A man with a backpack jostled me sideways and he was a bit peculiar, they were wearing hiking equipment, backpacks, tools and ropes for their much awaited hiking in Himalaya but a certain group of people caught my attention. They were wrapped with dark red clothing which is twice their body length, obliquely about their shoulders, some wear a shawl with the front and the back decorated with yellow cloth, and a long skirt and drapes another long shawl also twice their body length. It was such a curious site and left me in awe, they are Monks! Monks who came from different parts of the world and who came for pilgrimage or festival celebrations. It made a big grin on my face, “I’m excited about this!”.
I took a cab going to Leh city the capital of Ladakh and head northeast. The view from the cab was like a scene from some fictional movies, a barren area landscape and vast arid rocky mountain that vegetation is visible in just certain parts. Air-condition system in cabs was not needed as the temperature were extreme, dipping below freezing point especially during winters. They say the lowest temperature recorded in Leh was around -23°c however, winter days are bright and sunny.
It was a cold yet sunny day in Leh city, a very fine day to explore the rocky and sandy streets or taste the different dish cooked by Ladakhis, but I decided not to do anything in my first day. The first day is a rest day to acclimatized from this high altitude which is considered as one of the highest city elevations in the world.
I arrived in my guesthouse called Greenland, before reaching the main door you have to pass through their beautiful garden with lavender, chamomile, tulips, mint, ginger and other mixes of flora. I was greeted by Yang-chen a Ladakhi woman who owns the guesthouse, dressed in an elegant black robe with thick belt and stone jewellery as her bracelet, she is very welcoming and very nice but after few talks and walks, I felt exhausted and tired. I told her I want to sit first and it is quite hard to breathe, she made me sit in a chair in the kitchen room and gave me a hot aromatic mint tea. That was my first time drinking real mint tea, the more I sip, the more I feel relaxed. The altitude here is 3,500masl a simple walk on stairs made me feel exhausted as if I did cardio for 1 hour non-stop, I pant for breathing in every steps and dizziness kicks in. I went to my room and rested for the whole day so stoked to wake up tomorrow.
The monk’s chanting prayer at 5 am woke me up, the morning prayer is an essential part of Buddhist practice and along with the evening, prayer combined. My room is situated on the 3rd floor near the roof-top overlooking the street of Leh, the Buddhist praying room is across the hallway. Curiosity had me peaked what is inside the prayer room and how the monks pray. I discreetly tip-toed my way to the prayer room evading cracked floors that might trigger any noise, I saw a large prayer room dominated by red and yellow colors with small prayer flags which was hung in the facade and along the entrance of the room and a monk in red robe holding a prayer wheel spinning in his left hand while chanting mantra Om Mani Padme Hum repeatedly. According to 14th Dalai Lam, the first OM symbolizes the practitioner’s impure body, speech, and mind it also symbolizes the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha, MANI, meaning jewel, symbolizes the altruistic intention to become enlightened, compassionate and loving, PADME, meaning lotus, symbolizes wisdom and HUM, which indicates indivisibility. Thus, combining them OM MANI PADME HUM, means that you can transform your impure body, speech, and mind into the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha.
I soaked my head in tepid tap water until I felt enough stable to explore the city. Along the street, there were many travel agencies to organize your hiking as well as day tour in different Buddhist temples, there were also stores to buy Class A branded hiking equipment: Jack Wolfskin, National Geographic Traveler, Deuter, The North Face, Osprey, Columbia and so on, name it and they have it and of course lots of restaurant shops were scattered everywhere like there were a feast, they offer local Ladakhi and Indian cuisine as well as international dishes.
As I continued my exploration, I saw a white dome-shaped stupa which you cannot miss as it dominates the view of the city. Shanti Stupa. You can either drive on its road or walk on foot but I choose the latter, also it will help me to acclimatize well and a good preparation for my big trek. 500 steep steps to the hilltop will reward you an amazing view of the city and its surrounding landscape. It was a vast sea of the rocky arid desert which vegetations were very evident as it tries to camouflage in the earth colours. It is a landscape of skies and infinities with a major backdrop of protruding pyramidal white snow mountains of Himalaya and Zanskar range that breathes cold wind and randomly frosted. I was unprepared for the beauty of this place. Everywhere I turned my eyes to were immaculately intended solely for this place, feels like you are witnessing a part of God’s work in nature and living beings. I knew I had been in a very spiritual and powerful place because I felt peace, tranquility and serenity. It was out of the world feeling, as if your soul was lifted high up for you to witness the grandeur of this place.
It was four o’clock in the afternoon when I got back to my guesthouse. Yang-chen greeted me and asked “will you be joining us for dinner? I am preparing good food for us” it smelled sweet and spicy, aromatic and tangy, grassy and fruity, suddenly and very timely my stomach growled, “Yes please”. The food arrived, she served me a hot noodle soup with boiled veggies served with spicy chutney to enhance the flavour and zing. “That is called Thupka, come on don’t stare on it.” It was delicious, not a typical noodle soup, this is Ladakhi or Tibetan style, the flavour is spicy a heartwarming dish which is perfect for cold weather. She cooks really good, I don’t usually eat veggies but this is exceptional. I was back in the real world, I thought, and remembered how the evanescent clouds curtained the ridge white mountains, the immense colorful carving of Buddhist symbols in the 2-level Stupa, the rustling leaves of different plants and trees rustling against each other, I was deeply attached to what I was, the purity, stillness and quietness. Suddenly, Yang-chen tapped my left shoulder “Are you okay” “Oh, yes. This is a very powerful and beautiful place. By the way, the food is so delicious!”.