Ladakh is the northernmost district of the Indian, sub-continent bordering, Pakistan occupied Kashmir, Tibet, and China. The silk route between China and the western world passes through this hazardous, high altitude mountainous landscape. Snow-capped Himalayan mountains, glaciers, rivers, valleys, and barren cold deserts make up its terrain.
Every year, Ladakh hibernates, during winter, under a blanket of ice and snow, to wake up to the summer sun, which is between May and September. I wished to see this awakening and this was exactly why I marked it as one of my dream destinations to be traveled during my vacation this May.
Ladakh can be approached by land, as well as by air. The land routes are not very expensive but they are tagged with the risk of getting stranded on the roads, due to sudden snowfall, landslides, or glacier disruptions. Travel by air to Leh, which is the only airport in northern Ladakh, has its own risk, caused by snowfall and hail storms. I had scheduled my trip a month ahead of May but found bookings by air to be heavy and expensive. However, it gave me an assuring feeling, that I was not going to be lonely in the land, which was as chill as -7 at night and around 8 during the day.
I boarded my flight from Chennai to Delhi and after a stopover for a few hours, boarded for Leh. The flight into Leh was itself a fascinating experience. Most of us passengers were as excited as children and got up to peer through the windows, to catch a glimpse of the different shades of rocks under the snow-capped Himalayas. We were spellbound as we flew above rivers, wind chiseled ravines, and valleys sparsely dotted with villages. The sun and clouds painted their own shades of colors over the landscape and from my window seat, I felt overwhelmed by the magnitude of God’s power, through his creation.
The airport in Leh is named after an Indian statesman and Buddhist monk. The airport is called the Kushok Bakula Rimpoche Airport. It is one of the smallest commercial airports in the world, at an altitude of 3,256 m (10,682 ft) above mean sea level, which makes it the highest standing airport in India. That made me a bit anxious and eager to experience the touchdown. I fastened my seat belt and enjoyed the rush of blood through my veins, as the flight like an eagle swooped between mountains into a valley, to land smoothly after coming to halt between the many “Hercules” aircraft of the Indian Air Force.
Thanks to the airport authority and the Indian army, the blissful flight experience gained, was not robbed by stringent security checks or other formalities. Stepping out of the airport, I stepped into a new world that had a golden hue and a warm sun, which was just enough to keep the chill wind from dampening my search for leisure. The cab I taxied in, drove past the Army Headquarters and entered an arch welcoming me into town. The roadside was dotted with many Stupas as well as tiny temples with pictures of Hindu gods.
A busy market near a 15th-century mosque was the Town center. Shops, eateries, heavily clothed people, monks in orange robes, hawkers in makeshift tents selling fresh vegetables, greens, fruits, milk, carts and asses carrying goods, made up its commerce. Wandering holy cows and dogs added their bit of action to the bustle and hustle of this pretty town. Although traffic was slack in lane discipline, the policemen patiently ushered conduct. The twenty-minute drive through the town’s roads lined with mud-brick houses along the way; to the hotel, I had booked, was a quick but peaceful transition, from the fast cosmopolitan to the easy-paced life.
Sitting on the balcony of my room and enjoying hot coffee, I looked around and noticed a huge stupa on a hillock further away. On the other side of town, set upon a hillock, stood a castle, below another building said to be a monastery, which was the highest point in town. Down below in a field beside the hotel, a planter with his helpers was planting saplings. Chirpy sparrows, Robin redbreasts were busy picking up food while a cat kept playing on the lawn. Many tourists hurrying to get seated in their respective coaches made up my activity, of watching nature and human indulgence that morning.
As I live in a lowland in a temperate zone with the temperature hovering around 26c to 40c; my first day of the tour was set aside to get acclimatised to the cold dreary weather. Getting into my warm clothes, I inhaled the fresh air which was said to be scant of oxygen, pulled up my jacket collar, and walked into the narrow single-lane streets familiarising myself with the surroundings. The entire layout was speckled with luxury to economy hotels, homestays, tour operators, and souvenir shops. Guide services providing wildlife and adventure tourism on motorbikes, jeeps were aplenty. I found a departmental store, picked up a few liters of bottled water, fresh fruits, and salads. The price of commodities was not expensive even though most of them had to be transported from the plains.
The walk back to the hotel was refreshing and for the first time, I looked at my watch, which at first sight gave me a feeling that it might have stopped. I, therefore, checked the time on my mobile and found no difference. I looked up at the sky, it was bright and blue with the sun throwing a shade of grey under the trees. I involuntarily took a deep breath to sigh again and realized I had ventured into the land, where time could standstill.
I realized time was giving me the opportunity to understand the “self” through pensive meditation, travel experiences and lessons, about the divine, taught by wonderful nature, through the lives of the native people.