By Angela Broderick, Director of Communications
Flying between Himalayan giants before spiraling down, our plane seeming to nearly graze rocky spires, the arrival in Leh was like the beginning of a dream sequence. The first hours in the city, situated at over 11,500 feet in Ladakh, Northern India, were heady – from the dusty swirl of the streets, to the serene calm of our walled guesthouse compound, the call to prayer waking me in the middle of that first groggy night.
Memories like sensory snapshots punctuate those first days of exploration. Being led down a warren of footpaths beyond the touristed area of Leh to the humble one-room home of my guide Lobsang, where her sweet elderly mother took both my hands when I greeted her and touched her forehead to mine before we shared 3 cups of tea and biscuits. The feeling of ancient air and the cool floor as I kneeled down in a chapel at Hemis Gompa (monastery). The temples here were dark with thick layers of dust and karma, full of atmosphere and mystery, not clean and bright like the Thai temples I knew.
But if my days in Leh were gossamer and dreamlike, the 5-day trek through the Himalayas to the village of Lingshed brought me right down to earth, into my body (painfully at times). Moving at a crawl over mountain passes topping 16,000 feet, the mountains tightened and sharpened my awareness to the immediate. Placing one boot in front of the other. The struggling sound of my breathing. Taking another moment to rest, look around, and be filled with awe at both the immensity of the landscape’s beauty, and it’s sweet minutia: the welcome trickle of a glacial stream, a yak peering at me indifferently over a ledge, the jingle of the pack horse’s bells on the breeze. But the sun felt intense at those heights, the land became increasingly dusty and barren as we trekked on, and the stark isolation felt incomprehensibly vast.
After that epic journey, it was astonishing to encounter people not just living, but thriving in such a place. But there they were, all lined up as we entered the valley which cradles the village of Lingshed, smiling broadly and greeting us with prayer shawls (kata) draped over our heads and warm words of greeting, “Jullay!”.
Sleeping in the family home, sharing meals, taking part in a local Buddhist festival, playing with the children, visiting the monks and nuns, dancing together, bathing in the river, drinking butter tea and chang (local moonshine), building earthen bricks for my host’s home, helping make chapati at the temple… the memories of the days I spent living in Lingshed felt down to earth, and very real – even at those dizzying heights, among people who seemed to belong to a completely different time.
The mountains and the Ladakhi people are inextricably entwined. An outsider like me sees a hostile and barren environment, but they see it differently. They see it providing just what they need, and only what they need, stripping away any excess or pretense so that daily life, simplicity, mindfulness and community become the pinnacles of life. The Ladakhi way of living in total harmony with the mountains, which has remained virtually unchanged for countless generations due to their isolation, seemed to permeate all aspects of life. I felt there was such a purity of heart, and underlying gentleness that feels difficult to describe. My new friends were so easy to smile, so authentically kind and open. Theirs is a hard way of life, to be sure, but there were no complaints — instead, such a feeling of deep peace, security and ease that I’d never encountered before. Here, spiritual life is robust and real. Everything is animated with sacred breath all around you.
I’m what you could call a water person. I live on island, spent years on a boat, born under a water sign on the zodiac. I’d always loved being on the water and seeing majestic mountains rise around me, but I’d never felt the irresistable, magnetic pull of the mountains – it always felt like a lofty, unattainable world of mystery up there. And then I went to Ladakh.
In Ladakh, the enigma of the mountains buzzed all around me. It caught me up and enveloped me. Taking a deep dive into the alluring, enigmatic living history locked away in the distant monolithic fortress of Ladakh re-shaped how I see mountains – and the world – forever.
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