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The Mountains Speak

Exploring Ladakh in luxury.

Not climbing mountains

Altitude can do strange things to brains. It can make one short of breath, cause nausea and dizziness, even hallucinations. Or it could lead the brain to ponder big questions on why mountains are large, skies are blue, humans are tiny, and anything has to be.

My attitude to altitude is shared by many. I prefer the thought of having climbed a mountain to actually climbing one. I like to trek from the comfort of a hammock. Don’t mind camping as long as someone else pitches tent.

For the idle traveller, Ladakh is India’s Alaska. Northern, remote, cooler, sparser, and free of its clichés. Here you will not find chaos, noise, squalor or crowds. In its stead will be great rocks exhaling clouds, a sun casting flares off a lake, a landscape baked and cooled by passing millennia, a cathedral of stone. The wind blows colour from the prayer flags, and the monasteries perch cliffs, gazing over orchards into infinity.

Straddling both the silk route and the hippie trail, hidden in the ranges of Jammu-Kashmir, a province bordered by three nuclear powers, Ladakh is an unconquered land that many have their eye on. Its name means ‘Land of High Passes’ and the guidebooks nickname it ‘Little Tibet and the ‘Roof of the World.’

Buddhism arrived here via China and Tibet, instead of the less circuitous route direct from the source down south. It absorbed the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools, the latter of which brought Tantric and Hindu iconography to the local temple art. The great religion is preserved in these valleys and hills, protected from the 20th century’s cultural revolutions by the stoic mountains and the guardian deities.

Ladakh is the stage for a Western shot in the east, or a post-apocalyptic wilderness tale. The colour palette is autumnal. Greys, browns and whites, with the occasional shock of blue or green. The weather is a mix of spring and winter. Blazing sun and frosty breeze will chap your lips and bronze your skin.

45,000 square kilometres of mountain, glazier, lake and valley, occupied by rarely seen snow leopards, ubiquitous yaks, and only 250,000 people. These descendants of Mons and Dards share the land with apricot groves, barley fields, goats, gazelles, wolves and hawks.

India opened it up for tourism in 1974, a decade after China closed its borders and has welcomed adventurers, explorers and pilgrims to these magnificent peaks.

Shakti Ladakh specialises in travels across the Indian Himalayas and is run by planter, poet, psychoanalyst Jamshyd Sethna, who combines his gifts as storyteller, mountaineer and shrink to offer “inner journeys… outdoors.”

The experience revolves around seven village homes spread around the city of Leh, perfect for ‘trekkers’ like me, who prefer to conquer summits in air conditioned jeeps. The homestays are in three levels, down below are shaggy-coated cattle who warm the building with their fertilizer, the middle holds the host family, who have leased the top floor to Shakti Ladakh for visitors like me.

I arrive via the grandeur of the Lodhi Hotel in Delhi, where the Shakti team advise me on acclimatizing. They describe altitude sickness as a mix of jetlag, hangover and vertigo. They add that, like many things, it can be cured with a good sleep and lots of water. They are correct.

I rise in the evening to a comfy bed, a fireplace below an air conditioner, a jacuzzi near a wood stack and a tea selection on a copper tray. This is luxury masquerading as rustic. I step out to the terrace and follow the geometry of the snowcapped peaks and sit in silence. Shakti’s agenda for day one is to do nothing. Tick.

My week in the mountains is spent at four such homes, authentic in style and texture, with modern conveniences installed, and modern inconveniences removed. At Stok, Nimoo, Likir and Indus, I enjoy garden fresh meals, impeccable and invisible service, and the views all to myself. I am also granted a guide from the region, well-versed in history and myth, with a wide-eyed wonder for vast empty spaces.

There are walks to local palaces like the one at Stok, where the King wears a T-shirt and curates the museum. Hikes past willow, poplar, apple and walnut trees, walks to traditional homes where matriarchy prevails, and polyandry is commonplace. The scrunch of cut nettles under your feet is as intoxicating as the act of squishing bubble-wrap.

There is a bike ride from Stok to the Hemis monastery that takes 2 hours and covers 28 miles. It is mostly flat and goes from tree-lined highway through barren hills to what looks like the surface of a moon. It is exhilarating and the silence lets you project your feelings onto the landscape. These may waver from awe to tranquility to impatience to despair, depending on the incline.

Call me lazy, but it is the drives that I enjoy most. Through curling roads where workmen have shaved shards from the mountain and turned ridges into roads. We are overtaken by trucks whose horns sound like saxophones, passing road signs with safety messages hiding amidst rhymes and puns.

After whiskey, driving is risky.

Check your nerves on my curves.

If married, divorce speed.

Better Mr. Late, than the Late Mr.

We pass the army base with its statue of a giant tap. We see as many soldiers as we do monks; most are mercifully idle, stationed as a deterrent to peeping neighbours from beyond the valley. We navigate dangerous bends and plunge uphill into gravel. My guide Rudi, a snowboarder from Darjeeling, tells me of wars and kings and dragons and Neolithic fossils. And then about floods and earth slips and border conflicts. I begin to wonder if a man-made sneeze could ever bring down a mountain.

We listen to Nepathia, “fusion-jazz-rock” from Nepal, and discuss why Buddhism didn’t take off in India and why India can’t qualify for a soccer world cup, as if the topics are related, which they may well be. The experience of a week in Ladakh, even done lazy adventurer style, can’t be reduced to a list of activities. But unlike the ‘challenging’ glacial walk that I skipped, I will give this a go.

The cuisine makes a good case for vegetarianism. The breakfasts are healthy, the lunches light, and the dinners glorious. There’s excellent lamb or fowl on the table, but you skip past it for the fresh veg, stewed, sautéed or curried, North Indian or Ladakhi style.

The city of Leh has internet, good coffee and a colourful flea market. We meet backpackers, travel agents and local shop owners, most of whom have blurry eyes and messy hair, like they’ve just woken from a dream. There are fine bookshops and wonderful stalls selling pashminas, trinkets, chillum pipes and things to fill them with.

Mostly it’s another day, another monastery. My pilgrimage covers Hemis, Thiksey, Alchi, Likhir and Lamayuru, each on a different elevation, each with its own spectacular view. At every entrance are prayer wheels containing scrolls, which we spin clockwise to unleash the wisdom of the ages into the cosmos. The shrines are red and filled with rich texture and startling imagery.

I am treated to a pantheon of coloured deities. Statues of bodhisattvas, some giant, some tiny; paintings in garish hues of gurus, consorts, guardian deities and demons. The wheel of life with its many heavens and hells, and ghosts with large stomachs and tiny mouths. Thangkas or scrolls featuring a myriad Buddha, jataka stories with all-animal casts, and multi-limbed avatars crossing swords with triple-eyed gods. The art, which mostly dates back to the 11th century, is intricate, absorbing, erotic and grotesque.

If you wish to balance spiritual ying with physical yang, Ladakh offers kayaking, mountaineering, camel safari, polo and archery. Rudi knows I prefer village walks and tea on the terrace, to climbing ragged inclines in a helmet. But he does convince me to raft down the Indus river in a wet suit. By the tail end of the May-September season, the rapids aren’t too ferocious. Still, the rafts get hurled downstream at speed, while cold river spray soaks our wetsuits. We watch as crumpled mountains race past and listen to the guides tell spook stories about whirlpools.

Then there’s a picnic in an orchard surrounded by birds, a tricky climb to Basgo Fort, a cave of paintings at Saspol, which archaeologists restore by hand, and a copper craftsman’s hut in a town called Chilling, where you may chill with a chillum if you like alliteration.

In local vernacular, ‘julley’ is an all-purpose word for hello, goodbye and thank you. I overuse it when I have an audience with a monk from Thiksey and we discuss the nature of nirvana, the lure of materialism, the violence in Myanmar and how to make ginger tea. Most monks I meet are calm and wise, a few are children who yell out their prayers, some pose for selfies with tourists, and one aggressively argues with my non-Ladakhi guide.

There’s more than enough to fill your days with, but that’s the opposite of the point. The locals here “work like yaks, and then hibernate like marmots.” There isn’t huge wealth, but there is self-sufficiency. As Buddhism teaches, it is better to have enough, than to have everything,

What a visitor needs to take from Ladakh is not the beauty or the views, but the silences. Whether you’re climbing, gazing at, or looking down from one of these giant peaks, once the thoughts stop buzzing about your head, you realize that the landscape has much to tell you.

It will tell you that nature is vast and indifferent and worth fearing. That mountains will remain long after humans have exploded their atoms. And that great rocks will outlast large armies, tall trees, luxury huts and even thoughts.

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