Here you are, at the end of your journey, or should we say at the beginning? There are no more places, no more time or movement. You no longer observe life through these external manifestations. You feel it deep within yourself. In the stillness and the silence, you feel united within yourself and with the rest of the world. Welcome this fullness and radiate. 

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The Ladakh People
By Renaud Philippe

Summer is drawing to a close on the roof of the world. During the brief summer months when the crops are growing, the tourist industry is in full swing and life seems like one big celebration. But what comes next is a long period of isolation. Come meet a unique people as they prepare for winter.

Juley is the right word for every occasion. It means “thank you,” “hello,” “you’re welcome,” “yes,” and much more. It’s on everyone’s lips at all times. It’s a human word that brings people together and is always spoken with a smile. As Dorgee returns home he meets Namgyal, who is arriving by bus from Leh at the same makeshift stop. Taking advantage of peak tourism season, many Ladakhis like Namgyal leave friends and family behind to work in the city or as guides on mountain treks. Women share the workload in this society, toiling in the fields and looking after the children.

In the lowlands of the capital of India, New Delhi, travel agencies offering bus service to Ladakh are advertising the times of their last departures. Tomorrow will bring the first snows of the season. For over six months, the Himalayan passes linking the Indian lowlands to the dizzying, hostile mountain highlands will be closed. The last remaining seats are taken, and anyone arriving later will have to squeeze in wherever they can. Farther north, preparations have already been underway for two months. Given what the coming winter has in store, nothing can be left to chance.

Ladakh is the largest district in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. The region was once a Buddhist kingdom before breaking ties with Tibet in the 17th century. When the 5th Dalai Lama responded with an invasion attempt, the neighboring Muslim region of Kashmir helped mount a defence. But that assistance came at a very high price. Cultural identity was destroyed, and the people were forced to convert to Islam. In the end, Kashmir mounted a full invasion of the region, bringing an end to its independence and eventually leading to its inclusion in British India. The period between the partitioning of India in 1947 and the creation of the state of India brought great political turmoil, but the essence of the Ladakh people endured thanks to the earth, which imposes its own pace and traditions.

As the sun rises on Leh, the capital of Ladakh, the streets come to life. First, the tea vendors around the bus station fire up their gas canisters. A bus arrives. Written on its side are the words “Dehli/Leh.” Nearby, a small group of passengers boards another bus. They carry gifts in boxes wrapped in dazzlingly multicolored paper, creating a sharp contrast with the dull bluish hue of the rocks and dust covering a landscape bled of its summer colors. They are headed west, to Alchi, for a family wedding. Fall is the season of celebrations. Across the region, in the thousands of little villages that dot the landscape, horns and trumpets are sounding, and festivities are underway. For the Ladakhi, these gatherings are social and spiritual feasts before a long period of forced isolation.

In the high, desolate lands to the north, in a region inhospitable to urban development, a few groups of nomadic shepherds make their way through the mountains. The harsh climate, thin air, and almost barren soil providing hardly enough vegetation to feed a herd have left their mark on the people. Their faces reveal that life here is a daily struggle. It is not a battle against nature, but rather a constant effort to live in harmony with nature and become one with her.

An old jeep leaves a cloud of dust in its wake as it drives along the road. A Buddhist monk has just performed a baptism ceremony. The driver, named Tsetan Dorgee, drives slowly along narrow roads bordered by dizzyingly high cliffs, where every successful turn can seem like a victory snatched from the jaws of death. During the conflicts that raged between Pakistan and India, the Indian army built these roads, which have considerably reduced travel times for the local people. A final turn around a pile of boulders reveals the unassuming Tso Moriri monastery, built at 5,300 meters above sea level. It has taken eight hours to travel 200 kilometers. A red silhouette moves along the road to the monastery. The driver lights a fire, prepares and eats his dinner, puts on some warm clothes, and climbs into the vehicle for the night. He will leave in the morning after lighting a fire under his vehicle to warm up the engine, to the astonishment of the only two tourists left in the region.

Dorgee takes a break for a butter tea. This traditional drink is a surprising combination of tea, yak milk, butter, and salt. It is consumed everywhere. Food is scarce during the winter months because of the high cost of shipping it in by plane and the need for rationing to get through the winter. Butter tea provides much-needed calories. The only fuel available to the nomadic shepherds to heat their tents and homes is a mixture of hay and cow, yak, or antelope manure. This mixture is dried on rooftops during the summer months to create an effective, slow-burning fuel. The region is almost entirely devoid of trees, making firewood a rare and expensive luxury. At night, the temperature already drops to -15°C.

Namgyal will spend the winter in his home village in the Nubra Valley. The microclimate has granted the people of the valley a few relatively easy weeks, allowing them to leave fieldwork behind. But the sudden appearance of signs announcing the first snowfall triggers intense, orchestrated effort. To counter the devastating effects of the violent winds that sweep the valley, hectares of sundried agricultural fields are flooded, freezing the soil and protecting it from the harsh winter.

Everything about Ladakh—the rich landscape, towering mountains, steep cliffs, and harsh climate—makes an impression. But none of it compares to the hospitality of the people. Juley is the essence of simplicity in every event, gesture, and interaction. It is the very soul of Ladakh, a soul in harmony with life, nature, and an eternal, daily struggle in which humanity is an underdog who somehow always manages to avoid defeat. It is a struggle for life and a struggle for balance, and it will not end with the return of fair weather. Spring will bring the period of plowing, digging, and toiling that marks the beginning of the endless cycle that allows humans to survive through winter.