Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Letter From Ladakh

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It must have been the altitude. As our jeep hurtled free of the rugged mountains and onto the high altitude desert plains of Ladakh, I had to stop my self from shouting, “Stop! Stop! Why are we still travelling when we have obviously already arrived in paradise?”
For those who take the journey across the second highest motorable pass in the world to enter into the moonscape of Ladakh, the reward is dizzyingly gratifying.
My previous life dropped away at the sight of Ladakh. I knew in an instant that I was meant to be an artist, that I would abandon at once all previous life dreams and concentrate on this one panorama. I would sit alone in this high alpine terrain for as long as it took me to realise that the landscape has no need to be painted; that it creates itself afresh each day depending on the mood of the wind and the clouds and the upward surge of the tectonic plates deep within the earth.
If the mind of a Zen master had topography, I decided, then it would be this. Elevated, untouched and unconcerned with temporary concerns like lunch and where to sleep that night. Romantic dreams have a way of fading into reality very quickly for me with the first hint of physical discomfort or worse, hunger. I decide to keep my thoughts to myself. For someone who has doesn’t ‘do’ cold or mountains or meditation, my mind had obviously become unhinged by the seventeen-hour jeep ride across the highest road in the world.
Passing snow drifts higher than our hired jeep, shuddering at spectres of Nepali and Bihari road workers in impossibly thin clothes working in even more impossible conditions who cheered as we passed through, we are one of the first convoy of vehicles to cross into Ladakh this season. In any case how could I begin to paint a land that is still forming?
In geological terms, this is a young land, formed only a few million years ago by the buckling and folding of the earth's crust as the Indian sub-continent pushed with irresistible force against the immovable mass of Asia. Its basic contours, uplifted by these unimaginable tectonic movements could be said to be nothing more than wrinkles on the face of Mother Earth and have been modified over the millennia by the opposite process of erosion, sculpted by wind and water.
Lying between the Himalayan and Karakoram mountain ranges, cross sectioned by the multiple hued mountain ranges of Ladakh and Zanskar and interspersed with bright slashes of green valleys oozing wild roses and lavender, mustard flowers and summer gardens tumbling down to fringe the Indus River; Ladakh is the last Shangri La, virtually untouched the outside world from which it remains isolated for six months or more of the year.

The capital city Leh gazes down on the Indus River from a height of 3,500 metres and is the undeniable hub of all traffic in the state even if it is no longer an official part of the Silk Route, it is home to an ancient indigenous Tibetan-Buddhist cultural community. Buddhists from all over Asia come to explore and to pray at the region's 16th- and 17th-century Tibetan-Buddhist monasteries, while Western tourists come to trek across some of the best hiking terrain in the world. Adjusting to the altitude takes a few days. Okay I am lying; it took me two weeks of struggling for enough oxygen to brush my teeth, getting tearful at the thought of having to climb a few stairs before my lungs adapted which I am told is average, and not anything to do with a summer spent scoffing Mohitos in Goa.
In any case, I am totally unprepared for the kind of extreme trekking that other foreigners seem to delight in; the sight of their sun bronzed faces and heavy packs exhaust me to the point of tears and that is just watching them struggle up the hill from the bus stand.
As the city of Leh fills up with more and more tourists, I begin to sense that if I don’t trek or learn to meditate or consult the local oracle or volunteer at the Monastery then I will be exposed as a fraud and a wastrel, the pressure to conform becomes intense. Hearing that the Hemis Festival would begin in the tiny hamlet of Hemis, I take a local bus a week before to soak in the feel of the village and acclimatise by tackling some of the more humble hills in my spare time without any of the accompanying humiliation of being observed in a knee trembling, lung revolt before I even started to climb.

Founded in 1672 AD by the then King Senge Nampar Gyalva, The Hemis Monastery is built in the upright Tibetan style and juts out from the surrounding mountains effortlessly. Concealed in a deep ravine of the world, the Hemis Gompa (monastery) reveals itself as our bus rounds the mountain, which I eye nervously. Is everywhere in Ladakh on the top of a bloody hill?

Since I am so early for the festival, accommodation is no problem. The monk in charge of the Monastery assigns me a room in the very deepest darkest bowels of the monastery. A thin prison issue blanket is the only protection against the bone chilling cold of my first (and last) night of monastic experience; the next day a local family agrees to rent me a room in their house and I happily depart the most famous Monastery in all of Ladakh for the unrivalled warmth and comfort of a family hearth.

This two-day Hemis festival depicts a dance-homage to the birth anniversary of Guru Padmasambhava. The dances are accompanied by discordant sounds of brass trumpets that are three meters long. Lamas with red-robes and tall tufted hats bang on drums and crash symbols together as others gyrate and leap to fight off demons. Horned devil-masks and padded brocade outfits come to life as they play out the scripture battles between good and evil spirits. The brilliant colour of the robes and artwork bounce off the seemingly monochromatic colours of Ladakh.
The festival clothes reveal a Tibetan heritage; bright cummerbunds on quilted coats adorn the men while the women wear the elaborate turquoise headdress known as the perak, which is also woven with threads of silver and semi precious beads as well as the odd button.

On my last day in Hemis, I struggle to the top of the pass which takes trekkers over into Hemis National Park. Amazingly, somewhere within that melange of mountains is a vast army of foreign trekkers tackling passes roughly the same height as Mount Cook and sleeping in cosy Ladakhi home stays at night. Home Stay trekking is the latest Ladakhi innovation for trekkers who like to sleep in beds and tourists who have spent too long in Goa saluting the sunsets with a glass. No matter what your level of fitness is, Ladakh will entice even the most dedicated lounge lizards into the greatest outdoor location since Middle Earth. Next time I will bring my boots and leave the landscaping to the first artist, Mother Nature.
First Published: North & South Magazine, October 2006