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Leh, once the capital of Ladakh, is now a district of Jammu and Kashmir in India. Actually it is the second largest district in India. Cradled in the Himalayas, it is best known for its ruined palaces, Buddhist monasteries, serrated hillsides, sandy terrain and shimmering rivers. It is a unique vista of sand and snow.
It was a breathtaking sight even before the airplane touched down. The clear blue sky shone bright in the sunshine. The floating clouds looked like freshly plucked cotton coalescing into a soft fluffy mass. The bare brown mountains dared to stand out offering a contrast to the surrounding beauty.
As I was driven straight through the lonely barren brown stretches of land I felt I had entered some exotic land. For someone coming from bustling Mumbai, Leh was like a breath of fresh air.
The guesthouse my husband and I stayed at was a pretty cottage surrounded by cheerful sunflowers. As warned by travellers who had come before me, the first day at Leh was just for relaxation as we had to acclimatize to the low oxygen environment. We had heard of tourists suffering from nausea, severe headache and nose bleeds, so we were careful to take precautions. There are Tibetan and conventional medicines which one can easily get from Thiksey monastery if suffering from altitude sickness. I was lucky for I only experienced a slight headache on the day of my arrival, which subsided after a good siesta and I felt fit enough to explore the local market in the evening.
As I roamed the streets I found that more than eighty percent of the tourists were foreigners and there were no children except the local ones. As I chatted with locals in nearby villages and wandered around the town, I discovered a world so different from any metropolis and yet so utterly enchanting.
Though August is considered the best tourist season when temperatures hover between comfortable 13-21 degrees centigrade (55-70 fahrenheit), the low oxygen level tends to tire one out. At night, despite the chill, we had to keep the windows open while sleeping, for want of oxygen. Once we snuggled into the warm blankets, it was difficult to get out.
We happened to be there on the day of Eid and in the thin air the crescent moon looked lovely.
In this cold desert we felt at a loss for there is not even a hint of greenery as you drive for miles. The landscape is, however, dotted with Budhist monasteries on hills and army cantonments. The only greenery seen is along the banks of rivers Indus and Zanskar.
Leh is extremely dry and receives no rains during monsoon as it lies in the rain shadow of the Himalayas. So when it was pouring in Mumbai, I was smothering sunscreen lotion on my body and applying lip balm to my parched lips in Leh in August.
One of the best places to get a birds-eye view of Leh’s landscape is the Shanti Stupa. From the Stupa, the sight of the meandering Indus shimmering in the evening sun gave us a sense of calm. Built by a Japanese Budhist group called “Japanese for World Peace” to commemorate 2500 years of Buddhism, the Stupa aims to promote world peace. It can be seen from the bustling street of Changspa where budget hotels, restaurants and backpackers thrive.
The presence of mosques in Leh affirms the peaceful co-existence of Buddhism and Islam.
I spent a pleasant afternoon wandering the market checking out some colorful beads, ornaments, warm pashmina shawls and Buddhist prayer items. The berries and apricots looked colorful and luscious and we bought some dried apricots and almonds to take home.
One interesting place we visited was the Magnetic Hill near Leh. It is literally an uphill task to drive the car down the hill as the car is constantly pulled back due to magnetic attraction.
The Leh Palace, an absolute must-see, was built by King Senge Namgyal in 1533, and abandoned in the 19th century, and bears a striking similarity to Lhasa’s Potala Palace, though the former is smaller in size. Once the seat of the royals of Ladakh, the Leh Palace now lies shrouded in ruins. Inside the palace, there are a few murals still worth viewing. The palace architecture is medieval Tibetan in style. There are nine stories with overhanging wooden balconies.
The “Hall Of Fame” pays homage to India’s fallen warriors. This museum dedicated to the brave soldiers who lost their lives in the Indo-Pak wars is maintained by the Indian army. We were able to see enemy weapons seized by our soldiers during the Kargil war operations.
One touching reminder of the painful toll of war, was the letter written by a father (Colonel V. N. Thapar) to his son (Captain Vijayant Thapar) when he fell martyr, at the young age of 22 while evicting intruders from a ridge in Kargil, on June 28, 1999.
One afternoon, my husband decided take a river rafting tour. The looks and sounds of the rushing water, bare rocks and colorful dinghy looked pretty but I held to my resolve to stay on dry land, away from the frigid waters. The group had to brave the river rapids for more than three hours and cover about 15.5 miles. My better half got into a wet suit, life jacket and a helmet and listened carefully to the instructor who parroted the commands several times to make sure everyone in the group was ready to battle the rapids. Then he inflated the dinghy and handed paddles to the eight eager rafters. As the instructor yelled “forward,” the group lurched into the river.
As my car moved parallel to the river I could see the rafters struggling to keep afloat. But, it was heartening to see the kayaks with expert swimmers riding alongside in case of emergencies. Later the exhilarated group recounted how they kept their feet under the inflated tubes balancing themselves as the rushing water splashed all over them.
We visited the most photographed building of Ladakh: Thiksey Monastery. The 600-year-old monastery is built at 12 levels ascending a hillside and houses about one hundred monks of the Yellow-Hat sect of Buddhism. Made of clay and covered with gold paint a 15 meters tall Buddha idol was constructed during the Dalai Lama visit to Thiksey.
Our visit to Leh would not have been complete had we not visited Rancho’s School made famous as the location of the climax scene of the Aamir Khan starrer, 3 Idiots. It is actually the Druk White Lotus School at Shey. Adjacent to it is a monastery for women. Their cheerful faces in maroon robes made me happy. It was a humbling experience to see people in such remote places prone to harsh winters, sudden cloudbursts and even earthquakes, yet exuding warmth and happiness. There is a sense of contentment about Leh and its people. Long after we left Ladakh, the memory of that warmth and happiness lingered on.
Kavita Kanan Chandra is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Mumbai. She has lived and worked in different parts of India and understands the pulse of her country.