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Notes from a Leh person
As tourists begin returning to Leh after its recent debilitating floods, TOI Crest finds the region has lost none of its charm or warmth, even at minus 13 degrees celsius.
It was difficult to tell if it was the lack of oxygen or the view that left me breathless. At 11, 000 feet above sea level, the sky over Leh was a brilliant blue - the kind we made in art class with crayons as seven-year olds. At night, things were actually visible by moonlight, just like in the forests of Harry Potter movies. Leh is so stunning that it seems difficult to get enough out of it in three days. But even a short trip gives you sufficient lessons to maximise your time. It is vital that you rest well when you arrive.
Acclimatisation to the altitude and pressure of Leh is of great importance. Medicines can help, but need to be supplemented with sufficient physical respite. You don't want to be throwing up in a corner when you meant to admire the sky and the mountains reflected in the nearly frozen Gophukso Lake. Or stand panting at the stairs of Shanti Stupa when you should be climbing them.
During your time in Leh's wonderland, if you still wish to retain links with the world outside, stay connected the smart way.
Chances are your existing phone connection won't work. Try to organise a post-paid connection with one of the three networks that operate in Leh. My hopes of tweeting my experiences live from my mobile were smashed to smithereens when the screen announced 'No access to network' upon my arrival. Thankfully, I found a hotel with a view and with WiFi.
Even if you carry five sets of everything thermal ever invented, make sure you have more than enough warm clothing in your luggage. I visited Leh in November - a time when winter sets in and even the locals shut shop for a good three to four months, bundling up at home. The temperature routinely dipped below zero at night, going to -13 degrees celsius by one in the morning.
Wrapping up as much as possible is an imperative. There are also effective local methods of heating. The Ladakhi system of beating the chill is termed the buhaari (also called bukhaari). An ingenious device, it uses the heat of firewood to cook food and warm rooms at the same time. LPG heaters are also quite common - but a certain degree of care is required when using them. Switch them off the moment the smell of isobutane becomes strong. Restaurants mostly serve warm drinking water, poured from kettles with colourful dragon or floral motifs. If you're careful, you should be able to avoid a chill, even at -13 degrees.
Although the urge to wander is strong, make sure all your important tasks for the day are signed, sealed and delivered by about five every evening, especially if you're visiting in winter. Most markets shut by the time it becomes dark, so shop, socialise and sightsee during daylight. There also isn't a profusion of ATMs around, so it's smart to carry cash reserves if you feel you might prefer to marvel at the sights around rather than queue up at an ATM.
Be prepared for a certain amount of culture shock as well, although of a nice type. Kindness is not dead, certainly not in Leh. For harried travelers up from the plains, Ladakhi culture can be quite surprising. People are warm, kind and friendly. There is no caution or suspicion when striking up conversations with strangers. Even if you wave and shout out a "Jullay" (Ladakhi 'hello' ) to a random person walking on the street, s/he will smile back and return the greeting with enthusiasm. Aside from good cheer, Ladakhis also have great reserves of emotional strength. It is remarkable how wonderfully they have emerged from the recent devastating cloudburst over Leh which left over 150 people dead in August, rendering hundreds homeless in minutes. In addition to tackling their problems with energy, Ladakhis are always up for lending a helping hand.
When the Kargil war began next to Leh, the locals did not think twice before helping the jawans. "There can't be a single jawan who fought the Kargil war and didn't eat food in a Ladakhi kitchen, " Ladakhi actor and singer Dorjay Stakmo told me. He too lost his house and recording studio in the flash floods earlier this year. In typical Leh spirit though, Stakmo was busy helping people at the Solar Camp communicate with government officials and NGOs. Leh teaches you about becoming a better person through warmth and kindness. Be prepared to learn.
Finally, try seeing with your eyes. Not with your camera. Everywhere you turn in Leh, there is a gorgeous sight eminently worth photographing. The days of 36 pictures to a camera roll are over and you may just want to fill up your 4 GB memory card with stunning shots of magpies, winding streams and Leh's beautiful, mystical scenery. Sure, click away. But don't let an LCD screen come between you and Leh's visual treats throughout your trip. Remember, Leh is as much about what you feel inside as what you see outside. It will leave an indelible imprint on your mind in any case. Let that happen without a click.
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