Friday, May 10, 2013

Learnings from Ladakh

It has been on my mind to write this down. A trip to a hill station in summer could at best make up for a travelogue. However, Leh, the remote Himalayan town up north in India, left me diving deeper into world of meanings. Here is a small account of what I reaped. It IS a long post...

Play of colors in the Karakoram range ahead of Leh

Leh is the capital of Ladakh. Ladakh is a territory, a part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir in India. Ladakh touches China on one side and Pakistan on another. It touches the ancient silk route. The town overall has a Buddhist air. The history is filled with attacks and influences Mongols, Persians invaders and hence it has a mixed populace of Buddhists and Muslims. At the altitude of 3.5km above sea level air is already thin. It becomes thinner and more difficult to breathe at the height of 5.6km above the sea level at the highest motorable pass-Khardungla, which connects to Leh.  Being a border town military is everywhere. Take a snapshot of a market place and one in ten people in the crowd is a military man. It is a desert at high altitude, nothing really grows there in terms of vegetation. Six months of the year, people live solitary life, cut-off from the rest of the world as tourist season gets over and white (snow) is the color of everything around. This was for a quickest introduction of the place, now here is what made this trip so very special for an insight seeker-

1.       SURVIVING THE LACK OF OXYGEN AND THE BUSINESS: I had never experienced what it means to be in a less oxygen situation, till now. Closed rooms without proper ventilation for corporate meetings was the closest reminder to what I felt there. If cash is ‘oxygen’ for business, then yes, we felt it several times at my company. We were caught off guard by the ‘mountain sickness’ as we were just air-dropped into a high altitude, without pre-emptive medication. When there is a lack of oxygen, you develop headache and feel giddy. Sense of orientation goes for a toss. We were advised to reduce are physical activities i.e. even walking, to the minimal during this phase of acclimatisation.  Rigorous activities burden the breathing apparatus even more. So best idea is to sit in the room for a day and catch-up with the family, organise things etc. Thinking of the slow-down times, while it is good to keep trying for new sources of business we must remember that ‘too much activity’ will actually drain us out. A simple thing like taking a flight to meet a prospective customer needs to be weighed carefully as flight costs a lot of money. Try to get the things done as much as possible on internet. At the same time, if you try to sleep due to drowsiness, it will lead to a coma. Sleeping is the worst thing one can do when there is less Oxygen. Now, this sounds like a common sense but the problem is amplified in real situations.

Also, the people who travelled on road to reach this place were better off in tackling the altitude sickness compared to people like us who were just air-dropped here from a regular city. We also didn’t take the highly prescribed Diamox tablet early enough, thinking that we are strong enough and tablets are for people who never go to gym J. When the hard times hit, people who usually splurge are hit the worst. The stamina that appears as stamina in good times, is different from the stamina in bad times. While parents always insist on ‘not to spend too much’, no child really listens. This was a grim reminder to some basics of life being so omnipresent.

2.       Compassion and  gratitude: We took a cab from Leh to go to Nubra valley- an area in the plains of Sarayu river, 100 km away from Leh. Khardungla pass connects Leh and Nubra valley. The famous or rather infamous Siachin glacier is just ahead of Nubra area. The tortuous hilly ride through the snow capped roads, was being beautifully negotiated by our cab driver Akbar Ali, a young man from Kargil area. While we were tackling the breathlessness and lying still in the car when there was a jam on the road due to other cars’ tyres slipping in the snow, he was the one jumping around to help other drivers. I had noticed that he had a peculiar way of adjusting the radio knob in the car. Later we realized that Akbar Ali does not have an index finger in both the hands. On top of that two fingers were conjoint in both the hands, effectively reducing the palm to three fingers. We didn’t realise this all this while, as all his interactions and driving was flawless. After the tense moments of driving on the edge of the mountain for hours, we stopped by an open ground after Khardungla– a riverbed, to take a stroll. I asked him if it bothered him to have hands like this. He calmly answered, “ This is with me since me birth. Many people are born who have much worse situations with their body and they live through the life with them. I am thankful to Allah that I can drive and earn my living”.  My mind went through several instances in personal life where I was frustrated with ‘I want more’ syndrome.
Akbar Ali puts chains the wheel to plough
the vehicle through the snow on the road

On the way back I read some posters on a public wall about focus on ‘compassion’ in Buddhism. Tough living conditions of the region and ‘compassion’ as an overarching life value, makes people ‘grateful’ to the supreme creator for what they have. With compassion and gratefulness, tough times can become the most enriching times.
3.       Innovation for the people on fringes: All this while our focus on innovation has been on the ‘mass products’. Businesses seek ‘scale’ before an idea can be realised. Business viability is not a bad word. It is the very essence of the trade. However, thinking of a few situations made me ponder on alternative way of looking at it:

a.       BSNL v/s Airtel etc. : In the fringe areas, only mobile service present till the last Indian border post is BSNL. While we are gasping for breath at Khardungla pass, one can see tall mobile towers smiling at US. OFC cable or Optical Fibre Cable owned by BSNL has put the marker stones all the way up there. Despite all the dirt in the public spending, it is only an institution like government who can link up the people living on the fringes of existence. Union budget 2013 mentions 1200 crores for setting transmission lines between Kargil and Leh. Yes, border towns need to be pampered a bit more.

b.      Toilets for the snow capped habitations: ‘We have a toilet but it is all frozen’- was a constant comment through the journey up the mountains, as ramshackle restaurants and even military settlements refused to provide a place to even women. Now, this is a genuine problem. Digging a pit and patching it up is the only way even Army seems to be managing there. On one side, Lonely Planet guide, talks of saving the precious drinking water and not use ‘flush toilets’ in the fragile ecology of Leh, on the other side, there is no alternative to the toilets. Wondering if ‘bio-digester’ toilets area reality and should be promoted by organisations like DRDO to stretch them beyond trains on to the mountains.
Modular structures for shelter are in rudimentary state

c.       Solar so much: We have been involved in a few assignments from the social enterprises. Bio-fuel, solar lighting, solar heating, electricity savers, safer kerosene stoves etc. Focus on solar energy is tremendous with unveiling of the Solar Mission 2020 by the government of India. My team mates have been to other remote areas like Kutch in the West and Gangasagar islands in the East studying the right solar energy solutions for people on the fringes. Here in Leh, I saw the ubiquitous solar PV panels even in small houses. At one of the road side restaurants I also saw a solar concentrator (picture below). Laddakh climate is supposed to be the best suited climate for efficient solar electricity from Photo Voltaic panels (sunlight with low temperature is best suited as compared to in Rajasthan where ample sun is accompanied with high temperatures, resulting in significant drop in per square inch electricity generation fro PV panels). I also remember a discussion with conventional battery manufacturer who was keen on making battery based LED lanterns. When I asked then why should people use battery based lanterns in today’s world while Solar is in, his reply was simple –‘It is just easier’. Indeed, it was the case when we were faced with frequent light cuts, no street lights and unpredictable weather which could go cloudy anytime. Battery based LED lanterns were better to manage. The home-stay we rented, had a solar water heater. But it also had an electrical heating override. Means the days, when there is no sun, electrical system does the job. So the solar is arriving and needed but not fully yet.

4.       Cattle-class to Luxury class: General category travel in trains was anointed to be cattle class travel by one of the Indian ministers. I abhor that way of travelling as I spent several years travelling that way. So we hired a taxi (large car) just for two of us. It was a jolly ride till the road had no snow. Once the tyres were deep in snow, vehicles with less occupants inside start slipping and virtually blocking the entire traffic on the narrow stretches. Our driver commented that all the jams are due to tourist vehicles which travel with 2 or 3 passengers at max. Locals travel in mini-buses/Jeeps which are full to the brim and never face the problem of getting stuck in the snow. Something similar all air travellers must have noticed- more than plane is loaded, journey is less turbulent due to more wing loading. In fact, in our journey we had to plead to some people travelling in those mini-buses to grace our car, which they happily did. Luxury gets redefined in some contexts like this one.

5.       We all are just visitors!  We were there at Leh for just five days. Not at all enough to get the sense of the place. People take up voluntary work with NGOs like Snow Leopard Conservancy etc. and stay there for months to support the cause as well as build a sense of connect to the place. Visitor or ‘tourist’ label on us unsettled something within, till I saw a quote by Dalai Lama XIV in one of the local shops –
“We all are visitors on this planet. We are here for one hundred years at the very most. During that period we must try to do something good, something useful, with our lives. if you contribute to other people's happiness, you will find the true meaning of life.

I have studied Indian philosophical systems including Charvak’s, which says that ‘eat, drink and have fun- there is nothing after death’ and also other systems including Buddhism which believes in reincarnation. At the monastery in the remote town of Disket, I happened to speak to a monk about a painting on a wall depicting the karmic cycle. In the center were three ‘poisons’ of this existence namely ‘Ignorance, Attachment and Desire’, which keep a soul hooked on to the karmic rebirth cycle  (see
for more details) .
    (Karmic Cycle depicted on the fresco behind in Deskit Monastery)
Such plaques for unsung soldiers who died in the duty
of protecting the country, are strewn everywhere
Apart from others what interested me was the concept of ‘demigods’ who are higher than the humans but not relieved of the cycle.. Demigod are still bound by the world of jealousy- depicted in a scene where tree grown on one side is giving fruits to the other households and both are fighting. It was interesting for a student of modern psychology and having studied Maslov’s pyramid of needs, that beyond the needs for self-realisation, there are several births to get rid of the basic needs/poisons :).

Live to Love Ladakh! Juley!!



Jon Matt said...
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