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 cliché. 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


  1. Loving reading about your adventures. Hope you're in less pain now too - ouch sounds horrid. Looks and sounds like you hooked up with some great people to help you through it though. I'm getting quite over-excited at my departure looming closer all the time. Looking at your pics makes me wish I was going where you are now - wow looks absolutely stunning! Anyway take care, keep up the good words, maybe see you somewhere sometime!

  2. Sounds like these are really nice people. Hope your hips are getting better.

  3. Good luck with the meditation, look forward to hearing about it, Candy xx