Taking an auto rickshaw through the wild congested streets of Delhi is not for the faint-hearted. You need nerves of steel and clenched buttocks. The white lines painted on the tarmac seem for decoration only. Four lanes invariably expand to six, with rickshaw drivers being particularly adept at squeezing into frighteningly narrow spaces between lorries and buses. Cows, dogs and pedestrians have to take their chances as best they can. It’s even more bewildering when you’ve just got off a long flight and you’re also suffering intense back and stomach pain. Being ill on my first day in Delhi was not what I’d expected.
I went to a local hospital and, sidestepping the baboon on the grass outside, ventured inside to be confronted with a pretty grim picture. I didn’t stay long, but eventually found online the name of a doctor operating in the Main Bazaar in Paharganj where I was staying. He operated out of a dingy, hole-in-the-wall shop in a congested street, but was extremely helpful and friendly. He sent me off for some X-rays and a CT scan and so I was once more weaving my way in a rickshaw through what was now rush hour traffic. And, by the way, it’s monsoon season here, so the heat and humidity are quite oppressive.
By the end of the day and £200 pounds poorer, I had a diagnosis – a kidney stone. In years of travelling I’ve been really lucky in avoiding any major problems except the odd sprained ankle, so this was a bit of a shock for me. As I was flying to Leh the next day with plans to go trekking in some remote Himalayan regions, I was quite concerned, but the doctor said that nothing could be done right now and that I shouldn’t cancel or change my plans.
Leh, the capital of Ladakh, is a great place to spend a few days recuperating. After noisy Delhi it’s a haven of peace. Situated way up north near the borders with Tibet, China and Pakistan, it has a strong Buddhist influence and feels very different from other parts of India. It stands at 3520m above sea level and in more prosperous times was a centre of trade coming down off the Silk Route. Tibetans, Hindus, Moslems and now tourists from all over the world mingle freely.
The Main Bazaar is spacious and wide, clearly designed for traders to pass along with pack animals and horses. Women still sit at the sides selling fruit, vegetables and spices. Prayer wheels and stupas are dotted around the town, while an impressive Sunni mosque presides over the old town. Lanes radiate out from the centre, many of them lined with guesthouses and restaurants. Many of them have their own gardens and the wonderful smell of fresh mint hangs in the air.
There are several gompas, Buddhist temples, dotted around and I walked up to the Sankar Gompa to find it empty and serene. A young monk opened the door of the main shrine for me and inside I marvelled at the statues and brightly coloured wall paintings.
Above the town sits the old Royal Palace and, even further up on the ridge, is the old Tsemo Fort. After exploring the crumbling old rooms of the palace, I sat in a cafe overlooking the town eating a bowl of thukpa, a delicious Tibetan soup. Down below at the Jama Masjid, the muezzin started a haunting call to midday prayers and, for a moment, I forgot my medical worries and just lived in the moment, which, after all, is what travel is all about.