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The World's Rooftop, Ladakh
By Gregg - 29 Dec, 1999

Page 3 of 4

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Many shops and restaurants in Leh these days are geared towards tourists and thus were closed for the season. Even the one main street had a kind of sleepy feel. But the market area—a cluster of simple stalls carrying local goods—was alive and bustling.

At night, wrapped in blankets, we read by candlelight. No heat; no running water (the pipes would freeze this time of year). Electricity was being rationed—each area getting power two out of three days. But on the allotted days it was intermittent and out most of the time. We were asleep most nights by 9:00 or 10:00.

During the days, Ladakh offered us its charms. Stunning mountain terrain; Tibetan prayer flags billowing in the wind. Our favorite spot was just minutes from our room—a short but steep walk up a hill topped with an old memorial building and sweeping views of Leh and the surrounding valley.

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One morning we headed for Chemrey—a small village about 50km south of Leh—to attend the annual festival there. As it turned out, this was a good day to spend outside of Leh. A general strike meant that shops and restaurants would be closed for the first half of the day. The strike had been called by the city's Buddhist leaders to protest recent marriages between local Buddhist girls and Muslim boys.

The small local bus was already full when we departed from Leh's bus station. That is, all the seats were taken. Within a hundred meters of the station we made the first of many stops to pick up additional passengers. The bus interior was soon jam-packed with people on each other's laps and standing in the aisle. The roof was covered with passengers heads bent in the cold mountain air. I quickly became one of the standees and thus could no longer see out the windows and enjoy the view of the mountains. But I could and did thoroughly enjoy the harmonious singing of a scattering of women who lifted their voices in prayer.

Upon reaching Chemrey we crossed the fields on foot and climbed the steep hill past village homes to the monastery at the top expecting to see elaborately staged masked dances. Instead, the proceedings seemed haphazard and sort of amateurish like a high school play. It was however an excellent opportunity to hang out in a Ladakhi village as the local folks gathered for their big day.

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A more interesting cultural experience came a few days later. We were visiting an old palace up on a mountainside overlooking the village of Shey. From the village below, a cacophony of music rose up to meet our ears. We descended and followed the sound to its source.

A large tent had been erected—we'd come across a wedding. As soon as we were spotted we were invited in for tea. First the traditional Tibetan tea with lots of butter and then, special for us, standard Indian 'chai' (sweet milk tea). Our collection of drinking cups continued to grow as 'chang' (Tibetan barley beer) was also served. Each of these cups was refilled to the brim well before we could get to its bottom.

Around us, the colorful traditions swirled to the accompaniment of relentless drumming and blaring reed horns. Dancers moved slowly—their steps determined more by tradition than any detectable emotions. The bride too appeared to be trapped in protocol. Along with her mother and an attendant, she was obliged to greet each and every guest, bowing slightly and clicking her bracelets together as she uttered some sort of "thanks for coming".

There were some 300 guests, mostly seated in rows on cushions on the ground. As the bride proceeded down each row she maintained a smile. But at the end of each, we watched her as she grimaced—the weight of her turquoise laden hat was digging into her neck. The groom was nowhere to be seen.

Despite the rigidity of tradition, there was a joyous buzz in the tent. Many had donned their finest clothing—colorful and elaborate weaves, top hats and pointy shoes. Clearly, such a large wedding was not an every day event.




The World's Rooftop, Ladakh

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