Saturday, July 26, 2014

Our Ladakhi Lama

Yesterday my phone rang and it was a really odd, long number that I didn't recognize, but I'd been corresponding with an old colleague who lives in the UK and thought it might be him.  I answered and heard an excited voice say "Jullay!  It's Lama Tsephel!"  Wow, indeed it was:  Lama Tsephel is a Tibetan monk we met while we were trekking (that's Asian for "backpacking") in the Indian Himalaya fifteen years ago, and have kept in touch with him ever since.  Our friend Terri has remembered our tales of Ladakh for lo these many years and is finally going herself next week, and this combination reminded me how great that trip was and how fun it's been to have our own Tibetan monk.

When people think of India the most common vision is that of super hot and crowded, and indeed from Delhi southward I think that is the case.  But in the northern mountains - where India shares borders with Nepal, Tibet, and Pakistan - it is neither cold nor crowded:  Ladakh's capital city Leh is at 10,000 feet with peaks soaring far above that so even in high summer it only gets warm, and given that the capital has a population of only 27,000 and it's a vast, very rugged area it's definitely not crowded.


We were drawn there because we had quite a bit of time and wanted to tromp in the Himalayas, but our travel window was in August when the monsoons typically are raging pretty hard.  However, much of the the Indian Himalaya are in the rain shadow of Nepal's mountains and as such it's really dry year 'round.  And we found out that it's called "little Tibet" because essentially all the people there are Tibetan refugees from the 1959 revolution yet because they are not actually in Tibet - and therefore not subject to the Chinese hegemony - they are free to actually be "Tibetan", which of course was appealing to cheesy westerners like us (we have since read a book called "Virtual Tibet" that explores Westerner's infatuation with all things Tibetan).  So armed with our backpacks (and I brought a kayak, but that's another story) and Lonely Planet guidebook we flew to Leh and after a few days commenced our trek.

Our general plan was to hike for a bit over two weeks, generally trending southward weaving our way up the valleys and over high passes.  We brought a bit of food but knew that not only could we resupply at a town mid-way but also understood that we could buy food from locals en route.  This only sort of worked out; it was hard to get enough food. The locals would give us a serving of spinach and rice, which I think was substantial for them and was usually the most that we were able to get, so after a week or so of all day tromping at high altitude without enough calories we were "leaning up" a bit, and we spent a fair bit of time talking about food and how to get more of it!

One day we were trudging up a long haul up to a pass when we realized that we were getting caught by a fellow traveler with a backpack. However, as he neared, we realized that this was no western trekker, this was a Tibetan monk, but instead of the typical sack held with a "tumpline" (great word) around the head he had a sporty Lowe Alpine pack, and spoke pretty decent english.  We chatted for a bit, and not surprisingly the conversation came fairly quickly to food, and he said "oh, my friend, he lives just up the valley, and he makes butter, if you want some of that."  Butter?!?!  As in full fat?  Oh my, we are all over that.  So with a bit more spring in our step we followed him to a shack that was a ways off the trail - and we'd never have seen it over the hills/dales - and introduced us to his friend, who was indeed willing to sell us some butter.
Our butter benefactor, weaving yak hair into yarn

Of course, making any kind of transaction in this part of the world means drinking plenty of tea beforehand, so we had the requisite sit-around-and-drink-tea-and-chat session for some time.
Lama Tsephel is on the left
And while we love tea, the tea of choice in that part of the world is yak-butter tea, which in theory is ok, but they prefer to add the butter after it's gone rancid to give the tea a bit more bite.   And even in our half-starved state, it was still hard to stomach the rancid butter. But we persevered, and soon enough he went into his shed that was essentially refrigerated by a creek and sold us a nice healthy slab of butter.

Our friend continued hiking with us, and of course - being a Tibetan monk and all  -he was not only fascinating but super nice, and invited us to stay at his "gompa" (monastery).  After another couple of hours it came into view:

Lingshed Gompa is well known as being one of the most-remote monasteries; it is a couple-day walk from any road if you are given'er and going light (staying in people's homes), yet it's over 1000 years old.  60 monks live there, and it's a pretty simple life:  pray, meditate, grow food, eat it. pray and meditate some more.  Lama Tsephel's room was about a 10 foot square room with a dirt floor and a mat, and near the requisite photo of the Dalai Lama I was surprised to see a Burton Snowboard ad of a guy jumping over a meditating monk; "is that you?"  Sure enough, some snowboarder and a photographer had made it all the way into Lingshed in mid-winter and took the shot and they used it for an ad (I didn't think to take a pic of the ad, nor can I find it online now).
Ash hanging with some of the monks in training
One of Lama Tsephel's buddies
After a great night of camping in the yard adjacent to the monastery - and getting well-buttered up! - we moved on, but not without exchanging contact info with Lama Tsephel.  The monastery had an office in Leh, and we asked him if we could send him something from the US, and if so what would be helpful?  "Shoes.  Our people need good shoes for the mountains".  Well, shoes is definitely one thing that I can help with.  So ever since then once or twice a year we put together a care package of mostly shoes  -and sometimes backpacks  -and send it off to Leh.  Even though part of the address is "near the new bus station" it always seems to make it there, because we'll get a letter back from Lama Tsephel thanking us profusely and telling us that all is well for monastery and wishing us and our family well. And he got a sat phone and an email address, so he sometimes gives us a call, which is great, tho truth be told we don't have too much to talk about.  But plenty of "Jullay!" which is a great catch all phrase of hello, hi, thanks, you're welcome, awesome, etc!

But having a Tibetan monk sort of giving us his blessing....if nothing else we got that goin' for us!

Years later our world-traveling buddy Abby went to Ladakh and was able to meet Lama Tsephel:
And now Terri will hopefully meet him in a couple of weeks.

A couple more random shots of Ladakh

what is this "frisbee" you speak of? 
My favorite pic from the whole trip

catching our breath on some random high pass
a classic Ladakhi chap



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