Time in Leh

This morning, the gray clouds fill the sky and the wind blows, swaying the trees outside our window.  Several cloud bursts have erupted in Stok and I can hardly see snow capped Stok Kangri, the highest pass in Ladakh.  It’s now over a week that we don’t have connectivity at our guest house.  Fortunately, there is a bookstore at the bazaar that has a working wifi.  I am not sure if the power is back on but we do have power now.  It’s hard to tell if the power comes from a generator at the guest house.

It’s getting colder outside and we’ve asked for an extra blanket to warm us up at night.  There is no heating in the homes of Ladakh, just the reliance on good insulation of the house from the mud bricks and double paned windows.  Hot drinks and soups are becoming a more important during the day.

I’ve read a book in almost one sitting.  How does one live without internet connectivity now a days?  We can get mobile SIM card but data is not allowed here in Ladakh, most likely due to limited resource or military control as I’ve been told.  Leh is in a military zone so for example, satellite connectivity requires approval from the military and quite expensive.  Texting like SMS is okay but to us, wifi connectivity is almost more critical most of the time because of our lifestyle.

We talk to each other most of the time.  We did watch some TV, however the TV is now off line as well.  Is it worth looking into getting the TV back on?  Or use less energy due to the power outage.  One takes priority over the other.

Connectivity is completely down in the winter months as explained to me by our host.  It gets down to as low as -40 degrees Celcius during the winter months!  Everything freezes, including businesses.  Everything is closed down at the bazaar in the winter.

Every morning, we wake up at 5 am in the morning and make hot water for coffee.  We sit down in bed and watch the view of the high mountains.  We stare at the mountains, the swaying trees, the running river and the cows wandering around the edge of the river.  We mostly chat about many things like the current political happenings in Spain and Srinigar.  We talk about the many lessons learned in traveling to such places like Leh.  We’ve come to appreciate life and it grateful for what is left of what we own.  There’s a lot of idle, quiet moments and time stands still.

For the Ladakhis, “frugality” doesn’t mean greediness or a negative meaning of being frugal.  It means making the best use of the limited resources and waste nothing.  Here in Ladakh, everything is limited and it’s been an incredible realization to us that we have been very wasteful in so many ways in our life back in California.

We did not intend to learn such things when we arrived in Leh two years ago.  It was more of a place to explore and train for a tough mountain bike race.  That fate led us to coming back two years later to train as well as learn more about Ladakh.  I never really thought of how Ladakh fits into our “Frugal Nomads” theme of lifestyle, however it really does fit us very well.

The primary religion of the Ladakhis is Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism and is led by his holiness the Dalai Lama.  In Buddhism, there are a lot of supersitious beliefs from generation to generation.  The cycle of life is death and rebirth, nothing more.

We were fortunate to have witnessed a Puja here at our guest house.  We knew nothing about Puja before the event.  Every once a year, a Puja is held at every single household in Leh.  Our guest house is just a few hundred feet from a monestary and most of the monks that do the Pujas for each home come from there.  There is a whole calendar of scheduling for Pujas and it usually happens during harvest time.  There were four monks for the Shanyer Puja.  There are two home structures at Shanyer’s, the old traditional Ladakh house and the newer modern Ladakhi house which is where we are staying.  The old Shanyer traditional home is where all the family’s children and grandparents grew up.  Most of the rooms are no longer in use like the main kitchen.  Built many generations ago by Skalzang’s father, Norboo who still lives in his old house.  The house has a Puja room on the second floor and this is where Pujas are held every year for the family.

The Puja rooms are decorated with Deities and Buddhism structures.  The night before the Puja ceremony which takes place the whole day, the monks and the family socialize.  During socialization, the monks carve out small figures representing Dieties made of tsampa and butter.  These small figures are then places as a center piece in the Puja room.  The monks are all seated in carpeted padded mats and remain there the whole day singing prayers and playing instruments.

Skalzang and Kuney together with their family gathered in their living room making food for everyone the whole day.  There is a series of food offered to the monks every hour and as well as to everyone in the home during Puja.  There was a lot of food.

I sat down at a corner to witness a Puja.  Doug sat on the other corner.  Two monks on one side and the other two on the other side.  The prayer is led by an older, head monk.  One monk, played the big drum and the other two on Doug’s side played the trumpet.  My heart was pounding as the drums beat and the chanting of the prayers was very hypnotizing.  Kalzang and Stanzing came in to offer more butter tea to everyone in the room.  Food delivered to the monks in an orderly fashion starting with butter tea, followed by a breakfast of tsampa mixed with tea and butter molded by the hands in a bowl with mutton soup.  That is the first course of a full day of meals during Puja.  We both ate and listened.  I often look out at the window as the cow dung incense smoke blow in the wind while the drums and trumpets play in the room echoing out to the small open entrance door.

Tea and other drinks were served all day with a careful watch from Skalzang and Stanzing making sure the monks are well fed.

Puja is a day of celebration for each family in Ladakh.  Every household serves the same courses.  It’s interesting to learn that monks are now more conscious about their health so they are more careful of taking too much butter tea for example and may opt for black tea or hot water for instance.  Just imagine, they would do Puja every day with the many courses offered every hour.  They would definitely gain some weight!

While listening to the hypnotizing chants, drums beating and trumpets playing I noticed that the monks have cell phones and smart phones.  I don’t know why it’s so surprising to me but of course they would have such devices in this modern world.

Everyday, we watch Norboo.  Norboo is Skalzang’s father, Otis’ grandfather and a mysterious man.  He has physical attributes of a Ladakhi just like the elders we saw at the market and at the Lamayuru monestary.  Dark, thick skin from exposure of the relentless sun here in Ladakh.  Norboo is in his mid-80’s and have lost some memory.  He spends most of the day sitting in the garden.  He would walk around with his cane but not too far.  In traditional Ladakhi family, the elders are taken care by the family until they pass.  Today, the modern generation and the fast changing face of Ladakh have instituted the first and only elderly home in Leh.  This is a result of modernization and the generations having to abandon traditional practive of caring for the elders.  It’s wonderful to watch Skalzang, Kuney, Stanzing and Otis caring for Norboo everyday.  It’s around the clock care to feed him, clean, bathe, shave and keep a watchful eye on him. I feel an  admiration to the dedication to caring for Norboo because it’s something I do think with my parents and someday may have to do the same.

Time.  What does time mean?  There is no turning back the clock.  The time of the day is what happens.  In the months we spend in a developing country mostly is a reflection of how time affects our life.  The slowing down of time allowed us to get a deeper understanding of who we are, what we are doing and why we do the things we do.

We look back in time when our life was full of actions and things that take time away from understanding the “what happens.”  We filled our lives with a sense of pursuing “something” that contributes to the lack of time.

This morning’s breakfast is the same breakfast everyday.  The night before, I prepare a Khambir dough made of whole wheat flour, water, yeast and sugar.  It rests in a food warmer which I simply adore and find it amusing each time I use it.  The Ladakhis have practical kitchenwares and often they are decorative at the same time.  It makes kitchen experience feel alive and pleasant.  The dough rises but to an extent then it starts to fill out the shape of the food warmer.  The dough is soft and punching into the dough releases semi-fermented air which means it’s ready to be toasted.  Everyone’s go their own favorite bread and Khambir is mine.  I would say, as in my opinion the best bread because of it’s simplicity from ingredients to actually making it.  It’s mostly eaten in the traditional way with butter tea.  We normally eat with by slicing the hot and freshly toasted bread in the middle then spreading a very generous amount of butter and watch it melt into the bread.  Drips of melted butter oozes out as I take a big bite into the most delicious bread.

We never thought we would see snow in Leh.  Right after breakfast, as Doug started washing the dishes he yelled, “Look outside! It’s snowing!”  I ran out to our balcony to capture the moment on my smart phone because it’s so special to see snow.  It’s the least I expected to see but such a beautiful sight of heavy and water densed snow flakes coming down on me.  There’s something about seeing new snow and how it affects how I feel about the moment of feeling it fall on my skin.

It’s still warm for the snow to stick but the snow will help keep the dust down.  It can get very dusty on dry days here in Leh specially with the breeze in the early morning and late afternoon.  We sat outside our balcony watching the snow come down.  Across the river is a “dzo”, a very important animal for the Ladakhis as they help in the fields, provide meat and dairy as well as clothing.  Nothing goes to waste here.

The other day as we walked back to our guest house, a group of neighbors were plowing the field with two dzos.  That morning, I wondered where the chanting was coming from.  The group have been plowing and singing all day.  They were harvesting their hard earned potato field with buckets of potatoes.  On the side of the field was a stove, pressure cooker and utensils.  Meals were cooked in the field as everyone harvested potatoes ready to be stored for the winter.

As the sun starts to warm up Leh as usual, the clouds have moved west towards the passes and it’s once again dry but with a nice cool wind.

We only have a short time left in Leh.  Life here is very slow.  It’s the same everyday and there is a very low stimulation of the senses.  Does it drive us crazy?  In a way, yes but we’ve also come to accept that life here is that way.  It’s still that way but there are many changes.

The Indian tourists most likely have quadrupled after a Bollywood movie have introduced Ladakh to India.  A friend once told me, they never really knew there was such a place as Ladakh in India.  We’ve never been to any other place in India except arriving in Mumbai and Delhi aiport to Leh.  It is quite different from what I expected of India after watching some travel documentaries of India.

Guest houses and hotels are starting to sprawl in Leh towards the higher parts where our guest house is located.  Simple guest houses built extensions in their land for additional rooms.  Two years ago, we had the upper floor in Shanyer guest house all to ourselves for 3 months.  The kitchen, dining room and the sun room.  This year, it’s become communal most of the time with guests coming in and out.  Most guests were Indian tourists coming from Delhi mostly, some from Mumbai and other regions of India.

We arrived at the tail end of summer season yet, tourists were still coming in.  The movie, which I have not seen, have shown key places in Ladakh that most of the tourist buy a packaged tour to cover these places in a week.  The acclimatization time is very short and we are dumbfounded to hear how they can cover all these places which goes over some pretty high passes in just a week.  I’ve heard that visitors mostly get ill the first few days.  It is not uncommon and as expected.  It takes several days and even weeks for the body to adapt to altitude coming from sea level.  I’m not sure if the movie talked about the risks of going at high altitude without taking pre-cautions or allow additional time for a much more enjoyable experience.

In the years to come, Leh will change and we can already see the higher emphasis on commercialization and profiting minded Ladakhis this year compared to two years ago.  It is inevitable with the new tourism demands for Ladakh.  We didn’t expect the rapid movement of the change in just two years.

On our bike ride to Shey Gompa, we take a side road that was a bit more quiet and two years ago, it was just a vast desert land with one or two buildings.  There was a military base and some automotive dirt lots.  Today, the desert we knew is now filled with newly constructed homes and shops.  The first thing I thought was, water then sanitation.

Water is scarce in Leh.  The water source in Ladakh are the melting glaciers.  In some areas such as the back side of Leh where most Kashmiris live have water distributed by trucks every morning and afternoons.  There are now water pumps in some assigned spots for the community to get water.

I read in a local newspaper that Leh have successfully eliminated human defecation in public places.  Human defacation can be found from what I remember our hike up to the palace right behind the bazaar.  It’s a good change because it was not a good sight to see or smell.  India has an active campaign of constructing toilets in every household to reduce human defacation anywhere.  Some are still skeptic about toilets and believe that it’s dirtier to go to in a toilet than an open field.  Just recently in the news, a survey just published showed that Indians would rather have mobile phones than build a toilet.  Mobile phones vs toilets?  Mobile phones wins.

Toilets are hard to find in most developing countries.  Usually there are none around to use.  Leh have some public toilets at the end of the bazaar right by the park where the Tibetan refugees sell their goods.  It’s only 5 rupees to use, however there are no toilet papers because locals use water to wash themselves after using the toilet.  There are no towels to wash the hands.  Generally, I bring my own toilet paper and discard them in the trash bin after use.  Most public toilets are poorly maintained but it’s a good feeling to know there is a place I can go if needed.

Restaurants have sink to wash hands before eating because most locals eat by hands.  Again, the sinks itself is unclean and provide no towels or towels hanging used by many.  The soap bar is covered in dirt usually so it’s best to bring hand sanitizer and some paper to clean after washing.  Most of the time, we have utensils with our dish because we are foreigners and that helps a lot.

As new suburbia emerges in Leh, I question the sanitation infrastructure in place to support the demands of more people in Leh.  They are already having trouble maintaining public restrooms.  There are now more Nepalese and Behar workers that live in the newly constructed homes because of the demands of tourism.  Many of these migrant workers come to Leh to mold bricks, work in construction of new guest homes, cook in restaurants and assist in guest houses.

There are many types of tourists that come to Leh.  The majority of them this past year were Indians.  There is no longer an interest in Ladakhi culture or monastery tours but more emphasis in hopping into a van and driving over passes to check off the places from the Bollywood movie.  But, that is how it is right?  The power of social media and hollywood movies are overwhelming around the world!

Our interests is more on exploring the people, place and culture of Ladakh.  We come here and stay long term because we find that longer stay reveals many realities of the locals in the area.  We came back this year with the same expectation as two years ago but things have changed.  We still enjoy the beautiful and most magnificent scenery of the high desert and the peaceful people in Ladakh.  It’s still amazing here, in no comparison elsewhere we’ve been.  The unique landscape, harsh living and isolateness of Ladakh will always make us come back.

The fascinating political and religious nature of Ladakh, or the Jammu and Kashmir is worth knowing.  Here in Leh, the population of Muslims are higher than Ladakhis.  Although, Buddhism is stronger.  A Muslim cannot marry a Buddhist.  There have been a little over 40 cases that a Muslim marries a Buddhist but it comes with big consequences for the couple.  Businesses will close to show their disappointment.  This happened when we first arrived this year.  Stores at the market were closed because they were on strike.  It was because a Muslim and Buddhist got married – two years ago!  Both have successful careers and both are university graduates.  That doesn’t mean anything in this case.  I’ve been told that when a Buddhist marries a Muslim, one have to be converted to the other’s religion.  In rare occassions, a Muslim will convert to Buddhism but most of the time it’s the other way around.  This is what is interesting.  Converting to another religion is a big deal.  The reason explained to me, as vague as it was – it’s a matter of numbers, benefits and politically a negative effects in the overall community for each side.

In Leh, there are a few schools but schools are segragated – not by gender but by religion.  We often see students in red uniforms wait for the school bus.  They are Buddhist students.  At the bazaar, we see students in blue uniforms.  They are Muslim students.

How does that work?  The fact that such divide yet they live in together.  I’ve heard stories of differences and some violence against each of the religion but for someone like me who came from a much more aggressive country with more extreme violence, those stories back home seem minor.   How do the Jammu and Kashmir live together?

There is still no wifi at our guest house and we’ve lost hope in expecting it to come back before we leave.  The detachment from social media have left us full of time.  It is quite frustrating but it’s not something we’d treat as a big deal.  There is a bigger deal of a problem than wifi, no cash in ATMs.

Yesterday, we tried to get money from the ATM machines and we’ve been told that there was no cash available in the ATM.  We tried a couple of other ATMs, same problem.  This happened to us two years ago as well but eventually, we were able to get some money.  That is somewhat of a problem.  I say that in a sarcastic, humurous way.  How can there be no money in an ATM?

In addition to the tenfold increase in Indian tourist to Leh this last year, there is also a confusion about GST or Goods and Services Tax that was recently implemented on July 7th this year.  It is basically an overall tax with an objective of fair pricing or uniform taxing in all of India.  To be honest, I always thought there was already tax added to any goods in services but clearly, I am naive.

This explains the dramatic increase in prices on guest houses this year compared to two years ago!  Possibly the reason but it could be the increasing demand of tourists lately or both.  For instance,  when we first came to Leh two years ago we stayed at a very homely guest house of $11 per night.  It is the cheapest we could find that time and we were very happy with our stay.  We stayed for a week and everyday, we were served with Khambir and omelet included in the room price.  The same guest house this year, tripled the price in an online booking site.  That guest house have expanded structurally this year with more rooms available.

Everything we buy at the grocery store has a marked price and for the same product in every store, it’s the same price.  MRP is stamped in all itmes with the price in rupees.  So for example, a 5kg of Chakki Atta or Whole Wheat flour is marked 195 rupees ($3.05) and every store will have the same price.  However, produce, eggs and meats from butchers vary in price.  Items like souveniers also vary depending on the store.

GST also requires businesses to report their sales online.  The biggest complaint so far of course is the unreliable connectivity in Ladakh as it will affect reporting on a monthly or quarterly basis as required.  The troublesome connectivity is compounded even more by the monopoly of one service provider from the government.

There is no answer when we asked what happened to wifi.  There is only theory such as the probability that the lines were obstructed by the newly constructed road by the school.  A call is made and no other information to indicate if a fix is in place or at least the problem is being investigated.  All we can do is guess and wait.

One thing to really be conscious or sensitive about is to hold back on giving solutions as an outsider.  We come from an ever speedy progressive world so, the inclination of providing suggestions or solutions for a third world country could prove a waste of time.  It’s will be resolved in time or not resolved at all.  The underlying complexity of the bigger picture has a trickle down effect to an individual living with the situation.  The best we can do is be sensitive about the nature of the problem and listen.

Lunch today is in a restaurant called Lhasa Tibetan Restaurant on the main road on the end of the bazaar.  We ordered mutton momos.  Tibetan refugees have four camps in Ladakha as what we’ve been told by a couple of Dutch guests volunteering at the refugee camps.  Tibetans don’t get the same benefits as any local Indian citizen and it’s not an easy life as a Tibetan.  Majority of them still believe and is waiting for Tibet to be free from China.  This is one reason they refuse to integrate.  They are still waiting to go back to Tibet.  There are no jobs as Tibetan refugees have no rights like an Indian citizen.  Most of them sell Tibetan jewelries, arts and souveniers for tourists.  There is no electricity or running water in the camps and NGO organizations often visit to educate them about health and sanitation.  I’ve not visited a Tibetan refugee camp and only heard stories from NGO workers that volunteer their time to help educate refugees.

Right before lunch, we were at the cafe waiting for wifi but no luck.  Connectivity was down.  After lunch, we headed back to see if wifi is up but there was a power outage and no clear reason why just like no clear reason from anyone on why wifi is down.  I asked the cafe owner why and when wifi will be up again.  He responded with a shrug, “I don’t know.”

The bazaar always have people hanging around, mostly Kashmiri and they like kicking dogs in the face.  I’ve seen too many of these instances that sometimes, it’s really hard to watch.  Buddhist don’t believe in hurting animals so you don’t see anyone of them kicking a dog.  I often see local Ladakhis feed the feral dogs at the market.  Feral dogs have been over populating Leh and it’s really a problem.  The primary source according to a magazine about freal dog problems is the military base, a breeding ground for feral dogs.  Dogs from the military base are dropped off at the market due to the over population.  Recently, there was an incident of dogs killing a human which sparked Leh to do something about the population.  One solution currently being implemented is to spay and neuter.  Dogs that have been spayed and neutered are marked with a small cut on the right ear.  Feral dogs are still a huge problem in Leh and it’s not going away for a while.  Running in the morning or cycling can be troublesome with feral dogs.  Sometimes they come in groups protecting each other.  One dog tried to ram into my bike one time and I hit the brakes hard, skidding on the road which in turn scared the dog away. The dog was trying to attack me!  I always bring my poles running now to protect against unpredictable feral dogs.  If I do forget my poles, whenever I see a suspicious look from a dog I immediately pick up a rock and that act itself scares the dog away however, not all the time.  It don’t throw the rock to the dog.  As soon as the dog sees me picking up the rock, they run off.  A trick I learned from the locals.

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