Darcha is the last village on the Manali-Leh road before the mountains take over completely. Beyond Darcha, the road climbs to Baralacha Pass and after many hours of drive one reaches Leh. Unfortunately there is only one bus from Keylong to Leh. It leaves early in the morning and reaches Leh late in the evening. I took this bus this morning but got off at Gemur to take a look at the old monastery. This break of journey means my arrival into Leh is delayed by a day.
From Gemur I walk to the next village, Jispa. I intend to walk all the way to Darcha and spend the night there. But I have been informed last night at Keylong that facilities at Darcha are basic. Beds are quite expensive and so is the food. When I arrive at Jispa, I find a Mountaineering Sub-centre at the far end of town. Beds cost a mere Rs. 75. The toilet sheds are fifty meters away at the corner of an open field. From the building porch, I can see at close range rugged rocky slopes dropping down to the river. Patches of ice hug sheltered pockets. The manager checks me in, I dump my stuff and take a walk to Darcha, 6 kms away.
Needless to say the scenery is stunning. At times the river has a narrow flow but at places it broads to a shallow flow with islands of sand sticking out in midflow. At one particular place, the slopes leading to the river’s right bank are filled with large sharp rocks with occasional pines growing here and there in their midst. At this point the river has no choice but to meander around this rockfall. Though the road is easy, constant flow of trunks and tourist vehicles makes it uncomfortable. The place is dusty.
At Darcha, I settle down for a welcome meal. It is only rice and daal, but even something as basic as this is a luxury in such an inhospitable place. Darcha appears to be no more than a turning in the road that soon climbs steeply to higher ground.
‘Bangalore babu ki seva karna hai teek se,’ comments the stall owner as he hurries about serving me my lunch. Two other guys are seated in the next table waiting for their thukpas.
‘Goda chahiye?’ asks one of them. He is a middle-aged man sporting a pointed stubbled chin. With typical Mongoloid features, his skin wrinkles around his eyes. Deep furrows seem to have a permanent place on his forehead. In his right hand he holds a rosary of large brown beads. His fingers quietly move the beads as he lips mantras without a sound. He waits for my reponse. A much younger man is sitting next to him.
‘Not really. I like walking,’ I reply.
‘Trekking? Darcha to Padum?’ he asks. I know about this classic trek of this region. It connects Lahaul to Zanskar. It is a nine-day trek through supposedly stunning mountain terrain.
‘No. I am just walking around Darcha,’ I tell him. I may do a couple of two-day treks around Leh later this week but a nine-day trek – I don’t think I am physically prepared for it.
‘Darcha to Padum very nice. Go with horse,’ the old man continues.
‘I don’t have nine days with me,’ I make an excuse.
‘How many days?’
‘I have only five days.’
‘Can do in five days.’
‘Five days for entire Ladakh, not just for this trek.’
Food is served. Darcha is a cold place but not quite as cold as it would be in winter. Lunch is hot but it cools down quickly. So I have a choice of either gulping down a hasty hot meal or savouring a leisurely cold one. It takes only three minutes for the food to get cold. I love the daal so much that I take a second helping. The owner is only too glad to serve me.
Meanwhile, a man arrives on a bike and starts negotiating with the young man. Apparently, some tourists are interested in a ten-day trek from Darcha to Padum. They require three horses. The horseman quotes a ridicuously high price.
‘They are Indians, not foreigners,’ explains the middleman.
They settle for a price of Rs. 300 for the guide and Rs. 350 per horse per day. The man moves off to Keylong to confirm the booking with his clients. There are no phones at Darcha.
‘I’ll send a confirmation through someone on the evening bus,’ he tells the young horseman as he rides towards Keylong in a trail of flying dust.
I pay for my lunch and take a long walk. A ten-day trek sounds crazy to me. I am going to settle for a day hike without my backpack. I walk towards Chikka, a village that marks the entry point to the Zanskar Valley. It is a quiet walk on a lonely road that sees little traffic. The mountains tower on both sides. From a distance, mountain streams seem to trickle down slopes from melting sheets of ice; actually the water is gushing down at great force. The colours of landscape are stunning – grass green, pine green, moss green, dappled slopes of black rock and white ice, patches of greys and browns, veins of dark browns and purples in the rocks.
On this walk I realize the complex interdependence of things in this universe. Everything has its place but more importantly I feel it is beautiful that all things fit together so perfectly. Snow falls, melting waters flow into rivers and oceans return their store of water back into the atmosphere. Volcanoes make land and recycle carbon-di-oxide. Mountains rise. Valleys spread their greens that we can inhabit.
I return to Jispa by retracing my path. All in all, I must have walked 25 kms today. Near my accommodation, there is only one place for dinner. I walk to see that they are only serving snacks and drinks. A proper meal would have to be ordered and it would take time. I return to my room wondering what to do. Idex Hotel at the other end of town is a kilometer away. Perhaps I will skip dinner and hit the pillow early. Just then some monks arrive at the Mountaineering Sub-Center.
‘The Dalai Lama will visit Jispa next month. It will be a five-day visit. He will conduct some pujas. We are busy repairing and decorating the monastery,’ explains one of the young monks. The monastery is next door to the sub-center.
‘Where are you from?’ I ask him.
‘I live in Hubli, Karnataka,’ he replies. ‘My family live in Lahaul but I’m at the Drepung Monastery south of Hubli.’
There are about twelve monks staying here at the moment. Being a monk is not just studying scriptures or meditation. A monk has to cultivate the fields and repair buildings. He must be artistic enough to decorate walls with murals of Jatakas and the Buddhist Wheel of Dharma. He must have patience and skill to make mandalas and thangkas. Organizing any function for the Dalai Lama is not a trivial affair. He must know all about service and being a good host. He must know carpentry and cooking. Talking about cooking, the monks propose to cook a vegetarian dinner for me tonight.
I wait for my dinner in a large room where the monks are staying. There are many bunk beds here. One of the monks goes out to have a cold bath. He comes back a few minutes later and changes to his traditional dress. He wears his skirt of ochre red. The skirt is folded around the waist. It is then not tucked but tied with a yellow tasselled waist band. The open end is wrapped over the waist band. Then the monk offers me something.
‘You try this,’ he says handing me small seeds that look like mustard. ‘This is a prasad made from various herbs. After it is made, the head lama blesses it and distributes to all monks.’
I take the prasad. It has a stringent taste.
‘It keeps the mouth clean and removes bad breath,’ explains the monk. I hope he is not hinting that I needed it.
He shows me his election voting card, issued in Karnataka. His home is now practically the Drepung Monastery though he hails from these parts. His main focus is Tibetan philosophy.
Another monk is chanting Om Mani Padme Hum as he fingers the rosary.
‘How many times do you have to do this per day?’ I ask him.
‘As many as you want. There is no limit. The more you do, the more merit you gain,’ explains the monk. ‘For Buddhists, old age means prayer. All we do is to prepare for death and pray for a better next life. A person can be reborn as anything, you know.’
He continues his prayerful chants. With every inaudible chant he moves one bead at a time. The dangling light in the ceiling casts the shadows sharply. There is a deep silence. His fingers and the rosary cast in shadow on the room’s cemented floor keep up a steady rhythm. It is a moment I cannot easily forget.
I return to my room and make some notes and read about Leh, my next destination. When I am done, it is 9 pm. I am getting impatient. I have to have an early start tomorrow. I check in the kitchen if my dinner is ready. The monks are already eating in their room.
‘There is only one cooker. We will eat shortly,’ explains the monk who is cooking. ‘We are the only vegetarians,’ he points to one other monk sitting in the kitchen.
In time, dinner is ready. I am served a bowl of vegetarian pulao and a full boiled egg to go with it. From the very first spoonful I can tell that this is no ordinary pulao. It is simply the best pulao I have eaten in my entire life. It is perfect. I cannot find any fault with it. Often when you order pulaos at restaurants you get fried rice. The monks here have taken no such shortcut. It has been slow cooked with the right measure of spices and vegetables. The vegetables have been cut neatly to make the right texture with the well-cooked rice. The mix of salt, spice and oil is just right. I savour every bit of it. It is not a pulao I am likely to ever forget.