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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

In a land of spirituality

November 17, 2008

Nishy Wijewardane
The Sunday Times (Sri Lanka)
November 9, 2008

East and now to the West, Nishy Wijewardane visits another side of
the Tibetan plateau connected to the ancient Silk Roads, encountering
the earthly and spiritual beauty of Kashmir and Ladakh.

This is a part of a continuing Sunday Times special series (from
2004) on Life on the Silk Roads.

There is a soothing silence that I know so well. The bright
yellow-terraced fields of rape ripple gently around me as I sense an
upcoming rainstorm, here in the high plateau. The eye drifts,
bewildered a little by the sudden colour within a scenery brushed by
many hues of mud-browns. The terraced fields in which I stand are
lassoed by laboriously piled stone fences that ascend at a slight
incline, characteristic of this otherwise bleak landscape. This must
be peasant land, leased for generations by Chenery Monastery that now
towers in the background of my vision.

Tall, white, sloping walls of hand hewn rock cropped at the summits
by wooden structures in deep red paint enclose this monastery
fortress; hard labour in a hard climate I think, by devout Buddhist
villagers in centuries past. Around the central structure but
descending downhill, there cascade numerous small white sloping
village houses, like worker bees protecting and feeding the queen in
their midst.

Towering still above the monastery, I survey tall mountains in this
Roof of the World, an impenetrable stony hand providing shelter from
the elements for this little settlement at the end of nowhere.
Strangely, I can smell nothing, only cold, dry and faintly dusty air
and perhaps that smell of approaching raindrops. After a while, a
tiny movement distracts me, a solitary villager going about his or
her business. Life is hard, but here it seems noble.

The eyes of the Tibetan Plateau

I had come up from lush green Kashmiri valleys to a far corner of the
Leh Valley, Ladakh, situated on the western arm of the immense
Tibetan Plateau. In earlier years, I traversed through rugged,
equally scenic but forested Sichuan, the plateau's eastern arm in
China (Ladakh falls into contemporary India and border disputes
simmer, like curries, with China at its north east, just as Jammu and
Kashmir contend with Pakistan in the south west). On that eastern
plateau, the watery beauty and stunning surreal colours of Jiuzhaigou
and Huanglong, a jagged karst landscape, as well as the authentic
lifestyle of the Tibet's Kham people, had captivated me, far away
from modern commercial conundrums (see "A Land Graced by Kindness and
Colours", ST January 21st 2007). Yet commerce is also what brought me
to this edge of my travels on the ancient Silk Road, ever curious at
how people "on the other side" of the plateau lived and connected
regularly despite being separated by the most overwhelming geography
on earth. (I had felt the same urge years earlier looking back from
Kashgar to the northern boundaries of Tibet above me.)

For until just a couple of decades ago (-China sealed its border
between western Tibet and Ladakh in 1962 due to land disputes with
India), traders routinely plied their way from here, Leh, Ladakh's
old capital, via the great Karakkoram Pass (5578m, 18,400 ft) to
Yarkand and Kashgar, a thousand kilometres away, ancient trading
towns I too had visited at the periphery of the Taklamakkan desert of
Xinjiang, China (see "Buried Mysteries", ST February 12th 2006).
Familiar with the terrain in between, my mind boggled at human
ingenuity over travel, hardships and the stuff of life in the absence
of all things modern. It made today's GPS inspired, geotex clothed,
oxygen infused expeditions almost comical to me, just as much as
modern terms of "connectivity", "networking" and "Creating Value",
high business parlance, is old hat to ancient trading people in these
Silk Road lands.

 From Kashmir to Leh, from water to sky

Ladakh ("the land of several passes" in Ladakhi) is the largest
district in the State of Jammu and Kashmir ("J&K") and straddles
north western India between the Himalayas and the Karakkoram ranges
(about a third of Ladakh is claimed by China). Much of the land is
above 10,000 ft and seasonal temperatures range from - 40C to 37C,
yielding only a short summer when life erupts. It thus makes for a
completely arid high altitude desert plateau (though not without some
surprises).

This is in contrast to the temperate Kashmiri valleys where life -
aside from current political bickering - was as genial and conducive
as it is watery and green, the Dal Lake in Srinagar being both
literally and geologically the Jewel in the Crown. Yet, for me, the
long uphill winding journey from a houseboat on Dal Lake, through
ever browning territories into Ladakh, was as memorable for the
distinct sense of spirituality that I encountered here - not that I
was seeking solace.

Houseboats of Dal Lake

My journey had commenced from water: several days of tranquility on a
colonial era houseboat owned by Mr. Din Capri, introduced by an old
Indian friend R. Jain. The proud Kashmiris during the Raj forbade the
British from owning land and thus the notion of houseboat living
arose. My boat, the "Nanga Parabat", was permanently anchored at one
end of a cool, clear Dal Lake but linked via an extended creaky plank
system to other houseboats. Roughly 70 feet in length, like an
English canal barge, it afforded a large master bedroom with an
antiquated bathroom, two other smaller bedrooms, a dining room with a
large head table and ornate roof, a cosy front sitting room and a
very agreeable small balconied "verandah" from where one entered.
Outside, I could walk around the boat on its narrow external ledges;
on one side, a typical Kashmiri "floating garden" had been
cultivated, revealing a lotus pond, a vegetable plot on a floating
bank and even an arched flower frame reminiscent of an English garden.

I spend much of the evenings on the verandah, gazing out across a
serene and quite expansive lake framed by towering, green mountains.
Early evening, residents of Srinagar (-situated at one end of the
lake) take their sojourns - on "shikaras" or gondola boats with
padded seats, rowed slowly by boatsmen. Boated vendors in various
forms, floating grocers, kadala sellers and even gem and saffron
businessmen touting briefcases … court them quite charmingly with
their wares. The soft flickering lights at dusk, gentle swishing of
paddles and tinkling of laughter from passers-by is most pleasurable
and romantic. Indeed I begin to feel the poetic pluckings of Kashmiri
locals, just as Jiuzhaigou deservedly evokes love songs across China.
Suddenly, a late evening water skier, clearly an Indian, supported by
a wooden plank for water skis and hitched by rope to an ordinary
motorized boat, breaks the waters near by… It is, somewhat
confusingly, the most charming politically troubled region I have yet
been fortunate to visit.

Flower power!

Early morning, usually at 5a.m., I awake to witness the glory of a
gradual sunrise which back-illuminates the mountains, while cold
morning mists cast a hazy diffused glow across the waters until the
rising warmth of the day dispels them. In these early hours, looking
downwards, the sky and its perfect reflection on still waters make it
near impossible to separate the earth from the heavens, except for
the blur of wheeling fishing eagles in search of breakfast. I am
beckoned then by a gentle yet trifle confident "Hello Sir!" by 'Mr.
Wonderful Flowerman', as a local boatsman in a flowered shikara of
that name glides into my verandah – he is almost more radiant than
dawn. It is impossible not to do business and he knows it, further
elaborating my good fortune as the day's first victim of some
fortunate Indian god. Moved by fresh flowers (and his life history as
a gardener), time being of no consequence in Kashmir, I find myself
parting with Rs 2500 - a small fortune even on his generous
sub-Continental discount - for assuredly good flower seeds, feeling
the distant envy of gem sellers in the process. Flower power could
not be more potent!

'Mr. Wonderful Flowerman'

Late evening, nearby floating village markets activate in pools of
light and human activity. Boat communities, reminiscent of those on
the vast Tongle-Sap Lake (a sea-like tributary of the Mekong River,
Cambodia), awake to the cool of the evenings. On land, Kashmiri
families recline on soft green grass of lakeside parks where fragrant
barbeques are fanned by men in baggy shalwar. With my own family in
tow for a change, we are rowed to vendors' shop-boats lit by kerosene
lamps where Kashmiri shawls and other handiwork are displayed, and
genial arguments by my wife can begin.

Leaving the environs of Srinagar, a city with surrounding hilltop
palaces, shrines and varied attractions, is not easy; particularly
pleasant is the impulse to while time on lawns and in terraced pools
that constitute the noble Mughal gardens such as Nishat or Shalimar
created by former royalty in the 17C AD. I was captivated by a
beautiful rainbow that formed one afternoon across the sprays of a
long chain of fountains in Shalimar Bagh strikingly back-dropped by
mountains, making me wonder whether this too was planned. To old
Tibetans journeying down from the dry plateau for centuries, this
must surely be a bewildering heaven. However, I must travel upwards
and the journey to Leh (434 km away) is typically a two-day one by
jeep, possible only from June to October when the high passes are free of snow.

An overnight stop en route at Kargil is traditional, notable largely
for the recent Indo-Pakistani confrontations in 1999 on the nearby
Siachen Glacier - the world's highest altitude battleground (20,000
ft) as many Indians like to point out. Not surprisingly, the route is
now the prerogative of the Indian Army and military garrisons
frequent all strategic viewpoints throughout, while one is often
subjected to 50 strong army truck convoys that rumble over the dusty
potholed passes, albeit most politely. My thoughts drift to a
memorable steam train ride (on the front fender and covered in soot)
up the Khyber Pass where such old military garrison points dating
back centuries still peek through barren crags on denuded gorges, a
reminder too that waves of human conflicts are not just a fragment of
history. Initially, the going is pleasant as the road meanders
through Kashmir's luscious scenery, past villages such as Kangan and
Gund on the banks of an Indus River that flows about 500 km outwards
from Holy Mount Kailash in Tibet. Sonamarg, a green meadowy ("Meadow
of Gold") settlement is a favourite stopping point in a sweeping
valley. En route, I deviate significantly to visit the ruins of a
forgotten Hindu? temple complex set high up on a spectacular V-shaped
Kashmiri valley where, to my delight, I encounter cedar trees, that
scented Phoenician trademark, last witnessed in my childhood in Lebanon.

Memories of the Hunza

Soon though, the green thins. The road begins to incline sharply and
undergoes numerous hairpin bends, while the surface is reduced to
precarious rubble. Clouds of dust ascend. Dizzying drops (unfortified
roadway), rockslides and traffic congestion blot thoughts of greenery
or serenity; goods trucks, army convoys, tiny Maruti cars with
presumably suicidally inclined drivers crawl up the famed Zoji La
Pass (3529 metres, 11,600ft) leading both historically and now into
Ladakh proper.

Though the scenery is similar but not as spectacular as that of the
Hunza in Pakistan, the precipitous views of valleys below through the
dust are stunning - for most of the year this pass is snowbound.
Increasingly I begin to see vast sweeping slopes at awkward angles to
me, dotted with hundreds of sheep, a sign of plateau's transhumance
activity. Matyan is the first village in the emerging Dras valley
(-reputedly the second coldest place after the Siberian Tundra) and a
series of other plateau villages (Pandrass, Muradbagh, Dras) are
bypassed with regular 16,000+ feet stony mountain ranges flanking
them until one arrives at Kargil town. While this affords a welcome
break, Kargil is a fairly nondescript commercial hub, second to Leh
and watered by the Suru River. I stay in a comfortable local abode,
"Hotel d'Zojila", that inescapably French "d" of assumed Western
sophistication chasing me wherever one travels, especially on the subcontinent.

Timeless Buddhist landscapes

Beyond Kargil, the landscape becomes more open, barren and elemental
and later the first interesting village, Mulbekh, emerges. This is a
historic settlement, one of the first signs that one is in Buddhist
Ladakh, with its old monastery built on top of a huge rock pinnacle.
An 8 metre Maitreya statue is carved off the rock-face here, believed
by Ladakhis to be about 1300 years old. From Mulbekh with its
assorted ruins, one encounters the Namika Pass (13,200 ft) and then
descends with relief to Bodhkharbu, only to ascend shortly to Photu
La Pass at 14,200 ft. A little beyond the high point of this pass, I
am rewarded with the sight of Lamayuru Monastery, one of Ladakh's
oldest from 10C AD, perched on a high crag. The road bends through
the village and passes into startling canyons of purple and green
rock formations, at the bottom of which an icy cold river flows with
fluorescently blue-purple lavender bushes dotting the riverbanks.
Near Lamayuru, there are dramatically eroded alluvial deposits of an
ancient glacial lake resembling an unusual light satin brown
moonscape but sadly I have no time to deviate.

It is about a 16 km descent from picturesque Lamayuru to the Indus
River and I see numerous Buddhist chortens and crumbling mud ruins
dotting villages and hamlets such as Basgo. I stop to exchange
pleasantries with a peasant woman, Balupa, returning home late
afternoon. The background monuments as well as the creases on her
forehead conjure in my mind thoughts of both the fragility of life
and strength of human belief in this harsh terrain. Not to
underestimate her difficulties, in tall crowded urban landscapes
one's sense of self is arguably more confused and fraught with
forebodings, concerns or the ego of survival; yet in these open
vistas, there is a more mindful feeling, a more elemental connection
and a greater awareness of one's journey and place in life - perhaps
a greater simplicity.

In the warmth of early June, the weather is pleasant and there is
much to be done on the village calendar. I cross small beautiful
light-yellow fields, groaning under the weight of swaying heads of
highland wheat; their sense of ripeness is very palpable. Peasant
families are crouched double in their midst, half hidden by a crop
which is vital for survival through a long cold winter. The urge to
interact is strong but so too is the need to seek refuge before
nightfall and I am mindful of the fast chilling air. As I descend
into Leh late afternoon, the vista elongates and the fading blue
skies over the Leh Valley beckon, elating spirits as one leg of my
journey is safely over.
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