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High on Leh
Dotted with gompas, lakes and astounding views, the Buddhist town of Leh is a dream destination for the maverick and the curious traveller alike.
By the looks of it, Jigme Khyentse Dawa is like any other 15-year-old boy who swears by Harry Potter and Star Wars. But to the monks and high priests of the Drukpa lineage, he is a 'gifted' boy. He is believed to be the ninth reincarnate of the great master Yongdzin Rinpoche, a crucial figure in the Drukpa strand of Buddhist philosophy. Dawa's crowning holds great promise for the spiritual clan that is over 800 years old and has four million followers. It is said the search for His Eminence Yongdzin Rinpoche was so daunting that even His Holiness Gyalwang Drukpa at one point gave up all hope. It was a combination of luck and celestial blessings that brought this young boy face-to-face with His Holiness. And it was decided that Jigme Khyentse Dawa would be crowned the rightful spiritual heir as His Eminence Yongdzin Rinpoche at the Hemis festival this year.
The enthronement ceremony began in the inner sanctums of the monastery sharp at nine in the morning and lasted over two hours. A few monks chanted ancient scripts in a sonorous decorum, while others played musical instruments - gongs, cymbals and trumpets - in rehearsed tandem. Complex as the entire ritual seemed, the seriousness and devotion with which the rites were performed could have instilled conviction even in the most stubborn cynic.
The boy sitting on the raised dais beside His Holiness sat unsmiling through his spiritual baptism as cameras and video recorders edged near him to capture every pensive moment. The solemnisation was followed by a celebration at the monastery's sprawling courtyard. 'Colourful' is the one word that aptly encapsulates the Hemis festival, observed on the birth anniversary of Lord Padmasambhava (Gur Rinpoche). Masked and exquisitely-attired monks glided out of the inner wings of the monastery and performed a spellbinding dance-drama in the courtyard as tourists and locals sat patiently, battling the harsh mountain sun, cheering occasionally.
Anticipating a great rush of tourists at the festival, street shops and hawkers had parked themselves on all the meandering mountain pathways. Trinkets, prayer-wheels, thankas, and even Hemis T-shirts and souvenirs sold at a hefty price. Ladakhis are an enterprising lot. They can sell anything convincingly - from the most obscure item to the most precious. With juley, a jubilant salutation, they win your heart instantly.
Tucked in the Himalayan range and explored ardently by motorbike junkies, there is no place in Leh that wouldn't urge you to stop and soak in the breathtaking scenery. It is a canvas on which god has applied lush strokes of all shades. But, for our taxi driver Norpa, who drove recklessly on hairpin bends despite signboards warning 'be soft on my curves', it was simply any other town. Perhaps for the locals the harshness of the impending winter spoils the alluring romance of clear skies during the summer months. Wang Chuk, our hotel owner, who shuttles between his Gurgaon residence and Leh, says, "Business is good in summer but once the November chill kicks in I head to Delhi. " Noticing a commotion at a nearby cafê, Chuk lowers his voice and adds, "Israelis! They tend to flock Leh every year around this time and hang about all day at cafes and pubs."
While a few years ago Leh didn't have that kind of mass appeal, today it is a honeymooning destination for robust Punjabis, a solemn pilgrimage for die-hard adventurers and a curious passage for those in transit. The city, too, has changed dramatically, welcoming the influx of tourists. With a bustling town centre now, the city has undergone massive commercialisation. But it's the virginal outskirts that hold much promise.
Sights and sounds
Shanti Stupa, which is barely a five-minute drive from the main town, is one such stop. A stupa is a symbol of Buddha's teachings where relics, dharma books and Buddha statues are engraved in the interior walls. Construction of this Stupa started in 1983 by Bhikshu Gyomo Nakamura from Japan. This white-domed structure situated atop a gradual hill offers panoramic views of Leh, providing many picture-perfect moments. The marble-tiled floor of the monument, spotless and clean, lends cold comfort to tired and parched feet. Two other spots that are located within the town's periphery are the Magnetic Hill and the Indus-Zanskar sangam. Vehicles apparently propel themselves forward without the engine being turned on at the hill; some believe it is an optical illusion. The site is very popular amongst tourists, who can't stop squealing at the sight, as if a magician has pulled a rabbit out of his hat.
Barely a kilometre or two ahead of the hill is the sangam or the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar rivers. Many feel the view is nothing compared to the iridescent Pangong Lake, which is a five-hour drive from the main city and located at an altitude of 13, 900 ft. With only one-fourth of the lake in India and the rest in China, Pangong Lake is heavily patrolled by army men throughout the year. The diaphanous water body changes its hues with every ray of sunlight almost chimerically. Ideal as a camping site, a visit to the lake is incomplete without witnessing the mesmerising sunset and sunrise. For those who aren't satiated by Pangong, the Tsomoriri Lake lies even higher, at 15, 075 ft, and demands at least a two-day halt. Rare breeds of birds such as black-necked cranes, gulls and ferruginous pochard are found at the lake. It is worthwhile to carry a pair of binoculars to have a closer peek at the birds and rare species of animals.
Leh is a mecca for adrenaline addicts. The towering, slanted mountains offer not only magnificent views but also a cruel terrain that requires great skill to scale. Each year, with most of the trekkers coming in on ponies, the grasslands of the region have been severely depleted and afforestation attempts have suffered a huge setback. Khenrab, the director of the Youth Association for Conservation and Development, Hemis National Park (YAFCAD HNP) took note and came up with an ingenious plan.
"We tried to convince the locals to let trekkers stay at their homes. They were hesitant initially, as they felt that their houses were very basic. What we did then, is provide them with basic amenities - good bedding, clean interiors and safe, filtered water," says Khenrab. He, thus, not only showed the locals a way to set up a small-scale business, but is also helping preserve the region's green patches. Today, at a nominal price of Rs 350 per day that includes meals, one can stay with a local family and get a taste of authentic Ladakhi culture and cuisine.
What is heartening is that throughout the Leh-Ladakh region, locals try very hard to keep their natural surroundings safe and untouched. For instance, at the Drukpa White Lotus School, biodiversity is given a lot of importance and students are responsible for the upkeep of their school and its vicinity. But, of late, with tourists flocking here in huge numbers, keeping the surroundings clean and unspoilt has turned out to be a challenge.
While Leh's sylvan environs are intoxicatingly stunning, it is not a destination for those who desire pampering and indulgence.
But for the footloose and fancy-free, its snow-clad mountains and serpentine roads offer much to explore and experience.
Traditional Ladakhi food is unappetising. Bland and mildlyflavoured - those accustomed to strong spices will be disappointed. Skyu, a traditional dish made of refined flour and vegetable roots or mutton, is worth a shot, though. Beware of Ladakhi tea - a concoction of green tea, salt and butter Cafês to visit; World Garden Cafê, Babylon and Hotel Snow View for a five-course Ladakhi Tibetan meal, all in Changspa.
Feeling breathless, faint or suffering from a splitting headache? You are in danger zone. Acute mountain sickness (AMS) is a serious condition that can prove to be fatal if caution isn't exercised. Once in Leh, at least a day's acclimatisation is advised. Also, stick to mineral water, because Leh's water can be unsanitised.
Best months to travel to Leh are from June to September. There are hotels fitting all budgets on the Changspa road. Morning flights ply to Leh from Delhi regularly. Road travel is strenuous, but offers the most dramatic views. Delhi to Leh is a roughly three-day journey. There are two ways to reach Leh, one by the Srinagar-Leh highway and the other by the Manali-Leh highway.
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