Today was our transfer day, when we start the touring portion of our trip. We’ve signed on with Khandro Thrinlay Chodon, a Tibetan woman from India who married someone high up in royal society from Bhutan. After he died, she has been doing charity work and hobnobbing with who’s who in Buddhist circles in Northern India. Every year she organizes eye doctors to visit with the nomads around Lake Tsomoriri for a week during the very short season that the nomads are tending their livestock in the high plains (5,000m) around the lake. For about nine months a year, the area is snowed in so no one gets in or out easily. Therefore, the eye doctors that she arranges for are often the only doctors the nomads and their family ever see. Khandro-la finances the trip by taking people like us to help and also giving us a personal tour of the area. As I understand it, there are about a half dozen of us financing the trip but Khandro-la is bringing along an entourage of assistants, monks, drivers and guides. It could be interesting!
We spent this morning walking around Leh and I got my own haircut. It wasn’t as dramatic as Melanie’s but only because I went from 3mm hair to 1mm, rather than collar length to shaved. Through sign language, I asked the barber if he had an electric shaver. He did but I guess I should have asked if he had electricity. While giving me a buzz cut, the shaver kept going off. Each time it did, his assistant had to go outside, climb the telephone pole and jiggle the wires leading to the shop. After this happened several times, the assistant eventually just stayed up in the pole until my cut was complete. After that, I got the best head and shoulder massage ever. Not bad for Rs25. I felt so bad about all that work for less than $1 so I gave him a Rs25 tip too.
We learned a beautiful new word today. This wonderful Ladakhi word “julley” (joo’-lay) means “hello”, “good bye”, “good morning”, “good night”, “thank you”, “you’re welcome”, “please” and probably a lot of other things. Almost everyone says it to each other as you pass in the street. It is impossible to not have a smile on your face as you say it. It really is music to hear it spoken by strangers when we pass.
Before we head over to the Hotel Kasden (the Lower Tukcha area of Leh) to meet with Khandro-la and the group, we also had some lunch at a local restaurant. So far, we figured out that, not only are we not getting sick from it, but we actually like thukpa (a common dish consisting of vegetables, meat, and noodles of various shapes in broth) and momos (meat or vegetable dumplings).
Once we do find the old Hotel Kasden, we were assigned a room, settled in and then headed downstairs to hang out and wait for the rest of the group. From a variety of directions they slowly started to assemble. Other than Khandro-la, the characters who we will be travelling with over the next two weeks or so include:
· Bob – an Australian who looks like a cross between a miniature version of Santa Claus and a gold prospector from 1849 California. It doesn’t take us long to figure out that he has some history with the Ladakh region and is very much into Tibetan and Buddhist spirituality. He told us he became Buddhist because of a really bad acid trip he was on back in the 1970’s. We are cautiously optimistic that he could be fun to hang out with but we hope he didn’t bring any LSD with him this time.
· Andreas – another Australian but we reckon that he is a bit younger than we are. His method of tying a scarf around his neck told me instantly that he was either metrosexual or homosexual. I am guessing the later. Either way, I don’t care but he has some humorous musings about Leh and his travels in India so far. He could be fun too.
· Kanya – an Indian national who lives in Singapore and teaches yoga. She is young and attractive and, for some strange reason, seems to have instantly set her sights on Andreas and is flirting like a schoolgirl. She could be in for a surprise.
· Jane #1 – an Australian woman who is introduced as Khandro’s assistant. The way that Khandro-la orders her around in the first few moments after we met her would have told us of their relationship already but we feel a little uneasy with the “do this, do that, why didn’t you take care of this?’ that Jane is getting bombarded with.
· Jane #2 – an older, slimmer Australian woman who has done previous trips with Khandro-la. She also makes it clear to us that she has been in the region several times before. Her experience may be useful because I know that Melanie and I are definitely outside our comfort zone.
· Jigmet, a Ladakhi is our tour guide. His English is very good and he has the typical air of an Indian tour guide. He is helpful almost to a fault. He has done a few trips with Khandro-la before and he is someone’s cousin but I haven’t figured out who’s yet. He is supposed to be at school in Delhi at the moment but he is playing hooky to show us around Ladakh.
· Ngawang, is a sweet young pimply Ladakhi Buddhist monk. His English is not very good but I think he likes me. He certainly smiles a lot. He also gets ordered around a lot by Khandro-la.
· Ani-la is a lovely young Ladakhi Buddhist nun. She took to Melanie quickly but also through limited English and between taking instructions from Khandro-la. If it is not clear already, I think that Khandro-la is certainly used to dealing with a large entourage of peons.
· There are also two drivers that we meet that will be with us throughout our time in Ladakh with Khandro-la. They are both helpful as can be although they do not speak any English beyond “hello”, “please” and “thank you” – all useful first words to learn in any language. They both appear to have a good dose of common sense too which should be helpful in driving around. Sadly, we are not 100% sure of their names but the one we will be dealing with most of the time as the driver for car #2 is introduced as Karma. We are not sure if that is really his name or his lot in life, or maybe we can’t hear well, but that’s what we call him the rest of the trip. If we have an accident, we can always blame it on Karma. I think the other driver’s name is Dunned Up. I know. That doesn’t make sense.
After a lunch with the group, we all pile into our assigned cars along with a few other people that are friends with Khandro-la. We have two stops to make on our excursion, the first being to some monk’s house. Inside, we all sit around a large room with padded benches along the perimeter. It seems like a convention of the monk elders as there are a dozen old bald guys in maroon robes. We get to drink tea and take a tour of the home, visiting the meditation room used by someone important who has recently died. We are not certain who it was that died but Khandro-la is visibly moved. I need to ask more questions.
Later in the day, for views of the sunset over the mountains, we visit the Japanese Shanti (Peace) Stupa. It is on a hill, another 200m above Leh village, where we get some pretty good views below as well as a close-up look at this simple, yet lovely building. As an added bonus, Khandro-la introduced us to Bhikshu Gyomyo Nakamura. This Japanese man is not just the resident monk; he built the stupa back in the 1980’s after giving up the life of a musician. Well he hasn’t given it up completely. He recently released an album of Dharma songs. He sang for us and also plugged his books. He seemed like a cool and interesting character but all conversation had to be translated for us.