Perhaps, it’s the rarefied air... or the fact that I have arrived from sea level to over 11,000 feet. But it feels otherworldly… even like another planet… the blinding blue skies, the low-hanging fluffs of cotton candy clouds and the jagged edges of gargantuan mountains. I have always been a sybarite... I like the luxurious way of travelling and if the terrain is rough, more so. So, when I arrive to a welcome with hot towels and girls dressed in traditional garb and head gear, escorting me into the swish reception marquee with piping hot herbal tea and cookies, I don’t complain. The room is furnished with comfy sofas, a small library of books about the region and a boutique with craft and products sourced from Ladakh and all over India. I am a little wary about the high altitude; after all, I am a creature of the South Indian coast. But the paramedic at hand monitors my blood pressure and oxygen levels and reassures me. “Ma’am, please take it easy today.” That is just what I need. I pick up a coffee table book on Ladakh’s culture and traditions and head to my tent to start the acclimatisation process.
The tents are ultra-luxurious with beige and maroon furnishings. A huge four-poster bed, a study with beautiful stationery and a journal to record my experiences, a mini bar, a leather case filled with travel magazines, comfy chairs, fleecy rugs and, of course, a heater. The large bathroom has a huge copper wash basin, a shower cabin and toiletries in neat bags. Sun hats and bags have been thoughtfully provided inside the wardrobes, besides, torches and oversized ponchos.
But what sets it apart is the view. The visual treat of the Thiksey monastery, which seems to have grown organically from the rocky outcrop, the lush alfalfa grass with huge magpies and rose-finches, and the whitewashed chortens… the land actually belongs to the monastery and over the next few days I see the Rinpoche and his maroon-robed assistants drop by for a visit to the camp. Most of the staff are local Ladakhis and I see women tending to flower beds every morning greeting me with a cheerful ‘Julley’.
My cheerful guide Dorjey Siri is a Ladakhi who studied in Bengaluru and worked in Delhi, but ultimately came back, lured by his roots. “A Ladakhi can never live away from his land,” he says with a smile. The next day, we leave at pre-dawn for Thiksey Monastery, to witness the early morning prayers. The air is cold and crisp as I huff and puff my way to the roof of the monastery. Two monks herald the dawn, blowing the conch three times, dressed in their maroon robes and headdress silhouetted against the panorama of the mountains and the valley below. It’s a relief to walk into the welcoming warmth of the main prayer hall. Young monks drag heavy vessels of yak butter tea and barley powder around, serving everyone with a smile. The chanting of the monks interspersed with the clash of cymbals and the beat of drums induces a Zen experience. I meditate sitting on a small carpet, lost in a magical world of tranquillity and peace. When we emerge from the monastery, the mountains are bathed in a rosy hue and the snow glitters on the mountain tops. I am ravenous, tucking into a breakfast of fresh fruits, muffins, juice and hot poha.
The Chamba camp is absolutely five stars, in its culinary offerings—from wild mushroom soup and freshly-baked focaccias with home-made preserves, to thalis and pastas, the food is outstanding. The camp has an organic garden where it grows many vegetables but many of their supplies have to be flown in from Srinagar. Come evening, the camp is bewitching, with lanterns illuminating the meandering paths and the indigo black night sky spangled with stars, in the absence of light pollution. The cozy dining room tent has a chandelier and evenings are enlivened by local musicians, playing folk music. On my bed, every night with turndown service, is a small box of chocolates, a hot water bag and a bed time story of a monk..
Over the next few days we explore monasteries with their statues of fierce protective deities and colourful mandalas, visit Buddhist schools where young students recite verses in musical tones, drive along miles of mani walls, with slabs of stones inscribed with prayers from pilgrims. Bedraggled prayer flags enliven the rough terrain and craggy peaks of this bastion of Tibetan culture. In Leh town, crowded with locals whirling their prayer wheels and a Tibetan market selling bejewelled statues of the Buddha and Tara, I walk down the lane behind a mosque where small hole-in-the-wall establishments sell freshly baked naan breads straight from the tandoor, alongside fresh paneer.
My most thrilling experience is the long drive across the Khardung La Pass at almost 18,000 feet, with wafer-thin air and narrow, winding, roads through sleet and ice, jammed with Army convoys, to the tented camp at Diskit, a green patch in the Nubra Valley. My tented accommodation at Diskit is more rustic yet luxurious, set in the benevolent gaze of the Diskit Monastery, perched on a rocky promontory. The mighty glacial Shyok River which breaks through like liquid mercury through the sandy plains, offers a counterpoint.
I drive across to Hunder, exploring the sand dunes dotted with Bactrian camels carrying tourists on joy rides across a vast expanse of dunes. As we drive to Sumer, a small village to meet an organic farmer, I see how careful cultivation in the alluvial soil of rivers, greens the sepia spaces with barley fields, and hardy poplar and walnut trees. The drive through the land is like a primer in geology. I see huge boulders and rocks—gneiss, schist, craggy granite perched like giants along river beds and along the highway. Rocks with orange splotches of lichen, even huge hills of multani mitti. Harking back to a time when continents collided and glacial sheets covered the land, eroding the ground.
The presence of the Army is formidable—the schools are run by them and units with names like Ferocious Five and Fearsome Chargers are sometimes the only signs of humanity in stretches of bleak landscape besides the Enfield bikers, strapped in their heavy gear, with tiny prayer flags festooning the handlebars, with their fuel bottles and luggage strapped on the sides.
And at the end of the tiring days on pot-holed roads, it’s the warmth of the camp that sustains me—the delicious soup and dinner, the conversations with the staff about the impressions of the day and the few minutes trying to log onto eccentric WiFi to contact loved ones. A bedtime reading ritual and glorious sleep inside the mosquito nets. Tomorrow is after all another adventurous day in the Land of the High passes.
P.S. The Chamba Camp at Thiksey is operational from June 15 to September 30 every year, considered to be the best time to experience Ladakh.