The magical Leh Ladakh

The first time I ever left Cameroon was to travel to India and since then I have been hooked. In four years I have made at least 5 trips back here. There’s always something new calling me back to India. This time it was the mountains of Leh Ladakh. This time it was a journey to challenge myself to see how well I was going to do in the wild and survive freezing nights in a tent and trek for a couple of days from an altitude range from 3500m to about 5600m. I was scared, yet excited and that’s how I was sure I needed to do this.

Leh Ladakh is a highly disputed region in the Kashmir mountains on the Himalayan range. You’ve got Pakistan on one side, Tibet on the other side and India in the middle. Somehow, all three countries have found a way for each other to keep a piece of their side so that the people of Ladakh can live peacefully. This however is not as simple as it sounds as I noticed a very heavy military presence in the regions.

Leh, the capital of the region sits at a base altitude of about 3500m and is a very colourful town. As soon as you touch down you can feel the presence of the mountains. They are peaceful yet intimidating and have claimed the lives of hundreds of people who have not heeded to the advice of the locals. So the first thing you want to do is check yourself. Many people come to Leh for various reasons. For most Indians it is the ultimate road trip,mostly by motorbike which starts from New Delhi, through the lovely provinces of Uttarakhand and  Himachal Pradesh stopping by the ever green and chilled out Manali, the spiritual Dharamshala  then a steep climb all the way to Leh. A trip which sees them cover at least 1300km by land in one of the worlds most dangerous routes. Going through glacier passes depending on the season and sometimes having to wait in line for hours for repair or recovery of vehicles which have given up to the mountains. I decided to skip all of this and took a 1hr 30min flight.

The first thing you want to do when you get to Leh is acclimatise. This is the simple process of letting your body get in tune with the altitude change. You may be a very fit person but might still require a couple of days to acclimatise properly. All you have to do is sit and not move around a lot for about 24-48 hours (varies per individual). You will feel your body change, you will feel drowsy, loss of appetite, breathing becomes even more difficult as the air is very thin with less oxygen. Take a rest, eat and take in enough fluids to keep your body going. If you must move, then visit the monasteries and markets around. My headaches lasted for about a day and I felt I was good to go the next morning. I planned my trek with the help of a local tour company I had found (there are any of them) and the next morning I was up at 5am to start my adventure.

I was introduced to my guide, Tundup. He was going to try to keep me alive. We had a porter and a cook with us as well as 3 horses to help carry our supplies. This was already interesting. Tundup and I spoke for a couple of minutes, he made sure I was healthy and told me to always listen to him, to let him know how I as feeling and to ask him stop if I didn’t feel good.

We took off shortly and left the porter, the cook and the horses behind. He said not to worry as they were going to catch up quickly. We opened conversations. I had come here to learn, I had come here to educate myself through listening and first hand experience. I asked about the laws of the land, how different things are now that the region is open to many tourists and how it has affected the locals. What was the buddhist way of life and how can I translate that to my own life. In pure buddhist fashion, the answers were simple yet thought provoking. Most of them went around the wheel of life, karma, and greed. Greed is what corrupts the human mind more than anything else. They were peaceful and self sufficient before many people started arriving and found a way to monetise the region. He spoke of how it has helped them greatly but also of how so many values have been lost because of greed. It was becoming increasingly difficult to live normally as everyone was focused on making money. But there were a few who were not to affected by the negatives; the small villages on the way during our trek. I came by a village or settlement which was self sufficient. They had everything they needed, they had their cattle for food and their waste as fuel during the winter months. They grew their own food, barley, wheat and even had their own mills being run by man made irrigation systems. The irrigation system had channels through which water could be diverted to help run the mill. There wasn’t a single shop in sight, not even a small store where you could buy anything. Money hd no value in this village and I loved that about it. I had been looking forward to getting there thinking I was going to be able to find a shop or store and buy some bathing soap…nope…there wasn’t even a proper bathroom. So being in the wild we had to do things in the way of the wild. I had to shower from a small waterfall. I was excited about this but had completely forgotten that this water were all run offs from melting glaciers…I jumped in, my lungs froze and and jumped right back out, gave out a loud hearty laugh and went right back in. I was loving it, it was was freezing but I was enjoying it. Come to think of me back in the city who wouldn’t have a cold shower and I am here having a freezing one and enjoying it. These are the things I miss and that is why I travel this way. This was just one of the many things I loved about this trek.

They say if you want to find yourself you need to take long walks by yourself. Well, this was it for me, trekking and camping in the wild. I trekked each day for about 5- 6 hours and I spent about a quarter of the time listening and asking questions to my well informed guide. The other quarter of the time I will be focused on where to put my foot next and the last half of the time in utter silence, listening to my thoughts and memories. Memories of my childhood kept on going through my mind which came as no surprise as I was here to appreciate my life more, hence, it covered everything I had experienced or grown up around since birth. The more these memories ran through my mind, the more I appreciated my life and you can’t help buy feel gratitude. Gratitude is what creates abundance in my life. Focusing on hat I have and being thankful for it rather than what I do not have and being sad about it makes all the difference. I have  ups and downs like everyone else but I started focusing on the things that were going right and was very happy for them. That was the shift, that made the difference. It is difficult to stay in this frame of mind all the time but if you try you will get there and you will see how much of a difference it makes, how liberating it is and how much simpler your life could be if you focused on the present things which were going on in your life at this moment. My time on the mountains were filled with these flashes of how awesome my life had been up till this point and with each flash came a wave of happiness, a wave of joy and a huge smile on my face, you know, the type that warms your heart. I shared some of these with Tundup and he loved hearing them.

I had listened to a TED talk which was about travel and how to make your travel experience one you would never forget. Travellers are always focused on taking pictures and asking questions to the locals, more interested in knowing about the locals than letting the locals know about them. The advice was to take time to make the locals learn something about you, something which corporate media would never show, something which is unique to you and your people wherever you come from. It was simple, all you had to do was ask the local to ask you anything about yourself, anything at all. Beside being a tourist, you were the ambassador of your country. This was a learning exercise for both parties. For me it was how to present my culture and country to a stranger, for the listener it is an opportunity to confirm or get rid of his prejudices about someone. Tundup was quick to fire, no one had ever asked him this before. He asked about famine and war, about kids dying from hunger and poverty, about the type of clothes we wore, did we live on trees etc? They were very funny but I realised this is what movies portrayed about Africa. That was the information he was being fed. We laughed together as I debunked each of these preconceptions he had. I told him how we grew up in a community style kind of way, where everyone looked out for the other, we had big houses and enough food to feed a lot of people daily, we played in fields and climbed on trees to harvest fresh fruit, we did go hunting and fishing sometimes and we went to school as well. It was a perfect mix. I was very happy telling him about how I grew up, being able to do all these things. Yes some places were dangerous but it was overall fun and I’ll do it again in a heartbeat. He asked about what kind of music I listened to and was shocked I wasn’t a big fan of hip hop. I told him why and how I found more meaning in deep house music but still danced to hip hop when the chance presented itself. I had my phone with me and had some podcasts downloaded and saved so I played him one of my favourite 1hr podcast by Sam Feldt (podcast title; Nazomeren). I love this podcast  series because it always started with a very positive message then the music drifted in slowly. We took a break from trekking and sat down under the shade of a rock to listen to it. He loved it, he loved he message at the start of the podcast and we went into another conversation about it. I loved that Tundup wasn’t just a guide, I loved how we could both teach each other about two completely different world and yet find common ground in the simplest things.

The nights were windy and freezing and I was on a mission to capture the milky way. This would have been easy if I had actually read on how to do it and not rely on meeting a photographer friend of mine who fell sick and couldn’t make the trip on time. So I’m out there at 11pm, a sky full of stars and I can’t set my dslr to the right shooting mode. So I keep ducking back into my tent, switch mode, come out, shoot…nothing happens. I did this for about an hour then finally gave up, took my sleeping bag and wrapped it around myself and just sat there and took it all in. It was an amazing sight, one which I had missed while failing woefully with my camera. The moon wasn’t in sight on this night and the magic known as the universe was in the full range of my eyes. It was truly a sight. I had never ever seen it a clearly as I had on this night, being at an altitude of about 4700m, no light pollution, no sound of cars or of people. On this night, it was just me, my tent and the rest of the world before my eyes. Whatever god you believe in or not, this was confirmation that there is something or someone out there bigger than the rest of us and watching over us and that we are just part of a very large and complex system we may never fully understand but that giving into it gives room for so much more. This was a bigger than life moment for me. My place in the universe was just a tiny spec of dust we have called Earth and we are on a mission to destroy it as if we could just up and go to another one. How sad! When I couldn’t bare the cold any longer I went into my tent and had a good nights sleep. I woke up the next morning, opened my tent and just gazed out into the ice capped mountains which were laid out in front of my eyes. I was consumed by my thoughts once again and only snapped out of them when Tundup came by to announce we had to  start getting ready for the second part of the trek.

This was going to be the most difficult part of the trip. We were going to ascend up to about 5300m and the slopes we were trekking along were slippery and very steep. As mentioned before the air is really thin and gets thinner the higher you go and here every step has the be well calculated before taken. You could feel the lightenes sod the air in in your lungs and you would know better than to push yourself. I learnt later that at this altitude the caloric demand of your body is in the 6000-7000 range daily as opposed to 2500 when you are at your regular altitude. This was the most dangerous part of the trip and had to be executed properly. We will go up to the top of the passes and then descend into the valleys and up again and down again. This feat will continue till we reached our resting place for the day. I experienced first hand nature providing for us. The sun is very harsh here and whenever we felt like we had had too much a cloud appeared to cover us, when it was too hot a cold breeze was sent from the ice peaks to cool us down. The valleys were green and had springs flowing through them and we would fill out water bottles, dip our feet I the spring to cool off and wash our faces then start the dreadful climb up again. More reflections, more self assessment, more realization and more appreciation and gratitude. That was the practice on this trek and it truly felt awesome.

On arrival at the top of any pass my guide and I will cry out “Ki ki so so lha gyal lo” is the prayer a Tibetan will recite at the summit of a mountain pass. My guide told me it translates to “victory to the gods”. They believe that it is at these high mountain passes that the good gods fight with the evil gods and that the lung-tar (coloured paper printed with prayers) and prayer are an offering to the good gods. Offering these prayers at mountain passes is especially auspicious because it is believed that the high winds will be of benefit in carrying the prayers. It was also a huge sign of relief when we got to a pass, that meant the climbing had stopped and we were going down which was easier to do that climbing.

On this night though I managed the view the Milky Way and took an almost good picture  of it finally. There was a big golden Buddha at this village and I went up to the monastery and spent some time there trying to listen to my thoughts. A local came and he and I engaged in conversations about Budhism and how the Buddha I was looking at was different. He had his hand touching the earth. This is because he had been asked to prove his enlightenment and his response was “only Mother Earth can know” and with that touched the earth. He then explained how we mustn’t always do things to get credit for or to be noticed but for the greater good. Only you and the earth you walk know and understand your struggle. I don’t know why these Buddhist always had very philosophical answers to me. They were simple answers by them but each of them was thought provoking. More self assessment and more realization and more changes to be made. I was loving this and was sad it was about to come to an end. I had learned so many things about myself in these mountains. I had had conversations with myself and found certain truths and had doubts about some. It was going to change my approach on life when I got back to the city. I was happier and wiser than when I arrived here. The rest of the trek was pretty much to same till I got to my pickup point where I said goodbye to the horses and the porters, jumped into the car and passed out. I woke up in the city of Leh and started looking for my late friend. She had after all felt better and made the trip. Found her and got on to telling her about my adventures in the wild and my massive fail with the camera. We made plans to visit one of the iconic lakes which was a 5 hour drive from the city and also to the highest motor able pass in the world at 5700m which was an adventure on it’s own because of the mad way our driver was driving. Let’s just say I appreciated driving slow in traffic after this ordeal. The last part of the trip was shopping for stones as my dear friend had just come out of surgery before I left and requested I bring back a rock for her. Seriously? A rock? So I decided to get one which was somewhat rare and she loved it. Flew back to Delhi and was obviously happy to get a fresh shower bath and regular food. Like I said before, the whole trip was about appreciation of the things I take for granted everyday and to learn as much as I could from the fellow Buddhist high up in the mountains.

Life is not complicated, we complicate life with worries and desires born from greed. I have always known there is a way to live a life filled with content and love and I will keep putting the pieces together and someday I will be free of worry and full of life and radiate that energy wherever I go. I survived the cold chilly nights and the altitude sickness that comes with the environment. The fear I had at the beginning had been conquered and the power of excitement and eagerness had triumphed. I had learnt new ways of life and my perspective on life has yet again definitely shifted to a better place. I “Kaizen-ed” up there.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s