To follow a tour of India’s Golden Triangle by travelling to Ladakh, in Northern Kashmir feels like stepping away from the set of ‘Ghandi’ into ‘Lost Horizon’. First of all it is high altitude, earning its title of ‘Little Tibet’ and secondly it is the least populated area of India. Many of the inhabitants [40%] are Buddhist and much of the area is cut off for many months of the year.
Before leaving Delhi we met our new guide for the new tour, Adrian, who was as unlike Paratha as Obama to Putin. A few of us were leftovers from the first trip. Others were new. At our first gathering, the one where protocols are explained, he asked us about Paratha and was shocked to hear how she’d led the tour, exploiting her status and behaving in a controlling and condescending manner. This behaviour, he told us, is at odds with the company’s philosophy. They’d be unhappy to hear of it. Whilst I had no wish to lose Paratha her job I thought it best that subsequent tour groups should not experience the Golden Triangle in the way that we had.
Having had the team talk: be sensitive when taking photos, be mindful about altitude sickness [about which, more later], carry plenty of water, leave nothing but footprints etc, we boarded a flight to Leh, the largest city in Ladakh, flying up above snowy peaks to the highest airport in the world, one that also provides the fewest and most basic facilities, as we discovered when disembarking and needing to use the toilets.
To begin with we’d spend a few days in Leh, to look around and to acclimatise to the very high altitude before starting our trek. I looked forward to this second tour with a little trepidation, having had altitude sickness before, in Peru and Bolivia. I knew how nasty it can be but hoped that this time I might escape it. How wrong could I be?
We were charmed by our hotel, whose accommodation was basic but full of rustic character, with a beautiful garden and rooms furnished with chunky wooden beds and spartan, concrete shower rooms.
As advised, we took it easy walking around gorgeous Leh, but it was hard to restrain the urge to rush about looking at everything, since everything was either beautiful or interesting or both.
For our second day in Leh we took a trip out to view some of the more accessible and picturesque monasteries [‘Gonpas’] that were dotted around in the mountains. This is a landscape that is both dramatic and outrageously magnificent, the monasteries themselves built into the sides of the mountains as if they’ve grown there and carved and painted in ornate and beautiful designs and frescoes, with none of the formality of mosques but with life and expression.
To visit the Gonpas we needed to dress modestly and cover up extremities. I’d had the presence of mind to add a light sarong to my daysack that morning [a habit I’ve become accustomed to], meaning that Husband was not left bare-kneed. There is a gentle, homely atmosphere in the gloomy interior of each Gonpa and as the monks go about their daily tasks they greet tourists good-naturedly, sipping tea and nibbling a biscuit or two as they pray!
In order to view the buildings we needed to clamber up and down steps in the thin, cold air, which proved more arduous than the previous day’s sightseeing in Leh. Sometime during the afternoon I began to feel the onset of a headache, something brewing up, becoming more painful as the day wore on. Before long it was accompanied by a powerful nausea, then I knew I wasn’t to escape the mountain sickness I’d experienced before in Peru…