Our first destination on our monastery pilgrimage was the small village of Shey. Only 15 minutes away from Leh, but a world of difference in appearance and in the feeling of instant relaxation and calm we felt upon arriving. The village was the former 12th century capital of Ladakh. Perched on the highest craggy point is the former palace and gompa, famous for its 26-foot high Shakyamuni Buddha statue. The village has one restaurant, one store, and one guest house, in front of which our taxi dropped us off. Standing in the village, we cannot help but be in awe of the fact that we are surrounded by 360 degrees worth of mountains. On one side rugged and barren, dry mountains, etched lines made by fierce Himalayan winds. To the other side of alpinesque snow capped mountains. But like the rest of Ladakh, the inner valley is lush, due to a sacred pond, a former remnant of the palace days.
Our guest house is set off the main road, lined with poplars and grazing cows. The room is basic, kind of dirty, actually, and the 'mother' informs us that the pipes broke last winter, and the plumber has not been by yet. This means that there will be no water, unless you go out to pump it yourself, and no toilet per say, but a dirt room with a hole in the ground that is referred to as the 'local' toilet. But it is the only guest house in town and at least Seth was able to bargain the woman down to a good price, thanks to my many looks of disgust.
At sunset we went to explore the area, walking five minutes up the road, the landscape dramatically changed unto a realm of sand dunes, craggy rocks, and the sight of ancient Ladakh, hundreds of white stupas. Stupas can have different religious properties, they are designed like layered birthday cake, each layer representing a part of the Budddha, thus they can be used for contemplation and prayers. Other times they are the burial site for venerable monks. The second I saw these stupas set amongst the barren sand dunes, my gut instinct said we had entered a burial ground. As we are walking around, in trance by this mysterious landscape of stupas, we begin to hear the sounds of horns, drums and chanting, the ritual sounds of a puja ceremony taking place. Seth of course has to get to the source of these sounds, and goes clamoring through stupas, only to find a single man performing his own personal sadhana practice, and much to his surprise this man is a blond haired westerner.
We later come to meet the man, Josh, who is our age, from Washington, and who for the last 5 years has been attending a University in Kathmandu studying Himalayan-Buddhist Studies. Furthermore we come to find that Seth’s university advisor, Steve Jenkins had taught at this university withing the last couple of years, and Josh had been one of his students. Upon further investigation into Josh, we find out that his teacher in Nepal had sent him on a special pilgrimage into Ladakh, where he was to spend the night and meditate in 108 charnal grounds (cemeteries) before the summer was over. We asked him what number he was on, he said, ´98 and it has been a far-out time. I have definitely seen some hungry ghosts!'
The 26 foot Buddha is housed above the palace, watched over by a little old Ladakhi man, who sleeps in a room next to the Buddha, waiting to collect admission fees from the visitors. We arrived after appropriate visiting hours, but regardless he opened the ancient lock to allow us into the sacred gompa. Each breath this man took and each released was a reverberation of 'om mani padme hum.' His mouth constantly moving in mantra, only pausing to point out certain deities and images to Seth as he circumnavigated the massive Buddha with his camera.
A gale of wind had begun to Blow outside, making the thin glass pane Windows of the gompa rattle and shake. Within a minute the gales became fierce angry wind gods, almost snatching Sea Horse from Seth’s head.
Come bedtime, we are in the guest house and the wind is blowing hard, loud, hot, dry, pushing the poplar trees from vertical to horizontal. The house mother earlier had told us that this was very normal for Shey in the evenings, but this was not normal for two Californians†!
I was wide awake feeling very dried out and disturbed by the intensity of the wind storm, when the sky suddenly starts lighting up. Bright alien flashes of white light where followed by the loudest longest rumbles of thunder I have ever heard-FYI- Seth slept through all of the thunder and lightening…. And then the rains began.
Before I talk about the rain, let me preface this with background on the Ladakhi home. We had noticed this little phenomena in every room we had been in, which is that in every room there is a square hole in the ceiling. We finally figured out that this hole was for the pipe of a wood burning stove, for their long frigid 8 month winters. For a land that averages about 3 inches a year, that hole in the roof never seemed to matter until that night in Shey.
The thunder storm brought rain, and a lot of it, possibly half a years worth of rain, at which point Seth wakes up because it is pouring buckets in our room. Next to our bed. Since I had been up for it all, I had already heard the guest house family downstairs freaking out, trying to cover all the holes in the house, including coming on to the deck attached to our room, which we had noticed earlier had a hole leading right down into their nicely carpeted living room. There is not much to do but laugh when your room is filling up with water, our bed was dry and at least the rains dissipated the dry, relentless winds.
But the story of the storm in not quite over. A couple hours later to say to me in a very calm voice: 'Charlotte there is a bird in our room.' Sure enough there was loud flapping coming from the corner of the room, as a feathered friend had come into our room to take shelter from the storm. Then at about 7 in the morning we were awoken, the storms had stopped, but the entire family was out on our deck setting up a massive plastic tarp. They were banging doors, windows, throwing down large rocks, all to the background noise of crinkling tarp, as from our bed we had front row views of all the action.
The next thing we know they are coming into our room, bringing in plastic chairs and other items that had been on the deck, completely ignoring us. Only in India, would there be no knocking, no apology for their early morning disturbance or for entering our private abode. For in India there is no such thing as private, especially when there is work to be done. In classic Indian style once again, the house mother was extremely surprised when we told her that we would not be staying another night as was originally planned, never mind the fact that we were standing in our room in a large puddle of a rug.