Pico Iyer Journeys

High, Dry, and Exalted

On the longest day of the year I found myself on what is billed as the “highest motorable pass in the world,” though “motorable” seemed as much a stretch as did “road.” Icicles were hanging from the mountainside and plaques around every turn recalled those fellow travelers, most of them soldiers, who had “left for their heavenly abode” after plunging over the precipice that runs along the edge of the barely paved, loose-stoned road. As my ever-cheerful driver clambered out of our rickety Toyota (no license plate attached) to fiddle with a loose starter–emergency repairs at 18,350 feet!–ominous pink fluid the color of Pepto-Bismol began to trickle out of the truck in front of us.

It was hard to believe that only ninety minutes earlier we’d been in the Ladakhi capital of Leh, 8000 feet below. We were now stranded in what seemed like snowfields, ragged prayer-flags hanging between great boulders all around us. Here and there Indian soldiers shivered in their tattered encampments. The Sikh officer who had checked my passport some minutes before, at 15000 feet, a helicopter whirring overhead, had startled me by suddenly bursting into song, along with his radio. Perhaps he had decided to live out the first rule of survival at high altitude written up on a nearby board: “Always Have a Cheerful Attitude.”

Then, as we nursed the car back to health and crossed the pass, we began to nose down along the sheer, single-lane road, marmots scrambling across the road in front of us, kiang, or wild asses, visible in the distance. Very soon we had arrived in the most pristine and surreal landscape I think I have seen in more than a quarter-century of traveling. A huge flat plain extended towards the snowcaps, dry riverbeds visible against sculpted rock formations and, in places, a few small patches of green with fortress-like white buildings sheltering among apricot trees and willows. Two-humped Bactrian camels were foraging in sand-dunes within the emptiness and the sententious reminders that decorate every few hundred yards of an Indian mountain road–”Check Your Nerve on My Curve” and “Love thy Neighbor, but not while Driving”–had been replaced by pithy words of wisdom from Jimmy Buffett and Naomi Judd. The sky was so blue, as everywhere in Ladakh, it almost hurt to look at it, and the area was so rugged, so unvisited and so otherworldly I half-expected the Taliban to appear.

As we rounded a turn in the road, suddenly we saw a gompa, or Ladakhi temple, above us, situated, as nearly all gompas are, on a precipitous hilltop, so improbable that it seemed to have risen half-way to the heavens. We clambered up to it and soon found ourselves in a typically rich and aromatic Tibetan Buddhist compound, its chapels thick with the smell of centuries of melted yak butter, its white terraces looking out on miles of noiseless valley. Ladders led up to rooftops that seemed to give out on an almost allegorical landscape of sand and space and blue emptiness. And as in every such place I’d scaled in Ladakh, there was not another visitor to be seen on this peak-season day–until, minutes later, there appeared a Tibetan photographer who lived, as it happened, in Kabul. “It’s strange,” he said. “The houses clustered along the valley; the barren mountains; the snowcaps: we could be in Afghanistan.”

When we think of Ladakh, the high, dry region in northern India that borders Tibet and is often called “the world’s last Shangri-La,” we nearly always see in our mind’s eye one of the planet’s last centers of Himalayan Buddhism, whose people still live in sturdy whitewashed houses, amidst fields of barley and wheat irrigated by glacial snowmelt, as they might have done several centuries ago. We forget, amidst the images of an almost vanished pastoral purity, that Ladakh borders Pakistan, too–hence all the Indian soldiers–and officially, linked to Kargil, has a population that is 50% Moslem. Indeed, Leh has for centuries been one of the great cosmopolitan trading-posts of the Himalayas, through which travelers have transported silk and indigo, gold and even opium to Kashgar, Kashmir, Yarkand and all the great caravan-stops of the Silk Road. Even today, when you walk along Main Bazaar Road in Leh, the ever more crowded and noisy street where women sit on the sidewalks selling vegetables–not far from a large mosque crowded with skull-capped Moslem sages–you see faces that speak of Lhasa, Herat, even Samarkand. Some of the people here belong to Ladakh’s Dard population, Indo-Iranians who trace their ancestry and blue or green eyes back to Alexander the Great.

And these days, of course, precisely because of its dramatic beauty and unspoiled air–more spectacular to me than anything I’d seen in Bhutan or Nepal or Tibet itself–Ladakh is home to all the latest kinds of nomads and itinerant traders. You can learn “Traditional Thai Massage” in bustling Leh, sign up for a “Trekking Meditation Camp” or dine at a Korean restaurant called Amego. You can sit under red-and-white umbrellas advertising cell phones on the rooftop Pizza de Hut restaurant and munch on tacos and fries while you look out on signs advertising “Ecological Footprint Travels” and “TIBET EXPEDITION (An eco-friendly travel company).” You can enjoy video conferencing at login Himalaya, hear bands from Athens, Georgia at the Christian-run Desert Rain coffee-house and watch Pirates of the Caribbean: World’s End on a video screen in a garden restaurant only days after it opened at the Cineplexes of Times Square.

On one side of town Israelis in harem pants stroll between Nepali-run “German bakeries” and advertisements for “Full Moon Parties,” while on the other, middle-class Indian tourists, almost unknown here only five years ago, fill new hotels in search of ethnic exoticism and cool summer nights that offer relief from the monsoonal heat of the plains. The hills are alive around Leh with the sound of construction crews and revving Suzukis.

Ladakh has thus become at once one of the legendary tourist treasures of the world and a test-case of sorts for an escalating discussion on what tourism can do to and for an area, and how much gross national product can compensate for a challenge to gross national happiness. Because of its sensitive location between two of India’s rivals, Ladakh was not opened to the wider world till 1974 and to this day the roads that link it to the outside world are closed for at least seven months of every year (and though planes fly in daily through the winter, even they are delayed, for days or weeks at a time, by the heavy snowfall). What remains, therefore, are vestiges of an unusually self-sufficient, isolated-seeming Paradise where people lived according to unchanged patterns for hundreds of years–and all the outsiders who are now promising to rescue it with images of a foreign paradise.

To this day, Ladakh is a long way from the conveniences of the global order. Hot water remains a luxury here, streetlighting did not arrive in Leh until 1995 and when occasionally I managed to get online, my screen said, enigmatically, of recent messages, “Sent to you, 235,105,786 seconds ago.” Yet at the same time, the young of Ladakh are ever more fluent in the words of “Hotel California” and have found that they can ensure a bright future for themselves by abandoning (or packaging) their past. “When you talk in terms of development, development always happens with a plan,” said Jigmed Wangchuk Namgyal, son of the last king of Ladakh, when I visited him one morning in his apartments in Stok Palace, ten miles outside of Leh. “When I look at Leh at this moment, there is no individual thinking of a plan. It’s all very chaotic.”

There are two reasons, really, to visit Ladakh: the heart-stopping gompas situated on mountaintops across the region, their many-storied grandeur made more magical by the emptiness that surrounds them; and the silent valleys above which they sit, whose New Mexican desolation is lit up, here and there, by little clusters of houses linked by mud-brick walls and by the ties of traditional community. The very word “gompa” means “solitary place,” and almost all the classic temples in Ladakh are reached by winding, half-paved roads and discovered, suddenly, as you round a corner, towering above you on a clifftop or tucked into a mountain. Hemis, perhaps the most famous, seems to have been carved out of the hillside that cradles it; Ri-dzong is hidden by folds in a mountain that recall, locals believe, the folds in a monk’s robes. To get to distant Lamayuru, you drive through great clefts in the mountainside, ochre and purple and brown, on a one-lane road that winds its way up above a river 1800 feet below. As you approach, the signs say, “Welcome to Moon Land View” and “Moon Palace Restaurant.”

The gompas stand before you like eight-storied complexes of red and white terraces and chapels and schools, stretched across the sand-colored rock–cities on a hill, in effect–and when you arrive at one, a monk will appear with a huge key and, in exchange for a few pennies, take you from one massively padlocked prayer hall to another. You walk into the bare-floored spaces and see shafts of sunlight streaming in from skylights and lighting up the dusty thangkas that hang over the rows of prayer-cushions. On the walls frescoes from many centuries ago show Buddhas and demons and mandalas that reveal, for believers, the hidden order of the universe. And when you step out again, all you can hear are prayer-flags snapping in the breeze.

At Tikse Gompa, only thirty minutes by car from Leh, is a whole settlement of monks whose chants you can attend if you arrive at dawn; at Likir the sunlit, silent courtyards are full of young novices who took me back to the great monasteries of Tibet I first saw in 1985 (though even then seasoned travelers were saying that to see the “real Tibet,” you had to go to Ladakh). In Alchi, a quiet village of whitewashed houses and running water, the small temples are set in a garden, among birdsong and flowers, their frescoes (painted by artists who had studied the forms of faraway) sometimes Kashmiri, sometimes Mughal, sometimes seemingly Central Asian.

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