The stars are all in the sky. I have only seen the sky like this twice in my life. I saw it once in Australia, and the other time sleeping in the Sahara. There are absolutely no lights around so while I look up I am almost convinced that the sky is actually white and here in this remote traditional Muslim village 5 km from Pakistan the black cloth that covers the sky is too worn out to hide the light that emanates from it. It was not easy to arrive here. We road through a treacherous road around the himalayas, crossing occasionally bridges that danced as much as they sang. We had to require a permit to be here, to discover the valley that has been disputed so long by the giant India, and Pakistan. We had to show permissions and passports to kasmirian, nepali, Tibetan, indian, Pakistani , mongolian faces in several check points along the way and ponder how much mixture has happened here too. We had to drive across the highest road pass in the world, pray every single time a truck or a bus came the other side for the road to magically enlarge for a second , it did. And we had to agree to be totally disconnected from the world.
After about 8 hours of driving crossing villages that have been already open to tourism for some years we reached our little village which had not. This muslim village lies between mountains and to reach it we had to go beyond it all, and in the end as the road did not make it there we had to climb the last part. Every single child and adult that passed greeted us. We were the main attractions of the village. I had a mix feeling of joy for being able to see this almost first hand, and the concern that in a couple more years this traditional life style would also seize to exist. We climbed the mountain with our heavy back packs in our backs. The path was so steep that i often thought i would fall backwards. There is something however empowering of arriving so far, and so i denied all offers of people to carry my stuff. Someone once told me we should all carry our own load.
When we made it to the village itself i could not believe my eyes. Could really soooo much beauty be contained like this in a corner of the world? In the middle of the rocky and sandy mountains laid plots and plots of green fields, apricot trees, channels of water and colourfully dressed children and women. They veiled in their own traditional way.
I talked to every child who crossed my path, they greeted me in english i worked on finding out basics of their own language, they were surprised by it. They wanted to sing the hebrew songs israelis had taught them. They wanted to be photographed and then look at themselves on the camera.
As i arrived at our guesthouse I thought of our shampoo, toilet paper and all the junk we tourists bring with us. I decided i d minimise my impact to the bare minimum. None of these items would be used. I walked and walked mesmerised by the natural beauty, by the friendliness of the people and by this strange feeling that we were part of the process that would destroy it all.
It surprised me to realise that lack of option of what to eat made me happy. I never cherished a meal so much. In this remote village silver plates were brought.we had rice, daal, and some vegetable dish that was to die for. As we sat to play cards with a local boy and our driver, a muslim and a Buddhist in a game we had no idea how it worked, i felt happy. Jilmet ,our driver, had never been there but within seconds was friends with the local boy. They spoke now in ladakhi and not in the local language. Another local who spoke fluent english as he has studied in srinagar explained to me that till 1971that was Pakistan. I asked him whether he preferred being part of India or Pakistan and he explained to me that even though he was muslim he preferred being part of India “Pakistan is one military dictatorship after another! “. I asked him whether he did not feel tourism would destroy it all. He disagreed, “nothing changes traditional ways, but we also must meet people who think different then us.” I felt happy, not because I believed it, but it made me feel less guilty. I did agree we must encounter different ideas, but feeling like i was seeing the last glimpse of a traditional civilisation, and the feeling that we corrupt with images which are often not so real these places disturbed me. Children ran freely, they climbed trees, climbed mountains without any immediate adult supervision.
So many thoughts went through my mind as i walked the little alleys, as I saw the ladies carrying big stashes of straw in their backs, enormous baskets of apricots. The old ladies were the only ones who seemed wary of us. Like sorcerers that have access to wisdom they were unimpressed by cameras, or us at all. They refrained from being photographed and though they greeted me back when i smiled saying ” Salem” they kept going about their own business undisturbed.
My German friends decided we should climb one of the mountain that surrounded us. We had already done half of the climb during the morning. We had encountered on our way where the local boys did their laundry. Climbing half way was hard enough as i had with me water, hat, nepali pants, camera, so for the afternoon, i decided i would not bring anything at all.
I pondered whether it was a good idea for me to climb a steep rocky mountain with a boy who rock climbs, and another who is strong and tall. i am small, and i know nothing of mountains. They told me I should come for as long as i could. So even though that was probably not the wisest idea I did.
I tried to ask locals if it was safe to climb a mountain that seemed to be a pile of rocks waiting to desconstuct any second. The smiled and nodded probably not fully understanding what we meant by it. And so only three of our group of five decided to go. We re did the walk to the ” laundry” place and then we started the hardest climb. I am not strong but I am flexible and I have a lot of balance because of all the years of yoga I also carry on my back. I squatted and basically for the whole entire time I crawled the mountain like a spider. It was tricky to chose the right stones, not all of them were really stable. it was a process of continuously balancing, of continuously spreading weight evenly, without a question it allowed me to reach the deepest stage of meditation i ever have. i was fully aware of every muscle, of every breath, any wrong movement meant potentially falling. Retrospectively thinking it was quite dangerous. I did however not do it for the adrenalin, i did not even feel it, i was calm and just going. The first part of the mountain was easy as the rocks were bigger, but the higher we climbed it became more and more loose stones and dirt. At some point we reached some kind of grave yard where laid dozens of carcasses of animals. Usually it would have disturbed me, there it did not, life and death were one and the same. i looked at it. the bones, the carcasses, i looked at it deeply, and kept going. There were some parts i could not have made it without Toby an Paul. It probably meant i should have stopped there as the climb down from these points onward would prove to be challenging. We reached a place were we could comfortably seat. For the first time i looked back and i was impressed. People looked so small, the patches of green as well, and i was astonished by the beauty. The village laid in the middle of several mountains, we could see the Hindus river, the fields, and the blue skies. I wondered which of these mountains separated us from Pakistan, and I was dazzled at realising that km, or time separated us from it. It seemed so arbitrary.
We still went further, but once even the looking like strong stones seemed to be loosing up in our hands, once it became more and more avalanche like of sand and rocks Paul and I decided we had reached our level. Toby was sad he had not ropes, he still tried a bit more, but being a rock climber himself he realised it was stupid and dangerous to do so. So we sat and just enjoyed it. In one more place I meditated. I thanked them for taking me with them. They told me they were impressed with my courage and strength… So was I. If going up was difficult, going down was petrifying. I did not want to be taken up by fear. So I embraced my mortality, my fears, and decided that I respected the mountain, that i was thankful, but that if I arrived safe back down I would never go beyond my limits. I decided as well that I had no regrets. I have lived a good life. From the moment I laid in hospital years ago without knowing what I had in my brain, without knowing whether I could do this all. Whether i d be trapped by a disease. From that moment on I went in a frantic search. There in the mountain I decided I have lived a good life, and were it to end it right there I felt nothing but thankfulness to everything, to myself. It was not that I wanted to die. not at all, it was this awareness that I want to live, but life and death are one and the same and we must embrace it. And so i started my climb down with all the respect i could possibly have for the mountain, for life, and for death. As I reached the bottom of the mountain I realised I was emptied of it all. And so at night when the cloth could not fully cover the light that emanates from the sky. So at night when the milky way and every single star looked back at me I realise I had seen them before and most of their beauty lied in recognition. I realised I could go on traveling more, and see more and more of the world. But if everything could be contained in that one village, because everything is in fact contained in one atom, or quark or i don’t know what I did not need anymore to search for meaning all over. Even before I turn 30 I realise I could go on for a bit longer but then I want to stop. Then I will make one place my own and search beauty and meaning daily in the familiar things. That is undoubtedly the greatest journey.