How I lived in Ladakh for seventeen days

Photo of How I lived in Ladakh for seventeen days 1/2 by Stuti Gupta

It was monsoons, July 2017 – when I was in Himachal, organizing The Lost Tribe Art Festival – Mountains 17. I knew I had to visit Ladakh anyhow, so I planned way in advance. It was difficult for my parents to agree for me to go on a solo trip, all the way to the highest altitude of the world – 18000 ft! So I decided to find a more valuable reason.

Having wished to attend a Vipassana Course, I signed up for a 10-day course at Dhamma Laddha Vipassana Meditation Centre in Youknas, on the way to a small village called Saboo in Ladakh [you can check all the course schedules here]. Of course, people thought I was crazy to take up a course that involved ten days of silence and no mobile phones, no writing or reading, no eye contacts, no expression at all. However, all I had in my mind was to be able to live longer in Ladakh and I could give up anything to experience the silence of starry nights.

Photo of How I lived in Ladakh for seventeen days 2/2 by Stuti Gupta
On our way to Leh from Manali

A few days after the Art Festival ’17 wrapped up, I left from Jagatsukh at 4 am to catch my tempo traveller from Old Manali, leaving for Leh. You can book a seat for Leh in Tempo Travellers [it usually costs 2200-3000 INR]. It is one heck of a ride – 21 hours to be precise. I got the company of Kapoor & Kapur, from my hostel and I am happy I had people who I could share my moments of awe. We crossed terrains after terrains, only to be transported into a land that didn’t quite look like our planet.

So untouched, so pious.

My first reaction after I reached Leh:

It was very dark when I reached Leh, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. After seeing absolutely no civilization for those 21 hours, you enter Leh and feel surprised. Leh is a proper city, which traffic and tourism. However, the army being there so strongly, the roads are well maintained and it is quite a developed place.

When I woke up in the morning and saw the sky, I was thrilled at the blue. The air is cleaner than anything you have seen. Any picture that you click, looks crystal clear because of the sun rays that are not chained by dust or pollution.

I was putting up at, Jimmy’s, a place in Chanspa run by an old Ladakhi aunty. As I went for a walk in the morning, I could hear the sound of clean water running through the sides of the narrow lanes. Every single house is so picturesque and the tall trees add to the elements of nature. So raw and beautiful.

I instantly felt that I could connect to the place. Greetings and smiles from strangers, the green-blue-white landscapes with red highlights on the windows, the lanes – everything made me feel at ease.

Like I could be raw, after all, too.

My sim stopped working right after we crossed the J&K border and my phone didn’t work for the next 17 days that I was there. People are recommended to carry a postpaid sim, so you can get manageable signals. But I didn’t carry one, for a simple reason that I wanted to live a life without having to look at my phone again and again. Thank goodness, I was right. My friends who carried sims that worked there, all they wanted to do was sit at the cafe that had some sub-optimal wifi.

What did I do for the four days:

I had four days in hand with me before I had to report for the Vipassana course. I didn’t have anything particular in mind that I wanted to do, except to just explore without getting trapped into the popularized touristy spots.

My first day went by, loafing around in the morning time. Relaxed my muscles after long hours of feeling cramped up. This is, in fact, very important to remember: ACUTE MOUNTAIN SICKNESS [AMS]. It is a condition where you can feel distressed, physically, due to less oxygen level present at the higher altitudes. Locals and travellers advise that you take at least a day to relax and acclimatize with the weather and atmosphere. So, I religiously followed that.

A few things to do to avoid AMS:

Drink a lot of water. At least 5-8 litres a day. Even though you don’t feel thirsty, you should keep sipping liquids.

Do not smoke or drink.

Reduce your activity level.

In the evening, I got dressed up and visited Shanti Stupa with the guys who travelled with me from Jagatsukh to Leh, and a couple who were running the cafe at Jimmy’s and cooked amazing food. The climb to Shanti Stupa was beautiful. The view from there was breath-taking [as cliche as it may sound, it was, indeed]. There is an old cafe at the hilltop where you must try Butter tea. They have a big list of teas but I loved their butter tea the most. Ladakh being a dry land makes your throat and other internal organs dry – butter tea is a local medicine of a sort, and tasty, too!

Chanspa Road | Leh

Photo of Shanti Stupa, Shanti Stupa Road, Leh by Stuti Gupta

On the second day, while roaming on the streets, I found another guest from my hostel. We took one Scooty and one motor-bike to be able to go around to outskirts and wander off. It was three of us. Dinesh, Vanshaj and I. Dinesh was on his bike and Vanshaj sat behind me after we rented our two-wheelers for the day. We paid 800 INR for a Scooty and about 1200 for the bike.

Luckily, we found a blue-coloured spot about 4 km outside Leh, and we thought we will go figure out which place was it. On reaching there, it turned out to be a huge lake, that is not marked as a tourist spot and we got the entire place to ourselves to chill at. We sat there until noon when it started to get hot. In July-August, Ladakh is quite sunny – that’s the reason it is considered On-Season.

Yama Coffee House | Leh

Photo of How I lived in Ladakh for seventeen days by Stuti Gupta

I have done this before – picking up places to chill by using maps. If I find a blue mark that is big enough, I just somehow end up being there. 80% of the times, it has turned out to be an amazing exploration – because it is beautiful and yet, not crowded. Sort of like beauty hidden away from technology. You should try this, too, and see how it turns out. Make sure you’re in a group when you do it – for safety reasons.

SECMOL and Sonam Wangchuk

Later, we visited SECMOL, the school built by Sonam Wangchuk [who inspired the character Phunsuk Wangadoo of 3 Idiots]. SECMOL is about 5 km away from Leh and it is a rough ride. On reaching there, we found out that there was no one in the school except one care-taker. All the kids had gone to Phyang for the Earth & Sun Architecture Festival. So, we had the school for ourselves. We sat there, spoke about life and education and almost everything under the sun. The quiet was mesmerizing. The architecture was stimulating.

Photo of SECMOL Office, Leh by Stuti Gupta

We decided to go to Phyang. On our way, we found Phe, and we got lost. We rode back to a Monastery we had seen earlier. Vanshaj decided to stay back and chill at the Monastery, as it was hard for me to ride the Scooty on those paths. So, Dinesh and I took off from there on his bike. We reached a certain distance and found ourselves lost again. For the life of us, we couldn’t find the right way. At one point, there was no road at all. It was just a very massive piece of land and mountains from all the sides. We didn’t know which direction to ride in, anymore.

We decided to continue, and after a km or so, we saw a building. It was still around 2 in the afternoon, and it was easier to see far off places. We finally figured our way out and reached the Festival. I got to meet some talented bunch of architects and also, had a small interaction with Sonam Wangchuk. What a kind and generous man. It is unbelievable how down to earth he is, after achieving so much in life.

I spent the next two days, hopping cafes in Leh. I bought postcards and posted it to my friends but it never really reached anyone. Once in a while, I wonder what happens to all those letters and postcards that never see their destination. Yama Coffee House became my favourite spot to be. I must have spent hours there, just scribbling my thoughts and feelings about being a part of serenity that Ladakh is.

Places to eat:

I could have put down a long list of cafes that I visited in Leh, but I guess it’s something to explore. I especially loved the cafes in the Leh Castle area.

10 Things that you must experience when you’re in Ladakh:

Postcards that I sent from Leh post office | nobody ever received them | but that’s the beauty of it

Photo of How I lived in Ladakh for seventeen days by Stuti Gupta

1. Hire a bike and start riding, everywhere, anywhere

2. Finding a random water body on Google maps and spend your day

3. Visit Shanti Stupa

4. Try butter tea

5. Take a lot of walks

6. Three places that you can see near Leh: Shey, Phey, Phyang

7. Visit Sonam Wangchuk’s school SECMOL

8. Spend a day at Thiksey Monastery [I could not because I didn’t have enough time]

9. Send Postcards to people and don’t hope for them to reach

10. Walk around barefoot in the narrow lanes of Chanspa

My Vipassana Experience:

I had ten days of silence. Those ten days of crying and laughing and feeling insance and yet, at so much peace. I would really love to tell you all about it.

Maybe, in another blog some other time.

Keep reading.

This article was originally published on Stuti Ashok Gupta's original blog.