The Ladakh Survey begins


“Darling I love you, but not when you’re so fast.”

The Border Roads Association comes up with some innovative quips to make drivers aware of dangers of driving fast.

“It is better to be Mr. Late than Late Mr.” went another one.

I doubt many drivers read these as they speed along the roads, but it’s nice to see some humour in boring ol’ road signs.

I saw many of these along the way to Changa village, where we began our primary data field test today. According to the district statistics, Changa has around 50 households and a population of around 300 people. It is situated around 40 km from Leh, near an army embankment by the Indus river. Meherzad had to work on a report for LEDeG, so the rest of us set out, armed with copies of the questionnaire. We were accompanied by a translator, Karma, and our driver.

Unlike the hills I see from the hostel, the mountains along the way were untroubled by snow. They formed a long chain along the way. I was sleepy due to the heavy lunch we had along the way, and I allowed my imagination free rein. I could make out a huge lizard with multiple appendages and a long tail along the stretch, while another section resembled a snake’s maw open to swallow whatever came along the way.

Having driven for around a half hour, the road looped around a mountain. The mound seemed like any other while we approached it, but when we looked at the other side, there was a huge monastery on it. The Thiksay monastery seems to have sprouted out of the very mountain, so well settled it is. Seeing the bounty of smaller buildings dotting the hill, it seems as if someone deep within the mountain tried popping up structures from within for practice before managing to thrust up the monastery on top of the hill.

The trees, which so far had been a sparse attachment to the landscape, now grew more numerous and maintained a well-disciplined one-arm distance between themselves as they outlined both sides of the road. Most trees in Leh are of two types. One kind has a long trunk tapering into a pointed keel on top and try spearing the sky with their great lengths. The other variety looks like the skeleton of a pine cone. Numerous branches grow out of the trunk at a height of about 7 feet but they all curve towards the centre, and seem as if a cage is perched on a stand. As we passed by, I noticed that these sentinels along the way seemed to touch themselves up with green over of the bare brown of their clan as we drove along.

I guess the ‘drink more water to have good skin’ funda holds for trees too, as I soon discovered the reason for the pigmentation. A curve later, the road now had the mighty Indus river for company. As if in keeping with the harmony of its surroundings, the Indus also flowed along peacefully. A couple of metal bridges spanned its width as we came upon an army settlement.

Changa lies on the other bank of the river, and I noticed a hydel power project as we crossed over. We judged that the project would supply some power to the village in addition to the army. We parked at the centre of the village around 1:30 PM, and decided to split up for the survey and meet up at 3:00 PM. Lalit and Karma walked east, while Johnny and I took the south. Sanjiv and Rohit went northwards with our driver, Tashi.

Johnny and I tried our luck with a well-to-do house, but the lady was hesitant in letting us in as we were strangers, so we moved along. The lady of the next house was just stepping out with a wicker basket on her back to collect firewood, and she pointed us to her neighbour before marching off. The neighbours’ house seemed to offer some promise, as we saw mounds of cowdung cakes stacked along the wall, speaking of large energy requirements. But we only found two old ladies there whose ears had never encountered the sound ‘bijli’, so we scouted the area for another respondent. After a few minutes walk, when we encountered many dzo and dzomo (the female dzo) and sheep but no humans, we came across a man working on his farm. Luckily for us, he spoke Hindi – we later learned that he had been in the army – and was glad to have someone to talk to. We managed to get the answers for most of our questions without making it sound too grueling, so Johnny and I patted ourselves on our backs and filled up our first survey questionnaire. It was almost 3:00 PM, and though we were way below the target of four respondents, we started walking down towards our vehicle. Luck smiled at us again and we found an elderly man dressed in the traditional Ladakhi robe walking the same way. This gentleman, we learned, was pretty well to do with around 50 carnals of land (I don’t know the conversion yet, but we were told it was a good bit of land) and a son in the army. He had his own private dung factory – two donkeys reared just to eat grass and dung it out so that he could use it as manure in his fields – and a dzomo for milk. Most the houses in the village had electricity for a few hours every night during winter and for most of the day during summer, he claimed, and many of them had LPG cylinders.

Our data collection done, we met up with the others and found that they had fared much better. Having someone speak the local tongue helps people open up much easier, and LEDeG does seem to enjoy a good reputation for helping the village by granting a few individuals jersey cows. Lalit and Karma managed to garner responses from three households, and also had tea in two of them, while Sanjiv and team had covered four households, and had had butter chai in one of them. Butter chai is a specialty of this reason. As the name suggests, it contains butter and tea, but it tastes like tomato shorba. The taste is quite pleasant, though it does not seem as if one is consuming tea.

Karma suggested that we take a small detour to visit a monastery in the hills nearby, which we readily agreed to. Tashi took a path which seemed to take us right into the mountain ranges.

The temperature kept dipping as we rose, and I glimpsed what seemed like large patches of foam on a nearby riverbed. A few turns later, we came to the river again and found that the river itself had frozen! A sheet of white ice stretched along the length of the bed with just a few boulders poking through. As I looked up from the river, I saw an entire village hidden within the mountain ranges. Houses seemed to have germinated from seeds on the hillside and clung to the earth along the mountain slopes. Overlooking the settlement was the Hemis monastery, which housed a seven foot gold statue of Buddha. Around 15 monks of various ages sat within the monastery compound reading from their scriptures. The youngest of them would not have been more than 10 years old, and he peered excitedly at us from the first floor balcony. The monastery itself had wonderful murals adorning the interiors. A huge demon clung on to a circle which contained various animals within its circumference in one, while a plump lord with a dragon belt was seated with a huge rat in one hand and a spear in another. Each of the murals obviously had a story to it, but we were running short of time and had to leave. Karma promised to get us a CD explaining the artwork in the temple later, and we bid ‘julley’ to the priests.

While coasting along back to the city, I observed another sign by the Border Roads Association. This one read – Ladakh. The jewel in the crown of India!

After this trip, I fully concur with the sentiment.

In 2006, I spent the months from March to May in Ladakh. Six of us from SPJIMR had chosen to do our summer project there, working on understanding and forecasting energy demand and supply for the region. It was an incredible experience. As part of the project, we travelled across Ladakh for primary surveys. The posts below were written during the visit.

I couldn’t, however, get Ladakh out of my mind. I visited Ladakh again in 2009 with friends to enjoy the now-discontinued Confluence music festival. The post on the second visit:

Read all my travel posts here.

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