I had hated everything about Delhi from the moment I had arrived in the deserted Arrivals Hall and found no one there to meet me as the airport had been closed due to the imminent arrest of a holy man arriving that morning. When I asked the armed guards if I could re enter the airport if I went outside in search of my group the monosyllabic answer was, “No.” So, for a while I wandered around like a lost sheep confused by the almost total lack of people meeting passengers from flights before deciding to venture outdoors. As I pushed open the door a wall of heat hit me and a cacophony of sound rang through my head, a rabble of people stood behind a makeshift barricade brandishing signs and, behind them, I finally saw the one marked ‘Exodus’.
Natasha had tried to warn me about Delhi but I thought she had been exaggerating. The assault on the senses of overpowering heat, noise and smell did not abate all the time we were in the city. On the drive to our hotel I could not even tell which side of the road they drove on. Every where there were the yellow and green motorised rickshaws, battered cars and motor bikes. Some of the motor bike drivers wore helmets but none of their pillion passengers which were often children or women and babies. One woman was breast feeding her baby as the motor bike swerved through the traffic driven by a man whose turban was secured by a cloth tied under his chin. Horns blared constantly and drivers seemed to think so long as they were sounding their horn they had automatic right of way. Bicycles and tricycles, some with trailers, wove between the cars and rickshaws as horns sounded and people shouted. Our drivers battled through the chaos taking us to our hotel which was bland and featureless but thankfully air conditioned. Our host for the day was Valerie who explained a bit about Delhi and which places were worth visiting this afternoon or after the trek when we would have a day to explore the city. She also told us about Leh and that there would be no mobile phone reception in Ladakh as foreign sim cards were blocked. Also, the electricity supply would be unreliable and almost certainly no access to the internet which had been down for the last month. For the first time we were told about the luggage restrictions for the flight to Leh and as we were supposed to have no more than 15kg in our hold luggage they helpfully suggested, “ Can’t you juggle it around a bit?” Just how I’d like to know ! I had packed my ice boots, crampons and iceaxe which clearly could not be carried as hand luggage and was already travelling in my trekking boots and wearing as much kit as I could.
After discovering I was the only single female and so had no room mate I retired to my room to sort a few things out before going for a walk later with Andrew, Roger and Mark. Our walk did nothing to improve my impression of Delhi as we picked our way through the filth, took our lives in our hands as we crossed the roads and tried to ignore the hassling traders and drivers vying for our trade. Unable to find the suggested market, we passed men sleeping on walls and pavements and some sprawled across their rickshaws as we headed for a park where all the pipework for a massive fountain laid dry in a barren empty pool. Then back to the busy streets where cars and motor bikes were being stripped down in the road, locals constantly trying to get our attention and falling into step with us, talking urgently trying to get us to follow them to their shops. That evening we walked to a very pleasant restaurant where emblazoned across the door was written ‘Firearms and weapons not permitted in restaurant premises’ and one waiter was employed solely to swipe at flies and bugs with an electric fly swat in the front of the restaurant. The food however was delicious and I was introduced to mango lassi, a yogurt based drink, which was to become my favourite cold drink in India. After hardly any sleep we had a meagre breakfast at 2.30am before heading back to the airport for our flight to Leh.
At the airport we discovered that, for some bizarre reason, if you could produce your booking pass to Delhi the luggage limit in the hold would be 20 Kg. Most of us could not find our old booking pass but we all played dumb and luckily eventually we were all loaded with all our luggage.
As we flew into Leh I was surprised to look out over a desolate landscape of brown sandy coloured mountains. I had expected much lusher scenery. In my ignorance I was unaware that Ladakh lies in a rain shadow and in fact is very arid with almost all the water being glacial melt. As Chosphel, our guide, repeatedly assured us,“ No rain in Ladakh.” The only vegetation growing was close to the rivers where there was irrigation. Despite this, the area is self sufficient and each village grows enough barley and vegetables for themselves and brings the excess into the towns to sell. On hillsides there are circular water purification plants and safe drinking water is pumped between villages.
Thankfully Leh was completely different to Delhi. Our quaint hotel with its traditional broad carved lintels over the windows nestled in a peaceful courtyard surrounded by beautiful flowers like hollyhocks and phlox and fruitful apple trees. We could safely walk down into the town on dusty streets through wandering donkeys and cattle, passing dogs dozing in the sun. There were many fewer vehicles but everyone still sounded their horns and military looking policemen blew their whistles for any misdemeanour or to get your attention.
After breakfast we retired to our rooms to rest having arranged to meet in the afternoon to explore the town. Chosphel was immensely proud of his Ladakhi origins and enjoyed telling us all about the area. Ladakh is very sparsely populated with only 100,000 people although in the summer months this number swells as people move into the towns to work in the tourist industry and in building and construction. There is a lot of building and road improvements being carried out in the area with workers,many of which are women, coming from far away in search of work.
As we walked into town we passed the ‘water store’ which, Chosphel told us, would freeze in the winter when temperatures would drop to between -20 and -30 and locals could skate on it but now it was full of plants, algae and brown water, completely different to our pristine reservoirs. In the town there was a sterilised water store where you could refill your bottles with safe drinking water for 7 rupees a litre. The administration in Ladakh has done a huge amount of work in providing safe drinking water and are now very careful about waste forbidding the sale of water in plastic bottles in the mountains. On the main street the local women sat on the pavement selling their homeground produce, plump richly coloured carrots, pure white cauliflowers, potatoes, mooli and cabbage. Further down the street we found vendors selling dried fruits, walnuts and some strange smelling dried cheese. Although most of the population are Buddhist, we passed an impressive mosque where later that evening we heard the call to prayer at sundown. We walked to the polo ground and from the top of the wall looked out across Leh and to the mountains far away in the distance and Chosphel pointed out Pallam peak and then further away still, Stok Kangri swathed in cloud. We passed several large prayer wheels which Chosphel explained contained books and prayers and we walked around them always in a clockwise direction turning them gently. Docile dogs slept in the shade but, although placid in the daytime, Chosphel warned us that at night they would hunt as a pack and after dark it was advisable to carry a stick to ward them off. No animals can be killed and so charitable neutering programs tried to keep the numbers down.
We ate early that evening and, in an attempt to adjust to the time difference and overcome the confusion over our recent short nights and early starts, retired to bed soon after. I woke several times in the night but felt reasonably rested by the next morning. We were meant to meet in the courtyard for breakfast but despite Chosphel’s promise of ‘no rain in Ladakh’ there had been some rain and the seats were damp so we breakfasted indoors. The breakfast choice included omelettes with any combination of plain, cheese, onion and tomato. Partly out of devilment each person seemed to order a different variety and then to add further confusion there came the choice of various pancake fillings which included Nutella much to Sally’s delight.
We were to spend 3 days in Leh sightseeing and absorbing the local culture. At over 3,500 metres it was effortless acclimatisation which stood us in good stead for the trek as well as a great opportunity for us to get to know each other and gel as a group. Initially I was disappointed to find our group contained four couples as I was concerned they may not mix with the rest of the group but my concerns were unfounded and everyone integrated well. The first couple were Nathan and Jen who both worked in the tourism industry, Jen was employed by Exodus who ran this trip. Mel had done several treks before and was very keen that Simon, her partner, should share her passion and initially she seemed to treat him like a fussing mother always checking he knew what to expect. I assumed she was a fair bit older than him but it turned out his youthful looks were deceptive and he was out of his twenties. Sally and Richard were both great fun and well suited to each other. Richard with his slight resemblance to Prince Harry, dry sense of humour and thirst for crazy adventure like taking part in Cheese rolling in Gloucestershire and Sally who had represented Great Britain in Ultimate Frisbee and taken part in the Pier to Pier swim between Bournemouth and Boscombe. Sally did not intend to do the summit because of the exposure but was hoping to reach 5380 metres on Palam Peak. The last couple, David and Katarina were quieter and kept themselves to themselves at the beginning of the trek but as they relaxed were great company. David was English but now living in the Czech Republic with Katarina who bore an uncanny resemblance to my Belgian friend, Annick, in looks, mannerisms and her accent. Andrew and Mark were both solicitors but unfortunately Mark fell ill in Leh and ended up flying home without doing the trek. The second Andrew was a very fit Canadian with loads of summits under his belt and with no hint of arrogance told me he had found Cotopaxi easy ! Trevor was a veteran trekker having been to the Himalayas several times before but last year on this same trip had broken his ankle and now was back to complete the trek. He had done all the sight seeing before and the monasteries held no interest for him now and as our unofficial tour guide kept us entertained by comments such as ‘not much to see here’ and ‘it’s just more of the same’. Ian was our gentle giant despite his appearance and strong northern accent. He often walked alone although no one was ever alone for long as someone would always catch up and chat for a while. Clinton, having left the army but now an army reserve, was also doing the trek as a charity challenge. He was also content with his own company but a very friendly guy with a great sense of humour. He was an inspiration to us all, very organised and methodical cleaning his boots each night and very efficient with his time and energy. At each lunch stop he would eat, then prop himself against a rock, pull his hat over his eyes and catch sleep whenever he could. I had a lot in common with Roger who was separated from his wife and had a 16 year old daughter struggling to find her direction in life. Roger and I often seemed to fall in step together.
I felt very safe in Leh and was happy to wander into the town alone absorbing the atmosphere. The donkeys and cows wandered aimlessly through the streets while the trekkers walked purposefully seeking out the shops but I enjoyed seeing the local people calm and unhurried going about their business with serene dignity. There were several monks in their traditional dark red and orange robes but often wearing designer sunglasses and carrying mobile phones while some older Ladakhi men were clad in the traditional heavy woollen dress tied at the waist which they would wear summer and winter.
On our second day we came out of the hotel to find our 4 wheel drive taxis ready to take us to Shey Palace. On most occasions I would travel in the same taxi with our ex army truck driver who regardless of the weather, always wore a shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a sleeveless pullover. On the dashboard there was what looked like a shrine, blue and white cloths hanging down around a rotating prayer wheel with a photograph of the Dali Lama and bank notes tucked behind it. On route we were amused by the road signs displaying the sense of humour of the highway department with signs giving quaint advice against speeding such as ‘I am curvaceous, go slow,’ ‘Overspeed is a knife that cuts a life,’ and the simple ‘Everything can wait’. Later we were to see, among others, ‘After whisky driving is risky,’ and ‘Life is short, don’t make it shorter’.
On route to Shey Palace we stopped at a large field to see the building where the Dali Lama speaks when he visits Leh and the new bigger, but very similar building being built beside it. Hidden in the trees beside the field we could just make out the Golden Palace where he stays during his visits. Shey Palace was formerly the residence of the royal family before they moved to Stok Palace which can been seen across the valley . Shey means mirror and it was so named because of its reflection in the lake below. The lake is much smaller now but a narrow causeway leads to a small island which is owned by an oracle and where a holy tree grows. All the fish in the surrounding water are considered holy and cannot be caught. With respect to their culture we walked clockwise around the palace passing the maniwall filled with carved stones depicting the six realms. Outside the monastery was a lamp which burned twenty four hours a day. In the past the lamps were kept indoors and burned ghee but as it damaged the delicate copper and gold paint used on the wall paintings they have been moved outside into glass cabinets and now burn oil bought from the markets. Inside there was a massive Buddha statue, one of the largest in Ladakh.
Before setting off to walk to Thiksay monastery, Katarina and few others sought out the local toilet. They opened a heavy wooden door to be faced with a massive pile of excrement as they had not realised they were supposed to climb up the steps and use the ‘hole’ which dropped into the ‘room’ below ! The path to Thiksay was a gentle walk along a track beside a stream passing by willow and poplar trees with tin cans around their trunks to protect the bark from being eaten by animals. Jersey cows lounged in the fields and local women washed vegetables in the stream. A large white spotted butterfly flitted past and dragonflies cruised low over the water as large bumble bees hummed contentedly. We passed small Ladakhi houses all with the ornate carved lintels over the windows and with hay drying on the roof to prevent it being eaten by the animals over the summer months.
At Thiksay monastery, we were fascinated as Chosphel explained more about the philosophy of Buddhism. He explained the wheel of life pointing out the different segments, the humans which were the only ones able to move upward, the animals and then the demigods who were usually depicted fighting. There were those in heaven who were privileged but knew nothing of life and so could not progress upwards and then hell where their tortured existence included cold, fire and injury from knives but one could not die so the suffering continued. There were also the hungry ghosts with their big bellies and narrow necks so they were unable to satisfy their huge stomachs and were always hungry and thirsty. In the middle of the wheel of life were depicted the pig of ignorance, the bird of desire and the snake of anger and outside, graphic pictures of the stages of human life from birth to old age which was depicted as a person bent double carrying a massive rock on their back. Chosphel also explained the symbolism of some of the paintings such as the two headed bird resembling the learned man who spoke two languages and was a translator and the significance of the seven bowls of water laid before each Buddha and why women draped special lace shawls over the statues and left offerings of food and money. There were statues of many different Buddhas including one of the future Buddha.
We had lunch at Chosphel’s family home where we sat on a slightly raised carpeted area around the edge of the room beside low ornate tables. The shelves across the whole wall behind the low metal stove were full of copper and aluminium pots. The stove was fuelled by dried cow dung and bellows made from animal skin were used to help get the fire going. His sister bought us mint or marsala tea which was a real favourite of Nathan’s and cooked vegetables, yogurt and stone baked bread. We admired his garden where his family grew carrots and potatoes and a few brightly coloured flowers. A stream ran past the house and in it were cups to be washed.
After lunch we drove on to Stakna Monastery crossing a narrow suspension bridge over the rushing Indus. The cab drivers had to turn in the wing mirrors to get through the supports and only one car at a time could drive over the often unsecured slats between the railway sleepers at the edges. We then zigzagged up to the monastery. Here, there is a new Lama just two and a half years old who Nathan and Richard saw being carried by a monk after he had woken up from his nap. On the upper storey of the monastery a ride on car and toys were scattered around. Lamas are chosen according to the ancient books and move into the monasteries with their families. Even if a lama should chose to abandon the monk’s life and leave to have a family he would remain a lama all his life. In the past each family would send one son to the monastery but now the numbers of monks is much lower and many men join the monastery much later but there are still schools for young monks where they learn Buddhist philosophy as well as other subjects including English. At this monastery we saw a statue of the female Buddha, Tara, who is a comfort for children. When children cry mothers will read to them from her teachings and if they are scared children are taught to recite from her books. In one temple we saw the silver stupas containing the remains of the sixth and seventh lamas which is unusual as lamas would normally be cremated, often on the roof of the monastery. As well as ornate statues and amazing wall paintings in this monastery we saw ancient books, the parchment sheets protected by two wooden slabs tied around them with cloth. Some of these were 500 years old, made from handmade paper and some written with gold ink, they were stacked on shelves and once a year would be taken out around the village by the local people. Here they firmly believe these ancient relics belong to the people and they have access to them when ever they wish to consult them.
Monks are much respected but very much part of village life and Chosphel seemed to know most of hem well as he greeted them with a hug and mutual back slapping and they chatted with ease. When there is a death in the family, not only do all the villagers come to offer practical and even financial support, a monk will visit daily initially and then weekly for 49 days to help the soul be liberated from the body and to move on. Monks traditionally can not wear solid shoes as they may kill insects where they walk and should not swing their arms for fear of injuring living creatures in the air. They should walk very slowly with a fixed gaze and their arms still so as not to lose concentration. But sadly they are not always so peace loving, Chosphel told us of a dispute between two rival monasteries which resulted in them being protected by armed guards and visitors having to prove they did not support the opposing one. The wall paintings often depict knives and swords but these were not weapons for fighting but rather for destroying ego and ignorance. Buddhists never pray for themselves as they believe ego is bad and you should only pray for others. When told this, Nathan came up with one of his favourite mountain quotations which is just as relevant to Buddhists, ‘Your ego is not your amigo’. They also believe your karma is only affected by yourself and your parentage has no relevance to your place in the world. Parents are considered merely vehicles to get your body here and your soul is a reincarnation of a previous being.
That evening we ate in an outdoor restaurant bizarrely called ‘Penguin Garden’ where the whole garden was sheltered by an Indian army parachute. Later on the trip we visited a tea house also with a parachute roof. The food was excellent and cheap at about £3 for a good meal. I had developed a liking for fruit lassi having tried mango lassi in Delhi and tonight, banana.
On our third day in Leh we had the opportunity to drive up to Khardung La, one of the world’s highest motorable roads. Mark was feeling rough and did not join us but the rest of us piled into our taxis which today I was sharing with Ian, Jen, Clinton and Chosphel. It was a good road as we steadily zigzagged upwards and were able to look down on Leh and saw men herding donkeys in the valley below us. However as we got higher the weather closed in and it started to snow. Quickly the conditions deteriorated and as some of our cars were skidding the drivers felt we should not continue for fear we would get stuck. Even the Markha Valley group about an hour ahead of us did not reach the pass and were forced to turn back. At our highest point we piled out of the cars and posed for a group photo. Several of us were very cold as we had not anticipated snow but our driver seemed unphased by it and showed no sign of being cold in his usual shirt sleeves and pullover. There were a few snowballs thrown and then we returned to our vehicles which the drivers had skilfully turned round and headed back down to Leh.
Once back at the hotel we found Mark feeling worse than ever and he told us he had decided to return home and not join us on the trek. The combination of being unwell and missing his young family had contributed to this difficult decision. We all felt sad. He was such a genuinely nice person and already we were bonded as a group and disappointed to be losing a member of our team.