Part 6. The land of High Passes

A good night's rest followed our arduous journey and we decided to do our rounds of the city of Leh. Tibetan cultural icons surrounded us and it was like a different country altogether. like most tourst places, Leh's economy is entirely on the short tourist season from late May to early September. During the rest of the year, it is too uncomfortable for touristy activities cut off from the rest of the world by road. During this time, the only access the town has is the tiny airport which is smaller than the Shivajinagar bus stop in Bangalore.

Leh in peak season, takes on a cosmopolitan hue with tourists and backpackers from all around the world thronging the narrow streets and filling up the market place and hiking up prices for the rest of us. The Great Indian Family Holiday was quite conspicuous by its absence and it looked like we were one of the few Indians who dared to venture into this corner of our country.

The shops were filled with Ladakhi and Tibetan handicrafts, woolens, knitwear, used books (I guess lots of people dispose of their books), more German bakeries, parantha places, exorbitantly priced sweet tea and some more handicraft stores.

Lacchi decides that we've had enough fun and takes us on an acclimatisation walk up to the Leh Palace, built in the 1600s and to this day, dominates the old city. Its an old mud structure and benevolently looks down upon the city. We trudge through small bylanes of the old city and through the doors, little eyes peeked out. The overall feeling was that we had walked back in time and were back in the 17th century.

From Leh and the great Trek

From Leh and the great Trek

From Leh and the great Trek

From Leh and the great Trek
We chose to climb in the middle of the hot afternoon and me in my sandals and without my trusty water bottle ended being exhausted and the last in the line of trekkers. If this was to be a preview of the days to come, I was ready to collapse in the gravel and roll down back down hill. But the trek up lasted about an hour or so and once we got on top, it was totally worth the view.

From Leh and the great Trek

One can only marvel at the mud structure that has lasted through the centuries. As I walked through the rooms and saw the straw roofs that sheltered Ladakhi kings over the years, I couldn't help but wonder at how they managed to build a city in such a desolate and extreme environment. The cool interiors of the palace gave us some much needed respite form the scorching sun and the fact that we didn't can carry enough water for this trip didn't help one bit. The extensive rooms were slightly dilapidated with stairs crumbling beneath our feet and
overhead beams threatened to crash down upon us. Walking through the musty smelling corridors brought us to a room that was being renovated by Kashmiri artisans who said that they came from Srinagar and had just a few weeks left before they went back before it gets cold.

Once we trudged back down to the city, we ate lunch at at vegetarian Tibetan restaurant which had "Free Tibet" flags all over. The food was filling and we went on our way to explore the market place and make phone calls. I go around a bit and see this guy who looked like he was a southie.

Very tenuously, I ask him "ഇവടെ വല്ലേ Phone booth ഉണ്ടോ ?" ( Are there any phone booths here.. in Malayalam ...excuse my spellings..) And to my surprise he responds in the affirmative in Malayalam and points me down the road and says that its right next to the Kerala Ayurveda Center, which happens to be owned by his brother. I get talking to him and he tells me that he and his cronies come to Leh every year for 5 months to run the ayurveda center giving the traditional ayurveda massages to tired trekkers then get back to Kerala and run a beach resort near Trivandrum from November to February.

This reminded me of the Garhwali owner of the restaurant in Varkala (in Kerala) beach who heads to Haridwar in the summer running a lodge and to Kerala in the winter running the restaurant. Two towns, both highly dependent on a floating population for its income, migrant population for its work force and whose economy rests solely on 4-5 months of hectic activity by back packers, wannabe hippies and the like. Two towns seperated by more than 4000km, but having the same reason for existence - Being the playground for the rich, the vagrant, the wanderer and the wonderer.

The evening saw us hunting for some spare woolens and hats which we had either forgotten to pick up or had lost on the way and in the process, managed to embarrass ourselves by being atrociously bad bargainers. Following dinner at a German cafe in candle light ( the whole region has very erratic power supply) , we marched back to our rooms, in cool evening with the vapour forming as we spoke in hushed tones in the darkness.

Some of us decided to climb a rickety old ladder and get to the terrace of the hotel . As you looked up, you could see literally millions of pin-points of light, a scene which I do not think have ever seen before. You could actually look at the milky way, a band of light across the skies. The scenery was absolutely ethereal and you could make out features on the nearbye mountains just from the light of the stars. Occasionally, a shooting star would zip past and quietly, we would asked each other " Did you see that ?" and we would reply in the affirmative even if we didn't. But we did not mind. It was heaven to just be there in the cool outdoors and sound of the breeze in the poplar trees that surrounded the one storey building. Sleep came soon at the end of eventful day and we prepared for the following day as the real journey was yet to come.

Trampled byY Trip at Sunday, September 07, 2008 0 comments Links to this post

Part 5. Onwards and away...

Ok.. now that I've confessed, let me get back to Leh

Early in the morning, the trooop bundles out of bed and into two Sumos which looked like they had atleast 150,000 Km on. When I checked later, it was actually 225k. The morning took us past beatilful Alpine sceneries, glaciers melting into rivulets, tall stony crags , cavernous pot-holes and a weird growling noise from Rajesh ( It was pre-breakfast). Breakfast was at Marhi whose only claim to fame is that it has the world's highest wood oven pizzeria.

From Leh and the great Trek

A sumptuous breakfast of paranthas, dahi, achaar , eggs and toast sees us on our way and we get set to cross Rohtang La, complete with a traffic jam and ice carvings at 13k ft. The wild scenery was something that was taken out of LOTR and I half expected that the Ringwraiths would not be too far behind me. This intense other worldy feeling would follow me for the rest of my trip.

From Leh and the great Trek

From Leh and the great Trek

From Leh and the great Trek

The journey as such was quite uneventful, with stream crossings, bad roads, travelling at 10kmph, peeking over sheer rock faces where a small slip means sure death. The highlight was stopping at Tanglang La, the second highest 'motorable' road in the world at 17,582 ft, although this is a highly dubious claim ( not the altitude.. but the motorable part).

From Leh and the great Trek

At this point of time I was under the mistaken impression there were going to be absolutely no problems with altitude sickness and that we had acclimatised reasonably well. How wrong was I !! The end of the day's drive saw us in Bharatpur (14k) which is nothing more than a truck stop with some makeshift tents put up for weary travellers such as ourselves

Pics here (courtesy Lachhi)

The onset of the night brought on severe headaches, tumbling stomachs, constant bouts of nausea for quite a few of us. Others like Vivek and Prashant were quite free of altitude sickness. The headaches were like attacks of migraine and a sinus problem all rolled into one and all you wanted to do was reach into your nose, dig your brains out and solve the problem. But there was a far easier, though unappetizing solution.

The lady who owned the tent we stayed in suggested that I drink garlic water.... 5-6 pods of garlic boiled in half a litre of water and reduced to one cup! Of course at that altitude, water boils at 86C and it takes quite a it of time to get it done. The owner had quite a few pots of garlic water, maggi and dal on boil the whole night. For me personally, I took it quite bad and threw up quite a few times .. and I think it was because of the excess infusion of garlic in my blood stream!

Some of the others had altitude sickness tablets and infact had one too many and reached an unnatural high that had nothing to do with the fact we were in the Himalayas ;). People coped in their own way and some didnt quite get better till we descended to Leh the next day.

After a fitful nights rest, we grumbled and got into the car, after deciding who is sickest so they can sit at window, ready to throw up. A few miles up the road, I felt invigorated by the blue skies, excellent scenery and dumb jokes and singing games we played. We soon crossed the incredible scenery of Sarchu, where it looked like some giant decided to cut this vast plain in the mountains and fill it with sand

From Leh and the great Trek

From Leh and the great Trek

We came across troops of bikers who were making the annual pilgrimage from Delhi to Leh. Little did we know that Prashant will be doing the exact same thing a year later, which actually prompted me to revive this blog.

Soon after, we stopped for lunch in another one of the nondescript tent dabha along side a roaring mountain stream. These dabhas are all along the way, usually run by a woman wearing traditional Ladakhi/Tibetan clothing and helped by a small child and guarded by lean, bony dog which just wags its tail from its spot under the bench. These dabhas are quite convenient and have beds and mattresses which you can get for around Rs 50/ night and is quite clean considering the dust and grime of the rugged mountains all around.

The food they serve is quite sparse, but is enough satiate hungry travellers' appetite. Maggi is the staple diet with a bowl of noodles with some carrots, onions and tomatos if available. Paranthas, masoor dal are also on the menu as is the ubiquitous Thukpa which I quite never took a liking to. Simply put Thukpa is a Tibetan meal in bowl and is a collection of noodles, all sorts of vegetables ( and meats), some masala and boiled together and served. I'm quite certain that it is a hearty meal on a cold Ladakhi winter evening, but for me personally, "thanks but no thanks!!!"

From Leh and the great Trek

Later in the afternoon, the landscape became gentler and we descended into the Indus valley near Upshi. This is the gateway to Ladakh. There is a drastic change in the scenery with excellent roads maintained by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) under the "Himank" project. This is an excellent organisation and I'm seriously considering starting to petition them to come and do the roads in Bangalore. They work in the middle of nowhere and create roads that feel like runways in the most extreme of conditions. And ofcourse they have their milestones and warning signs..

A few samplers :

  • Horn is to honk, please do it on my curves.
  • Its better to be Mr late than the late Mr.
  • Enjoy the scenery and protect the greenery
  • If you are married, please divorce speed
  • Overtaker beware of undertaker.
  • Check your nerves, on my curves
  • Be gentle on my curves ( Too many innuendos about curves, eh?)
  • After whiskey, driving is risky.

    And my all time favourite: "Dont be a gama in the land of the Lama"

The Indus valley brings with it gompas on top of dusty hills with yellow fields of mustard alongside swiftly flowing irrigation channels. There wasn't a soul in the road or a cloud in the cloud in the sky and the two Sumos we were on was the only sign of human life around. As we got towards Leh, peoples phones started buzzing as we withing striking range of mobile towers. But ofcourse, only Airtel worked...

The group started getting a little antsy after a long day spent in the confines of the vehicle and were eager to get out and stretch their legs. The increased traffic, the army barracks , the cyclists and the general feeling of life invigorated everyone as we patiently drove into Leh.

Getting into the city looked like it was someplace outside India, with its German bakeries, Italian and Israeli restaurants and the overall atmosphere of being a backpackers/hippie hub and an over all tourist trap. After a few discussion with Namgyal, who had arranged for the porters and guide for the rest of the trek, we got into our rooms in a new guest house set amidst towering casuarina trees and right in the middle of a mustard yard that was in full bloom.

From Leh and the great Trek

What struck me about this particular place ( and infact all over Ladakh) was the fact that none of the houses had any grills on the windows! I think it has something to do with the fact that there is little to no crime in city and the folks are really trusting of each other. After a bit of climbing in and out of the windows, and getting yelled at by the proprietor, we rested our exhausted bodies and fell into a long deep slumber after a nice meal and some walking around.

Trampled byY Trip at Saturday, September 06, 2008 0 comments Links to this post

The confession of a serial procrastinator

I admit it...I am lazy.

Very often, I get these awesome mind blowing ideas from time to time. Ideas which will change the world. The best thing since sliced bread. Brings world peace. Solves the problems brought on by the sub-prime crisis.

Then I push it off for the next day ..and the next.. and the next. It never gets done. This blog is one of those things. A year or so ago, when I got back from the "Trip of a lifetime", I thought that this would be the start of a very promising blogging career and writing about Ladakh will be where it all begins. But then it ended up like the roads in Bangalore that are cobbled together by the BBMP in its various incarnations. Or like the various threats that I've made to go to the gym and keep at it.

Trampled byY Trip at Saturday, September 06, 2008 0 comments Links to this post

part 4. The story of the Hippie, the river and Bob Marley

Manali - 32°17'8"N 77°9'44"E, Alt. 8612 feet

“Why do you look so sad and foresaken ?
When one door is closed,
Don’t you know that another is open ?”
-Bob Marley

The morning light brought us to some of the lower lying hills of the Himalayas where we quickly stopped for tea and a bio-break. Theglorious sunrise over the hills raises ones spirits and washes away any exhaustion from the long bus journey. As the bus winds its way up the hill side, it offered some excellent views of the Beas valley. Through twists, turns and tunnels, the bus offered one breathtaking view after another. But this was just the start.

From Leh and the great Trek

From Leh and the great Trek

Once the bus reached Manali, we legged it to the hotel, which was just a little bit off the main drag called the Mall. As a side note, any hill town in India has just one main street and almost everything that’s there to be done in that town goes on here. You see the same thing in Ooty, Kodaikanal, Nainital and a scores of other places in the Himalayas. And its of no surprise that most of the main roads in are called “the Mall”

The hotel looked more like an apartment complex with a small reception area with a pretty garden. The rooms were sparse at best with mouldy carpets, creaky beds and a non working TV. We stepped out after washing up and looked around for lunch. We then stepped into one of the numerous Sher-e-Punjabs - Sher-e-Punjab, Original Sher-e-Punjab, Asli Sher-e-Punjab and so on that dotted the Mall. A quick meal was followed by a quick nap which didn’t materialize.

At this point the group split again and one set went off Zorbing and so on, while Lacchi,Vivek, Suchi, Prashant, Soumya , Hamy and me went walking along the river Beas to Vashisht Temple. The walk along the river was absolutely beautiful, marred only by the diesel fumes from jeeps and trucks heading over Khar-Dungla pass and into the dusty mountains of Ladakh with essential supplies.

We stopped for quite a bit at the river and just took in the surrounding beauty of the place with the mountains in the backdrop, conifers along the river and the chillness in the air. We sat on the boulder splashing water on each other like children at and had to yell over the roar of the river. With great reluctance we got off the banks and were back on the road and paused for some pictures near the last petrol pump in the valley of the gods.

From Leh and the great Trek

From Leh and the great Trek

From Leh and the great Trek

A quick diversion up the side of a hill along some apple orchards brought us to Vashist, a temple with sulphurous hot springs that stank of rotten eggs. The place obviously had seen holier days, and now was a hippie joint with Bob Marley movies playing alongside cafes that served Jewish bread and a Rasta hat wearing beggar with dreadlocks. Or the stoned German tourist who confused the previous days stock report for her horoscope.

The walk back towards Manali was equally uneventful and we stepped into a couple of shops to buy some curios. Lacchi and I stepped into a tea shop to meet with the guy who organized the jeeps for our trip to Leh the next morning. The room in which we were staying became the war room and we discussed logistics and the revised itinerary for the trek.

And thus we prepare for an epic two day journey over 480 km of lunar terrain...

Trampled byY Trip at Wednesday, February 27, 2008 0 comments Links to this post

Part 3. The incredible flying roti and a Bus

At this point the group split with some of us doing the checking in and a few others going out to get food for everyone. The dorms were orderly, for the lack of a better word. The room had 12 beds, with 3 double bunk beds on either side of the room. Everybody wound down and started on the food that had just been brought. Excellent paneer (scrumptilicious) , wonderful daal (Delecioutable) and dreadful roti ( Frisbee-esque).

After tossing a roti around for a bit, we bunked down for the night set ourselves for a lot of snoring and disturbed sleep. The next morning, I split from the group to visit my cousin. After a number of trips on the Metro, (which reminded me of the metro in Tokyo) and lot of walking around Connaught Place, I meet up with the gang at a Coffee Day outlet, where for the first time the whole group has come together

The Volvo bus to Manali picked us up at the HPTDC office after an hours delay. As the bus weaved in and out of traffic, I couldn’t help thinking about the road ahead and the expectations we had for the journey. Very soon, the bus hit the highway and we were steadily making our way northwards. After a quick pit-stop at a dhaba, we set off again. The TV in the bus played Pyaar ke side effects, but the DVD kept skipping with the voice totally out of synch with the image. It was hilarious to watch Mallika sherawat talk in a male voice... I got bored pretty soon nodded off to sleep.

Trampled byY Trip at Wednesday, February 27, 2008 0 comments Links to this post

Part 2. Flight into danger

After months of planning, the group (barring Vivek) braves the monsoon rains and the insane Bangalore traffic and reaches the airport and check in the bags. After what seemed to be an eternity, we are finally onboard the IndiGo flight. The beginnings are ominous as the captain announces that we were in for a pretty choppy flight.

The group was in reasonably high spirits and we did our best to irritate people around us by yakking at each other across the aisle and over rows of seats. There was no dinner service, but a dainty looking air-hostess came around selling stuff and caused quite a flurry among the guys after she had gone past the seats.

Just when we were beginning to settle down and relax, the plane hit this great air pocket and dropped quite a bit setting off some stifled screams and audible gasps from everyone around. The rest of the journey was filled with lot of rattling and shaking and me regretting that I had bought the wrong book to read on a plane ( Airport - Arthur Hailey).

After an uneventful landing, we got out on the tarmac at IGI, where the July heat hit us with the intensity of a blast furnace left open. Picking up our bags, we got on to a bus service (Rs. 50) that dropped us off at Chanakyapuri near YHAI. Since we reached pretty late, the gates were already closed and I can’t quite remember if we found an open gate or if we jumped over it.

Trampled byY Trip at Wednesday, February 27, 2008 0 comments Links to this post