Relay: Ladakh, by Way Of New London

Ladakh is remote, mountainous, and primitive

   “Tashi delek.”
   The words, mumbled while fishing for coins in my pocket, surprise me, though it was I that had uttered them.
    New London, Thanksgiving Day, 11:30 a.m. I’ve allowed so much time to drive to Orient Point that I catch an earlier ferry and arrive an hour sooner than anticipated. I’m famished and everything is closed. Finally, not far from the Amtrak station, a small grocery, open.
    A middle-aged couple sits inside. Finally, I’ve chosen a few items, and stand at the counter. On the wall, pictures of the Dalai Lama.
    They too are surprised at my greeting, and we begin to talk, and with a long wait for my brother and his family to collect me, I recount my adventures in India, where they were born. Long journeys to Jaipur, Agra, Rishikesh, Mumbai, Ko­chi. To the breathtaking Namdroling mon­astery in Bylakuppe and, in the far north, to Ladakh, the eastern region of Jammu and Kashmir.
   Sometimes called Little Tibet, Ladakh is remote, mountainous, and primitive. The power grid is unreliable, the roads are deadly, and the air, even in this otherworldly land, hangs heavy with diesel exhaust. Being a coastal type, more suited to the ocean, it’s not really for me.
    But there is a serenity there, among the vast blue sky, the snow-capped peaks, the ancient monasteries, and the sangha, the Buddhist community of monks, nuns, and lay followers. I’m guessing it’s a more tranquil and welcoming environment than what lies across the border, where at least 90 Tibetans have self-immolated since 2009.
    In Ladakh, I knew many Tibetans. “The first time I saw a Chinese soldier,” one told me, “he said, ‘I’m here to help you. I’m going to plant your crops.’ ” Some years later — 1959 — the People’s Liberation Army brutally suppressed an uprising against the Chinese occupation, and the tragedy of Tibet was under way. The Dalai Lama fled to India. He has not returned.
    Another Tibetan acquaintance, in a book for which I edited the English translation, wrote of Chairman Mao’s “struggle sessions,” in which leadership was forced to “confess,” before agitated crowds, to crimes and exploitation, only to be tortured. This man’s uncle perished in such circumstances.
    Of all the wondrous characteristics of the Tibetan people — and I count many — most inspiring are their unerring compassion, even toward those who have so cruelly, ruthlessly trespassed against them, and the hope they sustain in the face of what seems utterly hopeless.
    That couple in the grocery store was like that. Once second-class citizens in a third world country, they now scratch out an existence in a small city in America, many thousands of miles from their ancestral home.
    But they seem happy.

    Christopher Walsh is a reporter for The Star.