October 08, 2005
Note 15 :: India: Ladakh-Kashmir-Dharamsala
Only 4 weeks passed since I was sitting on a grass lawn in Ladakh listening to Dalai Lama's lectures, but it feels like many months have passed since that time. I will try to recollect all the interesting events of the past three weeks, but I'm realizing that unless I write them down soon enough, they will vanish in my memory, or from my memory, but I think that the former is more correct.
As I wrote before, the experience of listening to Dalai Lama, while interesting, has been more of a "tourist" experience. An impersonal teaching with poor translation does not get you very far on the path of understanding the subject or the teacher. And indeed, the words of the lectures got totally erased from my mind.
So, once lectures where over I decided to explore Nubra Valley - the northernmost corner of Ladakh (and India) to which foreigners are allowed to come. Even for Nubra Valley one has to get a permit for 7 days max. from local officials, but that is easily done and always granted. Once done with formalities, I boarded a local bus that in just 7 hours was going to cover distance of just over 100 kilometers, while passing in the middle of the way the highest motorable pass in the world - 5600 meters high according to Indian maps and the Lonely Planet. I have to note here that my altimeter showed only 5375 meters on the pass, and it has been correct in other places. It is a known fact that many indian maps of regions close to the borders are distorted on purpose.
The views from the bus - typical Ladakhi views - bare mountains, desert, broken rocks and a multitude of military camps, military trucks and deserted piles of gasoline barrels used up by the military. A number of checkpoints are dotted along the road and at each of them all foreigners have to exit the bus and show a passport and leave a copy of permit to a military official. The word Nubra means "green" in local language and indeed, once we crossed over the pass, while the mountains around us remained barren, the floor of the valley was greener than the usual Ladakhi scenery. The valley is formed by a river or, rather, two rivers coming together into one. Thus the valley has a "Y" shape with mountains on the sides and in the middle of the "Y". A few small villages a spread along the rivers. The roads up north, beyond the points of "no pass for foreigners" lead to the Chinese border. The right side of the valley has been a part of the famous "Silk Route" - the villages, while small, are hundreds of years old and there are some Gompas (Buddhist monasteries) that have witnessed the Silk Route in its prime time and are still active today. There are not many tourists who venture to this valley, and those who come, travel on the same buses and stay in the same guesthouses, as the selection is extremely limited. So, quite naturally, we all became acquainted with each other. We got extremely lucky. As a part of Ladakh festival, this was the second year, when the government of Ladakh decided to create higher awareness about the "Silk Route" part of the Nubra Valley and decided to organize a "silk route caravan" for tourists and locals to participate in. The trek is free and open to anyone to come along. It lasts for 3 days, but as it goes through the villages, nobody is required to stay with the trek for the whole time. I, along with most other tourists stayed with the caravan for just the first day and one night, but that was the most memorable experience of the valley. On the opening, there was a performance of villagers from different villages of the valley, including the villages which are off the limits for foreigners - the higher regions closer to China. Man and women in very traditional dresses have been performing local dances and songs under the beautiful accompaniment of local musicians playing drums and flutes. During the performance, some local food, chang (Tibetan beer) and butter tea have been served. After the performance and a short speech by the organizers of the event, the caravan started its way along the Silk Route to the next village. In that single day along with other members of the caravan we traveled by feet, on a bus, in the back of a truck, on a horse and on a camel. Riding on a huge two-humped camel is quite an experience. The moment it gets up from knees on its feet, you realize how high you are. Of course in these parts of India no saddle is provided, just a blanket to sit on a camel. Now, if riding a camel without a saddle is OK - you sit between the humps and the camel moves smoothly, riding on the little Ladakhi horse without a saddle was a bit of a struggle. Instead of a saddle, the horse was rigged with some wooden contraption, usually used for tying the loads to the back of the horse. This contraption was covered by a thin blanket, but that was definitely not enough and was pretty hard on my legs especially when going fast. In the end I noticed that the locals, instead of sitting on these wooden things, just sit way behind them. It looks kind of strange, but at least is not so painful. In any case, even though spending two hours on a horse without any form of a saddle was a physical struggle, overall experience of actually riding along the Silk Route has been tremendously gratifying. As we were passing small villages, the villagers would come out to greet the caravan with bottles of chang and butter tea. Chang dominated. On the way caravan made a couple of stops in bigger villages, where the dancing performances would be repeated for the locals and some food and chai would be served. Finally, by night, in total darkness we reached our destination only 4 hours later than it was originally planned - pretty good by Indian standard. Once again a performance of dancers and musicians followed by food and long desired rest. The next day most of the tourists left the caravan and took a bus back to Leh.
There was not much for me to do in Leh anymore. There are two ways to leave Ladakh by land. More popular one is to go via Manali - a popular tourist destination town surrounded by the valleys where the best marijuana in India is grown. The other option is to go via the Kashmir region with a stop in Srinigar - the capital of Kashmir. A girl that I met in Nubra Valley has been looking for a travel companion to go to Kashmir. As Kashmir is predominantly Muslim, it is not advisable for women to travel through that part of the country alone. There is probably no physical danger, but the overall experience may be quite unpleasant for a single women. After a brief deliberation, I agreed on traveling to Kashmir together and the next day we were on a bus headed for Srinigar. For many years Kashmir has been a place that foreigners had to avoid due to massive military incidents between Pakistan and India. Kashmir has been a region under question ever since the British left both India and Pakistan. At those times Kashmir was joined into India, however Pakistan still has strong claims for Kashmir with its predominantly Muslim population. During the previous 10-15 years around 100,000 people where killed just from the Indian side in border incidences and only in the last two years there have finally been decline in military actions from each country. But the state, especially the areas close to the border are very heavily militarized. The road from Ladakh to Srinigar passes as close as within 10-20 kilometers from the border and bus has to constantly stop for check-ups by the military or to wait for 50 or more military trucks to pass. The trucks are filled with soldiers in very heavy ammunition with quite dangerously looking machine guns and other killing devices. Taking pictures of soldiers or any structures is strictly prohibited and I fought the temptation to take a camera out and sneak in a few pictures. The guys just look to dangerous and the ammunition is quite real. Soldiers are stationed everywhere at about 100 meter intervals along the whole way. In the section closer to the border one could see quite heavy and definitely modern looking artillery in an obviously ready-to-fire state.
The bus trip to Srinigar from Ladakh takes a day and a half with a stopover for a sleep in a small town on the way. Indian buses rarely run at night and it is probably a good idea considering the roads in these high-mountain regions, where in order to pass an upcoming bus one of the drivers has to practically have a side of the bus hanging over the precipice while the other driver pretty much jams his bus into the cliff siding the road. Side mirrors have to be folded to create enough room for passing. But all roads come to an end and so we arrived to Srinigar. The place to stay in Srinigar is on a houseboat on one of the lakes in or near the city.
Houseboats are basically stationary boats on the lakes turned into hotels. Apparently this tradition was borrowed from the British colonists. Boats range from luxury to dodgy and from huge to tiny. Once in Srinigar you are attacked by hordes of boat-owners touting their boat as the best and the cheapest. Someone in Ladakh has advised me not to stay on a Dal Lake - a lake in the center of the Srinigar, which is a noisy and polluted city, but instead to stay on Neegin Lake just 6km north of the city. The advise was very valuable. Once settled on a boat on Neegin lake, we realized that we are in one of the most beautiful and romantic places we've ever seen. The air of Kashmir has a certain misty quality to it, yet it is not humid. The trees and grasses around, as well as the hills in the distance, lend a perfect light-greenish tint to the air and the whole atmosphere. The lake in places is covered with light-green weeds and when the early morning fog floats just above the water surface, the view is absolutely stunning. The lake is filled with bird life. Large eagles and tiny colorful kingfishers coexist with ducks, and exotic birds for which I do not know names. There are many houseboats on the lake, but as this was the very end of the season, most of them where empty. People get around the lake on "shikaras" - long and narrow boats with a single paddle shaped in a form of a heart. It's an art to paddle the boat with a single paddle keeping the boat straight without constantly switching the side on which you paddle. With some exercise I mastered the art of paddling a shikara pretty well and was quite comfortable taking the tiny shikara that my houseboat provided us with around the lake.
The lake is connected by many narrow water channels to the "old city", and it was an amazing experience to take the little boat along the channels with all the locals going in and out of their houses on similar boats while taking vegetables to the market, collecting the grass from the little islands, carrying fabrics to small shops, etc... The food on the boat is served by the family owning the boat. A standard breakfast would consist of Kashmiri bread, butter, small salad and eggs or omelet. That would come with a thermos full of Kashmiri tea - probably the best kind of tea I ever had. Based on a good quality tea leaves it contains a bit of cardamon, cinnamon, almonds and a touch of saffron. The most soothing and yet energizing drink. Dinner would come with rice and a couple of pots of differently prepared vegetables and for lunch we would usually get fruits, bread and other stuff from the market. It was a wedding season in Kashmir and we were invited by the friends of our hosts to participate in the traditional Kashmiri wedding. The groom was a son of another houseboat owner and the bride, which we did not get to see was from a nearby village. The wedding festivities happen separately for the groom family and for the bride family. The wedding ceremonies last around 3 days - big tents are set up for serving food to the guests. On the first evening all man and woman share the same tent sitting on the floor while the food is served by the hired boys. That day we saw a pack of about 30 sheep and goats grazing near the tents. As we were coming back in the evening we saw that the herd was gone, but there were about 10 men sitting along the fence cutting and beating large piles of meat in front of them. That was preparation for the main meal of the second day. The first day everybody eats some simple meal in the common tent and then collapses on the floor of the tent closer to the side walls as the center of the tent is used for dancing later in the night. The dancing starts pretty late, around 2am and goes on almost all night till the sunrise. I guess most festivities in the world concentrate around food. This one was not an exception. The meal of the second day was quite sumptuous. This time women had the priority and men of the house were serving food to all women and children. Then it was turn for men to eat. Everybody gathered on the floor of a big tent settling down in such a way that four people can share a big plate of food. The food is served on a huge plate placed in the center of each little group. The bottom of the plate is covered with rice and on the top all kinds of mutton and chicken meat preparations are placed. They range from all sorts of kebabs to ribs, to big balls filled with cooked liver and other interesting ingredients. In total about 10-12 different meat preparations are done. Well... As you can guess, the explorer in me won over the vegetarian in me and I worked hard on not missing a single taste opportunity.
A few men were walking around with large pots, adding to the plates new dishes or refills. Everyone ate with their hands (or, to be more precise, their right hand, as the left hand is not supposed to touch food), licking fingers and plunging them back into the meal. But what surprised me the most, were the little plastic bags that were given to everyone with the meal. As I found out, they were for those who may want to take some of the food with them. For example, an old man sitting right next to me was only tasting each dish, not eating too much, but instead putting as much as he could into the bag. Once the meal was over I saw quite a few people leaving with the bags quite full. Our host family also used the opportunity to stock up on some cooked food and later in the fridge on our boat we saw a huge plate of meats collected at the wedding. The evening of the second day of the wedding, once the meal is over, the groom dresses up in a traditional dress, goes to the mosque with the closest family and friends for a prayer and later on, followed by about 30-40 young men (only men), drives in a colorful and noisy procession to the brides family. There, they spend about 2-3 hours after which the groom and a bride depart into some unannounced place for a few days. Only after that he brings the bride home. So we did not get to see the bride.
As relaxing as the stay on a houseboat was, it was a time to move on. Dharamsala, a little town in the hills of Himchal Pradesh became world famous once the Dalai Lama decided to place there the Tibetan Goverment in Excile. After that, Dharamsala became the main refugee center for Tibetan refugees, the center for Buddhist studies, the center of Tibet away from Tibet. Dharamsala does not feel like India. For two reasons. First is that it is dominated by Tibetan refugees who create completely different environment than indian people. Second reason is that some parts of Dharamsala and villages around it became pretty much seasonal Israely hangouts. In some places the percentage of Israelis comes close to 100%. Often I would be the only non-Israely person in a hotel or in a restaurant. Nevertheless, the place is beautiful and is worthwhile staying for a long time, as there are many courses in Buddhist philosophy, meditation, etc... that are taught by top Tibetan Buddhist monks and lamas. Unfortunately, there are many courses and lectures which I cannot call anything else but fake. The advertisements like "Enlightenment in a week", "Find your true path in 10 days", "Want to know the meaning of life? An awakened guru will help you!", and so on cover the walls of the buildings. It is hard to believe that anyone would actually take these advertisements seriously, but apparently there are plenty of people who do. And then, sitting in a cafe you overhear a conversation at the table nearby about how someone feels like she is in a "semi-awakened" state and there are only 3 lessons left to the point of being completely "awakened". I guess it is important to simply wake up before attempting the "awakening". But who am I to judge...
The weather in Dharamsala creates beautiful plays of clouds and mountains. The nights and the mornings are clear, but by noon time the clouds come both from above and from the valleys below thus creating layers upon layers of clouds, mountains, clouds, mountains and so on. I did a few day hikes up into the mountains and photographed hundreds of breathtaking scenes of clouds, skies, mountains, and Tibetan prayer flags all playing in the wind. The times I spent out in the nature somewhat compensated the busy touristy streets of the town itself. I would love to say more about Tibetans. They are very gentle people, but you can feel a lot of strength, inner strength, behind this gentleness. They seem very sincere in everything they do. And while I did not really feel close to these people, I felt that they are very easy to live with, to be in their environment.
I would have loved to stay in Dharamsala or around for a month or more, to learn about the Buddhist philosophy and culture, but my visa was about to expire and I had to start moving slowly towards Nepal, where I can do some trekking and possibly renew my Indian visa in case I will go back to India. The first stop on the way from Dharamsala, while slightly off the path to Nepal is Amritsar - the center of Sikh religion. Amritsar, an otherwise busy and noisy Indian city, houses the holiest site of the Sikh religion - the Golden Temple.
I will write about Golden Temple, and the rest of my slow journey towards Nepal in the next travel Note.
Always happy to hear from you,
© 1996-2005 Интернет-турклуб имени В.Смирнова. All Rights Reserved under Creative Common License.