They say smell is the heart of nostalgia, but I think sound offers an equally fervent effect. It’s that cavernous reflection, the wistful longing, the ache in your heart for treasured things past. As dusk falls over the sleepy town of Leh in the remote region of Ladakh, the call to prayer emanates from the mosque sitting at the base of a rocky cliff, its white domes and turquoise arches highlighted against a crumbling backdrop of stone and sand. A few hundred meters above, a fifteenth century Buddhist palace and gompa sit tranquilly atop the rocky mountain edge, gazing over the winding alleys of Old Leh, the rising infrastructure of its sprawl, and out beyond the valley into the depths of the snow shrouded summits of the Himalayas. The wind carries the minaret’s song past the colourful flutter of fading Tibetan prayer flags that wind past softly lit windows, through juniper forests, and along the rocky ridges of the Changtang plateau.
Cradled by the Indus Valley at over 3500 meters on the banks of the Indus River, Leh is a captivating harmony of Kashmiri and Tibetan influence. Since the early 1960s the number of immigrants from Tibet have increased as they flee the occupation of their homeland by the Chinese. Today, Leh has some 3,500 refugees from Tibet, whose tranquil culture permeates the region. In the winter months, this remote sky scraping desert is isolated from the rest of India and the world. The passes that connect it to modern civilization close in early October and won’t open until the snows melt sometime in late spring. Ladakis are grateful for this cocoon of isolation, which preserves their culture through a frigid winter's gestation before the bounty of visitors and flowers arrive in spring. Winding through the old narrow cobblestone maze of Old Leh, sense of time disappears, slipping graciously into the mysterious bazaars of the Middle Ages.
While the summer season swarms with visitors, the majority of the year is spent playing ice hockey and gossiping around fires with family and friends which, in this part of the world, seem one in the same. Tibetan cultures evoke a sense of peace and tranquility cultivating a calm in me unlike anywhere else I have yet discovered. Shop keepers, uniformed school children, monks, and army soldiers greet passers-by with a cheerful “Julley” and a grand smile at every turn. The tight knit community embraces visitors with a welcoming grace that makes one consider missing the window of escape before the passes close for the winter, leaving Ladakh detached from the world as they enter an eight-month hibernation in their blissful desert in the sky.