We needed a place for our family to sleep, so we asked the woman walking her cows down the street if she had any recommendations. "Follow me," she said. Shannon and I looked at each other and shrugged. We'd never gone wrong following a cow lady before. On the other hand, we'd never gone right following a cow lady either. We actually hadn't ever followed a cow lady before. But you only live once! So we followed the cow lady to her house, and it turned out that she had a couple rooms upstairs in her family's house, and they only wanted about fifteen bucks per room per night. That seemed reasonable, even though there was no hot water, nor towels, nor toilet paper. And no heat, despite the fact that we were 12,000 feet up in the Himalayas in late-October. But you can't really complain -- as they say, you get what you pay for. Or, more accurately, you don't get what you don't pay for.
Leh, a small town perched high in the Himalayas (between 11,000 and 12,000 feet), near both Tibet and Pakistan, is technically part of India. But the only thing Indian about it is the overwhelming Indian military presence in town and the regions roundabout. This is because, in case you've been sniffing glue real hard for the past 70 years, India has poor relations with Pakistan. And kind of with China too. Leh is only about a two-hour flight from Delhi, and October is the cusp between high and low tourist season. This means that there are fewer tourists around and things are a lot cheaper. But it also means that a lot of hotels are closed for the winter and you might have to sleep in the cow lady's house.
Since they've lived most of their lives in hot climates, my kids were pretty excited to go somewhere cold. Until they actually got somewhere cold, then they had second thoughts. Fortunately, Shannon and I had thought ahead and borrowed all manner of coats and hats and sweaters from kind friends (our own belongings, to which we bid farewell last April in El Salvador, have not yet arrived in India). Bundled up in multiple layers of mismatched leggings, jeans, hoodies, hats, and coats, the Abu Halen family resembled a white trash winter ensemble and was prepared to brave temperatures plunging into the 40s and 30s.
Now, I recognize that that's not objectively very cold, but after spending the past five years in Saudi Arabia, El Salvador, and now India, temperatures in the 70s feel cold to us. So this felt like an Arctic expedition, and we trained by holding several pre-trip family meetings on the very real possibility that the wind chill could reach sub-50 degrees Farenheit, in which case a Donner Party scenario could set in. "Look, all I'm saying," I told the kids, "is that I think that using a lot of mustard would probably take away some of the 'Ew' factor."
Leh -- and the surrounding region, known as Ladakh -- is heavily Buddhist, but I was surprised and interested to learn that nearly half the population of Leh itself is in fact Muslim. The only Hindus within scores and scores of miles are the Indian army soldiers stationed throughout the mountains. There are several mosques in town, and I loved hearing the calls to prayer, which I've actually missed a lot since leaving the Islamic world in 2014. Our hostess -- the cow lady -- and her family were Muslim, and her kids explained that in school Ladakhi students learn English and Urdu, a language based on the Arabic script and strongly associated with Islam throughout Pakistan and parts of Afghanistan and India. Almost nobody speaks or learns Hindi in Ladakh, because there's just no need. I thought all this was very interesting. My kids were like, "Yes, but is there pizza in this town."
Per general norms of propriety in Ladakh, we toured numerous monasteries. The first few were pretty neat. They are generally built in the most inaccessible locations. It's as if monks go walking up into the mountains, and then when they find a place where they're like, "Man, it would SUCK to have to drag building materials up here," that's where they're like, "I think we should drag building materials up here." So the monasteries were fun, but five of the six of us were monastery-ed out after touring three or four of them (Shannon can look at boring things indefinitely, that's her superpower, a really lame one). So finally, I told the guide, "Can we just drive around and stop when we see something cool?"
We found a grove of trees flaming with fall colors beside an icy mountain stream and spent an hour there throwing leaves and basking in the sun. Savannah soaked her feet in the stream and flirted with hypothermia (sidenote: love is like hypothermia -- you can't think straight and you really need a snuggle).
Later, we stopped on a big bend in the mighty Indus River. It flowed fast and cold and violently turquoise. The kids skipped rocks, and I watched. The mighty Himalayas towered all around us, countless 20,000 foot peaks seeming to scratch the belly of the blue sky. The shiny Indus snaked by beneath the hard autumn sun. My kids' laughter bounced off the water and the mountains, and I thought, this world, there's so much of it.