Monday 6th August. Leh, The Dalai Lama, Phyang Gompa

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The Dalai Lama has a small palace in Leh, near Choglomsar, the Tibetan colony on the road south to Manali. We hadn’t been aware of it but he’s been in Leh for the last few days. We wake up to find that today he leaves for Nubra, a valley over the mountaints to the north of Leh, and the streets are full of Ladakhis and Westeners lined up to catch a glimpse and wish him well on his journey. The streets are decked with prayer flags, juniper is burning in the incense burners and the ladies of Leh decked out in their finest traditional costumes are holding bunches of flowers. It’s a slow drive for him up from Choglomsar and we don’t know what time he’ll pass by; Wangchuk hands out bottles of water. There’s the excitement of anticipation and an atmosphere of celebration, Ladakhis and tourists equally caught up in the excitement of seeing this extraordinary man, one of the few positive icons in this age of Kali. Suddenly a convoy appears and before we know it he’s passed by, the abiding memory is a glimpse of that smiling face looking up through the car window with his hand raised and waving. That face that never seems to tire of the demands of his followers, the entire Tibetan Buddhist population, those living in Tibet and India, and the Westerners who’ve been inspired by his presence and teachings.

Seven years ago, in Dharamsala, Bev and I were among many at his weekly public audience who offered him a khatag and momentarily took his hand. He laughed as Bev’s sunglasses slipped down from her forehead as she bowed her head in greeting. It’s hard to explain but I’ve never been looked at with eyes like that. It seemed as if his full and total attention was on you for that brief moment. Attention far deeper than any I can imagine. Bev and I couldn’t speak to each other for hours afterwards, we were overwhelmed with emotion. It was impossible to explain. Years later a Buddhist friend said that sometimes you come into contact with someone living on a different level of conciousness. I think that’s it; he is, after all, a reincarnation of the Boddhisattva of Compassion. It remains the most singular and intense minute of my life.

The crowds quickly fade away, we go for breakfast and coffee. At 1pm we drive out to Phyang monastery, half an hour west of Leh on the road towards Kargil and Srinagar. We’re shown around by Norbu, a monk we’ve seen a few years earlier, dressed in brocades and masks for the Sham dance festival. In one room with a polished wooden floor a senior monk is sewing brocade panels into long tubular hangings. Norbu wonders if we can sponsor a ping pong table for the monks but this isn’t a poor monastery and after consideration, and discussing the idea with Wangchuk, we decide there may be better ways to support communities in Ladakh!

We leave the gompa and walk up the Phyang valley crossing river by a series of wooden bridges. Last year a flash flood sent huge boulders crashing down the valley, destroying houses and killing half a dozen people. We walk between boulders the size of houses and speak to a woman who’s building a new house, patiently scooping water from a stream with her hands. Irrigation is a problem, some of the old channels were destroyed and not all the fields have a good water supply. An old man with a donkey is following the track that skirts the opposite hillside, passing old ruined stupas that mark the way; in the bushes behind us a fine, red chested bird has a persistent strident call; a tall young man gathers long grass in a walled enclosure. Old stupas line the paths that contour the hillsides on both sides of the narrowing valley, the ones on the west side are old but those on the east are even older, the white paint is missing revealing stones the colour of the hillsides. Narrow steps cut in the cliffside reach to a white cube of a building balanced precariously on the hillside, strangely, a light bulb is shining.

Unexpectedly, our driver is waiting by a bridge to take us back to the gompa. Phyang is bigger than we remembered. An elegant line of stupas crown the curving ridge that leads to the gompa. Sunshine and shadow makes for softly dramatic textures on the hills as we drive back to Leh. There are showers in the evening and we try to find an indoor restaurant serving beer but it seems there’s a beer ban today. We end up at the Leh View rooftop restaurant above the Ladakh Bookshop. It’s a Muslim place and they serve beer in teapots. Cultural compromise rules.

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