While I would like to be able to say that we completed our epic journey by entering Leh in a triumphant blaze of sparkling spokes and powerful, confident pedal strokes, in actual fact, we were weak, dishevelled and in dire need of a hot shower. We lumbered through the energetic streets, past the endless stalls selling shawls of Kasmir wool and pashmina and beyond the roads to the agricultural area of Changspa.
In my 400-odd days on the road I have resided in countless hotels, guesthouses, resorts, bungalows, family homes, wild campsites and temples, but it was in Upper Changspa that I was to find the one that was to sit on top of the pile.
Placed on the second floor of a very friendly family home, my room was fitted out with two large windows – one facing west over the small, tree-lined stream and up to the breath-taking, snow-white Shanti Stupa that sits high atop a hill. The other looked north across golden yellow fields of wheat to the dry, craggy mountains beyond. My door opened out to a makeshift courtyard area where I could soak up the sun that burned day after day through the flawless dome of blue above keeping the cold mountain air at bay.
Once I had lugged my bike and gear up the stairs, I sat by the window, allowing the energy of the setting sun to penetrate me, and reflected on the last amazing eleven days. I could not, nor had any desire to, suppress the overwhelming feeling of satisfaction that originated deep within my being and bubbled to the surface in a fit of unbridled laughter. I listened intently to the silence of my surrounds and knew that this was it – this was what I had been looking for for all of these weeks; peace, tranquility, harmony. I had had to cross martian landscapes to attain them, but attain them I had.
The search was over.
With a plethora of German bakeries, tour companies and cheap metal ornaments, it would be easy on first glance to write Leh off as just another tourist mecca, but I found it to be much more than that. It seemed to be a town conscious of itself with a determination to preserve its culture and the environment that had shaped it and allowed it to flourish. Not only would it not allow the tourist invasion to whittle away at its identity like so many before it, it would use it to strengthen its roots.
More than this though, it had an immovable heart and energy infused by the local people who certainly lived up to their reputation as being overwhelmingly friendly, welcoming and completely devoid of that agressive edge found in many other parts of India.
On the road, Marta, Gerry and I had been somewhat disappointed in the absence of these characteristics in the Ladakhi inhabitants of the highway settlements. Perhaps they were more accustomed to dealing with wealthy European bus trippers who did not mind paying ten rupees for a chai and sixty for a plate of momos, for they treated us budget cyclists with disdain and laid guilt trips on us with the immortal words, “You no good.”
When a forty rupee thali at the start of the meal had become sixty by the end, I protested only to have the small woman reply, “You no good. Everyone else is good, but you no good.”
When Marta rightly pointed out that her aloo parantha contained no aloo; “You no good.”
When Gerry tried to barter a decent price for a packet of biscuits and a chai; “You no good.”
When I asked to borrow a single match from a box of fifty worth one rupee, “You no good.”
Where was all this goodwill and friendliness that we had heard so much about, we had wondered. It turns out that it was waiting for us in Leh, accompanied by joyous shouts of “Joolay!” – another one of those fantastic greetings that is impossible to say without painting a smile on your face.
We had unwittingly arrived on the opening day of the annual two-week Ladakh Festival, which is a showcase of the unique local culture and pumps a few extra volts into the already electric atmosphere of this vibrant town. On display were energetic sunset street parades of locals in colourful traditional dress, folk dancing their way down the main bazaar to the beat of drums, the piercing shrill of horns and clang of cymbals.
A modest agricultural exhibition displayed oversized vegetables and local dried fruits and nuts, the likes of which could be bought from the large, white sacks of the many vendors who plied the pavement from the early morning, twirling their hand-held prayer wheels, fingering their beads and quietly chanting mantras to themselves.
The monks of the nearby 15th century Spituk Gompa performed fascinating chams in the monastery courtyard. These masked dances, usually only performed during certain religious ceremonies, represent the triumph of good over evil and showed the usually sombre monks in a refreshingly artistic and energetic light.
Furious polo matches were played on a dusty polo field in front of a most amazing backdrop of the 17th century Leh Palace. Polo is surely the most ridiculous sport ever invented, but no more so than when it is played in India where stray dogs chase the ball beneath pounding hooves, players have to avoid a concrete stupa that has been built on the pitch and spectators frantically scurry to avoid the horses and riders who relentlessly pursue the white ball with their long clubs, regardless of whether it is on the pitch or amongst the crowd.
Only slightly less ridiculous were the archery competitions in which most competitors looked as though they had never picked up a bow before that morning. In the two hours I sat watching the painful display, I saw one arrow embed itself in the target. The archer responsible was given a mighty cheer and seemed very proud of himself.
One unfortunate offshoot of all of this activity were the number of poachers it attracted. Armed with huge, black canons and carry bags containing various extensions, these predominantly European modern day hunters relentlessly shoot their local prey from close range, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they are not on safari and that their ‘prey’ are humans, unnacustomed to and understandably uncomfortable with having such weapons shoved in their faces.
In this age of digital photography and relatively cheap good quality cameras, seemingly everyone has become an amateur photographer, always looking for ‘that’ shot. So obsessed do they become that they begin to see the world through a 6cm LCD screen that with its limited two dimensions, allows no room for cultural sensitivity, personal space or appreciation for the here and now. I have seen many an avid hunter climb to the top of a mountain, only to unholster and shoot the landscape in lens-confined blocks, stopping to squintingly admire the tiny display of their work, but not once looking up to admire the real masterpiece created by Mother Nature – a work that can never be properly captured by some device and admired later. A work that can only be soaked up and breathed in right now.
I had intended, after a short stay in Leh, to continue along the mountainous road to Srinagar, the long troubled capital of Kashmir. However, there had been a recent spate of violence in the region over an issue that one finds hard to believe is worth taking an innocent persons life, but since it vaguely involved religion, it becomes somewhat justified (what is it about religion and faith that makes otherwise rational people act so irrationally? Why do the irrational philosophies and beliefs of men who thought that the earth was flat and would be considered utter ignorami by todays standards, remain so untouchable, closed to criticism and blindly followed? For more, check out Sam Harris’ “The End of Faith”).
Plus, having come all this way, I could not bear to prematurely leave that which I had found in Leh. After one week, I was very apologetically kicked out of my cosy home to make way for some old guests who had booked it in advance. Surely it was fate though, for just a further 100m along the river, I found a huge fishbowl of a room that instantly became my new number one. The two long walls linking me to the outside world consisted only of glass, this time facing east and south – providing me with amazing panoramas over the same glorious wheat fields and up to Tsemo Gompa on a hill overlooking the town, and along the gurgling river backed by a long row of snow-capped mountains.
I got into the habit of waking with the sun and enjoying the fresh morning air as I strolled into town and feasted on a typical Ladakhi breakfast of Tibetan bread pulled straight from the wall of the oven into my hand and fresh yak curd. This gave me the strength to climb to the top of either Shanti Stupa of Tsemo Gompa to comteplate in the face of true beauty, often for hours at a time.
Peace had found me from without and I in turn had begun to find peace within.