Leh-ing the day away

I experienced an entirely new set of impressions today. I flew out of Delhi on an early morning flight (which I, along with about 15 other passengers, almost missed due to Air Vistara failing to announce the gate change). Descending out of the clouds is an epic moment, when you suddenly notice you’re in an entirely different world. The Himalayas are breathtaking to behold from any angle, but the first impression of their magnitude is from the sky. When I stepped off the plane, a sudden wave of breathlessness overcame me, as I was now 3,500 metres above sea level, but it was not at all debilitating. I could feel my body smoothly recalibrating to the new altitude over the next few hours, and after a long nap, I felt good. Let’s hope it stays that way. I immediately felt the drastic temperature shift, from nearly 40 degrees in Delhi to 10 degrees in Leh, which lies in Ladakh, in the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

The next impressions I gathered were from the people. Ladakhis have different facial features from other Indians, more closely resembling Tibetans in their appearance. They are very beautiful in my mind. Driving through the streets to my guesthouse by taxi, I noticed the very different way of dress (warmer clothing, of course, but also an entirely different style), and much fewer people. I’m here during the tourist off-season, but Indian tourists are around. I sighted a few westerners on the street, but it will get much busier in June, July, and August, the ideal months for trekking. My guesthouse (Sia-La Guest House, recommended by a friend) is one of many in the core of the town. Once I arrived, my room was not quite ready, so I ate a light breakfast in the dining area and chatted with a few of the women who work here, who happen to be lovely. They were insistent that I rest as much as possible today to properly adjust to the altitude. I learned that Nikki (not the correct spelling, I’m sure) likes Bollywood-style dancing, and Nasrin, whose parents own the guesthouse, teaches geography in Leh.

After my afternoon nap, I was eager to at least browse the immediate vicinity. I walked up the street and noticed plenty of colorful shops selling Ladakhi arts and crafts to trekking gear shops and adventure tour outlets. There are also plenty of cozy-looking cafes and restaurants. I let myself be drawn into premature shopping by a talkative and friendly Kashmiri shop owner sitting in his storefront. Over a cup of hot chai, he showed me his collection of beautiful “turquoise” jewellery, Kashmiri pashmina and yak wool scarves, and hand-stitched bags. I bought a few pieces of jewellery from him, which, after the fact, I realized were overpriced even after some bargaining, but turquoise is my favourite and I was blinded by his charm. Oh well, lesson learned.

I had supper (dal, rice, chaptati (roti), and a few different potato-based curries with peas and green beans) at the guesthouse by candlelight alone in the dining hall (the power was out), and afterwards enjoyed a nice conversation with Nasrin. I feel safe, warm, and comfortable here.

I am at peace.