Thursday, May 21, 2009
Ladakh is one of those special places - look it up on a map and it is impossibly far from anywhere, nestled high in the Himalayas, along the banks of the Indus, near the old silk road. It is influenced heavily by Tibet and Buddhism, yet exists in a cloud at the top of the Indian sub-continent. It has been the scene of a centuries old power struggle between influences of Islam and Tibetan Buddhism and was not open for foreign visitation until 1974. Ladakh retains much of the Shangri-la qualities that are becoming increasingly difficult to find. As you survey the gompas and sprawling capital city of Leh while the effects of hypoxia cloud your brain, you are struck by the stunning beauty of the place. The main valley is dotted with gompas, terraced fields of buckwheat line the river banks, and the whole scene is dominated by snow capped giants and azure skies.
We arrived there in mid October - a bit late for the Ladakh "season", but on purpose to avoid the tourists of summer. We planned to do some trekking, probably through the Markha Valley, expecting good fall colors, cool days, and an empty trail. As we provisioned and began inquiries as to the status of the trail, we learned that the snows had come early this year. In particular, the region, normally bone dry had received a rather severe blizzard in September, the Manali-Leh road was closed for 3 days, with several buses and cars stranded, and several people died from exposure in snow several feet deep. As is typical for India, especially remote off the grid India, we were getting various different reports as to the conditions of the Gongmaru-la, the highest point and critical pass of the trek at 5306 metres. We were going light, and were not carrying snow gear, crampons, etc. and we were trying to avoid walking in hip deep snow through sub-freezing temperatures. The preferred direction of the trek is to cross the pass from the Markha side, as you have a steep descent on the last day, rather than a steep ascent to the pass on the first day, but due to the conflicting information and potentially dangerous conditions, we decided to travel to Hemis Gompa and on to the tiny village of Shang to begin the trek. The day we left, we heard rumors that the last group to attempt to cross had turned back at the pass due to blizzard, and the mountains were freshly powder coated in white.
Hemis Gompa is the celebrated seat of the Drupka Tibeatn Buddhists in Ladakh. It is also called Chang Chub Sam Ling or "the lone place of the compassionate person." It is very old, and is constructed as a 3 dimensional mandala, making it all the more auspicious. It is even rumored that Jesus spent some of his 30 "lost years" studying here. If you pilgramige here, and wander up the creekside trail, and sit under the prayer flags in meditative silence, you will have no doubt about the power of this valley, and you will get a taste of the real Ladakh, that feeling of Shangri-la, a lost place of peace that feels like a true oasis in this crazy world of ours.
But I digress. We walked down from the Hemis valley, feeling very clear and alive. We walked the 15km to Shang along a most incredible river gorge. The silence was such that it made your ears ring as my brain searched for a sound to hold onto. It was late in the day when we arrived. The workers were coming in from the field as the sun set over the mountains. There was a camp set up by the river, the porters were setting up the mess tent, and two trekking tents were set up with some exhausted looking trekkers laying flat, feet protruding from the door. We asked the guides how the pass was - knowing that the answer was not going to be good. They said it was hip deep snow, and super icy on both sides of the approach, and this was from a secondary pass, not on the main trail. Add to this it started snowing again, and the temperature was close to freezing down here some 1600 meters below the pass.
I began to realize that for all my planning, all my thinking, a whole trip arranged around doing a trek in Ladakh, we were going to be turned back within 10 miles of the goal. Fly to Delhi, fly to Leh, acclimatise, provision, bus to Hemis, trek to Shang, where we now sat. It was so close I could taste it, my wife was less enthusiastic after hearing reports of hip deep snow. And even though the trip was now for all purposes impossible, I still clung to its idea, and tried to "figure out" how we still could do it - in other words, I could not let go - could not detach, I was losing the battle with my ego, running in mental circles.
We camped in the town gompa's courtyard, snow falling gently. At 4am, in the crisp cold darkness, we made our way to the back door of the gompa for morning puja with the one monk who was in residence. Three of us sat in a 5x7 foot room, adorned with traditional tibetan buddhist thangpas, horns, cymbals. The butter lamps flickered off the painted, carved ceilings, and our misty breath co-mingled in the cold air. The monk began the puja, chanting and reading the ancient texts, drumming...
After tea, we walked up to the old gompa. The snow blanketed the hills, the old gompa sat perched 1000ft up a side valley, the walls arising out of the rock. Standing atop, the views were stunning. Blue sheep toed the brown crags, and the prayer flags rippled in the wind.
How did we get here? Where were we actually? Somewhere along the way, I thankfully lost my mind. I had stopped wondering why we couldn't trek, when we were so close, and had come so far, stopped being attached to that idea, that random idea, that that was better, that was right, that was meant to be. I did not know any of that to be true, after all, as my wife pointed out, we could have been walking 15km with wet feet through freezing snow, all while we gained 2000m in elevation. But the point is, while I was thinking, worrying, obsessing, being attached, I was never here and now. While I was living in my head, I was missing where I actually was, and what was actually happening. I had to learn to relinquish control of a situation over which I had no control, and never had any control of in the first place.
The famous phrase that launched the modern era of scientific deconstruction, and human misplacement in the world: "I think therefore I am", shot us out into an orbit from which we are still trying to recover. When we are thinking, where are we? What are we? Deep in thought? Lost in thought? Day dreaming? We certainly are not PRESENT. We are not HERE. I am, when I am in the moment, smelling the air, enjoying the view, enjoying where I am, what is happening. When I give up control, which I never really have anyway, everything is comes easy, it flows, it is enjoyable, not painful. So, if you find yourself stressed out or find yourself lost in the hamster wheel of your mind while you are trying to figure it all out, just take a deep breath, go outside and check in, smell the flowers, sit in the sunshine. Let go of thought and control, and feel alive - otherwise, what are we all really doing here?
Places like Ladakh always have lessons to share, this was mine this trip; I think therefore I am not. So as we sat drinking butter tea on the roof of a gompa, breathing rarified air, 100 kilometers from nowhere, I gave up control and that was what my wife had been telling me all along.