I groggily board the flight to Leh at an unearthly hour. Waking up irritably to the flight attendant’s announcement, the view outside my window quickly changes my mood. We are flying precariously close to the snow-covered Himalayas, and would soon land in the cold mountain desert of Ladakh. Three years after my first solo trip to Spiti, I am back in the trans-Himalayas, still dreamy and wide-eyed, a little nervous, and hoping to find solitude in the mountains. It feels like life has come a full circle.
At first glimpse, Ladakh feels majestic and harsh, and immediately introspective. Mighty snow-capped peaks and stark, barren mountain slopes stand in striking contrast against a surprising amount of greenery. I’ll later find out that cultivating this dry desert in the strong sun and harsh winters has taken centuries of careful water management by the locals – something that has been heavily compromised for tourism needs in the last two decades. The shy but friendly locals, their cheeks reddened by the strong sun, make me feel right at home with their welcoming greetings of jullay, the Ladakhi word for hello, welcome and thank you.
I find my way to my first home Tsermang, on the outskirts of Leh, across a shaky wooden bridge covered with Tibetan prayer flags. In the distance lie the colossal snow-laden peak of Stok Kangri and the small village of Stok, home to the current king of Ladakh. At my doorstep, the pristine Indus River flows gently. I have read much about the ecological imbalance in Ladakh, but knowing that my home, lovingly run by my French friend and his Meghalayan wife, is solar-powered and uses all things organically and locally sourced, I feel at ease. That I would find solitude and my own personal piece of paradise on day one, despite the sheer number of people travelling to Ladakh in the summer, delights me.
I lay on the banks of the Indus, letting its soothing hum put me into a deep slumber. In the roasting sun, I wake up to see the snow-capped mountains far beyond covered in a thick black mist. The melodramatic skies and the pure mountain air have such a calming effect on my mind after weeks in the maddening city life of Bombay, that I barely feel affected by the change in altitude.
I slowly make my way to the bridge, this time to sit and soak in the tranquillity of the prayer flags fluttering in the wind. Gazing at the surreal scenery, I tell myself that I’m finally in Ladakh, and just then, the wind carries to my ears the afternoon prayer chants from a distant monastery. I stroll along to the sparsely populated Palam village, watching kids come skip home from school and women at work in their farms. And as though I’ve lived here for years, they merrily greet me: Jullay!