Michael Gebicki travels into India's towering north-west and encounters an exhilarating clash of cultures.
Stanzin Thinless has just made an alarming admission. "I can't swim," he says. Alarming because we're both floating at a rapid pace downstream, caught up in the cold, caffe latte-coloured swirl of the Zanskar River. It's the end of our wild, bucking, three-hour white-water rafting trip and we've just traded raft for river to cool off.
We can float effortlessly in our life vests and wetsuits, but already I'm shivering in the freezing water that comes from glaciers on the Great Himalayan Range to our south. Soon the Zanskar will fuse with another mightier torrent, the Indus. Before that happens, we need to make it back to our raft, bobbing 30 metres away, and not swimming could be an issue. An awkward dog paddle gets the job done, until we're close to the raft and our river guide hauls us in.
Stanzin is my guide on a week-long journey through Ladakh, in the mountains of India's north-west. He meets me at the airport in Leh, Ladakh's capital; he's a cool, twentysomething dude with skinny jeans, artfully gelled hair and a judicious quantity of ethnic bling.
By the time we cross the parking lot to our minivan, I seem to be missing a lung. Leh sits at 3500 metres above sea level, and that's a low point in the Ladakhi landscape. We set off along the trough of a valley between sky-groping peaks that are still dusted with snow while we require airconditioning at full blast.
At the village of Nimmo, about an hour's drive along the valley, we leave the vehicle for a path that runs through fields of barley, between a row of poplars and into a village of two-storey mudbrick farmhouses.
One is my home for the night. The lower storey is dark but my nose tells me something delicious is brewing. On the level above, the door opens to a sunny terrace where a smiling man stands with a cool towel and a glass of fresh apricot nectar. I'm travelling with Shakti Himalaya, a Delhi-based adventure travel agency that specialises in village-based adventures in remote parts of India's mountain regions.
In Ladakh, as in the Kumaon region and Sikkim, Shakti leases village houses and fits them out with plush beds, en suite bathrooms, chefs, waiters and generators. Guests spend a couple of days in each on a circuit tour, either walking or, in the case of Ladakh, travelling by car. The accommodation is comfortable rather than plush, although in these surroundings it rates five stars, and it's totally authentic.
Ladakh is classic backpacker territory, and while you can easily make a DIY tour, Shakti offers a window on village life and an entree to Ladakhi society that would otherwise be closed to the short-term visitor.
For day one I am under instructions to do nothing but acclimatise. Rest, breathe, drink lots of fluids and no alcohol. I spend most of the day on the terrace, surrounded by prayer flags that flutter in the faint zephyr that springs up to relieve the heat. Alongside me are other flat-topped houses with shaggy mounds of straw drying on the rooftops. When snow covers the fields the straw will feed cattle, but for the moment it's insulation. Below my perch are apricot trees heavy-limbed with fruit. Through their branches is a walled irrigation channel, one of the capillaries that green the valley floors of Ladakh. A boy has just opened the pen below me, beside a pair of bell-shaped Buddhist chortens, or towers, that are slowly crumbling back into the earth that birthed them. Half-a-dozen bleating sheep leap out and follow as he bounds off across the stream and disappears beneath the green umbrella. In the distance is the dip where the Indus River thrashes and churns. The Indus is the central thread in the Ladakhi mosaic, beginning as meltwater on the mountains of Tibet and flowing north-west through Ladakh before it turns south to course the length of Pakistan. It is this river and its tributaries that make human life feasible in this arid semi-desert. Rising from the river are 5000-metre peaks, although these pale to pimples in the shadow of the giants behind them. Ladakh sits between the Great Himalayan Range and the Karakoram, the two mightiest mountain ranges on the planet. It's also dry: a parched wasteland of stone and dust. The monsoon rains that saturate the Indian subcontinent never make it across the high peaks of the Himalayas and into Ladakh. If you collected an average year's rainfall at Leh and touched the bottom with your fingers, your wrist would still be dry.
The next morning I wake to reddening mountains and spicy masala chai, followed by a leisurely breakfast of granola, pomegranate, apricots, toast and eggs, served on a starchy white tablecloth on the terrace. In mid-morning we set off down the valley to visit the fortress at Basgo. It's crumbling but highly photogenic, like a sandcastle after the waves have nibbled it. Only one of the three temples at the fort is open. Most of the interior is taken up by the giant Buddhist statue, forcing me to squeeze against the Tibetan paintings decorating the walls.
Apart from small Christian and Muslim minorities, Tibetan Buddhism dominates the hearts and minds of Ladakh. Prayer flags flap from its rooftops, Buddhist chortens line its roadsides and monasteries crown its hilltops, yet the relationship with Tibet is tetchy. The Ladakhis once fought a decisive battle here at Basgo against an invading Tibetan army. They won, but only with the assistance of the Kashmiris, who demanded that Ladakh's raw pashmina wool, which is still produced by nomadic Changpa herders, be sent through Kashmir, laying the foundation for a monopoly that exists until today.
It's too early for lunch so we continue west along the Srinagar highway and turn off along a snaking road until Likir Monastery comes into view. It's screen-saver perfect, a series of whitewashed, multistoreyed cubes fastened to a hilltop. There are several temples here, all dark and grimed with smoke from oil lamps. On the top floor is a small museum where the display includes thankas, Tibetan coins, metal bowls, armaments and a kapala, a cup made from a human skull that's used as a drinking vessel in tantric rituals.
On the way back down we come across an elderly villager sitting on a rock by the roadside. It's 30 degrees and there's no shade but he's swathed in a woollen Tibetan-style wraparound smock that buttons across the chest, with woollen pants and felt boots. On his head is a knitted hat. According to Stanzin, elderly Ladakhis wrap up to keep from getting sick, even at the height of summer. Stanzin says he'll wear the same clothes in the depths of Ladakh's fierce winter, when the temperature drops to minus 15 degrees. He's waiting for a doctor.
Back on the main road, we stop to pick up a monk, almost completely hidden in his robes, which he's pulled over his head as sun protection. All we can see is a pair of sunglasses peering from a scarlet shroud. He's been walking for an hour already, with another hour to go and just a small container of fruit juice. He's on a call on his mobile phone until we drop him at Basgo. "Some monks even have motorbikes these days," Stanzin tells me, disapproving. "Even drinking and so on. Girlfriends, too." Stanzin spent several years as a student in Chandigarh, the capital of India's Punjab, and he's sufficiently Indianised to do an impressive head waggle at this point. "Yo monks", he calls them. I suggest "hipmonk" as an alternative but it doesn't take.
Stanzin might be a modern man with a taste for motorbikes and hints of an exotic love life yet his heart is rooted in Ladakhi tradition. At Likir, he shows me a wall painting that depicts the various stages of meditation, signified by an upward spiral and a gradual transformation of the spirit from black to white. He's tried meditation but it doesn't work, he says; too much discipline. His soul would be towards the dark end of the spectrum, he tells me, yet each time we pass a roadside stupa he puts his hands together and bows and scrupulously turns the prayer wheels in the temples. Once I turn a prayer wheel anticlockwise. It's the wrong way and Stanzin sucks in his breath and reprimands.
It's just on sunrise a few days later when we leave the house at Stok for Thikse Monastery. This is one of the most impressive of all Ladakh's monasteries, known as the Little Potala, after the former home of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa. It's morning prayer time, and foreigners are welcome to watch from the sidelines. We enter the prayer hall to the sound of baritone voices chanting, banging drums and clashing cymbals. Prayer in the Tibetan Buddhism tradition is an exuberant affair, and in between chants the monks are dining on butter tea and tsampa flour, served by mischievous boy monks who are otherwise chatting and looking for excuses to go outside and fool around. As a guest of Stanzin, I'm accorded favoured treatment. A cup of butter tea comes my way. The butter comes from yaks, and butter tea is not necessarily going to put Ladakh on the gourmet map, yet it's mild, slightly salty and comforting.
On the walk down from the monastery, we stop for more tea at a cafe and are joined by a monk who is also friend of Stanzin. He's the herbalist for the monastery, a gorgeous man with an angelic smile in a wrinkly face. He makes his diagnoses by taking the pulse, a tradition that stretches back to Han Dynasty China of more than 2000 years ago. He tells me I am having breathing problems and also gastric difficulties. Ticks on both counts. I should force myself to eat more, he says, and he's right. I've lost all appetite, another altitude problem, and my sinuses are sore from the desiccated air.
We've been joined by Sonam, a trainee guide on her first outing. She's had a tough life. Sonam comes from an impoverished family in a small village where her youth was spent herding the family's goats. Bright and hard-working, she was sponsored by a Christian family to live in Delhi and attend school there. After a couple of years she was tracked down by a relative, a monk, who forced her back to Ladakh. At the end of high school she won a place at the University of Delhi, where she's recently graduated with a first-class bachelor's degree in political science. A recent Shakti recruit, she says she wants to go back to university for more study, "if my family allows it". Sonam calls me "Sir". I tell her not to. "OK, sir," she says.
During the next six days, we mountain bike along back-country roads, trek to high and remote Buddhist retreats where fat marmots skitter across the grass, and picnic in grassy orchards under the shade of apple and apricot trees. Stanzin quizzes me mercilessly to see whether I've absorbed his lectures. "Describe to me the six states of existence depicted in the Buddhist wheel of life," he says, and "Why are there so many chortens here and what do the different sizes mean?" as we drive along the road at Thikse. One afternoon we visit his grandmother, who hustles us into her living room and serves us chang, the Tibetan beer, and tsampa flour, the staple of the Ladakhi diet.
The day before I leave we set off to see the Dalai Lama, a frequent visitor to Ladakh, when we're stopped at a roadblock. Norbu, our driver, tells the cops there's an infirm tourist on board with a bad back. That much is true. Too much sitting on floors and ducking under low doorways. They wave us through and we park on the roadside within easy strolling distance of the meadow where the Dalai Lama is speaking.
Stanzin is fond of singing. His eyes light up when he tells me about karaoke evenings with his friends. He wants me to sing something Australian. This is not a happy prospect. My family compares my singing voice to a rusty gate, although this is unfair to the gate. I tell him I'll sing at dinner, on the last night, but he isn't there. Urgent business takes him to Leh in the afternoon, and something just as pressing keeps him there all night. At 6 o'clock the next morning, we're racing down the hills to get to Leh in time for my flight to Delhi when he remembers. "You never sang," he says. "I'll sing at the airport," I reply, but when we get there it's a rush before the flight closes, and Waltzing Matilda just isn't going to sit well with the army sergeant waiting to pat me down.
Singapore Airlines has a fare to Delhi from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1740 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Singapore (about 8hr) and then to Delhi (5hr 45min). Air India and Jet Airways operate regular 80-minute flights between Delhi and Leh starting from about $190 return. Australians require a visa for a stay of up to six months.
Touring there Shakti Himalaya, based in Delhi, operates customised itineraries for couples and small groups. As well as visiting monasteries, day treks and village walks, optional extras include rafting expeditions in the remote Nubra Valley and riding to some of the world's highest motor-able passes on an Indian-built Royal Enfield Bullet motorbike. The price for a seven-night package starts from $US4210 ($4040) a person and covers accommodation, all meals and drinks, including wines, and the services of a guide and driver. See shaktihimalaya.com.
Michael Gebicki travelled courtesy of Shakti Himalaya and Singapore Airlines