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A lone ranger let loose

The raw beauty of Ladakh and its Buddhist serenity are a unique experience for visitors, writes Kshitij Prabhat Bal.

india Updated: Jul 14, 2007 00:32 IST

The only thing that threatened to ruin my holiday to Ladakh was a much talked-about menace called Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). Even before I left for Leh, people had warned me of the dangers of AMS. Soon, I was having nightmares of low air pressure and oxygen levels and was even thinking about changing my travel plans for somewhere tamer, somewhere I wouldn’t be hospitalised with a fear of dying.

Even the nice lady on the plane couldn’t resist reminding me (with a rather sadistic glee) about the dreaded AMS.

By the time I landed in Leh, however, I was prepared to confront the ‘enemy’. I checked in, ate some horrible momos and thukpa, and slept for a good seven hours before venturing outdoors. AMS didn’t stand a chance and my holiday was saved. Though that didn’t stop every Ladakhi I met over the next 10 days from launching a long monologue about the old relationship between Leh and AMS, and how life can be difficult for a tourist because, in the plains, one is weak and lazy. After the third day I just stopped listening.

Cat on a high

My first visit outside Leh was to the Gompa at Lamayuru. This particular Gompa dates back to the 10th century and is one of the oldest of its kind in the world. Lamayuru is a small village about a hundred kilometers or so from Leh on the road to Kargil. The drive was long, but worth every moment. On reaching there, I had to trek up the village to the Gompa that stands majestically on the top of a hill, surveying the entire valley below.

The Gompa was a sight for sore eyes. But it was the resident Lama with whom I really struck a chord. On entering the courtyard of the Gompa he sat me down in a corner and made me help him complete a letter to his nephew who lives in Delhi. His friendly, skinny cat, he told me, belonged to the same nephew. He wanted me to tell this nephew that the “cat is fine and fat”. I tried to debate that one couldn’t really call the cat “fat” and suggested several alternatives. He didn’t seem too convinced. Finally he agreed to “the cat is healthy and steadily gaining weight”.

Once inside the Gompa, I was spellbound. These Gompas seem to have a wealth of manuscripts, statuettes and other hidden treasures that are unlikely to ever find their way outside the little village of Lamayuru. The cat, meanwhile, seemed too at home inside the Gompa chambers, bounding about everywhere from the prayer table to behind the statues, between the legs of the Lama and finally onto his shoulder. “Does he always trouble you like this, or is it because there are visitors?” I asked. He replied, with an almost philosophical smile: “He keeps the mice away, I like him.”

iPod jam

My next stop was the Nubra valley. To get to Nubra, one has to cross Khardung La, which, as numerous signboards along the road boast, is “the highest motorable road in the world”. To be very honest, it’s not much of a road; just a treacherous dirt track that climbs to an unbelievable height of 18,000 feet.

The snowline started at around 16,000, and my iPod suddenly froze. Grief-stricken, I sulked all the way to Khardung top. On our way down on the other side, it started working again. Clearly, nature has a way of upstaging technology.

Nubra valley basically lies along the ancient Silk Routes. It boasts of acres of desert, sand dunes and a few humped Bactrian camels. I was supposed to stay with a family friend in the army transit camp, a few kilometers away from the main towns of Hunder and Diskit.

Lost in the dunes

That evening, I sneaked out for a walk into the desert. The problem with deserts, I realised, is that one is likely to get lost among the dunes. One would think that one is walking straight towards the road but after about an hour one realises that one has been going in the opposite direction! By sunset, I was totally lost and seemed to be walking further away from the road. Thirst, fatigue and hunger threatened to get the better of me, but I trudged on laboriously. Finally at around 9 pm, I managed to make it to the back lanes of Hunder and hitch a ride home with a group of drunken Ladakhis, who didn’t seem to have any idea of where they were going anyway.

Back at the transit camp, several search parties had been sent out for me. Naturally, my host was upset. I stayed at Nubra for three more days before returning to Leh, on my return journey to Delhi.

Travelling through Ladakh is like a surreal dream. I was transported to the world of Hollywood westerns — I was the lone ranger and the deserts and mountains my playground. I think that’s where its USP lies — in its crude, raw beauty coupled with the serenity and peace of its thriving Buddhist culture and monasteries.

Aboard my flight back home, I peeped out of the window. All I could see was a never-ending series of mountains. Indeed, the idea of returning from the beautiful place was painful. As I battled with my pain of leaving Ladakh, I realised I was down with what I have termed PMS — Post Mountain Syndrome. Trust me, it makes AMS seem like child’s play.