Arriving in Leh is a staggering contrast to Delhi. It’s a literal breath of fresh air…make that several heavy breaths, given Leh sits at an altitude of 11,500 feet on the edge of the Tibetan plateau. After the clamor and heat of Delhi, I’m happy to step off the plane and onto the roof of the world. I realize I’ve arrived at the real start of the expedition, and that’s exciting.
First thing on my agenda: nothing. Doing anything at this altitude without acclimatizing your body is not only risky, it’s stupid. My strategy for successful acclimatization starts with the strict discipline of doing absolutely nothing, followed by some rest, and then another dose of absolutely nothing. Acute Mountain Sickness, or AMS, is no joke. The thin air really affects your body – even with taking my prophylactic dose of Diamox – breathing is more difficult, sleep is restless, and I’m carrying a slight headache.
Luckily, Leh is the perfect place to do nothing for a few days. I’m only one of thousands of travelers over the millennia to use this ancient city as a rest stop. Leh rose out of the desert plateau bit by bit over a thousand years as trade caravans converged here en route between Tibet and Kashmir, and India and China. Merchants, nomads and pilgrims traveled along the Indus river valley, building settlements defended by dramatic monastic fortresses. The city grew into an important trading town on the Old Silk Road. Today, the Old Town of Leh is dominated by the nine-story, 17th-century Leh Palace, which is on the World Monument Fund’s list of the 100 most endangered sites on the planet.
It’s hard for me to believe that I first arrived in Leh 30 years ago. It’s been 6 or 7 years since I last came through. Perhaps the biggest surprise since my last foray is the noticeable growth of Indian tourism. Gone are the dark ages of religious tourism as the primary reason to visit Leh. The new generation of India’s emerging middle class is here now, and they seem curious, keen to explore and able to spend money on modern communications and conveniences. Evidence of their influence is scattered throughout the town in new construction and signage about “beautification” of the city. They’re building the modern Silk Road on top of the old.
Settling in to journal for the evening, I can hear prayer chants from the Mosque wafting over the city. I know Buddhist monks are chanting in a different quarter to the rhythmic beat of a solitary drum as Hindus go about their business. What can I say? There’s spiritual harmony on the roof of the world.