Thursday, 22 October 2009

Heading Down the Mountains...

This is mainly a picture addendum as I prepare to leave Leh tomorrow. I am flying - all going to plan -(via Delhi) to Dharamsala - a little lower down (hopefully a bit warmer) and a lot wetter than Leh. With characteristic timing, I just miss the teachings of the Dalai Lama. However, the day after I arrive, I will be starting an introduction to Tibetan Buddhist meditation. I hadn't particularly meant to explore the Buddhist path, but as at the moment it seems much more accessible than the yogic, I thought I'd start with what was in front of me. I will be incommunicado during the time of the course - so until November 2nd. So if anyone is worried about not hearing from me, no, I have not been abducted by aliens.

Here is a part of Likir Gompa, the monastery that looks after the ancient paintings at Alchi I mentioned in my last post.

And next to it is its fairly new and very impressive Buddha:

And here is the view from the hotel terrace on a nice sunny morning...

and then about a week later in the snow.

Here I am outside Leh Palace, preparing to go in...

and later outside the monastery above it, while the French film-maker interviewed me:

A final thought to leave you with: perhaps my most memorable experience at Stok Palace (where the Ladakhi royal family stays when not in Delhi) was not the view of the Indus and the mountains, nor the artwork, nor the architecture, nor even the thing made of a human femur (it's very hard to argue, after such exhibits, that Tantra isn't all sex and skulls). No, it was the toilet. I've used compost toilets before, but here it really looked as though the hole went down about twenty metres. I overcame my fear of falling down it (I was quite desperate) by reminding myself that this is how medieval nobility in draughty European palaces once did it. But I don't envy the Ladakhi royal family their palace - nicely decorated but hardly comfortable

Hopefully the Tibetan Buddhists will turn my thoughts to more enlightened avenues.

I will end with a detail of Spitok Gompa, almost most impressive for its view of the airport. I watched a plane take off and it really looked like it was heading straight for the mountains (that'll be me tomorrow) but somehow just nosed over the top of them.

As ever, from Lucy, with love, xx

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Hobbling in the Himalayas

Meet Nawang. Here he is with Punzo, who might be his daughter, and who is on the frontline dealing with us travellers. Punzo is also very lovely, but for now I will confine myself to Nawang, who typifies everything that is attractive about Ladakhis. He laughs and smiles and lot and is unfailingly friendly. He is one of this family who owns and manages The Oriental Guesthouse Ladakh, where I am staying. I found out the other day that he is sixty and I don’t know whether this is typically Ladakhi, but by Western standards, Nawang is a new man. He is frequently in charge of his toddler grandson (a couple of days ago, he was strapped across his back, recovering from the trauma of inoculations in the bottom) or in the kitchen with Gopal, the Nepalese chef (also something of a new man when it comes to toddler-care).

I have been getting to know Nawang better ever since I went to the Tibetan Hospital Wednesday of last week in the hope of finding something that would stop my hip hurting enough for me to be able to walk again. I was given seven days’ worth of herbal balls (different ones for morning, noon and night) to be crushed and taken with hot water. I got back to the hotel and ever since, Nawang has been supervising my recovery, interspersing advice on clothing suitable to Ladakh (wear two pairs of trousers) with reflections on his experience of the “amchi” (Tibetan doctor). He or Gopal crush my medicine balls for me with unfailing cheer, and I even have my own special crisp packet in the kitchen they keep especially for the task.

The hospital itself was very clean and professional looking, with a sign explaining that Tibetan medicine is a fusion of Chinese medicine, ayurveda and Tibetan Buddhism. Well, I’ve had some success with both Chinese medicine and ayurveda in the past, so I was very cheerful about my prognosis. Whenever I told any of the Indian tourists at the hotel what I was doing, they looked at me in horror, as though I was wilfully returning to the dark ages. Nonetheless, I started to improve almost as soon as I started my treatment (which after five days of pain was a great relief) and can now walk pretty normally, albeit not as far as I would wish. I returned to the amchi today, who gave me another ten days’ worth of herbal balls and approved of my next move, to Dharamsala, to do some meditation.

I have also heard Nawang’s take on global warming (he says Ladakhi winters are not what they used to be – much milder apparently) and on Ladakhi youth (young Ladakhis in their twenties and thirties are getting pains in their joints because they are too addicted to fashion to wear warm Ladakhi wool trousers – two pairs – in the winter. In view of the extremity of Ladakhi winters, that’s a heroic dedication to the sartorial). Nawang also thinks Ladakhi children have it easy these days; they all have shoes. He got his first pair of winter shoes when he joined the Indian army. Until then, it was two pairs of socks and open slippers in minus thirty (or colder). No doubt about it, Ladakhis are tough.

One of my other instructions from the amchi was to take my medicine with hot water (it looks a bit like crushed incense) and to drink only hot, not cold water. Here in Leh, 3505 metres up, we need to drink a lot of water in order not to get mountain sickness or, more prosaically, headaches. I have been carrying around thermoses of hot water all week, and it only occurred to me yesterday as I watched Gopal fill the kettle, that I am drinking my water straight from the tap. Granted, it is boiled, but all the warnings say you have to boil water for many minutes to kill all the nasties, particularly at high altitude. The guide books all say Ladakh is a hotspot for contaminated water but either they are wrong or I have a super-resilient stomach. Touch wood, but so far, no lurgies.

I have ventured out of the hotel, albeit infrequently. Last week I shared a jeep with my Italian librarian friend Paul (such a relief to know there are people in the world who own more books that I do – he has over 14,000) to Alchi, which is on the road to Srinigar. The main attractions at Alchi are the eleventh century Buddhist paintings, some of the very few of that period to escape the ravages of the fourteenth century Islamic invaders. By the time I’d hobbled down the town to see them, I was in rather too much pain to appreciate them as they deserved. I did however love the drive. It’s impossible to describe the landscape without resorting to clichĂ©. The Himalayas here are a brown desert, the higher ones snow-capped, and every now and then in a plain, trees rise like a miracle, along with a small settlement of houses and the odd cow or dzo (cow-yak hybrid). Here I am, courtesy of Paul, squinting over the Zanskar flowing into the Indus:
I have managed to walk further afield recently, with a walking trip backwards and forward to Leh to go the bank, phone my own bank and pick up various supplies. I am certainly eating very well. All the hotel vegetables come straight from the organic garden and as I type this in my room, I can hear Nawang singing as he ploughs the little field with the oxen below me. And just to prove I’m not completely incapacitated and am indeed moving again, here I am in the hotel garden on my way to a sirsasana (headstand) a few days ago:
Hoping this finds your world the right way round, wherever you are,
From Lucy, with love. xx

Monday, 12 October 2009

The trident descends

Well here I am in Leh. In fact I’ve been here since Thursday, after 24 hours or so in Delhi. All I have to say about Delhi is that I don’t think I will return unless either interesting work beckons or I know someone there. Granted, I didn’t venture far from the airport but it did confirm my feeling that I’m not particularly interested in spending much time in big cities over the coming months. After London, I’ve probably had enough of them for a while.
The Delhi airport domestic departures lounge is very civilized – more so than Heathrow terminal 3. Costa Coffee Indian-style is nothing like Costa Coffee in London and a few disgruntled Indian customers were sent packing in no uncertain terms when they had the temerity to ask for tea. I’m not quite sure how to describe my decaf mocha: thinner maybe, but no worse for it. The flight over the Himalayas from Delhi to Leh was quite remarkable. I don’t know exactly how high the mountains we were passing are, but at least 6000m, so the plane wasn’t far above the peaks. The journey was made all the nicer by the air-hostesses actually calling us by name (we are not passengers but “guests” in India) and the smiles of the Ladakhis as we got off the plane into the crisp early morning light.
The light here is particularly beautiful: very clear and strong so that the outline of everything (trees and mountains spring most to mind) seems to be picked out in near-shimmering white light.
Apparently, I’m in a desert, so although the snow-capped peaks aren’t far off, here everything is grey-brown. In fact, if it weren’t for the fact that it gets a lot colder than I remember Sinai in June and the mountains are generally rather bigger, it does look quite similar, certainly in colouring and dust.
Leh is the capital of Ladakh, once a Buddhist kingdom, and here is a picture of it, as viewed from the terraces of the half-ruined Leh Palace:

You see more mountains than town, but that tends to be the case wherever you are here. And here below is the gompa (monastery) set on the hill above it (those of us visiting on the day spent a while wondering how they got the prayer flags across):
It was while visiting the gompa that I was filmed by a French film-maker (who usually works with ballet dancers, would you believe it?). He’s going round India asking people the same 10 questions and he decided I’d make a good subject. I suspect I’ll get edited out, but if not, check out your nearest French TV or film festival in upcoming months. All following a theme, as last night, a nice couple from Mumbai (though they called it Bombay, so I’m at a bit of a loss as to which is the culturally respectful version to use) asked me if I was Juliette Binoche. This might have something to do with the fact that I’ve spoken virtually no English since I’ve arrived, as my guesthouse is populated with French-speakers. Nonetheless, I’m taking it as a compliment as I look pretty travel-worn at the moment and haven’t taken off my green wool jumper all week as it never gets warm enough to wash it (but cashmere being cashmere – and as Ladakh is technically eastern Kashmir, what could be more appropriate? – hurrah, it doesn’t smell!). The same goes for my increasingly baggy purple woolly longjohns; although I only wear those in the unheated evenings (it's bitter when the sun goes down), I don't dare risk that they won't dry in a day.
Despite the pretty pictures, taken in Leh itself, which is hardly large, I haven’t seen a great deal beyond the hotel. After my first day of mild adventures, my twisted hip which sometimes likes to remind me of its existence, flared up in spectacular fashion. There’s something quite interesting (not to mention daunting) about being half-way up the Himalayas and unable to walk. And so Shiva’s trident came down (as well I knew it would) and clearly I am meant to stay pinned for a while. It’s been an opportunity to discover how kind people can be and to watch various travellers coming and going from their treks while I enjoy the spectacular views from the terrace or my bedroom, do a bit of restorative yoga or read some of the small library I brought with me. Happily, the hip seems to be on the mend now (though at that annoying mid-convalescence stage which lasts far too long), and doubtless I shall be skipping once more in the near future.
My next challenge is to see whether I can get this to post to the internet in the hotel internet cafĂ© – which seems to have a few viruses which have upset my USB stick. Endless adventures.
But enough warbling from me. It’s got to the time of day when there’s the greatest likelihood of hot (as opposed to lukewarm) water, and so off to shower I go. Here’s hoping to see you soon and that wherever you are, life is treating you kindly.
Lucy x