Tuesday, 19 October 2010
Across the Roof of the World
A Journey in Ladakh
Originally Published in The Epoch Times, 08/09/10
The wheels of the truck were inches from the edge of the road. Stark rust-coloured cliffs rose on either side, and far below an angry grey stream churned between tumbled boulders. I swallowed hard and looked up at the clear blue sky as we edged around the hairpin bend, shifted gear, and began to roll towards the valley floor.
I was riding into the heartlands of Ladakh, India’s wildest mountain fastness, in fine style – installed in the luridly decorated cab of a Kashmiri cargo truck. Thirty minutes earlier the driver, Hussein, and his assistant Altaf, had taken pity on me, waiting for a bus at a desolate roadside, and had stopped to give me a lift. By accepting their offer, I now realised, I had put my life in their hands – this road was little more than an overgrown goat path, edging along cliffs above bloodcurdling chasms.
My nerves were on edge and my eyes were fixed firmly on that narrowing strip of sky all the way down to the bottom of the gorge. We crossed the murky Indus River on a rattling suspension bridge and the road to Leh opened ahead, a strip of smooth blue tarmac cutting through a landscape the colour of wild horses. I breathed easy at last; Altaf smiled and patted me on the shoulder, reached under a pile of blankets at the back of the cab and took out a ripe melon. As we bowled eastwards with the mountain breeze coming in at the window he passed me slice after dripping slice.
Ladakh lies hard on the Chinese border northeast of Kashmir. The whole region is more than 3,000 metres above sea level, and the two tenuous roads that link it to the rest of India are blocked by snow for eight months of the year. This is a world apart.
Geographically and culturally Ladakh belongs not to the Indian Subcontinent, but to the Tibetan Plateau. Here there are stark, iron-coloured mountains, villages huddled in stands of willows and poplars, and bone-white Buddhist monasteries. The 270,000-strong population are Tibetan Buddhists, and their language is a Tibetan dialect. Indeed, until the turmoil of the 20th century saw old trading routes across high passes abruptly severed, the region had closer links to Lhasa than to Delhi. Today, however, it remains one of the most open and accessible places for visitors keen to see the ancient Buddhist cultures and the striking scenery of High Asia.
Many visitors arrive in Ladakh by air, but I had made my own entry from the west, taking a Jeep across the Zoji La from Kashmir, and making my first stop in the world of Tibetan Buddhism at the lonely outpost of Lamayuru. It was a spectacular place to start my journey through Ladakh.
The monastery here is the oldest in Ladakh, built in the 10th century by the great Buddhist missionary Rinchen Zangpo when Ladakh was ruled as part of Western Tibet. Its whitewashed prayer halls and weathered stupas are slotted among the crags of a rocky outcrop. Mud-walled houses nestle against the lower slopes; faded prayer flags snap in the sharp breeze, and the whole place is adrift in a vast, empty landscape.
I was shown around the monastery – and offered my first cup of salty butter tea (a Ladakhi speciality and an acquired taste to say the least) – by a young monk named Tashi. I spent the night in a simple guesthouse in the village, and the next morning I hitched that hair-raising lift with the truck drivers.
Altaf and Hussein – who were carrying a load of electrical goods all the way from Delhi – took me to Leh, the Ladakhi capital. In the 16th and 17th centuries the town was the seat of the Nyamgal Dynasty who ruled over an independent Ladakh, allied to their Tibetan neighbours. It was only when it was captured by the expansionist Hindu ruler of Jammu – later to become the first Maharaja of Kashmir – in 1834 that the region found itself more closely tied to the Indian scene. Ladakh remains administratively a part of the troubled state of Kashmir today, though many Ladakhis would rather see their homeland ruled directly from Delhi as a Union Territory.
For centuries Leh was a caravan town, a crossroads on a feeder branch of the fabled Silk Road. Yak trains from Tibet arrived to trade pashmina shawl wool with Indian merchants, and long strings of Bactrian camels lumbered down over the passes from the desert outposts of Xinjiang with jade and silks.
Today those old roads are closed, but Leh still has an international buzz. This is the hub of the tourist trade that has grown in the three decades since the Indian government threw Ladakh open to foreign visitors. There are trekkers, culture-vultures, spiritual tourists and mountain lovers in town, and 300 miles from the closest urban centre, it is an outpost of outlandish sophistication marooned in the wilderness, home to the best cappuccinos in the Himalayas.
But despite all this, a hint of the old Silk Road romance remains. A spectacular mud-walled fortress looms over the town; in the narrow alleys the descendants of Turkic traders from Kashgar and Yarkand still do business; and rising across the Indus Valley the white ridge of the Stok Kangri range still flares brightly in the afternoon sunshine.
The final stage of my journey through Ladakh would take me east through a stepping-stone string of monasteries, and across a skyscraping pass towards the forbidden Tibetan frontier. In the hilltop monastery at Thikse, some 20 kilometres from Leh, I shivered in the dawn as the maroon-clad monks lined up for their morning puja ceremonies – a welter of clashing cymbals, booming gongs and rhythmic chanting. There were more stops at more monasteries – Stakna, standing sentinel between the flanking ridges of the Indus plain; Chemrey rising from a nail-bed of poplar trees; and Takthog, slotted against the back wall of a narrowing side valley – and then, riding in the back seat of a hired Jeep, I crossed the dizzying saddle of the 5,289-metre Chang La, claimed to be the third highest drivable pass in the world.
It was downhill all the way on the other side through broken, fractured landscapes where chubby marmots watched the passing Jeep from the stony roadsides. And then my final destination appeared ahead – a long lozenge of bright water under a vast sky.
Pangong Lake, a 130-kilometre stretch of clear, salty water, lies 4,250 metres above sea level. Once it was a junction on ancient trade routes – north towards Yarkand, east towards Lhasa. Today, it is the ends of the earth and a suitably stunning place for the culmination of a Ladakhi adventure.
The Jeep stopped at a cluster of seasonal cafés at the windswept head of the lake and I scrambled alone up the hillside to take in the view. The waters were a vivid turquoise in the shallows, deepening to the colour of lapis lazuli further out. Flocks of delicate, red-legged seagulls – incongruous here in the high mountains – fluttered on the near shore, and across the water a great bank of ribbed brown hills rose. To the east the lake narrowed between rugged buttresses, and in the furthest distance a conspiratorial cluster of snowy peaks huddled. A sensitive international border straddles the lake; those mountains lay deep inside Chinese-ruled Tibet. Sitting, shivering on that windy hillside, I felt deeply grateful for the window into the Buddhist heritage and the wild landscapes of the wider Himalayan world that my journey through Ladakh had given me.
© Tim Hannigan 2010