Well I'm feeling much much better, and have been wandering around Leh (in Ladakh, in the Jammu & Kashmir province of India) for the past couple days. At 12000 feet, Leh is super dusty and you get sunburnt in no time at all, but it's absolutely beautiful. Reminds me a bit of Luang Prabang, in that each little alleyway is a work of art.
Ladakhi culture is very similar to Tibetan culture, and after China invaded Tibet in 1949, many Tibetans took refuge in Ladakh, so the cultures are now pretty mixed together. Just about every house and building has prayer flags over it, and the main street is just covered.
Overlooking the city is a old fort slash palace, so I went to check it out. The entry fee is 5 rupees for Indians, 100 for foreigners. It's obnoxious, but standard all across India; tourists pay more, even at official sites. Not very welcoming.
Anyway, the palace is totally derelict, it's great. The hallways are so tiny, little ladders and doors and dusty passages, it's a hide-and-seek paradise. It's like getting to play around in the Gerudo Fortress! (I know, not my proudest comparison, but, well, it looks just like it! I'm sorry, but I like Zelda and I have a pocket full of rupees, my brain's primed.) Seriously though, if you know what I'm talking about -- and it's probably best if you don't -- look at this and tell me what you think of.
The only room that was in some state of grandeur was the central temple, which a lama helpfully unlocked for me and showed me around.
Check out these masks!
All the artifacts in that room are from the 16th century.
For a full hour, I was the palace's only visitor, and every now and then you'd explore your way to a rooftop, where the view...
Wowza! The historic town of Leh, which you can see, looks much different than the newer structures. And it looks so pretty! I tried to explore the old town, but constantly got lost in the alleyways. Even so, it was kind of fun. Look at this garage I found.
Have you ever seen such an attractive garage in your life?!
And how'd you like this to be the door to your house?
What an unbelievable door!
The Tibetan Heritage Fund's Leh Old Town Initiative, which raises money to repair and restore Leh's historic district, runs guided tours of the old town. Done and done. So I head to the office at 3pm, when the tour should start. The office, like so many buildings in old town, is cramped and tiny, with steep stone staircases and old wooden ladders. (Unfortunately, it's so cramped I couldn't back up far enough to take decent photos of anything.) In a dusty little closet are 5 stones with religious carvings. What are those? Nobody's really sure, but they're probably from the such-and-such period, which puts them at around 1000 years old. Tea is served. The guy in charge of this tiny office is a local Ladakhi who speaks impeccable English, while the two other office people are a Swiss archeologist and a German volunteer. The three of them are leading the two of us foreigners on a tour. Three guides for two people! The other tourist is also a Cal alum. The scene in the office, sipping tea and talking history in a cozy, dusty, 400-year-old building, might be improved if they changed the boombox to something, anything, besides 50 Cent.
Here, a photo tour of old town Leh. The houses here date from the 17th century, and most have been abandoned. Due to extensive restoration, folks are starting to move back in.
Walking through some of the alleyways.
The doors are often sunk well below the road, a sure sign of homes built for roads long gone. Road repair raises the street level, and the houses just have to cope.
Now, I noticed also in the palace, the doors in historic Leh are inexplicably small. I'm talking 4 to 5 feet.
Why? Because rumor is demons can't bend - they just walk straight - so if you have to duck to get into the house... we'll outsmart those demons yet!
A real pleasure, a real, real pleasure of this walking tour was getting to pop into a restored, inhabited historic house. It was unbelievable. The stairs up to the main floor?
Once there, the ceiling is covered in a layer of soot from the huge wood-burning oven, and the floors are the most beautifully tiled old wood.
And from the balcony, the view!
Now this home was totally restored, but most are in complete disrepair. On the way back down to the office, we saw another building being restored. The laborers are both men and women: the women carry huge stones to the site, and the men put them into place. Lookit how the women carry these stones.
Doesn't that look so, so hard? What a job. What a life!
Back to the guesthouse. Goodbye, historic Leh. See you again tomorrow.
The guesthouse I'm staying at is actually on the fringe of old town, and is one of two guesthouses grandfathered in; new construction is not allowed in the historic district. New construction usually involves a corrugated tin roof, while the older buildings have roofs made of mud and clay that you can walk on. So not only do I get to be in old town, but getting to lie on the roof at night, up in the desert at 12000 feet, hundreds of miles from anything resembling a modern city...
I wish I could show you the stars. Just a million, bazillion stars. The milky way is milky. And the night sky is so black. It's really something else.
Besides walking around old town, I watch the local cricket matches. If you like baseball, cricket's a really approachable sport. And instead of people walking around hawking beer and dogs, it's chai and samosas. A veggie samosa is 5 rupees. I handed the guy a 20. For change, he gave me a 10 and another samosa.
The spice and fruit and bread vendors use these great old scales to weigh out your food. I'm getting all sorts of food I don't need. I got a half kilo of cookies. Do you know how many cookies that is? It's 23 cookies. A half kilo of cherries set me back 50 rupees, but what a shop!
You know who would really, really love this place? Dad.