After a few days of post-meditation decompression in Delhi, I was joined by Katelyn for my last chunk of time in India. We were jet-set for Leh, the capitol of Ladakh, a town that sits at a lofty 11,500 feet in the Himalayas. Our plane cruised in over beautiful landscapes with jagged mountains, and we landed on a small airstrip surrounded by sand dunes and soaring ridges. I was eager to see a new place, but Katelyn and I were both immediately sidelined by symptoms of altitude sickness. I was amazed how much my body needed to adjust to less oxygen, huffing and puffing after just a few stairs.
Needless to say, we took the local advice and rested, which allowed us to walk up the street without nausea or headaches. We eventually hiked up peaks near the town to a monastery and a palace, gathering new traveling companions in the process and enjoying the view!
I also took a day trip to the beautifully pristine Pangong Lake (katelyn was unfortunately ill), but since the lake is perched at around 15,000 ft, I almost passed out bending up and down to pick up and skip rocks!
On the days in between, we explored Leh and interacted with both other foreigners and locals alike. My last excursion was perhaps the most impressive. Katelyn and I joined forces with 2 other Americans (the only others I met in India) and a French woman, and we hired a jeep for a 3 day excursion to Nubra Valley. This trip was an adventure from start to finish. Not long after leaving Leh, we had to cross Khardom-la, a pass at around 18,000ft. It boasts being the highest motor-able pass in the world (if it’s not the highest, it’s one of them). I was immediately shocked with my surroundings: billowing prayer flags, crumbling brown boulders, immense, snow-covered mountain peaks, and of course, a relapse to altitude sickness symptoms.
As we crossed the pass, we admired the scenery en route to Turtuk village, a part of Baltistan in north India that was opened to tourists just last year. The road was rugged- just one single lane road with two lane traffic, chiseled into the mountain face, and occasional rickety bridges over the roaring Nubra River. As our tires crackled over the rocks of the edge of the guardrail-less cliff at times to yield to oncoming traffic, I had to work hard to stay calm. Thankfully, we had a fantastic driver who heeded our requests for attention and safety, so we were grateful.
There are few words that can adequately describe the natural beauty and immensity of the landscape there, so I will try to use visual media:
After a few hours of driving, we came upon our first village, our jeep being brought to a halt by a different type of road block:
A bunch of kids swarmed our car, rambling in Balti, attempting words in English, motioning for us to give them chocolate, and smiling into our cameras.
It immediately struck me how relatively new we were to those kids, their home only being open to tourists for a year, and a good chunk of that being winter and thus tourist free. We conveyed our names and shared many smiles and stuck around in the car for a little while, but then continued on our way.
After that, we made it to Turtuk Village, again in awe of the surroundings. Here’s the view outside the guest house:
It was also a time when I really liked having an iPhone. I was able to teach some of them how to take photos, use the video camera, and make videos of themselves. It was incredible to watch their interest and curiosity, and they were just so stinkin’ cute.
I was impressed by their level of English, but I was eager for a quick lesson in Balti. Kids sometimes are the best teachers. “Kilimipichin” means “What is your name?” and “Achoo-ya termaso” means “thank you very much”:
The second morning, we walked around among nearby rivers and streams with just beautiful scenery (one of my traveling friends is off in the distance):
I eventually ventured into another half of the Turtuk. It was immediately obvious that this half was not benefiting from the luxuries of tourism, but it felt very natural. I walked around and found more adorable kids:
It was on this walk that I met Sultan, an elderly Balti woman who was immediately endearing. My weak attempts at Balti were enough for her to give many a single toothed-grin and a hearty laugh. Despite the fact that we couldn’t speak, we had a wonderful interaction. I took this photo leaving the village, Sultan is the older woman in the back corner:
We heard word that we were within the first 1000 tourists to this village and some of the first few Americans. I couldn’t help but wonder what it must be like for them to have this immediate connection to a new culture through tourism. I hadn’t expected to go somewhere so remote but I’m glad we did because I feel lucky I got to see what I saw and do what I did. This adventure is one that I will come back to and cherish for a lifetime.
The Vipassana technique is a 2500 year-old, non-religious technique of self-purification through meditation. I knew absolutely nothing about it before going, but quickly found myself intrigued and curious. The goal is to eradicate misery in your own life by learning to observe sensations in the body.
A lot of Buddhist ideology focuses on getting rid of misery through the elimination of craving, aversion and hatred in one’s life. What’s unique about Vipassana is that it does so by fusing this philosophy with irrefutable scientific facts about the human body and the laws of nature. Modern scientists have since validated these facts, it just took a millennium or two.
Because it is more scientifically based, it has no affiliation or requirement for religious belief. It is simply a method of training the mind to not crave or hate, through the law of impermanence, which basically means that any sensation, pleasant or unpleasant, will always dissipate. During meditation sessions, one tunes him or herself to the sensations present in the body. It might be something like an itch or a pain, or something like a subtle buzzing or tingling. For those that are unpleasant, you train yourself not to react with hatred. For the pleasant, you train yourself not to react with craving. Because the sensations are impermanent, not reacting forces one to accept the reality of the present moment and none other.
As you train your mind more and more with the subtle sensations, you begin to subconscious continue this trend of “living in the moment”, and no longer have the habit of developing misery subconsciously through reactions of craving and hatred.
It took me a little while to wrap my mind around the concept, but after watching our lectures and spending time tossing the ideas around in my head, I came to understand and be intrigued by the practice. Even after 10 days, I am nowhere near full understanding of the technique, but if anything, I’ve found that it never hurts to take time away from the stress and pace of daily life and focus on living in the present moment.
After my initial application, I finally received confirmation that I was accepted to the meditation class here in Delhi! And now that I’m actually in India, I will be studying Vipassana meditation. According to the organization, is one of India’s most ancient techniques, first taught more than 2500 years ago.
This course lasts 10 days, during which we have a strict code to follow for all participants. There are a few different rules, but the one that stuck out the most is no talking! Yep, 10 days of inner reflection, meditation, and non-interaction. Apparently there are some designated times we can discuss something briefly with a teacher, but otherwise we are not to communicate with fellow participants. We also have to get up every morning at 4am, and each day will be spent meditating between 8-10 hours a day. Yikes!
I’ve tried to meditate before, but have either never committed enough effort or got frustrated trying. I definitely am intimidated and nervous for the 10 days ahead, but I know that if I do this course and really jump in, I have the best chance of learning how. I’ve always been fascinated about meditation from a cultural and historical standpoint, but I’ve also read more and more about the health benefits of meditation, and think it sounds like an incredibly healthy way to step out of the fast pace of real life and take time to breathe. Just google it and see how many articles and studies they’re doing! We’ll see how it goes, until then, wish me luck!
(By this time this is posted, I will already be in the course. It ends on July 31st, and I’ll check in after that)
Namaste from Delhi!
I arrived in Delhi last night by way of Kathmandu, and am in a few hours heading to the meditation center to begin my course! I’ve written some more blogs about China and will try to write a few more before I go, which are scheduled to post over the next week or so that I will be away from internet/phone contact. I hope that you will enjoy the stories about China to come, and otherwise will see a bit of what I’m here for in India. Wish me luck!