Braving the Altitude: The First Battle and the Unexpected Spiritual Retreat in Ladakh

It was not a predictable adventure in the Indian part of the Himalaya.  

Ideally, I dreamed of Ladakh this way: playing in the snow while enjoying the cool weather, roaming around towns and monasteries while talking to some locals and to cap everything, I imagine myself sitting on the banks of Pangong Tso Lake admiring the out of this world beauty of Kashmir. I experienced some of my expectations with the pain in the ass and an almost - a life exchange experience if ever we pursued one further. 

I felt the joy and pain in Ladakh. My spiritual well-being was fed many times during our Northern Indian Adventure. Still, I felt betrayed by my own plan of great Himalayan adventure Quote and Quote. I wanted to give up and I almost cursed the road which I begin my love affair in 2010. I was devastated emotionally, mentally and most of all physically. 
Thirty minutes after the plane took off from Indira Gandhi International Airport, the view from my window seat begins to change from plain land to uneven and rocky mountainous land formation. There were no trees. All I saw was a large mass of brown mountains with rivers and streams attached to it. After a while, there was a white thing on the top of the mountains. It was like dust dotted in the mountains. I turned my eyes on the horizon and I saw an uneven line of white-mass of land. Then I realized that the white thing is snow and the snow-capped mountain of the Himalayas.

It was a stunning view in the eye of an Asian who sees only mountains covered with thick and lush forest. It was a magical feat for my excited soul. Another outstanding revelation of God’s perfect creation! I’m all smile and if you can see me, my eyes were full of excitement. Who wouldn’t be excited to see the Himalayas snow-capped mountains!

We had to put our jackets on before we deplane because according to the flight attendant, Leh is very cold.  But contrary to what we had expected there was no snow in Leh. There was snow in Ladakh but only in the mountains and in higher places of the region.

We were thrilled when we deplane and saw the magnificent backdrop of the airport – mountains covered with snow. Claire shouted with joy in the chilling temperature of Leh. Though I was overjoyed that finally after months of preparation we are now stepping in one of the highest places on Earth, I felt the first bite of the altitude. It was cold and the air was so thin. I could feel that my lungs were adjusting because my breathing was not normal when I first taste Ladakhi air. 

Ladakh is a region in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. Its gateway and capital is the city of Leh which is 3,505 meters above sea level. If you do not know what that means, continue reading.

I pre-arranged our accommodation in Leh with Tse Tan Guesthouse. Aside from accommodation they also provided us transportation, food, and guidance during our stay in Ladakh. Mr. Tuks Tan welcomed us at the airport with a great smile under the sunny and cold Ladakhi weather. He introduced himself and lead us to his taxi which we used during our 5-days life-shaking stay in Ladakh. 

While on our way to Tse Tan Guesthouse, I noticed that most houses and all of the establishment were closed and locked. I asked Mr. Tuks Tan if there is a WiFi in their house because when I checked my phone there was no signal for my roaming. The Flytpack (internet broadband) that we brought with us was not also working. There is no Internet connection in Ladakh during winter. Too bad yet too good, we were shut off from the rest of the world. Too bad because I did not tell Lana, my girlfriend, and my family, that there was no Internet connection in Ladakh. Too good because we were shut off from the world! No FB updates or IG photos for 5 days. 

The whole family of Mr. Tuks Tan welcomed us with a smile while handing over a hot cup of Masala Chai with biscuits on the side. They asked mandatory questions for strangers visiting their guesthouse. Mr. Tuks Tan was quick to warn us that we need to rest that day and possibly until the next day, Ladakh is very high and altitude sickness is very common mainly because our body is used to low altitude weather. We all know those things and we came prepared for it - that we must take a rest on the first day. So, we thought we were prepared…

After the short but sweet conversation with Mr. Tuks Tan and his wife which I forgot the name, we immediately went to our room to rest. Our room has a good view of the Himalayas mountain ranges and the view of the garden without any plants because it was winter. I did not bother to change clothes and I immediately jumped on the bed under our two-inch-thick blanket to hide from the cold. I could not hide from the cold of course. The room does not have electronic heaters instead they gave us a hot pack as our source of heat. 

Altitude Sickness

I planned to sleep and I fell asleep quickly. That’s what we need to according to our research and according to Mr. Tuks Tan. I woke up occasionally and I saw Claire walking around the room and sometimes she goes out of the room to create her own memories. 

At around 3pm I woke up and I thought I was dreaming. I thought that it was just a dream that we were in Ladakh. I felt a heavy pour of something on my throat. Then I saw everything was going down including my vision and I felt a heat in my ears that is not normal. I could not breathe. Everything around me seemed not real. I could not breathe. I partially came into my senses and almost shouted Claire that I could not breathe. I really could not breathe. I only remember Claire’s calmness and the thing that she put on the table beside me – a medicine for altitude sickness. Nonetheless, I could not breathe still. I hold my struggling breathe and release it and I thought it was my last. I fainted on my bed.

That was the first major attack of altitude sickness during the acclimatization period in Ladakh.

I felt okay during dinner but I had no appetite. The food was great and well prepared for 150 rupees but I just don't have the urge to eat. Having no appetite is also a sign of altitude sickness. 

Mr. Tuks Tan discussed with us the possible things that we can do in Ladakh. We agreed with all his recommendations because we felt Mr. Tuks Tan is a good man. On our second day, we toured the town of Leh and the nearby monasteries. We also applied for the permit to Pangong Tso Lake on the 2nd day. On the third day, we went much further to Alchi and Liker monasteries. The last day was for Pangong Tso Lake. Mr. Tuks Tan gave us discounts on all the tours because maybe it was winter. The accommodation, food, and airport transfer were all discounted. The 3 days’ tour was all discounted by 10%.    

Day two was cold and cloudy with occasional sunshine. I completely forgot the headache and severe dizziness the other day. It was time to get to know Leh, the capital of Ladakh. We woke up at 9AM and had our simple western breakfast courtesy of Mr. Tuks Tan’s wife. For 100 rupees we had an egg, bread, jam and butter to splurge. When the clock ticked at 10AM, Mr. Tuks Tan drove his taxi to tour us around his hometown. 

Our 2nd day in Ladakh would be Spituk Gonpa where the Dalai Lama has a special seat, Leh Market where we had our light lunch and where we enjoyed observing the locals, Leh Palace or the Ancient Palace, and Shanti Stupa where I was led spoke to the Monk.

Spituk Gonpa
My body was not functioning normally when we reached Spituk Gonpa. A little headache, breathing was not normal to the point of catching it after a few steps on the stairs, my face was a little itchy while my lips were cracking, my skin was so dry and an occasional longing for the toilet (Number 2) was all I am battling over. That I blame on the high altitude and cold weather. We have no way of monitoring the temperature but according to Accuweather, the average daytime temperature that day was 12 degrees Celsius. Claire was so pale and so slow during that day… and the days to come. It was all because of altitude sickness.

But nevertheless, I was on track with my usual travel goals - picture, selfies, pictures with my dramatic or signature pose, wander around, talk to the people if possible and just stare at the beauty of the place. In cold temperature and at high altitude I tried to act normal as possible but the pain was growing every minute and every hour.

Spituk Gonpa was built and founded during the 14th century. This monastery on the top of the hill has a special seat for the Dalai Lama in one of its main temple. When you enter the main door of the monastery, you’ll see some of the sayings or quotes from the Dalai Lama before and after the big prayer wheel on the monastery.

When I entered the monastery, I had no intention to look for the seat of the Dalai Lama. Besides, I do not know that there was such a set until Claire told me when I accidentally found it. My purpose was to see the main temple on the top. My feet led me to the series of ancient doors before the long stairs to the temple. I must admit I felt that those doors invited me to go inside. A temple surrounded by small prayer wheels was at the end of the doors. I entered to take pictures of the prayer wheels then a man approached me to tell me to take off my shoes then he pointed me to a red door saying, “Dalai Lama” I knew what he meant but I am not sure. He opened the door and I saw a big picture of the Dalai Lama on a splendid upholstered golden brown chair.

It was the seat of the Dalai Lama – I knew it!

I told Claire what I saw because I know she will be thrilled but I did not saw what I expected of her. She took off her shoes, went inside, and sat in front of the Dalai Lama chair. I shut up and sat on the corner. Later on, I asked her what she prayed for.

Leh Market

The market parking lot was surprisingly packed with taxis and some private vehicles. It was the opening day of the market for the year (2017) and we felt its significance and that added to my excitement as well! But what excites me the most was when I saw the manicured pedestrian-only streets where all the souvenir shops – Cashmere cloth, magnets, shoes, t-shirts, rags, etc – are located. Locals together with a handful of tourists where all there too!

We entered on the side of the market, the street beside the post office, and we saw some hard-working ladies preparing their stores for business. They were selling items from Nepal including necklace, earrings, meditation materials like tingsha and singing bowl, and a lot more. Claire was curious about and her curiosity led her to buy a relaxing singing bowl for only 800 rupees especially when she knew that she was the first customer of the year. I, on the other hand, bought a necklace for my girlfriend Lana with a Sanskrit character engrave on the stone which means peace.

We walked around the market and we enjoyed the postcard-perfect scene. Not all shops were open yet but most of them were starting to pick up after the winter hiatus in Ladakh. Just like the bookstore and coffee shop where Mr. Tuks Tan brought us, it was open even though there was no electricity yet. The bookstore was owned by Mr. Tuks Tan sister in law and they served us hot coffee and local pastries as a welcome. The sister in law, like all the people in India, was almost shocked that we went to Ladakh during the winter season. Blame it to bad planning. Nevertheless, like the coffee that was served to us, we experience warm hospitality in that bookstore.   

Cafe in Leh Market

Mr. Tuks Tan and her sister who owns the cafe

We tour the market like a normal tourist wandering in s strange land while Mr. Tuks Tan greeted all his friends in the Market. Some people greeted us, some did not. But one thing they are not camera shy and like to have a picture of them even though they won’t have a copy of it. Sometimes it’s nice to have Polaroid so that strangers will have a copy of your picture of them.   

Before we proceed to Leh Palace Mr. Tuks Tan brought us to what it seems like the tourism office of Leh to get a permit for Pangong Tso Lake. One of the staff told me that we must go to a travel agency to get the permit. For Indian, the tourism office releases the permit but for a foreigner like us we will have to go to the travel agency, he explained. Mr. Tuks Tan drove to one of the travel agencies that he knows and there we paid 600 rupees each to get the permit. Claire joked for a “winter discount” but they just all laugh. 

Upon leaving I saw a telephone and asked them if I can use it to call Lana in the Philippines. The staff at the travel agency said no and she handed over her cellphone to me. I smiled and dialed Lana’s number. We talked for a few minutes just to update each other of what’s happening. I asked her how much will I pay for the phone call but she just smiled and told me that “It’s your winter discount” We all burst into laughter. Another genuine hospitality experience.

Leh Palace
Leh Palace or the Ancient Palace is a ruined palace in the city of Leh located on a hill. It also serves as an attractive backdrop of downtown Leh. From Leh Market, you will be amazed by this brown structure with annexes attached to it with equal size-windows. In my eyes, it is not a palace given my standard and defined aesthetics of a so-called “palace”

I suppose Tsewang Namgyal and his team were limited by what they have during the construction in 1553. They used mud bricks, stone, poplar wood, and other common materials back then. The Leh Palace was completed by Senge Namgyal, the most illustrious king of Ladakh. 

The nine-story Leh Palace, because it’s on a hill, provides a breathtaking view of the Leh Town. The snow-capped mountains were blossoming like springtime. The mountains around Leh were all stunning. It was a dramatic view for us because it’s our first time to see snow and snow-capped mountains. I remember when I asked Claire about it. Her remarks were something like “I am ready to die” And I was like, please not here in Ladakh. Though we bought insurance that includes shipping of your remains back home, I don’t want to use it for crying out loud.

I believe there is supposed to be an entrance fee, especially for foreigners. But for an unknown reason, the authorities just let us pass through when we asked them about the fee. Based on the information posted on the ticket office, Indian citizen, visitors from SAARC (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka) and BIMSTEC (Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand) will pay 15 Rupees while all other nationals will have to pay 200 Rupees.

Shanti Stupa

The most popular religious site in Ladakh when you search the Internet is the Shanti Stupa. For one reason, it’s just I the town of Leh. It is a prominent landmark in the town of Leh along with the Leh Palace.

Ladakh Shanti Stupa was built by the Japanese on the request of Ladakh Buddhist Association. Japan is also a Buddhist country with many other religions.

The view on the top is a stunning view of both the town of Leh and the serene nature with trees that were all ready to blossom in time for spring. 

Shanti Stupa was the serene version of my experience in Shwedagon Pagoda in Burma. The latter, though gave me a spiritual fulfillment, was crowded while the former was so peaceful and calm. No wonder I was the only person in the pagoda for a certain time.

I could feel some needle punches in my head when the cold wind brushed to my dry face. I was chilling but determined to circle the pagoda to do the rituals of the locals. Someone told us that usually they do it 5 times but as I observed, locals, do one round of circling it so I just did one too.

While walking around Shanti Stupa I rubbed my palms together to get some heat and warm my face.  I could have walked away after taking pictures but there was something knocking in me. A though. A question about many things. A question of why we are doing the things that we do. I asked myself what am I doing here.

I walked down and found a temple not far from the stupa. I stayed there for a while. I guess I got tired of a temple without an action. There was no life in it. It’s an empty temple if there was nothing you can learn. I did my shoelace and found a sign saying like “Ask your question here” I knocked and found myself talking to a monk for the next 30 minutes. My first question was “What is the Buddhist concept of Creation” He was not able to suffice the answer that I wanted because based on our soul-uplifting conversation, Buddhism does not a dogma about creation. 

Instead, Buddhism is based on teachings about life - sacrifices, love, forgiveness, and evil. The conversation with the monk was just uplifting. I know most of the concepts and teachings that he was talking about but I enjoyed listening to him. Oh no, I did not just enjoy, I felt that it was a needed conversation that it does not matter if I enjoyed it or not. Its life confrontational and my soul was refreshed unexpectedly.

Lobzang Thinlay - the Monk in Shanti Stupa

There was a crack on my head but my soul was smiling. When you thought that your life is great because your soul was fed, it will test your courage and strength. The real deal in Ladakh is yet to be experienced. That I will tell you about soon. 

You can also read Claire's narrative of our first-day tour in Ladakh. Click here.

Popular posts from this blog

NUEVA ECIJA | Central Luzon State University and the Philippine Carabao Center

Japan Visa Requirements for Filipinos 2023

Japan Budget and Itinerary for 8 Days - Nagoya, Osaka, Nara, Kyoto and Kobe