Hemis, Norbu And The Wind Mountains

The next forty-eight hours took our breath away.
But that comes a day later.

20150703_081059  Norbu, our local cab driver is car proud and tries his best to make us comfortable- rugs, small eats, medicines, water, music . . .20150704_114249

He talks about the changes in Leh post the Kargil war-
“More army means more livelihood. Since there’s no tourism in Leh for six months a year, many of us go do porter jobs at army camps at the glacier.
The army hospital provides free treatment and medicines to locals; Earlier, in my parents’ times  we relied completely  on village quacks, traditional medicines and even witch doctors for treatment. Life expectancy has gone up.
Tourism has gone down since the past two years. There’s no one reason for this, perhaps Ladakh is not in fashion, maybe it is the Nepal earthquake that has scared tourists off travel, perhaps people don’t want to be stressed out about high altitude sickness while on their holiday.
DSC06280Riding rented motorbikes is something most tourists under thirty-five want to try. Enfield Bullet is the most sought after bike to hire.
It’s easy to guess who the Delhi/ Punjab tourists are. “Where is the closest liquor shop?” is one of their first questions on getting off a flight.”

We drive through Shey, once known for the beautiful old palace reflected in a lake- ‘mirror’, from which it gets it’s name, now a village made famous for the school  Amir Khan used for  The Three Idiots.DSC06004
Shey like many other valleys in Ladakh lies  in the middle of a rocky range of  mountains.
DSC06226I take in the ravages of erosion by sun, wind, water and snow  all around and then Norbu softly says- ” The wind is a ferocious creature. It marks it’s territory. It howls when harnessed by it’s owners. It is vicious when they aren’t here, but angry when they roam these mountains on special nights. When the wind blows it’s best to stay indoors.
“The Wind.” He says those words again for emphasis.
“Who is it’s owner?” I ask.
Like the boys back in Leh, Norbu looks away.
What is the thought behind this fear of the wind, I wonder.DSC06096.JPG

Shey is sprinkled with white chortens, all of which tell a story. The king of Shey had a unique punishment for criminals and law-breakers. He would make them construct chortens as a punishment, thus absolving the criminal of the crime.


DSC05945 The valley right until  Karu has monasteries hanging on to steep mountain sides, stupas constructed for peace in the land, sudden appearance of pretty green watered canals pulled out of the Indus, unnaturally blue skies that seem painted by a painter in love with the color blue, bare sandy mountains like a child’s drawing- slanting line up, down, repeat . . .  icy peaks in between.DSC06124
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11707526_10154298222344368_7375331015224586448_nWe stop at Karu for lunch.2015-07-03 18.33.28
It is primarily a tiny army town, come up from a village of a hundred people to a much higher number, something that happens wherever the army makes it’s base- immediate livelihood is available to cater for the troops, and Karu seems to have tried it’s best in its own limited small way.
We are looking for chicken momos, and yet again, they are not meant to be.
Ladakh has many days designated as dry days- when no liquor or meat is served in the village. Full moon, dark nights, days of respect to various Rimpoche’s of those  particular  villages, if there is a religious head visiting somewhere in the vicinity, endless list.
Yet again we make do with veg momos with thukpa, a noodle soup to dunk the momos in. It is hot, slightly gooey and goes well with the cheese and cabbage momos.
This is our second time bad luck with the chicken momos. The first time was in Leh, where the restaurant owner told us very simply, ‘ We’re religious people. Our lives are governed by living it.’
Karu has tiny eateries, each one having given in to the obvious pervasiveness of Punjabi- ness:
All the Tibetan eateries serve Punjabi fare: Alu Paratha, Gobhi Paratha, Dal Makhani . . . In restaurants with names like Dorje Meals and Pangong.11707561_10154298222229368_7806022876504660409_n
There is no way our driver could have understood a word of the lyrics, but he, as did almost anyone local with a car, played Chittiyan Kalliyan and other Punjabi pop music, interspersed with the soothing chants of Om Mani Padme Hume, almost in atonement for the transgression.
It slowly becomes clear that you can escape the mundane world, but you cannot escape many things Punjabi, including the salwar kameez.
The women wearing this tell me that Goncha, the local dress, is hard to wash and even harder to work in because it is often heavy and involves layers.
Tashi, a thirty year old says with a smile: “Salwar kameez is alien, but  practical. Also cheaper since many Ladakhi’s have family working in the plains, and bring them as gifts.”2015-07-03 18.35.43.jpg
DSC06040Hemis, (dating back to 1630)  is perhaps the best known monasteries in Ladakh, made famous by the annual Hemis festival held here in early June. This year they have colorful billboards for festival aficionados talking about the Kumbh Mela of Hemis in June 2016.2015-07-03 18.38.52
The village itself is charming, literally clinging on to steep rocky mountainsides.
The monastery lives up to it’s reputation.
Within the monastery there are to be seen a copper-gilt statue of the Lord Buddha, various stupas made of gold and silver, sacred thankas and many precious relics from the past.2015-07-03 18.43.21
20150703_101923The elaborately painted pictures depict the various Rimpoches in their various incarnations, one including that of Sasha the cat, who is the reincarnation of a previous cat owned by one of the Rimpoches.
 Tibetean Buddhist  gods-  Padmasambha, Maitriya, Shakyamuni adorn all corners of the temples, amidst pictorial stories of the evolution of the consciousness of human beings. Hell is depicted as the lowest place and we have the option of moving upwards to Nirvana purely by fighting against greed ignorance and desire, basically Nirvana being the state to aspire for.
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With so many of the younger monks playing games on  their mobiles, it seems the way to Nirvana is paved with technology.
Twenty eight years ago monks playing field games was a common sight. Now they play  games on mobile phones- ironically, of  zombies and blood and gore.
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The topography starts getting even more awe inspiring as we move up to level two and three- fifteen to seventeen thousand feet above sea level.
 The roads get bumpier too.
Infinitely bumpy in long stretches. Someone with a sense of humor has planted a sign that says: Bone Shaker Marg. So appropriate.20150704_084616.jpg
We go through places that are names like Zingral, Dagtze, Tirbuk, Shartze, Kumming, Chillin . . . with nothing more than two or three families living in a terrain so harsh and lonely that we wonder why they haven’t moved out.
Norbu explains it simply-
“They were born there, so their karma is there. We cannot escape Karma. That’s it.”DSC06103
Snow capped peaks come at touching distance and the bare stony dusty mountain ranges look humongous.DSC06237.JPG
Thoughts thrown around within our car, and exchanged with other tourists  while waiting collectively  for flash streams to go down:
These mountains are unmatched in their stark beauty in comparison to every other mountain range in the world.DSC06207.JPG
The sheer magnitude of the starkness disorients the mind. Perhaps it is the dwindling oxygen that does that.DSC06233.JPG
 They are giant mountains. You have to stand against them  to be able to capture their magnitude in a photograph.DSC06193.JPG
This landscape is a ready-made set for a sci fi movie- indescribable magnitude, vastness that overpowers, thirty feet and more in size rocks strewn around, most balancing on almost nothing, as if planning whom to catch unaware on the precariously narrow bumpy roads carved through mountainsides.DSC06148.JPG
Colors. Shadows. DSC06202.JPG
Rivers of rock ground over hundreds of centuries into multicolored grain, gnarled mountain surface formation that  stand like ferocious sentinels guarding a territory that seems to dwarf everything in contrast, avalanches of sand flowing down bare mountainsides, contorted writhing figures carved naturally into heights that make humans but a tiny dot in comparison, vast empty bereft  spaces and scapes staring back at you from a distance that seems to go back as you inch towards them, mountains that seem laden with metals undiscovered- giving out an indescribable pungent odors, eerie boulders placed one on the other as if some other-worldly Morse code is being exchanged by beings out of this planet. . .
I mention this to Norbu and he looks startled and after what seems an anguished internal fight, he has this to say-
Let me share it with you, even though we are forbidden to, because talking to outsiders brings on their wrath, resulting in rain and landslides.
Norbu is almost whispering now. He looks pale and anxious. “Our legends and many generations of Ladakhis who spend their entire life in these desolate empty spaces believe that beings from other spaces (read extra-terrestrials) have been visiting here since time immemorial. Wherever they have stepped has changed the way the mountains look. Wherever they have landed has given the mountain a new color. They leave signs for each other in rock and stone pilings too huge for any crane or men to construct, often adding smaller stone pilings like we Ladakhi’s do for a person’s longevity, just to throw us humans off their comings and goings.
Yes, this here is a region shared by us from the Earth and beings from other spaces.DSC06139.JPG
Looking at this alien landscape, what he says  is not hard to believe.
I decide to sit it out the next night and watch out for non-Earthlings.
That night the wind blows a neighboring hut down and flings a dog and a huge clay tandoor across the fence. I see them flying from my window.
There’s no connection here with the outer world- no phones, television, nothing.
Except the Wind.
Unknowingly, I have begun to look at it as as person. In this black night in the middle of lonely mountain passes cut away from humanity, it shrieks like a banshee gone bat-crazy.
I imagine Norbu in my mind’s eye- sitting in his room in abject fear of the OtherWorldlies coming for him for sharing the sacred secret.
When the howling goes down I sink into a restless slumber only to wake up to a dream of a white spaceships with two huge eyes staring down at me.
My brain feels fuzzy. Perhaps the Mountain Wind is getting to me.



Spituk, Emerald Greens and Things That Go Bump In The Night

DSC05918.JPGThe old mahogany bed is toasty warm. The tulsi chai with honey is almost a tranquilizer.The book is about Ghalib and his times. It’s the perfect start to the end of an exciting day.2015-07-01 11.32.04.jpg

Only, the wind won’t stop howling through the eerie moon-shadowed mountains crevices on all sides.

And then it starts- I can hear something rustling on the carpeted floor in the room adjoining mine. I make a weak pretense of getting up. Loud creaks emanate  from  the bed, and then, as I put my foot down gingerly, from the old wooden floor. I freeze. The next second my feet are curled up back inside the quilt. The rustling sound  stops. Is a good thing, I wonder. A few minutes later it gets worse. It is a sound from the roof- as if someone is dragging something heavy. Eerily, the wind stops howling each time that sound starts.

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I want to slap myself for not staying in a modern hotel with a cemented roof and walls that keep scary sounds out. The strange noises keep me awake for what seems an eternity, until finally the mind shuts down and I fall  asleep.

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It is five am, but with a nine am brightness. Daybreak happens early, sunsets leave behind a sunlight that lingers till eight pm.

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It’s a new noise  I wake up to- the  sounds of some really heavy-duty aircrafts landing close by. Closer inspection determines they are the American Hercules. How did that mean machine get through the narrow corridor that Leh provided!


By 10 AM I have made new discoveries:
1. Yes, the mountaineer  friend who said that you can’t compare any other high altitude region to Ladakh was right- Even on day two, walking for more than a few minutes results in a an urge to take a few deep breaths.

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2. All the peaks around us are whiter than yesterday.2015-07-02 06.55.28.jpg

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3.The natural light is brilliant beyond what the eyes are used to. Shades are a must-wear, even when it is a bit overcast.20150703_090550.jpg

4. Rats have eaten my stash of cheese, fruit and other goodies somewhere in the middle of the night.

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And now that relief!  The sound in the room was rats, so that scurrying on my roof was the sound of really big rats dragging away some carrion perhaps… It was only rats!
I feel stupid through my smile as I go over my reactions the previous night.








When I tell the local caretakers about my discovery, they look at each other and say something in Ladakhi.
I ask them to translate.
They look away.

After much prodding one of them tells me in a low voice: It’s the ‘bad wind’ that blows across close to full moon. Don’t step outside post midnight until after full moon night, even if someone calls your name.DSC06201.JPG

I am full of questions. They are full of evasive looks and no replies.
I know that this conversation has effectively ruined the next three nights for me- all I can do is keep imagining ‘something’ call out to me in the midst of the howling ‘bad’ night wind.


Finally, I give up and try to pretend this conversation never happened. That doesn’t seem like it’s going to be tough- Daytime is such a beautiful fear- block. DSC05954.JPG

The forty minute drive to Nimmu  reveals a palette. There is no other way to describe it.


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Purples melt into rusts melting into lavenders into intense blue skies into snowy peaks into mud into mustards into cobalts finally giving in to the emeralds of the languid Indus as it flows to meet the muddy brown of the Zanskar.
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Unreal setting.
Unreal palette.
Unreal sound of thunder crashing somewhere beyond, and the sudden moving away of angry dark clouds- to reveal freshly painted peaks in brilliant white.20150702_124305.jpg
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I wish we had the time to raft down the Zanskar. The crazy rapids in the Ganges above Rishikesh were an adventure; the ride down the Zanskar looks zen in its serenity.

This  confluence of the Indus  and Zanskar  happens in the beautiful Nimmu valley.2015-07-02 20.01.02.jpg

The Indus flows over the dry Ladakh  desert, almost like it’s lifeline;  Ladakh receives only a few inches of rain in a year. Both take birth in the Himalayas, but in the summer months the  Zanskar  is the faster turgid one, perhaps gathering its speed from passing through  the dramatic Zanskar Gorge, a dream destination for trekkers.
The Indus is lazy, calmer, green and meandering.
Our driver tells us that it’s exactly the opposite in the winter: The Zanskar slows down to a freeze.
Interestingly,the sold out  Chadar (sheet) trek is a two day walk on the frozen  Zanskar river,  when the high passes are all snowed out.
Meanwhile, come winter, the Indus moves fast, floating ice giving it a dangerous reputation in some parts. We gaze at it in silence.
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It is picture postcard perfect.
2015-07-02 17.02.35.jpgI ask the driver about an  old Shiva linga we often walked down to when we lived in Leh. All that we  remember is that it was on the banks of the Indus at its gentlest, more tiny stream than a river. Finding it seems like a simple plan.20150702_132737.jpg

Who would have guessed that the temple quest would bring us such unexpected joys- an  afternoon spent driving through bridges all festooned with prayer flags, walking through narrow lanes in the middle of Spituk- a tiny idyllic rare Ladakhi village that has the good karma of  the Indus watering it through the year so even though it is surrounded by a bare uninhabitable landscape, it has fields of green and yellow, meadows of soft grass and twisted trees a hundred years old, and a smattering of Nargis flowers.



A village with pretty mud houses with Geraniums growing in window boxes and wooden gates with horse shoes hung on them.20150702_132238.jpg20150702_132212.jpg


We walked through, losing our way, finding it again, jumping across tiny Indus rivulets, getting caught in thorny bushes and the finally meeting two Ladakhi boys who lead us to the Shiva temple. It is still tiny, but it now boasts of man-made trappings of a roof and walls and other temple accessories.20150702_13384420150702_132949.jpg

It doesn’t feel the same. And then suddenly I look up and am looking  at the mountain face of the Spituk monastery.20150702_133348-1




Not counted among the oldest or the finest ones around, to me  it looks beautiful, like an unexpected gift on an an afternoon that started out quite ordinary.

20150702_092005.jpg Local stories talk of it being the same monastery that was hit by an aircraft many years ago- something easy to believe when even now, every plane that touches Leh goes past it, almost kissing it in reverence.
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Nothing makes a sound that night.
No rustles, no rats, no dragging sounds on the flimsy roof and no sound of howling ‘bad winds’. 20150705_201549.jpg
The silence is almost unreal, because here, the wind never stops blowing.
I lie down with the vision of the emerald Indus, lulling myself to much-needed sleep.

And then in the darkest hour of the night, the mystical shamans begin to play the dull steady flat beat of the dhyāngro- A sound that whispers of Himalayan secrets long forgotten, and of people who transcend the thin space between this life and other-worldliness.


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Surreal Ladakh 1- Pills, Palettes and Moonlit Nights


“Take it easy” was the refrain we heard each time we talked of our Leh plans:  Ladakh is treacherous. Just sleep the first day/ Don’t walk around/ Take the High altitude pills/ Report to a doctor the minute you feel pukey or feel your head going heavy or if you can’t breathe.changla4
All of them possibilities that seemed highly likely- in just one day three families told us how Leh is a scary memory because of the above- and how close they were to dying of High Altitude Sickness and lack of oxygen when on a holiday in Ladakh.

2015-07-01 18.37.20Literally half hour into the flight we were above snow clad mountains. Unfortunately, the thick cloud cover only allowed for glimpses of the white below.


Conversation between the two male travelers in the seat behind was like this:
What kind of holiday is this yaar, eat pills so you can go back alive, alcohol isn’t allowed during acclimatization! I don’t care, I’m having rum.
1st man: Sure. You won’t care after you’re dead. People generally don’t.
Then to us: “Have you had your dose of Diamox?”
I tell him there doesn’t seem to be a need to take it just yet, but if there is the slightest discomfort …
He: Don’t wait. Have it!
They look at us with an expression of  ‘Are you mad’ and go back to discussing Greece and how/ why the media is playing it down.

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2015-07-01 20.15.24.jpgOut of nothing I remember that a plane that had dashed into one of these peaks, and another into a part of the monastery right across, 28 or thirty years back in time. It seemed possible even today as we sweep in through narrow corridors in gusty winds.
I’ve heard that only ex- Indian Air Force pilots flying commercial airlines are able to land on the Leh strip.
“The outside temperature is 14*C”, announces the pilot.
It will be 2* C at midnight, informs the chatty man sitting behind us looking at a weather forecast on  his phone.2015-07-01 11.35.14.jpg

Brrr. 2015-07-01 11.22.19
The wind is blowing and the chill factor is in play. I look out as we hover above the tiny airport. What an extraordinary landscape.
Sci-fi movie set. Only more spooky.
And beautiful in a desperately minimalistic way.

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Even now in the summer months there’s very little green, except in and around Leh.
 In almost all  other parts it is barren and  rugged, multi-hued mountains deeply scarred with thousands of years of wind and snowy streams cutting through them.


Why do people push to get into the airline buses- they aren’t those local2015-07-01 11.34.34 Indian town buses that may leave you out if you don’t do an elbow maneuver each time you have to board.
Women do it more.
Older women.
I think.
They also happily disregard queues. Perhaps it comes from a sense of entitlement that comes with age.
I think. 2015-07-01 11.35.48

The airline bus could not climb the first not- even- that- steep road.
Its Ladakhi driver tinkered on, pulled at various sticks, pushed the accelerator to crazy groans, yet nothing.
Ten minutes later we piled on to the next bus. I saw some folks exchange happy sly smiles when the pushy aunty was now stuck pretty much at the end of the line, and someone said,”Karma plays out right here.”
That was not the last time I would here the K word.

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2015-07-01 18.40.05The mud huts we opted to stay  in were just as we left them years ago.
Built out of ghee tins cut to size and plastered with local mud, they kept the heat in. 2015-07-02 06.43.00.jpg
The entrance still has a dragon with a slightly doped expression on his face; I’m guessing the painter passed down the ‘Painting the Dopey Dragon’  legacy with a great sense of responsibility.
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Lack of oxygen supply and high altitude are a heady combination. An hour into lunch and the start of the mandatory two days of acclimatization, something slightly weird does happen to the head- like a small rush.
Perhaps it is psychological, I tell myself.2015-07-02 06.55.00.jpg

Sleep comes easy that afternoon, perhaps the body’s natural defense 2015-07-01 11.32.04mechanism kicking in to ensure you take it easy.

The landscape changes every few minutes- shadows play games with the mountains, peaks adorn more white, and the blue palette flows into grays and ink.
We are surrounded by peaks. Its like living in a hollow carved out from mountains and undulating sand and white peaks, photo shopped every minute to change colors with changing shadows cast by fast moving clouds.

DSC06020.JPGThe moonlight is good enough to read a book.
Bright, white, luminous, it turns the landscape into something so surreal that no pictures or words can describe it.
Everyday things like trees and roofs look eerie, as if it was day in another planet.

Even as I write, there’s something big  scurrying across the roof of my 20150705_201549mud hut. And another. And another.
It is unnerving, to say the least. Tucking my feet under the hot-water bottle, I take a deep breath and pull the quilt closer still.

The wind wont stop howling as it escapes from the passes in the mountains enclosing us.

This will be a long night.DSC06015.JPG