The approach to Leh is a heart-in-mouth weave through very high mountains, a steep turn over the Indus and down hard onto the short landing strip.
The plane door opens into thin air and a very barren landscape – mostly browns, lots of rocks and the occasional spear of a poplar. Ladakh looks tough and dry, the Ladakhis – small, nutbrown and wiry behind the customs desk - are tough and dry too, until they thump an official stamp down on the arrival form and smile.
Driving through town and out towards the villages that cling to the lower slopes of the Ladakh range, there seems to be nothing but dry which explains the need for toughness and the apparent lack of vibrance. Gradually though, as the eye gets used to the landscape, small pockets of colour poke out of the drab. There is the Indus of course, glacial blue, snaking through the valley.
The pure white of the snow along the piles and piles of mountains. The deep indigo of the sky. Closer to the villages, more trees appear – bright green leaves of the poplars and willows – and in the orchards there's the subtle pink of apple and apricot blossom. In May it's a bit early for the barley and wheat but by June the terraced fields are blankets of emerald.
Then there are the prayer flags. Blue, white, red, green and yellow – they're tied to every rooftop, every bridge, every TV aerial. They are strung up between rocks on high mountain passes, attached to remote shepherds huts and decorate every temple whether it's the ornate Hemis monastery or a tiny stone-built ghompa in the middle of a mountain stream. They flutter in the winds, spreading good will and compassion across the earth until their colours fade almost to grey, fraying and tatty where they've been battered by the elements.
On a walk up to Stok Kangri, the highest mountain in the Zanskar range, Pujan our guide, hands us a bundle of prayer flags to tie between a stick of willow and a jagged rock edge. Below is a fast flowing river, full of melted snow. Warm winds whistle through the narrow mountain passes, taking the prayers with them over the peaks and down to the distant plains. Each colour represents a certain element – blue is the sky, white is the wind, red is fire, green is water and yellow the earth.
For us, breathless and lightheaded, watching the small rectangles hanging far above the rest of the world, they represent dreams, faith and longing. They are hung in answer to adversity, floods, famine, the hardship of life in the harsh environment. They are the colours of hope.
Read more about the travel experiences we offer in India
Posted by: Alex