Travel changes you. It heals you and is addictive. Ladakh introduced me to travel. Until then, travel spelled holidaying at my aunts. It was the July of 2009, when I was going through a personal turmoil. All of a sudden, everyone around me lost their vocabulary and had only two words to utter, ‘Get married’.
A Gmail chat with my brother landed up in an invitation to visit Ladakh. The thought of withdrawing from my daily routine and walking alone in the mysterious lanes of the barren land of high passes excited me. It still does. Within few days, we landed up in Leh.
The mystery unfolds
Spectacularly stunning barren mountains embrace this beauty. Picture-perfect gompas theatrically punctuate the acreage. Whitewashed stupas illuminate peace and purity. The whimsical wind carries a spiritual message, a message engraved on the fluttering colorful prayer flags. Prayer wheels spinning clockwise and spreading the mantras beautifully adorn the city. Beautiful people with an honest smile and curious eyes walk on the streets of this mountain kingdom embracing a small prayer wheel, greeting everyone with ‘Jullay’ and exuding a welcoming aura.
It is love at first sight. The one you know that lasts, the one that will always have a special corner in your heart, the one that evolves you.
The telephone uncle
Everyone said, “The altitude is high. You need to rest and climatize on Day –I to avoid breathing problem.” I smiled and said, “The landscape is rugged and it has just started revealing itself to me like a blessing. Nothing can hold me back and also it took a lot of drama at home to get here.”
Bhaiya and I begin to unwrap the place by foot. On the way, I entered a telephone booth to tell ma I have reached. An old man with a wrinkled face, intense eyes and an aura that whispers I have seen history in making, walks up to me. Softly, he says, ‘Jullay, you are from Delhi? ‘Yes, I am’, I reply.
Immediately, a kaleidoscope of tales from the bygone era of Ladakh opens. Postcards of Ladakh dating back to 40 years are displayed on the table and fascinating stories from his trekking days fill up the room. I am overwhelmed. Telephone uncle my first friend promises to visit me in Delhi. He never came, never called. I am still waiting.
After a long walk, we park in our room. Sitting by the window, our eyes for some random reason start stalking a Ladakhi lady whose plucking veggies. Completely at peace with herself, she seems so much into her duty that the outside world does not exist for her.
So begins a long overdue conversation. Slowly family secrets, boyfriend/girlfriend stories, passions, and everything starts pouring. We utter things we haven’t told anyone not even ourselves. All of sudden, our connection get deepened. Yes, this is what travel does. It introduces you to new facets of people and connects you with them in the strongest way.
Walks in our guide Tsewang. A friendly boy preparing for his banking entrance greets us. Since that very moment, every new morning brought intriguing stories. Tsewang becomes the third and the most integral member of our gang. While waiting for food, the three of us played the Ladakhi game he taught us. While trekking, he saved my life twice. His small black eyes shouted his love for Ladakh. Our trip would have been dead minus his kindness and passion.
Next day, we leave Leh to visit the Likir monastery. This monastery silences us as we browse through old manuscripts, thanga paintings, costumes, statues of Bodhisattva, Amitabha, Sakyamuni, Maitreya and Tsong Khapa. A carpenter’s cosy home is our nest for the night. A warm host, he keeps indulging us in delicious food.
Tsewang, Bhaiya, Donkey, Donkey Man and Me begin the trek
The trip now plunges into an epic adventure- an adventure called trekking and discovering thyself.
The donkey is carrying our bags and we are ready to open the first trek of my life. 60 minutes into the trek, I discover that I suck. Tsewang and Bhaiya encourage me. But, I continue sucking. Though, I was slow and bad, every moment of the trek was so mysterious. All of a sudden, shadi issues seemed trivial in front of the mystic hills.
We trek across Phobe La pass and Chagatse La pass to Yangthang. A visit to Yangthang spells staying in a village that is home to only twenty houses. Our tiny room is on the terrace having only two mattresses. We gaze at the star lit sky. The sky is carpeted with starts, I have never ever seen so many stars and they all appear so near. I am overwhelmed, again! Sleeping in the tiny room, on the mattress in the chilling weather, I get the best sleep of my life.
Next morning, we trek across Sermanchen La pass to Hemis Shukpachan on to Ang. I am on a sugar high, thanks to the sugar pill prescribed by my doctor bhaiya. Well, now I am doing the trek so much better. On the way, we meet an old friendly Australian lady who’s doing the same trek but alone.
At Ang village, our homestay is with the most caring and loving family. Numerous rounds of ladakhi butter tea with Marie biscuits spoil us. It is a delight to see the three generation family sit together and gulp butter tea. They are leading a blissful life in their tiny world. I assist the ladies in cooking dinner while bhaiya plays with the kids. I love these people, their simple lives, simple food, honesty, zero pretentiousness, their purity.
Next day, we drive down to Lamayuru to visit a monastery and Moonland. I love Moonland. We sit here for hours. I enjoy listening to our guide. All soaked in this, I sense a growing change within me. I look at bhaiya and can feel the same change brewing inside him. I am overwhelmed, yet again!
Our next stop is Alchi monastery and then we return to Leh.
At Leh, I am the official witch
Repercussion of this life altering trek is that I am badly badly tanned and my nose’s skin has peeled off. For the first time, I love my tan. It is a reminiscent of all the beautiful memories. However, kids don’t see it the way I do.
On our last day, after picking up souvenirs, we are watching a local cricket match. We are shouting and supporting both the teams, when I come across the cutest kids. As I walk up to her, she shouts and runs away. Bhaiya and Tsewang have the loudest laughter.
Bye Bye Tsweang and no Sewang
From the very first day of meeting our joyful guide, I failed to pronounce his name correctly. He taught me at Leh Palace, corrected me while trekking, taught me again in midst of nowhere and made a last attempt when we bid adieu. Not that he minded being addressed as Sewang. It was evening when we parted, my eyes were mist and there was a chill in the air. His walking away signalled the end of our wonderful trip.
No money, ATMS not working and flight cancelled
That night, I slept praying for a miracle that would extend our trip a wee bit longer. And the next day, our flight got cancelled. Ouch, no money, ATMs not working, I am scared. I am happy and tensed at the same time. The crowd is fighting with the authorities. Just then, we hear an announcement that another flight has been arranged. We are leaving as different people knowing that Ladakh will always stay in our heart.
Travel everything else can wait!