The tuk-tuk came on time, the plane left on time, and I arrived Leh about 10:00 AM. As you would expect with the long-standing ‘Kashmiri’ situation with Pakistan, there was HEAVY security at the airport. I was wanded and patted three different times, my bags were put through three different scanners, but all was well. One couldn’t bring any bag on board other than a purse, camera or computer, which meant that it took forever for everybody to get their bags.
The Himalayas were spectacular from the plane. The check-in agent clearly had saved a window seat for the ‘tourist,’ so I had a chance for pictures. When I got to Leh, I got a taxi to a hotel that I picked out of the LP book. They only had one room left, which was really bad. I walked to find some other hotels or guesthouses—this with my pack at 11,600 feet altitude! Walking toward a hotel, a woman asked me if I were looking for a room. She had a guesthouse, which I looked at and engaged a room. Her name is Dolma and after I registered she asked me if I would like a cup of tea, which really hit the spot. The room is a real plain Jane, but has nice windows and a balcony. She also advised me to sleep for two hours before doing anything else.
After my nap I took my computer and used wifi at a restaurant and became acquainted with my first Americans on this trip—two young men—where from? Minneapolis, of course—along with a Danish woman, Anna, and a couple from the UK. By the way, Anna said that in Denmark, elementary, middle, high school and COLLEGE tuition is free. And practically nobody goes to private schools because the government schools are so good! And she gets paid about $900/month to study at the University. We had such a lovely conversation. What a nice way to acclimate the first day. Later before bed I went back to the same café and had a ginger tea—cut up ginger root and regular tea, which is supposed to help with acclimation, too.
In the afternoon a young woman knocked on my door, asking if I had a thermometer, which I didn’t. I asked her if she were sick. She said it was her boyfriend, and they really wanted to know if he had a fever. I told her that I was just an old grandma, but I could tell by touching his forehead if he had a fever or not. Their room was next door to mine. I did feel his forehead, and he did have a fever, although not alarmingly high.
I remade my bed the next morning as a top sheet wasn’t provided, which has often been the case on this trip. Normally that didn’t matter when it was so hot, as I didn’t sleep with any blankets anyway. Here, I took the bottom sheet from the other twin bed and put it on my bed as the top sheet—problem solved! Water is scarce in Leh and the guesthouses provide only bucket showers. They bring you a big bucket of hot water, which you can dilute with cold to get just the right temperature. Then you use a small plastic ‘pitcher’ to throw the water on yourself. It really works just fine. I have had hot showers at all the hotels I’ve stayed in until Leh, but the shower heads are often so clogged that they spray out two little jets of water going in opposite directions, so I would use a bucket shower then, too. Each bathroom has had a big plastic bucket and the small ‘pitcher’ so it has worked just fine.
The next morning for breakfast the ‘fever’ couple appeared at my restaurant and joined me. They were Peter and Andrea from Slovakia. Peter was much better, he was glad to report. When you’re young, it’s amazing what one good night’s sleep can do.
We learned that our landlady, Dolma, was attending a Women’s Alliance Meeting that day and had invited us along. Peter and Andrea had just been reading the book, “Ancient Futures,” by Helena Norberg-Hodge, a linguist and anthropologist who has lived in Ladekh for 40 years. She started the Women’s Alliance, which is thriving. They support crafts, education, and some poor women with children who have been abandoned.
We walked to the meeting venue with Dolma, noting the beautiful snowpeaks high in the mountains. A group of about 25 women had assembled who were representatives from many villages. There was an additional dozen plus the three of us who were more like observers. The business meeting was conducted by the president and later Dolma told us that they had agreed to help support some very poor women. Refreshments of pastries and chai were served, after which we three visited their shop and gave way to buying some pashmina shawls. What a lovely morning. The women seemed very self-confident and unselfconscious. They were friendly to us, and seemed glad that we had come.
Right next to the Dolma Guesthouse is a laundry, where they apparently do sheets from many guesthouse. They use enormous tubs in which they soak the sheets. Then a young man tied a headband on his shock of hair and pulled on rubber boots. He climbed into a tub of detergent soaking sheets and ‘agitated’ the sheets by high-stepping over and over.
Later another man wrung out the sheets by hand–quite an operation.
I took a long walk to the Air India offices to try to change my flight reservation, as I had decided to go to Srinigar after all. When I finally found the office, a hand-lettered sign on the door said that between 1:00 and 2:00 it was ‘lunchbreak.’ There was a window and I could see two people at the desk. I called to them that I had walked all the way down there, but one just called, “Lunchbreak,” and that was the end of that until another day. Funny, I had just read in the India Times newspaper about three days earlier that Air India (the government airline) is losing money hand over fist. They have double the number of employees per mile flown than the privates. So it goes. The next day I tried again, but, hitting several obstacles, I gave up on going to Srinigar.
Exploring the Old Town was interesting but exhausting. Much of the time one is climbing up steep inclines or stairways, which is pretty noticeable at 11,600 feet altitude. The 1553 nine-storey Palace overlooks the town, but I will admit that I didn’t climb all the way up there and go inside, given that the LP book said, “—it’s gently thrilling to weave your way through the maze of dark corridors, hidden stairways and makeshift ladders to reach the rooftop for great views of the city. Carry a torch and watch out for holes in the floor.” I felt that my views of the city from a small gompa in which I was invited in by a nice monk fulfilled my ‘view needs.’ Nor did I go up even higher to the Tsemo Fort. Imagine building this things at these heights! This set of buildings is visible from about anywhere in Leh.
I came across a colorful giant prayer wheel, and I visited the ancient tree that is worshipped—supposedly planted by a Sikh mystic in 1517. But after a few hours, I felt I had pretty much used up my stamina and hiked back to my guesthouse for a rest.
Leh is a rustic town that, in past times, has mostly been built of mud brick. Many of the buildings are kind of falling down but many have been rehabbed, too. Ledekh is kind of a desert. In spite of this being the monsoon season, I have only seen two early morning sprinkles. The sky is bright blue with some poofy clouds most times. The temperature is about perfect. Early mornings and evenings, a long sleeved shirt feels good, but mid-day, the temperature is about 75 degrees F. The relative coolness must favor roses, as there are many beautiful specimens.
Electricity is also a scarce commodity, as it is off, usually from about 10:00 PM until morning; then during the day it is usually off again for an hour or two at the time now and then. This is annoying when you’re in the middle of doing your email on the internet. The town is full of back-packers, guest houses, restaurants and travel agencies that arrange trekking, rafting, and horse-riding excursions. I am sampling gentler fare, such as taking buses to small towns around here that have interesting monasteries, temples, rock sculpture and other things to see. Their tourist season is short—many enterprises close down by October. It’s impossible to drive here from the south until about June as the road passes are closed with snow.
The food is amazingly good, which surprised me since the restaurant signs offer “Tibetan, Indian, Western, Israeli, Mexican and Italian fare.” Actually I haven’t tried most of it (Mexican??) but the Indian is absolutely top quality. Very few places sell beer, but I discover (which I already knew) that in this cool climate beer holds no interest for me!
I hired a taxi to take me to some sights on the outskirts of Leh. The Sankar Gompa was going full tilt when I got there, with about 18 monks chanting their morning prayers. The chanting was robust and pleasing; at various times some took up big oboe-like musical instruments and others contributed percussion with a big drum and cymbals. When the chanting was finished, breakfast was brought in which seemed to be barley meal and buttered tea.
There was a small boy sitting in a place of honor, dressed in monk’s robes. He is the latest incarnation of the Head Lama of Ladekh, and will soon move to a large house across the street where he will live and work until he dies.
This Gompa was especially artful with its living quarters reminding me of the Austrian Hundert-Wasser buildings. The area around it was beautiful, with its stone walls along the road and many little rivulets carrying water from the snow-covered mountain peaks.
We stopped at the Korean Temple, which wasn’t open. Various countries with Buddhist populations have built temples in this area.
The Donkey Sanctuary was a little sparse on donkeys and also on grass. It was started in 2008 to rescue orphans or ‘retired’ donkeys who had no place to live and no food. It was suggested that one bring carrots to feed the donkeys for a treat, but alas, I didn’t see any on the way, and there were none there to buy. Still, I’m sure it’s a better life for them than wandering around the streets of Leh.
I thought the Tisuru Stupa was quite interesting since it was from the 11th C. There certainly isn’t much left of it today, but think how old it is! Obviously they have built a supporting structure around it to preserve it.
As we were driving along, I could see that one could drive a vehicle up to the Japanese-built Shanti Stupa (I had thought one had to climb) so we quickly renegotiated our deal. The taxi driver took me up there, which was quite a sight—both the stupa, itself (I guess the Japanese never do things by halves) and the views of Leh and surrounds.
I thought it was a very nice morning spent seeing more of Leh’s treasures.