Leh, situated at a height of around 10500 feet, doesn’t quite feel that high initially. Sure, the wind makes it a bit nippy. But the lack of adequate oxygen is not apparent immediately. It is only when one climbs up a storey or two, that the scarce oxygen becomes conspicuous. What is immediately apparent though, is how crowded the town is. We step out of the airport and there is a bunch of white placards with scrawny lettering shoved in our face. Transiting out of the tiny airport parking lot takes us almost half an hour, as it is chock-a-block with SUVs waiting for tourists.
After the mandatory day spent for acclimatization, we make our way into town for lunch. From the center of the town, one’s gaze is drawn to the prominent sight of the long-abandoned Leh palace. The palace, now maintained by the ASI, seems like a good respite from the mid-day sun but inside, it is dark and since it is made of stone, the cold permeates into the walls making it feel more than a few degrees cooler. It is a wonder how the erstwhile residents managed to spend time within these barely insulated rooms during Leh’s unsparing winters.
Alexander Cunningham writes about the palace thus, “The loyal palace at Le is a large fine-looking building, that towers in lofty pre-eminence over the whole city… The building is substantial and plain, but its size and height give it a very imposing appearance” * (Alongside, an illustration of the palace courtesy Wikipedia)
Telltale signs of ancient torches attached to the walls remain on some of the walls, although it is difficult for a layperson to guess the timeline these belong to. There is a small courtyard on the 3rd storey that looks out into the older part of Leh.
The Hall of Fame
The Leh hall of fame is a war museum, run by the armed forces and situated on the road to Kargil provides a grim study into the bloodied history of the state. Beside maps and photographs of various locations, miniature replicas of air-crafts, dated weapons and odes to the gallant, there is also a war memorial. The sight of the national flag fluttering proud and uninhibited in the wind, invokes an unbelievable sense of patriotism. The hills beyond, in every direction, add an element of disquiet as that is where most of the attacks came from.
Inside the hall of fame, an amateur trying to record all these moments along with a voice over, runs into an army recruit and interviews him unofficially. “Where do you come from ?, How did you come to be a part of the armed forces ? Are you proud to be a soldier in the Indian army ?” The recruit answers earnestly but a moment later, both of them come in for strict reprimand from an official. Interviewing a solider requires official clearances, unless of course they do not happen to be on duty and are dressed in civilian garb.
Outside, the winds begin to get chilly, but a cafe provides some respite in the form of comforting coffee and a warm refuge.
As we make our way to Shanti Stupa, our last visit for the day, Tashi our driver, stops at the base of a hill. He points towards a flight of steps that seem to stretch unending-ly, and tells us, “Ye seedi chadhke jana hai aapko upar Shanti Stupa tak (You have to climb these steps to reach Shanti Stupa)” The thought of exertion makes us wince uncomfortably for a minute, before Tashi, seemingly enjoying our discomfiture, chuckles “Chalo aapko seedhe raste le chalta hu (Fine, let me take you by the normal route)” Little do we know his dry humor is going to be a steady companion in the days ahead.
The Shanti Stupa is a rather recent addition to this place and it has become the most popular tourist spot in the town. Rightly so, since the view from the Stupa is matched probably only by the Tsemo Gompa.
* Image taken from the book “Ladák, Physical, Statistical, and Historical, with Notices of the Surrounding Countries” by Alexander Cunningham
We stayed at the Kidar Hotel on Lower Tukcha road, run by the very amiable Jigmet and his team. The rooms are clean, airy and the ones on the South Western side have balconies that open up to splendid views of the Zanskar range.
To organize tours around Leh, you can reach out to the following people:
- Gaurav (Offbeat Escapes, from Delhi) – 9716507246
- Chamba Rinchen (Leh) – 9906999808, 9419537515