My daily fitness routine has been to climb the 550-odd steps of the Shanti Stupa and have a tea at the cafe up top. On one occasion, though, I dropped in at the meditation hall between the cafe and the stupa. There was “silence” written all over the approach to it, so I tiptoed into the hall and looked about uncertainly. The giant statue of the Buddha at the end was impressive but my eyes were for the monk in the corner, who studied me impassively for a second before turning to the window. I shuffled about, studying this, looking at that, deciding in a while that I’d gotten all I could out of the room. I crept toward the door.
Just as I was about to cross the threshold, the monk cleared his throat and began chanting, accompanied by the big drum. It was arresting. I wanted to stay but didn’t know the protocol. Deciding that the worst that could happen was that I’d be asked to leave, I sat on one of the mattresses lining the sides of the room.
Five minutes in, two women walked into the room and sat bang in the centre, facing the Buddha statue, adopting the lotus posture with closed eyes. I was impressed. Here were people who knew what it was all about! The minutes flowed by, punctuated by the monk’s drum and his chants. Woman 1 opened one eye and addressed her companion. She wanted to know whether the price she was quoted for the Pashmina shawl earlier in the day was a fair one. Woman 2 was of the opinion that none of the sellers could be trusted and unless they walked around for a few more days and did a little hard bargaining, they’d be taken for a ride. It was a fascinating conversation that meandered for minutes and had several insights to offer on shopping techniques.
A few more minutes in, there was a sound outside not unlike a herd of wild elephants uprooting a banana plantation. The extended family; the largest I’d ever seen. There must have been 200 of them and they clearly thought that the “silence” boards outside indicated the name of a place. If this lot had been on the front lines of Kalinga, Ashoka would never have contemplated invading it.
The first 20 walked in, each of them with a camera. They stomped about the place photographing every nook and corner, even the dust on the floor. I couldn’t hear the monk over the din of the clicks. The master photographer amongst them was clearly the gent with the DSLR and the two-metre-long lens. He walked about with the swagger of the genius artist. At one point, he leaned over the enclosure separating the monk from us and with the tip of his lens about 3 inches from the monk’s nose, the flash went off. The monk, to his credit, didn’t even blink.
On and on it went. One batch after the other, for 45 minutes. The only constants were the two women in the centre. They would constantly entreat the ones outside to come in for “a few minutes of shanti.” The only recalcitrant one was this stripling who’d clearly never known shanti in his 15 years. She roared at him to come in for some shanti. He didn’t want any shanti. He was happy where he was. So she, reluctantly, had to give up her lotus posture and walk outside. The conversation that followed, I could not hear, being no longer conducted over 25 metres, from the inside to the outside, at high volume.
When the actors re-entered the stage, she was walking a little ahead, holding him firmly by the upper arm as they strode toward her former seating place. “5 minutes of shanti, 5 minutes, that’s all I’m asking you to experience. Would that kill you?” He went down like a sack of potatoes, grumbling that it was bad enough that he was being dragged from peak to peak, could he not at least stand in the sun outside? "Shh, let the shanti wash over you..." He spent his five minutes discussing football with his mate sitting two rows behind and three columns to his left.
Eventually, all 200 had their fill of shanti and left, including the two lotus posturers. The hour was almost up and the monk wound up his chanting too. He got out of his enclosure and collected, without a word or expression of complaint, the gum wrappers and the tissues and the other odds and ends that had seeped from the family like sand from a child’s pockets and, with a final prayer, left the hall.
Ladakhis, like the Arunachalis, are incredibly friendly and hospitable people. When I told the owner of the place I'm staying in that a friend of mine was visiting (but would be staying elsewhere) and that she wanted to know whether there were any shared taxis to be found into town from the airport, he was affronted. "Your friend is my friend. I'll pick her up," he said. But, the day before she was to reach, a large contingent arrived at the guesthouse and he could no longer spare the time.
"Here's my car keys," he said, "why don't you go and pick her up?"
When he said that, I turned to study his face. There was no hint anywhere on that cheerful, friendly face that the most likely upshot of his offer would be that his car would be found in a gorge somewhere, with the radiator in Pangong and the engine on a dune in Nubra.
Tales of high-altitude acclimatisation are many and strange. The most common complaints are mild headaches and very disturbed sleep in the first week or so.
Here's a description from a South Indian couple of their first night here.
The bloke couldn't get any sleep at all. Sometime in the middle of the night, he wanted to take a leak. But he didn't fancy stepping out of the blankets. Still, you gotta go eventually and he reluctantly stepped into the chilly, blanketless air. He then noticed that his wife was awake and complained to her, "I couldn't sleep at all, you know."
"But you were snoring for the last 3 hours!"
"Oh? Strange... I thought that was you."