India 1998: Leh

To follow a tour of India’s Golden Triangle by travelling to Ladakh, in Northern Kashmir feels like stepping away from the set of ‘Ghandi’ into ‘Lost Horizon’. First of all it is high altitude, earning its title of ‘Little Tibet’ and secondly it is the least populated area of India. Many of the inhabitants [40%] are Buddhist and much of the area is cut off for many months of the year.

Before leaving Delhi we met our new guide for the new tour, Adrian, who was as unlike Paratha as Obama to Putin. A few of us were leftovers from the first trip. Others were new. At our first gathering, the one where protocols are explained, he asked us about Paratha and was shocked to hear how she’d led the tour, exploiting her status and behaving in a controlling and condescending manner. This behaviour, he told us, is at odds with the company’s philosophy. They’d be unhappy to hear of it. Whilst I had no wish to lose Paratha her job I thought it best that subsequent tour groups should not experience the Golden Triangle in the way that we had.

Having had the team talk: be sensitive when taking photos, be mindful about altitude sickness [about which, more later], carry plenty of water, leave nothing but footprints etc, we boarded a flight to Leh, the largest city in Ladakh, flying up above snowy peaks to the highest airport in the world, one that also provides the fewest and most basic facilities, as we discovered when disembarking and needing to use the toilets.

To begin with we’d spend a few days in Leh, to look around and to acclimatise to the very high altitude before starting our trek. I looked forward to this second tour with a little trepidation, having had altitude sickness before, in Peru and Bolivia. I knew how nasty it can be but hoped that this time I might escape it. How wrong could I be?

We were charmed by our hotel, whose accommodation was basic but full of rustic character, with a beautiful garden and rooms furnished with chunky wooden beds and spartan, concrete shower rooms.

 

As advised, we took it easy walking around gorgeous Leh, but it was hard to restrain the urge to rush about looking at everything, since everything was either beautiful or interesting or both.

 

For our second day in Leh we took a trip out to view some of the more accessible and picturesque monasteries [‘Gonpas’] that were dotted around in the mountains. This is a landscape that is both dramatic and outrageously magnificent, the monasteries themselves built into the sides of the mountains as if they’ve grown there and carved and painted in ornate and beautiful designs and frescoes, with none of the formality of mosques but with life and expression.

To visit the Gonpas we needed to dress modestly and cover up extremities. I’d had the presence of mind to add a light sarong to my daysack that morning [a habit I’ve become accustomed to], meaning that Husband was not left bare-kneed. There is a gentle, homely atmosphere in the gloomy interior of each Gonpa and as the monks go about their daily tasks they greet tourists good-naturedly, sipping tea and nibbling a biscuit or two as they pray!

In order to view the buildings we needed to clamber up and down steps in the thin, cold air, which proved more arduous than the previous day’s sightseeing in Leh. Sometime during the afternoon I began to feel the onset of a headache, something brewing up, becoming more painful as the day wore on. Before long it was accompanied by a powerful nausea, then I knew I wasn’t to escape the mountain sickness I’d experienced before in Peru…

Worldly Troubles? I blame God…

                When my brothers and I were small children we were sent to Sunday school. We would begin on Sunday mornings by undertaking a thorough cleaning of our shoes [in my case it was most likely Clarks sandals with the cut out flower in the toe] then have to walk down through the village to the church and into a small section of the vestry where we would listen to Bible stories and sing along to a hymn:

                ‘Jesus bids us shine with a steadfast light

                Like a little candle burning in the night

                In this world of darkness we can shine

                You in your small corner

                And I in mine’

was a favourite.

                The best part of Sunday school was the stamp, gravely distributed and stuck on to a card as proof of attendance.

                My parents did not accompany us to these privileged gatherings, preferring to stay at home and enjoy the Sunday morning free of us-and who can blame them? My father was, in those days an occasional Church goer. But my mother was an unabashed, self-confessed atheist- brought up a Catholic, schooled in convents where [allegedly] she was beaten with a rubber slipper, until all vestige of religious belief was truly eradicated.

                Having learned at Sunday school that life after death was a trip to heavenly paradise I would sit on my mother’s lap and seek reassurance from her that this was assuredly the case, only to be told that death was ‘like a candle being snuffed out’. There was that candle theme again.

                The hypocrisy of sending us to Sunday school whilst admitting died-in-the-wool atheism appeared to present no qualms for my mother. Presumably the opportunity to off load us for a morning was compelling enough to overcome them. In any case my father put in a sporadic appearance at church at that time.

                Some years later, long after I’d begun to acquire my own lack of belief an aunt wrote to tell me it was time for me to become ‘confirmed’-an undertaking I took very little time to decide upon. I wrote back [extraordinarily politely for a mardy teenager] explaining that I didn’t know if I wanted to be a member of the Church of England-or indeed any church, come to that.

                Later still, when my own children came into being there was pressure from family members to have them christened, as I had been. I held out. They might want to be Buddhists, Hindus or atheists. Who was I to choose a religion for them?- And if I did, what was to stop them from rebelling, as all self respecting teenagers should?

                Because that is what I find baffling about indoctrination. Yes, small children are little sponges who soak up knowledge, skills or gobbledegook indiscriminately, only to rage against everything they’ve been taught as soon as a hormone raises its head above the window sill. So how come fervent devotion to religion is still rampant in the world, causing mayhem, war and suffering? And what ‘God’ would allow it all to happen?