Revisiting Leh


You ask me, friend, is Leh much different from when you saw it last? Does it look any different? Does it feel different to be there?

It is so, I answer. And yet not.

Hostel where I stayed as a student intern

When I was at Leh earlier, I was a student, seeking to understand the place and help. I had stayed there for two months; in minimal comfort but with conviction that what I was doing would help change the lives of the people there. (This was during my NGO stint during my MBA course with SPJIMR. I had done a primary survey, report and forecast of the energy needs of the Ladakh region with two of my course mates in the months from March to May 2006 with the Ladakh Ecological Development Group, that was to be given to the J&K govt.)

Life was not easy. I got a small taste of what people had to endure in greater magnitude during the colder months of the year. Winter had bleached Leh when I had landed there, and Spring’s ministrations were still a couple of weeks away. I stayed in a hostel with no heating facilities. At nights, I slept under blankets, almost as thick as the mattress I lay on, so I woke every morning with a backache. The only hot water supply was through a solar water heater in the yard – one had to break the ice in the tank, fill a bucket of icy chill water, pour it mug by mug into the inlet and wait 10 minutes till warm water trickled out. The heater would fail to warm water after two buckets, and one had to wait for another couple of hours of sunlight till we could use it again. The two buckets of hot water were to be shared between 6 people, so we picked different days to bathe so that one could have at least a full bucket of warm water. We did our laundry in cold water, and frequently found the clothes left to dry in the morning starched stiff with ice by the time we returned in the evening, almost like cardboard. The only way out was to leave them for another day and hope the sun would shine and it wouldn’t snow. Sanitation facilities were basic, and there was no lights in the washroom, which meant they were almost impossible to use at night (am I lucky that I didn’t suffer from an upset stomach then!) Dinner was a daily dose of a stew of potatoes with a couple of other vegetables thrown in, bland, and had with rice or roti.

But what fun it was!

The romance of adventure was high, and every inconvenience was laughed away. We felt we were at the outpost of civilization itself, watching man wage war with nature every day. Life was tough, extremely so, but people’s approach was simple – always fight back.

So what if it snowed and covered the roads most of the year? Use snow plows and clear the snow. Day after day after day, till Winter shied away.

So what if fuel itself froze in the vehicle tanks, even with anti-freeze? Light fires under the tanks to warm the fuel, but get the vehicles moving (This, I kid you not. They do it there.)

And so what if there was no grid to supply electricity? Build micro-hydel plants to service the electricity needs of villages (a village could be just 3 houses in proximity in a remote corner of the desolate land) or use solar panels to get enough to keep one light shining in the house.

I went to some of the most inaccessible places in Ladakh with a guide and a questionnaire – what do they use for their energy needs, what would they require, what livestock did they have, did they have light and heat through winter – as did a couple of my course mates. I enjoyed the warm hospitality of strangers I had visited during the survey. I saw verdant locations unvisited by tourists and untainted by urban trash. And returned each day to type data in with glove-clad numb fingers, warming myself with small vodka swigs. Yes, the adventure was heady.

We compiled our report, presented it to the NGO, said our goodbyes to our local friends and boarded the flight back.

I kept in touch with a couple of friends we had made at Leh for a few months. With passing days, our attempts to keep in touch disappeared like melting snow. All I had were innumerable photographs, blogs I had written when I was there and stray conversations urging friends to visit Leh and experience the wonder.

I graduated. I got a job. I lost it during the recession. I got another job, and decided that I would pour all my energies to become irreplaceable there. I worked weekends. I grew comfortable with work, and with solitude. And Leh became a topic that, if touched upon during conversation, would be left alone with an exhortation on my part that everyone should visit it once in their lifetime.

Three years and two months after I left Leh, I got a call from a good friend.

Music festival to be held at Leh in August. They have a good lineup of artists. I’m going . Want to come? We’ll get a few others in as well.It’ll be fun. Try to make it. Try. Try hard.

The music festival was not key for me.

Leh was.

Would it still be the same?

I have visited a few tourist places twice. The wonder of the first visit decayed to indifference in the next. Almost always.

Could I risk the same with Leh? Wasn’t it better to leave it preserved, however incompletely, in my memory as a quaint location where I had spent some wonderful moments of my youth than to shatter the illusion by visiting and finding that it had mutated into a regular commercial destination with tourists swarming the place, littering away at will, posing for photos, everywhere, and tearing into any new memory I wanted to create with their cacophony and bustle?
I had changed over the last three years. Would Leh have changed? Would the way I saw it change? Would it bore me?

But I knew I had to see it again.

I did not want to later probe into my friend’s recollections of the place, trying to match them with mine. I wanted to see Leh again, even as an indulgent tourist.

I had to go.

—-

As the plane began to circle over Leh airport, memories began to thaw.

The airport looked the same from above, but the mountains surrounding it were denuded of their mantle of snow. Even at a height, I could make out vast stretches of green below, a sign that Spring had laid her welcome touch to the landscape.

We landed smoothly, and the first thing I noticed when I stepped out was that it was warm. It must have been around 20-25°C, a temperature range that I never experienced in my first visit. It was a warm welcome.

When I had landed in Leh the first time, I knew almost nothing about altitude sickness. (Difficult to believe, but true.) I remember a quick seizing in my lungs when I rushed around to get my luggage, but my breathing returned to normal when I stopped for a couple of minutes and did nothing.

Take it easy, we were told, and we would be fine.

We took it really easy the first couple of days. We ended up fine.

This time around, a couple of my friends (there were 7 of us traveling finally) had researched much about this, and knew much about what could go wrong and what preventive measures were to be taken.

There was one way to beat altitude sickness. A pill called Diamox that would allow better oxygen absorption in the blood. Prescribed by numerous blogs.

Others popped it, but I kept away.

I had survived Leh with no ill effects once. I could do it again.

As we drove to our hotel (Hotel Lasermo: I recommend it for the splendid hospitality of its staff, all without the cloying or implied demand for tips that mar service even in many of the good hotels. Which led to us tipping them heavily when we left. Isn’t that how it is supposed to work actually?), the streets seemed fresher. Tourist season was yet to start when I had come in earlier. This time, I was in during prime tourist season.

Many of the shops that had been shuttered down during winter now sold trinkets, embroidered T-shirts, pashmina shawls or buddhist music and chants. Airtel and Aircel had slapped on their branding in a big way; most shops still shuttered bore logos of one of these. There were local people on the streets and in the shops, there were vendors from Srinagar and Jammu, there were foreign tourists sauntering around, there were bikers thundering through the streets on their Enfield Bullets. The market place was alive!

Click for more pics of Thikshey monastery

We set out to see Thikshey monastery, Shey palace and a few other sight-seeing spots in and around Leh after the mandatory day of repose. Thikshey still awed me. But this time I had a better camera and could take good pictures (biggest demerit of my student stint – I only had a 3.2MP point and shoot camera to take pictures)

After a full day of sight seeing, we stopped at Shanti Stupa in the evening.

Shanti Stupa overlooks the LEDeG hostel where I had stayed in 2006. On a whim, I asked

Click for more pics of Shanti Stupa

the others to proceed to the hotel. I would visit the hostel and walk it back.

I pushed open the gate to the hostel to see people loading a truck with equipment.

Kaun chahiye?

Pehle LEDeG me kaam kiya tha. Isi hostel me rehta tha.

A familiar head poked out of the rear of the truck – Sonam bhai!

Sonam bhai was one of the drivers of LEDeG who had taken us around during the survey, and later on a sight seeing visit to Pangong Tso, the lake that lies along the India-China border.

He recognized me and smiled. I gave him a quick hug. Hostel dekh sakta hoon?

Yes, of course. But things have changed.

I could see that. The yard where we had used the solar heater was green all over – they had planted vegetables there. The solar heater was replaced by a better one and moved away towards a side, so it was easier to carry precious buckets of hot water to the bathroom. A new conference room was being built next to the hostel, but the construction had stopped because they were facing temporary funding problem for the roof, and the mason had returned to his village to farm. There were a few more amenities in the hostel, but the rooms where we had slept had no beds now; they had been moved elsewhere.
Kunjis, the lady who used to cook for us when we were there came to greet me. She looked a lot older. The skin on her cheeks was sun-burnt, and her crow’s feet had stretched. She enquired about the others, then offered to make tea for me.

I asked for butter tea, something unique to Leh.

Come in three days, and I’ll make it for you. Surely. Get your friends along. No one makes it in the city. They’ll remember the butter tea I make.

I thanked her and left, knowing that it would not fit in our plans. I walked along the same path that we used to take to the LEDeG office where we used to work during the day. When we had arrived, the office was bustling with people during the day, but everyone left at 4PM before it got dark. I had bought and fixed the first light bulb in the office.

There was a stream that we used to cross on our way; its gurgle could be heard a distance away. In case one was thirsty, all one needed to do was drink straight from a small pipe sticking out of it. Now, the stream looked dirtier, and I noticed many Aquafina bottles lying amongst the rocks. Even the tenor of the gurgle seemed muted.

It was around 4PM that I came to the LEDeG office. The office overlooked a small lake. During winters, the lake would freeze and become a venue for international ice hockey. When we had first arrived at the LEDeG office, the lake a thin ice wrapper over it, through which we could see submerged plants. A favourite pastime of mine was to throw pebbles into the lake, watch them break the ice with a small glup! Sound as lake sucked them below (throw small ones, and the it would sink neatly and not leave cracks in the ice radiating from its entry), and see the accompanying ripple pushing out against the transparent ice cover on top. The ripple couldn’t crack the ice from below, and would spread like a stain on the carpet. This time around, the lake had overgrown shrubs in it, and the water was greenish.

I pushed against the LEDeG gate, but found no familiar face in there. Everyone I knew had moved on, and the new crowd seemed least interested in indulging my nostalgia. I glanced through a visitor’s book lying there – it seemed I was not the only one who felt no interest on part of the staff to engage with guests – a lot many comments scrawled stated that they had heard about LEDeG, but found it desolate when they visited.

I hear LEDeG, once much respected for installing micro-hydel plants and helping villages be self sufficient for their water and power needs, had gone through a rough organization phase, and many good people had left. But they have a new program coodinator/director, and he’s working on getting things back in shape.

As I walked back from the LEDeG office to our hotel, I realized how small Leh market is. You could walk around the main market road, and the parallel one-way (titled useless wali road!) in a half hour. And yet during the two month stint we found something interesting almost every day we had come by to have a cup of tea. Be it the local annual procession of monks and locals to burn an effigy of evil during spring, or the night time vigil held in memory of the panchen lama, or just observations about local habits – everyone eats Centerfresh chewing gum here, specially ladies; locals raise their arms when they want a lift and do not stick their thumbs out; jawans posted here take photographs of themselves with an arm raised, as if over a invisible lady’s shoulder, and then get a Bollywood heroine of their choice inserted in the slot (Kareena Kapoor was a hot favorite in 2006); you could buy Canada Dry soft drinks and Campco Treat and Temptation chocolates in Leh (how many even remember those brands from the past?); locals refer to people from Srinagar as aryan nasal (meaning: from the aryan strain) versus their own pahadi origins; everyone not from Ladakh was from Down (as the rest of India was referred to); you walk to the left of a stupa on the road and avoid passing it from the right; you always swing a prayer wheel clockwise while chanting Om mane padme hum – Leh kept something new for us to learn and explore every day.

Click for more pics of Leh city

I was seeing a different Leh as a tourist, almost as if I had called on a scholar, and found him playing with street children outside. There was a crispness of business ardour mixed with old world charm, as every hotel, vendor, fruit seller and trinket hawker tried to make the most of the soon-to-fade tourist season. But all of it was in Leh fashion – no one tried cornering tourists to buy their products, no beggars waited outside stores to catch small change that the merchant may have handed back and the buyer could flick out; no one pushed pamphlets at pedestrians exhorting their hotels or services; no garish banners were slung over shops; no one tried charging higher than MRP rates for packaged goods. Old ladies sat on market pavements with boxes of apples and apricots in front; you could scoop one for taste and buy a dozen if you liked it, thank you very much. Trinket vendors sat with their wares all displayed on sheets, silently praying as they rolled small prayer wheels. Hotel owners welcomed you to seat yourself, and cheerfully informed you that half the dishes listed in the menu may not be available, and that beer would be served in teapots to pour out from, but would be original Kingfisher. Children grabbed you on the street, raising a finger indicating one, no, not to take one rupee to buy a chocolate, but to get one photograph taken from the camera dangling around your neck. And people trusted you (I had paid a 50% advance for a white-water rafting trip that we took. I received no calls to pay up the remainder even three days after we trip. When I walked in to pay the balance on the final day of my stay, it was accepted as if it was natural that I would end up paying on the day that was convenient to me.)
The garb was different, but the spirit was the same. This was still the Leh I had learnt to love.

Leh itself was a revelation to my friends, as was how time felt here. Here time itself felt like the gentle falling of sand in a sand clock; there was a soothing continuity of motion and a predictability in the pace of events, unlike elsewhere, where the jerky movements of the hands of the clock felt as if they were slicing away moments of your present with unerring precision.

Let’s visit Pangong lake, I told them. That makes Leh itself look hurried.

Pangong Tso, beautiful Pangong Tso!

Stretched over a hundred kilometers long and over five kilometers wide, Pangong lies

Click for more pics

north-east of Leh in the Changthang area, along the Indo-China border. Around 25% of the lake’s length lies in India, the rest  in China. Pangong Tso was one of the few areas that I had not visited as part of my survey. At the end of the project, I had requested a special vehicle so that I could view its splendor for my own. Sonam bhai (the same person I met in LEDeG later) had driven a friend and me there, his tales adding character to one of the most lifeless and desolate areas that I had seen, yet one of the loveliest flourishes of natural art. Pangong Tso seemed to have the grace of a lady; she had to live between the forbidding mountains, but her presence and quiet dignity charmed everyone who visited her. It looked like she wore garments of  a splendid combination of blues; hundreds of shades that were visibly distinct, yet merged with each other to present a continuity of color.

The waters had just melted when I had visited Pangong. It was just before tourist season, so there were no others around when we were there.

Would it be different in tourist season, I wondered. We were almost at the end of the travel season. Would tourist offal blemish the beauty of the lake?

Luckily, the Ladakhi drivers themselves caution tourists they take there to not litter the area, but pick up the trash after them and deposit them in bins closer to Durbuk town. And tourists seem to comply, so the scene is not marred by plastic debris.

Though we had left Leh early, it was almost noon when we reached Pangong Tso. Sunlight skimmed the surface of the lake, making it look as if an alchemist was practicing his craft and had turned the lake to molten gold. On reaching closer, we could see varied hues of blue that were  revisiting the surface after hibernating in winter. This time around, there was also a much smaller lake separated by a slender strip of land from the main lake. This lake was placid, and the water glistened even from afar, as though Pangong Tso had created a small mirror to admire her own beauty. As earlier, Pangong Tso left me with an indescribable sense of awe at the Divine Artist and the rare flourish of colors He used to paint the landscape.
Pangong Tso does that to you. Don’t be surprised. You’ll realize what it is only on seeing it for yourself.

Ladakhis have a belief that once one dies, the soul roams free till it finds another body to inhabit. During this time, it is plagued by evil spirits and seeks a place to hide. Ladakhis make small stone structures by placing a series of flat stones, one of top of the other, making it look like a rough conical tower. This is their own spirits resting place, almost as if they were constructing a small personal pyramid. Everywhere you go, you will find these structures dotting the landscape. They generally place 7-8 stones one on top of the other, but you might come across a rare structure with more stones as well.

I had seen many of these along lakes and gompas when I came last. But I was still battling with faith then, and dismissed the belief as superstition. I still have my battles with faith, but I’ve become more comfortable with the realization that there are many things that rationality does not convince me of, any more than faith infuses belief in me. At times, it is better to float till one understands which way to swim.

Walk down Pangong Tso, and you may come across one such structure on top of a rock by the lake. Yes, that one’s mine. Pangong Tso’s the place I would love to rest when done with my life.

A lot more did happen during the trip. We enjoyed our time at the confluence, watching the electrifying performance by the Portuguese band Terrakota, who created great music from African and European instruments. Talvin Singh played excellent world music, and Mahesh Vinayakan rendered a soulful ‘Vaatapi Ganapatim Baje’. Vedanth Bharadwaj gave new voice to Kabir’s dohas, and Bauchlong drummed up huge energy in the crowds with their beat boxing. We went for a fantastic white water rafting expedition, covering around 28 km of the Zanskar’s length in three hours.

But as I sit down a month after the trip, the strongest memories are still about life in Leh. I may have changed a lot over the last three years, but I still love and appreciate their way of life – just keeping with the basics.

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 current post was written on my second visit.

Read all my travel posts here.

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2 thoughts on “Revisiting Leh”

  1. Hey, This is a very well written blog. I like the way the scenes have been described. It makes me realise that there are so many things I did not know about places in my own country.
    I especially liked the part where you describe how the lake Panang Tso has not been affected by plastic debris. There still hope…. It hurts when you see people messing up places of beauty.

    In case you have anymore of such blogs, will you please email the link to me at swesam21@gmail.com ?

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