We flew into Leh from Delhi at around 8am, but the excitement had begun the minute we spied the mighty Himalayas from our little plane window. The mountain peaks had seemed really close, and the snow-topped ranges had seemed formidable.
A friend had warned us not to underestimate the cold in Ladakh so we were prepared for the chill that hit us the moment we stepped out of the plane. But nothing had prepared us for the raw beauty that we saw all around. It was unlike any other airport we had ever landed in, and Leh, with its imposing brown mountains on all sides, its small runway, and crisp, frosty air, charmed us immediately.
Waiting for our luggage at the carousel, we saw huge sacks full of fresh vegetables pass by amidst suitcases and bags. We grabbed our luggage and stepped outside, where we were met by a driver from the hotel.
The drive to The Grand Dragon Hotel took all of 10 minutes, through deserted roads, dug open in various places for laying pipes – felt like home, really! The hotel was warm, comfortable and beautiful, and we had a hot, delightful breakfast before heading up to a room with the best view ever! The hotel staff had told us to take things easy and just relax the first day, in order to acclimatize to the altitude.
I had read up on altitude sickness and all my worrying and bagful of Diamox had seemed unnecessary – until my 10-year old complained of a headache and started throwing up at around 11am. By evening, it was bad enough to warrant a trip to the hospital, where he needed an x-ray, and had to be given two injections, and treatment with oxygen. The hotel staff had accompanied us to the hospital and their help was invaluable in communicating with the nurses and doctors, taking us for the x-ray, getting the meds and settling the bills.
By the time we returned to the hotel with our son, whose condition seemed no better than before, it was my turn to spend some quality time with the WC. While the kid woke up the next day, completely, magically recovered, I spent the entire day throwing up and wishing desperately for my Mamma and my childhood bed. The hotel staff had given us a pulse oxymeter to measure our pulse and oxygen saturation, and it was a big help in keeping track of those stats. By the second night, the little guy and I had an oxygen saturation of over 85%. Huge relief! Thankfully, the altitude did not affect the husband, and by the third day, we were all fit and fine to wander the city and the villages beyond.
Leh was everything our city wasn’t. It didn’t have crowded, multi-storey buildings and gated apartment complexes, no ugly steel and glass constructions, and no vast construction sites with heavy machinery digging up the earth. It had very less litter, and stunning natural landscapes that could overshadow any man-made masterpiece. You can sense the strength of the desert in everything here – in the copious brown sand and the jagged rocks on the mountains, the dry, intense sun, the biting winds and in the faces of the natives, lined deeply by the harsh conditions.
The mighty Himalayas dwarf everything. A reminder of just how small and fragile man is, in the face of nature. The Stok village at the base of the Stok Ranges looked almost invisible!
We found innumerable stupas in Leh, whitewashed and in various sizes, along the roadside, far in the distance at the foot of the mountains, and perched high on the rocky slopes. Our guide told us each stupa served a different purpose. Some were built for peace, others, to honour the dead, and some, to fulfil wishes.
We visited the marketplace one evening. Most stores sold pashmina shawls, and other items of tourist interest. A few women sold vegetables on the footpath, but what was most conspicuous about the vegetables was the absence of colour. We didn’t find any carrots, or beans or capsicum or cucumbers. What we saw all seemed to be varieties of root vegetables, brown and dull. A chat with the restaurant manager at The Grand Dragon revealed that the conditions are too harsh for the cultivation of those vegetables in the long, cold months, and even for the hotel, everything had to be ordered in from Delhi. That must explain the sacks of vegetables we noticed at the airport! I doubly appreciated the meals at the hotel, following this revelation!
Driving past the villages beyond Leh, we noticed numerous mud and brick houses with roofs topped with layers of grass. Apparently, this helps to protect from the snow, and the same is later used as fodder for cattle. Every house had apricot trees or willows growing near it, giving it an almost poetic appearance.
We saw a few Black-billed Magpies in Leh and around. These birds are an endangered species, their numbers having decreased significantly in Ladakh.
Everywhere we went, prayer flags whispered their benedictions into the wind, while monasteries and mosques stood peacefully side-by-side.
Even though the city displayed simplicity and a focus on utility in most aspects, there were arches and prayer wheels and beautiful stupas on the roads, which added a touch of grandeur that seemed almost out of place. But they did make us stop, and take notice.
High above the world at 12,000ft., Leh showed us that we can make the most of what we have even in the most severe conditions, and still be happy. The cheerfulness in the faces we saw around us, and the positive attitude of the people there, is something we don’t see quite as often in the big cities in the plains. Maybe there’s something about the mountains that makes hearts purer, just like the air up there.