September 19, 2010
We woke up with the sun pouring through the curtains. For breakfast, we munched on the last of our millet crackers and apricot jam, and then packing up our dirty laundry, we set out for Dzomsa. I may have mentioned this lovely place before, but it really is like a traveller’s refuge: they serve tea and juice, provide boiled, filtered water for 10 rupees a liter, sell fiction in all sorts of different languages, offer organic and locally grown trekking food, and wash and dry your clothes with environmentally friendly soap. The woman who works there hums to herself the entire time. It’s an entirely inexpensive and pleasant place all around.
Once we had dropped off our clothing (she made us count each article so that we wouldn’t lose any), we walked up the old footpath to Sangkar Gompa. Today, we had decided, we wanted to see all the Gompas. Although there are many here in Ladakh, most of India is not so predominantly Buddhist. We wanted to taken in the Buddhist monasteries while we could.
Unfortunately, Sangkar was closed for Sunday. We walked through the courtyard and admired the lovely entrance and the lit candles. Dogs were napping in the garden, and inside their rooms, monks were chanting their prayers. We looked at our map and decided to try the other Gompas up near Leh Palace, and on our way, we wanted to see the ‘Forest of Stupahs.’
Walking through the domestic, farming neighborhoods of outer Leh, we passed Ladakhis walking to school and work. Going downhill, motorcyclists would turn off their engines and coast to save gas. Cows and donkeys milled about in the streets.
We found the Forest of Stupahs behind a couple of Ladakhi homes. Following protocol, we walked to the left of the Stupahs and admired all the carved prayer stones that had been stacked at their feet. There were a couple dozen of them, and Joshua took some lovely black-and-white photos of them with the mountains in the distance. In the middle of the ‘Forest’ I met a baby calf with big, heavily-fringed eyes. He tried to eat my scarf, and he let me scratch the top of his head.
Walking up to Leh Palace, we admired the views of the city. At the top, yet another Gompa was closed. We retraced the steps we had taken a couple days earlier and tried the Gompas below the palace. No luck there, either.
Finally, tired and thwarted, we made our way back down. In the city center, we stuck our heads inside a courtyard and found another Gompa. We walked in, took off our shoes, and went inside. Like the prayer room in the palace, the beams, pillars, ceilings and walls are decorated with textiles, masks, and sculptures. In the center, an altar to the Dalai Lama had pillows, votives, and – you guessed it – Christmas lights. In the corner, a monk sat near a gong and chanted his prayers. It was lovely.
Pleased that we had finally seen a Gompa, we went in search of lunch. Unfortunately, My Secret Recipe Bakery was closed, so we went to another restaurant down the road, Chopsticks. We ordered some honey, lemon, and ginger tea with a couple plates of curry and rice. While we ate, we listened as an American came in and arranged with the manager (Juma, the same man who sold us our bus tickets at Glacier Adventures) a special lunch for the US Ambassador who would be arriving the next day. Apparently, Juma had been very helpful to the Ambassador and the American tourists just after the flood. The lunch was meant to be a thank you to Juma and a chance for the media to see the Ambassador checking up on the flood relief efforts.
Once we had finished our meal, we said goodbye to Juma and went to the markets. Leh is known for its artisan and craft markets, and its supposedly a remnant of the Silk Road. While there are many permanent shops, there are also a number of markets set up beneath temporary parachutes. Many of them are advertised as ‘Tibetan Refugee Markets,’ but I’m not sure if all the goods and all the sellers are Tibetan; the word ‘Tibet’ is a sort of catch phrase for a lot of hippy–ish, SDS-type travellers. (Which is not to say that the plight of Tibetans is over-dramatized or any less real. China’s occupation of Tibet is very serious, and many Tibetans have suffered a great deal.)
Although I had been expecting the jewelry and crafts to be extremely cheap, the women’s opening prices were extremely steep. For one silver ring, a woman wanted 700 rupees (15 dollars), and most necklaces started at 600 rupees. Although I had been a ruthless haggler in South America, something about the banner that said ‘refugee’ made it difficult for me to offer them less. The women obviously wanted to haggle with me, but when they gave me their outrageous prices, I simply wanted to move on rather than offer them less. They would even ask me, ‘ok. How much you offer?’ Just by being reticent, they would often drop their prices nearly in half, but I still wasn’t ready to drop that kind of money.
Leh is also known for its lapis lazuli trade, and finally, one woman offered me a deal that I took: three lovely earrings, one turquoise bracelet, and one lapis lazuli necklace for 800 rupees. For 17 dollars, I thought that was a fairly good deal, or at least, better than anyone else was offering.
We wandered in and out of the other markets, but the prices were still very high. We lusted after some lovely stone-encrusted tea sets, door knobs, and singing prayer bowls (bronze bowls that sing when you run a fabric covered stick around the edge) which were actually more reasonably priced (1300 rupees for an enormous, lovely tea set), but there was no way that we could carry them.
In one other market, I found another lapis lazuli necklace, and although the price was still to high – 500 rupees – I took it. Although some of the other jewelry might contain fabricated or painted stones, this was the real thing: it has a pleasing weight and the beautiful blue stones have lots of white inclusions in them. The woman told me that lapis lazuli is ‘good for the blood.’
After a while, we grew tired of shopping. This is unusual for me, but the refugee thing was really getting to me. It was hard to haggle. Joshua was a little disappointed in me, and he very logically argued that the people who were selling their wares were no harder off here than they had been in South America. I had really enjoyed the haggling, and if they didn’t want you to haggle, then wouldn’t they put price tags on things? He was right, but I’m not sure what had changed. In South America, I really didn’t have much money. When I haggled, I gave them what I could afford. Now, I have more money. It just feels cheap to offer them less when they have so little and I have so much. I don’t know. We’ll see.
We rested in the guest house for a little bit, and after we read for a couple of hours, we went out again. First, we stopped at Glacier Adventures to check in with Juma. We wanted to know where we would pick up the bus later that night. Juma was there, and although he didn’t have our answers quite yet, we passed a pleasant half hour just chatting. We asked him about how he felt about the US Ambassador coming, and he shrugged modestly. ‘I was just trying to help,’ he said. One of his friends came in, and when he saw the India Lonely Planet in our hands, he asked us if he could look through it. Immediately flipping to Kerala, he told us he was intrigued by what they said about his hometown in the very South of India. There were both very friendly, and we really enjoyed talking to them. Juma told us to come back later in the evening, and after we left, we browsed through a few more shops. Not finding anything else we had to have, we looked at our map and went in search for the Moti market, the market that Ladakhis use to by their daily goods.
As soon as we entered the Moti market, we started enjoying ourselves a lot more. Off the strip, this market wasn’t targeted towards tourists. There were hundreds of pots and pans spilling over the walk and Ladakhis haggling over the last rupee. Tunics for women’s shalwar kameez hung out of windows, and women browsed through golden bangles. There was nothing in particular that we needed or wanted, so we watched. Unfortunately, the market was just closing so we didn’t get to see it in full force, but it was fun to walk through anyway.
On our way back into town, we walked through the side streets. Barbers were giving men hot shaves, and on the floor, there were piles of hair. Tailors were whipping up suits and dresses, and in one corner, people were stirring big vats with fabric and steaming-hot red dye for monks’ robes. Just before we were about to walk back out to the main road, I saw some lovely embroidery hanging outside of a shop window. Usually, when the shop keepers say, ‘ok, yes, please. You come in now,’ or ‘I’ve been waiting for you! Come look inside!’ I walk by and smile, shaking my head no-thank-you. When I paused to finger the embroidery, an Indian man in a leather jacket hopped up and invited me into his shop. I agreed.
Outside the shop, I had been admiring a simple handle-bag with gorgeous woolen embroidery swirling in flowers. Inside, the shopkeeper pulled out a dozen more in different styles, colors, and patterns. They were gorgeous. He apologized that the fabric ‘is only cashmere. Pashmina is too fine for this work.’ Apparently, in the winter time, many Ladakhis stay inside by the fire and create these beautiful embroidered bags, blankets, and shawls. Most of the embroidery is done with a hook, but the shopkeeper also showed me a pashmina that had the tiniest needle stitching I had ever seen.
Pawing through the mound of bags the man had dumped on his display table, I picked my favorite three – gorgeous bright pink, yellow, and blue embroidery atop a black cloth – and asked the man his price. ‘350 rupees,’ he said.
Well holy shit. I did what no haggler should ever do; I said, ‘you can’t be serious!’ The man smiled and nodded. Obviously, I was about to buy. With a purchase in the offing, we chatted for a bit and exchanged names. Rajj had beautiful, slightly American-accented English. I asked him if he had ever been to the US, and he laughed. In order to come to the US, he said, you have to be able to show the US consulate your bank account. They won’t let you come unless you have enough money to not only buy the ticket there, but also support yourself while you’re there. The average income in India is about 900 dollars, and that is not nearly enough to get an American visa, much less come and visit.
I felt a bit ignorant, but Rajj was very friendly and explained everything kindly. He knew I was completely in love with the embroidery and he explained how he bought it from the remote villages of Ladakh and then sold them here, in his little shop. When he found out that I had studied Art History, he smiled and said, ‘I think I have something you might like.’ From one of his shelves, he took out a large black shawl with bright, beautiful flowered embroidery.
At the risk of vomiting superlatives everywhere, I shall select just one: sublime. As soon as Rajj unfurled the shawl, I knew I had to buy it, no matter the cost. I literally gasped. It is the most beautiful piece of art I have ever seen for sale. It’s gorgeous. It’s sublime.
By now, Rajj liked us. We were chatting easily, and he knew I was absolutely smitten with his embroidered goods. He pulled out half a dozen more shawls with beautiful embroidery, but none compared to the first. Even Joshua was salivating. Rajj lifted the shawl and showed me how it would be worn. Knowing that I had already lost any chance to haggle, I told him that there was no way on Earth I would ever wear anything so beautiful. This would be going up on the wall.
Almost scared to know the answer, I asked Rajj how much. With a look of total honesty and earnestness, he told me, ‘during the high season, I sell these shawls for 3600 rupees. But with the flood, there has been not so much business, and anyway, tomorrow I leave for my family’s shop in Goa. We don’t sell shawls there – it’s too hot. I give you this shawl for 1800 rupees.’
Rajj saw me doing math in my head, and even though we all knew it was pointless – I was going to buy that shawl – he handed me a calculator. 40 dollars. While Rajj and Joshua talked, I divided 2000 by 45 (there’s 45 rupees to the dollar) and figured that I would offer him 2000 rupees for both a bag and this shawl. Before I could even offer, he looked over and said, ‘I give you a bag and the shawl for 2000 rupees.’ Sold. I didn’t even haggle.
When we said goodbye to Rajj, he told us very seriously that we had gotten a very good deal. In truth, everyone says this, but with Rajj I beleive him: for one, 44 dollars for craftsman work like that really does seem like a good price (especially when you compare the 26 dollars I spent on 6 pieces of jewelry), and for two, I would have paid much more for it (and this, to those of you who know me, will mean a lot; I do not part with dollars easily, and that’s an understatement.).
As we walked to pick up our laundry, we sputtered over our find. Joshua was as in love with the shawl as I was, and he agreed: this shawl is not for wearing. It’s for framing, and our children will probably fight over it when we die. It’s so beautiful, it could probably start a family feud.
Once we had picked up our laundry, we went back to Tenzing Dickey’s Tibetan Retaurant for a repeat experience. Again, the food was delicious, and when we finished, we went in search of Juma. We found him at his restaurant, Chopsticks, and he told us that he had just missed us. Apparently, he had taken the bus driver down to our guest house and carefully instructed him to pick us up there and put our packs INSIDE the bus (not on the roof). We thanked him for being so helpful and then went back to the guest house to pack up.
Once we had finished putting everything away, we napped for a couple of hours under the scuzzy blankets (it’s customary for travellers in India to bring their sleeping bags; the extra blankets are for additional warmth, and they are definitely not clean).
September 18, 2010
We woke up just after 7 and packed our bags. Back in the kitchen/dining room, Tsering was making pancakes for breakfast. We sat down at the low tables, and when the pancakes were ready, she served them to us piping hot. Thin and slightly crispy on the edges, they were absolutely delicious. Tsering apologized for serving breakfast a little late; she told us that she had had to milk the yak first before she could mix the pancake batter. We laughed and told her it was fine. It’s not every day that you eat pancakes made with fresh yak milk.
Before we left, Tsering knocked on our door and told me that she had something to give me. Taking my hand, she pressed a little hand-knit bird that she had made. I thanked her, and when we said goodbye, she smiled and waved, telling us to come back again soon.
For the first couple hours of our hike, we slowly made our way uphill. Rambok is in a narrow valley lying between enormous mountains on every side. To get to Stok, we would have to climb Stok Le, a pass at about 16,000 feet. Following the dirt footpath, we passed the grazing fields of Rambok and walked along the rocky stream. From where we were, it was impossible to tell where the path led. We eyed the pointy mountains ahead of us, speculating where we might make our way up. At about an hour and a half, we stopped to take a quick break, and the German couple and their guide, Douwah, passed us.
It took us four and a half hours to reach the top. Those of you who know me know that I like physically challenging tasks; if given the option, I will generally choose the longer route, the more strenuous climb. I like to sweat and grit my teeth, and when it’s over, I feel a vast sense of accomplishment. The one time I can remember giving up on a workout was at the end of January. Joshua and I were training for a marathon, and we went on a 17 mile run. By mile 7, my knee was in serious pain, and by mile 13, I had to walk. At mile 15, I had to stop, and Joshua had to continue on to get the car, come back, and get me. I was devastated. I LOVE running. I LOVE running a long way. Teaching in New Orleans, running was just about the only thing that kept me sane. Although I continued to workout about 7 to 9 hours a week at the gym on the elliptical, bike, and in the pool, I slowly went crazy from the withdrawal.
You might understand, then, exactly what it means when I say that I wanted to give up, throw in the towel, and simply be transported home about 45 minutes from the top of Stok Le. We took rest breaks every 30 minutes, and each time, I thought my lungs might collapse. With 40 to 50 pound packs and just three days of acclimatization under our belts, we were in no shape to take on the incredibly steep path that led up and out of Rambok valley. My legs were trembling, and the higher we got, the more precarious the path became. When I finally convinced myself that I couldn’t, in fact, give up, we continued on to the steepest part of the path yet; it was so steep, there was barely a sign of any path at all, and we basically scrambled our way to the top.
Clearly, I do not have a future in mountain climbing. I may love the mountains, and I do enjoy a good hike through them, but I do not enjoy slippery, scree-filled cliff sides, precipitous drops, and just generally feeling like I’m about to plunge to my death at any moment. I had to stop a couple times to prevent myself from hyperventilating. Joshua, on the other hand, is like a mountain goat. He told me that the path made him nervous too, but really, I think he was having a grand old time.
Finally, finally, we reached the top. For most trekkers, the hike from Rambok to the top of Stok Le is about 3 hours. It took us nearly 5. Granted, most trekkers are just carrying their sleeping bags and maybe a jacket in a tiny pack, but still. It was nothing to write home about (and yet…).
The view from the top was spectacular, but both of us were suffering from massive headaches. We took a couple photos underneath the banner of prayer flags, snapped a few shots of Stok Kangre and the valleys below us, and then continued on our way. Luckily, the path down was not nearly as steep or precarious as the path up; however, it was still rocky and steep enough that we had to walk slowly and we slipped many times. Above us, herds of some kind of animal with enormous horns grazed and occasionally sent down little boulders.
After about another hour of carefully picking our way down the mountain side, my legs were trembling so badly that I wasn’t sure if I would be able to stay upright. We took a break on a large rock, and Joshua force-fed me millet crackers with apricot jam. I had no appetite, but I choked them down anyway. After some water and a dose of ibuprofen, I felt a little better and we continued onwards.
After a while, I started worrying that we weren’t on the right path. Joshua tossed out some geological nonsense about rivers always moving downhill, and therefore, we would inevitably reach Stok near the Indus River irregardless, but I fretted. In the sand, I looked for the footprints of the Germans (who were wearing Converse All-Stars, the crazy nutters). Every once in a while, Joshua said he thought he saw a footprint, but I was dubious. After 2 hours of descending, we walked along the muddy, boulder-strewn river. The path had been washed out in a number of places, but it was a narrow gorge, and our path down was fairly obvious.
It’s a shame we were so freaking miserable, because it really was spectacularly beautiful. The mountains had created these strange rock formations that looked like plates stacked upright on a drying rack. The sky was clear and fantastically blue, and the mountain sides changed from shades of red to brown and yellow. We did notice, and so that we could appreciate it later, we snapped a few photos.
After a while, we took out the map and the written directions. Yup. We had gone the wrong way. Before you ask, yes. I did ask Joshua if he was ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN THAT WE TURN LEFT. He was. No. We did not take out the map or the written directions when we came to the only fork in the road we had come across all day. That would be just silly.
I’m proud of myself. I contained my intense fear and anger at my husband quite well. I simply said, “I’m profoundly frustrated with you at the moment,” and continued on the path. Joshua mumbled something about the laws of geology, and I started wondering just what it might be like to huddle in our sleeping bags inside a cave in the Himalayas. I decided it was doable. The jar of apricot preserves was still about half full, and we had a bag of Himalayan muesli that tasted, as Joshua put it so eloquently, like vomit. We would be ok for another 48 hours. The water situation, however, looked doubtful. Yes, there was a stream, but just a mile ago, I saw a dead, rotting yak carcas lying in the middle. No, thanks.
Joshua is very, very lucky that he knows the laws of geology. After another hour of hiking, we met up with another gorge, and – hallelujah! – another path with distinct Converse All Star footprints. Joshua preened, and I told him just how lucky he was.
Not too long after we met up with the correct path, we passed another parachute cafe. It was empty, and judging from the directions listed in LP, we still had another three hours to go. Luckily, the path led down a gentle gradient, and we were able to pick up the pace.
Joshua and I finally had enough breath to talk, and we spent the last couple of hours chatting, crossing the river, and getting really wet. We lost the trail a couple more times, but we always managed to find it again, and eventually, we saw the buildings of Stok. When we finally made it into Stok, a beautiful woman sitting inside a little shop told us that the bus to Leh would be arriving in about 15 minutes. We sat down on the curb and waited. We both starred at the beautiful woman in the shop. She looked like an angel.
When the bus arrived, we boarded, and for 20 rupees, we were able to ride to Leh. On the way there, the ancient bus with incredible suspension bounced over the narrow, pitted roads. In front, three teenagers had transformed the cab of the bus into a clubhouse. An image of the Dalai Lama had twinkling Christmas lights strung around it with glittering streamers and money taped below. They were blaring high-pitched pop music in an unknown language, and every once in a while, they would stop the bus to hop out and have a little chat with someone they saw on the road. I thought it was great.
Just before we got to Leh, we crossed the Indus River. The steel bridge was absolutely covered in prayer flags, and doing their duty, the flapped magnificently in the river-breeze, sending their prayers… Somewhere. I’m not sure. When we crossed over to the other side, our bus driver dropped us off in the Tibetan refugee camp. There was a big tent with flood relief food and medical aid, and all around, there were impromptu stands selling anything and everything. For 200 rupees, we got a taxi to bring us the last few kilometers into Leh. The sun set.
We had our taxi driver, drop us off on Old Fort Road, just a couple minutes from the center of Leh. Because we would be leaving in the middle of the night the next day, we figured something closer to the center would be better. Jamspal Guest House is just off a little footpath, and like Lakrook, it has a beautiful garden. For 300 rupees, the wonderful, smiley keeper led us up to the second floor and gave us a huge room with lots of windows overlooking the garden. The bed was hard as a rock, but we didn’t care. We dumped our packs.
After 11 hours of hiking and barely any food, we were starving. Just up the road, we found Tenzing Dickey’s Tibetan Restaurant. For less than 200 rupees, we each had a cup of tea, spicy vegetable soup with noodles (Thukpa), and steamed and fried momos. It was delicious, and the inside of the little restaurant was cozy and small. For lights, glowing boxes hung from the ceiling, and on the walls, there were hanging scrolls with sayings by the Dalai Lama.
In paraphrase: The True Meaning of Life. We are on this Earth for perhaps 90 or 100 years. During that time, we must make sure not to waste it. We must wake up each day thankful and develop ourselves so that we may contribute to the happiness of the others. Resolve each day to believe the best about others and to treat them well. Strive to keep negative thoughts about others from your mind. Be kind.
I’m not sure if it’s the altitude, but gazing up at the kind, be-spectacled face of the Dalai Lama (again wreathed in Christmas lights) and reading his words, I felt just a little bit emotional. His words weren’t particularly eloquent or even articulate, and yet, I couldn’t have agreed more. I think he’s absolutely right, and when the Tibetans of Leh pass me on the street and smile at me with all the warmth they can muster, I give it my best shot and smile back. Joo-lay. I wish you good will.
Once we were full, we could barely hold our bodies upright. We headed back to the guest house, and when we got there, the keeper asked us if we might like some hot water. Grimy from our trek, we accepted, and in ten minutes, he knocked on our door and delivered a big bucket of steaming hot water.
Joshua looked at the water and then looked at me. Err… What am I supposed to do with this? I laughed and asked him if he had never taken a sponge bath before. He shook his head. Sometimes, I said, I forget that you weren’t raised by a hippie (yes, Mom. I’m referring to you.). I told him to use the cup provided to dump water over his head and handed him a rag. Have fun 🙂
Although it was cold, the bucket of hot water was too hot. I diluted it with some freezing tap water and quickly cleaned myself. It’s not so bad, and you can get just as clean as you would with a shower head.
Once we were clean, we fell asleep right away. Not even the altitude could keep us from falling asleep tonight.