I’ve chosen to remember our last days in Ladakh like this
Although to be quite honest there was also a fair bit of this
For a place that NEVER gets ANY rain at this time of year, we got a fair bit over the last couple of days. It meant the mountains were too wet for a planned mountain bike trip, though we did conquer the mighty Zanskar river in giant inflatable rafts.
No pictures sadly due to the fact that cameras and the mighty Zanskar river don’t make an agreeable mix, but we minibused a few miles upstream to join a heaving throng of madly excited Indians on holiday. After much confusion we found our raft and the safety-first raft guy said, rather seriously: “OK is there anyone here who cannot swim?”. All the Indians in the boat thrust their hands in the air excitedly. “OK”, said the safety-first raft guy. “You have life preservers so you will float”. And we were off.
The first rapids were pretty exciting and there was much whooping and yelling and general hullabaloo and no-one fell in, so at the other side the raft guy decided some of the non-swimmers (and anyone else mad enough) should get in the water and have a go. The most enthusiastic non-swimmer immediately leapt headlong off the side of the boat and sank. He looked a bit startled when his life-preserver brought him back up. That may be partly to do with the fact that the Zanskar is basically glacier-melt. But he seemed to enjoy the experience once all bodily sensation had left him. Enough that Philippa thought she’d have a go, and once she went in I thought, well it can’t be all that bad really, so I took the plunge and it was. I felt my body freeze from the neck down and go into emergency life-support mode where the only thing that it was capable of doing was finding a way back onto the boat. “Was that cold then?” asked Tom. I tried to persuade him that he would enjoy it, but he’d seen the blood drain from enough faces by then.
None of the other rapids quite lived up to that first one and we bobbed and spun down the gorge, occasionally ramming other boats and stopping from time to time to gather in the non-swimming-but-floating Indians, who maintained their level of high excitement all the way down, despite their chattering teeth. And that was that. Zanskar conquered.
By the morning of our departure it had been raining heavily for about twenty four hours. We passed the the prayer wheels at the entrance to the Nimmu House grounds for the last time
Driving through the mountains as dawn broke was a slalom course through large rocks loosened by the downpour.
The rain had finally stopped though and the clouds began to float off the mountains. As we turned off for Leh airport it looked like it would turn into another bright, blue-sky Ladakh day.
A few weeks after we left Ladakh, the Indian government took federal control of Kashmir, splitting it into two territories: Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh. The move possibly explained why it had been so very difficult for us to get visas, with the Indian officials in London clearly unhappy at the idea of a family of journalists going to such a strategically sensitive place. They made us jump through many, many hoops and finally issued the visas the afternoon before we left with strict instructions that while we could go to India, we could not go to Ladakh. I think they possibly didn’t realise that the visas they issued us with DID allow us to go to Ladakh in fact. But while all this was just an annoyance for us, Delhi’s decision to bring an end to decades of semi-autonomous rule in the region will have long-lasting and potentially major consequences for those in Jammu/Kashmir and potentially Ladakh too. One impact of the move by Delhi is to enable Indians from outside the region to buy property in the two territories. That almost certainly means the distinctly Buddhist nature of Ladakh is at risk, but I guess we will have to see. It does feel like a little piece of perfectly preserved old Tibet at the moment, and very unlike the rest of India. It would be a real shame to see its uniqueness chipped away and ultimately lost – for it is a grand place. Ladakh is mysterious castles and soaring mountains and the most generous, peaceful people and really, not quite enough air to be honest, but that just means you should slow down and treat it with respect. It’s an excuse to stop and admire the view.