The announcement was looking for “intrepid travelers” for a month-long adventure into the “Ancient Cultures of the Indian Himalayas.” Within minutes, I had called the travel agent and I was aboard.
The marvelous scenery and the connection to the people who make the remote Indian Himalayas their home made the trip one of the most memorable I have taken.
What is remarkable about India is the diversity: the Indian Himalayas provide a stark contrast to the dusty plains of the north and the tropical hothouse of the south. In this region of hill stations, fertile valleys, lunar landscapes and crystal-clear mountain air, local inhabitants have carved out a spartan existence in the pockets of habitable terrain.
The Indian Himalayas represent the crossroads of Asia’s three main cultures: Islam in the Kashmir Himalayas; Jammu, Himachal Pradesh and Utter Pradesh represent the northern limits of Hinduism, while Ladakh represents the southwestern edge of Buddhism.
Today, this area is covered with military roadblocks and outposts, while Jammu and Kashmir are currently off-limits to tourists. Problematic as well is India’s disputes with neighboring Pakistan.
The adventure began in the mountains and small villages of Himachal Pradesh (“Land of the Gods”). Himalchal Pradesh and Ladakh were sparsely populated and are surrounded by spectacular scenery, air and peacefulness.
With seven other travelers, we had left hot, humid, and crowded Delhi aboard the train to a charming colonial British hill station, Shimla. As we wandered through the picturesque village of Sarahan, I was amazed that all the brightly-clothed villagers gave eye contact, smiled, and interacted. Westerners — in particular, Americans — were a rarity on this trip. For me, this makes travel more intriguing. People-to-people contact is why I travel. Northern India provided daily opportunities for interaction.
Our visit to the Bhimakali Temple was the first of many climbs to shrines, monasteries (28 of them) and temples. Monasteries are all situated atop hills, which necessitated climbing hundreds of steep, uneven stairs, often without handrails. The rewards were ancient paintings, frescoes and ornate silk thangkas. The elaborate pieces of wall art told stories about the many gods and protectors of the Buddhist and Hindu religions. In each monastery, the Buddhist Wheel of Life was displayed with its six realms of reincarnation (dependent on the previous lifetime’s karma.
We traveled in three comfortable SUVs because the narrow, unpaved roads were not suitable for even a small bus. The drivers were skilled with their maneuvers through loose rocky roads, often washed out by water flowing down from the glaciers every season. Endless colorfully decorated trucks were constantly passing us on these treacherous roads that had sheer rock walls (with “Beware of shooting stones” signs) on one side and sheer drops on the other, often with only an inch to spare). Several times, the lead driver had to enlist the help of others on the road to help guide and push the vans through the dangerous spots. I closed my eyes a lot.
It was like entering another world as we visited the small village. Our tent “lodge” at Kinnaur Valley at 12,250 feet was suffused with birds singing, and the ubiquitous dogs barking. I was a happy camper (even though power was turned on only one hour per day in the Himalayan camps. High above the Spiti Valley, we needed to ward off oxygen deprivation symptoms; most of us began Diamox medication the day before we began our climb. It worked. Temperatures also dropped; thank goodness I brought new silk long-johns. Packing was difficult, due to the restrictive 15 kg (33 pounds) restriction on intra-India flights.
The changes in landscape were remarkable, from lush green valleys to arid, devoid of vegetation, high desert in Spiti Valley. The Tabo Monastery, (996 ACE), with its 100 resident lamas, was enlightening as we sat and talked to the head Abbot, who is responsible for bringing modern education to the monastery school.
After having visited Ki Monastery, the highest and also houses the oldest and largest collection of Thangka paintings in the world, we also wandered through the isolated village of Kibber, which our guide said was the highest in Asia with driveable roads. Its 366 inhabitants trade horses for yaks with the people of Ladakh.
A thrilling, yet scary, drive over the famous Kunzum Pass was dominated by the Bar Shingri Glacier, the largest glacier in Himachal Pradesh. As we were driving, I saw a Ganesh celebration in progress. The joyous music and vibrant colors were so compelling, that ￼I told the driver of our van to stop and let me out. I jumped into the fray with the other dancers.. and had so much fun. It was as if we had known each other for years, everyone laughing, hugging and joyous.
While we were visiting the Institute of Tibetan arts and handicrafts in Norbulinka, we heard that His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, was in residence a few kilometers away at his palace in Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan government, in exile. A huge Long Life Prayer Ceremony, offered by four different Buddhist sects, was taking place with 4,000 monks in red gowns in attendance. We dropped everything, jumped into the vans to be part of this amazing happening. Once we got there, we joined thousands of people, dressed in colorful Tibetan chupas. All the people were fed for free and lines of volunteers were serving food to anyone who was hungry. There was Tibetan dancing and the Dalai Lama was on a giant screen for everyone to see what was transpiring inside the sacred rooms. He is 85 years old and frail but he is still able to be part of ceremonies like this, honoring the Tibetan people and their culture.
After arriving in Amritsar, in the state of Punjab in the Himalayan foothills, we drove to Wagah, the border town between India and Pakistan to witness the lowering of the flag ceremony at the only border crossing that remains open between the two countries that were once one. The event is held every night, and thousands and thousands of Indians and Pakistanis are in attendance. The India Security Border Force puts on the ceremony. A number of officers from each team put on a rousing, athletic￼ performance￼. The elite soldiers on both sides mirrored each other’s high-kicking, toe-stepping, quick-marching ￼moves.
The patriotism for India was palpable with thousands of Indians were cheering, chanting and screaming. On the other side of the gate, the number of Pakistanis appeared to be smaller. I would like to have been a fly on the gate of that side to feel what it was like.￼￼￼￼￼￼
Early in the morning in hot and humid Amritsar, we visited the famous Golden Temple, one of the most sacred pilgrim sites for Sikhs. ￼￼Many Sikhs were sleeping outside waiting for the Temple complex to open￼ until they were awakened by the guards, tapping them with sticks.
We were going to help serve in the kitchens, where a gargantuan amount of food that is served by volunteers. On the average day, 75,000 people eat a free meal here. About 12,000 kilos of flour will be used to make 2,00,000 rotis for the congregation. What an amazing community the Sikhs have in Amritsar.
For part 2, we flew to the town of Leh, in Ladakh, Northeast India. The area is a high desert and the Himalayas surrounding us were etched in magnificence. The air was crystal clear and delightfully cool.
We were scheduled next to spend four days in beautiful, breathtaking Kashmir but politics intervened. Since partition in 1949, the rest of India could not buy property or own businesses in Kashmir. Due to the recent change in article 370 by the Indian government, Kashmir lost this special status. and they were not happy about losing it. With the removal of this article 370, others can come into Kashmir and do business.￼￼There was a lot of tension; tourists were asked to leave and skirmishes ensued. Schools and businesses were closed, and our four-day houseboat adventure in Kashmir was canceled. So at the eleventh hour, our stay in Leh was extended as a home-base for the next two weeks.
Ladakh is one of the most sparsely populated regions in India and its culture and history are closely related to that of Tibet. In Ladakh, the main religious groups in the region are Muslims (mainly Shia) (46%), Tibetan Buddhists (40%), Hindus (12%) and others (2%). The Ladakhi people, with high cheekbones and ruddy cheeks, resemble the people of Tibet and Mongolia. The ceremonial clothing is colorfully unique,￼ and I was even able to find a doll exactly like the region’s ceremonial costumes to bring home to add to my world doll collection.
On our first day in Leh, the largest city, because we were at 11,483 feet elevation, we were told to rest, not walk or exert, and just get acclimated. Raring to go on Day 2, we visited the fascinating labyrinth of winding streets and quaint bazaars of Leh. Every person I passed made eye contact and smiled and said “Julley,” the word that everyone uses as “Namaste” or “hello.”
Our adventures began at the crack of dawn, climbing the stairs to the Thiksa Gompa. We were there to be guests of the monks who were in the middle of their ritual morning prayers. We were amazed that we were allowed to be there and even take photographs. What a thrilling hour that was!￼
When I saw the stairs at the Thiksa Monastery (Gompa)—12 levels of exploring on a rocky hillside, with a 15-meter clay statue of the Buddha (to commemorate the 1970 visit of His Holiness Dalai Lama), I dug my hiking pole in and started climbing.￼￼
We made a six-hour drive to the Nubra Valley, accessible over the Khardung-la (18,380 feet) the highest drivable road in the world but slow going. Often, we averaged 5-10 km/hour.
Through the starkly beautiful countryside, we drove to Khardung Village, over the Karakora Pass, where there was a checkpoint where we had to be registered again to go any farther. It falls on the boundary between India’s union territory of Ladakh and China’s Xinjiang autonomous region. It also plays a major geographic role in the dispute between Pakistan and India over control of the Siachen Glacier area immediately to the west of the pass. They examine every car and every person and make them register, both coming and going from that point.
At the eclectic eco lodge in Nubra Valley, we had power on only briefly for a couple of hours; everyone’s chargers ready to go when we got the signal!
As we passed through Hundar village in a sandy desert valley, we decided to make friends with the camels. Getting on and off a camel with two humps was not easy. With the help of a couple of men, we were able to hoist me above the animal and even though the double- humped camel have shorter legs, it still scared the heck out of me when the camel got up and when it lay down. They tell you to lean back, but I still almost got thrown over his head.
Physicality has never been my strong suit.
During the the long drive back to Leh, we passed a village harvesting barley as a community effort. We stopped and became happily involved with the hard-working, friendly locals. Women work as hard at physical labor as the men, whether it was on family farms, or the women migrants annually repairing the rock-strewn, glacier-damaged mountain roads.
Our guide surprised us with a visit to the only ancient house in the village of Hundar. It is 400 years old, and the family still holds onto it as a local museum that everyone contributes antiquities. The family lives above the old house in a more modern construction. The family welcomed us with open arms.
After we climbed up the 1,000-year-old Alchi Monastery and its awesome frescoes, we drove to Uletokpo Ethnic Resort for two nights. I spotted a group of women in ethnic dress. I called “Stop the car!” jumped out and made friends with the ladies. They were on their way to a wedding and were dressed in full traditional clothing. What a treat! The guide told them in their native language that I was looking for a husband. The women grabbed me and tried to take me to the wedding. They said that before the night was over they would find me a husband. They were serious.￼￼
After visiting the only nunnery at Chulichan, we drove to Choglamsar to visit the Tibetan SOS village (Tibetan government in exile and their projects for the Tibetan children). They are involved in keeping the Tibetan culture alive. We toured the classrooms and met the chief representative of the school who talked about Tibetan refugees and their spiritual practices in Leh. He told us how his grandparents had fled by foot over the mountains in 1959 to escape the Chinese takeover of Tibet.￼ His two sons at the school are fourth generation Tibetans since exile.
On our way from home base, Leh, we drove through challenging Changla Pass (17,688 feet) We picnicked in the summer pastureland of our buddies, the yaks. We passed pristine glaciers, and Himalayan horses. Especially fun were the Marmot little animals,
Finally, after countless switchbacks and bumpy dirt gravel roads, we arrived at Pangong Lake, the largest brackish water lake in Asia. About 60% of the lake is in Tibet and 40% is in India, so the lake is much disputed. The deep blue color is due to minerals; no fish are able to live, other than crustaceans.
Each of us had our own tent with an attached “bathroom.” Of course, there was no electricity except for a brief hour at night. Going to the bathroom during the night was a challenge without killing oneself in the dark.
It was -2 degrees Celsius, cold was an understatement. The wind blew hard and heavy and the tent flapped all night. Adventure!
Our final day began with a drive from Pangong Lake, back to Leh. A lovely young waitperson in our hotel in Leh mentioned that her family could make a traditional Ladakhi multi-course lunch for us in their home. We were thrilled! We decide to make it happen, even though it wasn’t part of our itinerary. We were given tours of their gardens, farm animals and their two homes. They brought out dish after dish of regional specialties,with everyone in the extended family cooking and serving. Even the little 3-year-old carried dishes. ￼
The “Ancient Cultures of the Indian Himalayas” was an amazing, unique, strenuous adventure. The diverse scenery was astonishing, but the high point of the experience was the warm, welcoming, colorfully-clad people. I wouldn’t have missed this trip for the world.
The trip was organized by Original World, a San Rafael tour agency,
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