Friday, 10 August 2012

India at altitude

Once again I've been very tardy about posting following a jaunt out of Delhi, for which apologies. Anyway, about a month back I hopped on a flight up to Leh, in Ladakh up in the high Himalaya. This is a corner of India quite unlike any other - it really does feel like you've stepped into another country. The culture, the scenery, the people are all decidedly closer to Tibet (which I was lucky enough to visit a decade or so ago) than they are to the Ganges plains. Leh itself doesn't really feel like an Indian town (apart from the incessantly honking horns - I'm not sure there's anywhere in India, apart from maybe the smaller islands in Lakshadweep or the Nicobars, that doesn't feature that). The usual hustle and bustle, the overwhelming activity that you seem to find pretty much everywhere else, is absent. In its place is a laid-back, relaxed atmosphere quite at odds with the fact that the place is in Jammu and Kashmir state - one of the most unstable trouble spots in the world - and hosts a huge military presence.

My time in Ladakh was all too brief - just four days, which was just enough time to adjust to the altitude, do a little bit of trekking, see some fascinating monasteries and buy a rather nifty rug. My friends Nick and Alex, who are travelling round India for a few months, had rather more time to appreciate it. But it was a wonderful place to escape the heat and the crowds of Delhi for a little bit, and kicking back with a cup of chai and watching the sun set over the mountains from a cafe seemingly squeezed into someone's attic was heavenly. Less heavenly was our trip back to Leh after the trek, which involved an ill-advised attempt by our guide to ford a stream in our little minivan. It took a couple of hours to rescue the minivan, and we had to get the army involved. Fun!

So here are some photos from the trip. I hope you enjoy them.

Minaret in Leh. The dominant culture may be Buddhist but the city has seen significant immigration, and now hosts quiet a diverse population including a significant number of Muslims. I did think this was a particularly graceful piece of architecture.

Looking up from Leh's old town towards the palace, perched on a ridge above the city.

Typical view in Leh

The marketplace at Leh. This is pretty much about as busy as it got while I was there - this would be the slowest of slow days in Delhi.

New hat. Ahem.

The Red Temple, high above Leh. Getting there was a struggle but worth it.

View between the prayer flags from outside the entrance to the Red Temple. I was really quite pleased with this photo!

Nick And Alex outside the red temple

And Alex and me! As you can see my legs have entirely failed to notice that they are exposed to the sun.

Nick and Alex horsing around. Leh in the background.

Typical view of the valleys in Ladakh. It's amazing how the barren mountains give way to the lush green valley floor, which looks like a carpet or even the surface of a lake. The Ladakh irrigation systems must be superb - literally nothing grows beyond the confines of the valley.

Prayer flags tethered to an outcrop, Red Temple, Leh

This is the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar rivers. The scenery in Ladakh is majestic: all sweeping panoramas of mountains in various shades of brown and grey, punctuated by pockets of green, and sitting underneath skies that seem almost unnaturally blue. I have to admit though that after a while in the mountains I did start to miss the greener environs of lower altitudes!

One of the few photos I took inside one of the monasteries we visited. We were told that photos were fine, but I still felt very uncomfortable taking them. Just to my right there were about 100 monks chanting in prayer, and I felt like a coarse and vulgar intruder. I took this one shot and then stopped. 

I love that the temples and towns of Ladakh make up for the lack of colour in the environment by making everything they can colourful.

Monks at Lamayuru monastery. 

Yup, it's a seriously big Buddha.

I'm not sure what the significance of the headgear or the percussion is (if anyone can enlighten me I'd love to know). But taken together they certainly create an impression.

There was a large pile of firewood stacked up outside the monastery - I guess they get supplies in during the summer for the long and hard winter.

This was possibly the highlight of the trip - at Lamayuru monastery we came across a group of monks creating a mandala out of coloured sand. It's a painstaking process but they had achieved this in less than 24 hours. Temple was filled with the sound of them scraping their metal tools together to deposit tiny amounts of sand in the exact right position to create the intricate and beautiful pattern, chatting quietly as they did so. Outside the mountains were bathed in bright sunshine and birds flitted around the windows. It was a world quite apart from anything I've ever experienced, and it was breathtaking.

Close up of the tools used to create the mandala.

I like this picture because it tricks the eye. He is actually standing on a broad, flat roof (the white part) but it looks like he's perched on a narrow ledge. 

Young monk taking a rest from work

I like the combination of banality and grandeur in this photo.

Life is hard in Leh. I spotted this lady coming with her heavy burden as I was gazing out from the monastery wall. It's sometimes easy to focus on the picturesque monasteries, monks and prayer flags and forget that people have to earn a living up here in the barren mountains.

Wood stacked up in Lamayuru village. I liked that it was so neatly arranged by type of wood - I presume each has different properties, so they need to be kept separate. But it also created a textural contrast that I thought was really beautiful.

The village at Lamayuru.

Looking back towards Lamayuru after setting out on our short trek.

Three sweaty people.

Early attempts to rescue the minivan after the afore-mentioned incident in the stream. Needless to say pushing the thing was never going to work. Ultimately we had to flag down an army truck, then find a length of chain, and then have about eight people pushing before we could get the thing out of the water. I got to push, and felt all butch. For a second.

All this is just a couple of hours' flight from Delhi, and it feels like another world. It's a cliche to say India is astonishingly diverse, but - well - it is. 

8 comments: said...

Gorgeous photos! I haven't got there yet but it's close to the top of my to-do list

Hafeezur Rahman said...

Very nice article and beautiful pictures with fun filled.

Good work author.

Sonya said...

Amazing photos, and lovely write-up. Keep it coming please xx

Amelia Grace Kumar said...

Awesome photos! Looks amazing there...

Kay in India said...

Hey there! It's been a while since I've posted on your blog, but your posts are as entertaining (and interesting) as ever.

BTW, are you still working on plays? I'm kinda out of a job (switching from an employment visa to a spouse visa) and would love to come see em.

Bibi said...

Dear Chris,
The yellow crested headgear signifies that the lama is a member of the 'yellow hat' or Gelugpa order the largest of the Tibetan Buddhist sects headed by the Dalai Lama. For more info check out Tsong Kapa, the 15th century founder of the yellow hat order vs the red & back hat sects.

Isabel said...

You have some stunning images here. I enjoyed this post.

Chris said...

Thank you all for the comments and apologies for my tardy response (about to blog about that).

Kay, I'm not doing any plays at the moment but the festival of short theatre I was involved in last year is back again this year - check out

Bibi - truly grateful for the information, thanks for taking the time to post it!