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The Roof of the World

November 5, 2009

Leh is nestled in the Himalayas between the Ladakh and Zanskar mountain ranges.  Arriving in Leh, I was already at an altitude of 10,500ft above sea. Taking a few steps on the first days feels as if you are jogging in a marathon.  Altitude sickness is an ever prevalent concern for foreigners.  I’m not sure if it was the altitude itself or some form of food Leh Backdroppoisoning, but the first couple days in Leh I was bed ridden. The incredible thing about this place is the immediate warmth of the Buddhist people.  They are disarmingly friendly to the point where it almost seems unnatural.  While I was ill, I was staying at a guest house and the lady of the guesthouse literally looked after me the whole time.  This was the kind of hospitality you would expect from family and loved ones but not a complete stranger.  I am quite confident that it was her secret soup which cured me. It’s unfortunate enough to fall ill while traveling, let alone have it be in the roof of the world – as the locals have dubbed Leh.  My first evening outside I went to an Italian eatery. Surinder This restaurant had the backdrop of mountains and such friendly staff.  One such employee was Surinder, who I immediately befriended.  He told me the story of how cultural difference make dating impossible here and how he sees a great number of tourists coming through this restaurant.  He went on to tell the tale of his Australian girlfriend.  Truthfully, he met her last year while she was vacationing and has not seen her since.  He explained that the owner of the restaurant retreats to the south to avoid the cold months and he is left in charge.  One thing I found amazing about his lifestyle was where he lived.  It was outdoors, behind the restaurant, and while I’m sure it was freezing at night, the view was out of this world!  One of the greatest parts about traveling is hearing people’s story.  Each new person I meet has such vivid tales which can often be more entertaining than some of Bollywood’s greatest!    

Shanti StupaThe next day I set out to Shanti Stupa.  A stupa is a Buddhist place of worship which literally translated means heap.  They are monuments created to represent the various stages of Buddha’s life.  Stupa’s were originally made as very basic round clay structures, but more alluring than the actual structure are the locations where they are found.  The 1hr trek through northern Leh and a demanding climb up the crumbling, rock-formed steps led to this particular stupa.  It was easy to see what makes this place holy.    

Later on that evening, back in the central market I found myself sitting on the steps in front of a the local monastery. During the day, the place is packed with followers praying and being fed simple meals. At this time, there were only a couple of kids horsing around and a few stray dogs wandering around the courtyard. The two kids reminded me of my own childhood.  My cousin and I would often be caught misbehaving in a similar fashion. Like the mythical brothers Ram and Laxman, these two brothers had a bow and arrow on their back. Their clothing looked like they hadn’t changed in days, and yet in their simple lifestyle they found such joy in firing arrows at each other and targets.  Although the handmade concoction was rather makeshift and the arrows were simply branches, I couldn’t help but share in their amusement.  They ran around hiding behind trees laughing and shooting and as I sat in the midst of the crossfire, my only thought was to join in their escapades.  Just then, in the heat of the action, a fatherly figure came by and scolded them and I felt as if I too was being reprimanded for sharing in the experience.  He continued to explain that it was dinner time, or at least that is what I gathered from my attempt at a translation. Their dinner consisted of two handfuls of plain basmati rice which they devoured face first! I offered them the rest of the mango juice I had just bought and they stared at me in astonishment. I suppose it was such a rarity for them to ever indulge in a beverage aside from water. As the eldest brother hesitantly accepted my gesture, he took the liberty of rationing sips amongst his brother and other friends who emerged almost instantly. It almost breaks your heart to witness this natural joy being derived from what I would consider such a staple.   

The next morning, I left at the break of dawn on yet another Himalayan road trip. The four hour journey led through one of the world’s highest motorable passes at 17,586ft above sea.  Driving through the snow-capped mountains it seemed as if fortune had to be on your side to successfully maneuver the drive.  We stopped several times to assist many other snowbound vehicles.  Top of the WorldThe views en route were almost as tranquil as my destination, Pangong Tso (Tso is Ladakhi for lake).  Here, the crystal blue-green lake marks the edge of India and as the lake separates it from China (panoramic view).  Upon arrival, 0°C fell to minus 10°C. Draped in layers, I stretched my legs at the bank of the lake and stared at a different world across the water. This place was blissful and yet, as I sat there one thing caught my attention; the absence of everything.  Not simply the absence of human life, but all forms of wildlife as well!  With the exception of a few yaks on the drive in, there was no civilization in sight.  In the invitingly clear water not even one fish could be seen, in the sky no birds were soaring, it was baron and silent. The only sound was that of the gentle wind induced waves clapping against the icy shoreline. Pangong Tso  

Skipping StonesI find myself thinking about what purpose I have in this world.  When I looked around at my surroundings I felt insignificant by comparison to the grandeur of this land. In the short time I have here, how can I add value and colour?  Here in India, I am immersed in a world of faith and it seems that people here choose to define themselves by which religious sect they follow. In other instances, people identify through their professions.  There must be a way to build an identity and find meaning without the association to such groups.  I believe that at the moment of birth, none of us have a profession, a religion, a nationality, or even a destiny.  These are all elements of our being that we can either be given or can choose to find ourselves.  This journey through India is also a journey into myself, and in doing so I shall hope to discover many of these answers.  One thing I could be certain of is the best religion and the best nation is that of humanity.  I knew this because sitting there at the “border of India”, it was easy to see that like most of the aspects of the world, this border was man made. 

Waterfront Home In the Valley

  Needless to say, I was privileged to have found this untainted land.  The handful of tourists who also braved the journey stayed at Pangong Tso for only an hour or so before retreating to nearby towns or driving back to Leh.  I opted to stay in the only village that occupied the shoreline.  In the summer months, perhaps 100 people could be found here but now as the winter encroached, there were no more than a dozen.  

 The family I stayed at lived in a room that was bout 8x10ft.  It had all the essentials, such a fire pit stove in the centre of the room, and 3 mattresses lining the perimeter of the room.  A small coffee table and a rack for kitchen pots on the wall, this all-purpose room, was the epitome of living in simplicity.  It was more than enough for this family of three to live a life full of beauty.  The mother, Lhamo, had been gifted this house by her father who seasonally lived near by.  Her husband, Gurmeet inherited the place through the marriage and two years ago they brought life to a baby girl, Patmayinder.   

Lhamo and Patmayinder

There was a certain harmony to their lifestyle.  During the day, Gurmeet would be out doing an endless amount of yard work or visiting the market on foot for supplies.  Lhamo would make the family new sheep-wool clothing, cook the meals and look after Patmayinder.  At meal times Gurmeet would collect the wood and ready the fire for cooking.  Rice and curry was the daily choice for lunch and dinner and omelets and toast was the daily breakfast.  Their house had two other rooms which they reserved for visitors and charged a mere $3Cdn per night.  Due to the cold, there was no such thing as sleeping in.  They would rise and sleep with the sun in order to maximize daylight hours.  I was fortunate enough to be invited into their room to enjoy an evening through their eyes. 

Patmayinder was simply adorable.  Her smile radiated through her frostbitten cheeks.  Although their home itself was minimalistic, their backyard felt like it was the universe.  My metropolitan condo balcony seemed like nothing in comparison.  Perhaps this was the tradeoff for my so called luxuries.

PatmayinderAt supper, the little Hindi that I could speak offered no comfort as they only spoke a Ladakhi dialect. In lieu of this, the evening was full of hand gestures, body language and a fair amount of guesswork. I played copycat with Patmayinder for a solid half an hour. Her fascination with the stranger in their home was nothing in comparison to her curiosity as  to why I was copying her!  


Gurmeet, Namgyal and I

I thought to myself about how universal the concept of copycat could be that it transcends all language.  Soon after, we were joined by my driver, Namgyal.  I opened my jacket pocket to reveal a deck of cards and had the whole room fixated on me as I performed a series of magic tricks.  Once again, spoken word was not required for this activity and as it turned out, they all knew how to play rummy.  We all played game after game and even patmayinder joined in the fun by eating the box of cards.  Before bedtime, it was customary to pray, and they lit a candle illuminating the 14th Dalai Lama in a small shrine.  Various prayers were recited and I respectfully followed along their gestures.  How wonderful the experience was consisting of strong elements of family and culture.   Patmayinder curled up against the pillow and asked Lhamo to come sleep with her.  Although I could only deduce this exchange of dialogue, my theory was affirmed when Lhamo complied and serenaded Patmayinder to bed. This was my cue to retire to my quarters, however Gurmeet insisted I stay for one more cup of tea.  I obliged.  Stepping outside, the moonlight lit up the entire lake and valley.  The moon appeared full and beamed proudly among the myriad of stars.  I was mesmerized.

Moonlight Sonata (Click picture for an incredible rendition of Beethoven's masterpiece by Toronto-based tabla master, Vineet Vyas)

In the Morning, I was the first to wake up; even earlier than the sun. I ventured out into the frosty air and caught what was easily the best sunrise on earth. With each passing moment the shadows on the mountains behind me receded and the light approached the valley where I stood. Finally, in fashionable timing, the sun made its grand entrance on stage left. Peaking out of the mountaintop, the sun could be seen mirrored on the glistening water below. Suriya Namaskar!Suriya Namaskar  


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Niharika permalink
    December 5, 2009 1:43 pm

    One word- Serendipity!! 🙂

  2. Roopa Lodhia permalink
    January 6, 2010 7:25 pm

    Bless You Prasheen! This was one of the most heartwarming of all your blogs! I felt as though I was there.

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