Journey to Ladakh
Trekking through Little Tibet with Gil Gillenwater

"Julley!" It's the warm, musical greeting that visitors will constantly hear in Ladakh, a desolate Himalayan region of high passes situated on the border of India and Tibet. Home to many Buddhist monasteries and only opened to foreign travel since 1974, Ladakh feels like an ancient mythical kingdom, suspended in time, with its countryside more sparsely populated than Mongolia's. Last spring, Gil Gillenwater, a Scottsdale, Arizona real-estate developer, philanthropist and student of Buddhist teachings visited Ladakh. (Gil's earlier adventure-travel report along the Yarlung Tsangpo River, "The Search for Shangri-La," appeared in RailRiders Summer 2000 catalog.)

Q: What inspired you to travel to Ladakh?

Gil Gillenwater: My friend here in Scottsdale, Bob Kite, whom I've known since second grade, has a brother, Bill, who owns a trekking company and a hotel just outside of Leh, the capital of Ladakh. Bill had arranged a custom trek for Bob and a third brother Bo, and I was graciously invited to go along. Ladakh (which means "high pass") is situated in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. The area is politically unstable and airport security must be the tightest in the world. Yet the inconvenience of getting there was far outweighed by the enormous scenery and the unconditional hospitality and child-like joy of the native Ladakhi people. Known as "Little Tibet," it is sequestered high in the Himalayas and is one of the last "hidden" areas of central Asia that remains unviolated by Communist China. Buddhism blossomed in Ladakh in the second century, a full 500 years before it replaced the ancient Bönpo religion in Tibet. Today, Ladakh represents one of the last bastions of unadulterated, indigenous Tibetan Buddhism in the world ? it is a true jewel in the lotus suspended in the 15th century. Having previously ventured into Tibet three times, I can tell you that if you want to see how Tibet must have existed prior to the Communist Chinese invasion you should go to Ladakh. In fact, the Dalai Lama travels to Ladakh annually because it reminds him of his home in Lhasa, Tibet.

Q: Where did you mainly stay?

GG: We stayed in a village named Stok. It is nestled in the yawning mouth of a side canyon of the Indus River Valley. At an elevation of 11,000 feet, the Indus River Valley is flanked on both sides by dazzling snow-capped mountain ranges over 20,000 feet high. It's just huge —not merely impressive, but astounding, fearsome and predictably humbling. Bill Kite is very well connected with the local community leaders and we were treated like celebrities everywhere we went. In preparation for our trek Bill arranged for a Buddhist Lama ? Lama Rigzen ? to guide us through the inner sanctums of three of the major monasteries in the area: Shey, Thikse and Hemis. (Of the four major orders of Tibetan Buddhism — Nyingma, Kagyü, Sakya and Geluk, the two mainly practiced in Ladakh are Kagyü, the "Red Hats" Old School and Geluk, the "Yellow Hats" New School.) At each monastery, some dating back 1,000 years, we gained deeper insights into the Buddhist teachings and received blessings for our upcoming trek into the rugged Himalayas.

Nomadic goat herders brought this large flock through the middle of their camp.

Q: Describe one of the monasteries.

GG: The goal and conclusion of our trek was the Matho Monastery. As the only Sakya monastery in Ladakh, it is situated on a hill at the mouth of Matho Canyon that is between between Hemis and Stok. According to the excellent travel guide, "Trekking in Ladakh" by Charlie Loram, this monastery has become famous for its annual festival where a number of monks become Oracles, or vehicles for clairvoyance. For several days they enter into trances and answer people's questions and predict the coming year's events. On many occasions their superhuman powers are put to test. While enraptured in trance they have been known to sprint along the thin outer wall of the monastery and leap over the roof without falling. They have been known to slice their hands and tongues with razor sharp swords and bleed profusely. However, the next morning no scars or traces of the injuries can be found. On the very top of the monastery there is the highly revered, "Room of the Oracles." Covering the walls of this dark, tiny room are grotesque and frightening masks, and the floor is thick with grain taken from every field in the village to ensure a harvest for the next year.

Q: What was the trekking like?

GG: Well, having earned our "merit" through these fascinating religious pilgrimages ? and adjusting somewhat to the altitude over two days ? we were ready for our journey. The scenery and landscape were both magical and forbidding. We explored 500-year-old Sikh stone fortresses perched precariously on top of dizzying ridge tops. We discovered meditation caves secreted in the crags of high cliffs. Most of all, each of us enjoyed the silence, solitude and vastness of the Himalayas. The vacuous nature of the landscape brought to mind the concept of "emptiness" ? so vital to the Buddhist teachings. In terms of preparation, Bill had every last detailed covered. Ponies carried our gear. He also brought Sherpas over from Kathmandu, Nepal and they are the ultimate outdoorsmen ? and great guys. Tents and sleeping bags were laid out for us every night upon our arrival into camp and the mess tent was always ready with tea and hot chocolate. One day, nomadic goat herders brought their large flock through the middle of our camp. These goats produce the coveted Pashmina wool that is the basis for Kashmir's renowned cashmere weaving industry. Traveling way above timberline, our trek took us through ancient riverbeds, up winding cobalt glaciers and across moonscape meadows. Firmly in the jet-stream, the weather seemed to change with each hard-bargained breath. On the last tortuous pitch up to the 16,500-foot MathoLa Pass, the snow and sleet fell in sheets.

Q: Did you do anything special when you arrived at MathoLa Pass?

GG: Yes. After we gained the pass, the storm blew away and sun burned brilliant. We then strung 108 brightly colored prayer flags and shouted the Tibetan victory slogan "Ki Ki - So So -Ashe ? Lha Geylo!" (May the Gods be praised!) It was an amazing scene as the flags fluttered prayers into the heavens while the 21,000-foot snow- covered Stok Kangri Mountain lorded high above us. Looking back as we descended, the long stream of flags arched rainbow-like over the sacred pass.

Q: What is behind the custom of prayer flags?

GG: In Ladakh, Tibet and Bhutan the people's Buddhist faith is virtually inseparable from their daily lives. All activities are performed with mindfulness, and evidence of this deep-rooted belief is seen everywhere. One of the most prominent displays is the brightly colored Buddhist prayer flags that are flown on high-mountain passes, on roof-tops, above rivers and streams, over bridges, monasteries —virtually everywhere. A typical prayer flag's central image is a horse bearing three flaming jewels on its back. This horse is known as "wind-horse" and provides the flags their Tibetan name, "lung-ta." The three jewels symbolize the Buddha, the Buddhist teachings (Dharma) and the Buddhist community (Sangha). Together, these make up the equivalent of the Buddhist Trinity. Each flag is covered with mantras and prayers. The Buddhists believe that everything can — and should — be utilized toward the path to enlightenment. This concept even applies to the wind. As it passes over the surface of the flags, the air is purified and blessed by the prayers. The wind then transports the blessings worldwide for the benefit of all of us. In keeping with the Buddhist views on the reality of constant change, the flags are purposely designed to fade and disintegrate over time. Just as all life fades and disintegrates and is replaced by new life, so pilgrims continually replace the old flags with new ones. The ubiquitous prayer flags are another graphic reminder of our own impermanence.

Each day at the Landom School begins with the ten-minute Dalai Lama "Long Life" prayer.

Q: Following the trekking, what did you do next?

GG: My altimeter watch indicated that I had climbed a cumulative of over 16,000 vertical feet, or about three miles. I was ready for some rest. Following our trek we hung out and drank beer in the capital, Leh, for a couple of days. I did find a back-alley store that had a magnificent ritualistic, silver inlaid,human skull-cap drinking cup. This sacred object had the Buddhist meditational deity Vajrayogini in her classic warrior stance carved into the top with turquoise and red coral studding the rim. Representing the "female" aspect, Vajrayogini symbolizes the wisdom of emptiness and the enlightened tantric ability to convert passion into compassion. I was happy with my find, though getting it through customs and home was another story. More than once I had to tell the security person that it was an abalone shell. During our final days two additional events occurred which shall remain indelibly etched in my memory. One was a prayer ceremony at the Lamdon School. (Lam = path, dom = light) Path of Light. Located in Leh, this school is a privately funded facility and to me it represents the future of Ladakh. There are approximately 1,000 students— 20 of whom are orphans and full time residents. Each morning they recite the ten-minute Dalai Lama "Long Life" prayer. The Dalai Lama has personally visited and blessed this school and the children take this prayer very seriously.

Through Bill's contacts I would like to establish an e-mail "pen pal" program between the orphaned children in Leh, Ladakh and the abandoned children we support through our "Rancho Feliz" charity in Agua Prieta, Mexico. (For information see: Secondly, Bill arranged for us to sit in on a ceremony with a local Oracle, or Shaman. Her name was Sonam Choro and she was 34 years old. It was one of the wilder experiences I have ever had as I watched this seemingly shy woman disappear into a maniacal trance. Between screams and convulsions, she sucked black poison out of ailing villagers' sore throats, hurt knees and aching stomachs. She could also divine the future. After tossing a few barley seeds on my head, her eyes flamed with unrestrained energy as she stared through me and into my soul. She then let me in on a few secrets that only I could know. Following the final reading she collapsed, moaning, and came out of her trance exhausted. A few moments later she had transformed back into the shy, reserved lady I had witnessed when I first walked into the room.

Q: What is the capital city like?

GG: Leh is an eclectic mixture of Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist influences. As an ancient hub of Silk Road trade, Leh still maintains its brightly colored open markets. It reminds me of an early Kathmandu. The city itself is trying to catch up to its somewhat recent "discovery," but as one moves out from the capital into the rural villages life exists here as it has for countless generations. This is one of the last places on the planet that the 21st century traveler can experience the unconditional hospitality and child-like joy of the native people. There is no pretense, as the greeting, "Julley!" is offered by all. Typically, this welcome is followed by an invitation to tea or chang (a weak barley beer). No one is in a rush and the sound of singing constantly floats through the villages.

Q: With Southwest Asia in such military turmoil, what is the future of adventure travel to Ladakh?

GG: Similar to its neighbor, Tibet, Ladakh is a Himalayan kingdom sheltered by the highest most rugged mountains on the planet ? virtually hidden and therefore secreted from the rest of the world. Before the early 1960's, the only vehicular access involved a 16-day, bone jarring, winding and very exposed dirt road, replete with Kashmiri and Afghani bandits. In addition, the brutal winter weather limited travel over the lofty mountain passes to only two or three months out of the year.

However, in 1962, the Chinese launched a massive attack on the north and eastern borders of Ladakh. Suddenly the strategic importance of Ladakh was recognized by the rest of the subcontinent. The region's isolation was swiftly brought to a close by India's rapid construction of the 434-kilometer Srinagar to Leh highway. Twelve years later, in 1974, Ladakh was first opened to foreign travel. Today, the safest means of entering the country is by air with most flights originating in New Delhi. In light of the September 11th terrorist attack, travelers should avoid the western Ladakh, Kashmir region at all costs. However, anywhere east of the Zoji La, Ladakh's western boundary, is deemed safe for foreign travel. India maintains a very strong military presence in this region with an estimated 600,000 troops guarding the western and northern borders of Ladakh. It is presently estimated that 20,000 tourists per year visit Ladakh. The effect the current military turmoil in Afghanistan will have on future tourism remains to be seen.

Q: What is the contact information for your "trek leader?"

Bob Kite (left), brother of trek leader with Gil (in his Expedition Shirt).

GG: For over 20 years Bill Kite has owned and operated Sagarmatha Trekking, Mountaineering, Mountain Biking, River Rafting & Cultural Tours in Nepal, Ladakh, Rajasthan and New Zealand. Ladakh Office: Ph (91 1982) 42005 — Nepal Office: Ph/Fax (9771) 411110 ? Bill and a Ladakhi partner also own the "Hotel Highland Stok." This is a wonderful little hotel located in a truly magical setting and is where we stayed prior to and after our trek.

Q: What lessons were you able to bring back to America from Ladakh?

GG: Sometimes it takes traveling to remote places like the Himalayas to show me how far out of balance I can get. Now that I am back in the full swing of my hyper-busy lifestyle in Scottsdale, I marvel at the irony. How I long for the innocent nature of the Ladakhi people ? the unconditional smiling "Julley!" I feel myself back in the Highland Stok Hotel waking to the Buddhist prayer trumpets. I also hear the melodious songs of neighbors — working in community— drift lazily down the valley. I remember a young husband, wife and two small children laboring together. All four doing their part to repair the defining mud fence surrounding their small plot of land. There are no daycare centers in Stok. I remember exploring the winding streets where laughing children run to take my hand and walk with me. Offers of tea, of tsampa, of chang abound. How could I have been so far away and yet felt so at home? The vastness and ferocity of the Himalayan experience somehow melts the individual ego into the rich abundance of the communal ego. There is a connection —an acknowledgement and celebration of our shared human condition. In Ladakh they understand that —as human beings—we need each other. For the foreseeable future, the recent horrors of the New York City and Pentagon terrorist attacks will no doubt limit adventure travel to this volatile region. Having traveled extensively in this Eastern part of the world, my caution is that we must not let the acts of a few extremists color or discount the treasure of these indigenous peoples. However, one of the positive side effects of this tragedy is the way in which it has galvanized the American people. There is once again a sense of interconnectedness, national brotherhood and community that has been conspicuously absent. Suddenly, we are appreciating our own lives and those we have in our lives. Suddenly, we are acting more like Ladakhis.

Q: And that inevitable question, how did RailRiders clothing perform during your travels?

GG: I was first attracted to RailRiders clothing during my initial three expeditions into the jungles of southeastern Tibet. The RailRiders Expedition Shirts and Weatherpants were the only clothing that stood up to the constant rain, moisture and punishment we encountered in the uncharted "Hidden Lands" of the great bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo River (the deepest gorge in the world). However, I soon found out that the clothes' ability to ventilate and breathe also made them perfectly suited for the hot desert hiking here in Arizona. I especially like the Eco-Mesh Shirt and the protection it affords me from the blazing desert sun. In the bright, arid, colder climate of the Ladakh Himalayas, RailRiders worked perfectly as layering, which was criticial due to the exertion of climbing at altitude. As far as being lightweight, compactable and easy to wash and dry, RailRiders are my first choice for extended travel —in the city or in the wild.

For more information on the Rancho Feliz Charitable Foundation and its volunteer adventures into Mexico, you may reach Gil at 480-946-3000, or visit