Loitering in Ladakh

For my last major trip of this year, I decided to go to the Western Himalayas–specifically to Ladakh, the mountainous border region of Jammu and Kashmir. Ladakh is a high altitude desert which means that it’s both barren and freezing: the air is dry, cloud cover is almost nonexistent and the region is inhospitable to most creatures, plants, and people. That being said, Ladakh is one of the most beautiful places in India–the juxtaposition of the remote mountains, verdant valleys, and clear blue skies truly create a visual masterpiece.

I had been planning to go to Ladakh ever since I took a Buddhist Art History Class and we studied some of the regional monasteries–almost 2 years later, I was more than excited to finally make my way to the region. Jacob, one of my favorite Fulbright friends, and I flew up to Leh, the capital of Ladakh, and spent about five days exploring the area.

Because of the high altitude, tourists are recommended to rest in bed for the first day so your body gets accustomed to the elevation. After napping up most of the afternoon, we visited the market and Leh palace in the evening. What we didn’t expect is that cell service and wifi in Ladakh are rare to come by–for most of the week, we were cut off from the rest of the world. Luckily, Jacob and I had each other for company–we’re both leaving India within the next few weeks and it was a great way to reflect on our respective Fulbright experiences.

Our first full day in Ladakh was spent visiting Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. Tibetan Buddhism was brought to the region centuries ago and Ladakh itself is part of the greater Tibetan Cultural Zone, that spans the Himalayas. Our morning was spent at Thikse Monastery, one of the most splendid hilltop temple complexes I have ever seen. We ambled up the mountain and explored the different parts of the gompa–the highlight being the 49-foot Maitreya statue that was installed in 1979. Because the Dalai Lama was in the region, most of the monks were at Diskit, in Nubra Valley, to receive his teachings. This meant that many parts of Thikse were closed–disappointing, but as we would realize a few days later, ultimately rewarding.

After Thikse, we visited Shey Palace, Alchi, and finally, Basgo. As we realized, 40-foot tall statues of the Buddha or Bodhisattvas really were the norm, with every single monastery displaying at least one such massive idol. Alchi was especially meaningful to me: we had done an in-depth lecture on the monastery in class and I was excited to see the details in person. It is hard to appreciate Tibetan Buddhist art without some knowledge of the depicted figures or stories–so much of the message relies on visual symbolism. Luckily, most of the monasteries have some kind of explanation or guidebook to make the material more accessible for tourists.

It might seem surprising that such a remote area of the world has such a rich material culture. However, Ladakh was a key part of the Silk Routes for centuries and a major byway for traders crisscrossing Asia. Now, because of border disputes and the high security risks in the region (Ladakh borders both Pakistan and China), trade is completely absent and the economy depends heavily on tourism, especially during the summer months.

For the next few days, Jacob and I decided to spend time in Nubra Valley, a more secluded part of Ladakh and booked ourselves onto a shared car for the journey. About 130 kilometers from Leh, the car ride takes over five hours (if you’re lucky) and winds up and down mountain roads in what can only be described as a nauseous experience. The road to Nubra goes through Khardongla Pass, which is advertised as the world’s highest motorable road, and passes through numerous picturesque villages as well. We stopped at Diskit Monastery which is home to a magnificent Maitreya Buddha, and spent the evening at Hunder Village, where we were able to ride some Bactrian camels–supposedly, Hunder is the only place with two-humped camels in India.

The second day in Nubra, we decided to try to find the Dalai Lama. Locals told us that he would be giving teachings nearby Diskit Monastery so Jacob, a Frenchman on our trip, and myself woke up early to track him down. We were indeed blessed by our efforts and spent over an hour in the presence of His Holiness. Back in August, I had written in my journal that I wanted to see the Dalai Lama while in India–I was in disbelief that I actually got to do so, and that too, without actively trying. There were thousands of devotees there to hear him speak but luckily, foreigners are allowed to go all the way up till the main pavilion and we got to relish his company. Though his teachings were in Tibetan, I was still moved by his presence and spirit.

The road back to Leh was rough: there had been some landslides and we were delayed for hours. There is a heavy army presence in Ladakh however, and with their efforts, we managed to get back to the city by mid-evening. After an Italian dinner, we walked around town and packed up for our early afternoon flight the next day. Most people who go to Ladakh like to go trekking in the region–I know that if I return, I’d like to as well. Even without trekking however, I was truly enchanted by Ladakh’s barren beauty and left with a deep sense of humility that only the massive Himalayas can inspire.

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