Along with my 4 trek-mates, I was set to leave Leh at 7 a.m. on Tues. By happy coincidence, His Holiness the Dalai Lama was arriving in Leh at the same time. So we joined the throngs of Ladakhis lining the few kilometres of road from the airport to the town to welcome him. It was a fantastic sight: all dressed in their best, the young in Western attire, the elders in traditional dress with heavy turqoise-inlaid head dresses and a weight of chunky silver jewellery, and an air of excitement all around. The ever- present groups of military were visible too, but clutching smoking incense in lieu of their rifles.
A ripple of anticipation ran through the crowd as the plane descended from the vivid blue sky and moments later the cavalcade of government and military vehicles began. Then, suddenly, radiating that air of serenity and calm, smiling and gently waving from the window of a white '40s-style Ambassador car, just inches from me, was the Dalai
Lama!!!!!!!!!!!! I was so stunned to see him at such close range that I squeaked "There he is!" and waved back before I copped that the entire crowd were bowing in reverential silence...whoops! I haven't been so starstruck since I touched John Taylor's shoe at that Duran Duran concert back in '82! It was a very special moment.
Celeb. watching over, we embarked on the long road trip that is the legendary Leh-Srinagar highway ('highway' being a euphemism, in many sections of said road, for dusty, rutted, potholed, boulder-strewn, mountain track...). Since there were 5 of us, we had hired a jeep in preference to the local bus, thus allowing us to stop at the
painted meditation caves of Saspol, the imposing monastery in the moonscape of Lamayuru and the 9-metre high carved stone Buddha in Mulbek, at which we arrived when the annual festival was in full swing, so we got to see some wonderful traditional Ladakhi dancing. We had to overnight in Kargil which is very visibly the end of Buddhist Ladakh and the forerunner of the Muslim Vale of Kashmir awaiting us the following morning.
The mountain road over the pass is so narrow, with such treacherous sheer drops, that a one-way system operates, necessitating an unearthly 2 a.m. departure, and by the time dawn stole up on us we were high on a mountainside, shivering as we looked across the narrow valley to the huge ice patches across from us: beautiful in the cold morning light. A few jolting hours later, heads and arses bruised from being thrown around in the back of the jeep, we were driving along the shore of the fabled Dal Lake.