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Trouble in India's Shangri-La

June 24, 2010

By Raja Murthy
Asia Times
June 24, 2010

LADAKH, Northern India -- A booming tourist
industry is curiously churning in Ladakh, India's
stunningly beautiful Himalayan Shangri-La in the
northern state of Jammu and Kashmir. But
21st-century changes are leaving locals like
Dorjay torn between celebrating the area's
increasing prosperity and worrying about their
austere Tibetan culture being drowned in Mammon's toys.

"People walked or rode horses when I came here
over 50 years ago," Dorjay says from within his
tiny Tibetan Friends Corner restaurant off the
main market street in Leh, the capital of Ladakh
province. "Now there are more cars than people,"
he says as he shakes his head sadly.

Prem Paul, the middle-aged owner of Paul's Guest
House, which is home to long-stay visitors from
Europe and the United States, grumbles that even
traditional food habits are dying. "We hardly ate
rice when I was a boy," he says. "Barley was our
staple diet." Tsampa or pah-pah, the local simple
but nutritious dish made out of barley flour, is
now hardly found outside monasteries in Ladakh.

Near Dorjay's restaurant, boy monks wearing
baseball caps and rucksacks fiddle with
smart-phone handsets as they hustle down the main
Leh street, which is crowded with handicraft
emporiums, trekking operators, Pashmina wool
shawl shops, Tibetan restaurants and Punjabi sweet stalls.

"There is so much development in Leh in the past
two or three years," says Phillipe Surjus, a
French tourist who works in a VIP lounge at the
Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris. He takes
three weeks off every year from hosting the likes
of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai
Lama and Hollywood stars in transit in Paris to come to the Himalayas.

Leh, surrounded by snow-clad Himalayan peaks, is
both India's largest and least-inhabited district
- a 45,110 square kilometer area populated by a
mere 117,000 people, according to the last
census, taken a decade ago. Kargil, host to the
last India-Pakistan war in 1999, forms the second
district of Ladakh. The majority of the Ladakh
population is of Tibetan origin, with Muslims dominating the Kashmir area.

Ladakh, meaning "the land of high passes",
borders Pakistan and China. The Indian army
presence is highly visible but far less intrusive
than in the rest of Kashmir. Unlike heavily armed
soldiers in Srinagar, the capital of
Indian-administered Kashmir, I didn't see even
one of the hundreds of army men in Leh carrying weapons, not even a pistol.

Armies of marketing men, though, are invading
Ladakh. Cars, cell phones, iPods, satellite TV
dishes and the Internet are even sneaking into
villages in Ladakh, this remote Himalayan land of
over 1,000 monasteries and breathtaking
landscapes that some describe as lunar or even Martian.

Bleak, barren, bewitching Ladakh is not yet
easily accessible from the rest of India -
perhaps Mother Nature's way of protecting it from
the polluting hordes of noisy, littering tourists from the plains.

Heavy snowfall cuts off the two high mountainous
road links to Ladakh for most of the year. Sparse
air links from national capital New Delhi and the
state capital Srinagar are prohibitively
expensive. A cartel of three airlines brazenly
sells one-way Delhi-Leh air tickets for US$250 to
$300 for a 45-minute flight. A three-hour
Delhi-Bangkok international return ticket, in contrast, can be found for $200.

It was courtesy of one such exploiting air bandit
that I arrived in Leh. The Kushok Bakula
Rimpochee airport at 3,256 meters (10,682 feet)
above sea level is one of the world's highest,
prettiest and tiniest of airports. The flight had
taken off from New Delhi with, to my disbelief
and horror, muddy, unwashed windows, though the
airline describes itself as India's "best".

Filthy aircraft windows and a miserly breakfast
service, one that may have left a sparrow hungry,
fortunately didn't kill enjoying perhaps the most
spectacular of air voyages - about 30 minutes of
flying above the vast, sweeping swathes of the
mighty greater Himalayas, over pristine white
carpets of snow across lonely mountain ranges,
over still, silent peaks - many of which may
never have ever felt the touch of human feet.

My immediate destination was about 100 kilometers
away from Leh, the ancient Tingmosgang village.
It was a journey into the unknown, with no fixed
address and no known person to call. But Ladakh
turned out to be a living example of the saying,
"there aren't any strangers in the world -- only friends we haven't yet met."

Panchole the taxi driver could have charged me 10
times more than the $36 he did, for the
three-hour car trip on the Srinagar-Leh highway
was a priceless experience, a prelude to a happy,
beneficial three weeks in Ladakh. The stark,
ascetic mountainous landscape offered the
strength of solitude to deeply explore a few
inner mindscapes - and unearth greater clarity to
a question or two clouding one's life.

The seemingly lifeless Ladakh terrain is largely
a curious mix of iron grey, black and purple hues
sloping off into the background of spectacular
snowy peaks. Amidst this thrive a few hardy
islands of apricot orchards, green meadows and
fields. The well-maintained Srinagar-Leh highway,
courtesy of the Indian army, runs alongside the
gently gurgling Indus River, flowing on its 3,180
kilometer journey from Tibet, through Pakistan to the Arabian Sea.

The road to Tingosgang was a memorable preview of
the full journey I was to take later to Srinagar
- cutting through the greater Himalayas on one of
the highest altitude roads in the world, through
the snow-covered Zozilla Pass and walls of ice.

Destiny and Panchole the taxi driver took me to
the 350-year-old Tserkermo monastery in
Tingmosgang village. This is a microcosm of the
spartan lifestyle of ancient Ladakh. The monks
have no running tap water, no bathrooms or
toilets, no full-time electricity or even an electric heater.

Electricity comes on for about three hours in the
evening. The sole water source is an all-weather
mountain spring. Its water stays cool in summer,
and as in other sacred places in the Himalayas,
miraculously flows not just unfrozen but warm in the bitterly cold winter.

This summer was unusually cold and rainy in
Tingmosgang. I woke up one morning to find a
white carpet covering the horizon. When I
realized joyously it was snow, I promptly
invested some time gleefully making snowballs in the peak of the Indian summer.

Life isn't all glee for the Tserkarmo monks. They
do their own cooking, washing up and cleaning in
the monastery. They sleep on mattresses on the floor.

"This is the kind of life we are used to," says
Konchok Samten, a well-educated young monk in his
twenties who spoke fluent English.

Konchok Samten ("Konchok" refers to a lineage of
teachers in the four main schools of Tibetan
Buddhism) had spent two years in Germany, in
Giessen town near Frankfurt. He says he couldn't
wait to return to India. "The people there live
with so many luxuries that they don't even
realize how much material comforts they have," he
says. "And yet they do not seem satisfied."

Samten became a novice monk at age eight, an age
many of the local boys tell their parents of
their wish to become monks. Has he ever had to
fight temptation to return to a layperson's life?
"Very often," he says. Some of his friends have already given up being monks.

Samten's parents live in Tingmosgang village, one
kilometer down the mountain road, and like other
villagers depend on agriculture for a living.
Like many other serenity-cloaked Ladakh villages,
Tingmosgang is inhabited with warm-hearted,
compassionate people. "Jhooley!" they cheerfully
greet each other - "good day" in Ladakhi
language. Rosy-cheeked women are modest in dress
and demeanor, with many of them so beautiful they
leave Bollywood heroines looking like gibbering monkeys in comparison.

I chose the road route to return to Mumbai,
refusing to patronize the flying bandits again.
The three hours from Mumbai to Leh by air takes
five days on the return by road - from Leh to
Srinagar to New Delhi to Mumbai, including a
night in a houseboat in a Srinagar lake. But the
gradual journey from out of Ladakh was itself an
eye-opener to how beautifully different this
Asian paradise is from the rest of the world.

Onrushing time could both be a friend and enemy
to Ladakh. The young chief minister of Jammu and
Kashmir, 41-year old Omar Abdullah, has this
month promised more connectivity to Ladakh from the rest of Kashmir.

The resulting economic development could bring in
more money and material comforts, but maybe at
the cost of the peace and harmony that is now
Ladakh's greatest wealth. Hopefully the Ladakhi
people will find the right balance as in the
Middle Path of the Buddha, whose meditative image
fills the homes and monasteries of Ladakh.
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