It had been twenty years since I was in India and I must admit that when the plane touched down in Delhi, my heart was pumping my palms were sweaty and the adrenaline pounding around my body. But this is not a story of Delhi with all the traffic fumes, the hundreds of thousands of homeless street people begging., the bewildering intensity of colours, noise and non stop movement. This is not a story of how Delhi made me feel at home again, after twenty years. It could be a story of Delhi and maybe in the near future you may find that here on Big Smile Adventures latest news/blog, but not now. Now this is a story of one of the most amazing places I have ever had the privilege to visit, travel and explore. This is a story of Ladakh and its beautiful people.
The first thing you notice as you fly into Leh the capital of Ladakh is that it really is a high altitude desert with oasis’ of green running through the valleys as long as there is a river or water system there to support the oasis. This particular oasis you see as you come in on the plane actually happens to be Leh, the capital of Ladakh. A long stretch of green running through the otherwise desolate desert of the high altitude mountains is made up of poplar trees and fields full of crops. Although there are a lot less crops then there used to be but more of that later.
As you walk down the steps of the small plane on to the tarmac the heat hits you, not the clammy stick heat of Delhi but the intense hot heat of the desert. The next thing that hits you is the feeling of light headiness and feeling slightly out of breath as Leh is situated at 3550 mtrs above sea level. And as you wait for your bags to come around, two ladies in traditional Ladakhi clothing come around and give you an immigration/entrance form to fill out this is accompanied by the most wonderful word in the world. ” Julley” Julley literally means – Hello, thank you, please, goodbye and probably any other pleasantry you can think of and it is always giving with a lifting of the hand and the hugest, warmest smile that you will ever encounter on a human face. I have to admit it is the nicest custom and excise greeting that I have ever had entering a country or area.
They call Ladakh the little Tibet and you can see why, with buddhist monasteries dotted every where, prayer flags fluttering on almost every pass and high place and the faces of the people more Tibetan than Indian. Although Ladakh is a part of the state of Jammu and Kashmiri, it is mainly buddhist and does not suffer the same political and violent problems of the Kashmiri side of the state.
Having three days in Leh to acclimatize I took the group walking around Leh and trying to get slightly higher than the altitude of the town itself, this included walking up to the Shanti stupa and the old Leh Palace. Both of which sit at nearly 100 -150 mtrs above Leh town.
Shanti stupa was built by a Japanese buddhist order in 1985 and was opened by the Dalai Lama and it was built to promote world peace. As you start through the gate just outside of fort rd and the mini bazaar, you look up the hill towards Shanti stupa and your gaze falls upon the many old white chortens lining the stairway to the top. Fluttering and rippling in the breeze are the hundreds of lines of the old and new prayer flags. The noise they make as the wind tears at them really makes you believe that they are carrying the prayers up to the spirits of the natural places. Everyone was walking up the steps without saying too much, maybe they could all feel the special ambience of it all, or maybe the altitude was just keeping them silent. Step after step the group took upwards, then stopping to get some air into their lungs. It was only when they stopped walking upwards did they look around and their smiles said it all, two years this group of young girls had been fund-raising to get enough money together to come on this expedition and now they were here in Ladakh. The Shanti Stupa is a very special place that commands your silence and respect and here at dusk with the colours of the sky and the clearness of the views it stole our hearts and sent them to the heavens along with the prayers from the flags still flapping in the wind.
Some of the girls even cried, not of sadness but realisation of the moment, I do not think it had sunk into their consciousness before that they were actually here, before it was just about trying to find somewhere back inside their comfort zone, after being in chaotic Delhi. But here on this peaceful evening, the dream had become true and they were caught in that moment of suspension where nothing else in the world mattered apart from being here at the Shanti Stupa and understanding more than they had ever understood about themselves before. The feeling of peace was absolute and for many of the group it was an almost overwhelming sensation of joy and awakening.
The next day we went up to the old Leh palace which was built-in the 17th century for the King Singge Namgyal and is a miniature version of the Potala in Lhasa. This time we walked through the streets of old Leh and then started making our way along the dirt tract that zig zagged its way up the steep hill-side towards the palace. we had no plan to go inside this was just to get our lungs and legs working again before we headed off on the trek in two days time.
Up and up we walked and some of the girls found it very tough, again there were some tears of realisation and even wonderment of where they were and once again it seemed a very poignant and special moment in the lives of this group. We made our way around the different temple complexes of the palace getting higher and higher. A buddhist monk came racing up behind us to make sure we did not enter any of the temples without paying, but we would not of done that. Life seems very real in some of these places and it actually puts a lot of things into perspective, especially things at home. Here it seemed to be that there was enough space, time and non attachment to really view and study ourselves and to grow from that without putting anything apart from reflection and truth into the equation. It is hard to do that back at home where everything is competing for your time, energy and thoughts. Here in the high desert mountains of Ladakh, we really found the space to breathe, to silently yell to the world that we are alive without being told to keep quite. Here we were able to realise we are human beings that we are all part of natures plan and that living not just existing is part of that plan.