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June 23, 2024
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Solitary Roads to Self-Discovery

Solitary roads

Wandering through Ladakh, Gaurav Singh realises that no matter how far you may travel, you cannot run away from issues that you struggle with daily

When anyone thinks of the mountains, what usually comes to mind is lush green serenity. My love for the blue pine and the Himalayan cedar is such that it draws me to retire to the magnificent Himalayas every few months. However, I let go of my obsession with the beautiful lush terrain this time around and chose a rather rugged mountainous experience, somewhere between the Kunlun Mountains in the north and the Himalayas in the south. Tactically placed on the ancient trade route, it has for ages been one of the most prosperous trading pillars via which transport of gold, indigo, and opium was shared across the Silk Road. You might know by now, I am talking about the land of high passes, Ladakh. A dream destination for those willing to explore in isolation.

Are barren mountains beautiful?

Let me start with addressing the elephant in the room. How does it feel to be hugged by miles and miles of emptiness and nothingness? Honestly speaking, I was awestruck even before I landed in Leh. As soon as the desert-like landscape shows itself from the airplane window, something just shifts within you. Vast patches of just sand and military bases coloured in pop in the middle play tricks on you. Vegetation plays hide and seek but shows the most beautiful signs of life amidst pitch-barrenness. To be honest, it takes a bit, especially for someone in love with lush green, to end up liking what you see. But once you start seeing the changing terrain, it clicks with you, and you gradually get intoxicated by the piercing beauty of this magical land.

How to prepare for Ladakh and the first few days

We have all heard about the famous altitude sickness and acclimatisation required once you enter Ladakh. And all of that is true. The altitude sickness is natural and takes one to three days to pass, during which you will feel mild to moderate headaches, shortness of breath, and fatigue. Diamox is the magic pill that can help you through this turbulence, but that is pretty much it. Any rational person would recommend you to take the pit stop in Leh for at least the first two days.

On day one, I remember stepping out on Mall Road, which gives you a peek into the city’s cosmopolitan nature. As much as it seems like the place is trying hard to fit into this depressing narrative of being a “global city”, it showcases its innate cultural characteristics to those willing to see it. You’ll see women by footpaths selling fresh vegetables, shopkeepers offering you the purest form of pashmina, cafes overcrowded with tourists and the Jama Masjid — down the street — with Indo-Iranian folks gathering for prayers. I distinctly remember being awestruck and embarrassing myself by asking one elderly gentleman about his eyes. I discovered that the secret behind the deep blue was him tracing his lineage to Alexander the Great. Before this, my only knowledge of Ladakh came from Andrew Harvey’s riveting Journey In Ladakh, a book, that almost instantly made me dream of being there one day. However, going there and experiencing the culture and beautiful way of life — which bears a close resemblance to how they might have lived centuries ago — is the strongest memory I want to preserve and defend.

The lay of Leh

LEH has many exciting things to offer, irrespective of how varied your interests may be. There is a relaxed cafe culture with a mix of rooftop and indoor dining + drinking experiences. If you are an art and culture geek, I recommend places like the Central Asian Museum and the Ladakh Arts and Media Organisation. For shopping, Leh is just like other popular Indian hill stations, so try not to raise your expectations too high. But, I do recommend picking up handmade lip balms with an apricot extract from local vendors near Mall Road and making a customary appointment at Jigmat Couture for some beautiful Ladakhi clothing. Not to forget the exotic culinary experiences that the city offers — whether it is the most succulent thukpas and the lip-smacking butter tea with a side of tingmo, khambir and apricot jam. Also, I would consider it a sin if you do not try jimpo, a natural Sea Buckthorn Berry Juice.

Further afield in Ladakh

Once you acclimatise, Ladakh is your playing field. One can choose to do the typical Tso Moriri, Khardungla Pass, Pangong, Nubra sort of touristy places or you can be a backpacker and explore hidden gems like Turtuk, Chumathang, Stok, and Basgo. Either way, the journey from Leh to any of these beautiful villages is breathtaking. Apart from a few famous towns/villages, Ladakh isn’t your everyday backpacking destination as hostels are rare and travel isn’t the cheapest, especially thanks to COVID-19. Also, do remember that while venturing beyond Leh, you will require special inner line permits, which usually take a day to obtain.

I would walk daily to visit new villages; most times, localities seemed empty. Usually, it was just me walking with my backpack and a gazillion thoughts about existentialism for company. Is it just I, or does everybody become a bit more philosophical in the mountains?

Here it would only be fair to talk about the architecture of the houses and old establishments. While some appeared to be Buddhist and Bhutanese, others gave hints of the streets of Kashmir and some even showed remnants of the Mughal era. Though it is another melancholic contrast that hits me the worst every time I travel (almost anywhere). The cross between the intriguing ancient village and the crass ingenuity of tourist hubs, the complete mismatch, breaking the symmetry and equilibrium of a beautiful place.

Traveling with a friend

As opposed to my ideal trips, which involve me, my backpack, my AirPods and a book, this time I ended up travelling with a dear friend, Vineet. Of course, when you choose to do this, trips usually tend to become less lonely and the fact that you can share the wonders you are witnessing, with someone close, helps you enjoy the overall experience. There are times when you will have differences over food, places to visit and things to do but finding a balance and doing things shared and solo while traveling with someone is the sweet balance that we achieved and felt proud of accomplishing. What’s also useful is that you can divide tasks. For some places, my friend would make the itinerary and, in other places, I would run the day’s agenda. This gives you space to check out from daily logistics and sit back to soak the place in. For someone like me, it is crucial to have downtime — a breathing space where I do not want to interact — and when that sort of understanding is developed between two friends to give each other the room when they need it, travel/life becomes effortless. Also, I feel a long(ish) trip together is the perfect test of friendship. You see parts of the other person that you would not see otherwise by virtue of being together 24×7. All that helps in strengthening the bond further.

On a lighter note, having a friend around makes it very easy for you to get pretty pictures of yourself. Far beyond vanity, it is an exercise that helps you get to know each other better (for example, how a bad photo can ruin your mood for hours, just kidding). Hey, at least you no longer have to stand there contemplating and choosing the right person who you would shyly request to take a photo of you. Right?

Comfort in solitude

Nothingness is astonishing, but it can be profoundly petrifying at the same time. The bareness of the landscape gets to you. Both in a good and not so pleasant way. No people, no network, no trees, no animals. It is like being in a no man’s land. It brings a detachment from the outside world. Every time you climb up to a pass, you feel like you are levitating/floating in the air as if you have traveled to a different dimension — the atmosphere and scenery add up to create this alternate reality. I guess it is important to not fight that sinking feeling of emptiness. It is also a reminder that no matter how far you may travel, you cannot run away from issues that you struggle with daily. For me, Ladakh just invoked all that and, at times, it became overwhelming to see myself so clearly stripped away from all the filters and excuses that take over so quickly otherwise.

I would like to conclude by saying that we all want to simply venture out and be on that trip we have been meaning to take, with the vaccine passport and the revenge travel season. But while you do that, please keep your conscience clear, know that you have to be extra careful when you hit the road and, for the love of whoever you may believe in, do not litter and pollute a place you are visiting. Go explore Ladakh. I promise you will come back filled with gratitude, love, and niceness that would take a while to shake off.

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