6a.m., walking through the narrow, twisting, dusty lanes of the old town: weathered faces on hunched bodies with gnarled hands fingering prayer beads, entering the gold-roofed Buddhist temple; 'om mani padme hum' echoing over and over; traders squatting outside their shops, washing and brushing teeth before opening up; stray dogs and roaming cows feeding
on rubbish mounds; the aroma of fresh flat breads wafting from the clay oven bakeries down dim alleyways; dark-eyed, bearded Muslim men mingling outside the blue and white mosque; traditionally dressed old men and women stooped under the weight of the baskets and bundles on their backs; goods for sale appearing outside shops: traditional stove-pipe hats, sheepskin-lined jackets, woollen shawls; higgledy-piggledy houses jutting out of the vertical rockface; veiled Muslim women scurrying indoors; a maroon and saffron-robed monk grinning broadly in greeting...
Leaving the old town behind, the path climbs to the old palace and then becomes steep switchbacks up the rock. As I climb, the mantra from the temple floats up in the clear early morning light...'om mani padme hum, om mani padme hum...'. The atmosphere feels so perfect, I feel I could float up with it...but in reality, at 3,500 metres, I'm gasping for oxygen every few steps! Half an hour later I reach the Gompa
(monastery) perched on top of the rocky point and sit gazing at the distant mountains through the fluttering prayer flags. Not a soul to be seen, and from this height Leh is a tranquil oasis amid the desert mountains...easy to visualise the camel and horse caravans of old, heading down to the bazaar from the mountain pass in search of refreshment and shelter after their long, lonely journeys. A young monk, maroon baseball cap carefully colour-co-ordinated with his robes, appears, to fill the butter lamps and shows me the temple interior.
It's mid-morning when I arrive back in Leh and enter a transformed town - the tourists are now up and about and the sleepy town of early morning is replaced by just another traveler ghetto, full of hippy clothes, pancake shops, internet cafes and shopkeepers giving the hard sell.
Time to move on...my multi-day trek in the Indian Himalaya begins in a couple of days... nobody up in those mountains to give the hard sell!