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6/18/08 – We woke up at 3 am because we had to catch an early flight to Ladakh. It turns out, that due to the strong winds off and over the Himalayas, the only window of time to fly into Leh, Ladakh is to leave Delhi between 6 and 7 am. We were told that the flight into Leh is one of the most spectacular in the world, and IT DID NOT LET US DOWN! Imagine flying over the some of the highest mountains in the world (which is what we did), with their young, jagged edges reaching for the heavens. Oh – and Ladakh is north of the Himalayas. Therefore the plane flew across a vast, snowy landscape of sharp spines and rocky valleys. (Which I do not have a picture of… hrrumph.)
Some of the tallest peaks poked through the layers of clouds which we were just barely flying above, minimizing our feeling safe at high altitude. We began to see occasional houses in the high valleys as the plane started its descent. I saw first hand why the window of time is so slight to fly in – at one point, the plane had to traverse a gap in the rocky spires that was less than 300 (I think?) yards across. Any “mistake” by the pilots (or more commonly – an unexpected wind shear) and a wing might have clipped an edge. Whoa! Talk about splitting the uprights. (Little did I know, but this “brush with danger” would merely be a slight preview of what was to come on this journey.) And later I heard that there were apparently only a few dozen pilots in the world that were talented enough to make that flight on a regular basis… Wow! No matter how you get to Ladakh – by danger-defying highway or by attempting to fly over the steep cliffs – you are taking a risk.
After arriving, we found out that we had the opportunity to see the Drikung Kyabgon (His Holiness Chetsang Rinpoche, one of the dual heads of the Drikung Kagyu Lineage of Tibetan Buddhism). He would be departing that afternoon to go into the high country, known as the Chang Tang, where he would be spending the rest of his summer. The leader of our pilgrimage informed us that attending His Holiness is like being in the presence of a Buddha and a King. I was excited, understandably. And thankfully we did not pass up this possibly-once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
When we landed in Ladakh, I could not help but notice the significant presence of the military. It makes sense when you think how close Ladakh is to both China (western Tibet) and Pakistan, but there were bunkers all over the airport and military trucks were all around the hangers and terminal. Actually it turns out that Ladakh (India) uses military personel to run their airport, which I guess saves money.
In Delhi, we were at an altitude of about 500 feet, and suddenly, in the course of a couple hours, we landed at 11,000 plus feet. Needless to say, I noticed a distinct difference in my breathing. However, the clear sky, the chilly air and the beautiful mountains surrounding the Upper Indus river valley were crisp, clean and gorgeous. (pictures)
I immediately noticed a few stray trees, similar to aspens, thin and swaying in the breeze; there were occasional prayer flags, also flapping vigorously. Inside the airport terminal, I saw something very inspiring – almost every square inch of the support beams and rafters were painted with beautiful scrolling lotuses and intricate flowery designs, in a similar fashion to what we would see over the next few weeks in the monasteries.
We quickly piled in the small SUV’s provided for us and we were driven to the Kidar guest house in Leh. The Ladakhi guide, Rinchen Namgyal was a precious trip leader. He was / is kind hearted, sensitive to our needs and able to hook us up with rare opportunities that Westerners might not normally experience (more on this later). He was also very kind and generous to me when I stayed a week longer than the rest of the “pack.”