When I was a child my Dad used to collect National Geographic magazines, and I remember flipping through the pages, admiring the photographs of unimaginable landscapes, traditional tribes, and the wild unknown. Now, here I am, inside my own issue of National Geographic, receiving the same indulgences that these photographers once had, discovering for myself a world that I once thought I could only meet in my dreams. The mountain roads between Kashmir and Ladakh were still not drivable because of the treacherous winters, so we were required to take a forty-five minute flight instead. As I continue to scrape my pennies (rupees), to keep within my ridiculously low-budget for travel, I was disappointed to have to pay for the flight instead of taking the route that the broke pilgrims, such as myself, would take. I realize now that it was actually worth the $116 to fly over the vast range of the Himalayas. I, unquestioningly, have never seen anything so extraordinary in my entire life. Looking out the airplane windows, on either side, the white snowy mountains stretched as far as eyes can see. I was high from the excitement of seeing something so impressive and, when the plane landed, it was like landing ont the moon. The desert of Ladakh provides little to no greenery so the barren mountains look like brown velvet up until the snow line.
Arriving to the town of Leh was like arriving to a ghost town, with little to no shops, restaurants, or even guesthouses open for business. The winters are so harsh that even the locals pack up and head south, without returning until the beginning of June. After settling into one of our only options for budget accommodation, we wandered around the main road. The desolate town could only stimulate my imagination on what it's really like in tourist season, and made me want to plan a future trip to this peaceful Ladakhi shanty. We fulfilled one of our first days by visiting Buddhist monasteries on the outskirts of the city. Some, centuries old, emanated such a distinguishable feeling of profound devotion and love that I imagine even non believers could be taken over by its essence. I left my shoes outside the entry door of Hemis Monastary and as my bare feet blissfully walked across the cool stone floor, a faith, an unshakable certainty, took control of my being. These holy places were filled with ancient relics of Buddhist practice, prayer wheels, brass statues, and elegant silks scripted with sacred text and religious scriptures. It was truly an incredible feeling and, without saying, inspired the Buddha in me.
Since the town was so quiet, we ventured to make some trekking plans with three young German girls we had met, and then set off to explore the Himalayan desert. The landscape reminded me somewhat of John Day in Eastern Oregon and Canyonlands National Park in Utah. The only difference was that we were at about 14,000 feet elevation and there were snowy Himalayas in the backdrop. I spent last summer hiking through Utah with two of my best friends and spent last fall hiking through Eastern Oregon with another one of my favorite people. Being somewhere so far, yet so familiar, made me miss home. On the trail, you have all the time in the world to think, and thoughts of my friends and my beautiful home of Oregon couldn't escape my mind. I still have a long stretch before I return home, but the excitement is certainly already here. It was so peaceful, having glimpses of magical memories, with such an awe-inspiring landscape around us. The colorful, velvety hills looked more like oil on canvas than mountains that led up to snowy peaks right before my eyes. As we walked through the mountainous terrain, my progress was slow and demanding and I assumed it was the high altitude, beginning to ponder how perhaps these high altitude hikes aren't meant for me, but by the second day it became apparent that my weakness was something more. I felt feverish with a screaming headache, body-aches, chills, sweats, lack of appetite, the whole package. When we arrived to our homestay in a quaint village far from civilization, I retreated to a place to sleep while the rest of the group dropped their bags and continued exploring the area. I was so nervous about my condition, knowing that there was still a long way to hike, but after about eighteen hours of sleep and some Tylenol that Hannah shared, I was feeling back to normal. The trail was beautiful, as it winded us through the desert, over high mountain passes, and into Buddhist monasteries tucked into the mountainsides. There were prayer flags strewn along the way, and when it came time to rest, we were kindly welcomed into simple home-stays where we were fed and kept warm for the night. It was great having the three German girls with us. Our guide, too, was a sweet Ladakhi man who introduced us to some of his culture, some local Ladakhi beer, and even took care of me while I was sick. At night, the six of us would sit around, playing cards, and make fun of each other's accents while trying to wind down from the day's hike.
Although a week is not nearly enough time to enjoy the peaceful, Buddhist shantis of Ladakh, we are now in beautiful Manali. On my last visit to India, I claimed Manali to be one of my favorite places, so it's so wonderful to re-explore the territory, visit an old friend, and enjoy this spring weather!