I think I was a young teenager when I first heard of Tibet. It was a magical place the roof of the world. I read of monks with super powers; being able to run great distances; levitation and being able to melt snow with just the power of their mind. It was the home of Shangri-La of Lost Horizon by James Hilton which I read in my youth.
My first visit to India was in 1974 and I ended up living with the Tibetans in McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh. the home of the Dalai Lama in exile. I had always been fascinated by Tibet, however the Chinese occupation made a visit very difficult. On my way back to London from Japan in 1980 we traveled overland from Madras to Srinagar in Kashmir. We then took the hours’ flight to Leh the capital of Ladakh, which is also known as Little Tibet. It had only been open to tourists in the last few years so was relatively untouched, At an altitude of nearly 12,000 feet it is a high desert deep in the Himalayas. To get there by road, open only seasonally, you had to traverse a 14, 000 foot pass and stop overnight. The airstrip is between two hills and can only be approached from one direction. Flights are weekly.
We didn’t do much for the first couple of days of our two week stay, so we could acclimatize ourselves to the altitude. Altitude sickness is unpleasant. We wandered around taking in the sights and smells. Leh is about the same height as Lhasa. It reminded me of McLeod Ganj with older Tibetans walking around chanting “Om Mani Padme Hum” and twirling their prayer wheels. The bazaar was colourful with cloths, food and spices on display.
The sky was deep blue and the air was clear and invigorating.
There were lots of stupas, white dome like structures containing reliquaries and the like, festooned with prayer flags.
Modeled on the Potala in Lhasa, Leh palace is an iconic feature of Ladakh. Built in 1553 on a hill it overlooks the Leh valley. It was closed when we tried to visit. It is over nine stories high.
All this set against a back drop of brown rocky soil with snow capped peaks to the north and south. It made me wonder if this was Shangri-La. While predominantly Buddhist there was a large Muslim community, both existing in harmony.
In our second week we met some other westerners and they were hiring a jeep for the day and were going to visit some monasteries and did we want to join them. We jumped at the chance.
For me Thiksey was the perfect Tibetan monastery. Again modeled on the Potala in Lhasa it is built on the side of a hill and the monastery itself is 12 stories high. Inside is a big prayer wheel where you can send tens of thousands of mantras into the ether. There is a huge statue of the Maitreya Buddha two stories high. It is quite fearsome. Monks were chanting and the whole feel was “This is Tibet”.
We traveled further to Hemis another monastery and the landscape was moon-like.
We were due to fly out the next day but the flight was cancelled due to dust storms in the valley. We were there for another week.
I felt I had experienced Tibet and it was an amazing experience.
Below are two links, the first written in 1990 and the second what is happening now.
THE RESPONSE TO TOURISM IN LADAKH