Do you want to walk together to do the Char Dham? he asks while we sit in a tuktuk. “Yes” I reply immediately with a big smile. “Think about it for some time first. This will be no joke,” he continues. Yes he is right. Such a real and raw walk will be a very serious challenge; something that was on my mind for quite some time now. I have deep admiration for Sanyasis that I see wandering through the Himalayas and considered a walk already for a longer time. But as a woman, a white woman too, walking on my own in India like a Sanyasini has to be considered very wisely. Thus naturally I am enthusiastic about this unexpected opportunity. Spiritual process is about turning inwards. It is about self-knowing. It certainly does not depend on an outer journey or external location. To me such journeys can simply be supportive tools to strengthen our internal observations. If a journey that pushes us out of our comfort and tests our patience is undertaken with the right awareness it shall reveal all colors of our personality, plays of our mind and our many superimpositions on the Self…..well at least that would be my reasonable intellectual answer on why and how I ended up on the journey that followed. Why? A question I will ask myself many times during the weeks and weeks of most challenging walk in the highest mountain range of the world. The truth is that in that moment while sitting in the tuktuk I simply follow my heart. And so I consciously reply again “Yes! Yes to the walk…..but a real one. Just like Sanyasis walk. No luxury. No planning.” A few more moments of reflection follow “But I am not getting the internal yes for Char Dham. What about Ladakh instead?”
Little did I know what madness was about to follow only 4 weeks later this seeming harmless conversation during a tuktuk ride: a 600km walk from Turtuk the last Indian village at the Pakistani border to Leh to Manali on foot with 6 mountain peak climbs and 5,550 meter altitude through the highest cold desert in the world. For those of you who are not familiar with the terrain, even Ladakhi locals shake their head in disbelief when they hear about our trip. “For us it is impossible. For you it is very very impossible” a Ladaki woman who offers us a homestay in Leh says with a serious and shocked face. Initially I find her reply very amusing. I was still completely oblivious to what I really got myself into. Yet with each further comment of passing people at the onset of our journey, it slowly dawns on me that something perhaps could be slightly unusual, ok maybe a tiny bit crazy about our journey. Yet joyfully and/because unknowingly I march into the most challenging adventure.
Initially I am in pure awe about the indescribable landscape beauty all around us. I never seen a landscape so extra-ordinary, diverse and majestic as Ladakh. My words and images can not convey the true divine beauty of the Kunlun and Himalayan Mountain range, inhabited by people of Indo-Aryan and Tibetan descent. Ladakh is a region in India totally isolated from the modern world. An authentic land, it is faithful to ancestral customs where life is characterized by intense spirituality. It’s culture and people feel very different from the rest of India. Rich traditions of Mahayana Buddhism still flourish in the purest form in this region, which has often been referred to as Little Tibet. Ladakh lies at an altitude from 9,000 feet to 25,170 feet and is the highest inhabited land in the world. At these heights, you are on the roof of the world. Peaks of snow mountains are the hide and seek playground of the clouds. It feels like the bridge between the earth and the sky. Part fantasy, part reality. A land where the forces of nature conspired to render a magical unrealistic landscape. A landscape of extremes. Desert and blue waters. Burning sun and freezing winds. Glaciers and sand dunes. A primeval battleground of the titanic divine forces, which gave birth to the Himalayas.
Our journey starts in Turtuk. “Is this Hobbitland?” I ask my friend while we walk through this very quaint peaceful village, pluck ripe apricots from trees all around us, drink crystal clear water from the calm river stream next to us, sit in silence at a monastery on the hill top with fluttering Buddhist prayer flags as our soothing background sound. Ladakh feels like a lost kingdom. Ancient monasteries hang from cliffs and crags. Their interiors are filled with priceless antiques and art. Tiny villages tucked away in lush green valleys between snow peaks. Hard-working Ladakhi people who are filled with sincerity, purity and devotion. During our entire journey locals always heartily welcome us. Their homes with the typical big wooden window frames and colorful yet very simple interior are all meticulously clean and beautiful. In fact the cleanliness in Ladakh is far beyond any other place I have seen in India.
Yet it does not take long till the frame of my view zooms in and eventually turns inward. My 600km journey from Turtuk to Leh to Manali quickly turns into the intensest physical and mental challenge. Days filled with many hours of walking in solitude and silence reveal the many plays of my mind. It takes only two first days of walking with a 13kg heavy backpack (filled with stove, gas, food, sleeping bag) on daily altitude mostly above 4,000 meters and my very painful shoulders that with each passing day I start to drop any item from my backpack that is not a real survival necessity on this journey. There goes my female pride and very humble attempt to look (and smell) at least a bit decent.
It is only during the very first night in the tent in a mountain valley with no human soul around that I observe subtle fears arise in me. My mind remembers the many mystical events and entities of the Himalayas. I hear very strong wind play with the tent while everything around me is in pitch-black darkness. It didn’t help at all that just two days earlier I read a chapter of Sri M’s Autobiography in which he speaks about a ‘special visitor’ during one of his forest nights. “At least Sri M had friends along with him who saved him from this special visitor” I think to myself, chant my mantras and hug my walking stick as if it is a teddy bear. I tell myself that this stick will give me protection; a very rare wooden stick of sacred substance from the deep Himalayas beyond Badrinath and carried by wandering Yogis as a means of protection from all dimension. “This is stupid. I don’t need to prove anything to myself. Tomorrow I will be honest to my friend and tell him that I can’t do this….but where does this fear come from?” I wonder. I dig deeper and deeper into the fear. Past conversations, encounters and manipulative fear-based teaching doctrines play through my mind. Layer of layer I peel off, try to trace it down to its roots and land at non-duality. Ah…! And that’s the end of it. Exhaustion takes over. I fall asleep. The next morning a calm bright sunrise greets us. “How did you sleep?” I ask my friend. “I didn’t sleep. The sand kept blowing into my face,” he says and continues making a sound of “whoosh whoosh”, supports it with a hand gesture to showcase how the sand landed on his face. I burst out laughing, amused by this first revealing night. And so we cook a humble breakfast on our small stove, pack the tent and continue the walk. I didn’t even bring up the topic of last night. It seemed irrelevant and insignificant by now, as if the subtle fear was confronted and dissolved. Nor was there any other situation on the entire journey when any fear popped up again. Only on this very first night. What an irony.
Further down from Nubra Valley our path leads us to Lasirmou La Glacier (5,550 meter) and a chance encounter with a German couple. They travel with a team of local Sherpas and blessings enable us to initially follow their footsteps, guiding our way and grows into beautiful spiritual exchange. “Did you ever meet souls you immediately feel connected to? Most likely, yes. Everybody knows that feeling. However it gets really strange if this happens above 5,000 meter in the middle of nowhere in the Himalayas,” they very fittingly describe our meeting. When I reflect on where, how and what was exchanged, from knowledge to tradition, when I try to understand such chance encounters, I am silenced. Silenced by the play of life. Silenced by the reflections and insight I was gifted with. I smile at the new final destination of our journey, which shifted from Manali to a small village in Himachal Pradesh connected to a very specific tradition of Divine Mother. As the missing pieces of this journey start to be revealed, I lie in my sleeping bag in the night, listen to the flowing river stream and smile at the incomprehensible perfect flow of life.
Crossing famous Tanglang La Pass (5,350 meter), a route with never ever ending winding curves upwards and an ascend of more than 1,300 meters within a few hours, is (along Morey Plains) the toughest part of my journey. It is the second highest motorable pass in the world. It starts optimistic yet half way through looking at a still very far away peak that never seems to get closer, I start to feel defeated. The occasional cars, very tiny little spots in the far horizon, show the way towards the peak. It is those tiny little moving spots that make me realize how incredibly far away we still are. My body is in deep pain and exhaustion from the weight on my shoulder and the ascend to already 5,000 meters in very thin air. “How am I supposed to reach?” I question myself and feel overwhelmed with the urge to cry. I cry and then realize that I can’t breathe while crying, which makes me realize I can’t get enough oxygen, which makes me panic. From my previous journeys to Mount Kailash in Tibet, I am well aware of the dangers of altitude sickness and more so the lack of medical support here on the Tanglang La route. “I must not panic” I think to myself, sit down on a stone and try to consciously control my breath. I calm down. Up here is no luxury to cry. The mocking words of my friend come into my mind when I see a passing truck in the distance “You can always catch a bus to Manali”. But giving up is not an option and so a painful and very slow ascend continues…. [ to be continued in Part 2 ]