|The Kinnaur-Spiti-Sangla Magic: Day 3 |
|31 May 2012 |
I wake up early and since no one else has, I decide to go for a walk all alone. From our camp site I start walking up to the road. I climb, and as I admire the early morning light, I turn around slightly to the left and am stunned to see a peak lit up fully golden by the rays of the early morning sun! The camp site is now well below me and I can see River Baspa and the spot on its banks that we had relaxed at, the previous evening. I also spot one member of our group who too has woken up, and shout out to him to join me: voices carry easily in the mountains! After reaching the top we take a leisurely stroll down and back, and are welcomed by warm cups of tea by the camp staff; they are in the process of getting the fire started in order to heat water for everyone’s early morning requirements. I chat with some of the other guests who have woken up and discover that we have common friends…the world is indeed small; it has shrunk to the size of a tiny camp-site high up in the mountains!
Post breakfast we head off towards Chitkul, the last village on the Indo-Tibetan border. We are told by the camp staff that the weather is notoriously fickle at Chitkul; they tell us that one moment we will have the sun beating down our backs and the next moment chilly winds blowing in from Tibet might get us running for cover. So we go prepared with plenty of woolens, caps and gloves. (And now I am told by Wikipedia- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chitkul -that the potatoes grown at Chitkul are some of the best in the world and are very costly…in hindsight, thank God we didn’t have a meal of roti-aalu at Chitkul; would have set us back by a princely amount!) On the way to Chitkul, we stop at a beautiful, gurgling brook. Chitkul itself is a windswept village which actually looks its role of a ‘last village’! The River Baspa looks absolutely pristine, ringed by the snow capped peaks (Chitkul also has a first to its credit: it is the first village in the Baspa Valley!) We walk down a long, steep slope to the banks of the river, spend a couple of lazy hours there and then walk all the way back to the village. Some of us take a walk through this tiny, interesting village. As we drive back to our camp, lunch is more than eagerly awaited (Nothing was available in Chitkul, not even the momos that I promised the rest of the folk, misled by a board that actually did advertise hot momos)
Post lunch and a short nap later (the Chitkul walk had tired some of us more than we realized!) we decide to walk down to the River Baspa again. Unlike the previous evening, we don’t plan to spend time by the river side; instead we now want to walk on by the river-side and ford a bridge that we had sighted from way on up, on the way back from Chitkul. Parts of the walk are tough and one of us actually slips and slides some distance down a slope! A while later we spot our bridge; a sign warns us that it is a weak bridge. Luck is with us, though: the weak bridge does not collapse and as we step on to the bridge the sun, hanging low in the horizon, puts on one of the most spectacular displays of light that I have ever seen! The silvery River Baspa, the quaint bridge, the forest of pine trees looking dark and mysterious and the snow capped mountains together create a picture that was sure to be etched in our minds for a long while
After crossing the river we decide to explore the area beyond. We take a path that is headed up. Little did we realize what we had got ourselves into; the path is very steep and long and has us all gasping for breath. Twenty minutes later we reach the edge of a pretty village; we later learn that the name of the village is Batseri. Perched at a height of 2700 metres, pretty Batseri is considered to be one of the most modern villages in the state of Himachal Pradesh. The village is laid out with a network of very clean pathways. It is absolutely quiet; we are the only ones making all the noise! And it seems to be totally deserted; there are houses and pathways, but for quite a while we don’t see any village folk. But then, around a bend, we come across a group of three elderly men- in the traditional Himachal headgear- enjoying the sun on a terrace. “Where are you from?” they ask us. Our “Jharkand” reply draws blank stares. “Near Bihar” and even “Near Kolkata” doesn’t help. And then we realize how foolish we were: “From Dhoni’s place! Ranchi” we say. Aah, now that makes so much sense; the big smiles are out and we strike up a long conversation. They suggest that we go and visit their village temple; the Lord Badrinarayan temple. They tell us it is very pretty. The cobbled pathways are clean and there are clear road markers (indicating “Ring Road”, “Ward 3” and so on) at every cross-path junction. Yet we get horribly lost, primarily because there are no folk on the roads to guide us to the temple. Tired after a long day of extreme physical activity, and also because it was getting dark fast, we decide to turn back and head to our camp. But then our three friends are still there sunning themselves. “You didn’t visit the temple? No, no. Go back that way; you have to see the temple!” they say. Left with no choice, we take a different path and get lost in a different area of the village…this time it is in an area where there is actually a beautiful tree-lined avenue-path! Beautiful, wooden houses lit up softly by the gentle rays of the setting sun make the place picture perfect. Finally we see two women coming our way. They tell us that we are on the right path; that the temple is just ahead. Grateful, and because I really mean it, I tell them that their village is very pretty. But their retort has me stumped: “What about us, aren’t we pretty?” Of course you are, I say (they were!) and then I request a picture of them to lend credibility to my words.
The Lord Badrinarayan temple itself is a beautiful wooden structure, befitting the importance bestowed on them by our villager-friends. However, again, there is not a soul in sight anywhere and the temple itself is locked. The sky is darkening and so we decide to head back to our camp; thankfully the three gentlemen are no longer on the terrace to verify whether we actually saw the temple! The walk down to the river is easy and we reach the bridge in no time. But the brilliant display put up by the sun is no longer there and the River Baspa looks that much sadder for it; it is a bleak grey color. We have a final steep climb to reach back up to our camp. As we reach the camp we are happy, tired and hungry! We have been lucky again: soon after we reach the camp a storm brews up and brings down a fair amount of rain. We huddle around our tents till dinner time. By dinner time the storm has blown over and the rain has stopped. Therefore, post dinner we again enjoy a lovely bonfire and then zip ourselves into our tents to get ready for the next day; we are to drive up to the Spiti Valley and poetic sounding Nako is to be our night halt.
|The Kinnaur-Spiti-Sangla Magic: Day 2 |
|30 May 2012 |
I woke up before sunrise and got almost all of the rest to wake up too, including our new friends Ajit; Ashish and his two daughters. Thanedar is apple country thanks mainly to the efforts, at the turn of the 20th century, of a little known but very interesting personality: Satyananda (Samuel) Stokes, an American missionary who later married an Indian lady. Stokes was the only American to become a member of AICC, the only non-Indian to sign the Congress Manifesto in 1921 and the only American to become a political prisoner of Great Britain in the Indian freedom struggle! He is the one who introduced the American Delicious variety of apples in Himachal, now the world famous ‘Shimla Apple’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satyananda_Stokes). I was keen to visit Stokes’ bungalow in Thanedar but was told that it is now a private residence requiring prior permission to visit it. We settled instead to go on a stroll that- we were promised- would give us a view of the great Sutluj River. 20 minutes later and around a bend, there it was: our first sighting of the great Sutluj, visible way below as a brown strand! Close by, there was a pretty house that seemed to afford a great view, and a ‘Good Morning’ from me had more than the desired effect. The gentleman who was out on the terrace invited us in to his place! He pointed out to us the areas that had been inundated in 2004 by the bursting of an artificial lake on the Pareechu River in Tibet (apparently the roar of the river could be heard right up to his place, and the water levels rose by 10 to 12 metres at places) . Cherries were being plucked and collected by his men as he chatted with us, but our obviously interested looks didn’t get us even a bunch! We strolled back to the Banjara for some hot tea and a full breakfast. By 9am we were back on the road and on our way to the second night’s halt at Sangla valley; the Banjara folk very thoughtfully packed some lunch for us. A short distance of winding roads later we were back on to NH 22. We were level with the mighty Sutluj at Singhapur, where Monty and Vishal stopped for their breakfast. From then on, the NH 22 hugged the Sutluj all the way up to Rampur and beyond. Past Rampur, the first Buddhist prayer flags appeared almost simultaneously with the first sighting of the snow capped peaks. We stopped at a roadside temple about 50 kms before Sangla. The landscape changed dramatically after that; brown colours and rugged, jagged rocks became more common. Beautiful rock overhangs and rock cut-throughs kept us dumbstruck! There were signs of ‘development’ too: Jaypee Group’s 1000 MW Karcham-Wangtoo hydroelectric project entails construction activity right along the route. We stopped for lunch at a spot about 35 kms outside Sangla and literally clawed our way through the food: the thoughtful Banjara folk who had packed food for us had packed just that and nothing else..no plates, no spoons, no napkins. It was a massive community binge on the banks (but high above!) the Sutluj. Post lunch we drove a short way and then turned right and off NH 22 to get to Sangla; Sangla was now just 20 kms away. By now we were in a hurry and very impatient to get to our tent camp at Sangla. But even our impatience and hurry could not deter us from stopping at a spectacular shrine about 15 kms from Sangla that was perched on a jutting rock ledge high above the Sutluj. We stopped there and received prasaad from the Gujarati-origin priest. Apparently the shrine is dedicated to a person who had come to this spot to commit suicide (the spot was indeed perfectly chosen; nothing could have survived that fall!) but who had had a change of heart and started meditating there (again, perfectly plausible given the beauty of the surroundings). We soon reached Sangla and kept looking out for signboards for our night’s halt, the Kinner Camps. We finally sighted it some distance outside Sangla town, on the road to Chitkul; there it was, way below the road level. After calling up the camp and checking up whether our vehicle could be taken down, we descended down a series of muddy hair pin bends to this most beautiful camp colony; it was ringed by snow capped peaks and we could hear the rumble of a river far below. After settling down we immediately set off in search of the river so that we could go and come back before sunset. Negotiating a track that was not very tough, and after passing through what looked like a forbidden forest straight out of the Harry Potter series, we reached the banks of the River Baspa. Totally captivated by the river, we spent a good hour and half there and then climbed back up to the camp. Out of breath and tired though we were, on reaching the camp we were rejuvenated by a beautiful sunset that had bathed the entire camp in a golden hue and had lit up all the surrounding snow capped peaks. Post dinner we sat around a warm bonfire and exchanged stories with some of the other (well-travelled!) guests and then retired to our cozy tents for the night.
|The Kinnaur-Spiti-Sangla Magic: Day 0 and Day 1 |
|The Kinnaur-Spiti- Sangla Magic |
Having already explored -a couple of years ago- the Lahaul-Spiti region via the Manali-Rohtang Top approach, this year we decided to approach Spiti from the Eastern side of Himachal Pradesh. After chalking out a rough itinerary with preferred night halts, I scoured the net for travel agents who could be relied on to execute the plan. I was lucky to hit up on one by chance: Nivalink, a Mumbai based large, well-established, professional (I realized all this later!) travel service provider (www.nivalink.com
). I was very impressed by my travel advisor, Mrunmai. She was able to understand my requirements immediately and was efficiency personified, right through our tour planning stage. Nivalink’s approach throughout my interactions with them was totally professional. I was also impressed when Nivalink (thru Mrunmai) came back to me after all payments had been done, indicating that they had to refund funds to me because they had inadvertently overcharged me by Rs.822!! We were a group of 10, and we engaged Nivalink to handle all transportation and accommodation starting from Chandigarh. Our planned tour route was Chandigarh- Thanedar- Sangla- Nako- Kaza- Kalpa- Fagu- Chandigarh spread over the period May 29 2012 to June 6 2012 (8N/ 9D)
28 May 2012
While we (family of three) reached Delhi by air from Bangalore on 28th May morning, part of our group arrived from Kolkata by air and the rest arrived by road from Ranchi. We had arranged for 2 Toyota Innovas to drive us to Chandigarh. But lack of attention to details and poor planning provided the confusion-driven fun that characterizes so many of our holidays: some of us were at the T1 Terminal, the others at T3 and the taxis neither at T1 or T3. Things got sorted out pretty quickly though, and we were soon on our way to Chandigarh on the beautiful and historical (part of the Grand Trunk Road built by Sher Shah Suri) NH 1. About 50 kms. outside Delhi, and just after Sonepat, we stopped at Sukhdev Vaishno Dhaba, one of the most well known Dhabas on NH1 and famous for its paranthas with white makhan. Post-lunch we cruised along on NH 1; our driver, on cruise control, hands behind his head and handling the steering wheel with his knees, helped us keep awake and digest our paranthas faster! To make things more exciting, he also filled us up on the various ways to create a Patiala peg and down it (we were only hoping he hadn’t had one at the lunch stop!). We reached our Hotel by 6pm. We were booked at Hotel Pukhraj in Sector 22, Chandigarh. Well-located Hotel Pukhraj definitely is, but it prepares the traveler to handle almost hardships further on! And to add to everything else, the A/C switch is tucked away inside the bathroom next to the geyser switch! So if you end up waking up in the middle of the night feeling cold and you cannot find the switch (as happened to some of our friends) the only option is to pull out all the woolens that you have packed away for the Himachal leg of the trip (that is what our friends did!!) because the other option of trying to wake up the Hotel staff is a futile exercise; a no-option! We also realized that moving around in Chandigarh without a vehicle of your own is a tough proposition; but in spite of these obstacles, we did manage to tuck away a very good dinner at Buffet Hut, Sector 9.
29 May 2012
Our Nivalink arranged transport reported promptly at 6am on 29 May. The vehicle was a brand new (temporary registration) Tempo Traveler. We immediately took a liking to our driver Monty (Mukesh Sharma) and his friend Vishal. While Monty is an adventure enthusiast, Vishal is doing his Hotel Management course at the IHM at Kufri. Their youthful enthusiasm and very visible camaraderie added a lot of life to our days on the roads over the next 9 days. We set off from our hotel at 8am and after raiding a generous friend’s house (in Chandigarh) for breakfast, we set off at 10am on the road to our first halt, Thanedar, about 80 kilometers from Shimla. From Chandigarh to Parwanoo, we zipped along the beautiful Himalayan Expressway, built and maintained by a subsidiary of the Jaypee Group; this helped us avoid the crowded towns of Kalka and Pinjore. From Parwanoo onwards, we got on to the scenic NH 22 section that passes through Dharampur and Kandaghat (Solan). By about lunch time we were at Shimla. Monty and Vishal dropped us off at the entry to the town and went on to meet up with friends. We took the easy way out to reach The Mall; we hopped on to the lift that transported us straight from the lower road to the Mall. We had a fine lunch at the elegant Hotel Combermere and strolled along the Mall for a while. I got myself a nice map of Himachal Pradesh and two books on Himachal including Outlook’s Weekend Getaways. The mall is dotted with beautiful buildings (including the Municipal Building) and towering over one end (on a hill some distance away) is the world’s largest Hanuman statue, all of 108 feet high! After lunch we hopped on to our vehicle and were onto NH 22 again. We drove through Dhalli, tourist-heavy Kufri (no, we didn’t stop there), Theog and Fagu to reach Matiana where we stopped for a cup of tea. At Matiana I was so fascinated by an old building that I forgot my precious maps and books at the tea place; luckily someone else picked it up for me! About 20 kms down, we reached Narkanda, turned to the right and off NH 22 and were on our way to our first night’s halt at the Banjara Orchard Retreat, Thanedar. The Banjara Orchard Retreat, a eight rooms + two log cabins beautiful property is tucked away deep in India’s apple country; there are apple orchards all around. Our host (and owner of the property) Mr. Thakur was graciousness personified. We had lovely well-appointed rooms with even lovelier names (Apple, Pear and Peach). Immediately after checking we took a short stroll down to the adjoining village. We came back to Banjara and to a warm bonfire that had already been started. Around the bonfire we immediately struck up a friendship with the other guests at the property: Ajit and family; Ashish, his wife and his two cute daughters Siddhi and Vaishnavi. We also enjoyed the company of Tony, an Australian volunteer at Banjara; Tony has this enviable way of living: he volunteers at the most beautiful locations in the world. After a game of darts with Siddhi and Vaishnavi and a good dinner we retired for the night, but not before I had got almost everyone to agree to an early morning walk the next day
|JULLEY! Travel Tales from Ladakh, Day 8: Changthang, Pangong Lake |
|June 8, 2011: To Pangong |
It is almost the end of our Ladakh holiday However, we are in absolutely high spirits; today we set off for Pangong Lake. We are to spend the night in tents by the lakeside!! Dorjay, our tour operator, tells us that the tents will have attached toilets, with water. “No local toilets, proper toilets”, he tells us. On coming back from Pangong we are to shift back to our favorite hotel, the Namgyal Palace Hotel. So we pack all our stuff and leave it at the hotel, again carrying minimal stuff with us. Dorjey is to move our stuff to the Namgyal Palace Hotel cloak room. As we start, Stanzin- our driver- advises us to carry some light snacks and lots of water. So we stop in town- at a nice place called German Bakery- and buy a whole lot of stuff to eat and plenty of water too.
Leaving Leh, we drive south-east on the (now familiar) Manali Highway. We drive past Shey and Thiksey and though we have been on the road for barely 45 minutes, we decide to stop at Kharo for some tea. At Kharo we go off the Manali Highway and head directly northwards. We drive past Chemrey and Shakti. The climb is even more awe inspiring than the drive up to Khardong La Pass. We go up winding roads that reveal, at every turn, one magical landscape scene after another. Finally we reach the 17590 feet Changla Pass, the third highest pass in the world. Changla Pass- named after the sadhu Changla Baba- is the gateway to the beautiful, stunning high altitude Changthang Plateau. We stop at the café at Changla Pass for some nice hot tea and Maggi. The café is a pretty little log cabin and advertises itself-cutely, and honestly- as the first highest café in the world! It used to be the highest café but that status now is claimed by the café at Khardong La Pass!! The staff is extremely friendly and Stanzin has free access to the kitchen. The café is flanked by two verandahs that lead to the ladies toilets on one side and the men’s on the other. (The ladies’ queue is long, on the men’s side there is no queue. Some of the smart ladies skip over to the men’s side….hidden under layers of warm clothing you cannot distinguish men from women at these heights!) “Julley”, we say to the friendly staff as we leave.
We cross the Changla Pass and enter Changthang Plateau. There is loads of fresh, virgin snow everywhere. The landscape is as awesome as the Nubra Valley landscape. Close to Tsoltak we are stunned by a beautiful, small, frozen lake ringed by dark and majestic guardian mountains. We keep driving on North through landscape that takes our breath away. After a while we reach Durbuk, where there is this huge photovoltaic solar power plant. Consulting our map later on, we realize with great (delayed) excitement that Durbuk is right on the edge of the Tibet Autonomous region. We were at one of the northern most points of the country, close to the India-China border! With even greater (delayed!) excitement, we discover later- from the map- that our favorite Shayok River flows by Durbuk. After originating from the Rimo Glacier, the Shayok River flows to Pangong and then on to Nubra Valley. At Nubra it is at its broadest; here it is almost a stream. From Durbuk we turn south again and after a short drive we reach the check-post at the settlement of Tangse.
After Tangse the landscape changes dramatically. Now there are green rolling meadows, beautiful networks of blue streams and mountains ringing the plateau. Changthang Plateau captivates! Signposts that inform us about the Changthang Cold Desert Wildlife Sanctuary and we consider it a joke…wildlife here? We drive through this idyllic, picturesque landscape in silence: no one is speaking; old and young are enchanted and speechless! It is a countryside through which you just should not rush through. As if reading our minds, Stanzin- our driver- suggests a stream-side break; he says Pangong is not too far away; he says we can relax for a while and then drive on. His suggestion is perfectly timed- just 10 minutes later we reach a culvert that fords the most beautiful stretch of stream that one can imagine! The crystal blue stream (is it one of the streams that feed our Shayok??) flows through fresh green pasture lands and has got soft, low banks. We drive off the road and park our vehicles on the grass.
Stanzin, straightaway, strips his shirt off, gets into the stream and washes himself. Others go on their own ways too: some step into the stream, others lie down on the banks and a few others cross the stream and climb the mountain slope on the opposite bank. ‘There cannot be a better place on earth’, is the unanimous opinion! Stanzin is now washing his clothes; he then puts them out on some rocks to dry. We unload some of the eats bought in Leh: donuts, cookies, chips. We loll around, chat, sleep; soaking in the place as much as we can.
Reluctantly, but knowing that Pangong Tso awaits us, we pull ourselves away from the stream. As we drive south east towards Pangong we spot our first wildlife: the Tibetan Wild Ass. Before the excitement can die down we come across some wild horses. We see them graze lazily, oblivious to the fact that they inhabit one of the most beautiful regions of the earth! A few kilometers drive and then the high point of our day (at least till now!): we sight two mormuts! These are the very same shy creatures that we had spotted on Day 6, as we were driving down from Khardong La Pass. But better educated now, we know that the Himalayan Mormuts are the largest rodents in India. They are a genus of squirrels and hibernate in burrows right through the winter! Brown-coated, with bunny like teeth, they are extremely shy creatures.
The most adventurous one amongst us wants to get down and take a close up picture of the mormut. We stop the car; she gets down and walks towards the mormut clicking snaps as she walks along. Sitting in the comfort of the vehicle, we ask her to go closer still. The shy mormut does not seem too camera shy. It actually stands up on its hind legs cutely posing for the snap. Encouraged, the photographer gets closer still. Now the mormut gets down all four legs and approaches our young lady photographer. Shy? The mormut seems to be advancing menacingly towards the photographer!! The photographer’s younger sister, in genuine fear, screams from the car: “Sis! Come back fast! That thing will kill you!” Stanzin jumps down from the vehicle, grabs a packet of biscuits as he does so, and goes towards the mormut. He throws some biscuits towards the mormut. The mormut stops its advance, picks up the biscuit and nibbles away with its front bunny teeth: it is again transformed back into the cute creature that we saw it as in the first place.
I also step down from the vehicle with one shoe on (I still had not put on both my shoes after the stream-side stop). Some others, too, get off the vehicle. I sit on a rock and take a video of the mormut with my Flip HD Camcorder. But then as I look through the Flip I realize the mormut has finished the biscuits and is advancing towards me. I jump and run back to the vehicle. No amount of commando training could have helped us execute a better re-entry into the vehicle than we effected! The youngest of us leapt straight from the road to the bucket seat on the farther side of the vehicle. The others were almost as agile, and we all managed to enter the vehicle just as the mormut reached the footboard. “Close the door! Close the door!” were the shouts. We finally settled in and bade goodbye to the mormut sitting –looking dejected- on its hind legs as we drove off (WE LATER REALIZED THAT WE SHOULD NOT BE FEEDING THESE SHY, WILD CREATURES. PLEASE DON’T REPEAT OUR MISTAKE. DO NOT FEED THE MORMUTS)
We cannot get over the excitement of the mormut encounter. But then even in the midst of all that excitement we are bowled over by the unfolding scenery: white sandy dunes, dark mountains…a little like Nubra again! And then we have our first sighting of Pangong Lake! An indescribably beautiful pool of shades of blue; nestled in the mountains. We go around a bend and here we are, by the banks of Pangong Tso! This saline lake looks like a sea, there are gulls and ducks. And then there are these mountains of every conceivable shade of brown! All this laid out for you at an altitude of 14270 feet! This is one spot at which even the most camera shy person can be cajoled into posing for a picture! And many do (pose!). The water changes shades even as we watch. We can count at least 5 distinct shades of blue; you can imagine many more!
Stanzin tells us that our tents are some distance away. So we get back into our vehicles and drive along the lake shore. The drive cannot be very long we estimate; after all this is a lake. We are mistaken; the drive seems to go on and on, next to this breathtakingly beautiful lake. We later learn that the lake is 134 kilometres long, but with a large portion of the lake lying in Chinese territory. In this place so far from everywhere we suddenly notice a few neat cabana-like structures. Before we can ask the question, Stanzin gives us the answer: “This is where scenes of the movie ‘Three Idiots’ were shot” he tells us! Any movie filmed here would look good, we agree! But there is still no sign of our place, though. And then we see our tents, right by the lakeside, silhouetted against the setting sun. As we approach the tents some wild rabbits go hopping by! They are huge, almost like mini-kangaroos! Wild asses, horses, mormuts, gulls, ducks, and rabbits: ‘you want to see more before you are convinced about the wealth of wild life here?’ nature seems to be mocking us.
We reach our tent colony (Nature’s Nest): there is a large tent that serves as the dining space, there is a kitchen-cum-workplace tent and there are two rows of residential tents. Barring two tents that are already occupied, we are given a free run to choose our own tents. This system of free choice turns to be a great equalizer: choose the tent closest to the lake and you a great view; but choosing the tent closest to the lake also means that the crudely laid out sewage system that links the ‘attached toilets’ brings every other tent’s waste through your ‘attached toilet’ and into the big s*** pit right next to your tent! (Looking back, the idea of having attached toilets was not a good one: one use of the toilet and the occupants of the tent had to wait outside till all the odors wafted away! The idea of the common toilets in the tent colony at Nubra was a better idea. Plus, we didn’t really like the idea of the waste pit -and our residential tents - being so close to the lake. The lake deserves to be protected much better. Have the tents higher up the slope, further away from the lake, is the dominant opinion).
After exercising our choice of tents we meet an elderly couple. “Julley”, we greet them. I try to help the lady with some of the work (cutting channels to let water flow) she was doing. She finds my efforts very funny. We also chat with the man. Now, this is really unbelievable, he too says that he has visited Goa! He invites us home; points out his cottage and asks us to visit him the next morning. He says he will show us his flock of sheep. Promising to visit him and after a few “Julleys” said to each other, we go to the dining tent for some tea and biscuits. And then we decide to go for a walk along the lakeside. The winds are strong and chilly; the strong wind making the lake look more like a sea, with waves striking the shores. The angles of the setting sun bring alive all hues of blue on the water. The hills look silent, strong and beautiful. For some reason, the setting is one in which you yearn to be alone. You want to be alone with nature; with nature- and only nature- for company. That way, and that way alone, maybe, you can commune and be one with this place.
By the time we return from the walk, some of us are miserably cold. There are four souls huddled up together and then there is this other one lost under a pile of blankets so high that it is almost pushing the tent cloth up- and yet she says she is feeling cold! Even the normally chirpy Stanzin is quiet: “too cold” he says. “Hey, but are you not from Ladakh, Stanzin?” “Yes, but Lamayuru- where I come from- goes down to -15C at most during winter. This place can go down to -25C” he says!! Minus 25 versus minus 15; give us a break! “Now what about your plans for music, chang and dance?” we ask him. That re-energizes Stanzin. He goes to the kitchen tent promising us some chang. But he comes back in no time looking disappointed: “no chang, not even beer” he says. But he is armed now with local intelligence. He points at a structure some distance way: “They say we’ll get chang there. Come” he says. Though we are not too keen on another walk in the biting cold, we feel we should not ditch him and so, reluctantly, two of us follow him. He takes the short cut; vaulting over boundary walls made with stones just neatly stacked up. We follow him, but climb- rather than vault- over the walls. In the process we topple quite a few of the stones. Our first stop is a failed attempt: no chang, no beer. More walls; more sloppy climbs; the second attempt too is a non-success: no chang, no beer. Some more of this and we would have flattened all the boundary walls. So Stanzin, wisely, advises us to go back to the tents. He continues the chang/ beer hunt on his own.
Walking back we notice another group of 6-7 young guys near the tents chosen by us. “Oh, that is good! We have company” we tell each other. “And there seems to be a fair degree of intermingling between the two groups; they are all huddled together” But on reaching the tents we realize that the ‘intermingling’ is not exactly a very friendly one. Apparently these guys (from Mumbai, we later learn) too were given a free choice of tents when they arrived (and that was about an hour before us). Having ‘chosen’ the tents and having left their meager belongings in the tents, they had gone off for a walk. And what do they see when they come back? Six of our guys lolling around on the beds in the tent they had chosen. We had gone and ‘chosen’- and occupied, not even noticing their bags - the very same tent they had chosen! Now, we discover that the confusion is not limited to one tent alone! There were quite a few over-lapping ‘choices’. We took about 15 minutes sorting out (very amicably!) the confusion. By then Stanzin comes back, partly successful: no chang, but some beer!
We invite the Mumbaikars to the dining tent too. All of us congregate there, having tea, beer and some hot pakodas. No one, not even Stanzin, has the energy to start off the music and dance. So we keep chatting till dinner is served. By now we are pretty friendly with the Mumbaikars. I announce my plans to wake up the next day at 5am and go for a long lakeside walk to catch the sunrise and to get as close to the Chinese border as possible (apparently it is about 7 kms. away). Many others-including our friends from Mumbai- are interested. I promise to wake up all the interested folk.
We originally had ideas of sitting out under the stars and chatting. But the biting cold and the strong winds force us to abandon the idea. We go back to our respective tents to catch some sleep.
|JULLEY! Travel Tales from Ladakh, Day 7, 'Responsible Tourism'; Visit to Pragya |
|June 7, 2011: Responsible Tourism!! Visit to Pragya sites… |
Our Ladakh holiday has been a perfect cocktail till now: all the ingredients mixed in perfect proportion and laced together to create a heady experience. Lovely, relaxed people, a landscape that continuously stuns and weather that is perfect complements the cocktail. We have been wondering what we can do to give something back to this beautiful land and its beautiful people. So, we decide to use this day-that was scheduled to be our ‘rest day’- to visit some of the projects run by Pragya (www.pragya.org), the NGO that we are now so very familiar with.
We have our breakfast of puri and aloo, chat with the manager for a short while and are ready to set off. Our first destination is Solar Colony, an area where the families affected by the 6 August 2010 Leh flash floods are being rehabilitated. The flash floods of August 6 2010 were triggered by a cloudburst and torrential rains; around 200 people lost their lives and thousands were affected. The families being rehabilitated in Solar Colony were mostly residents of Choglamsar, Leh, one of the most badly affected areas. They are now being rehabilitated in this settlement. The primary work here is being undertaken by a NGO called RDY (Rural Development and You). Pre-fab houses, provided by Hindustan Prefab, are coming up in neat lines. You feel for these unfortunate residents whose lives have been horribly shaken up. The stark landscape and the towering mountains of soft mud seem to want to remind you that nature can strike anytime again. Jagdish and Vikas tell us that Pragya does similar work in some other areas; we cannot visit the Pragya sites because they are at quite a distance from Leh. Pragya, incidentally, was one of the most active NGOs in the post-flood relief work.
Leaving Solar Colony, we drive south-east past Shey and Thiksey to the military camp at Kharu and then swing off the main road at Egoothang village. Pragya does some work at a construction worker’s camp in the village. The construction site is part of a large construction project of the Army. The construction labor is almost entirely migrant labor from Chattisgarh, Jharkand, Bihar and Orissa. These workers are amongst the most dis-advantaged lot in Ladakh. They are poor, not of good health, not used to the altitude and the cold. Pragya operates a Mobile education unit (a school on wheels) that visits these various construction sites at pre-scheduled times during the week. We have come here to see the school in action. The vehicle is a nice, brightly painted, cute thing (these vehicles had come in very handy during the post-flood relief work). There is a white board that when lifted reveals an audio visual unit. A teacher was handling a class of kids of assorted sizes. Some of them had very bright eyes and were very attentive. But there were the sickly looking kids who did not seem to have the strength to concentrate on what was being taught; there was one kid who looked particularly unwell. We watched the class in action for about 20 minutes and then returned to Leh to our Hotel and to a very Bengali lunch: Tomato chutney, brinjal and parwal.
Post lunch, we drive on the Srinagar Highway NH1D towards the west for about 15 kms. Then we swing off the highway and head off on one of those side roads that I have wanted –always- to set off on. The arrow-straight road, pointed towards the mountains, seems to be headed towards nowhere. We are the only folk on the road. After about 5 kms, we reach this desolate patch of land. We get off our vehicles and walk towards a solar panel. Pragya uses solar energy to draw out water from deep down in this desolate place and uses the water to irrigate 10000 square meters of wasteland on which, with the full involvement of the local community (the wastelands are the community’s property), they are trying to build up a plantation of trees indigenous to the region. In this land far away from other lands, with its tough but enchanting landscape, here is a mission to make life that wee bit easier for the people of the land who have inhabited these lands for centuries.
We get into our vehicle and set off towards the neighboring Umla village. Umla is an enchanting village hidden away in the hollow of these stark mountains. We are just 7 kilometers from the NH1D Highway, but there is no way –from the Highway- that anyone could have guessed about the existence of this village. There is a bus that runs between Leh and Umla- it comes once a week! The teacher of the local school, the doctor at the Primary Health Center, and others have to get off the bus at the Highway and trudge the 7 kms. daily (unless of course, they have their own vehicles). During the long months of winter Umla is totally cut off from the rest of the world; snow blocks its lifeline 7km-road. Umla is close to Leh, and therefore most people shift to Leh during the winters. Imagine, then, the life for the more far-flung villages of Ladakh! At Umla, Pragya have established a food godown: a pre-fabricated structure from Hindustan Pre-fab with help from the Care Today Foundation. These food godowns are of tremendous use to the villagers who use it both for storing vegetables for the lean season and to store the seed for the next crop. We are to be shown the inside of the godown, but the keys are with the Mukhiya of the village who has gone off to Leh!
We now head back to Leh, but take a detour to visit the Phyang monastery. After a brief rest at the Hotel, we walk to town and have a nice fun-filled dinner at Leh Chen Bar & Restaurant.
|JULLEY! Travel Tales from Ladakh, Day 6, Shayok River |
|June 6, 2011: Shayok River, Diskit, Khardong La |
After an absolutely sound sleep in our tent I wake up to a very bright, fine day. True to promise, there is hot water in the baths and the toilets are very clean. Morning ablutions over, we saunter over for tea to the central tent. There are tourists from Andhra, Delhi and Bengal. We get talking to the Bengali group. They tell us that the owner of this tent camp colony is the recipient of some environment award from the President of India. They point out the owner to us: he is out in the vegetable patch working on the plants. I walk over to meet the owner. He is an extremely pleasant, easy chap. He tells me that they are from Hunder village; they own farm lands and have been suppliers to the army for many years. He is working on the vegetable garden even as he is talking to us. (Small nuggets of weeding wisdom are gleaned from him in the process: neither should the weeding job be left for too late in the day - the sun should be given enough time to burn/dry up the plucked out weeds- nor should it be done too early in the day- the birds should not be allowed to feed on the ‘useful worms’ that are inadvertently dug up along with the weeds. Makes you think: is it the early bird that gets the worm or the early worm that gets picked up by the bird?!)
Talking to the owner of the property turns out to be very useful: he gives us very sound (in hindsight) advice. As per our itinerary, we are to visit the hot springs at Panamik and then head back to Leh. He tells us that the drive to Panamik is long and the hot springs are not really worth the drive. Instead, his advice is that we target a leisurely start and a halt by the banks of the Shayok before we head back to Khardong La and Leh. By now, finally, I am also able to establish contact with Vikas and Jagdish of the NGO, Pragya. They tell us that they are at Diskit. That fits in perfectly with our modified plans; we can go to Diskit, visit the NGO, and drive on to the banks of the Shayok before heading for Khardong La.
Sticking to our modified plan, we have a leisurely breakfast and set off for Diskit. Vikas and Jagdish are there to receive us. At Diskit, Pragya have a Development Resource Centre (DRC) and an Eco Tourism Centre (ETC). The DRC acts as a resource centre for schools in the neighborhood. It has a microscope, a TV, a computer, a Video Library and other resources that are accessed by school-kids. The ETC has artefacts contributed by villagers that depict the everyday life in Ladakh. The DRC also organizes painting competitions, etc. for school kids. Though initiated by Pragya, the DRC and ETC are administered and maintained by the local community. After spending some time at the Pragya centre- and after having had cups and cups of steaming tea- we decide to drive on. “Julley” we shout out as we leave.
Soon after Diskit, we meet the pretty Shayok River. Being in the lead car, as we drive past pretty Shayok, it is our task to choose the best spot to halt. We finally choose a stretch of road half-way between Diskit and Khalser, with a long stretch of beautiful desert sand stretching on and on. The occupants of the vehicle following us think we should have stopped earlier..the river is too far from the road at this spot, they believe. Shrugging off their protests, we start charting optimized paths towards the river. We negotiate our way through stunning sands and sand dunes. There are pretty stones, pebbles of every color/ coloring scheme. Before we know it, we have reached the freezing waters of Shayok. The setting is straight out of an extravagant dream: calm blue freezing-cold river, mountains, pure white sands, pebbled floor and a light haze enveloping the whole scene. We step into the freezing blue waters, we perfect the art of skipping stones across the water, we collect loads and loads of pebbles, we stretch out and relax on the rocks; we fully enjoy our near-two-hour halt. We do not know what we have missed by skipping the hot springs at Panamik but we know we have had our heart’s fill of joy here.
We finally begin our walk back to the road, climb into our vehicles and set off for Khardong La. En-route we stop at Khardong Village for lunch at Maitreya Mid-way. (OK, I had forgotten my shades at Maitreya Mid-way on our way up to Hunder. But that was not the reason –contrary to what some others implied- that I suggested that we have lunch at Maitreya Mid-way. It was a self-less act; I had noticed how much the rest had enjoyed the earlier meal they had here and wanted to give them one more chance to savor the food!) At Maitreya Midway we meet the Swiss tourist whom we had met on our way to Lamayuru! He is on his way to Nubra Valley. We exchange notes, chat and bid goodbye to him. While waiting for our orders to be served, a few of us take a stroll into the Khardong Village. A kid- around three-year old- leaves his mother and tags along with me. I take him around, bring him to Maitreya Mid-way and finally have to go hunt for his mother, all the while wondering whether the size of my family was going to increase by one! The lunch is as good as the previous day’s: Maitreya Mid-way is not only good, but consistently good!
Our own bellies full, we feed a stray dog that strays in! And then we are back in our vehicles. When we reach Khardong La we are totally surprised by the absence of the tourist-hordes. We seem to be the only people around. Apparently, Mondays are ‘dry days’ (we still have not figured out what that really means): the Army check posts at North and South Pole (ok, sorry: North and South Pullu!) are shut between 11am and 4pm on dry days; therefore, on ‘dry days’ there is normally no traffic between 11am and 4pm on the Khardong La pass. However, the Army do let the odd vehicle or two pass through, and today we were the ‘odd vehicle or two’! As we walk past the ‘highest café in the world’ strains of Bob Marley’s ‘Buffalo Soldier’ attract us. We walk in and realize that now, the highest café in the world belongs almost wholly to us (there is another group of four big-whiskered Rajasthani-turbaned men too)!! This is now our own, café!! First one, and then the other, and then the next one and finally every member of our group join in an impromptu dance. We are soon joined in by some army folk who walk in, the canteen staff themselves and our driver, Stanzin. We had never, ever imagined we would have so much fun at the highest motorable pass in the world! At the end of it all Stanzin is so excited that he plans for a repeat-dance at Pangong Lake (which we are scheduled to visit two days later) He has it all planned: Chang, Ladakhi music, everything!
High on spirits we start our drive back to Leh. And now it starts snowing. As the snow-flakes drift down we wonder: could anything have been more perfect than the last two days? Desert sands, snow mountains, blue rivers, pretty pebbles, dance in the highest café in the world, snow-fall..nothing could surprise us anymore; there is nothing more we could wish for! But hey, wait! One of the occupants of our vehicle- in one uninterrupted burst of words- draws our attention to a cute otter looking creature sitting on a rock. Apparently she had sighted one earlier but thought none of us would believe her; the next one she saw-thanks to her ultra-quick burst of words- she managed to get a few of us to see too. Did we say the surprises were over? And did we say there was nothing more to wish for? We, especially the ones who missed the earlier sighting, wanted to see more of these creatures. But, alas, we saw no more of them.
We reach Leh with no further excitement and locate the Hotel that we are to stay at for the next two nights: Hotel Gawaling International. There is a ‘traditional welcome’ awaiting us at the hotel: a white scarf is draped around each of us. Then we are subjected to a short lecture by the manager of the property on acclimatization, high-altitude sickness, etc. He is under the impression that we have just landed in Leh; little does he know we are travel-hardened Ladakhis by now! After the lecture they force deceptively good looking milk shakes on us immediately followed by tea, coffee and chanachur; we graciously decline. From his accent, we guess that the manager is a Bengali and our guess is right! He tells us that they have a tie-up with some of the major tour operators from Kolkata and that normally 80-90% of the occupants at the hotel are Bengalis! We climb up to our 3rd floor barsati-like rooms: the climb takes the breath out of us. I go into the bathroom and the shower rack comes off the hook; my wife goes into the bathroom and the tap comes off into her hands and my daughter goes into the bathroom and gets locked in: there is non-stop excitement!
Meanwhile, after all the earlier failed attempts, our Army captain relative is finally able to come and meet us. He has an examination the next day and then has to fly off to Chandigarh; so his visit is short. We go down to the dining hall and after a typically Bengali meal go to bed. Tomorrow is our ‘rest day’ but we have plans to visit some of Pragya’s sites.
|JULLEY! Travel Tales from Ladakh, Day 5, Nubra Valley |
|June 5, 2011: Nubra Valley |
In Ladakh, we never seem to have the time to recover from one excited state before the next one begins! Now too, before we can get over the excitement of our home stay experience, the next day dawns on us and brings its own share of excitement. Today, we are to drive to the beautiful Nubra valley and spend the night there in a tent camp colony! During our first 4 days in Ladakh, we have been hearing tales of tourists who have had to forego their trips to Nubra Valley/ Pangong Lake because of snowfall, inclement weather. So we had gone to sleep the earlier night preparing ourselves for the worst: “What else do we do with our two days if we are unable to make it to Nubra?” is a question we have run through our minds a number of times. The Gods seem to be kind to us, though: we wake up to very, very clear skies. In fact the sky is so clear that the snow-covered peaks that we see every morning from our hotel room windows are totally bare today: the snow has disappeared! Our happiness at seeing the clear skies is also tinged with some sadness: does this mean we will not experience snow at the Khardongla pass today?
9am has become the standard time for us to begin our days in Ladakh. We finish our breakfast and are ready by 9am today too. On coming back from Nubra we are to change hotels for a day. We want to travel light to Nubra for the overnight tent colony stay; the kind staff at Namgyal Palace help us to tag all our pieces of luggage and keep it in the cloak rooms. Dorjay, our tour organizer, comes to enquire about our home stay experience; we tell him that it was fabulous. He tells us that Nubra Valley is unimaginably beautiful and that it is going to be an experience to remember. We try to imagine the unimaginable but cannot; we do not know what to expect!! Nubra, in Tibetan means ‘Green Valley’ he tells us, effectively quashing my theories of women’s lib and No-bra. We are told that Nubra is one of the most fertile regions of Ladakh and accounts for a large portion of the production of its fruits and vegetables. He tells us that the tent colony will have proper toilets and therefore we need not be overly careful with our meals! Dorjay comes from Khardong Village, the first village that you come to after crossing the Khardong La pass. Dorjay owns- and runs- a restaurant in Khardong called Maitreya Mid-way; he suggests that we have our lunch there.
We load our stuff onto the vehicles and go to Dorjey’s town office in the heart of Leh. Since we are travelling very light, he has requested us to allow him to load some provisions/ supplies for his restaurant onto the vehicles; we have no problems. Feeling very lost without a good map of Ladakh with me (I hate the feeling of just being ferried around!), I request Dorjey for a map; he gives me a very good trekking map. On this Leh-Nubra-Leh round trip of two days, we are also scheduled to visit some of the project sites of our friend’s NGO, Pragya. However attempts to get in touch with Vikas and Jagdish of Pragya (to schedule these visits) are unsuccessful and we set off from Leh, hoping to connect with Vikas and Jagdish sometime later during the day.
The first 4 days in Ladakh, we have been traversing the east-west axis. Today, we get away from (the now familiar) NH1D with its east-west orientation and, instead, head North. We pass through quaintly named Ganglas village and soon reach the Army check-post at South Pullu. I wonder whether South Pullu is a corruption of South Pole: maybe some ancient explorer, disoriented due to high altitude sickness, had thought he had reached the South Pole? My theory is dismissed by the rest as quickly as the No-bra theory was!!
To reach Nubra we have to cross the Khardongla Pass, which at 18380 feet literally takes you to the “top of the world”. It is after the Army check-post at South Pullu that the dizzying climb towards the pass really starts. About 20 minutes into the climb Stanzin, our driver has nausea and we stop so that he can rest. That gives us an opportunity to get down from our vehicles and walk along the road and take in the panoramic views of the mountains all around. A half-an-hour halt and Stanzin is OK; we resume our drive and reach Khardong La pass. We have reached one of the highest, most stunning places on earth, and what do we do? Bladders full, people make a bee-line for the loo! Men’s loo number 1 locked up. Men’s loo number 2: chunk of snow keeps door jammed in the open position. Men’s loo number 3: occupant does not seem in a hurry to vacate. Solution: head for the ladies loo!
Like most other mountain passes in India, Khardong La is jam-packed with revelers and their vehicles. And then there is the slope of snow that everyone clambers on to; and then too, are the chai shops that every one heads to. The difference here is that, at 18380 feet, Khardong La lays a claim (disputed, though) to being the highest motorable road in the world! Now isn’t that something? Even if it is not the highest, it must be close to being the highest…and that is good enough! And, and… the café (this truly must be a genuine claim) advertises itself as the highest café in the world! It is not the idea of it being the highest in the world that draws us to the café though, but the thought of having hot, steaming tea. We go in and have cups and cups of hot black tea, and bowls and bowls of Maggi noodles; it is as if we have never ever had Maggi before. The outer wall of the café advertises the good effects of black tea and has a story of the origins of Maggi noodles. After the customary pics next to the board that lays the claim to being the highest motorable road, we cross the pass and head towards Nubra.
As we cross over to the other side of the pass, we notice that there is much more snow on this side than on the Leh Valley side. The stuff that you read in books about mountains stopping the chilly northern winds from reaching the southern plains is obvious to us now. We drive down rough, bumpy, steep declines. At the end of the steepest decline we reach the army check-post at (very logical isn’t it?) North Pullu. “See, at least now are you convinced that this is a corruption of North Pole?” I ask. No one is convinced, but I keep referring to South Pullu and North Pullu as South Pole and North Pole till the others can have no more of it!
Map in hand, I know that we should soon be reaching Dorjey’s village- Khardong. Imagine: here in the shadow of the mighty mountains, is this tiny, green, pretty spot of earth, with a population of about 900 odd folk, nestled nicely in a cusp that we sight from a distance. In ancient times Khardong was the village that used to rent out Yaks to caravans that traversed the fabled Silk Route. Dorjey has told us that his village, Khardong, is the highest village in the world, a claim I still have not been able to verify (Can someone verify it for me, please?!) As we enter Khardong, a row of brightly colored flags marks Dorjey’s restaurant, Maitreya Mid-way. Maitreya mid-way is a very pretty garden restaurant with lots of space. We are met by the Nepali cook. “Julley!” And guess what…where does he spend the winter months? Winter months he works in a shack on Anjuna beach in Goa!! OK, I know I sound like a stuck sound-track but this link between two of the most beautiful places on earth- Goa and Ladakh- seems to be almost divinely ordained! At the restaurant, we are served by a mother and daughter duo..they are from the village. I ask the young girl whether they have a school in the village. She says that she goes to a school in Diskit, which from my memory of the map, I know, is quite a distance away. “How do you commute?” we ask her. She says she is a boarder and comes home only for the week-ends…living in these sparsely populated hamlets is tough!
The food is served in due course on the tables in the lawns, and (no exaggeration whatsoever!!) it is sublime! Whatever is ordered disappears in a jiffy and we order more; that disappears and we order more! After indulging in this burst of unadulterated competitive eating we are all a little fuller as we clamber back into our vehicles.
We drive out of Khardong village and reach this long stretch of winding (not short ‘winds’, each loop is long!) roads. We look back and see Khardong village, nestled in the midst of the mountains looking pretty and a little forlorn. There is a growing sense of anticipation as we drive on, because I know- from the map- that we should soon be reaching a river called Shyok. Also, the literature that we have read, talks about how the Nubra valley spreads out in front of you, green and fertile, as you come out of the desolate mountain range. But nothing- no amount of literature, no amount of map-reading, and no amount of photo-viewing- could have prepared us for the sight that now unfolded in front of our eyes. We turn one last bend and here, spread out in front of our eyes, is a sight that will remain etched in our memories for a long, long time to come: snow-capped mountains, the mountains themselves in all shades of brown and grey; a snow-fed river of a hue of blue that defies description; a green valley that sets up a stunning contrast for the mountains and finally to complete the already picture-perfect picture (!) the river bed itself is a white sandy desert floor with sand dunes that seem crafted to perfection. A hazy horizon (thanks to the fine sand in the air) envelops the whole scene in an ethereal light.
This stunning combo of a landscape keeps you company for a long while; we are greedy and don’t want it to end! Finally, at Khalser, the road goes down to the level of the river. The river is called Shayok. Shayok: a name that somehow seems so appropriate for this shy, pretty river hidden away in the midst of mountains, clad in the hazy cover provided by the sand dust from her own banks. From Khalser we drive up again into more stunning (sorry, in Ladakh you run out of adjectives!) landscape: old mountains being eroded by the elements, crumbling into sand that gets ground into fine, white particles. We drive westwards, along the course of the river, till we reach the town of Diskit. We decide to skip visiting the 14th century monastery at Diskit. There is continuous excited chatter in the vehicle as we drive along, approaching the village of Hunder, where we are to spend the night in the tent colony. Then, as if in a finely co-ordinated orchestrated response, the whole vehicle yelps, screams and shouts in glee: it is about 5 pm and against the setting sun, we sight camels on the horizon!! These are the famous double humped Bactrian camels. Bactrian camels, domesticated as long back as 2500BC, were used by traders on the fabled Silk Route that passed through Hunder village; these camels originally came from the snow deserts of Central Asia.
Stanzin tells us that we can go for joy rides on the camels, but the rides stop at 6pm. We take an immediate decision to first go for the camel rides and then head towards our tent accommodation. We drive off the road onto a path that cuts into the sand desert. We stop near some stunning sand dunes next to a clear blue stream. We cross the stream on foot and head for the area where the camel rides start. All the kids decide to go on the rides. But now we have action that we had not bargained for! One of the camels is in a nasty mood and throws one of our guys into the air. Luckily this strapping young guy, athletic as he is, manages to land himself safely and gets away with only a bruised ego! The camel is tamed by its keeper, but keeps snorting. Sighting me in close range, it shakes its head vigorously from side to side and spews spit on me! The thrown rider is shaken and does not want to try another camel! So I walk along with him and take him to a spectacular spot from where we can watch the others come return from their ride. As we walk, I pick up tufts of camel hair from the sand (I later spin a story for the others of how I lunged at the bad-tempered camel and pulled tufts of its hair off to tame it…the story is not shrugged off as incredible!) We now go and sit on the sand and watch a setting straight out of movies: a setting sun, a large expanse of pure white desert, snow-capped mountains and camels silhouetted against the setting sun as they return with their riders and keepers. Our bad tempered camel was an exception. Kajol and Yusuf Pathan, the camels carrying the two youngest members of our group are so ‘pettable’ that the two kids don’t want to leave them at all- they hug and pet them to their heart’s content!
Camel rides over, we cross the stream again and head for some of the prettiest sand dunes around. We climb some dunes, slide down others, drag each other down the dune slopes, do sand-rolls (rolling down the slopes of the dunes) and generally, have fun!! I remember reading somewhere that Nubra Valley was ‘funky’. Soulful, far-from-ordinary, with experiences that are unmatchable, Nubra Valley is surely funky!! God seems to have been given a free hand by ….God (!) to play around with various elements and combine them in normally unimaginable combinations and yet create something eternally beautiful. We are in an unreal state of mind as we get back into the vehicles and go in search of our tent colony..now we can comprehend what Dorjey meant when he said that Nubra Valley is ‘unimaginably beautiful’.
Hunder village, where our camp is located was on the ancient fabled silk route and was a resting point for the caravans that came through the Karakoram Pass and were headed towards Central Asia. Today, thanks to relations (or lack of it!) between modern nations, it is a dead end. Hunder is close to India’s border with Pakistan and is one of the last villages before the Restricted Zone begins. With minimal search we locate our tent camp colony, The Organic Resort. The six tents reserved for us are clustered together in a secluded area of the colony. The tents are built over a concrete floor/ foundation, have an open verandah area and wooden planks serving as benches outside; they are absolutely neat and comfortable. There are common baths, toilets that are very neatly maintained. We have a common area for our six tents where we sit and sip tea. Post tea and pre-dinner we go for a walk under the starry skies. We come back and have a relaxed time sipping (strong! That is the only beer you get here!) beer. We are served by a waiter who is from Jharkand and we and he are happy! Dinner is ready, but after the competitive eating binge at lunch time, there are a few overfed souls who give it a skip! We retire to our respective tents thanking God for having created this beautiful earth!
|JULLEY! Travel Tales from Ladakh, Days 3 and 4 |
|June 3, 2011: |
Before we start, here is a poser: what should a Gyakho dish without Yak meat be called?
Now, coming back to the travel diary, there is excitement in the air: today is the day of our homestay! After all the acclimatization and the “complete rest” of the first day, and the recommended “slow start” of the second day, we are finally ready to begin our holiday-proper! We are to spend the night as hosts of village folk in the village of Hemis Shukpachan. Hemis Shukpachan is (we have been told) a pretty village on the popular Sham Valley trekking trail, to the north-west of Leh. We are fully ready: 1. torches (no electricity, we are told), 2. Emptied stomachs that we have resolved to keep empty (the local toilets have scared the ---- out of us!), 3. Toilet paper (now, then, why do we need it if we are determined not to use the toilets?) 4. Biscuits, water 5. Medicines,..
Actually, there is even greater excitement because the 14th member of our group arrives today! We will no longer be a lucky 13, but a luckier 14! Our elder daughter arrives straight from her holiday (with friends) in Australia. I wake up early and go to the airport with Dorjey Daya in his car. The flight is on time and there she is! Out she strides, one of the first passengers to come out. But trust her to do it: she walks out with her hands swinging free; she has forgotten to pick up her registered baggage!! “Go pick up your baggage” I say. “Eh? This is all I have” she says pointing to the backpack on her back which is so devoid of contents that it hangs limp and light from her back!
It is 7 am, and we are to start off for Hemis Shukpachan by 9am. Dorjey Daya has advised us that our new “arrivee” has to acclimatize herself and has kept a room for her in the hotel at Leh- the rest of us are to proceed to Hemis Shukpachan for the home stay. I have already warned Dorjay that this one is a tough nut to crack. So, as soon as she is in the car and before she can spill out all the exciting stories about her Australian holiday (including a sky-diving experience!), I tell her “Look, the rest of us have to leave for a remote village today; you have to remain in Leh to get acclimatized”. “No, I am coming along” she says. Dorjay looks back at me, silently acknowledging the fact that my “tough nut to crack” description fits, and fits well! There is silence for two minutes. Then she asks “What is acclimatization?” So I educate her on the fact that at high altitudes there is a shortage of oxygen and that the body has to get acclimatized. “Hmm” she says. Now is she going to agree to stay back? And after another two minutes “So what happens if you do not acclimatize?” I give it in all the scary detail that I can conjure up: HAPE, HAFE, HACE, breathlessness, headache, blackout, coma… Fear in the eyes, a slightly longer silence and then: “No, I am coming, I’ll rest in the car during the drive” I look at Dorjay, he says “Your decision. But in case of a medical emergency, there is nothing near the village” The decision is taken: 14, and not 13, of us are going to the village for the home-stay!
We reach the hotel. The rest of the group crowd around the new arrival: lots of Aussie stories are compressed into a short time because we have to set off early. We have a quick and light (the “local toilet” scare!) breakfast and are ready by 9am. Our first stop is the Gurudwara Pathar Sahib, about 27 kms. from Leh, on the Leh-Kargil Highway (NH 1D), at an altitude of 12000 feet. The Gurudwara, built in 1517 has a nice story around it. Read it at www.sikhiwiki.org (Sikhiwiki: I like the sound of it!). The Gurudwara is known as Pathar Sahib because it has a large boulder with a negative impression of a foot. The foot that caused the impression is believed to have been that of a demon of the region that Guru Nanak Ji had helped overpower. Guru Nanak Ji’s travels had brought him to Tibet too, and he was variously known- and revered- as Guru Gompka Maharaj, Nanak Lama, etc. by the Tibetans. The Gurudwara is a neat, quiet, peaceful, place with very dedicated volunteers who serve you tea and prasad. The ambience is so nice that we ended up spending more time at the Gurudwara than we originally intended to.
5 kms. further on the Leh-Kargil Highway and now we are at an altitude of around 14000 feet. Of the two vehicles we are distributed across, ours is the lead vehicle. As he speeds through some amazing landscape, our driver mutters something along the lines of “Don’t believe what is put up on the board. Actually it does not work the way they say it does. Do you want to stop here? It is not worth it…we are behind schedule”. Before we know what has happened we have driven past Ladakh’s famous Magnetic Hill! We were ‘consulted’ but were not given a chance to voice our opinion! The magnetic properties of the Magnetic Hill are supposed to be so strong that vehicles with their ignition turned off are supposed to get “pulled up” the upward slope of the highway (defying gravity!) at speeds of around 10 kmph. But alas, we did not even get a chance to check out the veracity of these claims! But like true travelers we shrug off the disappointment and focus instead on enjoying the present; we soak in the beauty of the unfolding landscape. The mountains come in unbelievable hues of brown and grey.
The Ladakhi landscape is stunning; it never ceases to surprise you. Intent on admiring the mountains, our eyes have not strayed to the gorge below. Now, alerted by the driver, we look down and are dumbstruck! The Zanskar River, coming from the South, comes and merges into the Indus at this point. We stop to admire the sight from the height that we are at; we decide not to take a detour and go down to the actual point of confluence because we are ‘behind schedule’. The waters of the two rivers are of such clearly distinct hues of grey that the point of confluence has a clear demarcating line. The poor Zanskar loses its identity after this point: from this point on, the river is known as the Indus. The mighty Indus, which starts from Tibet and flows through India to Pakistan, is a ubiquitous sight and a constant companion during our Ladakhi holiday.
Soon after the point of confluence we pass through the villages of Nimu and Basgo. After Basgo, we veer off the Highway, driving North, and reach the ancient (1050 AD) Likir Monastery, 50 kms from Leh. In its heydays Likir used to be spank on a major trade route. Our Aussie “arrive” is ‘acclimatizing’ and is fast asleep in the vehicle as the rest of us set off to see the Monastery. A modern (built as recently as 1999), tall (75 feet), gilded gold statue of Maitreya (the future) Buddha dominates the area. There is light rain, the weather is perfect. We take a relaxed long tea, maggi noodles/ toilet break. We are by now “local toilet” veterans: we have become fairly adept at scooping up the dry compost and throwing it into the hole all in one clean, smooth action!
We come back to NH 1D, drive westward for short distance and then veer off the Highway to the south to reach our next halt: the even more ancient (950-1050 AD) and fascinating Alchi Monastery. Since it is lunch time and the monastery is closed, we decide to have lunch at a charming garden restaurant close to the monastery. Our Aussie is still getting acclimatized and is asleep in the vehicle; we pack some lunch for her. Alchi is a monastic complex of temples. The three temples that we visited are breathtakingly beautiful: beautiful facades, intricate woodwork, stunningly beautiful wall paintings, and graceful clay images. A very helpful monk comes along with us, opening the temples for us and locking them as we leave. “Julley!” we tell him. And as we come out of the second temple, whom do we see but our Aussie! “Julley, Julley!” She has woken up and looks none the worse for the travel: no visible signs of HAPE, breathlessness, etc. So far so good!
Now, all that is left is for us to reach our pretty home-stay village, Hemis Shukpachan! Heading back towards NH 1D and with the Indus keeping us company, we reach a pretty village: here it is, our home-stay village! But the driver carries on without even slowing down! This was not our village, it was Saspol, a village on the banks of the Indus. After Saspol we head off the nice black-topped NH 1D and get on to mountainous dirt roads. No more villages, no more greenery, as we climb and climb. There is one mountain that we christen the ‘designer hill’ because he (or she?) is beautifully crafted, with streaks of different hues of brown adorning the sides. We go round and round, up and down, left and right. Where is our village? Each of us has a pet theory to try and identify our village “Look there, that next patch of green-far away? That will be our village” “No, watch the electric poles. They are our guides…and where they end will be where our village is” “No. we have to descend first. The village has to be near the stream” And to top it all there is one skeptic who is sure that our driver has lost his way and that we have already strayed into China! “Of course he knows the way. These guys would know these mountains like the palm of their hands” we say. Unconvinced, she musters up her courage and asks “Bhaiya, do you know these roads? When did you come here last?” “Oh, I don’t come here often” he says. Now, what do you make of that?!
Then, without much warning, after all those false alarms, here we are: we drive into pretty, pretty Hemis Shukpachan! It is about 4 pm when we reach the village. It is a clean, quiet, pretty village. Now we have to locate the home of our hosts. After some asking around we reach the place! We stop on the road and have to get down and ford a small gurgling stream. Yaks and cows graze on bright green meadows. A group of people in the fields sing along as they work! Idyllic? There has to be a better word to describe this scene! Idyllic is just not good enough. And we are going to stay here for the night! Our host family comes along. “Julley”.They seem such nice people! “Julley” We unload the luggage from the vehicles and follow them. Hold on! There is utter confusion! Our hosts look back at the 14 of us trudging along behind them and break into an uninterrupted, excited, banter with our driver. Our hosts are equipped to host only 5 people, our driver tells us. We are to be hosted by three different families in the village. They can’t take all 14 of us in! One comical sight we must have seemed to them- all 14 of us clambering down and following them home! So now we leave behind 5 lucky folk in the idyllic+ surroundings and go hunting for the other two homes.
The houses are finally located; they are all separated by quite a distance. We like our house too; so what if it does not have a stream in front! Our host’s house is called Gonpapa (Heshuk). As we unload our vehicle, a charming old man from the neighbouring house, dressed in traditional Ladakhi robes and headgear, comes and greets us cheerily. “Julley” he says. “Julley” we reply. We click our photos with him and then head to our home for the day: Gonpapa! There are farmlands around and then a gate-in-a-wall through which we enter. Our host, a middle-aged man, comes down a flight of stairs. (After some effort, we later get his name right; he is Tundup Tsewang) We take our bags up the flight of stairs and step into our home! We climb one more flight of stairs and are shown to our rooms on the terrace. There is one room with two proper cots and another room with lots of mattresses on bed planks placed on the floor. Everything is very neat and clean. We are invited down to the kitchen to have tea. On the way we are shown the dry compost toilet: as clean as clean can be! We go to the kitchen and are introduced to our charming toothless hostess (with even greater effort we later get to know her name: she is Tsering Diskit) While she brews the tea for us I inspect the large kitchen. There are rows and rows and columns and columns of neatly stacked metal utensils. Though the utensils are all washed within the kitchen but there is no running water, the kitchen is absolutely dry and clean. There is a central traditional oven. But there is also a gas stove; modernity! And then we suddenly notice that there are electric lights all over: the village is electrified! Tsering Diskit notices me peering at the photos on the kitchen wall and comes over and points at the portrait of a grand looking man in traditional Ladakhi dress and says “Amma’s Abba”. Imagine, she has got a framed photograph of her grandfather! Definitely, this habitat is not one of those places untouched by the modern world!
The tea is ready and along with it we are served biscuits and at least three varieties of traditional Ladakhi breads. There are cushions to sit on, and low tables that you eat at. We invite our driver (his name is Stanzin) to join us. We also ask Stanzin to stay with us; we ask him to take the room with two cots, we decide to take the room with mattresses on the floor.
Tundup excuses himself because he has some work in the fields. Without Stanzin we would have had to resort to pure sign language because Tsering Diskit could neither understand nor speak any of the languages we knew! Through Stanzin she enquires what type of food we would like for dinner. “Traditional Ladakhi” we say in unison. As we finish tea, Tundup Tsewang comes back and then I spy him carry two filled glasses of what looked like buttermilk. I know better… I know it is Chang, the local Ladakhi beer that is brewed from barley grown locally! There are a lot of whispered “Are they going to offer it to me?” consultations. We wait. It is not offered to me. Some polite conversation, still not offered to me. I, strategically ask “Is that Chang?” “Yes” they say. But it is still not offered to me. Finally, exasperated, I ask Stanzin whether I can have a glass of Chang!! “Sure” Tundup says and gets me a glass of Chang- aaah, the sweet taste of success! I later learn that the two glasses that he had carried outside were meant for the farmhands; I would have anyways been offered my glass. The host was only waiting for the tea to settle down in my stomach. But my patience had run out! Now Stanzin too joins me in drinking Chang.
After finishing the Chang we set out on a walk, intending to seek out the homes of the rest of our group (cell phone signals are non-existent) Just 2 minutes into our walk we meet them coming up. They had decided to pay us a visit! We take all of them ‘home’ and introduce them to our host and hostess. Standing and chatting in the front yard we watch the cows and yaks coming home. The youngest member of our team almost gets run over by a Yak- he gets out of the gate-in-the-wall just as a returning Yak steps in! All of us together now set off for a walk in the direction of the other two homes. We walk past their homes- not stepping in- and keep walking till we reach a small stream. We sit by the stream-side, savoring every peaceful moment spent there.
Walking back from the stream we bid goodnight to the other two sub-groups. Our home is farthest up! The walk back is a little tough now: we are exhausted and the Aussie has a headache. And oh! We have left the medicine kit back at the Hotel in Leh. Suddenly our spirits are down; the thought of having to trudge up all the way does not help either. Luckily we sight Stanzin and request him to go get the vehicle to ferry us. He brings the vehicle and drives us home. As we walk in we see that the house is well-lit. Stanzin tells us that there will be electricity till 11pm. That reminds us: we (the sub-group staying at Gonpapa) have no torches either! No medicine, no torches! Since life is infinitely more comfortable than we imagined it would be, we are not too perturbed. We go into our large, mattress-on-the-floor room. We invite Stanzin in; he is already a good friend. Stanzin tells us about his village, about village life. He tells us how he vividly remembers the day (June 17 1999 I think, he said) when he was requisitioned by the Indian Army to serve as a porter during the Kargil war; a male member from every home of the village was requisitioned!. He talked about the sights, sounds and smells of war; the big booming guns, the bodies of the dead, the long weary days. Imagining this starkly beautiful, ancient, quiet land peopled with the most peaceful folk being torn apart by war saddens us. But then Stanzin goes on to tell us about Ladakhi weddings, his own wedding, and his children. Two hours of banter and all our weariness is gone, our spirits are up!
At around 830 pm we go down to the kitchen. They serve us some tea, they serve Stanzin chang. Again they don’t offer the chang to me! I blame it on the fact that the rest of our group is all females- I am the only male! I again, unashamedly, request- and receive- my glass of chang! Our hosts’ youngest son drops in. He has just come from Chandigarh after attending the contact classes for the distance course of studies he is doing in commerce. They also have a daughter who is a nurse in Leh and another son who is a monk in Kushalnagar, they tell us.
As we chat, Tundup is rolling dough into chapathi shapes and then curving them with the middle finger and thumb into boat-like shapes- dinner is getting ready! After his work is done, Tundup joins Stanzin and me in drinking the chang; their son does not join us. Meanwhile, Tsering Diskit quietly goes about the final preparations for dinner. She places the finished product before us in individual saucer-shaped plates: it is steaming and looks delicious! The dish was called- I hope I have got this right! - Shutaiki. The dough-boats made by Tundup had been steamed and were floating now in great tasting gravy garnished with some green leaves. We loved the food immensely and ate – I think- more than our hosts had expected us to! Post-dinner we were served gur-gur chai, the famous Tibetan salted butter tea made of yak butter added to boiling water mixed with salt, soda, milk and tea leaves. What a perfect end to a perfect day: we enjoyed the gur gur chai. So much so, that I ask Stanzin to procure me a gur-gur chai making cylinder from the local market in Leh.
Fully sated, we are now ready to sleep. We visit the Ladakhi toilet in turns and then go up to our room to sleep. As we lay down the murmurs of ‘what a great day; perfect day’ are interrupted by shrill feminine screams. Pulling the blanket over herself, one of us has discovered company: her blanket has many furry looking worms crawling over it!! Immediately, the rest of us check our blankets; luckily they are all worm-free! Tired as we are, we are asleep as soon as we hit the mattress; before anyone discovers anything else!
Now back to the beginning- of- the- diary poser: what should a Gyakho dish without Yak meat be called? Actually it is too simple, no? Gyakho minus yak = Gho!
June 4, 2011:
I wake up at home: Gonpapa, Hemis Shukpachan! I wake up very early. The first sight I see is my foot! But not my everyday foot: it is my foot framed against our bedroom window through which I see the prettiest landscape imaginable: farmland with firewood stacked up, snowcapped mountains, early morning light filtering through. My waking-up noises wake up another member of the group too. Together, we decide to set off on a walk. We notice that the front door is already wide open. As we set off on our walk we see that Tundup and his son are already at work in the field. “Julley!”, “Julley” they reply cheerily. We walk till almost the end of the village. We reach an area- a very green area- where a stream had broken up into a venous network of streamlets. The early morning light reflecting off the snow-capped mountains provides the perfect background. We walk further on, climb a rocky outcrop and then decide to return back home. The rest of the group has woken up. We go down and brush our teeth and freshen-up at a free flowing water pipe on the street just outside our home. The water is cold! We go into the kitchen for an early breakfast. Tsering Diskit has piled up a huge stack of rotis and omelettes for us. There is bread, butter, jam and marmalade too. “This is too much” we say. But we finally end up eating almost the entire pile! Does mountain air increase one’s appetite?! Stanzin teaches us some more Ladakhi: “‘Gyaala’ means ‘good’” he says. “Gyaala, gyaala. Your food is gyaala” we tell Tsering Diskit. “What is the word for ‘very’?” I ask Stanzin. “Ma’ he says. So now we chant “Ma Gyaala, ma gyaala”. As we finish our breakfast, Tundup walks in from the field. We bid our farewells. We have had a really wonderful time. They ask us to write our comments in a register. We note that the guests before us had come in March. The register had names of guests starting from 2002. We are the rare Indian guests (we saw only one other Indian name). Otherwise there were Germans, Spaniards, Americans, Krygystanians,….
We go down the road and meet up with the rest of the group. We share our experiences. One group has had a bunch of kittens sharing the room with them. Sharing notes we also figure out that except one person, no one else has used the traditional Ladakhi toilet for the big job. Question is: given how we have eaten (hogged is the more appropriate term), how long can we hold on?
We are now headed westwards, our destination being the medieval Lamayuru monastery. Lamayuru lies on the fabled ancient silk route and is about 110 kms. from Leh. We cut through some beautiful green hillsides and get back to NH1D. Then we go west, stopping for tea at Khalsi. Just before we reach Lamayuru we pass through some truly dramatic landscape. It is absolutely unearthly. There is some road construction work and we, luckily, get to get off our vehicles. We meet a European tourist who is besotted by the place. There is nothing on earth that can compare to this landscape, we agree. And then we are absolutely surprised when we later get to know that this entire area is referred to as ‘moon landscape’ because the landscape resembles the moon rather than earth! The Lamayuru monastery itself is built on a steep mountain of mud. As you approach Lamayuru monastery, you are transported to another world altogether. There are these mountains of mud, the mud coloured ruins of collapsed portions, the grandeur of the remaining mud coloured portions. Everything looks camouflaged, mysterious. And there is nothing else around! (well, actually there are even hotels to stay, but thankfully even they have a camouflaged look!) Like the Alchi monastery the wall paintings and woodwork are exquisite. As we stroll around I notice, again, a group of Bengali tourists; show off by speaking in broken Bengali; thus attract their attention, and pass them on to the Bengali in our group!
We get back into our vehicles and start the long drive back to Leh, this time keeping to NH 1D all the while. As we approach Leh we tell the driver that we do not want to miss the Magnetic Hill. He obliges us and we experience the gravity-defying experience!! If any of you folk ever happen to plan a trip to Leh, read up on the magnetic hill at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnetic_Hill_(India) after you experience it!!
We reach Leh by 4pm. The delightfully pleasant staff at Namgyal Palace welcome us back as though we are long lost family coming back home! We feel wanted! We have a very late sandwich/ pakoda lunch and then go for a short walk. Before dinner some of us have our first drink after reaching Ladakh- at the very likable Chen Leh Bar and Restaurant off Fort Road. Their tandoor is fabulously good and the service is superb! We go back to the hotel, have dinner and hit our beds.
|JULLEY! Travel Tales from Ladakh, Day 2 |
|June 2 2011, Leh: |
It is my niece’s birthday. So first thing I do, is to wish her- imagine celebrating your birthday in Leh! You wake up on your birthday, look out of the window and see snow-capped peaks!
Our acclimatization routine is over: we have never been so careful, have never drunk so much water. (But we still run out of breath each time we climb up the three flights of stairs to our rooms). No one wanted to miss out on the Ladakhi holiday even if it meant drinking more water in a day than they would normally in a week. The real Ladakhi holiday is to start from today! All 13, young and old, are up and fully ready by 8am. We have a full breakfast
830 a.m.: Vikas and Jagdish from Pragya come and chalk out a plan for us so that we can see as many of their NGO’s projects as possible.
845 a.m. Dorjay Daya (our tour organizer) comes and gives us an overview of what we are going to see during the day. He also introduces us to the magic Ladakhi word, Julley! It can mean anything and everything (Hi, Bye, Hello, Good Morning, Thank You) but one thing is for sure: you will definitely get a cheery smile out of any Ladakhi recipient if you just say “Julley!” It is such an ‘un-describably’ sweet word…nay it is much more than a word…it is a concept!
Our Army captain relative calls up saying that he cannot meet us today too
9 a.m. We, excitedly, set off in two vehicles. So that our bodies get more time to fully acclimatize, today we are to just visit a few places around Leh- and it is only going to be a half day affair. And oh yes, we have asked the Tibetan Kitchen to get our Gyakho ready by 230 pm!! But our first halt is the ATM (I still have to pay the shopkeeper!) Guess what? You have guessed right: the ATM does not work!! I am dead broke and borrow some money from folk who still have spare currency
We set off on a south-easterly direction, for about 15kms. on the Leh-Manali highway. Our first stop is the 17th century Shey monastery with a huge metal statue of Lord Buddha. “Julley”, we say after buying our tickets from two young monks. I get talking to an interesting foreign tourist (cannot figure out where he is from) who has been to exotic places like Ulan Bator. Also get talking to the monk at the monastery and get to know that he has completed his religious studies from Kushalnagar near Mysore. Hey! We have got someone from Mysore (my wife), we tell him. “Julley”, we tell the monk as we bid farewell. The monastery is perched on a hillock and affords breathtaking views of the landscape around.
We drive another 4-5kms. on the highway towards our next halt: the enchanting Thiksey Monastery from 1430 AD that houses a very large statue of Lord Buddha. It is here that I first notice a feature of the Ladakhi architecture: the wood chippings stuffed in all along the rafters below the ceiling (Disclaimer: I know next to nothing about architecture, so this architectural detail may not be of Ladakhi origin and…what is actually a rafter?). The place is peaceful, absolutely peaceful. We are the only people around. That is, till we see the watchman to the Buddha shrine, from whom we have to buy the tickets. “Julley”, we greet him.
We head back towards Leh on the highway through absolutely idyllic settings: horses grazing, tiny villages, a beautiful river keeping us company. As if sensing our thoughts, the driver turns off the highway into the idyllic picture. “Where are you headed?” we ask him. “This is the Sindhu Ghat” he tells us. The beautiful river that has been keeping us company is the Indus (Sindhu)!! We go to the river-side with great reverence. There is nothing much else we can think of doing here but say “wah, wah”. So after a 15 minute halt we clamber back into our vehicles. We meet a Bengali family who tell us that their trip to the day to Nubra valley had to be called off due to snowfall at the Khardongla pass; we have to go there in a few days time! Hope it does not happen to us!
Heading towards Leh, we take a detour near Choglamsar. Choglamsar was one of the areas of Leh that was worst affected by the calamitous cloudburst of August 6 2010. We are headed towards the Stok Palace and museum. The Stok Palace, constructed in 1825, is the current residential palace of King Namgyal (no, he does not own the Namgyal Palace Hotel where we stay, we confirm). There is one desperate soul who has overdone the acclimatization routine and drunk too much water… she cannot hold back any longer!! Luckily, we find a sign saying “Local Toilet” and send her right in. She comes out looking relieved, but perplexed. “It was just a deep hole in the floor. And scary, you can fall right through. I think you guys sent me into a toilet under construction- there is a shovel and lots of mud heaped up in a corner” , she says. Why should a toilet under construction have a deep hole? Anyway, we have better things to think of than the design of toilets.
The palace has a small, interesting museum and a bunch of young, pleasant ladies to guide you. Seeing our interest in the museum and all things palatial (our liberal use of “Julley” too must have helped), the young ladies tell us that with 2-3 days notice we can even request an audience with the Royal couple. We are in Ladakh for another 9 days; of course we would like to meet the Royal couple!! There is a lot of whispered discussions, some consultations and then…no luck! They tell us the audience is not possible because the Queen is in the family way! “No problem, Julley, we will meet the Royal couple and their new born next year”, we tell the ladies.
By then it is 1 pm and many of us are ravenously hungry (maybe it is the thought of the waiting Gyakho) But, then, we have to find an ATM! Here is an ATM next to a SBI Branch! That should work! No such luck! In spite of the best efforts of the Branch Manager and the rest of the staff, the ATM does not cough out cash! Moral of the story: come loaded with currency to Ladakh!
2pm and a hungry horde walks into the Tibetan Kitchen on Fort Road. “Give me 15 minutes”, says Rana. My descriptions of how the Gyakho might look, how it must be getting cooked on a slow fire, what the ingredients might be, make people even more hungry…crazily hungry! And then it comes!! First the fresh green salad, then the King Momos! Big, huge, looking momos. “But there is no stuffing, Rana! These King Momos are empty”! “I didn’t say ‘King Momos’! You heard wrong! I said ‘Tingmos’. These here are Tingmos (Tibetan steamed bread)” says Rana. And then, sizzling, bubbling, they bring in the Gyakho vessels: one non-veg (“Sorry. We did not get the Yak”, says Rana. In the midst of all the noise, flavours, steam…he is forgiven) and one veg. The ingredients of the Gyakhos are immersed in a sea of gurgling gravy, around the central steamer- of- a cylinder of the Gyakho. Rana helped serve the Gyakho; carefully scooping out the ingredients onto our plates: it was like a lucky dip, a pot-luck! There were many “I want the stuff that he has been served”; “Hey! I didn’t get what you got!” Don’t know whether it was the hunger or the ambience or the setting or the food itself, but the Gyakho was heavenly! As the solid ingredients depleted, Yak-cheese milk was brought in jars and poured into the Gyakho vessel and “Hey Presto!” now you had a soup too! To round it up and make it a full-course lunch there were desserts too!
“Come on, Rana. I have to have a pic with you” I tell him. He readily obliges. Now everyone else wants a pic with Rana too. Many “Julleys” later we are stepping out of the restaurant when Rana, as if it was an after-thought, calls us back in. He takes us towards the cash counter (have we underpaid him? Is there one more course left?). “Look at these”, he says. God! Under the glass on the cash counter there are scores of pics of Rana! Rana with Amitabh Bhacchan; Rana with Aamir Khan; Rana with Priyanka Chopra; Rana with Omar Abdullah; Rana with… We are bowled over. Unknowingly we have taken food from a Master Chef!! “Now, Rana, I will send you my pic with you and you have to put it under the glass!” “Sure, definite. Julley” he says. I believe him. So look who I am going to share cash-counter-space with, soon!
We walk back along Fort Road to our Hotel. As my daughter tries reading French written across a store front a shopkeeper says “You know French?” “Julley, no” We get talking: the shopkeeper is a Kashmiri who also has a shop in (you guessed it!) Goa- the Goa connection continues! He is married to a French woman.
Most of us go back and grab some sleep, but I just cannot seem to catch it (the sleep!) So I borrow Rs.50 (remember, no ATM!) and walk back along Fort Road looking for a hair cutting salon. I finally find one: the Janta Haircut. The Janta Haircut is a dingy one-chair (one hard, flat chair, not the normal barber chair) salon located opposite a momo joint. The barber’s specs keep slipping off his nose while he tells me about how he almost snipped off a piece of a client’s ear because these “goddamn specs don’t remain in place”. After the haircut I make one more maddeningly unsuccessful attempt at the ATM. I slink past my shopkeeper friend on the way back to the hotel, but he sets sight on me: “Julley” I say. “No problem, pay later” he says, perfectly anticipating my “no-ATM-therefore- can’t- pay” banter. I have a post-haircut bath in freezing water (hot water is available only between 6am and 8am or between 6pm and 8 pm. After the bath I go for a walk with two others seeking a drink. We are unsuccessful (“dry day”, the sign outside the bar says) but I am mighty successful with the next ATM attempt and finally get the satisfaction of wearing a Yak wool jacket that I have paid for! You can’t imagine the relief that a simple sight like cash coming out of an ATM machine can mean; you have to travel to Ladakh to understand that.
Tomorrow we are slated to travel to a remote village and ‘home-stay’ with the villagers. Dorjay tells us there will be no power in the villages. So he asks us to buy some torches. We are also told by Dorjay that the traditional Ladakhi toilet is a ‘dry-compost’ toilet. “What is that” we ask? “Well, we don’t use any water to clean or to flush” he says. “So carry lots of toilet paper. And after you do your job just shovel in some of the soil that will be kept in the corner of the toilet” he says. All eyes turn to the one who had described ‘the toilet under construction’ at the Stok palace. Oh! That was your ‘local toilet’! This also scares most of the crowd into either skipping dinner or having a very light dinner: avoid the toilet tomorrow if you can, at all costs! “But we have already hogged the Gyakho”. “Yes, but go slow from now on”
Post-dinner, as we chat, imagination runs riot; we conjure up images of our home stay the next night: Cluster of huts, no lights, dark sky, moonlight night, central village ground, music…and the Ladakhi toilet!
“What is the name of the village we are going to stay in?” No one has the answer..only questions remain as we head off to bed!
|JULLEY! Travel Tales from Ladakh (Leh): Day 1 |
|May 29 2011, Kochi: |
Starting off on our holiday from our home in Jamshedpur, we first head for Bangalore (spending a couple of days there) and then to our second –or rather first- home in Goa (spending a couple of days there too). Now after spending a couple of days with family in hometown Kochi, we are ready to start off on the main part of our holiday: our Ladakhian holiday!
Unfortunately, it starts off with a minor stutter. Our rail tickets- from Kochi to Delhi- remain glued (for 70 days!!) at Waitlist Numbers 1,2,3,4,5 . So we can’t go to Delhi by rail.
Actually, it proves a blessing in disguise because we now decide to take a relaxed flight from Kochi to Delhi the next day
May 30 2011, Delhi:
We fly from Kochi to Delhi, reaching Delhi at night. We have decided to stay at Baljeet Lodge, the mention of which normally evokes incredulous responses from our friends. ‘Baljeet’? ‘Lodge’? But over the years we have become extremely comfortable with this homely place with very pleasant staff. And it is located superbly at the Bhikaji Cama Junction of Safdarjang Enclave.
May 31 2011, Delhi:
Delhi is hot, with a capital ‘H”, but yet we (wife, younger daughter, sister’s daughter and me) set off at 11 am and go on an emotional and nostalgic (for me) short visit to the house that I had stayed in, at Sector III, RK Puram. After a little bit of ‘getting lost’ (was the number 685? Or 485? Or 285? Or 481?) we locate the house. The house looks very much the same in the macro structure but has changes that had to happen over time (e.g. the open veranda is now enclosed). The saplings planted by my parents have now become trees; the open badminton court is an enclosed park-like area. Memories come flooding in.
We then decide to savor Delhi’s metro and thus take a nice comfortable ride from Green Park to Rajiv Chowk. Surfacing from the comfy world of Delhi’s Metro, we are hit by the heat of Delhi as we emerge into the CP Circle. After ten minutes we make a hasty retreat to our Metro World, grab a quick lunch at the Nirula’s at Rajiv Chowk station and then head back to Baljeet Lodge.
In the evening we meet up with the rest of our Ladakh fellow travelers; they have come directly from Jamshedpur to Delhi. Our group now tots up to a lucky 13: 7 full-adults, 4 just-about-adults and 2 kids. We meet at Dilli Haat, eat (momos, kababs) more than we shop, and go back to an attempt at going to bed early so that we are sufficiently rested for our early morning flight to Leh
June 1 2011, Leh:
The attempt at going to bed early has, predictably, failed. We have already been warned by a number of well-wishers that we have to first get acclimatized in Leh before we venture to do anything. We have been told about the high altitude sicknesses. So we google- search on high altitude sicknesses: High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE- doesn’t sound happy, or does it?), High Altitude Flatus Expulsion (HAFE) or simply, High Altitude Gas (HAG, yes apparently it does happen), High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE). At the end of it we are sufficiently scared and decide to search no more. We however double-check our medicines: we have been advised to carry Diamox tablets and use them in case anyone feels breathless. We have also been advised to drink a lot of water.
We finally get to hit bed only at midnight and are up at 2:30 am: a grand total of two-and-a-half hours of sleep- so much for a relaxed start to the holiday!! We are off at 3:15 am to the airport, reaching there in 30 minutes flat. The four of us go in, we are supposed to meet the other nine there. But there is the usual confusion that comes with large groups (Our cell rings: “hey, we don’t have a copy of the ticket, nor the PNR. Why did you go in? Now come out and give us the ticket” “But how can I come out? The security won’t allow me. Why don’t you, instead, get a hard copy from the airline counter” “Hey, there is a long queue at the counter. You come to the gate and hand over the ticket). We are finally checked in, with a massive 180 kgs of luggage comprising of the unnecessary, the necessary and the uncertain (how much of warm clothes do we really need?)
There is a lot of excitement, but also some apprehension: HAPE, HAG, HACE, the H-led alphabet soup spins in front of our eyes as we already start tanking up on water.
Hunger is the first common sensation for the co-holiday makers but as we are about to place our orders the boarding is announced (the flight is- unbelievably- on time! We had been warned about the uncertainty of flight schedules to nature-sensitive Leh airport) and excitement takes over from hunger as the most common emotion. The eating plans are ditched and we make a beeline for the boarding gates.
We are seated in two full rows and one seat in the third row. Before take-off there is a request from the crew whether some of us can go and occupy some vacant seats in the front to ‘balance’ the load (have done it in boats, but this is the first time we have received such a request in a flying vessel). Finally, we do not have to do it, though.
The flight is quite bumpy initially and as it steadies, quite a few of us doze off, but are woken up by excited cries of “Look, look”. Sitting on the right side (seats D to F), we peer out of the windows and we see nothing but clouds. But turn to the other side, and through the windows on the left we see the majestic sight of the snow-clad Himalayas. Oh no, have we got seats on the ‘wrong side’? We keep comforting ourselves: the beautiful sights have to come to our side too (how can there be mountains on only one side?). But till we come in to land at the Kushok Bakula Rinpoche (hah, now trying remembering that..it was one of those early ‘games’ between us fellow travelers with many failing repeatedly to remember the full name of the airport) the mountains really do not ‘come’ to our side: so finally, seats D to F have ‘lost’ out!
Our bags are (it had to happen) the last to arrive and we are amongst the last passengers to emerge out of the exit gates. As we proceed to the gate we are pleasantly surprised: our tour operator seems to have gone overboard in his welcome ceremony. Our tour operator (Dorjay Daya of Maitreya Tours) is someone I met up with on the internet and instinctively liked. Over the phone and mail he seemed to be a nice guy, but this welcome was totally unexpected. There is a line of Tibetan ladies, in traditional attire, waiting for us with flowers, garlands and incense. We step out grinning into the beautiful Ladakhi landscape. We are overwhelmed!! And there is pleasant looking Dorjay with a placard with my name on it. But hey, hold on! The ladies don’t stir; the garlands don’t come over us, there are no flowers!! Dorjay informs us that there is a High Lama (opinion is still split on whether he meant High Lama or something like Hai Lama as in Dalai Lama) too on the flight and this is the traditional Tibetan welcome for High (or Hai) Lamas. By then some of us have already- quite thick-skinnedly- jumped into the welcome lane to get snaps taken with the welcoming group.
We get into our three Maruti Omni vehicles and drive towards our Hotel. The landscape is stunning: huge mountains made wholly of (at least it seems so) just mud. The landscape reminds one of the mountains that one sees in UAE.
We reach our Hotel (Hotel Namgyal Palace on Fort Road, next to the Air India Office) in 10 minutes and are allotted rooms. The staff are nice and pleasant. The time is 8am. Dorjay tells us that we are to rest…total rest. He says that we are under his command: sleep, drink a lot of water, no going out for walks. You don’t even have to take a bath today, he says. He is to meet us the next morning.
We have our breakfast, climb up to our rooms (are we feeling breathless or are we just imagining it?) and attempt sleep. Sleep comes fairly easily and we wake up at around noon and go down for lunch around 1 pm. There are a couple of colorful shops just outside the hotel gate and disregarding Dorjay’s commands we stroll over. I decide to buy a Yak wool ladakhi sleeveless jacket and a nut cracker (“Oh, but why?”, the others ask) and then realize that I am not carrying enough money. But by then I have struck up a rapport with the shopkeeper (thanks to the fact that I have a home at Goa. Talk Goa and you immediately connect with these shop-keepers, most of whom run their businesses in Leh from April to September and in Goa from October to March) “Oh don’t worry, pay me later” he says
We go back to the Hotel and indulge in some monkey-gaming: I am the High (or Hai) Lama with the nut-cracker as a charm in my hands and ALL the others are low-lamas that I command around.
Now there are a few contacts to be established: one with staff of a Ladakh-based NGO run by a friend, and the other with a relative who is a captain in the army and who is based not very far from Leh. I make the calls. By then I have the beginnings of a headache (“Should we have gone shopping? Is this HAPE?”). I describe that I have a crazy one-eyed headache and then realize that two others have the same type of headache. There are others with headaches originating from behind their heads…descriptions spill out!
Meanwhile, Vikas and Jagdish of the NGO, Pragya, turn up and describe their various activities in Ladakh (Education, Health, Wasteland Development, Food Godowns, and Eco-Tourism). We plan to knit into our itinerary visits to some of their project sites: this is responsible tourism! We ask them to come the next morning to co-ordinate with Dorjay.
Presto, our headaches are gone. So we decide to walk and locate an ATM- I have to pay the shopkeeper! We soon realize that getting cash out of ATMs is a Himalayan task in Ladakh. The two ATMs we could locate are both ‘down’. So we decide to eat some snacks pre-dinner. We walk into this invitingly- but simply- titled restaurant ‘The Tibetan Kitchen. We order the predictable momos but my eyes are drawn to an expensive dish: the Gyakho. It is priced at close to Rs.2000. “I want this Gyakho”, I say. “But sorry sir, for the Gyakho you have to give us at least a day’s notice”. That has me floored! Something that takes a day to prepare? Rana- who runs the place and whom I strike up a rapport with immediately- tells us that one Gyakho can feed 5-6 people (now, then, it is no longer as expensive as it seemed!). He goes in and comes out with the exotic looking vessel in which the Gyakho is prepared. That has me totally floored. The Gyakho just had to be had. The others are game for it too: so we place an order for one vegetarian Gyakho and one non-veg (Rana says that he will try to get in Yak meat too) Gyakho. I tell Rana that I want to buy one of the Gyakho vessels too- he tells me that they are not available in Leh; that I have to buy them from (hold your breath!) Delhi! I tell him that I will come early the next day and want to watch the Gyakho being cooked. He says “OK. But first the Gyakho, then the vessel, now the cooking…soon you might want to buy me!!)
We go back to our Hotel have dinner and tuck in for a sleep