Flying over the Himalayas and into Leh, the capital of the region Ladakh.
We boarded the plane and it actually took off! Oh my god oh my god oh my god. The flight over the Himalayas kept me glued to the window taking photos of snow capped ridges and crazy cloud formations. The transparent cloud formations at multiple different levels punctuate by huge columns of clouds gave me first real impression of how high planes fly – cloud palaces illuminated by the sunrise.Â Olly picked me up at the airport in a local taxi a most welcome site he was. The taxi dropped us a the Hotel Khangri, which is owned b Mudassir’s Grandfather. Mudassir’s family have always lived in Leh and are very influential in the region. Leh is 3500 metres above sea level which is higher than Aoraki and takes several days to get used to. The blood vessels in my nose burst, the throat becomes dry, climbing stairs is a major effort and it is really nice to lie down all of the time.
Back row: Will (aka Whetu), Olly, Mudassir.
Front row: Fran, Ella, Sean, James (aka Jim), Ajay (aka Andy), Andrew (aka Red Fox), Karl.
The time spent in Leh was a blur of diarrhoea, reacting to the high altitude and mountain biking. The first day all was well. I unloaded my stuff and met up with the rest of the crew: Mudassir and Fran, Sean and Ella, Olly, Will, James, Andrew, Carl and Ajay.Â I managed to walk with the others to the Shanti Stupar, a Buddhist shrine created in the 1980s by Japanese Buddhists. Lunch was a delicious palak paneer, which is a spinach and cottage cheese curry. In the afternoon we explored the north of the village, which when compared to the town centre seemed positively clean and quiet.
Leh is a town of around thirty thousand people in the summer (when the snows and rivers don’t make it inaccessible) and is fast becoming the tourist destination of far Northern India. The first truck only made it to Ladakh around 1970. When the first plane landed in the 80s many local villages rushed out to the airport with bundles of hay for the great flying beast that had come to visit them. The result of Indianisation and globalisation on Leh is nothing short of dramatic – here the old is rapidly being consumed by the new, yet vestiges of the traditional culture and life still show. It is hard being confronted by this mini clash of civilisations. Mudassir comes from a very successful Ladakhi family and has been afforded the opportunity to study at Cambridge and become a brilliant aeronautics engineer. Without his influence bringing us here it is likely none of us would have ever visited Ladakh. Yet when there it is immediately evident that our mere presence and the relative wealth which we are bringing into the country are irreversibly changing the local society. In Huxley’s ‘A Brave New World’ the hero visits (and gets lost) in the human tourist zoo set up in Central America where the primitives live in their primeval state to serve as a reminder of why the ‘advanced’ civilisation is the best. Is it fair to expose a culture to outside influence? Do the people within that culture not deserve the opportunity, as the Amish in the U.S.A. do, to at least experience the outside world for themselves and make an informed decision? Can we prescribe notions of development to them where we see rampant abuse and excess, or is it necessary to have the Ladakhi’s make decisions (and mistakes) themselves? Is it an inevitably that societies will merge, push and pull at the edges. In the case of ‘Indian’ society [which is a whole other kettle of fish for the epilogue] it is strong enough to receive and give. Ladakhi society has the appearance of being overrun by mainly Indian but also Western influence.
In the 80s the Indian government changed Ladakhi education dramatically by introducing school systems which segregated children by both their age and their religion. For the first years the curriculum was taught in Hindi (not the local language) but then dramatically switched to English. A test in English that was either pass or fail meant that the majority of children were failing this new system. This interruption of the traditional way in which children are raised has had a massive impact on Ladakhi society, where the traditional customs, language and ethics are being eroded.
Currently corruption means that central and long term planning are non-existent and the town is in dire threat of becoming a tourist sink hole built and collapsing in on top of itself. Public spaces, amenities, congestion and pollution don’t appear to be factors worth noting; if it doesn’t fulfil short-term gain, then what is it for?