Thursday, September 24, 2009

Leh and the Dalai Lama

Wow, it's been a long time since I've been able to blog! Been in some places where the internet was slow or non-existent. Here's a brief rundown of what I've been up to in the past few months:

Chorten near Shey Palace


Leh itself reminded me a lot of Tibet - whitewashed buildings built into the sandstone hills, a huge and vibrant Buddhist culture, chortens and gompas surrounding the city. It was much more developed for tourism than I expected, with an entire section of the town devoted to rows of garden restaurants featuring all your favorite Thai and Italian dishes.


The old market still had an atmosphere of a meeting place between cultures, and you could see native Ladakhis from all over the region mixing with Tibetans and Indians. I came during the Dalai Lama teachings, so many many people appeared to be making their annual trips to town to stock up on athletic shoes and other supplies (everybody seems to like Nike, even the monks).

Dalai Lama Teachings, Leh

For a traveler, Leh is mostly a base from which you can do excursions out into Ladakh. I can't picture staying very long in the town itself. I hurried to Leh to see the Dalai Lama at the nearby Tibetan refugee colony. This was one of the most amazing experiences of my trip. There were between 20,000 and 30,000 local Ladakhis and Tibetans at the large outdoor field, all in a peaceful and joyful atmosphere.

Dalai Lama Teachings, Leh

Native Buddhism was said to have disappeared in India before the Tibetans sought refuge here in the 1950's, but that's not really true for Ladakh (it wasn't really part of India until the 20th Century). It has had a thriving Tibetan-style Buddhist culture throughout. So for the Dalai Lama to show up here is like the Pope coming - it's the biggest event of the year. Entire extended families walked or climbed aboard seriously overstuffed buses to make it out to the 4 day teaching - every day was like a huge pilgrimage.

Dalai Lama Teachings, Leh

It was incredible to be able to sit in the Dalai Lama's presence for such a long period of time and hear him teach, but I found myself more amazed by the crowd I was surrounded by and the intense devotion that pervaded the place. I had some great meditations sitting on the lawn with them for hours, and met some cool Buddhists from around the world. I made friends with this guy from Israel, Erez, and we decided to do some excursions together when the teachings were over.

Erez on the road to Alchi Gompa

Renting bikes (and teaching Erez how to drive a motorcycle), we headed out on a series of three trips to see local monasteries, ruins and remote villages. The first day we went out to Shey Palace, an old home of the Ladakhi royal family and the incredible Tikse Monastery, me riding an Enfield for the first time (kinda like an Indian Harley - very butch).

Tikse Gompa

One of the highlights of Ladakh is that the Buddhist monasteries and temples are so well-preserved, having avoided the upheavals of those in Tibet. Tikse had a wonderful atmosphere about it and we were tempted to come back and stay a night at the monastery.

On the road to Alchi Gompa

Next up was Alchi, a very old Buddhist monastery and temple, with some of the oldest and best preserved Buddhist paintings in Asia. The place itself was a bit underwhelming, but the drive out and back was spectacular - going through enormous winding valleys and flat, barren plains.

Khardung La PassNubra Valley

Finally we drove over the highest motorable pass in the world (which evidently is up for debate) to Nubra Valley, a little oasis in the high altitude desert served by a couple of rivers. Erez and I had an excellent time driving the bikes (though his first gear decided to stop working at the big pass and he had to push it Flintstones-like with his feet to get going into 2nd).

Rockslide #2: Srinigar - Leh Highway

We continued to travel together out of Leh, on the 19-hour bus trip to Srinigar. People say the Manalai-Leh route is worse but I'd lay my money on this one. The roads wash out and are unpassable every winter and have this feeling of being barely patched together enough for the trucks and buses to get over them for the rest of the season. After hours of this (including another roadblocking landslide!) suddenly the scenary changes and we found ourselves in green, beautiful Kashmir. Lush and full of a surprising number of goats.

Waiting for the rockslide to clear