Ladakh ~ The Land of Passes

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Travel Features >> Ladakh ~ The Land of Passes

Ladakh ~ The Land of Passes

April 29, 2011

Seventeen years back, when I came to Ladakh last, all the Buddhist monasteries I visited had greasy black floors, caked with centuries of burning yak butter lamps. Ladakh, then, was a wild, beautiful place, with the most fantastic mountains, the cleanest river and the friendliest people around. The only vegetation was lichen, scrubby grass, or- surprise, surprise- gigantic wild rose bushes, loaded with hundreds of pink blooms. The only BIG town was Leh, and even that was tiny. Leh’s main market consisted of a few stalls where local women sold vegetables, old prayer wheels and rough garnet necklaces. If you headed out of Leh, all you saw, for miles on end, was barren land, harsh purple peaks rising up into the sky- and maybe an isolated village with six huts and a dozen shaggy yaks.

That was seventeen years back. Things have changed since then. The monasteries, now very modern, burn refined vegetable oil instead of yak butter; Leh’s main market bursts with souvenir sellers and travel agents. It has bakeries which produce some of the best pies and cakes anywhere in India; and there are willows and poplars all across the Indus Valley.

Yes, some things have changed; but some are still the same. The deep blue sky, cleaner than most of urban India, is the same; and the stark, barren mountains, some snow-clad even in summer, are the same.

And many of the people are the same, too. The old villager, thin and bent, who calls out a cheerful greeting to complete strangers: `Julley!', the children who wave from a roadside parapet: friendly as ever. (Don’t get me wrong, though: the shopkeeper who tried to sell me an amber necklace for Rs 10,000 or a tatty T-shirt for Rs 800 was probably a gem of a guy when he wasn’t talking business!)

This was, and still is, an amazing land, with surprises around every bend- literally. Travel China-wards to the glorious Pangong Tso, and you’ll see the largest salt-water lake in Asia. The water’s unbelievably clear and appears in bands of colour: blue-green, mauve, deep blue. And beside the lake is Garnet Hill, where a not-too-strenuous trek up to the summit can still yield a decent pouchful of rough garnets- everybody’s invited.

Head for Nubra, and mountains which look like Andy Warhol run riot. The rock here is purple, pink, crimson, bright green- even gold. Go towards Kargil, and the village of Batalik has further surprises; this was the fabled point from where Alexander’s armies turned back, with some Greeks apparently deciding to forego the long trek home. Batalik’s people have distinctly Caucasian features, and local clothing and traditions have more than a hint of the Hellenic.

And all along, right through Ladakh, are old stupas, chortens and mani walls. In the most inaccessible of places, devout hands have carefully carved verses on polished stones, or painted religious text onto squares of thin cloth. The piety isn’t misplaced; this land’s a harsh one; the roads are treacherous, and every little prayer helps. As does every little exhortation: all along the highways are the yellow signboards set up by the Border Roads Organisation. Many of them are sweet (“Ladakh is the pride of our country”), some philosophical (“Child is the father of man”) and some downright wacky (“Be Mr Late not Late Mr”). Pretty entertaining, and all- or at least all- supposed to encourage drivers to go slow. Especially along the passes- Khardungla, Changla, Zojila, Marsmikla.

Which is what Ladakh is all about, after all: `La-dakh’ means `The Land of Passes’. A land of many passes, many surprises- and the ability to keep you hooked for life after just one visit.

~Madhulika Liddle

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