Ladakh is an outlier, a black sheep, in a remote corner of the globe accessible only during a short summer season. It appeals to those on the fringe: Bikers ride thousands of kilometers on a roller coaster of a highway to reach this motorcycle Mecca, trekkers dare to scale its rugged mountains that almost touch the sky and writers like myself wander its steep curves in search of inspiration.
So much of what we hear about India is aspirational with global ambitions, but here I saw Indians concerned only with survival. Ladakhis looking to pass this summer and hoping the upcoming winter won’t be too harsh. People who were simple and content with little that life has to offer. Surprisingly, this India is happy, warm-hearted and welcoming.
Indy, a young doctor, and I trekked to Ladakh’s remote villages and spoke to people cut off from the mainstream consciousness. We were lost and we were found on the mountains of Ladakh.
Sunset near a stream in Skiu village
After a day spent acclimatizing in Leh, we decided to explore Markha valley and learn about the healthcare conditions in the region. It was part of Indy’s missionary zeal and I was happy to play a supporting role.
The beginning of the five day trek was as dramatic as any Mission Impossible movie. Indy and I hopped into a rickety wooden trolley (hanging twenty feet above a free flowing river) supported by a flimsy cable rope. We were two idealistic men way over our head.
During the 15-kilometer walk, I was constantly comparing Markha valley trek to the Great Lakes trek in Kashmir that I had taken in 2015. I was in search of pine trees and turquoise lakes, but there were none to be found. I couldn’t have been more foolish. There was a brown in Ladakh for every shade of Kashmir’s green. Tall, rugged mountains and a river that cut through them with grace.
Sometimes we make this mistake: compare jobs, people and relationships. There are no comparisons in life, just different shades.
An old lady with a toothless smile at Markha valley
I sat on the floor of a small kitchen with a concerned mother, a shy daughter suffering from a brain stem problem and an extremely worried set of grandparents eager to help. Add to that a translator and two strange men (Indy and myself) asking personal questions.
“She is a 25-years-old woman, but often behaves like a 12-year-old girl,” said Dorjee the translator, referring to one of the taunts hurled by the patient’s cousin. It was too much pressure and embarrassment and the girl began to cry.
Indy stood there strong, asked a million questions, looked deep into her eyes, checked her hand and leg movements and reassured the family. “Nothing has changed,” he said to calm the teary-eyed girl. “You have lived 25-years without any problems. There is no reason why you should have any difficulties for the next 50.”
It was reassuring. The 80-year-old grandmother scrambled to her room, brought two fine white mufflers and wrapped them around our neck. What a priceless gift; its tied around my backpack. I carry it with pride. The old lady had less than three teeth and a lovely smile. There was such kindness and love in her wrinkled face that I wanted to kiss her and somehow tell her how adorable she was. By the time we bid farewell, they were all smiling. I felt there was nothing more meaningful I could do with my life than help such families.
Travel, travel, travel people say. It changes you. May be a little travel should be about changing the lives of others, for the better.
The pain and pleasure of trekking in Hanker valley
We came across a remote monastery on our way to Hanker Valley and decided to see it up close. The monk was too tired to accompany us and gave the key instead. The route was steep and we were completely out of breath by the time we unlocked the gates but I learned something on the way.
Ninety-nine percent of trekking is painful and pointless. An endless walk leading to sore limbs and not even a pot to take a dump. But that one percent, when you come across a breathtaking place, a lone monastery on top of a hill, is extraordinary. It’s much the same with friendship, love and life in general. May be the proportions vary a little, but most of it is monotonous. It’s important to love that one percent enough to go through the grind.
That evening, Indy and I had a long discussion about our past mistakes, present plans and dreams for the future. I slept morose that night thinking about all that I had lost. The darkness from the sky seeped through the window and found a way into my heart.
But When I woke up, the Sun was shining bright, high up in the sky. I felt a surge of optimism within me. Life is like that, isn’t it? There are often dark times, wait for the sun and start walking.
We were having lunch next to a lake when I heard the sound of thunder. The birds chirped in alarm and flew away to safety. There was rousing thunder in the sky and ominous dark clouds gathered around us. The weather had changed within minutes. It was only a matter of time before a hail storm began. The mountains that were moments ago brown in color were now covered by a white sheet. We rushed to the nearest camp site.
Smoke came out of my mouth like a chimney. The local caretaker offered me a hot, steaming bowl of Maggie. All of us – Israelis, Canadians, French, Indians – were huddled inside a warm kitchen. So much for our differences.
I thought of Orhan Pamuk’s novel, Snow and wished to write a poem of my own. If there is any good place to write a poem, its inside a tent, looking at the snow outside. Unfortunately, no such poem came to my mind. I was too cold both outside and inside.
The highest pass with the greatest life lesson
We had saved the best and the hardest for the last day. The ascent to the Kongmaru la Pass (5,300 meters) was demanding on the body and even more on the mind. With every step, the pass seemed to move farther away from us. I was out of breath within minutes. Add a hail storm to the mix and it became a battle for survival. I didn’t allow myself to look at the summit, instead I focused on the next ten steps. Four hours later, we were at the summit and the view was nothing like I had ever seen before and there was snow.
The snowstorm and the freezing cold didn’t prevent me from writing down another priceless lesson. That pass, this trek taught me all I wanted to learn about life. You set yourself an impossible goal (a high pass) and inch your way towards it, step by step, like an ant.
It doesn’t matter what your speed is, there are times when each step brings with it excruciating pain. Hail and snow make the path slippery, even dangerous but you have got to push past the pain barrier. Halt for a few seconds, look behind, see how far you have come already and continue onwards. The view at the top will be etched in your memory; the pain will eventually be forgotten.
The descent back to reality
When the dust settles and you head home unshaven, unshowered and unkempt. What’s left?
A quiet confidence that says you can conquer the world. My lasting memory, what I took home wasn’t a trophy or a picture. It was the genteel smile of that old lady which carried hope and love. God bless her.
Travel really has little to do with the destination, if at all, it’s about discovering something unique, hidden about yourself that gets lost behind in the daily madness of life.
New Delhi, India