The past few weeks have definitely been a different flavour. Heading steadily to the north of India, the people and country side have both shifted towards mountainous and Buddhist, culminating in Ladakh which is called the closest thing to Tibet on the subcontinent. It was far and away one of my favorite places in the country.
The main city of Leh is almost indescribably beautiful. The town is a fertile strip of green nestled between the desert hills of brown and a back drop of Himalayan peaks. Set against crystal clear skies the view is an every changing Crayola box of greens, blues, whites and brown.
The culture is also an interesting departure. The area only opened to tourists in 1974 and until then a remarkably self sufficient society had braved the high desert and -50C winters for centuries, key to which was a strong sense of environmental values and strict population control. In addition to a large population of Buddhist monks and nuns, the area is one of a handful of cultures that actively practiced polyandry - the taking of more than one husband by a single woman (pause for applause from my female readers.....)
Polyandry is now a thing of the past (pause for tears from my female readers...), however the strong position of women and an intimate sensitivity to the natural environment has remained, giving the place a far more progressive spirit then many other places in India. I spent
most of my time there hiking up the nearby hills and visiting the centuries old Buddhist ruins, the centre piece of which was the palace looming above the town of Leh itself. Extensive restoration is going on, but despite that it was mostly just me wandering unobstructed
through 9 stories and 400 years of ruins. It was fabulous.
Fabulous and, as I mentioned, solitary. On the verge of departing from India that has probably been one my biggest surprises. This has far and away been the most isolated period of travel I've ever had. There are other travelers around, but the entire time in India has been a strange anti-confluence, like a trip to a parallel universe as if I disembarked in Bombay at platform 9 3/4.
Even where I've been following what should be the beaten path, things turn up empty. The most recommended hotels are barren, restaurants are strangely empty, and when I do things that seem to be the most natural cultural or tourist events there's nobody around.
In a day-trip outside of Leh I visited the active monastery at Hemis, the richest in the province and a 'must see' stop to witness the monks during morning prayers. The monastery again is impossibly beautiful, tucked high into a side valley away from the Indus River and surrounded with green trees and flowers. It was just myself there, taking a humble and uninterrupted seat at the back of the gompa (Buddhist temple) where I was graciously welcomed and served hot tea along side the monks. It was a stirring experience, admittedly made more so by the lack of outside distraction.
It was a similar case a few days later during June's full moon. It was one of my last days before leaving and the natural thing to do (as I saw it) was to climb to the "Shanti Stupa" - a stunning brand new Buddhist monument gifted by the Japanese. It's the highest point in town and the
only vantage point complete with a tea house/cafe. Again, mysteriously, it was virtually tourist free for the rise of the moon, which I can happily say was completely breathtaking.
None of that is to take anything away from the incredible time this has been. There have been countless things to see and there are the more than enough encounters with friendly locals, shop owners, and traders. However, over the course of some weeks, or months, I find I need a
little more than the same two conversations, "What country?" and "Very long man!...How long?", "....that's none of your business sir!."
After being turned back by fictitious concerns about the twin typhoons that recently rolled through the Philippines, I'm now in Bangkok - heading to the beach and the slow lead up towards heading home.
Here's the photo show from Ladakh.