Leh is a Shangri-La with a storied past and an uncertain future. Once the center of great kingdoms and a crossroads of trade routes, Leh is now the focus of rapid growth and diminishing resources.
Situated at the crossroads of cultures from South Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East, Leh changed hands for both economic and religious reasons, finally reaching a stable peak when Tibetan Buddhists held sway, evidenced by the hundreds of sites dotting the green valley of the upper Indus valley and surrounding high Himalayas. Buddhism and an energetic and creative Tibetan populace provided the motivation, and kingdoms provided the structure for the development of a vibrant culture. Besides an amazing Buddhist architecture the most important accomplishment was a system of irrigation ditches to capture water from glaciers and snow fields surrounding the valley. This allowed for a stable growing population focused on agriculture and yak herds.
Today Leh struggles to reconcile two cultural identities: agricultural Tibetan Buddhist (and Muslim merchants) and twenty-first century modernity brought on by the booming tourism industry: You can book a week-long trek, a whitewater rafting tour, a downhill mountain bike ride from the highest road in the world or an all-inclusive Buddhist meditation retreat.
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In the same modest sized town, centuries old agrarianism is practiced: From our guesthouse balcony, we see cows wandering the irrigation ditched alleyways, walled gardens and freshly scythed hay drying on flat roofs.
Our hosts prepare greens to dry for winter soups (just as we do), are interrupted to reset the wi-fi for an Austrian tourist, and check in a family from France. I joked with “Mom” that she must be looking forward to the winter cold, when all of the tourists go home, and was rewarded with a wry smile. She probably works harder than her mother or grandmother did, but she will be able to afford to send her daughter to the medical schooling she dreams about.
The small downtown is a bustle of construction, insane traffic dodging wandering cows and donkeys, tourists and beckoning shopkeepers; red robed monks walk past the mosque at call to prayer.
Less than two kilometers away our guest house sits nestled among farmer’s homes, tiny walled fields, and near a stupa. Dogs bark, cows moo in the night and warblers serenade our breakfast on the deck.
Increasingly the two worlds are competing for the same limited water in this Himalayan desert; some hard choices await.