It had been a holiday of extremes.
Altitude, temperature, bleakness, beauty, exhaustion and spirituality: all had played their parts.
We visited a far-away, alien culture and were greeted with friendly innocence and hospitality.
It was a truly amazing experience which I will never forget.
Main picture taken in Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi. All other pictures taken in Cochin Airport, Delhi and Ladakh.
Then, almost suddenly, our amazing tour of Ladakh was over.
It was time to say thank you and goodbye:
to Norvo, our supremely unflappable driver;
the kind staff at our “base-camp” hotel in Leh;
and to our excellent peripatetic cook.
It was also time to rest.
Picture taken in Delhi, on our way back to Cochin.
The Tsomoriri Wetlands provide a winter home to nomadic shepherds.
They spend the milder summer months in the mountain highlands.
We were invited to look into the tents and see their way of life.
This “inspection” made me feel rather uncomfortable: I worried that they felt like mere exhibits.
But what they really thought I will, of course, never know.
Collecting meltwater from Tsomoriri.
Tsomoriri has its own monastery and, like many of the Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, schoolboy monks attend daily classes.
Almost of the boys live in the monastery but the very youngest often return to their families at night.
What I found more remarkable was that the “classroom” consisted of a terrace with a sheer, unprotected ten-foot drop to the rocks below.
If this had been London, the boys would have hurling themselves like lemmings to compound fractures or certain head injury.
Instead, the class sat chanting their lessons while their monk-teacher listened.
Then playfully giggled, as soon as they suspected he might be out of ear-shot.
They were remarkably happy and well-behaved and, as their teacher reassured me, there was no need to worry:
when it snowed the class was held indoors.
Photograph taken in Tsomoriri, Ladakh.
On arriving in Tsomoriri the driver and his cook immediately set about trying to find us accommodation.
They returned to the car looking just a little glum, worried that we might not be happy with what was on offer.
It was certainly basic:
no beds; just a mattress upon the floor.
But our experienced carers had wisely brought sleeping-bags, and a gas-fired stove.
While, fortunately for me, the room did have a sofa, of sorts, to sit on.
My life has been relatively privileged so it is no bad thing to experience the simpler life.
And on occasion, I have slept in even more modest style.
Despite the limitations, our cook produced an amazing supper.
But as far as the bathroom facilities were concerned,
a discreet veil of silence might be in order..
“I am dark but lovely, daughters of Jerusalem..
Therefore the King loved me..”
From Song of Songs 1:5..
Picture taken on the road to Tsomoriri
A monk and a shop-keeper pray together in Ladakh
After a night in Leh, we set out once more,
this time crossing mountain passes a mere 3 miles above sea-level.
By now, I was positively blasé:
probably the effect of altitude-induced oxygen deprivation.
My eyes were quite painful: I could see almost nothing other than a fierce reflected glare from the snow.
But simultaneously, I felt something bordering on euphoria.
So perhaps it was fortunate that we rapidly descended three thousand feet into less blinding light and just a little more oxygen.
Our destination was Pangong Tso:
a salt lake fed by mountain streams but lacking any outflow;
a lake whose far shore laps against neighbouring China.
Despite its salinity, the extreme altitude means Pangong Tso sits frozen for many months of the year.
A salt lake without a city, and also lacking a Tabernacle Choir!
The extreme and mountainous terrain of Ladakh means that its road network is limited.
Like most visitors, we were based in Leh, and had to return there after every excursion into the wilder reaches of region.
And so, after our journey to the Nubra valley, we had to return to and re-climb the Khardung Pass.
Coping with descent:
Now you see it;
now you don’t.
Pictures taken in Diskit Monastery, Ladakh.
Music courtesy of The Shadows
A Tibetan Buddhist monk sits beside the doors to an upper room.
A place of prayer and light.
With opportunities for spiritual spring cleaning.
Pictures taken in Diskit Monastery, Ladakh
The Nubra Valley is dominated by its Tibetan Buddhist monastery.
“The truly sacred attitude toward life is in no sense an escape from the sense of nothingness that assails us when we are left alone with ourselves.”
Thomas Merton, 1915 – 1968
Pictures taken in Diskit Monastery, The Nubra Valley, Ladakh
It was a day of surreal contrasts.
First a morning spent traversing “the world’s highest motorable road” with snow-chains fixed to our wheels,
then lunch in a restaurant staffed by a silent Buddhist monk,
and now an afternoon crossing the Nubra Valley desert – on camel.
I must be honest:
There was no real need to cross the desert, nor hire these beasts of burden.
But bactrian camels have been used to carry travellers across this part of the ancient Silk Route for more than two thousand years.
It was an opportunity I could not refuse!
With almost touching naiveté, I had imagined this would be similar to riding a horse.
I was mistaken:
For a start, there were no stirrups.
And trying to hang on to the animal with only one hand, whilst the other furiously gripped a camera, made the experience even more interesting.
It is surprisingly difficult to take a photograph whilst sitting astride a camel in motion,
but frankly alarming to be on the poor beast when it finally sits down!
So despite being treated with genuine care and concern by our camel-handlers,
(and sadly, “our camel-handlers” is an expression I rarely have the opportunity to use)
it was with a slight sense of relief that we returned to a more familiar form of transport.
The beers we shared at the end of the day were, I think, well deserved.
All bar one of these pictures were taken in the Nubra Valley highland deserts.
Arriving at our lunchtime restaurant, we thought this time there would be no puzzlement.
Experience had taught us the custom of being taken first to a bedroom.
But Ladakh still managed to surprise us:
We were welcomed by a Buddhist monk.
Quite what his role was, I never understood.
He appeared to do little other than sit at the reception desk, smiling in silence.
But, while maintaining that silence, somehow the monk summoned our hotel’s owner.
Again, we were shown first to a bedroom where, after a chance to wash and make ourselves comfortable, tea was served.
Feeling relaxed and refreshed, we wandered down to the dining room to take lunch.
Then sat outside for a few minutes, luxuriating in the gentle warmth of spring sunshine.
We descend from a morning high above the snow-line, to noon in a very different world.
This is the Nubra Valley, where all is fiercely arid yet almost bizarrely colourful.
Pictures taken during our descent to the Nubra Valley, Ladakh
Then suddenly we were there:
up in the high Himalayas.
Our route took us over the Khardung La Pass: at “18,380” feet above sea-level, claimed to be the highest motorable road in the world.
While I was bemused,
Robin was ecstatic: he had never seen snow before!
This was a place of blindingly bright light, heavy military presence, snow-chains and a recent deadly avalanche.
All experiences new to me, as well..
Pictures taken on the Khardung La Himalayan Pass, Ladakh
For the duration of our stay in Ladakh, all the meals tasted remarkably good.
Whether their appeal was coloured by the many hours we spent outside, in the cool of high altitude, is difficult to judge.
But freshly baked, Ladakhi naan breads are pretty close to heaven!
Picture of a typical bakery taken in Leh, Ladakh.
From Tingmosgang to Basgo,
a centuries-old monastic fort complex, built of mud rather than stone.
Though Norvo, our driver, had seen it all many times before,
many, many times before..
We leave Tingmosgang, and head back towards Leh,
catching momentary glimpses of a child’s unfathomed life.
Pictures taken on the road from Tingmosgang, Ladakh.
Initially, arriving back at our guest-house, we failed to notice there was no electric power.
But as the darkness grew ever denser, it became very apparent.
Not only were we unable to read, the temperature had begun to plummet.
There was little to do other than listen to our anxious host attempting to start his petrol-powered generator.
Once light was regained, he invited us to join his family in “the kitchen”: a large, gloriously warm room, heated by a wood-stove.
Suddenly, we were en famille with four generations of Ladakhis:
the owner’s grandmother with her beads and prayer-wheel, oblivious to our presence and perpetually focused on another world;
his mother supervising the cooking; his wife serving us hot and delicious food;
the host himself, along with his brother, joining us for supper;
the youngest generation, fluent in English and busy on the internet.
All of us, seated on mats and cushions.
The room warm and welcoming, but without even a single chair.
When the meal finished, a gas-stove was taken up to our bedroom.
The generator continued to give lighting for almost another hour – but there was only ice-cold water for washing.
We disconnected the stove’s gas cylinder, turned off the light switches, then buried ourselves under several layers of thick blankets..
At seven o’clock the next morning we were awoken with a large pot of hot Tibetan tea: an infusion of tea-leaves, butter, sugar and salt.
Thirty minutes later, a single bucket of hot water arrived.
Though the bathroom was so desperately cold that we could only stand on its freezing floor if wearing shoes, it was finally our chance to wash!
After shamefully hasty ablutions, and having dressed as quickly as possible, the warm kitchen again awaited us,
along with an amazing breakfast of freshly cooked, hot pitta breads, butter, local apricot jam and steaming cups of coffee.
Pictures taken in the Namra Guesthouse, Tingmosgang, Ladakh.
The day’s touring was almost done.
We had visited two monasteries, passed through alien landscapes and taken lunch in an exotic Ladakhi home.
But still we had no idea where the night would be spent.
As our car drove away from the last monastery, it seemed we might be retracing our path.
After an hour or so, I began to make sense of our itinerary.
We were returning to the house where we had lunched.
Suddenly I understood why the owner had first shown us a bedroom – though the explanation for its remarkable, bordering on louche, décor was maybe a matter best left unresolved.
The sun sets late in the Himalayas:
great altitude gives longer hours of daylight.
With the evening still bright, we began to explore the village in which we would stay.
Music could be heard drifting up the hill and, wondering if it might signify a local wedding, we followed the Tibetan melodies until reaching a roadside field, to find instead an archery competition was underway.
A very beautiful young woman smiled sweetly, offering us hot tea and savoury snacks as we watched the men taking turns to shoot a bullseye.
When an interval was reached, the competitors retrieved their arrows, then the entire company moved into a tent where local barley-beer and rum were served.
We happily accepted several glasses of the beer, but unsure of the strength of their liquor, we declined it.
A second round of archery followed, in which we were also invited to try our hand with bow and arrow.
Once more, but this time with the well-being of the local population foremost in our minds, we politely declined!
It had been an amazing and beautiful day.
But the surprises were not yet finished:
a fascinating evening meal still awaited us…
Pictures taken in Tingmosgang, Ladakh.