Travels in Ladakh

Travel Destinations, Travel Writers & Books — By on May 23, 2008 at 2:50 pm

I enjoy reading the travel writings of Pico Iyer, so I was happy to find this recent article of his about a trip he took to Ladakh, a Tibetan culture in the Himalayan region of northern India.

I knew before I came to Ladakh — the high, dry region in northern India that borders Tibet and is often called ‘‘the world’s last Shangri-La’’ — that I would see one of the planet’s great centers of Himalayan Buddhism, which arrived in the region, in fact, centuries before it got to Tibet. Books like Andrew Harvey’s radiant ‘‘Journey in Ladakh’’ had told me that I would see people living as they might have several centuries ago, in whitewashed houses amid fields of barley and wheat irrigated by glacial snowmelt. And though I’d traveled to Bhutan, to Nepal, to the Indian Himalayas and to Tibet repeatedly over the past quarter-century, I’d heard that Ladakh, the ‘‘land of high passes,’’ as its name means, was the one place where this pastoral existence was still preserved…

Compact, otherworldly and highly magical, Ladakh is the latest secret treasure to dramatize all the paradoxes of civilization and its discontents. Its temples that mock gravity, its khaki-colored stretches of emptiness with small white Buddhist stupas above them, even the tree-lined walks out of Leh were more beautiful than almost anything I’d seen in Bhutan or Tibet itself.

As he often does, Iyer catches the paradoxes of the culture, caught between its past and its future…

For me, in any case, Ladakh seemed a beautifully unfallen place next to the blue-glass shopping malls of modern Lhasa, the global village of pizza joints and guesthouses that is urban Nepal, or long-isolated Bhutan with its chic new hotels. I couldn’t help smiling at the ‘‘He and She’’ shops scattered around Leh’s market, the prayer wheel in the main road that my driver drove around each morning to get blessings for our trip, the sign outside Pizza de Hut that said, ‘‘Thanks for the Visit. God Bless You. Take Care. Bye-Bye.’’ …

Often, as I made such walks, I found myself pushed off the road by honking cars. When I went on a Saturday evening to the Desert Rain coffeehouse for an ‘‘open mic’’ night, it was to find myself the only foreigner among Ladakh’s fashion-conscious teenagers, all fluent in every verse of ‘‘Hotel California.’’

Yet walk just 10 minutes out of town, and you come to shady rustic lanes where people with ancient faces are working in the fields or walking to the temple as if they’ve never heard of Paris (or Paris Hilton). One day I found musicians sitting on the ground among the poplars, playing at intervals while a team of elegant men in black robes took on a team of elegant men in white in a traditional archery competition.

His article reminded me of my own trip to Ladakh a few years ago, which I wrote about in my book, Two Laps Around the World.  You can read an excerpt about my time in Ladakh here. Meanwhile, here is a photo that I took there – a view of the Himalayas as seen from the upper level of a Buddhist monastery.

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