The Ladakh Reflections - Day 3

Another lovely morning and it is glad to be in Ladakh this time of the year, the sun is out and so am I and so was Lukkaey (Nawang's poodle dog). Nawang is working on the small field enclosed inside the house. One could see the small apples and green apricots growing in the short summer sun. On the small furrows in the field are vegetables like carrots, onion, spinach and some that i could not figure out. The flowers are in full bloom and so are the many colored rose bushes. It is summer and they have this short hiatus to grow before the frigid winter shuts down life again. We had our breakfast and the kawa before we set out again. My friend has some social commitments early in the day, so I will be on my own to roam around the city. First we went to the DC office that is near the Polo Grounds, Leh for getting the inner line permit for me. This permit is required to visit front line border areas like Pangong Tso and Nubra valley for Indian as well as foreign tourists. Nawang knew his way around the office so this was accomplished in real good time. I wonder why they still have it necessary for Indian citizen, but that is a separate story. Since my friend had to go, i asked him to drop me to the fort overlooking the Leh town which he promptly agreed. After a drive across the city and a long curve to the hill top, he left promising to meet around 2pm.

( apricots warming up in the summer sun)

(Namgyal-Tsemo, the white fort above and red temples below)

(Leh Palace)

(The flag alley at the fort on Namgyal Tsemo)

The fort and the Gompa (Namgyal Tsemo) are a three structure building with the white fort on the top and temple below, the main attraction being a tall figure of Maitreya Buddha in the red temple. Some of the best views of the Leh town are visible from here. The young getshul (novice monk) distributing the entry ticket volunteered to take shots for me. He told that this was built in 15th century and spoke pretty decent English. After the temple, i continued climbing to the fort, and since the fort was in ruins, the way up to it was unkempt and dangerous and most likely closed. Multiple times i thought of returning back as a fall from here would surely land me some place that i do not want to go. Anyhow i reached the top which had nothing of mention except dilapidated walls and rocks strewn over the place. There is a perimeter around the castle top, made of wood logs on the sides and below with sacred flags waving rigorously in the wind. I took the chance of walking around it even though it looked precarious and i named it, the flag alley. The way down was equally nerve wracking and sometimes i had to use my arms as well on sharp corners. By the time i reached the temple i was a little weak in my knees. From here, one can have beautiful views of the Leh town, some places green and some new settlements that were not so green. Also visible was the long and winding trek that i had to take to reach the Leh Palace down below. I could see backpackers climbing up this criss-cross trek. I started rushing down, but before i could go further i saw a trek going in another direction to a small hillock beside. Since i had time, i decided to go this way. At the top, were prayer flags (called tarshok locally) fluttering in the blue sky that stretched out to the fort that i just visited. Their red, blue, green, yellow and white making it a riot of colors. From his small hill, located outside the boundary of the village i could see small structures strewn randomly on the landscape. These are the Buddhist cemetery, where they burn their dead. I started my arduous trek down and it wasn't much difficult walking and sometimes running down the mountain provided you had good shoes. While the slopes were bare, there were small herbs growing wild and there were patches of violet bloom that looked like lavender. The Leh Palace, built in 16th century is a nine storey palatial building mostly brown. Imposing as it may be from outside, the interiors again are crumbling and mostly empty. There is a small temple inside, where apart from the usual figures, ancient religious text are marked and stored in red cloths onto a rack, just like a modern catalogue. On the walk below to the city, i visited two more temples, the Chamba Lakhang which had a 3 storey figure of the Maitreiya Buddha and the Chandazik Gompa where there were nice frescoes painted on the walls, an array of miniature Buddhas lined in rows across all the walls. These can be given a miss when you are running a tight sight seeing schedule, but that is not the case with me. I am here for the sights, for the sounds, for the culture, the history and the geography and in no particular hurry. Couple of things of mention the stocks of cooking oil bottles inside each place of worship and all the temples had offering of what seemed to be water in seven bowls in front of the holy figures. I asked Nawang later and he told, the cooking oil is in fact the offering to the deity that people bring to the temple and the clean water in the seven bowls are symbolic of seven tasty dishes offered to the gods every day.

(The long trek from the Namgyal temple to Leh Palace)

After covering all that the complex offered, besides the Shankar Gompa which was closed at this time i walked the narrow lanes to reach the main mosque in the city center. After a while, Nawang joined me and we went for a lunch nearby in a restaurant. He ordered for me as well, which was what locals called as Mix (half plate of Thupka i.e. noodles with mutton and 2 big momos in it). It was scrumptious especially with the very hot chili sauce. We roamed around the city, mostly in antique and local jewelery stores to find something cheap and worth taking along. There was lots of stuff that one liked, but the prices were exorbitant i must say. I did buy a bracelet for myself that had some signs etched out along its length. Couple of Nawang's friends joined us and we went to an array of similar looking tea shops owned by people who migrated from Kargil. Inside one can get seated and enjoy the Ladakhi salted butter tea with some Kashmiri bread over evening banter. It seemed to be a place where one would come down after a hectic work day to unwind, to talk over a cheap cup of tea and then leave. The tea tasted unlike anything i had till date. We soon left for Polo grounds, where there was a football match being played out between the local teams. We watched most of the first half and i wondered what kind of stamina is needed to play hard at such heights and rarity of air. They are born with stronger lungs, i suppose. We left during the half time, back to the home for the evening tea. Sami (Oh! did i not introduce her, she is Nawang's wife) meanwhile had brought mutton samosas for us, and they were awesome. They were such a delight to have over tea. We watched the news and the debacle that was playing out in Srinagar streets with bullets and stones.

We again went out to the market to confirm my tomorrow rafting booking and timing and the market was teeming with activity. I could see the traffic jams and we had a really tough time finding a parking spot around the city. Gosh! of all the places on earth, this is Leh!. Anyways it is peak of tourist season and in another three months all will be gone and the city will return to its usual slow life. But for now, it is raining people! The city and its economy is mostly dependent on tourism, with most of shops and businesses being antique shops, money changers, guest houses/hotels, cabs & tour operators. We completed our work and rushed back for the Japan v/s Paraguay that was waiting for us in the comfort of the home. Over halftime, i asked Nawang as to what the signs etched in my bracelet really mean and he was kind enough to write it out for me. These are the eight auspicious symbols in Tibetan Buddhism.
- lotus flower : for purity
- umbrella : protects from vices and evil
- victory banner : victory of Buddha's teaching over one's evil
- endless love knot : tranquility/equality
- two fishes : flexibility in teachings of Buddha
- corn shell : call for the worship/Gods
- wheel : Buddha's Dharma
- vase : vase of nectar

Not a bad way to end it, especially on a slow news day!

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