Sunday, 9 December 2012



Ladakh is a semi autonomous area in the region of Jammu and Kashmir in Northern India. I travelled there to stay with a local family in their home and participate in their way of life.
To get there, I crossed Taglang La, which at 5,359m (17,684ft) is the second highest pass in the world.
I arrived in Takmachik and met my lovely family on the 3 August 2010. There are four generations living in the one house. The oldest is Phutsok Dorge at 90 years, and the youngest - and wildest is Jigmet Chopel at two and a half years.

I believe that life in Ladakh is similar to the way life was in Islay and Colonsay at the time when my Dad was a wee boy. The people grow their own food. There is not a predominant money economy. In the villages there are no shops to speak of - if you don't work and create the food yourself, you will go hungry. For me, the difference between Islay and Ladakh is not specifically one of geography, but one of time.

I helped the family harvest apricots, turn the daal, fetch water, brush the floors with appropriate grass brushes. Life was peaceful, deep, hard working, joyous. Until the rain started. Heavy rain is unheard of in Ladakh. The annual rainfall is 90mm. This summer it poured for days. The roofs of the houses leaked, the apricots drying in the sun were ruined, the daal drying on the rooftops was soggy and turning mouldy.

One night we heard shouting, everyone had to move to high ground. The river that serviced the village had swelled to become a huge, raging torrent. It had burst it's banks, carrying fields and animals with it , and was now heading for the village.
I ran along a high ridge of rock. Looking down, it was like a mini tsunami, everything just crumpled before the awesome power of water. Fully grown trees snapped like dry matchsticks. The huge stone road bridge was swept away in an instant. Nothing could have held against the overwhelming weight of the water. It had found it's way from the mountains to the Indus. That night, and for three nights after, we all slept in a concrete built community centre up on a ledge on the mountainside.
Our village was now cut off from the outside world. Luckily, people could still walk out over a pedestrian bridge. We heard news of the terrible floods in Leh, 700 missing, five road bridges swept away. The village next to ours had lost 20 souls. There was not much to do to help our villagers. Their fields had been swept away, we were eating their food supplies, there was only one hand pump to supply all our water requirements. There were no communication links to the outside world. Our families in the UK didn't know if we were alive or dead.

Time to leave, I thought. I packed a small haversack with my sleeping bag, a first aid kit, a warm jumper, my diary, and my toothbrush and like India Anna Jones, set off. It was a bit scarey, but it was better to be actively doing something, than waiting to be rescued.
I crossed ravines by tree trunks lashed together, by metal step ladders placed over the stones on each side of the torrents. I got lifts in the back of huge stone dumper lorries. I also got a lift from a colonel in the army, who gave me an apple and whisked me along the burst banks of the Indus to Leh.
On arrival in Leh, I delivered a hand written letter to the Lama son of my Ladakhi family, informing him they were all safe. I waited at the airport for six hours for a standby seat to Delhi. In Delhi, I bought the last available ticket to the UK, and slept in the airport until my flight was called.
Before I left, both the grandmother and the grandfather of my Takmachik family put silk scarves around my neck. They were to keep me safe on my journey. I arrived at Heathrow, took the first train to Glasgow, then got the ferry to Islay.
And when I was safely back in my own home, I took off the scarves.


Arrived in Delhi Sat 24 July, 6.35 am through customs and immigration in the blink of an eye - benefit of sitting in row 22 - and compensated for always being last for dinner! When I stepped out of the plane into the connecting walkway, where they connected was a metre deep wall of HEAT - fantastic.
The road from the airport into Delhi itself is lined with neatly stacked pallets of bricks. They are building a new metro link to the airport for the games - which start in October .....
A green and white road sign endorsed drivers "there are two things you should always follow, your dreams and the traffic regulations"
Which summed up Delhi for me.
The driver couldn't find my prebooked hotel which was in the middle of Connaught place, which is being dug up for the new metro. He drove round and round and round, then finally got out and asked directions - 'your hotel is down there, Madam', pointing to an area under construction which was behind a huge caterpillar crane. I clambered over soft concrete with paw prints in it and wheeled my bag behind me till eventually I reached the back door of the hotel. I was just so relieved to have found it, I was laughing. The staff were so nice and polite they were horrified I had to reach the hotel that way - because from the front it was really quite smart and trendy.
I met a girl from the 'Learning from Ladakh' programme called Jenn at the hotel. Then I went to sleep for the rest of the day, while the energy and dust and heat and bustle of humanity that is Delhi whirled on around me.


Sat.24 July
Jenn and I decided to go for something to eat. I looked up the guide book and the restaurant that I chose was a revolving one. Once we stepped outside the hotel into the madness of the dug up streets we looked around and could see what looked like a revolving restaurant above the sky line. It was a great place. There were wooden signs pointing to the different landmarks on the city scape, so as you sat there revolving you could appreciate the sights. My favourite was a temple which had cascading ribbons of light pouring down from the top and around about it. It looked like a waterfall of light.
As we walked back to the hotel Jenn said she wondered about all the dogs lying about on the broken pavements and road ways - were they dead or just sleeping. I said I thought they were probably sleeping - otherwise there would be a terrible smell!
The population of Delhi is 14 million - in an area of only 1,483 square km. That is roughly 9,440 people per square kilometre! The population of Islay is 3,400 - in an area of 620 square kilometres. That is roughly 5 people per square kilometre.
One of the best things in the buildings is that they have high celings, even if the room is quite small. I think this is due to the ceiling fans though, because if the ceilings were any lower there would be some terrible disasters.


Sunday 25th July 2010
We were taking a bus from Delhi to Manali, half way to Leh, and where we hoped to meet other members of the 'Learning from Ladakh' programme. We procured the last two seats on the bus - later I wished we hadn't. As we drove out of Delhi I saw a woman with a huge pile of thin, dry sticks on her head - just balanced there as she walked along with her hands by her side. Over the tops of the buildings, I saw many small kites flickering against the pale of the evening sky - like in the film "The Kite Runner".
In India not many people smoke cigarettes and the first person I saw smoking since I arrived was a young guy with dread locks and wearing a T shirt with a rainbow on it.
As the bus drove out of Delhi I felt that although it was very unusual, the place felt familiar to me!
The road to Manali is very busy. Many, many lorries. The road is narrow and the edge of the road is RIGHT on the edge of the mountain. The drop from the road is all the way to the bottom. I wouldn't mind that usually - but the drivers go so fast , and they don't have enough room to go round the bends with the bus because of the oncoming traffic. NO ONE slows to let another pass, they just all power on. I can say it was the most frightening journey I have ever been on. One stage of the journey passes a cement works. The main road is the access road for the cement works. It is a hell of dust, lorries, diesel fumes and confusion. Just after the cement works we pulled in to refill the bus with diesel. As we drew out of the car park, I looked down at a parked lorry - around the orange painted wheel hub were the words 'OH GOD HELP ME"


Arrived in Manali on Monday morning 26th July, not having slept a wink. And luckily neither had the bus driver. Manali is made up from three little villages strung out along the Beas river. It was here Jen and I linked up with some of the other people on the Learning from Ladakh programme. I slept all day and night ! and they arranged a jeep to take us all from Manali to Leh.

It rained heavily all the time we were in Manali, there were concerns about lanslides on the road. We left early the next morning. Our driver Nihal was clever, competent and I felt safe in the jeep. His jeep was a 4x4 and the number plate was 1972, which he told me was the year of his birth and he had bought the plate specially.

We were breaking our journey in the village of Kelong. The journey there took 12 hours, then the onwards journey to Leh took 16 hours! The road is very rough. It's a beautiful but jarringly bumpy journey. It is mainly single track, tarmaced in sporadic stretches. The mountains are lush and green with much vegetation and lots of trees. Rivers pour over the road overwhelming it, and leaving stone filled craters. A couple of times we got out the jeep, where the river had completely washed the road away. Our intrepid driver took a considered run at the torrent with the empty jeep and powered through - as did the bare boned public service bus! Our hearts were in our mouths as we watched it drive through. Us passengers waded and jumped through the powerful white water, Nihal parked the jeep and came back to help us. The journey was so hard in parts that I feel I missed out on actually experiencing all the power and grandeur of the mountain ranges as we had to concentrate so much on just surviving the journey.

We went over the 2nd highest pass in the world. It's name is Taglang La (5359m/17,684ft) We also traversed Lachlung La (5060m/16,698ft) and Barachlacha La (4950m/16,335ft)

La means pass in Ladakhi. Achieving Taglang La is an emotional experience. The mountains stretch forever all around you, above the infinity of sky. There are temples and holy shrines all along these routes. People give thanks to the gods of the mountains for letting them pass, also they ask for their protection. The temples and stupas have red, yellow, green and white prayer flags fluttering and wrapped around them. Some temples are used by both Buddhist and Hindu. Anyone can go into them, or turn the prayer wheels.

The thin air feels fantastic. The air is so dry everything can be seen with great clarity. The jagged mountain peaks are starkly contrasted against the white of the clouds and the clean, sharp blue of the sky.

After the high passes the entry into Ladakh is down the mountains into the Indus valley. Leh is found at an altitude of around 3,600m.

I love Ladakh, it reminds me of Colonsay and Islay- except 3.6Km up in the sky. You really are closer to the stars up here.



Wednesday 28th July 2010
Arrived in Leh around 10pm. Some of the group were startled to discover Leh was a town, and not a medieval, mud brick village. We found a room at the Yak Trail Inn and fell asleep. In the morning most of the group moved up the hill to a guest house reccommended by the Lonely Planet. I decided to stay in a lovely guest house I saw in the area of Chubi, called Green Villa. It had a large garden, every square centimetre planted with potatoes, tomatoes, Kos lettuce, broccolli, cabbage, carrots, barley, and many other vegetables. And lots and lots of lovely flowers. Green Villa is self sufficient. It also is host to 14 - 16 guests a night during the summer season of June, July, August. They make their own butter, jam, flour. They have fields further up the mountains where they keep their animals in the summer months. They harvest apricots, mustard seeds, walnuts. They cut the flowers and grasses for fodder for the animals. Ladakhi homes have a colourful profusion of plants pots with geraniums, poppies, cornflowers, sunflowers.

The gardens are irrigated by an intricate system of shallow channels which run to the base of trees and curve around them, run along the rows of vegetables and are damned off at the ends with small sluice gates of slates secured in place by old pieces of clothing. At first one wonders why there are random bits of jumpers lying around in the ground, then I realised it was to further secure the tiles of thin stone or slate that acted as diverters for the channels of water.

The food in Green Villa was the best I tasted in Ladakh and India. The Mother of the house - ama le - would go into the garden and pick the leaves and vegetables for the lunch and dinner. The food was fresh, clean, healthy, light. We had soup, vegatables and rice, then sometimes a warmer, heavier dish made with a sort of homemade pasta. I think this dish would be good in the winter cold. They also had chillis growing in the garden, and this Ladakhi dish had a spicey edge to it.