Jeremy Clarke

Low life | 8 September 2016

In the high-altitude desert was an oasis of willows, poplars, apricot trees, wood stacks and wheatfields

Low life | 8 September 2016
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Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir

This morning I was woken just before daylight by the clear ‘ting’ of a meditation bell. The owner of the house was attending to his religious devotions in the little private chapel across the courtyard from my room. He is an ‘Amchi’, I’ve been told, which is a Ladakhi word for the village herbal-medicine man and astrologer. I’ve been staying at his house for two days, acclimatising to the thin air and doing nothing much except looking out of the window at the turbulent confluence, below the house, of the Zanskar and Indus rivers, and at the mountain ranges beyond.

I’ve encountered the Amchi just once so far. We passed on the stairs. He was wearing a clean green khaki shirt, pressed trousers and a leather Stetson hat. His mahogany Mongoloid face was hard as nails yet compassionate, if that is possible. I said, ‘Julee’ (Ladakhi for hello, goodbye, please, thank you, yes, no and how are you?). With a stony face, he said, ‘Julee, Julee, Julee,’ which might have been my week’s ration of greetings delivered in one go to save us both time and energy.

After breakfast, I was taken for a drive in the countryside. It was dismally cold and raining. I sat in the back seat, the guide sat in the front passenger seat. The driver spoke only Ladakhi. He drove us over a girder bridge then followed an immaculately smooth tarmac road which ran above and beside the Zanskar river. This lovely road ended abruptly after a few miles. After that we were bumping along a boulder-strewn mountain ledge a hundred feet above the foaming river and no curb or barrier. Progress was painfully slow. A road sign said, ‘After whisky, driving risky’. Another, further on, said, ‘Mister Late better than Late Mister’.

All around was high-altitude desert canyon: rock, rubble and sand, basically. The driver stopped and parked the car next to a road sign announcing a place called Chilling, and the guide led me on foot up a precipitous shale path to a plateau where the scenery abruptly changed from appalling barrenness to Hardy’s Dorset. Nestled among willows, poplars, apple trees, apricot trees, marigolds, hay stooks, wood stacks and neat, stone-walled wheatfields, was a hamlet of four ancient houses, barns and cowsheds. We knocked on the door of one of these houses and were admitted by a man with a closely cropped brown head and a little black moustache. His namewas Jigmet.

In the 17th century, the Ladakhi king brought metalworkers from Nepal to Ladakh to make copper statues of the Buddha. Four families descended from these original Nepalese immigrants still live and work here in this remote, astonishing oasis. Jigmet is the 11th-generation direct descendant of those original Nepalese craftsmen. ‘Would you like tea?’ Jigmet asked the guide, who then translated the question from Ladakhi into English for my benefit. ‘I could murder a cup,’ I said.

Jigmet showed us into a dark room that appeared to be part living area, part Buddhist temple. Examples of his metalwork — chiefly elaborate teapots and metal cups and bowls — were displayed in a glass-fronted cupboard. The windows were tiny, the smoke-blackened ceiling low. Heating was supplied by a monumental clay oven. The metalworker bought in the tea tray and laid out the cups and saucers. Hewas mother.

It was a wonder to me that this man had lived his entire life in this remote spot, doing the same job as the previous 11 generations of his forefathers, in an interrelated community consisting of just four families, and with no mains electricity. Via the guide, I asked Jigmet whether he watched television. He said that he watches television only on his rare visits to Leh, the capital of the region. And what were his favourite programmes? Well, he liked the wildlife documentaries on the National Geographic channel, he said, and if there should happen to be a programme on about metalworking, he would watch that. And if he was sick, I said, did he go to a medical doctor or to an Amchi? Jigmet considered a while then said that it all depended on what the Rinpoche advised him to do. (A Rinpoche is a Buddhist high priest.) ‘But my life here is very full,’ he said, gently and adroitly admonishing these patronising questions. ‘And we could sit here and talk about it all day long. But I gather your time here is limited.’

Instead of driving, the guide and I travelled back down the Zanskar river canyon in an inflatable dinghy. The Zanskar is low at this time of the year, nevertheless some of the rapids made my heart race. The rain had stopped and we paddled the aquamarine river in hot sunshine. Thus has been my day so far, and it isn’t yet lunchtime.