Height per location
"You must go. It is necessary that you go. Ladakh is the last place where you can see something of what Tibet must have been like."
What did I know about Ladakh? I knew facts only - that it was the highest, most remote, most sparsely populated region in the Republic of India; that its climate was extreme even in the summer, when hot days were followed by freezing nights; that it was cut off from the world from November to May by snow (...) Dry; stark; remote; harsh in climate, topography and altitude, this country of rock has yet been adorned by many names.
(...) Its present name, Ladakh, comes from La-Tags, in Tibetan the land of the la, the land of the high mountain passes; and it is the best name of all.
A Journey in Ladakh - Andrew Harvey
Ladakh ... This had all the signs of becoming a most remarkable journey, in many, many ways. The plan of taking a trip to Ladakh had formed shortly after visiting Tibet in 2006. I had been completely awe-struck by the stunning landscape of that country. Tibet left me breathless, literally and figuratively. One of the reasons for visiting Tibet was my fascination with Buddhism. Although I don't really subscribe to the Tibetan form of Buddhism with its strong emphasize on rituals, I am fascinated by it. Seeing how Tibetans in general and Tibetan Buddhism specifically is being suppressed by the Chinese authorities and how the main monasteries along the tourist route are being controlled by the Chinese, exploited and turned into Buddha Disneyland (150 Euro to film the interior of an assembly hall, you gotta be kidding !) left me rather disillusioned. But where else could I go for the real thing ... ?
There were two more options. I could either visit Bhutan or Ladakh, the latter located in the Northwest of India, near the less peaceful Kashmir area. Bhutan was a bit of an issue, since this country forces tourists to spend $200 per day in order to keep mass tourism at bay. This makes a trip to Bhutan exceptionally expensive. Ladakh on the other hand is a place that also offers the beautiful Himalayan landscape, combined with the Tibetan culture. What's more, when comparing itineraries of different travel agencies I found one that included visits to Dharamsala (the home of the Tibetan government in exile) and Amritsar (where the golden temple of the Sikhs is located). Since both these places were also high on my list of wanna-sees the decision was a bit of a no-brainer.
Another thing that would make this journey a remarkable one was my travel companion. Well, I would be travelling with a group, like I normally do, but there was this one specific person who I'd be sharing a room with. Not that I hadn't done that before, I just hadn't done it in a while ... Judith, with whom I had had a 2,5 year relationship was joining me for another Himalayan adventure. We'd reluctantly broken up earlier this year because of irreconcilable differences in expectations of the future. We'd come to the conclusion that whereas Judith wanted to have kids of her own I was not planning to have any more since I already had two teenagers and didn't want to give up my new-found freedom. As you can imagine the break-up was inevitable but painful because we got along so well.
Judith had signed up for volunteering in Dharamsala with Tibetan refugees and it seemed like a good idea at the time that she would join me since my trip would take her straight to her destination and would allow her to see something of the country before settling down for 4 months. As a matter of fact, we also booked a trip through North India when I would return to pick her up in December. We thought that both being single and with a no-strings-attached friendship approach this couldn't really hurt and would allow us to enjoy the country in the company of a good friend. Well, seems like love finds you when you're least looking for it since quite unexpectedly for both me and herself Judith fell for someone new, a mere two months before the trip. This would certainly make things 'remarkable' to say the least.
Another remarkable fact was the 5 day trekking that was included in the program. We'd done a bit of trekking in Nepal, which turned out to be unexpectedly exhausting. Still, this seemed like the best way to experience the landscape. It did however require the purchase of some equipment that we normally wouldn't need on a trip. Also, the extreme climate changes when moving from the hot Delhi days to the cold Ladakhi nights and the wet Dharamsala monsoon rains made this a trip with a large variety of clothing and precautions to take into account. Rarely has a trip taken so much preparation and investment in sleeping bags, backpacks, rain covers, etc. After all, if you add it all up Bhutan might not have been that expensive after all. ;-)
As always the three months running up to the trip found me delving into literature about the region I would be visiting. I read parts of two guides on trekking in Ladakh, several chapters from the huge Lonely Planet India and got a bit of a taster for what was waiting for me by reading the lovely account of a journey in Ladakh by Andrew Harvey. Anticipation was building, tension was growing. How I longed to return to those Himalayan highlands ...