India, Days 19-20: Leh

Hello from 11,000 feet! After a day in bed and another day taking it pretty easy, I am finally feeling (mostly) normal again.

As I said, yesterday we took it easy, enjoying the laid-back atmosphere of Leh. I bought a yak wool sweater in anticipation of our 5-day trek (it gets cold up here, particularly at night!). We also had lunch on a rooftop restaurant that provided almost a 360-degree view of Leh. The city is surrounded by mountains – on one side, you see an old palace and fort that dominate the hillside just above town, and on the other side, the stunning snow-capped peaks of the Stok Range. This area is a high altitude dessert, so the landscape is very stark in some ways, but also incredibly beautiful. A big bowl of thukpa (Tibetan noodle soup) was the perfect mountain lunch (not to mention soothing for my recovering tummy).

In the afternoon, we visited an organization called the Women’s Alliance, where we watched a film about development in Ladakh (the region of which Leh is the capital) and efforts to preserve the culture and traditional way of life. The movie was made almost 20 years ago, so it is interesting to experience today how these efforts have been carried out. Traditional Ladakhi life is very ecologically sustainable, and Ladakhi men and women are considered equals (unlike gender relations in many parts of India). This is really the first place we’ve been in India that has emphasized sustainable practices (for example, many places offer water bottle refills of filtered water, and really encourage people not to buy plastic bottles). Despite the pressures of modernization and development, it is clear the Ladakhis understand the value (both intangible and monetary) of maintaining their culture, even as they improve their education and health systems. For example, we set out tomorrow on a 5-day trek, during which we will stay in homestays rather than camping. We will be in a region that is accessible only by foot, with no telephones or internet. Homestays provide tourists the opportunity to experience Ladakhi life and get to know Ladakhi families, while also providing the Ladakhi families with income and also motivation to preserve their way of life and protect their environment (because it attracts visitors). We are really looking forward to the experience, and are trying very hard to be respectful of and genuinely interested in the culture. Some westerners we have seen here treat the area and the local people almost as if they are in a zoo or a museum. We saw several westerners with huge cameras taking pictures, without asking, of women washing their clothes in a stream.  It’s not hard to imagine how that feels from the perspective of those women – as if they are curiosities or quaint but backwards people, rather than human beings to be respected.

During our time in Leh, we’ve also spent time with the friends we made on the bus from Manali. The town is pretty small, so we have run into them many times, sometimes planned and sometimes not. One of the women, Adi, who is from Israel, is coming on the trek with us. The others we have met are from the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, and Britain, and they all seem like really interesting and intelligent people, with the same attitude towards travel in India as we have. It’s been fascinating to hear about their experiences on their travels throughout the country, as well as their perspectives on politics in their own countries and around the world. One thing we discussed is why we haven’t seen too many Americans during our time in India. Most of the westerners we’ve met have been from Britain, Canada, Israel, Australia, Korea, and other European countries, but not too many Americans. We have a few guesses as to why this is the case, but anyone out there have thoughts on the matter?

This afternoon we are headed to a town a few miles away to attend a celebration of the Dalai Lama’s 75th birthday. We’re not really sure what the celebration entails, but I am sure it will be a fun and interesting experience. Then tomorrow we set out on our trek and will be off the grid for a while!

A funny side note (Dante has a lot to write about our ride from Manali to Leh, so I’m helping out a little): All along the Manali-Leh road, there are signs imploring drivers to drive safely. It’s certainly a worthy message, as the road is very bumpy and narrow, so you would not want to drive carelessly. However, the signs sort of take on the tone of life advice, rather than just street signs. There are so many, but I’ll try to remember a few:

“Safety on the road means “safe tea” at home.”

“Peep peep don’t sleep.”

“Be gentle. Mind the curves.” (More innuendo than I would expect from street signs in India)

“Save driving is more horse sense than horse power.”

“Heaven, hell, or Mother Earth: Your Choice”

“A cat has nine lives, but not the one who drives.”

“Be Mr. Late; Better than Late Mr.”

“Don’t be a gama in the land of lama.”

“You may not be superstitious, but believe in traffic signs.”

And my 2 favorites (and by that I mean least favorites):

“Don’t gossip; Let him drive.”

“Darling, do not nag me, as I am driving. Instead, turn your head, and enjoy the nature charming.”

— Adding more on the Dalai Lama’s party —

Okay, so it’s many day’s later now, but we still haven’t talked about the party. It was basically a big picnic in a large open field. Families set up tents, were playing music (some of the teenagers were playing very loud american rap. oh well), and generally enjoying the afternoon. The site of the party also had a home where the Dalai Lama stays when he visits Leh. For the occasion, they opened up the house and we got to walk around inside. It had a nice collection of paintings and statues and many locals were walking around paying their respects.

On the way back our group (the friends that we made on the bus up to Leh) was trying to catch a bus, but it wasn’t coming. We were sitting there looking confused and a monk with a pickup truck asked us if we were going to Leh. We said we were, and he told us to hop in back. So, all 8 of us packed into the back of a small pickup truck and were driven by a monk the 5 Kilometers back to Leh. It was pretty fun… since we made it back alive :)

That night all of us went out to dinner and later in the evening watched the Netherlands beat Uruguay.

4 Responses to “India, Days 19-20: Leh”

  1. Mark

    Just wanted to let you know that we are following along with interest. Can’t wait to see the pictures and hear the stories.

  2. Tony

    Wow. So Google Maps shows dotted lines as the country borders for the area that you are in (Leh). Is this a contested region or are the borders really that unclear? Is Leh technically in Kashmir?

    In terms of Americans, I’m sure a contributing factor is the distance. India is just a whole lot further away from America than it is from Europe. I’m sure there are many other reasons, but that’s probably one.

  3. Dante

    Leh is in the Indian state of ‘Jammu and Kashmir’ (the official name). Leh, however, is part of the region of Ladakh and not contested territory. It is pretty remote though and there are no major roads here, so it doesn’t surprise me that google is confused. We’ll write an update about our trek tomorrow.

  4. Alison Brooks

    Sorry, Dante, but I was laughing out loud reading the stories about the monkeys and bus ride. Seems awful at the time, but oh such funny memories later! And yes I want to be your guinea pig for cooking Indian food. How could you not follow the pooch?! :) And must admit I am VERY jealous reading your description of the Himalayas. So great you are meeting lots of cool folks to travel with. What an adventure. Keep the stories coming!