Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take but by the moments that take our breath away. – Hilary Cooper
Breathless in Ladakh
When I landed in Leh, with a gang of twenty women out to spend five days in the highest desert on earth, I was literally gasping for breath. The air is thin and we needed to acclimatize ourselves. Not just to adjust to the oxygen-deprived atmosphere. But also to de-acclimatize from our frenetic, urban ways. A road sign that could well be a metaphor for life in Ladakh reads, “Take heed, don’t speed”.The stark, rugged, snow-capped mountains towered over the tiny town of Leh. Prayer flags fluttered under the blue skies and prayer wheels graced street corners. Dogs with thick matted coats dosed outside shopfronts. Ladakh beckoned us–to unplug from our technology-dominated lives. Slow down. Catch our breath. And in exchange, bestowed us with breathtaking views of its utterly unique landscape.
Water…the Essence of LifeLadakh–which borders Tibet to the east, Lahaul and Spiti to the south, the Kashmir Valley, Jammu and Baltiyul regions to the west, and the trans–Kunlun territory of Xinjiang in China to the far north–falls in the rain shadow region. So, water is a precious commodity. Not surprisingly, water figures as a leitmotif in Buddhist monasteries that dot the landscape. Inside the temple of the nine-storied 17th century Leh Palace, a row of bowls containing water faced the presiding deity of Shakyamuni (Buddha). Every day Buddhist monks perform prayers and empty the bowls of water and refill them. A religious tradition, rooted in the geography of the land, is a reminder of the value of this precious commodity. Mountain streams, frozen pools and converging rivers
Yet, there is water all around, albeit, in different forms. Snow-capped mountains glisten in the sunlight as we wind our way up on roads cut out of treeless mountains. Sliver-thin streams of snow-melted water suddenly sparkle from behind a sharp bend on the road. Pools of water, frozen into slabs of ice, and icicles hanging from rocks are strewn like little gems across the arid landscape.
The Indus and Zanskar rivers take their tortuous routes down the mountain sides and converge at the ‘sangam’ – and even here each maintains its distinct identity. The blue-green waters belong to the Indus while the muddy brown waters are those that have bubbled down the Zanskar range.
Colour me PangongThe vivid colours of Ladakh are like a painter’s magical palette–the bright blues of the skies, the warm red and gold flecked decorations in the monasteries, the shades of brown topped with creamy white snow remind you of that delicious chocolate cake at your favourite confectioner’s.
But it’s the first sight of Pangong Lake that takes your breath away. Set amidst brownish-black mountains is the most spectacular salt-water lake–parts of which are shared by India and China. Its hues of blue range from turquoise to deep purple and a million shades in between. You could stare for hours on end and still not have your fill. Resist the urge to peer at it through your camera lens…no matter how sophisticated the device, it can never capture the colours of Pangong.‘Blow horn on my curves’
Rafting down the whirling waters of the Zanskar is another of those ‘live-in-the-moment’ opportunities. As the river’s ice cold waters washed over us, and we averted a craggy rock jutting out towards the skies, I couldn’t help but remember one of those ingenious road signs we had passed on our way – “blow horn on my curves”. Our whoops of joy and exhilaration bounced off the rocks as we amateurishly thrashed our paddles around and admired the skilled moves of a kayaker.
From breathless to breathtaking—we had traversed the entire spectrum in Ladakh and somewhere along the way, our little adventurous band of women had bonded in a manner only women can: sharing laughs and home-made namkeens, playing antakshari, and dancing to Bollywood tunes around a bonfire, guzzling red wine and shivering to the gusty winds at Pangong Lake.
We brought back a bit of Ladakh with us. Memorable moments that shall be cherished over the years and remind us of the days when we lived in the moment and let our worldly cares flutter away like chants whispered at the prayer wheels.