01 September 2014

He who has never left -- Leh

'So I find words I never thought to speak
In streets I never thought I should revisit
When I left my body on a distant shore.'
-- T.S. Eliot; Four Quartets: Little Gidding

A friend in New Zealand  and another in the US say they're looking forward to reading a post about Leh. Maybe others are, too -- but what do I say? How do I convey what it means to me? When something's important to us, we want to do justice to it and we try harder to find the right words, but too often that striving defeats itself; the words falter, the flow dries up, we fall back on silence and the shrug of resignation -- we don't know how to express the significance, we say, and open our hands in the gesture of helplessness.

There -- my excuses have been made. All I can do is try, knowing (to quote Eliot again) that ' every attempt /
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure'. I have to try, too. If you'd prefer I remained silent, don't read on.

At the start of a new month I sit in the little icecream shop in Leh with a small bowl of apricot icecream decorated with shards of waffle cone. Minimalist decor: clean, bright, pine tables, each with a coloured tin tea pot and a Tintin book; simple heavy stools with blue denim seats; the small range of icecream neatly displayed behind glass. All the ingredients have been carefully chosen from local produce, and the obvious attention to cleanliness and presentation encourages me (my trust proves warranted, too). A friend introduced me to this place yesterday after we'd had tea at the nearby restaurant; I'd had Kashmiri tea with ground almond and saffron and today did exactly the same -- Kashmiri tea followed by apricot icecream. I'm so imaginative. I'm also able to recognise a good thing.

The Old Town, in contrast, represents almost everything this new, modern, icecream shop doesn't. Those small, low doors with their patina of great age and countless stories; the massive trunks of trees around which the town seem to have been built, the bark worn down and polished by the brush of generation after generation of hands; the stone walls that, in some cases against all apparent reason, have survived without collapsing; the way some buildings cross low over these narrow alleys to form tunnels where I have not just to stoop but to bend well over -- those tunnels with their quirky hand-written signs telling people not to urine in here O.K.

More, much more. For example, the ancient tandoor bakeries with their magnificent, mouth-watering smells, where, for 30 generations or more, customers have queued in the early mornings. The tranquility and cool relief of the Old Town despite its proximity to the chaos and heat of the new city -- turn a corner and you step from the 21st century into a world where evidence of anything later than the mediaeval requires careful looking. Or, that strange, fetish-like object hanging from the outside wall of a dusty, whitewashed house -- an assemblage of twigs and cord so old it looks one gust away from crumbling to dust. What makes it so eerie and slightly unnerving is the old, weathered skull lashed to the centre of the fetish -- the grey skull of a dog, I think, judging from the pronounced saggital crest and zygomatic arch. At Rumbak I saw a similar object and asked Stanzin what it represented; he hesitated, then said he thought it might be intended to provide protection against evil. The beliefs that hung these objects on these walls might have preceded any formal religion, and I wonder whether they might have given rise to the chillies-and-lemon charms hanging from many doorways elsewhere in India, but this is pure speculation on my part. Whatever the belief that put this one here in the Old Town, two things seem irrefutable: the need to believe in something beyond the evidence of the senses proves irresistible for most humans, and even for those with no such belief, the sight of a fetish like this can be unsettling. Mystery appeals to most of us.

I walk through the Old Town, losing my way, finding it again, avoiding the meaner-looking dogs, looking down fondly at the-dog-who's-eaten-too-many-biscuits. He slowly opens an eye and looks at me in hope. Disappointed, he closes his eye and resumes his sleep.

Even the new town has a charm that rises above the more difficult characteristics it shares with so many other Indian towns. When I walk along the Main Bazaar I must make a conscious effort not to stop and inspect the countless shawls and scarves in so many colours, patterns, materials, and quality; if I do, I'll never get where I think I want to go. It's not just shawls, either -- here you can find a huge range of jewelry, heavily dominated by turquoise (which I happen to like); shops selling traditional clothing including the distinctive headgear that looks a little like a top hat with up-turned ear flaps, and others selling Goretex and down clothing and all manner of modern hiking and climbing gear for the trekkers and Stok Kangri hopefuls (this obvious awareness of the importance of the mountains as a source of recreation -- and admittedly, money -- strikes a chord with me, despite my reservations about the view that sees mountains as little more than a way of satisfying human needs and desires). Even the souvenir and trinket sellers add colour and life. Sure, during the middle of the day the place is chaotic, but it's chaotic in a more humane way than places like Main Bazaar in Pahar Ganj, Delhi, which so often seems not just frantic but desperate.

I step carefully along the footpath then onto the road, which is undergoing major renovation, to avoid the simplest of all kinds of markets: a line of women in traditional dress sitting on the footpath with vegetables and fruit spread out on blankets in front of them. Someone with a cynical disposition might suggest this is more to capture the tourists than for anyone wanting to buy vegetables -- the cameras click constantly -- but this appears to be not the case because the photographers neither buy the produce nor offer any compensation (most, it seems, don't even ask if they can photograph).

An old man, so leathery and wrinkled he looks as if he's spent all his life shrivelling under the fierce Ladakh sun (and probably has) sits at the end of the row, at the intersection. He seems to be permanently smiling. On his blanket, spread out like the produce of the women, lies a collection of crystals. I have no language with which to ask his story and must pass by each day, still wondering.

Further down the road I step into a shop with an interesting range of books in the window. The range inside is even more diverse -- reprints of the books of Jim Corbett on paper seemingly produced before he even wrote them; a range of New Age and pop psychology books that wouldn't be out of place in an Auckland bookshop; an even more extensive range of high quality coffee table books of excellent photographs from Ladakh; maps; postcards; school textbooks and stationery; and, of most interest to me right now, natural history field guides for Ladakh, including Grimmett et al.'s Birds of the Indian Subcontinent. I'd never intended buying the book because of its weight and bulk but, frustrated by the shortcomings of the app (and annoyed by its outrageous price), I'm sorely tempted. Eventually the advantages of the book win the day. A good bookshop can redeem most towns, but already I know Leh doesn't need redeeming. The longer I spend here, the stronger its hold on me.

In the evening of my first day in Leh, a new friend shows me some of the places she knows so well, eventually guiding me through the Old Town and up past the palace, along the steep, gritty track. At the monastery she asks if I'd like to go inside. I hesitate, then decline. No, I say, I'm uneasy about gawping at places important to other people's beliefs when I can't share those beliefs. She nods; she feels the same, she says. Instead we stand at the edge by the low wall, looking out into the evening, over Leh, across to Spituk, to the Ladakh Range, the 6000+ metre pyramid of Stok Kangri, and Hemis National Park. Somewhere deep in those mountains snow leopards prowl, hunt, live their lives. My chances of seeing one, particularly at this time of year, are almost nil. 'Almost', though -- not impossible, and in the process of looking, who knows what other wonders I might see? Also, in my travels I've been unreasonably lucky with wildlife sightings; now, perhaps, I need the lesson of not seeing the snow leopard, if for no other reason than the reminder that wishing too hard for something guarantees disappointment. This is not a rational argument, but it is a true one.

For now, it's enough to stand here high above Leh as the sun goes down behind that last, long ridge. I want to be nowhere else.

She points out the Sunni mosque from which that heart-breakingly beautiful azan rings out each evening -- the call to prayer that haunts me and comes close to bringing me to tears I don't understand -- and the Shia mosque not too far distant; there, she says, right behind the main bazaar, is the Buddhist centre; and down there near the edge of the Old Town is the tree considered sacred by Sikhs. The Christian presence is strong here too. In a world in which intolerance, particularly by religious factions, seems so prevalent, Leh seems like hope.

In the early morning before the sun begins to burn, while the shade under the trees and against the high stone walls still provides shelter, I stride out down the path to Changspa Road. An old woman makes her way slowly up the path and I greet her.
'Julley,' I say.
'Ju-LEY!' she replies, smiling, enthusiastic, stressing the last syllable so it sounds more heartfelt.
This, I think, is one of the reasons I find it so easy to like Leh. This kind of response has been typical, unlike many other areas of India where the frown and stare seems so common (although usually easily disarmed with a nod and a smile); to be greeted warmly even by many of the women here in Leh is almost startling -- elsewhere in the parts of India I've visited I found this highly unusual; there, the usual reaction is the careful avoidance of eye contact.

I scribble a note in the little cahier: 'More often than not,' I write, 'it's people who hold me in a place rather than the place itself.' Now I'm less certain, not because I doubt the power of great friendships but because people and places are inextricable; each colours the other, and eventually we have only the memories, where people and place cannot be separated. I can't think of Huaraz and the Cordillera Blanca, for example, without thinking of the people with whom I shared my too-short time there, and I can't think of those friends without thinking of Huaraz -- seeing the huge full moon rise behind some of the most spectacular mountains I've ever seen while Marin and Charlotte and I waited for our meals to arrive and I skimmed Nicholas Shakespeare's biography of Bruce Chatwin -- and that brings back memories of the charming middle-aged Italian woman who, in broken English on the coast of Ghana, likened me to Chatwin purely on the basis that I was always writing (having now read Shakespeare's biography in full, I'm not sure I'm entirely flattered, but I appreciated her intention). All these connections among people and places. This is what enriches a life, and here in Leh the connections, even those seemingly insignificant or momentary, like this old woman's greeting or sharing the laughter of the two women in the icecream shop, keep coming.

The snow mountains to the north-east of Stok Kangri gleam in the evening sun. Men and women come and go, but the mountains remain. The most we can hope for is that maybe, just maybe, the mountains will remember us when we've long turned to the dust that will bury our ruins.

Something looks out of place on the folded macpac merino top sitting neatly on top of the corner cupboard. There, on the fine black material, clings a tiny, pale, patterned gecko about the length of my little finger. I encourage it onto my hand. It feels soft but definite. I nudge it onto the wall but it immediately drops off and hides beneath the merino top. Clearly, this small sophisticated lizard has fine taste in habitats. I'm happy to leave it there and like the idea of its company.

Early one morning I pack the camera, binoculars, and a small bottle of water and step out onto the cool, dusty road. Sleepy dogs and two policemen at the lake eye me as I stride by: past the water carriers filling their oil drums before sealing them closed with tightly stretched plastic and wheeling them off to the poorer parts of town on their rickety, ragged-tyred, three-wheeled carts; past three small and dusty donkeys feeding from a rubbish pile; around the corner and into the Old Town. At the palace I begin the steady climb up the still-cool track and past the small cairns of rocks and stones that remind me of secular chortens -- the kind that seem to spring up wherever someone adds a second cairn, and so a tradition begins -- until, almost at the point where the track forks, I look up and see a chukar.

A second bird appears. Carefully I retrieve the binoculars and admire the pair -- their beige, rock-and-dust-coloured bodies and black markings with vivid red bills and legs, their typical game bird shape. They make their way along the ridge in clear view, drop out of sight on the far side, reappear, and pose against the backdrop of the mountains and blue morning sky with prayer flags fluttering overhead. When they again drop out of sight I follow with the telephoto lens mounted, but they've gone now and I catch no further sight of them, as if they've become the rocks they resemble so closely, as if saying this is enough, a photograph another time perhaps.

As I sit at the knoll, still thinking of the delight of seeing the chukar and of being here before anyone else, a small falcon comes speeding across the mountainside. When close, it spreads its tail and begins to circle, gaining height, moving closer, until finally it flies right overhead. A kestrel. Through the binoculars I can see the patterns, the colours, the details, and the intensity of this small, beautiful predator. The sun shines through its wings and tail and they glow as if illuminated by the energy of the bird itself.

Through cool shade and burning sunlight I make my way back down the track towards the Old Town, from where the smell of bread baking in tandoor ovens hundreds of years old drifts up the mountainside. The dust of Ladakh lies on my shoes, the memory of birds lingers in my heart.

The minibus that will take me away from this place will leave at one in the morning; I must report at half past midnight. Jameel and Saira insist I eat with them on this last evening, and they stay up until midnight until I have to step out the door for the last time. They hug me, and Saira gives me a long, lithe poplar stick to fend off the night dogs. Leaving this place, leaving Leh, is like leaving home, but harder -- the thought of home always contains the idea that maybe, one day at last, we will return. Now, though, I step out feeling close to undone by my time here and still not fully understanding why. I cannot leave Leh but do not know how to come back.

All these emotions. I walk on into the night with the promise of more journeying ahead. My life has been enriched immensely during these two, too-short weeks, but the present has now become the past. Somehow I must learn to let go, and to do so without diminishing the gift.

I walk on, stepping through the moon shadows, watching for dogs, listening to the knock of my poplar pole on the stony path, and wondering whether I will always be beset by the restlessness that hopes that at last it might find what it did not know it was looking for.

1. '… the books of Jim Corbett …': Corbett, in whose honour Corbett National Park is named, was famous first for shooting numerous man-eating tigers and leopards in the region now known as Uttarakhand; later he was a vocal proponent for conservation in India. His first major book, Man-eaters of Kumaon, was published in 1944. 
2. 'Men and women come and go …': a reference to a whakatauki (loosely, a Maori saying), one version of which is ' Whatungarongaro te tangata toitÅ« te whenua: People perish; the land remains'.
3. 'The thought of home …': 'He who returns,' Neruda said, 'has never left.' 

1. Getting closer to Leh on the second day of travel from Manali.
2. This tandoor bakery is reputedly 600-700 years old.
3. Dog-skull fetish, Leh Old Town.
4. Leh gompa.
5. Old town door, Leh.
6. Last light behind Leh, from the prayer flag knoll.
7. Chukar calling at Rumbak.
8. Early morning, Leh. A water carrier wheels his empty load back up the hill. On the the way down, that load will weigh the better part of a couple of hundred kilos, over 160 of those in the 44-gallon drum alone. I asked one of the men how often he did this each day. 15 times, he said.

Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor


Zhoen said...

It is to fall in love, but not to keep.

vegetablej said...

Perhaps the fetish is meant to be a ghost guard dog? :)

Everything looks beautiful and old and eternal there. It must draw up comparisons to our own impermanence, restlessness, striving. The mountain landscapes carry a peaceful aged grace against explosive, powerful skies. A good place to have met yourself and to remember.

pohanginapete said...

Zhoen, that's the way of all love, I think.

VJ, whatever the function of that fetish, it certainly has some kind of power.
Not everything's beautiful, old and eternal, but more than enough is -- enough to stir powerful emotions. I'm beginning to wonder whether the altitude itself -- that sense of being so high in the world -- also had a powerful influence on me.

Lisa Emerson said...

Hi Pete: I loved this post. I've been thinking a lot about your comment that 'mystery appeals to most of us." I recently went to a workshop on science communication, and they were talking about how religion was initially all about mystery, but was turned into 'certainties'. And then that was dispensed with and now we think that science is all about certainties, but that scientists know that it's all about mystery and uncertainty. So, I'm thinking that human beings actually want certainty, but the universe just keep on throwing up mystery. I'm so glad it does :-) I think you engaged with mystery in this lovely, ancient place.

pohanginapete said...

Lisa, so pleased you appreciated the post -- thank you. I think that's very true about science and mystery, too -- no less a scientist than Einstein made some comment (which I can't remember) about the significance of mystery.

Anonymous said...

I was overwhelmed by this beautiful post, Pete. I hope that one day you do find that which you were not looking for (and of course, that it is good). Safe travels, -Maureen

pohanginapete said...

Gracias, Maureen, and I'm glad the post affected you strongly -- that's what Leh did to me.