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On top of the world

Avid Gisborne traveller Jane Griffin witnesses a puja ceremony and visits schools in Ladakh, Northern India. She continues the story of her adventures with fellow Gisbornite Kay Bayley . . .

In 2015, I realised a long-held dream, to go trekking and sight-seeing in Ladakh, Northern India (you can read part one of Jane's story here).

While in Ladakh with Kay, we met up with a friend and former colleague of mine, Tony Hyde, who taught at Aiglon College, a high school in Switzerland where I worked in administration years ago. He is a frequent visitor to Ladakh, usually taking high school students to work on service projects such as building classrooms at monastery (gompa) schools. As our guide's English was limited, it was invaluable having Tony to provide information during our trip. After all, he has visited Ladakh about 30 times!

Tony first went to Ladakh in 1990, traversing the Himalayas on foot from Kishtwar to Lamayuru over the course of about three weeks. He continued to visit over the next few years, climbing and trekking, and gradually realised that it would be an excellent place in which to organise a community service project.

The altitude was a potential issue, with the airport in Leh (3500m) being the lowest point of the immediate region, so, in 1994, he set up a pilot project to test the adaptability of non-indigenous high school students to working in high altitude. It proved to be a resounding success, as long as there was an acclimatisation programme, and only one student has ever been sent back to lower altitude due to suffering from altitude sickness.

The projects started at a gompa school in the Nubra Valley which is at a lower altitude but separated from Leh by a 5400m pass over which one has to travel by road. Projects are about four weeks in length and involve an acclimatisation period, the project work itself and a trek. Usually there are two students from Aiglon College plus others from India, the Americas and occasionally South Africa and New Zealand.

We were able to visit one of these schools in the Nubra Valley, Samstanling School at Sumur, which boys attend from the age of five. After completing their education at the school the boys usually continue their journey towards becoming monks at the monastery. However, there is no obligation to do so and, for this reason, the curriculum offers other subjects, in addition to Buddhist prayers, teachings and philosophy, to provide a broad-based education.

We also visited Lamdon School at Thiksey where we saw the children enjoying the facilities resulting from several projects completed in recent years (see photo below right). These buildings will be added to in the future.

Lamdon School has a hostel for students who live at a distance. At the beginning of the annual school holidays (July-September) these pupils are transported to the ends of their roads by school bus but in some cases still need to walk for several hours to reach their homes in remote valleys.

On our return to Leh we had an extra day due to weather disruptions — so we put the time to good use. We rose early and travelled to Thiksey Gompa to witness a puja in the monastery. Puja is a ceremony involving reflection, chanting and offerings. It was interesting to see the large number of young boy monks taking part.

We were then able to ascend to the roof of the building to hear two monks playing Tibetan horns (dungchen) at sunrise. Afterwards there was still time to support the local economy by purchasing souvenirs and gifts in Leh market.

Long trek for a beer

All too soon our trip was over and we were boarding the plane back to Delhi. As we swooped over the valleys and mountains again, I had a wistful feeling that, unlike Tony, I would probably not return. I would love to be proved wrong.

Tony tells an amusing story about his original trek in Ladakh:

“When we first set off, we were told we could get a beer in Padum, Zanskar several days' trek away but on arrival they had run out. The same was also the case when we arrived in Lamayuru. Surely they will have beer in Leh, we thought.

“Well, the answer to that was NO! However, the hotel owner — good man of Islam — said ‘Wait!'

“Off he went and half an hour later he returned with a crate of the much sought-after beverage. He had visited his friends in the Indian military who were guaranteed to have beer even though there was none in Leh itself.

“I often use an alternative title for this trek across the Himalayas to Ladakh: ‘How I trekked 250km on the promise of a beer!' ”

Magnificent Thiksey Monastery sits high on a hill 19 kilometres east of Leh in Ladakh, Northern India. Pictures by Jane Griffin and Kay Bayley
A busy street scene in Leh.
Jane and Tony at one of the camp sites on their trek.
Kay and Jane at Chang La with Indian motorcyclists.
Building classrooms at Lamdon School in Thiksey.
New classrooms at Lamdon School in Thiksey. Pictures of school by Tony Hyde
Jane, Kay and Tony at the summit of Taglang La Pass (5328m).
One of many breathtakingly beautiful valleys in Ladakh.
Monks playing dungchen at Thiksey Gompa.