strangest thing: ‘Selfie?’
Having smiled and posed and made cheesy peace signs with his fingers, he gripped my shoulders for a hug with his free arm and I clicked the moment for posterity. Soon, we were old friends and he grabbed my hand and gestured for me to follow him along the path to the crumbling monastery that keeps watch across the Indus Valley, from its precarious perch on the cliff-edge high above Leh. He showed me around the tumbledown religious fortress, ceremoniously unlocking and then relocking each door using ancient keys from the enormous bunch he kept on a chain around his waist. Finally, he led me into a dishevelled courtyard and disappeared for a while, returning with a steaming pot of salty yak-butter tea, the drink of choice in a place that’s snowed under and frozen for most of the year.
After several rounds of tea and more photographs, the monk made gestures that it was time for him to attend to his duties, and then disappeared into the ruins.
A steep pathway took me down the hill past the uninhabited Leh Palace, a nine-storey miniature rendition of Lhasa’s Potala Palace that looms above the city like some frayed fairy-tale relic. Below the palace, somewhere near the main mosque, I entered a different kind of time warp as I tumbled into the labyrinth of Leh’s old quarter, a disorganised cluster of narrow cobblestoned streets, ancient mud homes, and low-vaulted tunnels. Once a bustling trading post on the legendary Silk Road, Leh is now brimming with antiques stores, internet cafes, English-language book- shops, guest houses converted from old family homes, and small hotels built in a style that fuses Ladakhi tradition with Western expectations – no one goes without indoor plumbing these days.
Leh was originally a market for traders traversing the challenging caravan routes to Yarkand and Kashgar. The Silk Road brought Buddhist travellers and traders, and today their descendants comprise Leh’s local majority, supplemented by carpet salesmen and shopkeepers from Kashmir, and throngs of tourists who circle the main bazaar, shopping for Tibetan prayer wheels, copper teapots, and jewellery fashioned from turquoise, coral and amber.
At its northern outskirts, Leh quickly transforms into countryside. Gone are the shops and eager sellers – instead, I found green fields sprinkled with bright yellow blossoms, gentle streams trickling past squat stone walls, and cute, box-shaped Ladakhi houses with quaint little vegetable gardens and apricots drying on the roof. Here, I shared choruses of ‘Julay, julay, julay’ with half-bent women in homespun cassock-style dresses, twiddling their prayer beads as they sauntered along
the dusty lanes.
The next day, I rose with the sun and took a guide for a visit to Thikse, a busy monastery half-an-hour’s drive south of Leh. We drove through the countryside, passing avenues of sun-faded prayer flags fluttering at holy sites, and hillsides dotted with chortens, or stupas, commemorative white-washed shrines shaped similarly
to chess pawns.
Thikse, a 12-storey monastery complex with whitewashed temples and tapering walls, sits atop a craggy peak like some medieval sculpture that has erupted from the earth. Inside, we sat at the back of the prayer hall and listened as the monks’ deep-resonant murmurings gave rise to some strange and mystical force.
Across the Indus River, we visited Stok Palace, home to the 74th generation of the Namgyal royal dynasty, whose current king (or gyalpo) has converted several rooms into Ladakh’s most expensive – and most beautiful – hotel. Only a few of the palace’s 80 rooms are still used
by the royal family. Others are exhibition spaces, where we were able to look at a collection of treasures – thangkas, jewels, weapons and the queen’s perak (a price-
less turquoise-studded headdress worn during special ceremonies).
My guide took me further south still, to Hemis, the wealthiest monastery in Ladakh, which stands hidden from the world on a remote hillock. It is here that Hemis Tsechu, a festival commemorating the birth of Guru Padmasambhava, takes place each summer. I had attended it a few years before, witnessing some of the lamas performing elaborate masked chaam dances and others enacting ritual dramas in the courtyard, while locals gathered to sell Ladakhi handicrafts and jewellery.
Even before we’d finished our tour of Hemis, the monasteries were beginning to blur, but there were still more auspicious sites to see. At Likir (another enchanting village centred on a monastery dating back to 1065), the monk who manned the little museum explained that the area was once inhabited by water fairies, and he showed me curious treasures – one of them a 400-
year-old bulletproof iron jacket. Some of the unpleasant-looking weapons on display were nearly 1 000 years old.
From Likir, we travelled on – across some of the most astonishing high-altitude landscape, traversing roads perched on the edges of fierce drop-away cliffs that seemed to plunge into eternity – to finally reach Lamayuru, a fabled hamlet some four hours from Leh, en route to Kargil. Renowned as a centre of spirituality, Lamayuru enjoys an unusual cliff-side setting and is revered as the home of one of Ladakh’s most fantastical monasteries. It took ages to find the monk responsible for admitting visitors to the various prayer rooms, each of which he finally unlocked with a sense of ceremony; in one hall, he showed me a gap in the wall through which you can glimpse part of a cave where some saintly tantric master apparently spent time meditating way back in the10th century. Everywhere inside, the air seemed old and dank, as though still being breathed by that ancient monk.
Two days later, I was back in Leh making arrangements for a jeep to take me into Nubra, a remote valley reached via Khardung La, one of the world’s highest motorable mountain passes. The twisting-turning switchbacks snaked slowly uphill from the Indus Valley in a sluggish race to the top, against convoys of military trucks, gear-grinding buses, squadrons of crazy bikers, and – heading in the opposite direction – pelotons of thrill-seeking cyclists taking the bends and curves at alarming speeds. At the summit, some
5 400m above the sea, it was snowing gently, and after we acclimatised briefly with cups of sweet chai in the concrete cafe, we climbed the steps to the shrines
of mountain gods, where pilgrims gave thanks for their safe arrival and everyone spun a few prayer wheels in anticipation
of the downhill journey to come.
On the other side, we descended into the deep, wide folds of a valley cut through with snowmelt rivers and undulating sand dunes, where tourists were offered rides on double-humped Bactrian camels. We drove on through sparsely populated hamlets, where the sun-weathered farmers tended to their patches of crops at the foot of barren, rocky slopes.
Nubra had plenty of ancient lamaseries to explore, too, but before visiting these, I decided to unfog my mind, so after a night in a charming little hotel set along the river near the bucolic village of Sumur,
I set off into the mountains, picking out a path through craggy rocks, discovering hard-to-reach shrines and fortress-like lookouts with eagle views. I marvelled
at this classic Ladakhi wilderness of shattered rock and heaven-piercing mountains and occasionally bumped
into shepherds tending flocks, and met monks skipping along invisible back routes on their way to heaven-knows-where. I found tiny hamlets huddled
in valleys and slept in homes partially converted into simple guest houses, offering beds piled with blankets and piping-hot meals to counteract the bitter chill that crept in after dark.
And, in the mornings, I’d wake to the delightful shock of wild-flower gardens lined with apricot trees – a multi-hued spectacle of blossoms and fruit, set dreamily against the stark canvas of rock and desert that kept me hemmed in, sheltered from the world. And it struck me that these magical bursts of colour were really reminders that this was not the moon after all, but perhaps a corner of heaven right here on earth.
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Photography: gallo/gettyimages/thinkstock, Brian Van Tighem, istockphoto