Having had my fill of trekking, I spend the remaining week in Ladakh enjoying Leh, which I’ve become familiar with, and the surrounding areas. Ladakh has been for me the most interesting, welcoming part of India I’ve been to by far and the pleasant guesthouse I make my home for most of the time in Leh, certainly adds to its appeal. My Scottish mate John and some Israelis we befriended also stay at the same guesthouse and luckily we all get along well enough to give the place more of a community feel, taking turns to cook for each other on the paraffin stove. One of the Israelis, Gilard, is a photographer and kindly lends me his 50mm lens to use on my camera and I start learn how great this lens is for people and social events. At one such event in Leh, monks and laypersons receive meals outside a temple in the town centre.
We hear of another ‘Buddhist festival’ 30 kms away from Leh, which has traditional dance and music so we decide to make the effort to go despite the hassle of trying to get a shared taxi for a decent price. It turns out to be just about worth it for the photos we get. After the performances we attempt to get back to Leh in one of the many buses and taxis returning but to our exasperation , none of them will take us and the drivers and passengers seem to take great delight in this. It’s strange. It seems the only foreigners able to get a lift back are the ones who’ve pre-arranged jeeps back with agencies. One bus with a handful of Western-dressed adolescents looks promising but they jeer when we ask if they’re going to Leh. One the the smarmy wee punks sticks his head out of the window with a smirk on his face, tauntingly asking “where you go?”. I flip the baseball cap off his head just as the bus pulls off – a small consolation to a frustrating couple of hours attempting to make what should be a straightforward journey. We walk down the road for half an hour and eventually get picked up by a couple of Kashmiris who take us to the main road and from there we’re able to get a taxi back to Leh. The whole bizarre episode in which we were inexplicably treated with such disdain is the first time I’m made to feel unwelcome by Ladakhis. The reason is unknown but we guess it is something to do with not wanting foreigners at this particular festival, or at least foreigners who make their way to it of their own accord. Whatever the reason is, it’s a reminder that not all is as benign as the cheery appearance of the locals would suggest.
Ladakh has changed a lot over the past 30 years. Its isolation has slowly eroded and along with it, much of what has kept its culture unique, as outsiders have poured into Leh especially Kashmiri businessmen and tourists in the summer months, not to mention the massive presence of the Indian army throughout the whole of Ladakh. In the early 1990s the situation erupted in Leh when two Muslim men beat up a leading member of the Buddhist association of Ladakh. There were inter-communal riots and Muslim homes and businesses were set a light. Things have calmed down a great deal since then and the two communities tend to live in overall harmony. The Buddhist Association of Ladakh is still not to be messed with though, and is by far the most powerful political force in Ladakh. When, in July, there was a bomb attack at the place where the Buddha is said to achieved enlightenment (now a temple complex in India), leaving two people injured, the BAL declared all businesses in Leh should close for two whole days. This delayed a trek we were planning as we couldn’t get food supplies and the only reason we ate one evening was because a local restaurant defied the closure by operating clandestinely with close curtains and candles. The owner said his premises would be attacked if members of the BAL found out it was open.
Despite all the changes and the pressures of globalisation, Ladakh largely retains its traditional way of life and self-sufficiency for now. Most importantly it has kept much of its charm from a combination of the warmth of its people and the uniqueness of its landscapes, making it a special place to visit.
The two day bus journey out of Ladakh from Leh to Manali, aside from the scenery, is not a pleasant one. Uncomfortable and bumpy, the hours seem endless and it’s with great relief I park up in the touristic centre of Minali in Himichal Pradesh for a few days.
The days in Minali are spent reading and enjoying the abundant, delicious and cheap Middle Eastern food (there are nearly as many Israelis as locals in Manali – the harsh tones of their resurrected language can be heard everywhere). It’s then onto
the fourth circle of hell Delhi, 8 hours south to catch a flight to Nepal (the severe floods in Uttarkhand make an overland journey to Nepal impossible). Delhi is as horrible as I imagined it to be and I barely leave the hotel room, hence the absence of any photos from it, before going to the airport.