The moment you board the flight to Ladakh, you know its going to be a special journey. You catch a very interesting mix of people looking at you as you make your way through the aisle. Enthusiastic backpackers, hearty locals and tranquil monks with beaming smiles, eager to engage in conversation. Its nothing like another domestic flight. Before you know it, you begin descending into Leh, the flight precariously making its way through the mighty Himalayas. You sit at the edge of your seat, peeping out of your window, gaping in awe. Your feet itch to get out and soak in the experience. You already know its going to be extraordinary.
Personally, I seem to have a penchant for these Buddhist havens. Its a liking that has grown with each experience. I felt it first years ago in McLeodganj. Then travelling to Bhutan and Spiti made me want to live there forever. [Read more about my experiences in Bhutan and Spiti] The peaceful and content vibe that they exude is just so refreshing and inspiring. While the landscapes are beyond stunning, for me its really the people that take the cake. Shy yet welcoming, cultured yet open-minded. People as kind as their terrain is harsh. Being in Ladakh reinforced that feeling instantly. It made you feel more than welcome with the wide smiles and heartwarming Julley! A multipurpose greeting used quite conveniently and generously to mean hello, goodbye and please amongst other things. I enjoyed greeting everyone as much as they seemingly did.
I made sure I took it easy the first couple of days and let my body acclimatize to the weather conditions. So I wandered slowly around the local Leh market and Old Town, sometimes making my way out of the web of those lanes into nearby villages. While the main market bustled with tourists and locals, shops, cafes and street vendors, it took all of five minutes to walk out into quiet villages with white washed mud brick homes, gushing streams and vast barley fields. I enjoyed both – the busy old town and the placid neighborhood.
Some moments were so beautifully overwhelming, it was easy to get carried away. It took constant reminders for me to avoid any strenuous exertion and to take adequate water and honey lemon ginger tea breaks. I sometimes sat around the streets, but the longer breaks were on most occasions at Lala’s art cafe and sometimes at Brazil cafe in the Leh market.
Lala’s was my favourite little cafe in Leh, a brilliantly restored mud brick house in Old Town. I would sit there to read, write and muse. I enjoyed the views of Old Town, with the Leh palace, the Namgyal Gompa and the Jama masjid dominating. The muezzins call to prayer from the masjid would echo in the entire neighborhood. This mixed beautifully with the prayer flags fluttering loudly with the winds, metaphorically spreading peace and harmony in the entire region. I was completely taken by the harmonious coexistence of various cultures (primarily Buddhist and Muslim, though I saw a fair amount of Sikhs as well and a Gurudwara sat just by the Jama Masjid) all around me, a very pleasant surprise after having visited the neighboring war torn Kashmir recently.
There was a surprising amount of greenery in the villages in Ladakh. Having been to Spiti recently, it was not something I was expecting. And given the arrogant harshness of the terrain, it was indeed commendable. Ladakh also has the clearest and bluest skies I had seen in a long long time, comparable again only to Spiti. Magpies fluttered around all day, singing to the skies. And to contrast the blue and the green stood the stark and barren mountains, making landscapes so imposing, they remained etched in ones memory long after one had physically travelled to the place. This surreal corner of the world was the kind one day-dreamed about when sleep walking through their mundane city lives.
It was all too easy to fall instantly in love with Ladakh. And it was not just the 11,500 feet elevation that took my breath away. It was another world, a world where life moved at its own sluggish pace. From the moment I walked out of the airport and was greeted by my sister (working in Ladakh) and her local friends – Julley! Didi. Welcome to Leh. To the quiet walks in Sankar village. The thupka, stew and mutton shepta. The ancient Buddhist culture intrinsic to the society. I just couldn’t wait to explore further, the rural qualities and the turquoise lakes. To indulge in more sumptuous food. To hear more stories from the heart-warming people. Ladakh completely had me at hello (or should I say Julley!) and I could not wait to engage deeper in this unique conversation.