Ah beautiful morning! Overhanging mist, sunrays filtering through clouds....it was perfect! Our first real morning in Leh.
Transport for the day was coming over at 9.30 am. We were taking it easy today. Sites and places around Leh had been chosen for the excursion. Nothing strenuous.
So far, none of us had felt light headed or had a hangover due to the rarified air. I took to Leh like a fish to water. Father concluded that my well being was due to the fact that there was nothing in my head to begin with.
It’s great to have indulgent parents like mine. I was the last one up and had a leisurely bath. Breakfast was even better! I remember having close to 4 toasts, with a thick omelette and tossed in a few pancakes as well! Mother chided me for the extravagance. We were, after all, returning for a lunch break in between the tours. I gave her a pained look. To wash it all down finally, I had excellent black tea. Its fairly common to drink this along with hot water in those parts. Since milk is hard to digest they prefer it black and sipping hot water helps digestion. I did not notice the staff, particularly Guru, mark my love for culinary delights.
Soon the car arrived. The driver was there alright, with his Maruti van all spruced up and ready. He had a ready smile and addressed me as ‘Baby’. (Now that, I have not been called for a very, VERY long time.) The van’s interiors were tastefully done up. The seats were covered with locally made soft carpets which we found very comforting. There were sacred symbols hung, drawn and stuck to various areas of the vehicle. He reiterated the itinerary for the first half of the day and we set off.
Leh is spread over a large area. Pockets of greenery are separated by huge barren mountains. (see Juxtaposed!) All areas are well connected by roads. The main bazaar in Leh is limited to a few streets and most of the hotels are located near-abouts. The civil lines, the airport, shops and residences make up the rest of the locality. The other green areas are mostly fields and residences. In between all these are the ubiquitous military establishments.
Our first halt was at the Sindhu River. This is the Indian name for the Indus River, the lifeline of the Indus valley civilization . This civilization flourished circa 3000 to 1700 BC on the river valley. The Sindhu flows northwest through Ladakh into Gilgit (Pakistan) , just south of the Karakoram range. A beautiful Ghat has been constructed at the location for convenience of the worshippers. The Sindhu Darshan Festival, to celebrate the River, is held annually every June at Leh and Ladakh.
It was just the three of us at the Ghat and the scene was mesmerizing. The water was turbid and cold. The river flowed silently since we were on the plains. The stillness was audible. We spent a good 20 minutes taking in the landscape. As far as eyesight reached, all we could see were barren mountains and a criss-cross pattern of dusty roads. Around the river bed was a jungle of thorny shrubs called Seabuckthorn. Its little orange fruits yield a vitamin rich juice. This is supplied to the troops on duty in Leh and elsewhere due to its nutritious nature and long shelf life.
Back on the road, out next stop was at the Shey palace. This is the ancient capital of Ladakh (now it is Leh). The Namgyal dynasty that ruled Ladakh has a few palaces in that region. The palace is situated on a small hill and also houses a Gompa (monastery). We reached the top after a 15 minute climb. A part of the palace was under repairs and therefore inaccessible. A huge wooden figure of Buddha is installed in the Gompa and polished in gold to perfection. Decorative and sacred symbolism is apparent in the woodwork and the tapestry. This was common to all the other Gompas we saw, with a few differences in the structures.
A common feature at all places of worship is the little stone pillars. About 7 to 8 stones are carefully balanced on top of one another to make the pillar so that in afterlife, you can come back to rest in its shadow. How very practical!
Mother insisted that she would need a menhir to accommodate herself if it came to that.
A visit to the Thiksey monastery warped up our pre-lunch tour. This is one of the ancient and grandest monasteries in the Ladakh region. They have constructed a new monastery near the old one at the summit. The seated Buddha is resplendent in all his finery and the serene face reflects the ancient wisdom.
As a student of history I've often observed that if you want to know the temperament of a people, just study the dominating religion of that region. Buddhism preaches peace and lays down a practical code of conduct. The simple lives of the people and their straightforward ways can take you back a couple of centuries. They do what comes naturally to them and with all their heart. Agriculture and tourism are the principal means to earn a life and they never forget this.
Thiskey offers a beautiful view of the surroundings and the residences of the monks are scattered all around. We prayed in peace for sometime before a group of tourists entered the sanctum. It was nearing lunch time, so we left to return to the city.
A friend had recommend the Tibetan Kitchen if we wanted to sample the local fare. We headed straight for it. This restaurant is popular with tourists and has a variety of Momos on offer. We had some of those with tangy hot soups.
It was siesta time. Our jolly guide would be back by 3.00 pm to take us to the rest of the places.