The palace at Leh

Leh Palace, which dominates the skyline of the dusty little town

Nestled deep in the mountains in a Ladakh valley carved by the Indus River, Leh was a delight – and a perfectly safe place to visit in the otherwise tumultuous state of Kashmir. With apologies to Robert Frost, I’d taken the more travelled of the two roads leading to Leh. The other went via Srinagar, fifty miles from the border with Pakistan and a hotspot for trouble, with attacks occurring against security forces there on a regular basis. The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises against all travel in Kashmir except for Ladakh due to the ongoing tension, and although they are known to be overcautious with their advice, I decided to heed it on this occasion, aware of the deep-seated feelings the Kashmir dispute can raise.
Like most of the currently disputed territories in the world, the British helped cause the mess in Kashmir. As the British Empire was crumbling post-Second World War, calls were growing louder for the establishment of an independent Muslim state in what was British India. Although fought by many – including the legendary Ghandi, who maintained that unity was the way but eventually capitulated – it went ahead, and in 1947 the state of Pakistan was created, comprising the land west of Amritsar in Punjab and the area east of Calcutta, then known as East Pakistan (but which is now the independent state of Bangladesh after a brief war of independence in the early seventies).
If only it were so easy to draw a few lines on a map and for everyone to live happily ever after. The Indian subcontinent was far from religiously homogeneous, and in the ensuing chaos of people uprooting and relocating to the land of their religion, terrible massacres occurred. Whole trains of Muslims fleeing to newly-created Pakistan were held up and their passengers slaughtered by Hindu mobs. Hindus fleeing Pakistan to India were similarly ambushed and murdered. The legacy of such terrible atrocities was a reinforcement of mutual religious hatred which lingers to this day, simmering under the surface and rearing its ugly head from time to time such as during the Mumbai riots a few years back.
At the time of the partitioning of British India, Kashmir had a particularly difficult quandry. A hodgepodge state of Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims – the latter of which were the majority – it was ruled by a Hindu Maharajah. Torn between choosing to join Pakistan or India, and facing immense pressure from both sides, he eventually put his lot in with India (although Pakistan maintains to this day that this decision was made after Indian troops entered Kashmir). Ever since, the state has been in a tug of war and the epicentre of India-Pakistan skirmishes and hostilities. To add to the mess, India has a contested Kashmiri border with China as well, which resulted in the Sino-Indian War of 1962. All the while, the Ladakhi Buddhists keep their heads down and lap up the tourism that comes their way as a remote yet thoroughly safe province of Kashmir.
I was feeling a lot better, although with another notch on the Imodium Meter thanks to the effects of altitude sickness. I dragged myself up and out to stroll the streets of Leh, through the bustling market centre and out to the suburbs, purposefully losing myself amongst the narrow, winding alleys of mud-brick walls running between the dwellings. I decided to make a beeline for the Shanti Stupa, a Buddhist structure up on high built by a Japanese voluntary group which apparently offered a good view of the town, and on the (many) steps upwards I bumped into the Scottish couple from the bus, who had linked up with another friendly and entertaining Scot from Orkney. I was glad to see the steps destroyed him as much as they did me; my body still wasn’t repaired or acclimatised, and the alarming taste of blood at the back of my throat as I reached the top was a shocking warning that the altitude had affected me more severely than I had first thought, showing that fluid had leaked into my lungs from my blood vessels, a possible sign of the beginnings of high-altitude pulmonary edema. The Scottish couple were heading off for further hikes to the surrounding villages, but there would be no more exertion for me, only rest and recuperation.
It felt comforting to be returning to sea level tomorrow. By plane.