Ladakh was always on my bucket list for obvious reasons. The dry & mighty Himalayas, the pristine monasteries & the stark landscapes. What I did not know, was the perils of travelling at high altitudes. Lungs give away to breathlessness, vehicles break down, aerated food packages get deflated & the stamina that pretty much goes into hibernation. There is no way to fool the altitude and it is one of the biggest reality checks that you can put your body through. So this trip was about discovering the beauties of nature & my body too. However what touched me the most on this wondrous trip to Ladakh was its people. Simple yet shrouded in beautiful complexities. Right from their faces to their lives, everything about these people is full of contrasts. I am sharing a few lives with you. Some imaginary, some real. That is how I go about life, observing people & forming delicate, trivial details in my mind.
Wrinkled In Time
I was resting on a hill after a steep climb. She came & quietly sat next to me like she has known me for ages. I looked at her, lost in her finely wrinkled face & light brown eyes. I smiled at her. She grinned back toothlessly & asked me if I had a crocin (a medicine to cure headaches). The nearest pharmacy being a five mile hike up & down a steep hill.
Not a hiker, a climber
Meet Mr. Salim from Sonamarg. He has an interesting life. He reports early at base camps to make sure the tents are packed, supplies are aplenty & the horses are well fed & watered. He does all this by tapping & waving his walking stick around the camp. He looks amused at people who are struggling with unpitching tents & packing backpacks. There is a grace in his gaze. He is not a hiker but definitely a climber.
Mind your language
Complete ‘Mind your language’ happened to me.
Traveled from Leh to Sonamarg via Kargil, Drass with a Buddhist Swiss lady who loved samosas & ladakhi matar (apricots); a young man from Lucknow who only spoke Hindi & was in awe of the emotion the Swiss lady put when saying ‘Really’ and was amused why people would come to a place where there was low oxygen; a Kannadiga with very poor Hindi speaking skills & who excitedly introduced the Lucknow man to the virtues of rice eating; and a Ladakhi couple with a royal name – the man spoke Hindi & the woman was a mute spectator – and they had never traveled beyond Srinagar but still looked satisfied with life.
I did a fine job of translating conversations from Hindi to English & back for the benefit of respective parties. I was also the official photographer & now have the job to email photos to crazy sounding email ids!
The Ladakhi ‘Matarist’
I noticed her from a distance while looking for a lens cap at a camera shop at the Leh market. Her quirky hairdo is what caught my eye. I imagined her to be a curt, cool woman who was going about selling Ladakhi matars with German precision (an orange sweet fruit). She turned out to be just that as I moved closer to her to take a better a look & a good picture. She knew I was there to click her & she was quick with a business proposal, “Buy 500 grams of Ladakhi matar & you can take a photo of me.” The deal turned out sweet for me because the matars were delicious!
The Monk who blew bubbles with his chewing gum
The drunk shopkeeper
He sat at a flea market selling Ladakhi artifacts. But he was hardly selling. While the others in the flea market jostled to make a profitable sale. He took long sips from a raw wooden mug, his eyes very apparently drunk. Effortless & yet observant. Noticing everyone but reaching out to none. The shadows from the sunset leaving half his face dark & the other red.
Friends from different times
Open yet close
The Hemis monastery was shut for lunch & this monk moved around swiftly. He looked like a man with a purpose. I hesitated to ask him when the monastery opens again, he stopped & explained. I tried to chat, find out more about him & his life. He smiled & moved away.
On a mission
The solider was moving between the huge green army tents. He got off at Khardung La to click a few pictures to send to his family. The family he hadn’t met for 6 months. Even on a break he knew where to point the camera, towards the sky!
Lazing around during their lunch break at the local departmental store. Watching the army officer playing a dusty game of polo. Wishing for time to stop, because this was the closest they got to watching a live sport.
The tea & maggi maker
She travels on a rickety village bus to work at a shop that sells maggi & tea at Pangong Lake. At 13,940 ft above sea level it does not make sense to have complex menus. She keeps tourists warm with the simplest & quickest foods on the planet. While the lake is a wonder of nature for us, for her it is a washing bowl.
An old man’s prayer
He is the head of the family that works in & runs the Shanti Guest House near the Shanti Stupa in Leh. He has seen the hotel grow & a million people come & go after being wooed by the beautiful landscapes of Ladakh. He has aged. He now spends his last days with his prayer wheel at the hotel lawns, watching excited tourists chirping around. Winter is coming, so he is making the most of the summer sun!
The Little Monks
They start early, learning English, Math and Science along with their spiritual education. Though a lot of these kids are second and third generation monks, who know little of the outside world beyond the walls of their monastery other than what they read in their books, there are a few who are abandoned at the doors by parents who can’t afford to raise them. However they end up here, the little ones spend their childhood like any other child – fighting over marbles, running behind footballs and skipping classes.
The Kannadiga In The Middle Of Nowhere
Malyalees are ubiquitous all over the world. Kannadigas aren’t. We ran into a Kannada-speaking Mysorean when our bike broke down in the middle of nowhere, on the ride from Leh to Pangong. We stopped at the World’s Highest Field Repair Camp to get our bike fixed. The army mechanic who fixed it for free turned out to be a Mysorean. Needless to say, Nikhil and he got on like a house on fire.