While journeying to the remote Indian town of Leh, Ladakh during December's cold, Rob Sangster experiences the natural bonds joining the tribe of… travelers.
I'd have recognized those two guys anywhere. I didn't actually know them, but I knew the type. They were seasoned travelers.
Their high quality backpacks bore the scars of hard travel but were in good repair, with plenty of clips and carabiners to hook gear onto. From rugged boots to thick wool caps, their rough clothes were right for the sub–zero temperatures of December 23rd in the Himalayas.
They were hanging out across the lobby of the decrepit Srinigar airport in Kashmir, India, when we heard the announcement that our flight to Leh, in the remote province of Ladakh, had been cancelled. That was the third no–go for us in one day. By then I'd learned that "cancelled" actually meant that all seats in the small plane had been filled by last minute arrivals of fat cats, politicians, or army brass.
The other disappointed passengers, apparently all locals, straggled out of the waiting room into the freezing night, but I walked to the Indian Airlines desk. "Pardon me," I said to the agent, already closing down his station, "but it's your responsibility to put me up in a hotel room for the night."
His eyes flicked to his left, down at his tidied pile of papers, but not at me, clearly hoping I'd go away. When I didn't, he reluctantly handed me a slip of paper with the name of a hotel written on it.
"Thank you sir and," I nodded toward the two backpackers, "for those two as well." Then I noticed a Ladakhi man standing a dozen yards away, listening intently, even though he knew the agent would never take the initiative to extend the same courtesy to him. "And him, too," I said firmly.
In half an hour the four of us had rooms in an upscale hotel in the center of Srinagar. Gnarly from weeks on the road, we couldn't have looked more out of place in the penthouse lounge. A tipsy female guest cajoled the band into backing her up while she sang Italian love songs. We settled in and ordered a round of Kingfisher beers.
The Guide, the Psychologist, and the Son of a Cuckoo Clock Maker
While talking as travelers do, I learned that Gunter and Tomohiko had met on the slopes of Kangchenjunga in Sikkim and joined forces to hike hundreds of high–altitude kilometers in Nepal before deciding to explore Ladakh.
Although he currently resembled a Mongolian yak herder, Gunter was actually a professional photographer from near Baden–––Baden in the vineyard country of Germany's Black Forest, the son of an esteemed cuckoo clock craftsman. Tomohiko was a psychologist who'd taken a year's sabbatical to investigate high places in Asia. He was from Kyoto, famous for its thousands of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. Even though Tomohiko knew little English, the unspoken language of travelers that they shared had made their partnership work.
Sonam Tashi Teapa, the Ladakhi, was returning from two years as a mountain guide on Everest climbs. Because he wore high–tech gear discarded by climbers, he was by far the most presentable among us. No more than five and a half feet tall, dark–skinned and sinewy, he wore a Chicago Bulls cap while he spun story after story in energetic English made musical by the rhythm of north India. His enthusiasm drew listeners from nearby tables into our conversation.
Tashi Teapa's presence in the posh hotel may have been improbable, but it didn't surprise him at all. He knew why I'd spoken up for him. So did Gunter and Tomohiko.
It was because seasoned travelers are members of a tribe, no less so than the Dogon in Mali and the Araucanian in Chile. We seek excitement, challenge, and knowledge of space and our fellow humans. We share beliefs and experiences. We travel not as mercenaries, missionaries, or merchants. Instead, we're discoverers of cultures and myths and caves. Here's the remarkable thing. As we make our way through the world, we recognize one another. And we stand up for each other.
Under the Wing of the Elder and the Lama
On the next morning's flight to Leh, I alternated between being overwhelmed by the crystal beauty of the north flank of the Himalayas to scanning the forbidding rock and ice faces seeking routes for climbs I knew I'd never make. We landed outside of Leh, a small town on the bank of the Indus River at an altitude of 11,000 feet. The long runway had been installed not for the convenience of Ladakhis but to enable the Indian air force to keep an eye out for possible incursions by China in the vast, unpopulated highland desert to the north claimed by both countries.
Tashi Teapa's first duty was to pay respect to the village elder so he immediately took us to the edge of town to an impressive home with a well–tended stupa and prayer wheels in its forecourt. We were ushered inside to meet its owner, a wizened–faced man who sat cross–legged on the thick carpet. In precise English he told us tales from the days of his ancestors, one of whom, he said, commissioned the nine–story Leh Palace in the 1500s, patterned after the Potala Llasa. He claimed to have been paid in gold by Great Britain to smuggle opium into China to corrupt the troops of Mao Zedong's Communist Party during its civil war against Generalissimo Chiang Kai–shek. No way to test his tale, but the many spacious rooms of his home held some of the largest and finest Oriental carpets I've ever seen.
Back in town, we found that commerce had shut down for the bitterly cold winter. Not one hotel remained open. Unfazed, Tashi Teapa found a Jeep we could rent for the afternoon while he searched for a room in a private home for all of us.
Eager to see the famous gompas, or monasteries, in the valley around Leh, we set off into the rarified air and eye–squinting sunlight to visit Hemis across the Indus River. Amazon–like by the time it reaches the Arabian Sea near Karachi, at Leh it was shallow enough to skip across stone to stone.
Hemis was renowned for its large thankas, oil on cloth paintings embroidered with pearls and semi–precious stones. With travelers' good fortune we arrived just in time to watch masked Black Hat dancing monks and a sacred play accompanied by cymbals, yak hide drums, and trumpets. Some of the long horns sounded like the bleating of sheep being slaughtered, others a monotone like the last bass note in "Ol' Man River."
The chief lama took a long look at us. He walked over to stand in front of me and pressed his palm against my chest. Then his impassive face broke into a broad grin. Somehow, he'd recognized our respect and authentic interest––and nodded us into the great prayer hall whose ceiling was so high it was dim in the smoke rising from dozens of blazing torches.
We sat with monks on long stone benches that felt still frozen from the Ice Age. Most monks wore maroon wool cloaks; a few wore long brocade gowns. All chanted mantras. Scented smoke swirled. Drum beats quickened. I felt I was in exactly the right place.
A Real "Guest House"
Hours later, exhausted by the thin air and nearly frostbitten, we found the sole open restaurant and ducked through the hanging blanket that served as its door. Tashi Teapa was waiting, triumphant at having found a home where the family was willing to vacate a large second floor room.
The only other guests entered a few minutes later. They were extraordinarily tall with pale, bony–faces and wore identical full–length, shroud–like black coats suitable for gravediggers. Only after looking around and seeing no other place to sit did they join us at the single trestle table. Both spoke English well but, after initial greetings, chose not to. Although they were the only other travelers in town, we never saw them again. Different tribe.
After a substantial meal, we bought three jugs of Indian black rum and walked back toward our rented room, silent in the universal silence, awed by the immense night sky, brilliant stars a backdrop for the continuous fireworks of space debris burning through the thin atmosphere.
Our hosts had warmed our room to at least twenty degrees above the rest of the house and filled it with thick rugs, blankets, and round pillows. Copper and brass ornaments hanging on the walls shone in the light from lanterns and candles. We stretched out around the iron stove and invited our hosts to join us. The father brought in a large bottle of chang, the potent fermented barley drink, for us and we filled glasses with copious amounts of rum for him and his wife.
The telling of one adventure followed another until the mother fetched a small string instrument and sang Tibetan folk songs. Short and robust with a round face, small nose, and abnormally rosy cheeks, perhaps from frostbite, she was unmistakably of Tibetan heritage. The coral pieces in her jewelry reminded me that the mighty Himalayas had been formed by a great plate that pressure drove up from the seabed. Her coral was the product of reefs that had flourished on this site a million years ago.
We responded with folk songs in three languages from very different cultures and then with Christmas carols. It was, after all, Christmas Eve near the top of the world––and the rum flowed into the night.
As candles flickered low, Gunter announced that he and Tomohiko were leaving at dawn to hike on the Zanskar River. Literally on it. Because its banks were far too steep to traverse, their only path was along a narrow shelf of ice that extended out from the shore. If the ice didn't hold or for any reason they slipped into the frigid water, hypothermia would kill them. He invited Tashi Teapa and me to join them. We declined, Tashi Teapa because of a morbid fear of water; I because I was enjoying being alive so much.
Even though we were in the same tribe, they were in a different league.
That Christmas Eve in the Himalayan outpost of Ladakh, and countless other encounters on the road, confirm the connectedness of travelers. There's a mysterious sense that brings members of the tribe to a certain place at a certain time. Membership is voluntary. It's a state of mind. Wherever we travel, we contribute what we can. We look out for each other. And, once home, we share what we've learned along the way.
Gunter, Tomohiko, and Tashi Teapa? Haven't seen them again, but whenever I'm on the road I keep an eye out.
Rob Sangster is author of Traveler's Tool Kit and co–author of Traveler's Tool Kit: Mexico and Central America. He's also a lawyer, entrepreneur, developer of housing for low–income persons, and has contributed travel articles to a variety of print and Web publications, as well as regular essays on public radio. He splits his time between Tennessee and Nova Scotia, but also has a piece of waterfront land in New Zealand that he bought on a whim.
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