Halcyon Days

July 02, 2019 Travel

On normal days, my mind is like my laptop, with several tabs open. Even as I type this, my mind has drifted a few times to the emails I’ve left unanswered, the phone calls I have to make, and the medical tests I want to take. There are very few times I can really quiet my mind and sit still. My journey to Ladakh was one of those rare moments. 

Maybe it was the lack of cellphone signal, or maybe because most of my stay was spent during the Holy Week, or maybe it was what Ladakh really does to travelers.

Ladakh has been a dream destination for a decade or more. I read an article titled “Heaven’s Gate,” by Pico Iyer, and it has been on my mind for years. Things just fell into place. My friend Ayan was traveling in India, and I desperately needed a change of reality. So, I booked a ticket. I didn’t have expectations, but I had lots of wishes —to gape at snowcapped mountains, touch snow, and see a yak. I also listed the places Pico Iyer visited. The rest of the planning, I left to my travel companions.

Even at first sight through my window on the plane, Ladakh was breathtaking — endless snow-covered mountains glistening against the blue sky. I had to pinch myself. It was real. The great Himalayas were right there below me, and in a few minutes, I will be feeling its earth.

Ladakh, the land of high passes, is a region in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, bounded by two mountain ranges — Himalayas and Karakoram, home of the second highest mountain, which is K2.

It is a high-altitude desert and is the highest plateau of the region. Altitude sickness is common, and that is why tourists are advised to rest on their first day, which is mostly what we did on our first day in Leh, the gateway to Ladakh. Leh is also the former capital of this kingdom.

On our first day, we just made a quick visit to Leh Central Market, to look for a tour agency and have lunch. That was when I experienced my first, as well as my second, snowfall. I really wouldn’t mind spending my 7-day stay in Ladakh just in Leh exploring its markets, trekking a bit to its palace, monastery, and stupa, and just having long quiet walks with snowcapped mountains, arid hills, and Poplar trees as backdrops.

But we decided to explore a bit more. We booked a tour to Turtuk, the penultimate village open to tourists. 

On our way, we passed by Khardung La, one of the highest motorable passes in the world. It was a quite a feat for me to be able to stand and walk there. The rise in altitude from Leh, which is at 3,500 m, to 5,359 m in Khardung La, was rapid. One of my travel companions, Dennis, was hit by altitude sickness. I was relatively okay compared to him, with just a bit of headache and nausea. 

Khardung La is the highest point of land I have ever reached, and it was a proud moment for me. I stayed in the moment and tried to take everything in — the amazing surroundings: glistening, thick snow as far our eyes can see, fluttering prayer flags above us, and bright, blue skies. I gathered some snow, formed it into a ball, and threw it. My friend Ayan perfectly captured that moment and am so thankful I traveled with a really, really good photographer. 

From way up in the mountains, we descended to the sand dunes of Nubra Valley.

A lot of the things I saw on this trip were new to me, even the sand dunes. To my amazement, we even got the chance to ride Bactrian camels. Camels once enabled the hauling of goods on the Silk Road. Anything related to the Silk Road fascinates me.

Bactrian camels are thick-coated camels that have two humps.

I thought it would be scary, but it was an incredibly calming ride, with the view of the sand dunes and the mountains.

From there, we traveled to our destination: Turtuk Village. I tried to stay awake and watch the changing of sceneries, but I was still fighting my motion sickness. I peeked a few times and was awed by everything I saw — blooming trees, blue rivers, and huge boulders. It felt like each turn offered a new, remarkable vista.

It was almost sunset when we arrived in Turtuk. There was a bit of confusion on our homestay, but it all ended well.

We found ourselves in a quaint place, with full blooming apricot and cherry blossoms in our backyard and the mountains as our backdrop.

My early morning walk led to more awe-inspiring sites of this idyll. Every step was like a walk in a fairytale land. 

Trees were abloom. Birds flew near us. We even saw a yak. The people were helpful. If they broke out into song, I would not have been surprised and would probably sing along with them.

When we left the village, I realized again that Ladakh is a gift that keeps on giving. 

Throughout my stay in Ladakh, I felt calm. None of the things that worried me in Manila stayed with me. None of the symptoms of motion sickness bothered me. None of the stress from work managed to reach me.

The rest of our days were filled with wandering. We moved from our backpackers’ accommodation in Rover’s Den to one that afforded us a view of the mountains. In Hotel Reenam, my mornings and afternoons were spent at our terrace, absorbing the beauty around me. In between, we walked the streets of Leh, sometimes aimlessly.

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