“Julley, julley.” A chorus of greetings made me look up from my laptop. The adorable faces of school children smiling at me and waving their hands made me break out in a huge smile. It was then that it dawned – I was in Leh! Finally, after years of dreams and wishes, I was sitting on a rickety chair and typing away in the garden of my guesthouse situated at the edge of Leh market.
Well, yes I was there for work (the busy laptop reference) but to get to spend your birthday in Ladakh – I mean, how much better can it get right? I kept my notes aside for a bit and looked up at the sky. The Shanti Stupa up on the hill beckoned as I sipped masala chai and zipped up the jacket. It was mid-August and the tourist season was full on. But, yet there was a sense of calm. A feeling of just you and the mountains. I would love to do a road trip from Manali to Leh but instead I had to fly. So, as it was my first day in Leh, I was advised to not start exploring but just get acclimatised.
“Sleep, eat and sip water,” had said my father. I heeded his advice because in spite of not doing anything, I felt tired. “Are you up to exploring the market?” asked N, another guest. Feeling refreshed after a good sleep and chai, we went. We took the short but inclined path up to the main road and then started walking down the winding road that led to the market. Fleece jackets, sleeping bags, sweaters, shawls, binoculars, bikes for rent, bakeries, the smell of fresh momos; it seemed one could find anything they wanted. All one had to do was search.
For years photographs of the pristine surroundings, the unbelievably elegant monasteries, the clear blue sky, the vast expanse of desert mountains had intrigued me. And I wasn’t disappointed. As the sun slowly set, lights lit up Leh. It was magical of sorts, the way you see Paris light up from the Eiffel Tower, similarly as the cold hit your face and the lights from the shops around you reflect in your eyes, you can’t help but shiver in anticipation of the coming days.
We all have bucket lists. And everyone wishes to cross off ‘visit Ladakh’ from that. But if you get to cross off ‘biking in Ladakh’ on your birthday, that’s just a bonus! One can rent bikes in plenty all over the market. But try to get to the shop early or during the tourist season you’ll be left disappointed. And there’s no better way to feel amongst nature if you’re not biking down the empty road with the wind in your hair. Just to clarify, I’m not that great with bikes though I love them. So thanks to the kindness of three guests at the guesthouse, we set off on two bikes towards Magnetic Hill.
Reaching the top
If I’m brutally honest, it was a dream come true. We travel far and wide for exotic vacations yet fail to appreciate our own backyard. Ladakh is what dreams are made of, where every frame is postcard perfect. The perfect contrast among the blue, brown, green and yellow – one is simply mesmerised. Many suffer from motion sickness and at times, I do too. But the roads here, they way they’ve been paved, never lets you feel that way. You can be on the road for hours going up the mountains and yet, never feel ill.
Due to lack of time and acclimatisation, I couldn’t visit Nubra Valley or Khardung La but instead I made my way to the lesser known Worry La (Wari La) at 17400 feet. The scenic views going up are spectacular. You feel you’re going to the top of the world. If that’s the feeling I got at 17400 feet, I can’t even begin to describe what Mt Everest would feel like. You nibble on the wonderful dried apricots and keep yourself hydrated as you approach the top. The Tibetan prayer flags wave proudly in the wind as the breeze hums a song. At a distance you could see snow. Just two days before Khardung La had experienced snowfall which resulted in a drop in temperature. As I zipped up my fleece and added a second layer of protection, I couldn’t help but want to go to where the snow was. A distance which would have taken me five minutes in normal circumstances, took me about 20. The melting snow made little puddles, each breath made me tired. But I finally touched snow! And it made me the happiest I’ve been in a long long time. As I looked up, the mountain range called out to me. The peaks played hide and seek with the clouds.
As I recollect, these memories make me smile. The warmth of the people in Leh, their ever-ready smiles to make you feel welcome, proud of the region. There is no sense of regret. “It’s hard but that’s how you live,” said one local tour operator, who goes down to the plains during the harsh winters. People from all over India come to Leh looking for temporary jobs. Some work in restaurants, some help tourists. But not once do they complain. “Mehendi?” As I refuse, the young lady with a small child smiles at me. Sitting in a corner near a curio shop, she hails from Rajasthan. “Money here is good. This is my second year here. I make more money here in few months than what I make back home,” she says, the colourful bangles jingling on her wrists.
As I turned the prayer wheels at Shanti Stupa, I couldn’t help but wonder, ‘would I be happy if I was in a similar position?’ People forget what a privilege it is to be able to travel and see the world, to meet different people and hear their stories. And I wouldn’t give it up for anything.