impressions from


Ladakh - Travelogue

            Due to problems at Frankfurt airport I arrive in Delhi at 2 a.m. It’s almost 3 a.m. when I’ve picked up my luggage and am through customs and immigration. Somebody from World Expeditions is supposed to pick me up. Finding him (only very few women work such jobs) isn’t easy: there are still many taxi drivers trying to find tourists to drive to a “verri cheap, verri good hotel” (which probably belongs to a relative of theirs). Outside the airport, the heat and humidity hits me like a slap in the face. It’s 30°C  and we’re in the middle of the monsoon season. I feel like sitting in a sauna.

            The drive to the hotel is a piece of cake compared to what it must be like during the day. There’s still a lot of traffic, but less than in the daytime. Although  streetlights don’t exist and vehicles don’t have rear lights (some don’t even use their head lights), risks are a lot less than during the day: no cows on the street, no motor-rikshas, no pedestrians, only a few buses, trucks and taxis. My hands are wet anyway, the driver can’t possibly see what’s going on in front of him, and at one point we’re almost crushed between two trucks during a risky passing manoeuvre. But things are relatively calm, the temperature relatively pleasant, and poverty can’t be seen. Arriving at night helps ease culture shock!

            Despite the fan and the air conditioning which are both very noisy I manage to sleep in till noon. The weather is brutal, it’s hot, it’s humid, but Delhi isn’t as disgusting as I remember it. Of course it smells bad, but I’ve seen worse in Kathmandu where every street corner can be (and in fact is being) used as a landfill. Many people in Delhi live in destitution, but their slums are mostly in the outer parts of the city. I walk towards the centre of New Delhi, Connaught Place. The sheer number of people is almost frightening. Zurich isn’t exactly a lonely place, but I’m not used to so many people.

         Hindus believe in reincarnation and think that the good and bad deeds you do during a lifetime, called karma, determine what you will be in the next life. The goal is to reach Moksha and not to be again reborn. There are different ways of reaching Moksha, one is to do as many good things as possible to increase your good karma (karma yoga). Another way is asceticism; only few people follow this path since it is rather hard. They wear nothing but a piece of cloth and carry a stick and a vessel for water. That’s also all they own, since they’ve given up all ‘worldly matters’ in order to be able to concentrate totally on the inner values for spiritual development. They depend on what people in the street give them, and often beg tourists for money, which is annoying because they follow you. Some also try to sell themselves as a nice subject for a photo. Whenever I see one, I try to walk past him. Other ways to reach Moksha are in meditation or the complete devotion to a god.

            There are three main gods: Brahma is the creator. Once he was the biggest and most important of all Hindu gods, but his importance has shrunk in favour of the two other main gods. Interestingly, there is only one Brahma temple in the whole of India; the creator is not necessary anymore since everything has already been created. Vishnu is seen as the preserver and protector. Whenever mankind needs help, Vishnu comes to earth in the form of a human being to help. One of the animals often attributed to Vishnu is Garuda, a god in birdform. The most ‘dangerous’ god is Shiva, who’s the destroyer and restorer. But there are hundreds of other gods; some of them are manifestations of the main gods, some are ‘on their own’. And  hundreds of stories are told about each of them. There are also many holidays to honour them.

            Hinduism was founded about 3’000 years ago, when Aryans who had settled in India mixed their Vedic philosophy with the religion of the indigenous population. Back then the first texts were formulated: Veda, the ‘holy knowledge’. They were passed on from teachers to students but not written down until much later. The priests were called Brahmans and had a lot of power. They used this power to introduce the caste system and strengthen their status quo. Originally there were only two castes - Brahmans and non-Brahmans. But the numbers of castes increased: each social class wanted to separate itself from the lower social class. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

            The four main castes haven’t changed in hundreds of years. Brahmans, the priests and pundits of Hindu philosophy are still in the highest caste. Then follow the Kshatriya, warriors and soldiers. The third caste is for merchants and farmers, called Vaishya. The working class people belong to the fourth group, Shudras. But that’s not the lowest group, people without any rights, the untouchables, are not part of the caste system. They were not allowed to enter the same temples and did work that was considered unpure, such as the cleaning of toilets and the burning of corpses. Mahatma Gandhi tried to integrate them into society and called them Harijanas, children of god. He didn’t succeed.

            I think this system might have been justified in the early days. It surely made it easier to build a civilisation and high culture. People could be controlled easily; administration was easier when people were put into categories according to their profession and taxation was easy. Back in the beginning the caste didn’t imply being looked down upon and treated badly, the borders between castes were open, one could climb up the ladder, marriages between members of different castes were accepted.

            Today the caste system has been outlawed, but its negative effects are still felt by the lower castes. It still practised, though educated people tend to pay less attention to it. India’s new prime minister is the first untouchable head of state.

             All in all, Hinduism is a very colourful religion, but I find the caste system and the belief in fatality hard to swallow and not very likeable. This doesn’t mean that I dislike Hindus, I just dislike the concepts of Hinduism!

            The term Hindu means ‘Indian’, a name given to the region which began at the river Sinhdu by Persians, but they pronounced it Hindu. They extended the term to include the people who lived there. But to conclude that there are only Hindus in India is a big mistake. The majority of the 900 million Indians are Hindus (80%), but there are also Moslems (10%), Christians (3%), Sikhs (2%) and Buddhists (1%). It seems a miracle that all those totally different religions, cultures and races get along so well, especially if you consider the economic situation and living conditions in India. Of course conflicts arise between the different groups from time to time, but that’s part of life and happens no matter where you live. This peaceful coexistence is one of the most impressive achievements of India, even more striking than all the really old buildings and temples.

            India has a very long history. Not much is known about the time before 2500 BC. The earliest known high culture in the Indus valley developed in 2400 BC. Archaeologists found big cities which were laid out like cities in the United States on a grid system. 800 years later this civilisation went into a decline and disappeared; they were probably wiped out by Indu-European  troops. In 1500 BC more Aryans had settled at the river Ganges and spread over large parts of India. They defined and declared the basic principles of Hinduism. Around 400 BC the first kingdom which included all of today’s India was founded, the Mauryas dynasty. The third emperor, Ashoka, was a big supporter of Buddhism. This new philosophy found broad acceptance. After his death in 200 BC India was overrun by Greeks, Sakas and Kushanas. Five hundred years later another huge kingdom emerged, Gupta. The art and literature of this period had a big influence over the next few hundred years. In the 11th century AD Turkish Muslims attacked India and ruled the north of it; those ‘Sultans of Delhi’ then took over other parts. From the 15th century on descendants of the cruel Mongol warlord Tamerlan, one of them being Babur, ruled the country till the beginning of the 18th century. During this Mogul dynasty many of today’s sights were built. England does a lot of trade in India and becomes more and more powerful. It changes from a trading nation to a military power and soon rules India. High taxes lead to revolts, which are surpressed with violence. England declares India’s independence in 1947, following a peaceful uprising led by Gandhi. Civil war-like tensions between Muslims and Hindus make England split India into two parts - Pakistan and India. This partition has lead to many problems and it is the cause for hatred right up to today.

            Arriving at Connaught Place, I notice how few beggars there are here. Instead everybody wants to sell me something: a wooden chess game, earrings, trousers, fruit, lemonade, shawls, sunglasses, calendars, backgammon games, necklaces, cassettes, cherries, drinks, watches, etc. Kids try to lure me into ‘verri cheap, verri good emporiums’, nice stores where you can buy things from a specific region or state. But I don’t want to buy anything. They are poor and I as a tourist am a big opportunity to make money. I understand that but after half an hour it gets on my nerves. All that hassling and the dirt and the traffic are annoying. After two hours of walking around, I have had enough. The ‘tourist attraction per mile’ ratio isn’t very attractive, it’s mostly inner city walking. Daily inner city life adds more to the character of a city than old monuments, but I think I’ve seen enough and deserve some culturally interesting sites. So I decide to go on a tourist tour by bus.

             To get to the bus station I need to take a motor-riksha, one of those small three-wheeled vehicles which are very  popular all over South East Asia. It’s hell - and it’s fun. This can be said about Delhi in general. Buses, trucks and cars pass you without paying much attention to you; if they need to pull in because a bigger vehicle is coming towards them, they just pull in without looking. The motor-riksha would be pushed off the road if it weren’t for the driver, who has everything under control. He gets his revenge: bicycles and pedestrians are smaller and can be honked at to get out of the way. Pedestrians are at the lowest level of the traffic food-chain, which I notice when I want to cross a busy street. After an adventurous half hour drive and a lot of exhaust fumes, I’m at the bus station. After only half a day, I have enough of the smelly, pushy atmosphere of Delhi and enjoy the ride in the air-conditioned, comfortable tourist bus which blocks out many unpleasant things. I know that this is typical tourist escapism, but I can’t help enjoying it. Due to traffic jams the three hour tour visits only three attractions: the Red Fort, Gandhi’s cremation place and Humayan’s grave.

            The Red Fort is a huge fortress built with red sandstone in the 17th century. Islamic Moguls ruled Delhi back then and the building is a good indicator of their power; it is enormous. We enter through the Lahore gate, which is thus named because it faces the city in Pakistan. Only women were allowed in the inner parts. The mogul had 200 wives and many concubines. Entire buildings served as bathrooms; their architecture is stunning. The affluence of the moguls can only be guessed these days. The precious and semi-precious stones laid into the walls were looted and the impressive peacock-throne was taken to Iraq in the 18th century. Nevertheless, the buildings and inlaid walls are beautiful.

            Mahatma Gandhi, who led India to independence, was cremated at the river Yamuna. The British ruled India from the 18th century to 1947. Then Indians resisted the foreign rule and resistance grew. Gandhi had worked as a barrister in South Africa but returned to India to become the leader of the mass movement against the colonial power, while preaching (and practising!) non-violence. When England declared India’s independence, the formerly united and peaceful movement fell apart. Partition lines were drawn by the British to separate Hindus and Muslims in the hope of stopping the violence. The official who drew the lines had never been to India before, spent 30 days pondering over maps in his house in Delhi, then left and never returned to India. The western part of India was named Pakistan and made an independent state. The region to the far east (today’s Bangladesh) was called East Pakistan. The big country in between was the new India. Fights between religious groups, mainly between Muslims and Hindus, increased. People were tortured, killed, raped. Huge numbers of refugees were fleeing. Hindus from Pakistan went to India, Muslims from India went to Pakistan. Many thousands of them died or were killed on their way. Estimates talk about 12 million refugees, 500’000 of whom died. Gandhi tried to stop the violence, where he talked, violence stopped; but it was too widespread. More than once Muslims accused him of being anti-Muslim. And more than once Hindus accused him of being anti-Hindu. In 1948 he was assassinated by a Hindu extremist. A simple black marble stone and an oil lamp mark the place of his cremation. Mahatma means ‘great soul’, which is more than a simple overglorifying nick name. Fifty years after his death many Indians visit the place; the atmosphere is very solemn. But to be honest, it isn’t very spectacular, which might have been the intention when they built it.

            I didn’t read much about Delhi before this trip, since I thought I would be here for only a day. Now I’m surprised that Muslim influence in Delhi was that great. The number and size of Islamic buildings are enormous. Jama Maijid is by far the largest mosque and has room for 25’000 believers. It can be seen from far away, the minarets are 130 feet high. It’s a pity it’s not included in our tour, it looks great even from a distance.

            Instead we visit Humayan’s grave. The name is very humble, the grave isn’t a simple hole in the ground; it’s a big palace-like building. It was built upon request by his wife and looks terrific. Humayan and some family members are

buried in the centre room under the onion-like roof. The architecture is very Mogul-influenced, but the pillars include three totally different architectural styles from Iraq, Persia and India. Many experts believe that this building served as a prototype for the stunning Taj Mahal. Not only is the building impressive, the garden and water channels were also done with great love to detail and look as if they had been a model for the gardens of Versailles and all the other great European palaces.

During the tour I meet two girls who speak perfect English. They both study in Jakarta and spend a few days in Delhi, where the Indian girl’s family lives. Hanging around with them is so much fun. I wonder why people from different parts of the world and different cultures can have such a great time together (or more often can’t get along at all). Is it a matter of how you were brought up, or education, or your financial situation, or the circumstances under which you meet? Or does it depend entirely on the individual? I don’t know. But I do know that doing a tour in a nice bus with interesting people makes Delhi less horrifying. (Shigeko Morita, Jl. Mataram No. 1, Kebayoran Basu, Jakarta 12110, Indonesia, Tel. (62-21) 725-1262 and Mallika Pradharn,

            Back at the hotel that night, the power goes. I hope it’ll work again soon, it’s hot enough even with the  fan and the air-conditioning working properly. But I seem to have adopted a little bit, I’m not sweating anymore when I just sit around and do nothing. I still think I’m on the way and haven’t reached my holiday destination yet. Tomorrow is the last day of travelling. I should be in the Himalayas by noon and am very excited about that!

            It’s hard to say what has made me come here for the third time. The magnificence of the mountains is breathtaking, the ruggedness and beauty of the largest mountain range overwhelming. But at the same time a highly sophisticated culture has flourished in this inhospitable and harsh environment (and it has remained surprisingly intact despite tourism). I think it’s this contrast that fascinates me so much.


Arrival in Leh

The flight to Leh leaves at 6 a.m., which means I have to get up at 4 o’clock. I meet the other members of the group in the taxi which takes us the airport. We’re only three; I’m surprised that they organise treks for such small groups. Anyway, Manuel and Gabi are both from Zurich and seem to be nice. They’ve never been to India before but have travelled in other parts of the world. Hopefully this will make travelling with them easier, as they won’t complain when things aren’t as perfect as they are in Switzerland. The check-in in Delhi goes relatively smoothly. We get out on the runway, where an official points to the airplane we have to walk to.

            At half past six we’re in the air. When one hour later the stewardess tells us to get ready for landing I’m a bit worried. This is supposed to be a direct flight to Leh and we haven’t crossed the Himalayan range yet. Did I get on the wrong plane? Luckily not; it turns out we are making a quick stop in Jammu at what looks like a military airport. Another civil airplane is waiting there; a mechanic connects the two airplanes with a huge hose while others with big screwdrivers do something on our plane. Everything seems unusual, but I’m sure they know what they’re doing. We wait for 45 minutes; it’s hot, it’s humid, you can’t move and nothing happens. The captain gets out, has a big, angry discussion with one of the officials, points to the cockpit a few times, the hose is disconnected and then connected again. We wait. And sweat. Half an hour later we finally take off for Leh.

            Delhi was foggy and cloudy, offering no nice views. The fog is gone; the area around Jammu is totally flat - green rice fields stretch as far as I can see. Further north almost all the clouds have disappeared, and far away I see the beginning of a small mountain range. Many rivers begin at the southern side of the hills, these not very high hills are the first barrier for clouds that they can’t pass and it rains. On the northern side it’s drier, the sudden change of colours from green to brown.

Five minutes later snow-capped mountains appear; another five minutes later we’re right above the highest mountain range on Earth. Himalaya means ‘abode of snow’, a fitting name. Huge glaciers wind themselves down high valleys, they look more like flowing rivers then the (relatively) static blocks of ice they really are. On the horizon three summits can be seen which are so high that they really stand out. I suppose they are K2 (8611 m), Broad Peak (8047 m) and Gasherbrum (8068 m). They are all in northern Pakistan, therefore the border must be close. This is why taking pictures is forbidden, though I’m able to take a few before the stewardess tells me to stop. I’ve heard of tourists whose films were taken out of the camera. I’m lucky and can keep my film, but I decide not take any more pictures, which is a pity, because the changes in landscape are incredible.

A few minutes later we’ve crossed the range. It looks like the Tibetan high plateau now, only the highest peaks are snow covered on the top, the dominant colour is different kinds of browns, reds and greys. From fields to glaciers to desert. What’s  next? As soon as we approach the Indus valley, small strips of green are visible. They follow glacier creeks in narrow valleys and look like oases in the otherwise barren landscape. The broad, fertile Indus valley is in front of us, we’re almost in Leh. I can make out a few monasteries and villages, but the strategic importance of Ladakh can be seen more easily. There seem to be more army barracks than normal buildings, especially around the airport.

            Ladakh lies in the most north-western part of India, north of the Himalayas. It borders Pakistan to the west and Tibet (which is occupied by China) to the north-east. La is Tibetan and means ‘pass’, Ladakh means ‘land of high passes’. The name says a lot about the region, the only way to get into this area is over a couple of high passes. It’s one of the highest areas inhabited by humans. The average height of the valleys is 3’500 m, but 99,5% of the region is unsuitable for settlements. To the north is the Ladakh range, south of the Indus valley is the Zanskar range, further south follows the massive Himalayan range. To the east the land becomes flat and turns into a high plateau called Changtang, which stretches over the western part of Tibet. Only nomads and their cattle manage to live in this harsh climate where temperatures fall below -25°C during the winter. Most of the population lives near creeks with glacier water and work as farmers. Agriculture is possible up to an altitude of 4’500 m.

            The first thing I notice when I’m out of the airplane is that the climate is great, a true blessing. It’s about 25° C, sunny and there’s a light breeze. It’s warm and dry; after the humid heat in Delhi it feels good to be here in Ladakh.

Ladakh’s history consists of three main periods. The immigration of Indo-Aryans was followed by a long time as an independent kingdom and since the 19th century it’s been a part of India.

            The first phase was from 200 BC to 900 AD. Mongolian and Tibetan nomads had lived in the Himalayas region before the first people settled down in the Indus valley. They were Mon, hunters and shepherds from north India. They were the ones who brought Buddhism to this remote area. After that Islamic Dards became the ruling power in southern Ladakh, they built forts and collected custom fees on the trade routes. They were also the ones to introduce the agricultural system with terraces and irrigation canals, which is still in use today. It’s the same system that was brought to Spain by the Islamic Moors. In the 8th century the first great Buddhist scholars who had studied in Kashmir came to Ladakh. The most famous one was Padmasambhava, ‘the one born out of a lotus flower’. He was on his way to the holy mountain Kailash in Tibet but stayed in three caves to meditate for awhile. The first small monasteries were built there.

            Kings ruled the valley from 930 AD on, a dynasty which lasted almost a thousand years. They were strong followers of Buddhism and sent monks to study in Kashmir, which was then the centre of Buddhism. Many craftsman and artists came from there to build monasteries. The famous architect Rinchen Zangpo built 108 temples and is seen as ‘father of Buddhism’ up to today.

            Buddhism was spread further when the Indian philosopher Atisha visited the region in the 11th century. A huge number of monasteries were founded, mostly funded by wealthy noblemen. Two hundred years later Muslims occupied Kashmir, which soon lost its role as being the Buddhist centre. Ties to Tibet, where Buddhism was not threatened, grew stronger. Up to the 15th century the monasteries followed the Kadampa school of Buddhism. The Tibetan reformer Tsongkhapa thought that the morals of the Kadampa were deteriorating and founded the Gelupka, ‘the virtuous ones’. Most of the monasteries in Ladakh became Gelupka monasteries.

            The kingdom broke into two parts for awhile - Basgo and Shey. When the country was united, the new king called its dynasty Namgyal, ‘perfect winner’. He built his new palace in Leh. This dynasty ruled till the end of the kingdom in 1834. In the 16th century Muslim attacks weakened it. The king saw a good chance in attacking the Muslims and asked the official oracle for the best date. The astrologer warned strongly against attacking before new year, which was still 2 months away. The king decided to simply change the date of new year and attacked. He was successful - after losing the battle and being imprisoned he fell in love with the enemy’s daughter, they married and the Muslim army left - and today new year is celebrated two months before the actual new year.

            The king’s clever (and lucky!) son gained new territory and continued to build the palace in Leh until it reached the size it has today. The 5th Dalai Lama in Tibet tried to invade Ladakh and Namgyal asked the Islamic Kashmir for help. He had to convert to Islam, the Kashmiri army stopped the Tibetans but asked for payments each year. In 1834 the Indian Dogra army didn’t have any trouble winning against the poorly-equipped Ladakhi army. They occupied the Leh palace, which forced the king to move to his second palace in Stok. Dogra’s invasion is felt to this day. They looted monasteries and stole jewellery from the villages. The British were more interested in securing their colony than in Ladakh itself. They laid down the border to Tibet at the Simla conference 1913. Ladakh was given to the Maharajas of Jammu-Kashmir.

            When the British left India in 1947 war broke out between Pakistan and India over the Kashmir region. A truce was negotiated, but despite this small border wars erupted. In 1962 China occupied a large area in the north east almost over night. India increased its military presence and many roads were built. Its strategic importance doesn’t seem to have decreased. In addition to the border problems there’s civil war 400 km westwards in Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir. But here the situation is tranquil.

            Our hotel, Hotel Omasila, is a bit outside Leh in Changspa. It lies between green barley fields and apple trees and has a nice garden. The altitude causes problems to most tourists for a day or two. At 3’500 m the air is thinner, which can lead to headaches, insomnia and dizziness. Therefore it’s recommended to rest for at least one day. I know that. And the garden would be the perfect spot for a nap. Do I rest? No, of course not. While I’m here I want to see as much as possible, after lying on the bed for 20 minutes I can’t resist anymore and just have to go and explore Leh.

            It was once the capital of the kingdom of Ladakh and has a population of 10’000, which makes it by far the largest city in the region. Many caravan routes cross here, Leh used to be a big trading place and meeting point for different cultures and races. Leh means ‘oasis’, and it’s easy to imagine that after the hard and strenuous journeys this big village really must have been an oasis for the exhausted traveller. The centre of city was the market place, where nomads traded wool for carpets, Tibetans brought tea and salt in exchange for brocade from India and Persian merchants sold goods from the orient. In the 17th century Leh became the residence of the king, and since then it’s been the economic and administrative centre.

            The atmosphere is very relaxed, shop owners don’t hassle me (for too long) when I walk by their shops, traffic is light and it’s not too crowded. The mix of different cultures is amazing, the more persistent shop owners have Arabic faces (Muslims); there’s quite a large number of Hindus from the south and of course many Ladakhis with Tibetan and Mongolian faces. The mosque was built when the king asked for assistance to fight back the Tibetan army. The Kashmiri agreed to help him on the condition that he converted to Islam (in addition to some cash, of course). Handicraft is mostly sold by Hindus and Muslims from Kashmir, Ladakhis sell jewellery. The different races and cultures seem to get along well. Many of them have lived here for a long time (only Hindus came here in the last decade), peacefully most of the time. But in 1992 violence broke out, Buddhists set Muslim houses on fire and forced them to move to other villages. Now things are calm.

            Along the main road farmers, mostly women, sell produce - turnip, tomatoes, radishes, beans, peas, potatoes, carrots - and fruit - apples and apricots.. It’s surprising that all this grows at this altitude. I walk around in the old part of Leh which reminds me very strongly of the not-yet-destroyed old parts of Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. Whitewashed houses, several stories high are built next to each other, small alleys go steeply up the hill. The old palace dominates the whole city. Captains of the Indian army, whose invasion marked the end of the kingdom, lived in the palace; before that it was the residence of the Namgyal dynasty. It’s dilapidated now. Further up are some monasteries and on top of the hill is the ruin of an old castle. It would be a long walk up there and since I start to notice the effects of the altitude, I postpone climbing that hill for later.

            Even after having had a short rest at the hotel I’m still tired. My travel book says something about an old chorten, a Buddhist monument, in Changspa, just a five-minute walk from the hotel. It should be easy to find, but I can’t find it and just follow the road for a bit. At the end of the road I see the Shanti Stupa on top of a hill. Now I know where to go. Steep stairs lead up to it and I know I shouldn’t go up there before I’m properly acclimatised. But I can’t resist it. Now I really notice the lack of air up here, breathing is much more difficult than at sea level. I have to sit down a few times, which is a good opportunity to enjoy the great view. Leh and the Ladakh range are to my left, ahead is the wide Indus valley, behind are a few high mountains which are followed by the Zanskar range. 

            The Shanti Stupa was built only a few years ago and is financed by a rich Japanese Zen-Buddhist association. Its goal is to deepen the co-operation and understanding between the different schools of Buddhism. Interestingly the Dalai Lama didn’t take part in the opening ceremony, because he thought that Buddhists and Muslims should get along first. On the way back to the hotel I see the chorten I was looking for before. It seems really old and has an unusual style of architecture. It’s about a thousand years old, and with its sixteen corners resembles a pyramid. It reminds me of the Stupa in Gyantse, Tibet, but this chorten can’t be walked on. Earlier the steps might have served as a place for Buddha statues. A small shrine nearby shows some statues and paintings. It’s a beautiful quiet spot, nobody’s here.

            There’s a small river nearby and the laughter of the women (and some men) doing their laundry can be heard far away. People here are happier than people in Delhi; they greet you, laugh at you and seem to be more open. But maybe I’m wrong and it just seems that way because I am more comfortable and happy here than in Delhi.

            I’ve done too many things this afternoon and have a small headache. I’m glad to get back to my nice room, and after a great dinner I fall asleep almost instantly.

Trakthok, Hemis, Thikse

I sleep surprisingly well and have absolutely  no problems with the altitude. Our guide Phunchok will show us around in the Indus valley for the next two days. On today’s programme are three monasteries in the eastern part of the valley. Getting there involves some driving, but that’s exciting. The drive up the valley is beautiful. The fertile area is a great contrast to the brown of the desert, the white of glaciers and the blue of the sky. The morning sun intensifies the colours and makes it even more breathtaking. Every once in a while we drive past barren areas fenced with barbed wired military zones. The road leads eastwards for two hours, then we take a left to drive up the valley to where the village Saki and the Trakthok monastery are. 

If you don’t know anything about Buddhism, don’t consider coming to Ladakh! You wouldn’t understand the people and their culture. The monasteries and statues may still strike you with their beauty, but you won’t understand their meaning, which will probably leave you feeling unsatisfied. Although there are other religions in Ladakh, Buddhism is the one that has imprinted people’s lives in the area for almost two thousand years.

            So who was this Buddha? Born in the 5th century BC, his real name was Siddharta Gautama and his father was a powerful ruler from the Shakya family. He’d lived a normal royal life, when he became older he left his previous life behind and continued to live in asceticism. He found enlightenment and travelled around as an itinerant preacher until his death. After he died, the names Buddha, ‘the one who found enlighten-ment’, and Shakyamuni, ‘the wise one from the Shakya dynasty’ were given to him. What are his teachings about?

            There are no gods in Buddhism, which is why I have trouble calling it a religion. I’d rather describe it as a philosophical system, whose goal is to reduce suffering. Its concepts are easy to understand but the more advanced ideas are so complex that most monks spend all their life studying them.

            Buddha’s birth was accompanied with unusual signs. At the age of 29, he became dissatisfied with his luxurious life and wanted to get to know the world outside the palace. He took four trips, which confronted him with the reality of the world. Those encounters changed his life: an old man he saw remembered him of the hardship, strain and uncertainty of life, a sick man stood for physical and spiritual weariness, a corpse symbolised death. All this showed him the limitation of happiness. While thinking about a way of salvation, he saw a monk. Buddha left the palace to become an ascetic and followed several gurus. He learned all their practices in a short time but still felt no satisfaction. After seven years of asceticism Buddha decided that a middle way between all extremes might be a solution. By this time he had already his own followers, many of whom left him. He meditated uninterruptedly and after a few days he found enlightenment. He told his experience to his remaining 5 followers, since then known as the ‘Four Precious Truths’:

1.    Life is transient, full of tragedy and suffering. Even happiness is a form of suffering, because feelings of happiness are limited by time and turn into feelings of mourning.

2.    Suffering is caused by the wish for happiness, fun and passion. Attachment to those feelings also leads to suffering.

3.    To end the suffering, one should stop pursuing and being depended on happiness.

4.    The fourth truth describes a few principles, comparable to the Ten Commandments.

            A fundamental aspect of his philosophy is the concept of rebirth. The world is seen as a never-ending circular course, in which all living beings are reborn according to what they did in their previous life. The sum of the good and bad deeds is called karma. I guess most people in Europe would like to be reborn again. But for Buddhists the goal is to escape that cycle, since life means suffering. This doesn’t mean that they’re sitting alone at home, being depressed. They seem very satisfied. But still, Nirvana, the place for the ones not reborn again, seems a better place than earth. This circular course is pictured beautifully with Wheel of Life, hopefully I’ll see a painting of it in the next few days.

            In the many centuries since the founding of Buddhism, different interpretations of Buddha’s teaching have led to two systems. For followers of Hinayana, ‘the small vehicle’, the goal is to reach their own salvation and to go to Nirvana. People in northern India, Tibet and Mongolia believe in Mahayana, ‘the big vehicle’. They pay more attention to the compassion often mentioned by Buddha and try not only to reach Nirvana, but to help others reach Nirvana, too. A good example is Avalokiteshvara, whose statue can be found in many monasteries. He could have gone Nirvana, but decided to come back to earth because he couldn’t bear the fact that so many people are miserable and won’t find enlightenment. Often he has eleven faces to see where his help is needed and a thousand hands to actually help. Buddhists think  that the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political leader of Tibet, is the embodiment of Bhodisatva Avalokiteshvara.

            Before Buddhism arrived in Ladakh, people believed in a natural religion called Bönpo. When Padmasambhava, an Indian master of Buddhism, came to Ladakh, he faced the opposition of the old priests and shamans. So he just incorporated parts of the Bönpo religion into Buddhism. The legends say that Padmasambhava fought with the Bönpo demons, was victorious and the demons became protectors of Buddhism, which means the same as the sentence before. Buddhists have perfected the art of telling facts in an easy to understand way. This also goes for statues, dance festivals or paintings: They are just symbols and convey a deeper message. This mix between the colourful old Bönpo religion, its gods and the purely philosophical Buddhism led to a new form of Buddhism, often called Tibetan Buddhism.

            After the hours I’ve spent over books, I’m really excited to see all this for real. The side valley of Saki is very long, it takes more than half an hour to reach Trakthok, which is built on the upper end of the valley. It was founded by the famous scholar Padmasabhava, who grew up in India and later spread Buddhism in the Himalaya region. He’s often referred to as the founder of Tibetan Buddhism. During one of his many trips, he meditated in a cave at Trekthok, which means ‘cave ceiling’. This cave is now the central room of one of the very few cave monasteries in the area. Though it is small, it looks great because it is built very close to the rock. This monastery belongs to the Nyingmapa sect, which is the oldest sect and was also founded by Padmasambhava. They practise tantric and occult rituals and used to live in isolation. Only very few people are part of this sect these days, and Trakthok is their only monastery in Ladakh. They are said to have special abilities, but are not allowed to show them in public or even speak about them. I as an unknowing tourist don’t see any differences to other monasteries or monks. It’s really cold in the cave, its walls are black from the lamp-black of butter lamps that are lit for ceremonies. Now it is completely dark and doesn’t seem to be a very comfortable room to meditate in. A big statue of Padmasambhava and eight smaller ones, his fearsome manifestations, are the only items of interest. A part of the cave is closed,  monks hold tantric ceremonies there at special occassions.

            The abbot’s brother I talk to likes the cave especially in winter because it is so warm.  “The water doesn’t freeze in there”, he says. He invites us for tea, the first cup is with milk and sugar, the second cup has butter and salt in it, Tibetan butter tea. But since they’ve taken fresh cow butter instead of rancid yak butter and put in only a little bit of salt, it tastes good. I’ve had worse before. Not many tourists find their way up here, I suppose that’s one reason why we’re being treated so friendly.

            After this short rest we visit the largest monastery in Ladakh. Hemis lies on the other side of the river, up in a valley and can’t be seen until we are almost there. This geographic location has saved it from many lootings, which might be a reason for its size and wealth. 400 monks study here. Almost a fourth of all fields in Ladakh belong to the monastery, which was founded 350 years ago. Hemis is famous for its yearly dance festival. Almost every monastery has this festival, most of them are in winter when people don’t work on the fields and have time. Those dances often show the introduction of Buddhism and the story of Padmasambhava. Two big assembly halls are in the main building. In one of them monks hold a puja, a ceremony which involves not only prayers but also music. Drums in different sizes and wind instruments made out of bones, wood and conches are played by monks of various ages. Tourists are welcome to watch, but most of them exploit that hospitality or behave improperly. They wear shorts, leave their hat on, smoke, walk around counter-clockwise, take pictures inside the monastery, some even take pictures with flash of the monks during the ceremony. Even though the ceremony is fascinating, I leave after a minute because I feel so embarrassed. Being a tourist means that you do enough damage even if you’re trying to act as responsibly as possible. So treat the local people with the fucking respect they deserve.

           I’m really angry now (which also qualifies as bad behaviour, I guess) and tell a few tourists in the other rooms to stop taking pictures. They are totally surprised that taking pictures isn’t allowed, or maybe they’re just good actors. I mean, one of the first things you read in travel books is that picture taking is prohibited in most monasteries. If they don’t know that, have they ever read a book about Ladakh and its culture? Probably not, which means that there’s even less reason for taking pictures because they don’t know the meaning of the statue or temple or ceremony or whatever it is they take a picture of. The room to the left isn’t so crowded. I’m surprised how big it is compared to other monasteries; the height and width makes it comfortable. A 15-feet high statue of Buddha Sakyamuni and a 25-feet high silver chorten are the center of the room.

            The last monastery for today is half-way back to Leh. Thikse is visible from far away, it’s built on top of a steep hill. Before we get there a great but somehow spooky scenery appears on the hillside. In the sand stand numerous white chortens. Most of them look really old, and even the ones that are half-destroyed are whitewashed and stand there in the barren landscape. It looks strange. Those chortens must convey a message, but I don’t understand it. It’s as if somebody is trying to say something but you don’t quite hear him. The town of Thikse is situated below the monastery along the road. A third of the population are Muslim, but they weren’t attacked when religious violence flared up in 1992.

            The monastery of Thikse is striking, from the top even more than from the ground. The views are amazing, the whole valley from Trakthok on the left to Leh on the right lies in front of me. A huge statue of the future Buddha Maitreya is the ‘main attraction’. Another room is full of statues of Tara, a female saviour who is liked very much by common people. No wonder, since the statue radiates more mercy and kindliness than all the other statues I’ve seen up to now.

                Three monasteries in one day is quite enough and everybody seems to be glad to get back to the hotel. I haven’t felt well since Hemis. As soon as I’m in my room, I collapse onto my bed with a high fever. But I’m not sweating, which worries me. I drink about 5 litres a day up here, I should be sweating. Is it just a normal cold, severe altitude sickness, a sunstroke or even malaria? Malaria would be the worst-case scenario. The next few days will tell.


Shey, Stok, Spituk

The night is horrible. I wake up every 30 minutes and feel dizzy; one minute I’m freezing, the next minute I’m extremely hot. But at least I’m sweating now. The overdose of Alcacyl doesn’t seem to have any effect. I have bad dreams, not nightmares, just confusing bad dreams. I’m exhausted in the morning but glad the night is over. The worst of the fever seems to have disappeared. My lungs hurt now, whenever I cough or breathe in heavily it burns like fire. I think I’ll go on the morning tour anyway and go to bed after lunch if I don’t feel better by then. Today’s programme is easier and involves less driving since all the places are close to Leh and there’s time to rest at noon.

            Shey is only 20 minutes away and was the royal residence until the 15th century. When Leh became the new capital, Shey was used as the second residence. It is built on light stones, which gave it its name; Slel means crystal or glass. From up here the views stretch over the fertile valley and the caravan routes. The palace is a ruin now, and though it is under the Indian Archaeological Survey rebuilding programme, not much is being done to even preserve it. The only exception is the Shakya-Thubpa temple behind the palace, which is well-preserved.

            More efforts are being taken to repair the royal residence in Stok. When Leh was invaded in the 19th century, the royal family fled to Stok. Since the palace has been inhabited since then and taken care of, it looks the same as it did 200 years ago. The last king died in 1974, but the queen is still alive. She doesn’t have any formal power anymore but is respected by local people and was elected for the Indian Parliament. She still lives in Stok but we don’t meet her and ‘only’ get to see the museum. It’s rather small but greatly interesting. One room is full of old pictures, there’s one where the Queen of England and the Ladakhi Queen meet. It would be very interesting to know what they thought about each other and what they talked about. The royal jewellery is also shown. The Ladakhi version of a crown for women is the perak. It’s a piece of fine cloth with precious and half-precious stones on it, mostly turquoises. There are 450 turquoises on this perak;  it must be really heavy and not very comfortable. But peraks are also worn by normal women, often at festivals or other occasions where you want to look nice and dressed up. Of course they can’t afford that many stones, but in the past the perak was seen as an indication of wealth so families didn’t mind spending a lot of money on it. The more outstanding items are the royal beauty case (golden earcleaner and nailcleaner) and the royal tea pot. The king had a beer pot. Maybe the most valuable items are the thangkas. These paintings are 500 years old, most of them showing the different aspects of Padmasambhava. The colours were made out of precious stones. Lapis lazuli, turquoise, gold and silver were ground to powder and mixed with other substances. The museum is a nice break after all the monasteries.

            Before lunch we visit the Ecological Centre in Leh. It was founded by Helena Norberg-Hodge, who came to Ladakh in the 70s and found an intact, healthy society which respected the environment. When she came back a few years later she saw how modern, western lifestyle had been adopted and was threatening the foundations of Ladakhis’ lives. The centre was established to face those ecological, economical and social challenges. Ladakhis are shown the many advantages of their own culture. That’s maybe the most important step. Very often in ‘underdevelo-ped’ countries people see themselves as inferior to western people and emulate them as much as they can. Well, very often western thinking is just wrong, and even many of the good ideas can’t be simply applied to a different culture. Solutions must be found in the country itself, and that’s what the centre’s goal is. One part of their strategy is to give young people the opportunity for education. After finishing regular high school, people can take part in various handicraft courses: painting, sewing, weaving, woodcraft. This gives people jobs and helps to keep their culture alive. Of course you can’t deny people’s demands for modern things which make life easier, like electricity or hot water by saying: ”This is not traditional, you can’t have it.” The technical department finds ways to give people those things with ecologically responsible technology. They build solar cookers, solar heaters, water pumps which get the energy needed directly from the current in the river, and small generators for electricity. All the departments are lead by Ladakhis, there are no foreign ‘experts’.

            After lunch I feel well enough to go on the tour to Spituk. It’s a short drive past the airport. The village and monks’ houses are at the foot of the monastery, which - as usual - stands on the top of a hill. It’s early afternoon, most of the monks are reading or learning or sleeping, but one elder monk shows us around. As in every monastery, on the façade outside the assembly hall are paintings of the Wheel of Life and the Four Protectors. In the old Bönpo religion which was practised before Buddhism arrived, they were demons or evil spirits. Padmasambhava is said to have fought with those demons and to have given them roles as protectors of the four cardinal points. There’s one Lokapala for each direction: Jambhala (yellow) protects the north, Dhritarastra (white) the east, Virudhaka (blue) the south and Virupaksa (red) the west.

According to Buddha every human has the ability to find enlightenment in this or a future life. Buddha’s teaching serves the goal of reaching that stage. So again, Buddhism isn’t an actual religion since no god is involved, it just gives advice on how to reach a certain stage of mind. But since that isn’t easy it usually takes several lives, so when somebody dies the soul is reborn in a new body.

            This concept is shown in the Wheel of Life. Yama, the god of death, holds the wheel. The three animals in the centre, snake, cock and pig, represent the three moral poisons: hate, greed and ignorance. They hold each other by the tail, which means that as long as somebody has one of those characteristics, he or she can’t find enlightenment.

 The 12 scenes on the outer ring show suffering and how it’s connected:

1.    The blind old man symbolises absence of knowledge and the lack of ability to detect the ‘ego’ as illusion.

2.    The potter forms vessels out of clay to say that everybody has control over their actions and can determine their own destiny by doing good things and therefore getting good karma.

3.    The monkey grabs everything in reach and is too busy and greedy to pay attention to  anything else.

4.    Three men in a boat crossing a river: the body is simply a means of transportation that moves our soul through life.

5.    A house with a door and five windows; the door stands for the ability to think and the windows symbolise the five senses.

6.    The couple in love to show the ability to touch and feel.

7.    The man with an arrow in his eye shows that feelings can become so strong that we can’t see the truth anymore and become greedy.

8.    For the man drinking wine greed is unstoppable; when he has enough he instantly wants more.

9.    The man collecting fruits is dependant on his feelings of happiness, which he clings to and can’t let go of.

10.A pregnant woman symbolises the creation of new karma.

11.A women in labour, a young living being is on earth, but soon it will become...

12. old man. The circular course ends and starts here. The old man walks with a package of his sins to the lake, death, and waits for his rebirth.

The six bigger inner parts show the regions of existence which a being is born into according to the being’s karma. The three upper parts are the areas of gods, semi-gods and humans. Everybody in those parts can be happy. Those with bad karma are born into one of the lower parts: the one of animals, hungerghosts (with big stomachs but thin throats so they can’t eat, and when they eat they have to throw up) or in hell. Even I as a non-Buddhist must say that this wheel captures many truths. And it’s all explained so vividly and understandably.

            The assembly hall is very nice; artefacts and statues seem to fit together with the furniture and the dimensions of the room. I don’t know why but all of us somehow think that this is the most impressive assembly hall so far. It’s very clean and also well lit by windows, which makes this a very inviting place. Behind the altar is another room which is packed with butter lamps, statues and paintings. After the assembly hall we visit the room of the fearsome protectors, the Gonkhang. It’s situated outside the main monastery, further up on top the hill.

The eight different protectors are called Dharmapalas, protectors of the doctrine. Often they are Hindu gods or Bönpo deities that had fought against Padmasambhava and then became believers of Buddhism. They all look pretty terrifying with their distorted faces, red eyes and huge teeth. They are surrounded by flames, wear necklaces of skulls or snakes and sometimes trample a  human being. Often they are about 9 feet high and when they look down on you they seem even more scary. It’s important to note that all this has purely symbolic value. The protectors don’t actually kill a human being, they simply destroy the ignorance represented in that human being. Gonkhang buildings can often be recognised from far away, instead of being whitewashed they are painted red.

            A younger monk sits at the entrance and recites prayers while playing the drum. The room is almost completely dark. Masks for the yearly dance festival hang on the walls, they look spooky in the darkness. Two statues are in the room, but they’re covered with cloth and are only fully displayed once a year during the festival. Only few monasteries show the fearsome protectors throughout the year. But even when they’re covered it’s easy to tell what they are. There’s always a piece of them which can be seen and that’s enough even for non-experts. In here are Mahakala and Yamantaka, which can be found in almost every Gonkhang.

            Mahakala, the ‘big black one’ is the most common Dharmapala. He’s a representation of the Hindu god Shiva and has 75 manifestations. His skin is often black or dark blue and has up to 8 heads and 16 arms. It’s hard to believe that this scary creature is just another form of Avalokitesh-vara, the Bodhisatva of compassion.

            Yamantaka is the protective form of the Buddha of wisdom, Manjushri. The legend goes like this: Once a holy man meditated in a cave. Shortly before his enlightenment after 50 years of meditation, two thieves entered the cave to cut up a bull they’d just stolen. When they saw the yogi they decided to get rid of the witness. He begged for mercy but they beheaded him anyway. The yogi instantly changed into Yama, god of death and hell. He put the bull’s head on his shoulders, killed the thieves and drank their blood. His thirst for blood was insatiable, he killed many people in all parts of Tibet. Tibetans called Manjushri to help them. He turned into Yamantaka and defeated Yama after a huge fight. Yamantaka also has a bull’s head, but a human body with many arms. The most horrifying form of Manjushri is Vajrabhairava.

            Palden Lhamo is the only female protector. She rides on a mule which is covered with the skin of her own son. She promised to kill her son if not all humans turned into Buddhists.

This is a very relaxing day, physically but even more mentally. I don’t know why, maybe because we visit only one monastery instead of three. Or maybe it’s because the second day and I’m more used to Buddhist culture than yesterday. When we get back to Leh I feel fit enough to climb the Tsenmo hill on which the palace is situated. Many monasteries stand there, on top is an old castle. A small temple called Chama-Lakhang and Gonkhang are just below the castle. I visit Chama-Lakhang, which isn’t very exciting and skip the Gonkhang. Later I find out that I should have done it the other way round, the mural paintings in the Gongkhang are unusual since they show battle scenes from 1550, while the temple is really mediocre. It’s a very steep twenty-minute walk to the top, but the views are worth the effort. The door to the castle is locked, so I don’t get to stand on the very top, but doesn’t matter. I can see the whole city of Leh, the Indus valley and the mountain range to the north. It’s not that I haven’t seen these things before, but they look different from this perspective.

            From up here it’s also clear how the fields are cultivated. In order to increase the amount of fertile land people have built terraces and a clever irrigation system. Water flows through a big channel to the highest fields, from there several smaller canals water the fields further down. One person is responsible for the equal and fair distribution of water. Rainfall is very rare north of the Himalayas; the amount of rain is as high, or better as low, as in the Sahara. So the person distributing the glacier water holds a position of much power. It’d be interesting to know how he (or she) gets this job and how conflicts are solved, but right now there’s nobody to answer the question and I forget about it later.

            On the polo field some kids play cricket, a few minutes later a polo game begins. I’ve never seen polo being played and run down the hill. Too bad, by the time I get there the game is over.

            I feel much better than yesterday, but I’m still sick. I guess I should have spent the rest of the afternoon in bed, because it’s almost seven when I get back to the hotel. I hope I’ll be absolutely well again when the treks begins and won’t have to pay for my stupid hyperactivity.

 Leh to Alchi

My cough still worries me, but I have a few days before the trek to get better. Trekking in this condition would make it a lot harder and less fun. We take a taxi to get to the starting point of our trek. Padum lies between the Zanskar range and the Himalayan range. We should be there in four days. I enjoy what I think will be the last hot shower for two weeks. We leave in the morning and follow the Indus westwards. The river disappears into a gorge, which totally changes the landscape. There are no fields for almost one hour and hardly any people live here.

Suddenly a small village can be seen at the end of a valley on the right hand side. That’s Phiyang. I’m a bit cranky and not too eager to see another monastery. A big festival will be happening next month, so many people are busy repairing and repainting the monastery. The atmosphere isn’t very solemn and I’m having a ‘monastery tantrum’. Luckily Phunchok notices that and spares us a few buildings. The Gonkhang is very unusual because the statues aren’t covered. It’s easy to imagine what kind of effect these big scary creatures have on humble pilgrims.

           After a short and steep climb the road slopes down in many curves. We get to Nimmu, the village where the Zanskar river from the south flows into the smaller Indus. In winter it gets so cold here that the surface of the Zanskar freezes and people walk on the solid ice to go from Zanskar to Ladakh. It’s often the only way out of Zanskar, too much snow making crossing the passes dangerous or even impossible. But I assume walking on the river is risky, too. At least for European standards. Suddenly there’s a strange noise and the car slides for a few metres. Did a tyre blow? We get out, the tire looks all right. But the wheel is barely attached to the axle anymore. Luckily this didn’t happen ten minutes earlier  to one of the front wheels on the way down from the pass!

            In India being a driver also means being a mechanic. Our driver just takes the tools, gets out of the car and tries to fix it. We might be lucky and be able to continue our trip as planned. But a special screw is needed. So we sit down and wait. Since we’re on the main road there should be some vehicles coming by. And actually after only a few minutes cars and buses can be seen. Most of them stop when they see our car without our driver having to yell at them. Their driving might seem reckless and dangerous, but solidarity on the road is big and other drivers are very helpful. The first few vehicles don’t have the part we need, but a public bus has the right screw. The most technique-savvy guy crawls under the car, while five people (not including us tourists) sit around him and give advice or just watch.

 Everything seems okay now, we get in and drive for 20 minutes, reaching the town of Basgo, when... yes, you’re right. We almost lose the wheel again. At least we’re in a town now, there are things to look at. The valley is very fertile, the steep red rocks which mark the natural barrier to the north. The town itself is a bit dull; considering its long history I expected more. There used to be a big fort on top of the but only ruins are left now. In the 11th century Ladakh was divided into a western and an eastern kingdom. Basgo was the capital of  western Ladakh, Shey its eastern counterpart. Many wars were declared here and won; in the 15th century eastern Ladakh was conquered and the capital was moved to Leh. We don’t visit the ruins, the car might be fixed anytime soon. It isn’t and we have to find another way of getting to Alchi, 40 km westwards. Phunchok tells a taxi driver who is headed in that direction to send two taxis up to Basgo. More waiting, I’m still sick and sitting here doesn’t make it any better. Our plan was to visit Likir, a picturesque town with a highly interesting monastery between Bargo and Alchi. There won’t be any time for that now.

By the time the taxi gets here I don’t want to go anywhere else than straight to the hotel anyway. I try to sleep on the way there, but the driver listens to horrible Indian folk and pop music. The stereo must be broken, the bass is too deep and so loud that it makes the rear seat vibrate. After a minute I get out my walkman and put in the Youth of Today / Judge tape. Ahh... what a salvation. Two hours later we get to Alchi, I go straight to bed and sleep for three hours.

It’s a sunny evening and I stroll through barley and wheat fields for half an hour. Later we visit the monastery of Alchi. From an art history point of view it’s one of the most valuable ones. Most buildings date back to the 10th century when Kashmir influenced Buddhist art and craft in the  region. When Muslims took over Kashmir, much of its culture was wiped out. Alchi is one of the few places where many aspects of that culture can still be seen. Unlike most other temples in Ladakh, Alchi isn’t built on top of a hill but lies between fields and trees near the Indus. The famous Rinchen Zangpo founded the monastery and ordered Kashmiri artists to come to Ladakh. They were particularly well-known for their paintings and wood-carving. Ladakhis were also good painters, while the great smiths and builders of statues came from Nepal.

The different architectural style is best seen at the Sumtsek, the oldest building. It’s three stories high and build entirely out of wood. Inside is a chorten and a statue made out of clay. I didn’t know that clay lasts so long, it’s also 900 years old and still in perfect condition. Until recently not many efforts were taken to protect this great monument. The wooden parts suffered from the weather, the roof leaks and the damp had damaged much of the mural paintings. Some have been restored and repainted and look fantastic. The paintings in the front court of the assembly hall tell you even more about its origins. They were done in great detail, which can be seen even today. Palm trees indicate that the artist didn’t come from here. Man wear baggy breeches and have moustaches. Battle scenes include soldiers on elephants. I have seen elephants in Hindu temples in India, but I’ve never heard that they were used for fights. Even I can see the oriental influence. The wood carvings over the entrance are also excellent and show the life of prince Gautama Shakyamuni, the Buddha. The paintings inside have suffered badly from the damp, the hall isn’t really used anymore. Only a handful of monks live here.

            The village of Alchi is wealthy due to the fact that the climate in this valley is very favourable. Barley can be harvested twice a year and even wheat can be grown. Gardens look like gardens in Switzerland, which seems unbelievable if you consider that we’re at 3'500 m .

 Ladakh is famous for its apricots; no less than 10 different kinds grow here. They are eaten straight from the tree in summer; some are cooked to make jam, but most of them are sun-dried for winter when food is scarce. The most important staple food for centuries was tsampa, a sticky batter made out of barley. It is the only grain that grows up here, but it can’t be used to make bread. Therefore people grind into a  flour, which is roasted and then mixed with water and salt. That’s tsampa, a rather dull food. Today many people eat rice, which is subsidised by the government.

 People often think that Buddhists are vegetarians, but that’s a fallacy. Buddhists are allowed to eat meat, but they’re not allowed to kill animals. I find this rather contradictory, but I can understand that people eat meat. At this altitude where only few plants grow and there’s no much to eat in winter, meat is (or maybe used to be) a life necessity. Most families have a few cows, sheep or goats. They are kept mostly for their milk, but when they’re old they are slaughtered, or brought to a butcher  (who is often a Muslim). Ladakhis make butter, yoghurt and cheese out of milk. The butter is used for the famous - and by tourists often hated - butter tea: black tea with salt and butter. Another famous drink is chang, a beer made out of barley. Every family has its own recipe and makes its own beer. Chang might be almost non-alcoholic water in one house and taste like strong liquor in the neighbour’s house.

Alchi to Kargil

In the morning a bus picks us up to bring us to Kargil. It’s an eight-hour drive with few attractions. One of those is the road itself, especially the first part which leads to Lamayuru. Endless curves take us up the steep pass. How much time and money it must have cost to build this road. I doubt there would be any roads if it weren’t for their military importance. Before roads were opened to tourism in 1972 it was almost impossible to get to Ladakh. These days it’s not only military trucks that use the road, it’s mainly lorries that bring up all kinds of goods from Srinagar or from even further away. Traffic is very heavy. The roads are very narrow. More than once we have to drive backwards to let a military vehicle pass, with only a few (too few for my taste) inches to the precipice.

Shortly before the Fatu pass lies Lamayuru, one of the oldest monasteries in Ladakh. It’s a lonely place, the closest villages are far away. Far below the monastery is the valley, green fields and a very light rock formation. The white sandstone has been formed by rain and wind and look like chimneys, a very bizarre landscape. People call this part moonvalley. Legends say that a lake surrounded the monastery hill. Demons that looked like snakes (Nagras) lived there until the Buddhist ascetic Arahat Madhyantaka put them to flight. He had put some seeds on the water, later the plants that grew formed a swastika, a sign of Buddha. The Nagras saw that they had lost and fled. Hinduism has huge battle epics, fights in Buddhism seem to be more peaceful. The swastika is a very old symbol originating from India. Swasti is Sanskrit word which means ‚well-being‘, so it doesn’t have the bad meaning that comes to mind when you first see that symbol. Geologists have found out that there really was a lake 20’000 years ago, about 3’500 years ago the water flew into the Indus.

The history of the monastery begins in the 11th century, when the Indian yogi Naropa came here to meditate in a cave. Rinchen Zangpo, the great architect, made Lamayuru what is it today when he built five buildings here. Shortly after completion, 400 monks settled down. In the 15th century the abbots were regarded so highly that they were working as consultants for the king. Out of gratitude the monastery was given autonomy, Lamayuru had the right to give asylum to criminals and absolve them (only if they could reach the monastery, of course...) Today about 150 monks of the oldest Buddhist sect study in the monastery.

Quite a few tourists sit in the assembly hall and watch a ceremony. But unlike those people in Hemis, the audience doesn’t disturb the ceremony. I don’t feel like an intruder and sit down to watch for ten minutes. Texts are recited and music is played. But I don’t exactly know the meaning of it all, so I feel like a dumb watcher. In one corner four monks make a mandala out of sand. To a non-Buddhist a mandala may look like a complicated drawing with many colourful circles and squares. Buddhists see a deep meaning in the mandala and use it as a tool for meditation. The mandala visualises different gods (where the gods themselves are only used for visualisation) which helps the monk to turn into a specific god and experience an aspect of Buddha’s doctrine. For sand mandalas, grounded precious stones and coloured sand are filled into small funnels. The small hole in the funnel lets the monks draw very precise lines. A finished mandala is breathtaking, even though it’s two-dimensional it seems three-dimensional. The creation of such a work of art takes about a week. Shortly after finishing it, it’s  destroyed. This is a shock for most western tourists. But since the mandala has served its purpose there’s no need to keep it. And one of Buddhist‘s most important mottoes is that everything is transient and holding on to feelings, people or things is a impediment to finding enlightenment. The Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung has spent some time analysing mandalas and found out that many people dream and think in patterns similar so mandalas. He saw mandalas as archetypes of the human psyche.

A hole in the wall lets us look at the small cave of Naropa. He lived from 1016 to 1100, his teacher was Tilopa, his most important student Marpa. Marpa’s most famous student was Milarepa, maybe the most-liked yogi. He wrote many stories and poems, many of whom play an important role in Tibetan literature even today. In another room a monk forms figures out of coloured butter, which he works as if it were Plasticine. These are often put on the altar as offerings. How long do they last? I’ve seen some which are said to be fifteen years old.

We have lunch at a cheap, shabby restaurant where all the truck drivers eat. After finding a few pieces of hair in my rice, my lunch is over pretty fast. The only interesting thing during the four hour drive to Kargil is Mulbekh. This village is the cultural border between the Muslims in the west and the Buddhists in the east. A big sculpture, carved into the rock, is what had made this town famous. The statue is from the 7th century and 23 feet high. Art historians think it’s the most valuable sculpture in western Tibet. A big tree grows in front of the statue, but if you’re too close you have to look too far up and can’t really see it either. I hoped for more after the dull drive. Of course the landscape has been terrific since we’ve left Leh, but it can’t catch my attention for a whole day.

            Kargil itself is a very ugly city, it looks rather new with its brick buildings with corrugated iron roofs. But despite the fact that it is old, there’s nothing of interest for tourists. So I just stay in our not very nice hotel. Kargil is a Muslim city and since it’s not as hard to reach as Leh, the mix of races is even more stunning than in the Indus valley. Some men look like southern Europeans, some have faces which remind me of men from the Balkans, there are Tibetans, Indians, Sikhs, Kashmiri, and some older men look like Mudjaheddins from Afghanistan. Only very women are on the streets. I wonder if they look as different as the men, but I can’t tell because most of them wear a scarf.
            Most of the things I’ve read about Islam were rather negative. I don’t know whether all the writers were biased or Islam really is worse than other religions. Islam doesn’t approve any other god than Allah, who decides whether somebody is going to heaven or hell after death. Muslims disapprove Hinduism because of its many gods. That also goes for Buddhism, which isn’t surprising if you consider that Islam doesn’t allow the depiction of Allah. Prophet Mohammed founded it, and when he died in 632 AD almost everybody in Arabia was already a Muslim. Believers were asked to spread Islam, if necessary by sword. In the 12th century the north of India was conquered and Indian merchants spread it all over South East Asia.