What Ladakh Was Like (Part One)

2 July 2014

You ask me why I dwell in the green moun­tain;
I smile and make no reply for my heart is free of care.
As the peach-blossom flows down stream and is gone into the unknown,
I have a world apart that is not among men.
-Li Bai, Green Mountain



I've been back in Delhi for long enough to nearly forget Ladakh now. It stays only in the sprinkle of dried apples and sundried tomatoes in my fridge, almost used up. It stays as a string of prayer flags tied to the posts of my bed, but mostly, Ladakh as a feeling is leaving me. Now when someone asks, "What was Ladakh like?" I have my stock answer: "Amazing!" but I feel like they're expecting me to say amazing, the same way I feel the word "amazing" so inadequate, so trite, just bubbling to the front of my mouth. 

When I first moved to Bombay, I asked locals, "Do you ever not look at the sea? Does it become a blind spot?" and they said, "Well, the sea is the sea." When I got off my plane in Ladakh--throat fluttering, lungs heaving, air air air, we must have air!--I turned around to look at the mountains we were surrounded by, and wondered the same thing. 

See a mountain, climb it up, and all the year, you'll have good luck.


***

This is the first holiday I've taken with a girl friend since the Good Thing and I got together. He is away in London, where I cannot afford to go. My friend loans me money for a ticket to Ladakh, she
makes a packing list for us, and hunts out her old backpack and raincoat for me to use. I feel cossetted, like a child, with someone else in charge. We are independent women! We are strong! We feel a surge of self righteousness when we see little groups of families travelling, all of them turning their heads round and staring, STARING, until it feels like my eyes are full of curses from them, and I spit after them in my head, "FUCK OFF! FUCK OFF ALL OF YOU!" Maybe they could sense our smugness, our "we're so much better than you because we're cool and on holiday alone, and you are stuck behind your large family, where the ladies where salwar kameezes and woolen socks under chappals, and your dad is paunchy and has his monkey cap pulled so high it looks like a little nipple on top of his head." My family was never much for holidays that didn't involve going South. We went to Kerala and Hyderabad. Sometimes we had day trips from those two places. We went to Sri Lanka a few times, and everyone had fought with everyone else by the end of it.  Travel seems to me to be an exclusive pleasure, particular to me in my adult life, and not something I share with family or most people.

*** 

 

The food is almost universally, abysmally bad. I am surprised I have such a strong reaction to it. I nearly want to cry after a rafting journey of 20 kilometres when the food greeting me at the other end is insipid saltless daal and rice. In Nubra Valley, there is more daal and rice, in Pangong, where it is so lovely, so lovely, and so breathtakingly cold, there is a different kind of daal, and rice. The man who cooks it listens to my objections about daal and rice ("Please make something different.") and twinkles at me and ignores it. "Couldn't have been too bad," said my friend, a vegetarian for whom daal and rice epitomises comfort, "You had two helpings." "I was still hungry," I told her, leaving out the fact that satiating hunger is very different from actually eating tasty food. Eating to get full leaves you with a craving in the very centre of you, you feel full but unsatisfied.


Finally, I throw myself upon all Leh city, with all its cosmopolitan small town-ness can offer me. There is a hotel called Wonderland up the road from lovely Chow's Guest House, where we are staying. Wonderland does everything, and does it well. We eat pizza and momos, rogaan josh and rice, all not the best food in the world, you understand, but it beats daal and rice.  Another place pulls out their liquor license just before we leave--Bon Appetit--and serves up gorgeous hot chai cocktails--with delicate pizza and pasta, and the views are excellent. I would have gone to Bon Appetit all the time if I could've. 

On the same rafting trip which we are sharing with a couple on holiday away from their child, and a young man who broke free from his package tour, the couple pulls out vodka on a surprisingly calm river, we do shots, and eat the packaged namkeen my friend has passed around. We stop for fifteen minutes on a sandy bank, and smoke cigarettes which the rafting instructor packs away into an empty box. On the way back to the city, they--vegetarians all, except me---discuss how "disgusting" meat is, and I silently long for a mutton biryani. 

***


How confidently the driver handles the vertiginous roads. We do like the foreigners do, and keep an eye out for people wanting to share a taxi. Within minutes, we have answered a neon poster's call, and have rides booked for Nubra Valley and Pangong. The drive to Nubra--first things first--is terrible, six hours of jouncing about in the back seat of a car missing shock absorbers. The only one who is comfortable is an old man travelling alone. He sits in the front seat and looks serene. I want to ask him why he is alone but lose my nerve. Often he hands his camera to me and asks me to take his picture. When it runs out of battery, he hands me his cellphone. I plug in my earphones to try and combat the nausea brought on by TURN-TURN-TURN-LOOP!, but he is impervious to the hidden sign of headphones, i.e, leave me alone. He taps me on the shoulder, and hands me his little Nokia, and I comply with very bad grace. 

This is the first time I've ever been so close to snow. I grab some in both my hands holding it, revelling in its texture. Snow is crumbly, snow is so white it hurts your eyes if you look across a large expanse of it. I feel the give of the snow when I pick it up to make it into a snowball, I am a tropical child, and here I am tossing myself into the snow to make a snow angel, it burns under my low rise jeans, but look at me! I'm doing it! The others are more confident, running up and down the snow hill, but I feel my sneakers sink in and slide, and I'm too scared to take a risk, so I just stay at the bottom, holding my chunk of snow till it bites into my palms. 

In Nubra, I remember that I've read about a certain kind of local beer that's good. We ask for "chang" to rhyme with "clang" and are corrected gently, "chhang" to rhyme with "hung." They source us a bottle at the Dragon Guest House, and we sip it cautiously, it's like fizzy wine mixed with wheat beer. The man serving us is a recent Delhi migrant and he's amused by our low brow tastes. He works the tourist circuits--up next, he is off to Rishikesh for rafting season. 

The lights go out, and I persuade my friend to hop out and see if she can find someone to ask if they're coming back soon. She grumbles, but picks up the torch and goes outside. A minute later, she calls to me, and I refuse at first, because it's so cold outside, and so warm inside, but she insists, and I climb out of bed and go and stick my head out of the door. "Look," she says, softly, and I walk towards her and look up, and the sky is blanketed with stars, so many, so bright, so shining, they break my heart, because I will never see a sky like that for the first time again, and already, even though they are vast and the fact of them is right there, already I miss them a little. 






5 confessing back:

  1. Gorgeous pictures. Want to see part 2 and hopefully 3,4,5 etc soon!

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  2. Just returned last weekend on the 22nd from our Ladakh trip and I oh so vehemently agree about the boring punjabi comfort food..*sigh Wonderland yes but Cafe Jeevan even though it was a veggie place was brilliant...all the books you can read (Tintin! Asterix!!!) made for a relaxing sleepy afternoon dozing off on the rooftop after a lovely meal!
    Rafting at the Zanskaar was fun and chilly even though the omnipresent cauliflower sabzi and rajma chawal at the end of end was a downer!
    But the sights and the snow and the towering mountains and the sky full of stars more than made up for all the discomfort I guess :)

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  3. I visited Ladakh long back when I was in 6th grade, but the memories of Pangong tso lake and Leh berry juice is still pretty fresh in my mind.. it is absolutely beautiful! Loved your pictures.. I can't believe I have never posted till now, I have read almost all your blog posts over the years - on and off - and 'you are here' is one of the 7 books which I carried with me from India to Tokyo (luggage constraints - had to fit it all in between ma ka achar and ready to eat packets!) Your writing is Amazing! :)

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  4. Loved this piece of travelogue, especially the last paragraph about the star-studded sky - it was so moving! And viewing those gorgeous pictures made me want to visit Ladakh.
    Also, I understand the stifled sorrow and slight anger felt when vegetarians diss and insult meat. Then I remember how I might have made similar remarks about weird meats that I do not eat (like pork blood cubes served in Chinese restaurants here in the US) and I realize that food should not be disrespected ever and that it is a personal matter regarding what each person likes to consume, as long as no one is forcing anyone.

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  5. "he sky is blanketed with stars, so many, so bright, so shining, they break my heart, because I will never see a sky like that for the first time again". Sigh!

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