Ladakh — Generous, Inspiring, And Humbling

The mountains start to change colour; from brown, to orange, to golden. The sky is a playground for crimson clouds. A family of blue sheep come running down a mountain, raising golden dust in their wake.  A strong wind drowns out conversation. Purple and yellow flowers dance at the edge of young wheat fields. A lone boy walks alongside a baby donkey that tries to keep up with the herd. A wrinkled woman and a young boy gaze out of their window. Glacial waters gush through narrow streams. As we approach it, a black calf calls out to its mother. An old woman dressed in yak fur collects green grass for the cows. Houses seem to merge with the barren mountains. Dusk falls in Ladakh.

A dear friend stated, “If you haven’t been to Ladakh, you haven’t seen much in life”. I couldn’t agree more. A land of bountiful sunshine, snow, and open smiles, Ladakh is other-worldly. It is an ancient, yet progressive land. The earth is rich and the people, ingenious. If you trek through its passes, you can witness it in its entire splendor. The sun can be harsh as you walk through barren mountains. You can’t help but stop often because each sight is one to behold and also because you must catch your breath. Walking the rough mountains is a test of determination, but arriving at villages lush with barley and wheat is a reward for the sweat and the sunburns. The people of Ladakh tap the numerous streams that rush down from the mountains. Women and children work on irrigation channels in the fields. They move the mud around to divert water from one section to the other. Babies hang on to their mothers’ backs, while the older children mix business with pleasure. Ladakhi children spend a lot of time with grown-ups, helping and playing.

Like most indigenous tribes, the people of Ladakh are generous, content, and very welcoming. People working or sitting outside their houses will always smile and shout out greetings to you. The common word for ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’, is ‘julley’. It is a greeting that rings with music and a word that breaks language barriers. We met a man in a monastery in the village of Markha. He spoke to us in Hindi. “Kahan se aayaa hai? Kidhar rahega?” We explained that we were on a trek and were staying with a family in the village. All monasteries are built on mountain tops and the village spreads out below. One can get spectacular and humbling views from here and we always walked up to the monastery in every village we stayed at. This man had a house on the monastery premises and was presumably the caretaker. “Aao, chai peeyo”, he said. Although, grateful for the invitation, we needed to get back to our host’s house for dinner. “Kal aayenge”, we said. “Hum yehi rehta hai, aao dekho”, he insisted. We couldn’t refuse and so we followed him. The entrance to his house, like most Ladakhi houses and villages, sported a mountain goat’s head. It is believed to drive away evil spirits. We entered a dark, stone room, the only one in the house. The man introduced us to his wife. “Julley”, we said. His wife couldn’t speak in Hindi, so the man translated for us. She was a beautiful woman and seemed much younger than the man. We sat on the floor covered with threadbare rugs. In front of us were simple, low, wooden tables. While some houses may have beautifully painted, and intricately carved tables, our host was a man of modest means. Ladakh is a land of contrasts and our host personified this juxtaposition. Although he did not seem to have much material wealth, he was very generous. He asked his wife to serve us some chaang. The local liquor made of barley is perfect for cold nights. Ladakhi men also drink it on some afternoons. Women usually drink when there is a celebration. If the chaang is a few days old, or if binged on, the drink is sure to give you an upset stomach. So, the Ladakhis practice caution while drinking and advise their guests to do the same. Some houses will also serve powdered barley that you can mix in the drink to reduce its potency. Our host did not need chaang to open up. Ladakhis are trusting people. If you appreciate them, they look at you as if wondering how human beings can be cynical, distrustful, or dishonest. Such are the wonders in Ladakh.

Chetan and I have backpacked and trekked across many parts of India, sometimes with a guide. In Ladakh we met Stenzin, a 24 year old boy who was as calm as the Ladakh skies. He walked through the Markha Valley with us for six days. He wore a blue windcheater that he never took off. The sun gets very brutal in the afternoons and I once asked him why he never took the windcheater off. “Pehle nikaalega, phir pehenega, phir nikalega…isse accha rehne do.” He was quite right. The valleys were burning with the sun’s heat, but the passes were freezing with the icy winds! While we frowned every time we felt too hot, or too cold, Stenzin walked on calmly not seeming to notice any discomfort.

Most villages that we visited in Ladakh get electricity for three hours in a day. It seemed quite optimal and the villagers didn’t complain. They spend the daylight hours out in their fields. The sunlight lingers on as late as 8:00 pm. So we only felt the need for electricity between 8:00-11:00pm. It was between these hours that we were served dinner. The people in Ladakh are some of the most hospitable I have seen. Our cups and bowls were never empty! There is always an option of three kinds of teas to choose from! In the Hunkaar village, we stayed with a family of five. There were three children. One of them was a very chubby baby. The oldest one was a girl called Norzin and there was a brother named Rigzin. More beautiful children I have not seen! The girl was no more than 10 years old. The boy must have been around 6.  Norzin carried her baby sister in her arms while her mother brewed us mint tea. When the baby cried, Rigzin took it upon himself to make animal sounds and amuse the little one. The lady of the house cradled the baby in one arm and served us food with the other! When one of the guests, Frank, did not take a third helping of the Skuu, the lady was quite worried! She enquired of the guide on the guest’s eating habits. Skuu is a vegetable or chicken broth served with steamed wheat rolls. It is a nourishing dish and we took many helpings until our host was satisfied that we had indeed enjoyed our meal!

We had arrived in Hunkaar earlier in the afternoon. Stenzin had come to know us well and always took us to houses that we loved. This time he made us walk for a much longer time until it seemed like we had left the village behind! But he made us cross a very cold, gushing river twice and then we came upon the other side of Hunkaar. Green wheat was dancing joyfully in the breeze, brown mountains rose strong in front of us, limestone-washed houses stood sweetly on raised land. The sun stroked the earth with golden fingers! We saw a group of people sitting in the fields. They seemed to be having a good time, so we decided to join them! Ladakhis don’t stand on ceremony and there is nothing superficial about them. When you are in the habit of intending well, then you don’t really need to think much. And they expect the same from others. So, we joined this group of local men, a French couple we had befriended, their guide who had also come to be our friend, Stenzing, and Rigzin. Everyone was drinking chaang in the sun. Rigzin watched. Stenzin told us that it wasn’t best idea to drink chaang in the sun. So he declined and so did we. But we talked in Hindi, translated the conversation to English, and then heard some Ladakhi. The loudest in this medley was the laughter that ensued ever so often from our happy group.




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