Ladakh and Leh - Travel Prayers in the Wind

Ladakh and Leh is a fascinating region in the high valleys of the Himalayas. Ladakh is a country of high altitude, wedged between the two highest chains of the world, the Himalayas and the Karakoram. In the center, runs one of the largest rivers in the world, the Indus, main source of water for the farmers of the region.

Former kingdom of the vast Tibetan empire, Ladakh strongly shares culture and religion. This was once a milestone for the caravans of the Silk Road. The cultural and commercial exchanges with Tibet were then important and are at the origin of the wealth of splendid Buddhist monasteries.

The first contact with the country goes through its capital, Leh, starting point of many expeditions in the mountains. It welcomes travelers from all over the world in a grand bazaar atmosphere of the Eastern world. Turbanic Sikhs, Dravidians, Muslim traders, Tibetan traders rub shoulders.

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Day 1 - Sarchu

I left last June with my partner on the roads of Ladakh. We had to travel 450 km by car between Manali and Leh. We start at 4:00 am in the direction of the first pass, the Rohtang Pass at 3800m. Well we cross it at 13:00 or 9 hours for just 50 km. But why? The road is opened for 2 months for tourists coming to touch the snow.

Between truck traffic, military traffic, minibuses, taxis, buses and the minimum width of the road, the rise to this pass was a hell for the lungs. The people in ski suits (rented in the valley) rolling in the snow is a surrealistic scene. They do not even have sled or plastic bags!

The landscape is arid, the trees are scarce and the rest of the trip will confirm this impression. We continue our route towards Baralacha La at 4833m and its snowy walls. Only one lane is open. The driver decides to stop for the night in Sarchu. We stay in a tent at 4000m. It is 21:30 and we get ready for the meals in our duvets. This makeshift hostel is managed by locals from Zanskar.

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Day 2 - Leh

It is time to go green, and reclaim the Himalayas, the real one. Farewell cars, hotels, computer, and other obsolete material considerations. Today, I become the mountain man again. We leave at 6:00 am with two more passes to pass, including one at 5360m, the Tanglang La. We meet a traveler on a bike. They are more crazy than us!

We mostly cross a lot of trucks till the checkpoint, at the entrance to Jammu Kashmir. The arid landscapes are dotted with beautiful oases inhabited by a warm Buddhist Lamaist population. At the turn of winding roads, appear amazing buildings of several floors with very characteristic architecture. Perched on rocky spurs, they are pretexts to admire landscapes with striking contrasts.

We see the ocher of the rock, the ribbon of the streams, the luxuriance of the rice fields on a background of snow-capped peaks. The serenity of the place is powerful. The silence is deep. I do not get tired of these breathtaking views.

The interior of the monastery is very colorful. The walls are covered with multiple frescoes referring to the life of the Buddha and the multiple gods. We find and visit the lhakhang (meditation room), the dukhang (meeting rooms) then the chokhang has bristling the rimpoche. Finally the gonkhang (temple of deities).

The landscape invites to the walk. The villages and hamlets are set in the heart of oases, along torrents that descend from the glaciers and irrigate fields on the terrace of barley, wheat, peas. We cross this network of canals by small bridges built by the inhabitants. Poplars and willows dominate the valley.

In the distance, we can see whitewashed chortens, who stand proudly as the guardians of this rural life. Walking through fields in these serene places is a real pleasure and an opportunity to meet the peasants who greet me with Djule.

Leh welcomes us at 15:00, after 35 hours of travel! We begin our acclimatization quietly, visiting the Buddhist monasteries around Leh. At 3600m we have a very special feeling, probably caused by altitude. A crystalline beauty, and a light air gives the impression of not having set foot on the ground.

Built at the foot of a cliff dominated by the royal palace, we see small houses with flat roofs, tight with each other with shops open on the street. We take the opportunity to stroll through the alleys and the many Tibetan markets. The faces are not really Indian but come from the other side of the mountains, from Central Asia.

Well settled in my little inn in the heart of the city, I have a few days to explore the Indus Valley and its multiple monasteries built on both sides. Access to the internet is easier there than in the more remote parts of the region.

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Day 3 - Gia

Every morning I gaze from my window at these gigantic, bare, peeled mountains that stand before me. It is therefore in the small village of Sasoma that everything starts again.

The road by car (70km) in the company of my friend and guide is most enjoyable. The trees are adorned with gold, the torrents are coloured in turquoise and silver. We head to the Hemis Monastery. I had the chance to attend the Hemis festival, one of the most famous and most grandiose of Ladakh. The festival takes place in the main courtyard of the gompa.

The llamas are dressed in sumptuous brocade dresses and wear masks as colorful as they are expressive. The dances recount the life of Padmasambhava. The slowness of the dancers' gestures, the throbbing music, the shimmering costumes are captivating.

After a stop at the village of Upshi, there are about twenty kilometers to reach Gya. Sasoma is just a little further, on the other side of the mountain. We are welcomed at the home of the guide, who has not forgotten the khataks, as tradition dictates. He then shows me the guest room, where I will stay during the night.

Already, songs and music are rising from the village. It's feast day, today in Sasoma. It's Bakston day and is a tradition of the oldest. For any self-respecting person of ladakh, it is an event not to be missed under any circumstances provided be invited beforehand. The Bakston may be held at any time within ten years of the official wedding date. This allows the family to prepare to receive hundreds of relatives from all over Ladakh.

The bride's house is close to our guide's, and we go there. The songs of the nyopa, these big fellows charged with bringing the bride to good port, are heard. We enter the room where the groom's family has taken place. They are about to take the woman to her new home.

Adorned with my goncha, the traditional dress, I go almost unnoticed. So much so that after a few minutes I am propelled to the rank of family member. Once the rites are over, we go on a merry procession to the groom's house, where a large tent has been erected for the occasion. The rites continue inside, where she finally rejoins her beloved.

Then, in an instant, the ceremony turns into a reception, and hundreds of people follow one another at the entrance to donate for the bride and groom. And what gifts! I can tell you that I have never seen anything like it. There are bags of rice by the hundreds, accompanied by so many platelets of butter, as tradition dictates.

After a few hours, the center of the tent is crowded as ever. Add to that the gifts of money and the more important gifts (refrigerators and others) and I will understand how much this festival is important. During this collection, the traditional dances are linked to the drums and oboes, and the chang, the local beer, flows freely. The atmosphere is joyful, but still sombre, like the simple people.

Previously, the Bakston lasted no less than 5 days, I am told during the ceremony. Now, people have less time, and prefer to settle everything in one afternoon. The crowd disperses slowly after the meal. We return in the evening, and share a moment with the nyopa of the day, all muleteers working in the summer for various tourism agencies.

I promise to do my best to give them work next year. The atmosphere is warm, and I manage to make them laugh with my approximate ladakhi. The day ends as it began, with songs and smiles.

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Day 4 - Sasoma

I do not think I've ever slept so well. The mountains still stand before the house of Sasoma, but they seem less threatening this morning, and for good reason. Today, I will have to walk them, in search of the horses which, for several weeks, roam freely. Because this is the purpose of my trip to learn horse riding in Ladakh.

After a hearty breakfast, we drive to the village of Gya, a neighboring village of Sasoma, and famous for its shepherds and unspoiled traditions. Our guide tells us that Rinpochey Khamtak, will came specially from the great Hemis monastery to preach the good word and, in this case, help the villagers to have a virtuous, long and prosperous life. Before entering the small monastery of the village, we enjoy the sun for a few minutes. A Tibetan dog, of the breed called Singge, joins us.

The guide explains to me that these dogs, very popular in Changthang, are implacable hunters. Over time, they have become rather shepherd dogs, without fulfilling the same tasks as a French sheepdog. Anyway, the dog here is more like a giant stuffed animal, and lends itself to the game of caresses and licking. We enter the monastery full to burst, and we sneak up to a suitable location.

It seems that I am the only chirgyalpa (stranger) of the assembly. All villagers from Gya and neighboring villages (Sasoma, Rumtse) are present. Then the Rinpochey enters, followed by a cohort of red-clad monks. These belong to the Drukpa sect, and are particularly recognizable thanks to their gallurin, close to the beret. Then follow several series of blessings, gifts, psalms and prostrations. I am astonished at the youth of Rinpochey. The latter, however, seems already well-honed at this perilous exercise.

Once the teachings are pronounced, he passes in the ranks to bless one by one each of the villagers. Then we all receive a small woven bracelet, symbol of the so-called blessing. The Rinpochey bows out, and all meet outside the monastery for a well-deserved meal.

This kind of ceremony is always of particular interest to me, but that is nothing in comparison with the zeal and the devotion of the inhabitants. This annual event is, for them, eminently important, in Gya as in the rest of Ladakh, because it revives the fundamental principles of their Buddhist faith.

It gives everyone a form of tranquility and comfort to help them in their daily lives in the mountains, rythmed by the change of seasons, and the hazards of nature. The view of the Changthang Mountains is splendid, and comfort me in my choice to come here. This place is filled with a special energy. In the evening, we enjoy a homemade skyu, which has the gift of warming us. The evening is fresh, at 4200m altitude! Then, we go to bed. Tomorrow is a special day in the neighboring village of Gya.

We leave early in the direction of Rumtse, from where we will take the path of the poneymen, the riders. The sky is of a very pure blue, and despite the biting cold the day promises to be exceptional. We turn to the left, in a small valley where the wind grows blissfully. The grandfather of our guide takes another path. We have to divide our forces, to find the horses as quickly as possible under penalty of having to start again the next day!

With our guide, we climb a small mountain that already takes us to 5000m altitude. I feel short of breath, but nothing can make me give up at this moment. The wild landscapes of Ladakh are a sufficient motivation. I feel an excitement, and a feeling of abandonment to this immensity, devoid of life, trees, vegetation. I feel like a pioneer, discovering a strange planet that is foreign to me, a planet where life has not yet taken root.

No trace of the horses. Our guide is not worried, so I cannot be. We continue our journey towards the mountain overlooking the highlands to a summit at 6100m. But as I glimpse this epic trek, we see seven or eight horses grazing on the mountainside. Our guide gets closer and confirms to me that two out of his five horses are part of the lot. The problems begin as it is midday, and we are at 5300m altitude.

Where have the others gone? Our guide does not understand, and explains to me that in general they do not separate under any pretext.We decide to regroup the horses and rake the area, namely the surrounding mountains. Our guide charges me to bring back an isolated horse. I tell him that we have no idea or almost no idea of what to do. He tells me not to worry about it.

And indeed, the thing is easier than I imagined. The whistles and screams, which human beings have practiced since the dawn of time, come to me almost naturally. Perhaps it is by dint of observing the muleteers guide the horses during the treks. So here I am, like them, thanks to this baptism of fire.

We pick up several more horses from Sasoma and Gya on the way. One of them belongs to our guide, but two others are still missing. And we must think of going down again, for the sun is rapidly descending. Then after finding the grandfather, we make the decision to return with the three horses, hoping that the other two simply went astray. The grandfather saw three wolves!

The road is still long until Sasoma, and we are exhausted. Our guide offers me to ride his father's horse. Having only minimal experience, I am reluctant. He insists and so I bow. The walk is short-lived. Despite good resistance on my part, I find myself four irons in the air, back on the mainland, a little fast to my taste.

After a small inspection, it turns out that the horse has an open scar on his back, and does not support my presence. It's only a postponement, I think, knowing that the fall is an integral part of learning. And my patience is rewarded at the edge of the village. As the night falls the mare of our guide, much more docile, transports me to the home without slackening.

What a sensation, I thought, to ride and enjoy the landscapes of Ladakh at the same time. That augurs good promises, I say to myself. But already, other priorities come to mind. I take off my shoes, take a shower, and then go to sleep! This day, as beautiful and rich as it was, exhausted me.

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Day 5 - Lamayuru

After breakfast, I watch a group of men and horses in the nearby field. Then, a song rises in the immaculate blue sky. Our guide explains to me that his neighbors are about to crush the harvest with horses. They need encouragement, hence the songs. Apart from the woman's voice resonating in the mountains, only a few hemements disturb the silence. This tranquility is intoxicating, almost unreal. The silence is golden.

We leave the Leh area to continue west. A splendid road leads to Likir then Basgo, Lamayuru and Alchi. In Likir, a small ceremony takes place on the roof of the monastery. We are warmly welcomed by the monks. Basgo fort stands on red and ravine cliffs. The view is breathtaking.

Some more remote gompas allow chance meetings with the monks, the opportunity to discuss with them the monastic life. One of them makes a little bit of way with us. We continue our journey. The landscape is changeable and bathed in an intense light, so particular to these Himalayan regions. In Alchi, the vegetation changes and the valleys become covered with fruit trees like apricot trees, apple trees, walnut trees.

The Alchi monastery is a masterpiece, in a magical place, isolated from the world. Partly made of finely carved wood, it has miraculously preserved paintings. The road runs along vertiginous gorges. Impressive turns gradually lead to Zoji La pass and Fotula (4100 m).

The bare mountains form an astonishing palette of shaded colors from ocher to rust. Sharp and wild, it is a lunar landscape that is offered to us. The road to Kashmir is long and tiring for the driver but unforgettable for me who have all the time to enjoy these landscapes. The bare mountains and desolate, granite desert, accumulation of rocks make up the landscape. We have a strange impression to be on the moon !

The army controls this narrow road surrounded by the high chains of Zanskar and Karakorum. The high peaks covered with snow in the background. The military convoys are numerous. The Indian soldiers face the Chinese established in Tibet as well as Pakistani in Baltistan, former province of Kashmir.

We see in the distance, below, multiple small multicolored spots. Those are the tents of the pilgrims of the famous Amarnath yatra. It takes place once a year. 30,000 pilgrims gather after several days of walking to approach the lingam, touch it for a moment and wash away all sins.

We pass through Drass, second coldest inhabited place in the world! We are invited to drink a strong tea, with a lot of milk and sugar that warms us. The contrast between the desert stretches of Ladakh and the green valley of Kashmir is felt. The mountains are gradually covered with a fine down of greenery that thickens as we move forward.

We arrive in Srinagar, the largest city in the Himalayas. If there is a paradise on earth, it's here! Srinagar looks like an old medieval town and a crown of mountains and rice terraces on the banks of the Jhelum. Its winding streets, high brick houses and vaulted bridges make it a city of character, very pleasant to walk.

We are very close to Pakistan. Dal Lake is mythical. It is a real pleasure to settle comfortably aboard a houseboat on Dal Lake.

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Day 6 - Srinagar

We have breakfast on the flowered pontoon at the edge of the water, in the freshness of the morning to admire the beauty of this aquatic universe. The landscape is peaceful. The lotus flowers open gradually in the glow of the sun. The inhabitants from the lake glide on their graceful shikara that they row with dexterity.

Early in the morning, we go to the floating market to feel the atmosphere on the lake. I do not get tired of walks on the lake aboard my shikara. It was a journey that ends smoothly, far from the turmoil of the coveted Kashmir!

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