Pico Iyer Journeys

Along the Silk Road Today

To get to the Desert Rain coffee-house in central Leh, you have to walk off the crowded main street that leads to the mosque and slither through a passageway to a parallel back lane, barely paved, too narrow for more than three people to pass at a time, in the process forever of being completed, so it seems, with the ruins of Leh Palace above it on a hill. You enter through an opening in the back of the building and then, in the classic Himalayan fashion, ascend a steep flight of stairs to a small second-floor space overlooking Bazaar Road. You step into it, slipping off your shoes, and enter a seeming miracle of sunlight and calm, with little tables set here and there where you can drink cappucino and browse among the books all around you.

I climbed up these steps one day in misdummer recently, on a Saturday night, for what I thought of as the “Kyoto Connection” of the Indian Himalayas: an open-mic night is held in the Desert Rain now and then to allow people to share song and dreams. On this night, every other person in the room but me was Ladakhi. They were girls, most of them, of high-school age, whom tourist dollars were sending to private-schools in Delhi or around the plains of India; they were conversant with Nike and Britney and most of the wonders of the world, giggling like regular Valley Girls as they asked me what I did for a living and what I was doing in their land. At the front of the room, an earnest young Ladakhi in glasses was struggling his way through “The Times, They are A-Changin’ ” and old Eagles hits, the girls delightedly singing along with every word, though his delivery had none of the conviction of the renditions of “Hotel California” or “Californication” you can hear among Tibetans in the coffee-houses of Dharamsala.

We sat in the little space, ringed by snowcaps, under a pulsing moon, 10,000 feet above the sea, and many hours from what the Eagles might consider civilization, and we tried to jolly into being all their songs of hard women in Los Angeles, the dangers of cocaine. The proprietress of the Desert Rain–from Colorado–came in from the back and the population of foreigners was doubled (I’d seen her a day or two before share pie and coffee with some English soldiers helping to keep the peace in Kashmir, not far away). The very name of the fresh and spotlessly clean space might have suggested the desert rain of Rumi poems, familiar to skullcapped petitioners at the mosque down the road, or just a play on what music meant in this parched and desolate plain among the Himalayas. In fact–I looked around more closely at the books on every side–it spoke for a Christian vision of grace; here in Leh, as in the South Pacific and among the Indians of South America, it was Mennonites who were coming to bring their own songs of salvation to those long denied much contact with the West.

I had thought, in my ignorance, that Ladakh was the last unspoiled corner of Himalayan tradition (Bhutan was more pristine, but only because of a policy of cultural homogeneity that Nepalis and Tibetans see as fascism). I knew that it had great Buddhist gompas on its hilltops and that its people still lived in whitewashed, two-story houses among the barley fields that were more “Tibetan” than anything you’d find these days in Tibet. But on arrival in the faraway mountain kingdom, not far from an ongoing “Line of Control” separating the enemy armies of India and Pakistan, I found that, officially, roughly half the population of Ladakh is Moslem–hence the great mosque down the street–and that for centuries it has been one of the major trading centers of the Silk Road. To the Westerner from afar, Ladakh means an area that was closed to tourists by the Indian government till 1974, and that did not see streetlighting till the end of the first Clinton administration–the last word in Buddhist isolation. Along Bazaar Road, though, the faces of the women seated on the sidewalk selling vegetables spoke for Herat, Kasghar, Samarkand, and centuries of traders going on from here to offer silk and indigo and gold and opium to farflung neighbors.

The Silk Road is a living presence in Leh, therefore, and speaks for a natural crossroads where Tibetans and Nepalis and Indians converge to trade their goods, to run hotels for a while, to contribute what each can to a medley culture. But down the road from the mosque is a Pizza de Hut restaraunt on a rooftop, offering tacos and fries under red-and-white umbrellas that advertise cell-phones. At the nearest intersection sit many of the little settlement’s 150 travel agencies, selling themselves to foreign visitors with names like “Ecological Footprint Travels” and “TIBET EXPEDITION.” You can learn traditional Thai massage now in the tiny Himalayan town, see “Pirates of the Caribbean” days after it opened in L.A. and stop in at a German bakery on your way to a Full Moon Partry. When you disembark at the little airport, you are greeted by notices–in English–that tell you to “avoid buying products from multinational corporations, which are eroding cultural diversity.”

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