Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Déjà vu- Chapter 4.2- Seeking 'Tsolitude' with a Vengeance (Pangong Tso, Tsomoriri and Tsokar)

I was woken up by the same sun-in-the-face alarm clock the next morning, and I found Shao almost packed and ready to leave. We picked up her bags and headed to find a cab to take her to the airport, but the illness had taken a pretty heavy toll on her. She was finding it really hard to walk, let alone carry her luggage (another little reminder to take AMS seriously). We were supposed to leave for Nubra that day, and that wasn't until atleast ten in the morning, so I accompanied Shao to the airport and made sure she had entered safely. That done, I wound my way back to my hotel and waited for the others to rise and shine. It was around ten-thirty that I got a call from Ifti, our tour operator, who informed us that there had been a avalanche on the road Nubra. PP and I went over to his office, where we met Rohit, who was to accompany us on our journey to Nubra. We were asked to wait for about an hour until someone received a word about the condition of the road. About half an hour later, we were told that the road would not open the same day. Just last evening, Mohsin and I had been gloating about how the trip had gone off completely according to plan, and I had heard a voice in my head that told me I would regret gloating so much. We were in quite a fix because of this sudden change of plans. A waste of a day would mean that one of the two places that were left would have to be scratched out of the itinerary. We had some quick discussions after which we decided that we would move around the plan a little bit. We decided to leave for Tsomoriri the same day, and moved Nubra to the days that we had initially planned for Tsomoriri. Rohit (who had been in Leh for about three weeks because of an internship), who is quite the bird-watching enthusiast also decided to join us, despite the fact that he had been to the lake about a month ago. Ifti scrambled to arrange the fresh set of permits as we relaxed in our hotel rooms, and it was beyond noon by the time we left for Tsomoriri, which is a part of the Changthang plateau (which extends into Tibet and also houses Pangong) about 230 kilometres away from Leh.

We were quite excited as we piled into Jigme's car; we would get to stay next to the lake at night, and we'd still get to visit all the places we had planned to visit. Manav, of course, dozed off within minutes into the journey, and kept drifting in and out of sleep till our first lunch stop at the small village of Upshi on the banks of the Indus. We had a fantastic meal at Upshi; the food was great and we were being attended to by a very pretty waitress. The road from Leh bifurcates at Upshi- the left fork goes to Tsomoriri and eastern Ladakh, while the right fork heads southward towards Manali. Right after a very nice filling lunch, we found Manav rather jolly and active, contrary to his usual sleepiness on the road. This was something we had been noticing for quite a while. Ruchira had first pointed it out on our way to Leh from Srinagar, and the phenomenon was unmistakable. "Manav is like an infant on the road. He sleeps, wakes up, eats, plays around and sleeps off again as soon as the fuel has run out", Ruchira once said; and Manav was doing just that. We took the left cut from Upshi and headed towards Eastern Ladakh, with the Indus keeping us company. The road unlike the previous day, was flat and the drive was quick. The Indus, itself was changing moods and colours as we went along. On the way, Jigme pointed out some villages and bridges where some sequences of "Three Idiots" were shot. Soon, we were within touching distance of Chumathang. The Indus had gone from a raging green torrent to a calm, milky blue stream. The valley floor had suddenly opened up, so the river snaked its way past the rocks that littered its path. Here, we also saw a memorial erected for the Indian army. Many memorial headstones covered the mountainside, one for every battalion that fought in the 1962 war with China.

(Above: Clockwise from top-left: Chinese war memorial, multicoloured mountains, the Indus slows down near Chumathang, hot springs at Chumathang)

We stopped for tea at Chumathang, which is famous for its hot springs. The putrid smell of Sulphur filled the air, and water could be seen bubbling out of various gaps in the rocks. The sulphur salts were also doing funny things in the water, turning into a strange colour as they mixed with the river water. The stop at Chumathang was short, and about an hour later we arrived at a checkpoint near the village of Mahe. The road straight from Mahe goes to Nyoma and Hanle, near the Tibetan border, the road to the right goes to Sumdo and on to Tsomoriri. At Mahe, we were approached by three friendly locals, who were looking for a lift till the Sumdo. We gladly took them on board and the ten of us, including Jigme squeezed into the car and drove on. On the way, we learned about their way of life and how hard it was for them to travel everyday from Sumdo to Mahe, considering that ours was the only vehicle we had seen for about twenty kilometres. Sumdo itself is divided between Upper and Lower Sumdo, separated by about 3-4 kilometres. We dropped off one of our companions at Upper Sumdo and the other two at Lower Sumdo. It was quite a joy to meet the people of Lower Sumdo. There were many children in the mix, who were very excited to see all of us. Right here I re-emphasize the beauty of being on the road. You come across some of the most beautiful people, inside and out, and every such interaction leaves your life enriched in some way.

The road had been very pleasant thus far . We drove past Namsung La in a hurry, the pass neither being very high, nor very dramatic; unlike its siblings in the area. But a few kilometers past Namsung La, right in front of us, was one of the most stunning sights we had seen during the entire trip. A small lake called Thadsang Karu with its milky blue water lay right in front. It was quite a beautiful sight- the sun was about to take a nosedive behind the mountains on the right, there was a straight road leading into the blue, and right behind the blue was a white snow clad mountain. What's more, there weren't the usual hundred people contaminating the view. Aside from us, there were only three bikers near the lake who were fixing their bikes. We made a quick photo-stop and stood there for a few minutes admiring the scenery, before Jigme signalled that it was time to leave. The paved road ended at Thadsang Karu; the next twenty odd kilometers down to Tsomoriri would be on a muddy track, sometimes dissecting a huge flat plain, other times negotiating the side of a mountain. Along the way, many nomadic tents appeared, along with their flock of sheep. A little stream flowing down from the mountains had frozen over at several places.

(Above: Clockwise from top-left: The charming people of Upper Sumdo, approach to Thadsang Karu, Thadsang Karu, nomads and sheep)

Tsomoriri's appearance in this story was quite similar to that of Pangong, only more beautiful. About ten kilometres away, we saw the lake appear at the base of a mountain in the distance, and soon our car had bumped and banged its way to the banks of Tsomoriri. The lake itself is much smaller than Pangong, but I found it far more beautiful, perhaps because it was much less crowded. Its also a haven for migratory birds and other forms of wildlife, something that Rohit was rather excited about. We proved to be somewhat of a good luck charm for him, because within minutes of our arrival, he spotted what had eluded him the last time he was here- Black-necked cranes (a rare migratory bird I'm told). The scene was stunning- the sun had almost set, casting a beautiful pink-0range glow on the mountains, the moon had risen and the sky was clear. To top it all, all of this was being reflected in the clear water of the lake. We spent some time clicking some really good pictures, after which we moved on to the village of Korzok on the banks of the lake where we would be spending the night.

(Above: Clockwise from top: Tsomoriri, mountains and the moon reflected in the water, Tsomoriri by moonlight)

Remote areas of Ladakh have few staying options, and some of them can be rather expensive. At Korzok, one can either stay in one of the luxury tents, which will cost you a mini fortune, or at a small restaurant which has a community tent that has about thirty beds which costs you barely hundred rupees a night, but the loo would be a hole in the ground. The third option, which we found feasible, was the option of a "homestay". The villagers are given funds by the government to refurbish their houses and open them for tourists. The rooms are neat and clean and you get some semblance of a drainage system from your loo. Its ironic that water is scarce in Korzok. The lake is a saltwater lake and most of the fresh water freezes into ice which increases fuel cost if more water needs to be used. Manav, PP, Mohsin and I went out for a short walk at night and the lake presented to us, a new side of itself. This time the moon was up, and was casting a beautiful shimmering glow on the surface of the water. Upon return from the walk, we went to the restaurant and had a really welcome meal, along with some much needed rum. Jigme introduced us to the concept of having warm water before every meal to boost digestion. For some reason, Manav had lost his appetite, which is quite a rare occurrence. After a fulfilling meal, Jigme and four of us went back to our room at our homestay, whereas Rohit chose to stay at the restaurant. He hadn't carried many warm clothes, so we were rather concerned about finding him in a popsicle-d condition the morning after. Rohit and I had plans to wake up and photograph the sunrise. Everyone else also volunteered to come, but I knew how that was going to turn out.

The night was rather uncomfortable for the four of us. It's not easy spending your first night at high altitude. Korzok is at 15,000 feet and the lack of oxygen makes your head hurt a little bit, and also makes your body very restless. I tossed, tumbled and drifted in and out of sleep all night, with Manav snoring loudly in the background. I know it sounds stupid now, but when Manav (who suffers from asthma) suddenly stopped snoring at around 4 am, I really thought something had happened to him. As it turned out from our discussions next morning, everyone had thought something was wrong. The reader is not allowed to ask why none of us got out of bed to check. I guess in our sleep-induced stupor, it probably had something to do with the thought of hauling a hundred kilo body down from 15,000 feet. My alarm went off early in the morning, and much to my dismay, it was already beginning to get bright- the sun had come up earlier than estimated. I was relieved to find Manav still breathing, and wasn't surprised to find no one willing to watch the sunrise. I got myself ready quickly and went down to Rohit's tent where he was standing ready. He went off to fetch his batteries which were charging in Jigme's room, and never returned. I later found out that he took to long to find his batteries and the sun had already come up by then. In the absence of Rohit, I walked down to the lake by myself, just as the sun began to peer over the mountains that border the lake. It was a nice, peaceful walk I hadn't had in quite a while. A couple of horses that had come out to graze in the meadows near the lake kept me company. On the way back I also discovered some litter strewn around the lake, another disturbing sign of a beautiful place beginning to wither. By the time I returned, everyone was just about waking up. Jigme was bounding around, rejuvenated by what I'm sure would have been a great night's sleep. We got ready, splashing ice-cold water on our faces and brushing with water that made our gums go numb. The taps need to be shut off for most of the year because the water freezes and causes pipes to burst. We reunited with Rohit, and after a quick breakfast, I took a short walk to the Korzok Gompa, which supposedly houses one of the Buddha's teeth.

(Above: Clockwise from top left: Korzok by first light, sunrise on Tsomoriri, from Korzok Gompa,
a Himalayan Marmot)

We began our return journey fairly early, picking up Rohit along the way, who had headed off towards the lake after breakfast to meet some of his friends who had also come down to visit the lake. This morning happened to be a good one if you wanted to spot wildlife. Along the way, we found scores of Himalayan Marmots frolicking around in the sun. The Marmots here, I found, were much fatter than the ones I found near Pangong. We drove down to Upper Sumdo where we had dropped off our co-travellers the previous day and took a turn to the left, heading straight towards Tsokar. On the way we stopped often to spot birds such as Bar-headed geese, Brahmini ducks and some other birds whose names only bird-encyclopedia Rohit is capable of remembering. Jigme, of course, had his share of fun by first indulging himself in an off-road race. He somehow also decided that it was a good idea to burn a block of sulphur that he found in the sulphur fields near Upper Sumdo. He went on to smell the consequences of his actions, of course. Soon, we were on the approach to Tsokar, which resembles the approach to Thadsang Karu a fair bit.

(Above: left to right: Jigme gets frisky with sulphur, alone in the wilderness)

Tsokar is very different from the other lakes we had seen. In fact, its more of a salty wetland than a lake. We were the only six people around for miles. Two Tibetan wild-asses (the animal. Not Jigme and some friend of his) called the Kiang briefly halted their grazing as they ascertained whether we posed a threat to them. Most of us took a walk around the lake as Rohit tip-toed his way in the direction of Black-headed cranes. While we were leaving, we ended up spotting a very large flock of cranes having a gala time near the lake. Rohit brought our car to a screeching halt, got out excitedly, dove into the mud and got into all sorts of positions humanly possible in order to get the best photograph he could take. About half an hour of clicking later, we had a very satisfied Rohit in the car and we drove onwards, and intersected the road going from Manali to Leh just after Pang. I remembered the wide, flat plains from last time. They had been a huge relief after having been stuck overnight in a gorge (read about that life threatening experience here). Soon, we were winding our way up to Tanglang La, the world's second highest motorable pass at 17,582 feet. By now, our acclimatization had ensured that we didn't feel the effects of altitude. The drive down from Taglang La to Leh is quite fast. The road was being widened for a short stretch just after the pass, after which the drive was very smooth. We descended into the Indus valley, with its serrated mountain edges, which had acquired a very strange colour and headed straight for Upshi. At Upshi, we had our lunch, served by the same pretty waitress, after which Manav, with his batteries charged began to dance in the car. Somewhere, I think this is where Rohit must have questioned his decision to travel with us for the first time. After about an hour, we had crossed Karu, Thiksey and Shey and finally wheeled into Leh, which was perhaps recovering from a rainy afternoon.

(Clockwise from top-left: Tsokar, a black-necked crane, Rohit loves his birds, at Taglang La)

Manav and PP, having decided that neither of them would undertake a bus journey of about eighteen hours back to Srinagar, had changed their tickets to depart from Leh the next day. That night, we went off for a farewell dinner, the aftermath of which found me sleeping very early, whilst the others yapped most of the night away in the balcony of my city-view room. Mohsin moved into my room to replace Shao.

(Above: Proof: Left to right: Manav before meals/sleep, Manav after meals/sleep)

Today, there were four. Tomorrow, there would be two.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Déjà vu- Chapter 4.1- Seeking 'Tsolitude' with a Vengeance (Pangong Tso, Tsomoriri and Tsokar)

Today, we would visit a place, without a visit to which, any trip to Ladakh is incomplete. Today, our group would also start declining in numbers, leaving only Mohsin and me by the time the next chapter made an appearance. The decline of numbers also brings in a motley crew of characters into our story, as promised long ago. But first, today, pandemonium would break loose before we left on our scenic sojourn.The trouble with the morning we left for Pangong, was that there were too many things happening- too many moving parts in our machine. The Pangong Tso is a saltwater lake at an altitude of 14,400 feet, about 135 kilometres away from Leh. The road's pretty bad, and tends to get flooded because of melting snow as the day progresses. Needless to say, one needs to leave fairly early. First, there was the part where we woke up a little late. Shao was still not a hundred percent fit, but her enthusiasm made up for what her body couldn't. Ruchira also needed to be dropped at the airport, so there was that time constraint as well. In the middle of all of this, one man called Siddharth Krishnamoorthy refused to be photographed beside a beautiful, azure lake with a four-day stubble and made a hurried attempt to remove any trace of beard or moustache from his face. In the process however, I (I shall now stop referring to myself in third person) somehow managed to slice my upper lip. Not cut, slice. Of course my lip gave my brain the customary half a second to send an "uh-oh" message to the rest of my body before it began to spout blood. The end result of the time wasted because of the sudden injury, was the Mohsin went off in another cab to drop Ruchira at the airport, and the four of us met Jigme about 40 minutes after the designated time, and then drove to the airport in the opposite direction to pick up Mohsin. It was about 8 am by the time we finally set off in the direction of Leh. There was Jigme, the five of us (with me with a tissue over my lip that remained as it is for about an hour), and the first of our interesting co-travellers- Gill. Gill, a dentist from "Ludhiana, Punjab", as he put it. Here's an interesting fact about Leh. Travelling by cars is very expensive. To minimize costs, one can approach one of the many small tour organizers, who put out a board asking for people to join your trip and divide the cost. Not only does this reduces costs, but also leads to meeting many interesting people. Gill's story was one of betrayal. He had apparently been abandoned by his friends in Srinagar, and had proceeded to Leh on his own. He now occupied the front passenger seat, and spoke little during our ride.

We first crossed Shey and Thikse as we exited Leh, where I gave Shao a quick introduction to the place (because she'd missed out on the local sightseeing). We soon went past our first check point at Karu, and began the slow climb to the world's third highest motorable pass- Chang La, at an altitude of 17,382 feet. The usual dozing-off disease struck one passenger after another, and most of the inhabitants of Jigme's white Qualis were sleeping when we reached Zingral- the army's check post about 20 kilometres before Chang La. The road from Zingral is narrow and steep. As we slowly chugged our way up to the pass, we were bounded on one side by the mountain, but to our left were the beautiful, stark colours of Ladakh- starting with green near the valley floor, then brown (as the dearth of water withered away any chances of finding greenery) until the snow began to appear and everything turned white, and finally the clear blue sky. We soon found ourselves in touching distance of Chang La, and two changes from the last time I went, were immediately apparent. First, there were telltale signs of the violent weather that had preceded us, because there was a lot more snow this time as compared to the last time I had crossed the pass. The second and more disturbing change was that there were at least fifteen cars parked at Chang La. Last time it was just our car and this other couple. There was this Bollywood movie called "Three Idiots" which released late last year, and used Pangong as a location for their last scene. This, combined with the increasing popularity of Ladakh as a tourist destination has made sure that there has been a massive increase in the influx of tourists going to Pangong. The realization of this fact had me alarmed, and a little angry to be very honest. There wasn't much time for that, though, because the lack of oxygen was catching up fast with some in the group. Shao had to go the army's medical tent and get medicines for altitude sickness. Manav also decided to partake, since he was also beginning to feel breathless. We took a few pictures, had the casualties take their medicines, and were on our way back down the mountain. The medicines knocked out both Manav and Shao as we drove through some very scenic stretches on our way to Pangong. Just before the lake finally began to peek at us from the base of the mountain, we also came across a small patch of land that had small dunes of grey sand- another one of Ladakh's quirks.

(Above: Clockwise from top-left: The colours of Ladakh, on the way to Chang-La, at Chang La, Pangong sneaks a peek through the mountains)

Pangong, like I said is a lake at 14,400 feet above sea level. Like all other lakes in the area, this one too seems to be a snow-fed remanent of a primordial ocean. Th reason I say this is that all of the lakes in the Ladakh area are saltwater lakes. Arrival at Pangong was bittersweet- of course the lake was beautiful, with its pristine, blue waters that would often change to blue-green as the sun played hide and seek with patchy clouds; but there was also this giant horde of tourists that had populated the place at the same time. Along with the increase in tourists influx, there was the customary feeding the few seagulls that populated the place (a really bad practice), some chips packets lying along the shores of the lake, and also children toppling over piles of stones that locals sometimes erect as memorials to the deceased. All of this made me really irate. The last time I was here, we had gone about seven kilometers further down the lake to a place called Spangmik, which requires an additional permit. At that time there were just seven people around the lake. This time there were more than twenty families.

(Above: The Pangong Tso)

(Above: Left to right: Seagulls at Pangong, a typical Buddhist memorial pile)

We clicked our pictures, sat by the lake and philosophised for a bit, before heading for lunch at the army-run restaurant. Lunch seemed to have put some words into Gill's mouth, as he discussed his preference for Ladakhis over Kashmiris; because he believed that Kashmiris "chhoti baat karte hain" (are narrow-minded). While this caused some irritation to Mohsin, Manav and I were smirking to ourselves, because of Gill, and also about a running gag that Manav was involved in, along the same lines. The drive back from Pangong was fairly uneventful. Most roads had been flooded by the melting ice in the afternoon, which made the going a little slow. But this also meant that we were able to spot a local resident- the Himalayan Marmot, an oversized rodent that populates this part of the world. Manav and Shao needed another dose of anti-AMS medicine, which meant that they slept most of the way back home.

(Above: Left to right: Chang La on the way back, Icicles hanging along the road)

The ride back seemed a lot faster, and we were back in our hotel rooms by about six in the evening. Shao wasn't feeling well, so the rest of us went out for a nice dinner at the "World Garden Cafe" where we ended up having most of our meals from that point on. I returned to the hotel to find Shao feeling rather ill, and since all of us had travelled almost three hundred kilometers, we too were very tired; and decided to call it a day without further delay.

*(To be continued)

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Déjà vu- Chapter 3- Dial G for Gompa (In and around Leh)

The word is still out on whether it's called "Gompa" or "Gonpa", considering I ended up visiting many of these over the next few days, and I happened to see sign-boards with both versions. Since I encountered the former a tad bit more than the latter, and also the fact that it doesn't matter how you write the Tibetan word for "monastery" in Roman script, I shall call it "Gompa" from this point on.

What had wheeled into Leh was a tired, sleepy and dusty lot. The enthusiasm on our faces, and the spring in our stride, however, seemed to belie the arduous two day journey we had just completed. I was basking in the strong sense of déjà vu, considering the fact that I was not only living in the same hotel (which was provided to us dirt cheap, by the way), but also the same room, with the same beautiful view. I was already beginning to feel like a little bit of a local, being slightly more familiar with the town than the rest of the gang (Ruchira will point out at this time that she has been to Leh as many times I have). The weather had been rather violent the week before our arrival, and had just cleared up; so we were in that enviable twilight zone where we got bright sunshine to take a look at the fresh snow that had just arrived on the scores of peaks near us. The feeling of familiarity only got stronger as we set out to roam around town, the night of our arrival. Shao was still feeling unwell, so she decided to stay back and take rest. Mohsin, Ruchira, Manav, PP and I wandered through the streets of Leh in two separate groups, and eventually ended up meeting each other near Fort Road, at Gesmo German Bakery and Restaurant. The whole "German Bakery" concept seemed rather exotic in the beginning, but we later realized the sheer number of them that lined the streets of Leh. Most, if not all, of the bakeries in Leh are very good. The city receives a huge influx of foreign tourists every year, so finding Western (or Eastern) cuisine is really not a problem in Leh. What followed was a nice, jolly meal where we ate off all the fatigue from the road journey. PP would have me point out that we also had a Yak cheese pizza at this meal (which was quite amazing). Having packed some food for Shao, we returned to our hotel, caught the last match of the day and retired for the night.

It was next morning that I also recalled one of the major problems with my room. The sun rises very early in Leh, and owing to the altitude, also beats down harder than most places. There is something that is often said about Leh- that it is one of the few places in the world where one can suffer from a sun-stroke and a frost-bite at the same time. So, I wasn't very pleasantly surprised when I found the sun peering through the window straight at my face at 6am next morning. The view from room (called the "city-view" room) did manage to wipe away a significant fraction of my angst. The trouble with waking up the earliest in a group of six people, is the long, boring wait for everyone else to wake up. This wait is made even more unpleasant, when the said group of people forces you to make repeated trips up and down several flights of stairs (in a low-oxygen environment) in order to wake them up. Each of those trips from the third floor (my room) down to the ground floor (Manav et. al.'s room) via the second floor (Mohsin et. al.'s room) left me gasping for breath for a short while. Eventually, as surely as the sun rises in the east, the rest of the group awoke, and finally got itself ready by about noon, by which time our intended start time had faded two hours into past tense. Shao was still not feeling well, and we all decided that it would be better for her to rest it out today, because we were going to visit Pangong the next day, and that wasn't something we would have liked her to miss.

(Above: Left to right: The view from my hotel room, the ornate gate to Leh)

We had arrived in Leh at a very opportune time. The two-day Hemis festival had started that very day, and we decided to visit Hemis at all costs. More on that later. For starters, we met our driver Jigme, who was to become the mainstay of our trip. Of course, the poor fellow had been made to wait for quite a while before we boarded his white Toyota Qualis. Little did we know that we would not dispense with him till the very end of our trip. Jigme led us out on the road towards Manali, where we first passed the ornate gate to Leh, and a few kilometers down the road, encountered Shey Palace. Right next to Shey Palace, we also found the "Pond of the Holy Fish", which was teeming with Catfish, supposedly holy, and not to be hunted or eaten. Once we ascended the slope up to the main entrance to Shey, we found the place completely empty, perhaps owing to the Hemis festival. Manav also realized that climbing acclivities wasn't really his thing. Inside the main prayer hall at Shey, we saw the giant 40-foot statue of the Buddha. Climbing down the same slope was a lot more enjoyable than scaling it the other way, and we headed to Thikse Gompa, where the climb was higher and steeper. Manav and Ruchira decided to sit out the climb, while PP, Mohsin and I headed up towards the main sanctum of Thikse. Thikse, at over six hundred years old, is one of the oldest monasteries in the region. Situated on top of a hillock, the main balcony provides a really beautiful panoramic view of the entire valley. On our way back from the shrine, we also noticed the Mani wall at Thikse. Mani walls are quite a common sight in regions where Buddhism is the primary religion. They are mainly prayer walls which contain smooth stones with prayers engraved on them. Also a common sight, are the colourful prayer flags which flutter from practically any feature that fast winds can access.

(Above: Left to right: Mani stone at Thikse, giant Buddha statue at Shey)

(Above: The view of from Thikse)

By the time our visit to Thikse ended, I was rather enthusiastic about reaching Hemis in time for the mask dance. Luckily for us, the mask dance had just begun when we landed at Hemis Gompa. Right outside the Gompa, there was the usual humdrum and festivities, complete with food and game stalls. We took our positions on the top-most courtyard of Hemis Gompa which gave us a bird's eye view of the mask dance unfolding in the main courtyard. Drums and gongs played in a rhythmic beat, as the mask clad dancers rose and fell with the sound of the drums. I didn't exactly understand a lot of what was going on, but it was interesting to watch. After the mask dance ended, we visited the Hemis museum. A short meal at one of the food-stalls outside the monastery gave us some much needed nutrition. The one thing that really struck me while visiting these places (as had done last time) was the striking use of colour. Colour is something that just stands out the moment you enter Ladakh. The land is bare and brown, the sky is stark and blue, and any greenery (usually right next to a stream) stands out in contrast. The prayer flags fluttering at every corner only add colour to the picture. The same is true of all the monasteries we visited. All the interior walls were covered with frescoes, usually depicting Buddhist gods, or parables from the scriptures. All frescoes were painted in bright and striking colours. On our way back from Hemis, Jigme took us for a little bit of off-roading. We later realized that this was one of the many manifestations of his rather adventurous spirit. We made a small detour to the Stok palace (right), which had shut down by the time we reached it. To be very honest, we were more interested in finding yet another "hole-in-the-ground" toilet that exploring the palace, which I recalled from last time, has little to offer if you're looking for something new.

(Above: Clockwise from top left: Mask dance at Hemis, a masked dancer, a monk beating the drum, statue of Guru Lhakhang at Hemis)

When we landed back at the hotel, we were glad to find Shao in a much better condition than the morning. I had promised Shao we'd go somewhere in the evening, and we decided to visit the Shanti Stupa. I was secretly amused at the amount of energy I could draw out of thin air (no pun intended) when I was travelling. Ruchira was to leave the next morning, so she and Mohsin wandered off in one direction and the rest of us got ourselves a cab and headed for Shanti Stupa, just as the sun was beginning to dip behind the Stok range. The Shanti Stupa was constructed by a Japanese organization on top of a small hill overlooking Leh. The structure itself is quite beautiful, with Buddhist art and statues of the Buddha in various forms; but it's a whole different thing when you visit it around sunset. The lights of Leh town are beginning to come to life, the snow on the mountains, with its pink colour borrowed from the setting sun, is beginning to fade from view. If you are lucky, like we were, the moon might rise early and lend a serene, white gleam to the snow right after sunset, just as the Stupa's own lights flicker to life. The four of us were the last people to leave the Shanti Stupa, just as it began to get very windy. We had our driver drop us off at Changspa, which houses a lot of Leh's hotels and restaurants and found ourselves a quaint little garden restaurant which had a small TV with the football match on it. Food cooks very slowly at high altitude, so every meal in Leh is a rather relaxed and elongated affair, just as this one was. We returned fairly late at night, shortly after which Mohsin and Ruchira returned from dinner.

(Above: Top to bottom: Shanti Stupa, Leh by last light from Shanti Stupa)

All in all, our first complete day at Leh had provided us with a nice buffer between a tiring journey and the pandemonium that was to follow the next morning. The next day we would visit, sans Ruchira, the Pangong Tso, without which anyone's first journey to Leh would be incomplete.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Déjà vu- On the Road- Srinagar-Leh

When you're on a road trip, a huge part of your trip is the journey itself. The roads in Ladakh are long, the views are brilliant, and there are plenty of stories to tell. This is one of a few "On the Road" sections of my travelogue. They're named thus, because these are stories, not about place A or place B, but stories of how we got from place A to place B.

As Manav reminds me now, some of us were woken up the next morning by Firdous' love for Bappi Lahiri songs, "yaar beena chain kahaan re" (no peace without one's beloved), in particular. We had all thrown caution to the wind the previous night and slept rather late, so it wasn't much of surprise that it was about 11 am by the time we packed ourselves into Imran's green Sumo, when we had initially planned to leave by 8.30 at the very latest. We were leaving Shagun behind, which wasn't the most pleasant thing, but there was nothing that could be done about it. We bade farewell to Shagun, Roy and Firdous and headed out on to the road into town. There were additional delays as we stopped to buy supplies near Batmaloo. Imran began to play his music collection which, while it seemed rather refreshing when it started, began to go on the loop after about an hour on the road. Soon, we were on National Highway 1-D leading to Kargil and then onward to Leh. Taking the ride along with us for a short while as we drove through its picturesque valley, was the Jhelum river. The sun was out , the sky was blue, and so was the water, so it's needless to say that the drive was quite enjoyable. The fact that we had left late meant that we had to stop for lunch after about two hours on the road. This wasn't such a bad thing though, because we ended up having one of our simplest, yet best meals of the trip. At a small restaurant called "Jai Mata Di Vaishno Dhaba", we had a simple meal of Dal Chawal and the day's veggies, which was also a somewhat welcome change from all the meat-hogging we had been indulging ourselves lately. A few pictures with the Jhelum, and we were well on our way to Sonamarg, another meadow right under the Kolahoi glacier. We took turns to doze off as Imran's music blared on it's third loop of the day. We reached Sonamarg early in the afternoon, where we were advised to move on quickly, so as to avoid an army convoy that was to leave from a nearby army camp very soon. Sonamarg, with vast green meadows and a backdrop of towering mountains is a nice place to visit. Right next to it is Baltal, which is one of the two base camps for the yearly trek to the Amarnath cave at an altitude of about 4000 metres. The Amarnath Yatra hadn't started, so we found Sonamarg free of the usual clog that accompanies the Yatra. Baltal is also the last village before one begins the ascent to Zoji La, the pass that leads into Ladakh at an altitude of 3528 metres.

(Above: Clockwise from top left: The Jhelum and the mountains, at Sonamarg, a thousand feet above Baltal, the Zoji-La zero point)

This is where the road also began to take a turn for the worse. As we ascended slowly towards the pass, we began to deal with a road that was narrow and predominantly unpaved. We were also surrounded by trucks and other tourist vehicles, which made the climb a rather dusty and tiring task. Halfway up the mountain, we were stalled by army-men standing by the road. It turns out that they had received instructions to stop all traffic because the convoy that we had sought to avoid, had left its base. The up-side of the one hour delay we faced as a result of this interruption, was that we sat around on the mountainside that looked over the flat plains of Sonamarg and Baltal. I had crossed this place last time round around sunrise, and in the opposite direction. Looking down into the valley, I noticed the conspicuous absence of the scores of tents that had populated the place last time, owing to the Amarnath yatra. The situation was made a little awkward as Imran and an armyman got into a slight argument over the killing of the child a week ago, but thankfully that did not snowball into something very unpleasant. Finally, the convoy passed us and we found ourselves driving on a very dusty road, inhaling smoke from the scores of army trucks. Soon, we found ourselves driving next to walls of ice on one side, and the beautiful Kolahoi glacier on the other side. A seat change and a couple of stops later, we had crossed Zoji La, and had officially entered Ladakh. A bad road was the least of travellers' worries back in 1947. Zoji La had been a major flashpoint between the Indian army and raiders from Pakistan in the 1947 war, and re-capturing it was a major victory for the Indian army.

About 70 kilometers separate Zoji La and Dras. After crossing the zero-point at Zoji La, we began to descend steadily, and the road began to improve. I felt a surge of excitement as we wheeled into Dras. I had crossed Dras last time in the middle of the night. This time, I saw a board that had an arrow pointing to my left with the words "Tiger Hill" written on it. Sure enough, the moment I got down from the car for some tea, I turned my head and saw that majestic hill, not very far from the town. Tiger Hill was one of the Indian army's major re-captures in the Kargil conflict of 1999. Just eleven years ago, it would be suicidal to stand where I was standing right now. Tiger Hill overlooks the main road leading into Dras and anyone who has control of the top of the hill has the whole town in their direct line of sight. After tea, I spent about twenty minutes loitering around Dras and clicking pictures. Dras is also the second coldest permanently inhabited place in the world. Temperatures have been known to fall below minus 50 during winters. As we drove onward towards Kargil, now 56 kilometers away, we encountered the Dras war memorial, a poignant reminder of the lives lost just over a decade ago.

(Above: Left to right: Tiger hill, the rendezvous with Khalid; the mountains in the background in the right picture are under Pakistani control)

It was late in the evening as we snaked within three kilometers of the Line of Control, and accidentally spotted our friend Khalid waiting on the side of the road, looking rather forlorn. As it turns out, our various delays had caused Khalid to wait at that very spot for about three hours. A rather flustered Khalid pointed towards a nearby mountain range and told us, rather comically, that he'd been in the sights of the Pakistani border force for about three hours. We followed Khalid into Kargil town, where a traffic jam just before entering the town ensured that we reached as late as 9pm. We were housed at the local tourist bungalow where we bid farewell to Imran and that faithful Sumo which had been with us for a week now, and paid a visit to Khalid's house for dinner, giving us our first taste of Ladakhi hospitality. Khalid began to discuss life in a town that has been war-torn for several years a time. He also promised that next morning he would show me some of the artillery shells that had landed in his yard years ago. At this point Khalid made an offer that Mohsin and I would find hard to refuse. He asked us to give up the idea of the trek we had planned to take around Leh, and return to Kargil, after which we would take a camping trip to Zanskar.

Tired as we were, we retired early that night, only to wake up to a very sunny morning. We finally began to feel the characteristically sharp Ladakh sun. We went down to Khalid's house for what he called a "not-lavish" breakfast (which was enough to feed an army of elephants, really), after which he also showed me the shell that had landed on his house. Mohsin and I had decided to take up Khalid's offer, and we were going to return to Kargil soon, so I'll refrain from a detailed discussion on Kargil just yet. So it suffices to say that soon we had hired ourselves a brand new vehicle with a brand new driver and had left Kargil behind, and were headed towards Mulbekh, where we encountered two things- one, was a beautiful Chamba(rock-carving) of Buddha Maitreya(Right) (one of three in the region) alongside the cave dwellings of ancient monks dug into the mountainside, and two, was the concept of a "hole-in-the-ground toilet" (a concept that we found is very popular in this arid region). Before we knew it, we were snaking our way up the mountains towards Namika La, the first pass on the Kargil-Leh road at an altitude of 3700 metres. Surrounding us, for the first time in broad daylight, were the beautiful, barren mountains of the Ladakh region, quite in contrast with the greenery of the Kashmir valley.

(Above: Left to right: The shell in Khalid's house, a "not-lavish" breakfast)

At Namika La, some from our group had their first encounter with altitude discomfort, and by the time we had hit Fotu La, the highest point on the Srinagar-Leh road at 4128 metres, a whole bunch was either sleeping, or feeling dizzy and irritable, or had a mild headache. This is also the point in my story where I warn everyone of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), something Ruchira had had a tryst with, and Shao was about to have an unpleasant encounter with. Most of us feel that AMS is one of those illnesses only foreigners can catch, but the absence of adequate amounts of oxygen can play very dirty tricks with you. So whenever you go beyond 10,000 feet, whether by air or by road, please be prepared for AMS- drink lots of water, and carry a strip of paracetamol and some anti-nausea drugs. That being said, the mild-headache gang had some time to get out of the car and click some nice photographs. (Below: The view from Fotu La)

The nice thing about the Kargil-Leh stretch, is that one keeps encountering small towns in short intervals. After Fotu La, we first crossed the beautiful monastery of Lamayuru, and after about an hour's drive from there we finally crossed the Indus at Khaltse, where we stopped for a mandatory security check, and perhaps an even more essential lunch. The road from Kargil to Leh had been very pleasant the last time I had visited this region. However, in recent times, the Border Roads Organization has taken to widening the road, which has ground road quality to dust and pebbles for long stretches in between. So, it wasn't until we reached the village of Nimmoo (after having crossed Nurla and Saspol en route), that the road began to look up. Of course, once it looked up, it was like driving on an airport runway. At Nimmoo, we encountered a beautiful sight- the confluence of the green Indus river, with the muddy Zanskar river. We moved on, after a quick photo stop and carried on past Magnetic Hill, where our driver very kindly shut off the car's engine to make us experience the powerful magnetic force of the hill, which dragged the car uphill without any effort from the engines! The final thirty-odd kilometers from Nimmoo to Leh were quite a breeze, and soon we were on the final straightaway, at the end of which I could see that town that I loved so much. We drove alongside the Indus, and past the airport. Just after the airport, we met my friend Salim, who was waiting to take us to our hotel.

(Above: Clockwise from top left: Lamayuru Gompa, after Khaltse, the confluence at Nimmoo and the final approach into Leh)

The name of this series of posts struck me when we reached our hotel, because as it turns out, I wasn't just staying in the same hotel, I was also staying in the same room as the last time I visited Leh. It was encouraging to see that nothing had changed; the people were just as nice, the view from my room just as great. Salim informed me that the weather had been really violent the week before our arrival and had just cleared up, so we could expect to find snow pretty much everywhere we went; ice-ing on the cake, I say.

So there we were, after a journey that spanned two days, in the beautiful little town of Leh. All of us, with the exception of Shao, who wasn't feeling very well, went out to explore town, to take in the sights, sounds and flavours of Leh. It was a very satisfied lot that slept that night, following a beautiful, yet tiring road journey; a lot that was eager to bathe in the glory of Leh and its surroundings, beginning the next morning.