Sunday, August 12, 2007

Mountains of the moon

Lunar landing in Ladakh
Leh, Ladakh (Kashmir)

Joollay (Greetings in the local language) to all from sunny Leh, Ladakh. I can't wait to see my first yak! So far, it's only been donkeys and a few cows on the road.

Everything you have read about the stark moonscape of the surroundings here is true. It seems far too good (ie clean, quiet and peaceful) to be a part of India. You do feel a military presence at the airport, and in parts of town, because of proximity to China, but there is no real tension.

In fact the culture here is so distinct, it took seeing the vehicle license tags that say "JK #" to remind me that in fact, Ladakh is technically a part of Kashmir, that Indian state whose beautiful, lush name is now so associated with strife and violence. Ladakhis (predominantly Buddhist, many of ethnic Tibetan origin, speaking a distinct language) have little in common culturally with Kashmir, and there is a movement to form a separate state within India (Union Territory of Ladakh). It will never happen, IMHO, as for obvious reasons India is not keen to fragment the region further.

The tiny Rinpoche Bakula Airport is easily the cutest one in the land. It resembles a Tibetan monastery's visitor centre. We had to register as soon as we trooped off the plane, but all that meant was filling out a form ("Registration of foreigners, State of J&K) handed to me by a cute little Ladakhi lady in traditional dress. I didn't even have to show my passport.

Here they still employ the old disembarkation method, like in a 1940s adventure movie - we de-planed down a gangplank right onto the runway, surrounded by high winds and dramatic mountains. There's a definite "wow" factor, but we were discouraged from taking photos by the soldiers ("This technical airport ma'am," a reference to the sensitive location). But the soldiers mostly seem bored with their jobs, and amused by all the foreign tourists.

When we flew in this morning over Tibet-like navy blue and grey mountains, with snow peaks in the distance, it was cloudy - had the cozy, cottony feeling of a winter day. I thought I would not be able to see the famous Ladakhi blue skies, and collapsed from altitude (blood singing and heart pumping through my ears, gasping for breath) on my guest-house bed. (Shanti Guest House in Changspa - $5 a day, clean, quiet, family-run, shared bath with hot water only 2x a day. The inside looks like a marble Indian maharajah's bungalow, the outside like an old Tibetan house).

The padlock and key they gave me to lock up my room look like something from a Tibetan artefacts museum - a hand-carved, hand-molded piece of silver metal with an abstract key like an ancient amulet. Works just fine, though.
When I finally awoke at 5.30pm, the sun was glowing off the mountains and I could see what looks like an ancient monastery far, far on the peak of an Arizona-like jagged hill. Most of what I've seen of Leh so far is like a big garden. I realized that I had no mental concept of what Leh would look like and sure enough, when Francesca (Italian taxi mate) and I drove through town, it was over before we knew we were there. "There is no there there."

All the medical advice says to take it totally easy the first 2 days, so I am dutifully following. We are at 11,500 feet elevation and it's about 65 degrees in daytime. So nice to be in a place with no bugs and no sweating or humidity.

HH the Dalai Lama arrived today (actually, he already came on 31st July, but went to a place called Diskit to give teachings and is back now) and will begin teachings in Leh on 16th-19th. I expect he will give me that same look when he sees me perched with my camera (half glad to see you, half "are you STILL following me around??").

Independence Day
Let me just say, flying international is a hassle everywhere these days, and it was an extra-extra hassle flying from Nepal to India and then within India on the eve of the 60th Indian Independence Day celebrations. Triple and quadruple checking, interminable lines, lots of delays. I am quite amazed that I got on board with my nail clippers (though they did catch my sewing scissors, which had to be deposited with a crew member for security).

The papers are full of celebrations, historical retrospectives and congratulations, and the mood around Delhi was a cautious mix of pride and severely paranoid double-checking, and rightly so.
No one wants this moment in Indian history to be marred by terrorist action. All Delhi hotels are prohibiting any unauthorized visitors (that is, unregistered visitors to a room) -period -until after August 15. And every cybercafe had been instructed to demand not only that I show my ID, but present a photocopy of my passport. That's okay. I am actually heartened that they are taking it all seriously and doing their jobs.

According to the NDTV Independence Day polls, most Indians surveyed felt that "Corruption" was the #1 shame of India today. Other contenders surprisingly far down on the list included poverty, untouchability and dowry scandal. Gandhi is still ranked as India's #1 Icon, getting 58% of votes; the only person who came close to him in votes was Mother Theresa who got a pitiful 17%. The nouveau-riche modern Indian industrialists also offered in the poll (Mittal, Tata etc), whom the press so incessantly tout as modern Indian heros, seem to not have made much of an impression on the public.


Madhukar said...

Nice reading Siren.

You're there for HH Dalai Lama's teachings or Ladakh attracted you?

Keep updating. :)


Sirensongs said...

Thanks Madhu. the answer is BOTH! I have always, always wanted to see Ladakh and the teachings made a perfect excuse.