A Tale From Ladakh - Growing up in Little Tibet

Getting to Know the Land
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With anticipation and pleasure, I took the remarkable flight that takes you from the polluted streets of Delhi to the almost surreal landscape of Ladakh in 50 minutes. I was received at the airport by Gyaltsen, the older brother, who, with a cheery Julay draped the ceremonial Tibetan welcome khatak silk scarf around my shoulders.

The festivities lasted well into the early hours of the morning for three days and endless glasses of the local chhang beer kept everybody's spirits high.

Relatives, friends and anyone who remotely knew the family traveled from far corners of Ladakh to join in the festivities and their feelings of easy familiarity and close kinship served as a strong contrast to our lonely lives in crowded cities.

Rigzin Dolma, Phuntsok's bride, came from a small village in the far west of Ladakh, not far from the 12,000-foot-high Zoji La pass that separates Buddhist Ladakh from the Muslim valley of Kashmir. Very unusually, Rigzin had been to high school and though shy to speak, clearly understood English. His brother-in-law's (the rimpoche's) connections had ensured the best wedding match for Phuntsok.

Over the next two visits to Ladakh, I found Phuntsok happily settled into family life. His father had given him a plot of inherited land not far from Leh at his wedding and Phuntsok decided to build a small one-roomed house for himself in a corner of that piece of property. Friends and neighbors all came to help with the construction and the house was ready in less than a fortnight. Rigzin, his wife, planted potatoes and garden vegetables on the rest and grew enough to feed the family and even to sell the surplus to supplement Phuntsok's seasonal income as a trek guide.

Dolkar, their daughter, was born and Rigzin brought an orphaned teenaged cousin from her home village to live with them to help her bring up the baby.

With a young and growing family, I found Phuntsok increasingly unhappy with the little money he made as a trek guide working for Angdu. It was only the attraction of the generous tips that his satisfied clients occasionally gave him at the end of their Ladakhi holiday that kept Phuntsok working for his old boss.

Phuntsok wondered about starting his own trek agency now that increasing numbers of Western travelers were coming to Ladakh every year. We talked about his plans over many evenings, sipping cups of salty Ladakhi green tea and about whether I could help in raising money to get the business started.

That was eight years ago and Phuntsok's trekking company has since grown to be one of the bigger ones in Leh. The modest one-roomed cottage is now a big house of two storeys and Phuntsok drives a scooter around Leh. He even talks of buying a small car to drive on the dusty Leh streets now that his son, Gyal, is growing up.

I see a half-dozen new trekking agencies every summer when I visit Leh, and by the following year they have faded away only to be replaced by six more. Leh has grown in size and now has a sizeable number of Tibetan families who fled over the high passes from Tibet to escape Chinese persecution in their homeland.

I have seen Dolkar, Phuntsok's daughter, grow up to be a teenager wearing blue jeans and dark sunglasses and listening to the Spice Girls on her walkman. Television has brought glamorized color images of a "cool" western lifestyle. It saddens me to hear the young Ladakhis talk about their "impoverished and backward" homeland.

Like elsewhere, things are changing. A generation of young educated Ladakhis is growing up with little awareness of how the carefully-tended land provided for generations of their ancestors. But I do not lose hope. I have seen the Ladakhi spirit, nurtured by the harshness of their world, overcome impossible difficulties time and again.

I have seen Phuntsok raise our spirits and bring a smile to our faces when, after a nine-hour walk, we have been hopelessly lost in the dark with no sign of a campsite. I have seen him loudly and tunelessly sing ribald songs to make us forget bone-aching fatigue while struggling up steep slopes at 19,000 ft. on the Stok Kangri peak in a snow storm.

And I have seen our Ladakhi cook roll his sleeves up and ingenuously produce a hot meal for 15 people after our supplies have been tossed down the hill by a moody horse.

I know Ladakh will survive.

Note: Names in this story have been changed to protect the identities of the persons concerned.

Jaideep Mukerji, based in Vancouver, has considerable trekking experience. He has been walking and climbing through some of the remotest Himalayan valleys for the last nine years.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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