At the north of India, there’s a very special place impregnated with the Tibetan culture; a piece of heaven on earth with snowy mountains, moon-like landscapes and peaceful people. It differs completely to the rest of the country, from religion to idiosyncrasy, and in spite of its gray mountains and white houses, many cheerful colors can be seen from Buddhist banners and temples, welcoming the newcomer to the magic and mysticism of one of the most beautiful places on earth.
Its difficult to describe that feeling of leaving the plane after its landing, and arriving to a place incomparable to anything you’ve seen before: surrounded by high mountains with peaks covered by snow, the clouds so close, that it seemed like we were the ones close to the sky. And at 3.5 km altitude, it kind of was. Not far away, a tiny airport waited for us, with no door, but only a bulky blanket covering the entrance. A bunch of people, with beautiful facial features and no recognizable language to us, were waiting for their beloved ones. The town of Leh, and its valley populated by Buddhist monasteries, would leave its unforgettable trace in our soul.
Jammu und Kashmir is a state in the north of India neighboring Pakistan, China, Tibet and partially Afghanistan. In spite of its disputed borders, Tibetans are very peaceful and quiet, in contrast to their fellow countrymen. The population density is also considerably lower, making it a more tourist-friendly destination. Leh, one of the most important municipalities, is not far away from the Nubra valley and from several Buddhist monasteries embedded on different mountains.
Many temples (Stupas) and monasteries are scattered all over Leh valley, many of which are difficult to access. But its easy to recognize them from the distance: they are the only colorful piece in this inhospitable and dry land. Like a flower blooming in a gray desert. Reaching them is also difficult: at 3.5 Km of altitude 20 steps might feel like 200, and these temples are full of stairs. However, it is worth every effort: chambers covered in an explosion of colors await, with paintings on the walls, Buddha statues and a sacred smell of incense filling the room.
Inside, there are golden Buddhas with ornaments painted on the typical colors of the religion: red, white, blue, yellow and white. There’s also a picture or two of the Dalai Lama, their spiritual guide. Some paintings on the wall depict demon-like creatures breathing fire, with crazy eyes, a crown made out of skulls and sharp claws. The juxtaposition of these elements is a good representation of the far east culture: a mixture of magic and mysticism difficult to fully grasp in a lifetime.
Outside the temple, one can only hear the sound of the wind, and nothing else. From time to time, a few militarized vehicles pass by: their destination is the disputed border with Pakistan. Along the road one can see many furry animals, from cows to donkeys and dogs.
In order to get to each of the monasteries, a driver took us during two days to discover the secrets the mountains had hidden from us. For about 150 USD, he took us to 6 monasteries: Lamayuru, Likir, Alchi, Spituk, Thikse and Hemis. Each of them has a treasure inside which awaits to be discovered: from ancient paintings, to delicately carved statues, and even gold here and there.
We thanked him for everything he had done for us. He had not only taken us to many monasteries, but also shared stories from his culture and personal life. At the end, we pay him (what in rupees seemed like a lot of money) and to our surprise, he didn’t even count the money. He took us, and waved us good-bye.
On the last day, in this rustic and picturesque airport, one of the best friends we made here came to bid us farewell, and as a gift, gave us some home-made bread baked by his mother. To this day, I remember not only the delicious flavor, but also the warmth of making a friendship in such a place, with such special people and so far away from home.
I go from this land with the best memories and a feeling of leaving a beautiful planet which is not mine. But I’m sure I’m leaving here not only the good friends I made along the way, but also a piece of my soul so touched by something beyond words, that it refused to leave this incredible and mystical region.