Friday, August 17, 2007

Big sky country

Great wide open
Leh, Ladakh (India)
My lower back is really, really sore from sitting watching the Dalai Lama all day, my eyes are burning from the arid dusty air and I am too tired to think of a third thing to round out this paragraph. Oh yeah! My nose is full of crusty stuff.

His Holiness is teaching the "Lam Rim" scripture. Because I am sitting in the press section, have yet to hear the English translation. Maybe I will skip over to the "Foreigners" section tomorrow
It is wild to see the Dalai Lama in a Buddhist place. Usually, he appears in predominantly Hindu places and the Buddhists commute in. Here, most everyone is Buddhist. There are easily 30,000 people at every day's teaching.


Man, there is a lot of space out here. And a lot of dust. And a lot of sky!

It reminds me of a Halloween craft we did in kindergarten. We made a "starry sky" picture out of silver glitter, dropped onto blobs of glue, on black construction paper. But too much glitter always comes out of the tube, at first. We had to knock off the excess glitter into the waste can, and what was left was the "night sky." (Later I added a big yellow construction-paper cutout crescent moon.)


The night sky in Ladakh looks like the paper, before we knocked the extra glitter off. There are almost too many stars. I have a hard time identifying large constellations I know. But, a crescent moon rose last night.
Not of yellow construction paper, but a wafer-thin silver sliver.

Air conditioning of the gods

The most fun thing on this trip, so far, was also the cheapest. Returning from the teachings, the entire Choglam-Sa highway is packed bumper to bumper. I have to wait for the crowds to thin, and taxis want an outrageous 250Rs back to town. So, yesterday my German friends and I just hopped on top of a public bus, on the luggage rack. What fun! Who needs air conditioning, overpriced taxis, seat belts? Ten rupees for a panorama view of the valley and mountains. It really was much better than the hot, stuffy taxi stuck down among the exhaust fumes, or sitting inside the crowded bus itself. Of course, we had to constantly duck under the prayer flags that had been strung up across the roads for the Dalai Lama's visit.

Far from the madding crowd

One reason Ladakh does not "feel like" India is that it is just not crowded enough. Not that I am complaining. But at first, I really could not figure out what felt so weird. Almost lonely. Then it dawned on me....it was more like parts of southwest America; Arizona or New Mexico, to be exact.


My friend Gary warned me years ago that all the sensory overload of India would burn a hole in my brain, so that when I finally went somewhere quiet, I would miss the noise and clutter. Gary, you were right. I found myself looking around the relatively empty roads of Leh going, "where is IT?" and realizing I couldn't even define IT.

Another thing that doesn't feel like India is the absence of Hindus. There are a few. But I had been here five days before I saw my first Hindu temple ( a little tiny shrine).
It looks like one of the orange pyramidal ones the BJP put up in Buddhist places, just to say "we're here!"

Leh is the kind of place you can see minarets of a mosque superimposed with
Buddhist chortens and prayer flags, or sit in the Buddhist gompa and hear the Muezzin's call to prayer, and it feels totally normal.

Ladakh List
Definite must-brings for a trip to Ladakh:
1-Sunglasses
2-Sunblock
3-Lip balm, even better, sunscreen lip balm
4-Umbrella, or big floppy hat as sun protection

5-Eye drops - since I wear contacts, the aridity and dust is wreaking havoc
6-Trekking boots or chunky walking sandals
7-Jacket - evenings get nippy, though days are warm
8-Face moisturizer, which you will also have to put
inside your nose to keep it from crusting over, especially at bedtime
9- ORS (Oral Rehydration Salts, available at any pharmacy here for 15Rs). ORS have exactly what your body needs to replace fluids (potassium, sodium chloride etc) and are a literal lifesaver.

10-Lots and LOTS of water. Your water bottle can be refilled for 5Rs at the ecofriendly Dzomsa shops in town. If you feel weird, lightheaded, fatigued and cranky but don't know why, you are probably dehydrated.

11-Flashlight. The power goes out frequently, and if you are lucky the walk home to your guest house will be down a country road with few street lights.

12-Toilet paper. Guest house bathrooms do not have it, but will sell it at an inflated price.

Things that are totally useless here:
1-"Nice" shoes

2-Deodorant - you won't sweat-- or if you do it immediately dries into salt crystals on your skin

3-The talcum powder and astringent that are so needed in humid lower India. Again, you won't be sweating much

4-Tank tops, sleeveless blouses, singlets etc. show too much skin for local standards, and besides, you will either get a sunburn or freeze to death.

5-Your cell phone, unless you have post-paid. In Delhi, they happily sell you (ha ha) a SIM card saying it is good for all India. What they don't tell you is that in Ladakh and Kashmir (not Jammu), you must have a post-paid account; that is, you must be a resident with proof of address for billing. The prepaid cards are no good here. Of course, all tourists and most internationals have prepaid cards.

6-Alcohol. A disaster at this altitude, and not widely available anyway - rightly so.


Also, be warned - Internet is run by a cartel ("Ladakh Cyber Cafe Association") that has fixed prices at an obscene 90Rs an hour ($2.10). Not the place to play around tweaking the widgets on your homepage. And "photo uploading not allowed" - so, sharing the photos of this amazing place is quite difficult.

I appear to have missed all the really big Lama Dances with masks and costumes. In case you want to catch one, here is a calendar for next year.


Jeep 54 Where Are You?
Getting my press clearance to take photos of the Dalai Lama, when I am in a relatively podunk town like Leh or Bodh Gaya, means making friends with the police. Fortunately, this is easily done. I am the only foreign media person at these entire teachings, and probably one of the few the police have met all year.

What's not so easily done is catching the right guy in the office. The Superintendant of Police closed at 4pm (!) and the following day, Friday, was a holiday. God knows why, probably literally - in India, an unexpected holiday usually has something to do with religion. So I had to go to the main police station ("we never close").

It was an adventure but unfortunately, by the time I sat down to write about it last night, the net connections were down. Now, I am too tired. Maybe later.


The intrepid anthropologist in me never tires of poking into people's social dynamics. I discovered that among ethnic Ladakhis, there are both Muslims and Buddhists, and they feel themselves to be quite distinct from the ethnic Kashmiris. "He is
Kashmiri," one Ladakhi Muslim officer hissed to me, pointing out a Muslim guy on the street dressed in stereotypical beard and kurta-pyjama.

The kurta-wearing "Kashmiri" turned out to be another police officer, who helped me to get the pass, after a few bossy questions delivered in the usual accusatory style ("why did you not come earlier??") of the Indian "mainland."


Indeed, a lot of "Kashmiris" seem to have taken refuge here only as a resort from the violence in "Kashmir" proper. And they don't consider this Kashmir. One of the first things the kurta-wearing officer asked me was "Have you been to Kashmir?"

I thought we were in Kashmir, Sir.

"No, I mean Srinagar, real Kashmir. You should leave here immediately and go to Kashmir. Gulmarg, Dal Lake...." Then he started reminiscing about his homeland. Clearly, he felt Ladakh to be a hardship posting.

Lost tribe
I have also spent some time interviewing and photographing the "Indo-Iranian" Buddhists of Ladakh, the Brokpa people. Originally, they came from what is now Pakistan in Gilgit region. They speak a language called Dardi and have been Buddhist for many centuries. The Brokpa are supposed to be the last "Aryan" indigenous Buddhist people. (They actually call themselves Aryan, which in this case, just means originally from Iran.)

Since I can't upload my own photos, here is one cribbed from a Ladakhi tourist website.

The Brokpa traditional dress worn at the Dalai Lama's teachings is really distinctive, and their features set them well apart from the Mongolian-looking other Ladakhis. I am curious about the form of Buddhism they practice; it must date back, at least in part, to looooong ago when northwestern former India (now Pakistan) was Buddhist. Guru Rinpoche, the bearer of Buddhism into Tibet, was originally from Swat Valley, Pakistan.
Tibetan scriptures still refer to that area as "Ugyen" or "Oddiyana."

I went to the biggest bookstore in Leh looking for a book about the Brokpa. "Who?" said the Kashimiri Muslim guy at the desk. I pointed to a photo of one on a postcard (sold as proof of quaint tribal life in Ladakh).


"Oh, the Aryans? No, no books about them. Something-something in various books here and there, but nothing just about them." If they don't have it here, they don't have it anywhere.

Maybe no one could talk to the Brokpa. All the other foreigners take pictures of them from a safe distance with powerful zoom lenses. I guess there is one advantage to having a cheap camera...you are required to make contact with your subjects.

1 comment:

Linda (Sama) said...

HA! riding on top of a bus sounds exactly what I would do! I wouldn't think twice about it -- not bad for an old broad like me.....

love the post. my teacher Gehlek Rimpoche also teaches the Lam Rim....

take care and be safe!