The Cost-Benefit Analysis of Trekking

The Cost-Benefit Analysis of Trekking

The Cost-Benefit Analysis of Trekking
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Aug. 20 2002 2:58 PM

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Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson
Seth Stevenson, often found shopping for Slate, recently filed a "Diary" from Bangkok.
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Longitude: 78.15 E Latitude: 32.57 N Altitude: 15,005 feet Today's audio update

Novice monks at Thiksey were late for school
Novice monks at Thiksey were late for school

This morning we visit the Thiksey monastery. This is the grandest, most elaborate monastery we've seen. Its dozens of buildings are set into the side of a rock face, and we're told that the smaller huts are studio apartments for the monks. As we climb the stairs, two little 8-year-old monklings scamper by.

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From a landing at the top of the steps, there is a view across a vast valley. On the left side, it is all rock and soot-gray dirt—features that have earned Ladakh the nickname "Moonland." But at the center of our view, this arid nothingscape bumps up against a village, which has been irrigated. Suddenly, rocks give way to lush green lawns and tall, skinny poplars. It's as though someone scalped up a patch of Tuscany and grafted it into India. The transition is sudden and wholesale, and it makes for a bizarre vista.

On the monastery walls, we again we see a mural of the jewel-barfing mongoose. We have still not fully grasped its significance, but we are fast becoming fans of the little guy. Also here are paintings of the "hungry ghosts," who have toothpick-thin necks and big fat bellies—they can't fit enough food down their gullets to satisfy their wants. It's a key Buddhist symbol of the futility of desire.

The giant Future Buddha stands about 40 feet high
The giant Future Buddha stands about 40 feet high

But clearly, the killer app at Thiksey is the massive Future Buddha. Phunsook tells us that the Future Buddha will come down to Earth in 500 years—when there will be no religion—to teach Buddhism to the world. The statue of the Future Buddha here is about 40 feet tall, and he's breathtaking. He has a conch shell embedded in his forehead, and heavy earrings stretch his earlobes so far down that they are longer than my torso. We view him from a platform that sidles right up to his waist. Looking down below we can see his bright red feet.

The Indus River, which has its source near Mount Kailash, is sacred to Buddhistss and Hindus
The Indus River, which has its source near Mount Kailash, is sacred to Buddhists and Hindus

When we leave Thiksey, we hit the roads for a somewhat epic journey. We are following the yellow-brown waters of the sacred Indus River for most of this trip. First, we drive through craggy, deep canyons carved into the mountains—as dramatic or more so than most you'll find in the American Southwest. But then we emerge into greener, flatter valleys. This also, unfortunately, signals the end of pavement.

I've told you about the highways here. But I'm not done. Today, we drive over roads that could only charitably be termed "dirt." Strike that—it would be charitable to term them "roads." Sometimes they are wet mud, sometimes they are loose gravel, and sometimes we are not sure if we're even on a road at all, or if we've begun to blaze a brand-new highway.

Gangs from the Indian state of Bihar work on building roads throughout Ladakh
Gangs from the Indian state of Bihar work on building roads throughout Ladakh

Along our drive, we see dozens of workers who've been bussed in from Bihar, one of the poorest states in India. Their job is to chip small rocks into smaller rocks. Then they must gather these smaller rocks into piles. Then they must spread the piles out over the road to create a gravel surface that will eventually be paved. We all agree that Bihar must be a not altogether happy place since they've chosen to travel hundreds of miles to break rocks at 15,000 feet.

Lifting the somber mood of the roads are many fat little marmots who clamber fatly around in the bowl of the valley. They are quite comical. Possibly the cutest animal ever, though there is some debate over this.

Also entertaining are the many yellow signs posted by the Border Roads Organization—the military group that builds and maintains all these wacky byways. The slogans have clearly been cooked up by some wag with much time on his hands. Favorites include: "Mind Your Brakes or Brake Your Mind," "Go Slower on Earth, or Quicker to Eternity," "Be Mr. Late, Not a Late Mr.," "After Whiskey, Driving Risky," and "Leprosy Is Curable."

This large glacier-fed lake is a protected area for birds
This large glacier-fed lake is a protected area for birds

Our eventual destination is Tso Moriri, very near the Tibetan border. It's a turquoise lake walled in by glacier-capped mountains. It is absolutely gorgeous. The sun is hitting the ice just right, lighting it up like a 100-watt bulb, and the lake is glassy-smooth and iridescent.