The old disappearing Leh

We stayed in an interesting neighbourhood in Leh. It was a fifteen minutes’ walk to the main market, so not terribly crowded. But some shops straggled down to the road we were on. The road had several hotels, and a couple of cafes. But the rest of the houses belonged to residents. Interestingly, several of the houses were about to be demolished. When I asked about them, the owner of our hotel said that several people here want to rebuild and create a hotel on their property. Tourism is booming in Leh, and everyone wants a piece of the pie.

In spite of all this, the neighbourhood still retains quite a bit of its charm. The lanes around us had old houses, and several of them had traditional mud stupas on their grounds. I’d read somewhere that the punishment for crimes once was that the guilty had to build a stupa by their own hands (building something holy was enough to rehabilitate them). This didn’t feel like a criminal neighbourhood though. It seems that stupas were also built in the memory of family members who died. That made more sense!

I took some photos. The old houses were mostly built of sun-dried mud blocks. In this place the annual rainfall is so small that unfired clay is a good building material. It is cool in summer, warm in winter, cheap, and light. Start with a sturdy wooden framework, fill it with these blocks, add wooden doors and windows, and you are done. The woodwork was pretty. I liked this house with three memorial stupas facing the road from an upper floor.

The new houses are not all concrete monstrosities. The hotel we were in replaced the mud blocks by dressed stone, so that it could be built higher. The beautifully carved wooden frames for doors and windows were retained. The blocky shape of the old style buildings would have seemed very oppressive in a tall structure. Instead there were terraces at various levels. The net effect was quite pleasant, and it still retained a feel of the old neighbourhood. I thought that was clever. Perhaps the renewal will not be all bad. But in a decade I suppose the town center will be much more crowded than it is now.

First view of the Indus

Sindhu! The name is magic. When Alexander of Macedonia crossed the river, it was the first time that a historian from outside the Aryavarta had recorded this land. His geographers called the river the Indus. And from that, by the usual mutations of language, the land itself became known to others as Indies, or India. So, as soon as I could walk again after my oxygen crisis, we got into a little city van and drove to the nearby village of Spituk to cross the storied river.

It was a twenty minutes’ drive to the village. We drove through it to the small bridge that crosses it and got off. I took a photo looking down-river, and then turned to take the view up-river. From its sources further west, in this part of Ladakh the river flows north. After crossing the Line of Control, it turn sharply south and once, before the dams diverted the water to the wheat fields of Pakistani Punjab, irrigated the land of Sindh, before emptying into the Arabian Sea. In Ladakh, this thin air has little oxygen and even less moisture. As a result, you see greenery only in a narrow band around the river. I looked ahead at the road and took the featured photo. I looked back and took a photo of the small bridge that we’d just crossed.

There was a twittering of birds all around me but I could see only sparrows. At a better time of the day you would be sure to see a lot of songbirds. Chiffchaff, rose finches, buntings, redstarts, and whitethroats have been spotted here, but I was not so lucky. Later, walking through the village, I saw a hoopoe (Upupa epops) fly across the road in front of me, and a white wagtail (Motacilla alba) exploring the side of the path.

I’d been in bed for two days and felt like walking a little. The Family was concerned about whether I was up to it, but I thought that if I walked slowly I could make my way through the village. She took the car ahead to park near the highway, leaving me to my walk. The first house that I came to was made of bricks of unfired clay. I rubbed a finger on the wall, and a thin powder came away on my fingers. Later I realized that the whole village is made of Multani Mitti (Fuller’s earth). No wonder the villagers have glowing skin! An open door in the house led into a little shop. The lady there agreed to be photographed. In response to her gracious gesture, I bought a handful of candy. It would turn out to be useful.

A few steps on was a cross road, the only one in the village. Houses ran along both roads. The crossing is clearly important, beause a large prayer wheel, a row of small prayer wheels, and several stupas stood there. I know enough to turn prayer wheels clockwise. I tried to move the large one. It was finely balanced and turned immediately.

There were some large houses here, with big gardens. I liked some of the large decorative gates. But my favourite gate was made with an old advertisement. It was a very old testament scene: they beat their advertisements into something useful like a gate. You could see the monastery (Spituk monastery, of course) standing on a hill behind the village. As I came to our car I saw a hotel under construction behind a group of memorial stupas. I could examine the unfired clay bricks more closely here; definitely Multani Mitti. But sadly, all this in aid of more commercialization.

The only thing left was a visit to the monastery. There was a road up to the start of the buildings, but the monastery was built along the slope above the parking. I wasn’t up to climbing all the way up. I walked up two flights of stairs, took an ambush photo, and gave up. On the way back down I came face to face with a snow lion rampant. Definitely worth a photo. That was a morning well spent, I told The Family. She said, “Don’t collapse again.” I was determined to follow her advise.