How powerful the Himalayas of India are! Countless Buddhist monasteries perched high above us as we trekked along the Markha River in Ladakh, India. The ruins in this picture appeared to be ruins, but strings of prayer flags fluttered from similar monasteries built many centuries ago. It seemed impossible that anyone could have climbed to them, much less built them in the sky.
To walk here is to feel time as if it wavers in the air like a heat mirage on the horizon. There is a sense that people in the time of Buddha, 2,600 years ago walked these same paths, looked up at cliffs and ridges like these. Of course, it would be centuries later that the monasteries would be built, perhaps around 1200 C.E. Kate Troll & I spent 10 days this summer trekking with 8 other friends in the Markha Valley, a challenging journey with the river bottom at 3,350 m (11,000 ft) to 3,390 m (13,000), and across 2 passes at 4,961 m (16,276 ft) and 5,260 m (17,257 ft).
This is the dry side of the Himalayas with annual rainfall similar to the Sahara Desert, yet the Markha River cascades between mountains topped by these impossibly inaccessible Buddhist monasteries. Water from glaciers and snowfields on surrounding peaks that rise above 6,096 m (20,000 ft).
Buddhist Monks Dancing at Hemis Festival, Ladakh, India. (Click the photo at the right to watch video.)
The annual Hemis Festival is held at Hemis Gompa (Gompa = monastery), to celebrate the birth of Padmasambhava, founder of Tibetan Buddhism. Magnificent. The choreographed dancing by monks is accompanied by clashing cymbals, drums, horns, and chanting, in the courtyard of the monastery beneath the peaks of the Himalayas. These monks are dancing in heavy robes in a very hot sun around noon.
A crowd filled every inch of space-both local people and visitors. Hemis is 60 km south of the city of Leh. The summer residence of the Dalai Lama is in the immediate vicinity of Leh.
While acclimating to high altitude in preparation of our 10-day trek in the Himalayas in July 2017, we visited a number of monasteries and other special sites around Leh. We scheduled our trip so we could attend the Hemis festival.
With only a single day in Delhi, Prabhu took us into the streets of Old Delhi to visit the Jama Masjid mosque. The first day in a new place often overwhelms me. Cities like Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam or Athens, Greece or Delhi overload my senses and thoughts with dizzy swirling colors, smells, activities, and people.
But even on a first day, if I focus on a few small details, watch one person for a few minutes, or study a building, I begin to sense the rhythm of life, the order within the chaos.
Prabhu helped us enjoy this first day. We sampled street food from a vendor he knew was safe, took a short bicycle rickshaw ride through narrow allies, and then walked to the Jama Masjid mosque of Delhi, one of the oldest and largest mosques in India.
Shah Jajan, the 5th Mughul Emperor, began construction of the Jama Masjid mosque in 1644, the same year that he completed construction of the Taj Majal (although work would continue on both for 10 more years).
He was one of the richest kings on Earth, presiding over an empire that included what is now India, Pakistan, and much of Afghanistan, with a 1-million-man army. These beautiful structures were built not by slaves, but by paid workers at tremendous expense.
Today, the Jama Masjid mosque is one of the most important landmarks of Old Delhi.
We visited it on Eid (pronounced “eed”), the last day of Ramadan. Crowd of people from surrounding villages and cities were also visiting. The outdoor courtyard can hold 25,000 worshipers during the call to prayer. However, we visited between prayers, walking through the corridors and arches at each of the gates with hundreds of other people.
Before entering, our six women were given long tunics to cover their shoulders and below their knees. Although general photography is not allowed without a permit, I was able to purchase a permit at the entrance.
Why do ancient and holy places weigh so heavily upon me? The feeling is not oppressive. Rather, I think it is the atmosphere of long history and my desire to be respectful to the people and religions that continue to seek spiritual fulfillment there. It is a weight of feeling that I seek rather than avoid.
The smiles from worshipers, the flowing colors of people dressed in lovely clothing as they streamed across the central square on narrow carpets to protect their feet from blazing hot flagstones in the Delhi sun, a short conversation with a young boy who approached, and delicious street food: these were the highlights of my one day in Delhi, my first day in India.
Kate Troll (katetroll.com) and I have just returned from trekking in the Himalayas of India, a trip initiated by our friends, Mary and Deb, and organized through Prabhu Singh Bhati, a very experienced tour and trekking guide. Over the next few blog posts, I’ll explore what we saw and what we learned—as much for my own benefit as for readers.
This is the story of 10 friends travelling together. Eight of us had deep connections over the last 20 to 40 years in Alaska. Two were newer and less known, but nevertheless happy and vibrant companions who are now special friends. All 10 of us are typically independent travelers. We’ve used guides for a day or two, but only two of us had ever gone on a totally guided/arranged trip.
India was different. Even though Kate and I have traveled to large cities and challenging destinations in Russia, Turkey, South America, Malaysia, Vietnam, and others, India intimidated us, primarily because of the sheer density of humanity: the magnitude of culture, population, chaos, and reputation for sanitation issues in Indian travel.
So we placed ourselves in Prabhu’s hands to arrange the trip, guide our first week and a half as we prepared to trek, and bring us together with professional trekking guides in Ladakh, the place of high passes in the Himalayas.
He introduced us to Old Delhi, gave us a thorough crash course in Indian history, and began the process of acclimating us to increasing altitude as we prepared to trek into the Himalayas: to live and sleep at altitudes as high as 15,000 feet; and to cross two passes of 16,000 and 17,000 feet during our 10-day trek.
We found the Indian people in every place, of all religions and philosophies, regardless of their economic status or caste, to be wonderful. They were irresistibly friendly and helpful, warm, and fascinating. The shared a love of good humor, and to be as fascinated with us as we were with them.
I could provide endless examples of people we enjoyed meeting, laughed with, took selfies with, asked questions about each other, discussed politics or culture with. They included our guides, helpers, and cook, shopkeepers, kids who walked up and said Hi and started to teach 10 chanting Americans the alphabet, kamikaze taxi drivers, monks who blessed Kate’s book and monks who removed their tennis shoes before entering the same monasteries we entered,
the police inspector in charge of security at a Buddhist festival who dreams of continuing his law degree studies at Harvard in a few years, and those we danced and sang with. I traded email and Instagram account names with a number of them, so hope to stay in touch. They were college graduates fluent in English, pony men who pack freight between villages in the high passes of the Himalayas, and random people everywhere.
Many spoke or understood English, although we obviously couldn’t rely on this. They also spoke their local language (Ladakh language = Ladakhi), Hindi, and often French or other European languages. And of course, we all spoke laughter and smiles, waiving arms, counting by number of fingers, and pantomime.