Ladakh

This post contains a handful of the pictures I took. The rest are up on Picasa.

Sunday 8/4 – Monday 16/4

Ladakh has been a place of extremes for me, both physically and emotionally. It’s somewhere I’ve wanted to visit since I saw the documentary Economics of Happiness about a year ago; at the time, I wasn’t expecting it would happen anywhere near this soon. Ladakh’s capital, Leh, is a town of 30,000 people set in a valley 3500 metres above sea level. It’s a frozen desert: nothing is green because nothing grows here, and the surrounding mountains that aren’t covered in snow are just bare rock and gravel. It’s a spectacular and imposing place to be. The altitude has meant that I’m a lot less physically fit than I’m used to being. Even after acclimatising, climbing a flight of stairs – and there are a lot of stairs and slopes in Leh – leaves me feeling out of breath. Internally, I’ve alternated between feeling stuck in a kind of malaise, excitement from being in the mountains, awe from the harshness and isolation and that kind of relaxed contentment that you get from being in a place where there’s nothing that you really need to do each day. Leh is a good place to slow down, at least in the tourist off-season.

I arrived in Delhi airport at 2am on Sunday morning. Erin was already there, sprawled out on a couch in the terminal, watching a movie on one of her electronic gizmos. I hadn’t slept on the bus and was starting to feel a little tired, but there wasn’t really enough time to sleep before our flight. The usual airport procedures of queueing and waiting occupied a fair chunk of the three hours before our flight started boarding. As usual in airports, I succumbed to the allure of overpriced, unhealthy and not particularly tasty food – in this case, a McDonalds breakfast. My stomach made me aware for a few hours afterwards that it would have preferred something different.

The dawn flight from Delhi to Leh was only an hour long, but spectacularly beautiful. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see a lot of it, because I had my eyes shut and was trying to will my body to keep the McDonalds inside, at least until we arrived in Leh. Flying from near sea level to an altitude of 3500m affects almost everybody, and in my case it was immediate. I walked unsteadily down the steps from the aeroplane to the tarmac and staggered through the terminal to collect my luggage, feeling the whole time in danger of fainting, and in danger of covering the airport in half-digested McDonalds.

While I was still feeling light-headed, Erin directed the taxi driver to the hotel that she’d picked out – the only one which the Lonely Planet mentioned was open all year round rather than just in the peak season of summer. I had another one in mind which supposedly had hot water on tap and wireless Internet, but I couldn’t remember the name and was dazed enough that it was easier to just go with the flow. By the time we’d checked into the guest house I was feeling much better, but Erin was feeling the effects of the altitude badly. She went to bed and didn’t emerge until dinner time. Meanwhile, I went for a walk into town, learning my way around Leh by getting horribly lost, and found that almost everything was still closed at this time of year.

Water is a precious resource in Ladakh in much the same way that it is in the most remote regions of outback Australia. Every winter in Leh, the water pipes freeze and, supposedly, thaw out again around April. It turns out that we’d arrived just a little bit before running water was available in our guest house. Initially, water was available by filling up buckets only. If we wanted to take a shower, we could ask the staff for some hot water. A couple of days after we arrived, there was running water in the common bathroom (for rooms which didn’t have en suite). Other pipes had been damaged during the winter and there was no running water in the rooms.

Over the following few days, we took a fairly leisurely approach to sight-seeing around Leh. On Monday, Erin was still feeling the effects of altitude quite strongly – and to be honest, I wasn’t quite back to normal either – but we walked up to the abandoned Leh Palace and even climbed to the top level. There’s a nearby fort as well, but I was feeling tired enough by then that more climbing was the last thing I wanted to do. Leh Palace also triggered my fear of heights for the first time in years, something which stayed with me for the following few days.

The next day, we had planned to catch the bus to Thiksay monastery – about 20km from Leh – then walk for a few kilometres to nearby Shey Palace. I woke up feeling absolutely miserable, and upon reaching the monastery and seeing that it was built on the side of a steep hill, decided I wasn’t up to climbing it. Erin and I split up: I spent a while trying to meditate outside the monastery while she went inside. After a while, I set off for Shey Palace on my own and had a bit of a look around. It was similar but less impressive than Leh Palace. I only got about half-way up before completely freaking out about the height when I looked down, so decided to wander back down and flagged down a cab heading back to Leh.

On Wednesday morning I awoke to sound of a new arrival in the guest house: an Irish chap named Garrett. He turned out to be a pretty cool guy, although in the morning he was pretty knackered, having just flown here straight from Ireland. We had breakfast together and then he went to his room to collapse for a while. Surprisingly, by dinner time he was full of life, and the three of us had dinner together at the dubiously-apostrophied Friend’s Corner, which was – according to some people we met on the street – the best restaurant in town for Tibetan momos. It was a really good meal. In fact, we ordered enough that I think it could probably be described as a feast. The spinach and cheese momos were made with yak cheese and fresh-looking spinach, fried to the point of deliciously unhealthy crispiness and served with hot sauce and soy sauce. We also had temok, a kind of Tibetan soup served with steamed bread: also very tasty. None of us finished our meal, though Garrett came remarkably close. The waiter was also an absolutely hilarious guy, making the experience even better than it already would have been. I’d never before seen a waiter enjoying his job so much.

Thursday was Erin’s last day in Ladakh, and our last day of an travelling together. We went up to Khardung-La Pass, notable for being the highest motorable road in the world at 5600 metres. Our aim was to wander around in fresh snow. It did not disappoint. Unfortunately, I was, once again, feeling a bit depressed when I first got up, and stayed that way for most of the morning. The road began as a fairly normal mountain road like you might find through hills back in Australia, but quickly moved to being a narrow ribbon of tarmac winding through the snow-covered mountains. Everywhere was white. It was snowing on and off on the way up, providing me with my first ever experiences walking through soft, deep snow. There was even a tiny snack shop on the top – according to the sign, the highest cafeteria in the world – serving a very welcome meal of Maggi 2-minute noodles with sweet, spiced instant coffee.

After the meal, I snuck back into the car to stay warm. Erin popped her head in to say she’d decided to climb to the top of the nearby hill, and I grumpily ignored her. After a few minutes I decided that climbing the hill might actually be fun, so I went after her and – surprisingly – caught up to her. Wandering up through the snow completely reversed my foul mood. We got a bit over half way up when a couple of the Indian Army officers back down the slope whistled and signalled for us to come down. We did, but not before taking a few photos of each other.

On the drive back down, I took a few photos which completely fail to capture the beauty of being in the mountains.

In the evening, we ate traditional Ladakhi food at our guest house. It was pretty tasty and predominantly consisted of carbohydrates: a kind of stew with noodles and potatoes in a mildly spiced, bright yellow sauce made from milk and butter. Afterwards we sat around, talking and playing cards, and eventually said goodbye to Erin.

Friday was a day for relaxing, reading and planning my next adventure: trekking. April is really a bit early to go trekking in Ladakh – most routes are still impassable – but that didn’t deter me. Salim, one of the guest house employees, got in touch with a trekking guide friend of his to see if anything was possible in the three days I had left in Ladakh. There were a couple of options, with the most interesting (and cheaper) being from Spituk to Stok. This trek would involve crossing Stok-La pass – climbing to just over 4900 metres – and staying in homestays at the tiny villages of Zingchen and Rombuk. I was promised snow.

Saturday morning, I met with the guide, Manzoor, and we set off early in the morning – although, fortunately, not too early. The first day of the trek was a fairly short hike from Spituk to the village of Zingchen, mostly following the course of the Indus River. It was a little bit disappointing because the entire road was along a road; fortunately, there was almost no traffic. Three hours into the trek, we started seeing patches of snow along the side of the road and near the river.

Zingchen turned out to be a tiny village of two – maybe three – households. We stayed in a homestay, wherein I learned some important Ladakhi customs: it is not permissible to have just one cup of tea. Two is grudgingly okay if it’s breakfast time and you’re about to leave to go trekking, but in the evening, it is important to drink cup after cup. Those who know me will understand what a hardship this was. Likewise, there was no getting away with just a single helping of dinner. I was also offered a glass or three of tsang, the locally-brewed wine. Despite its unusual colour, it was actually very tasty. I slept well that night.

On Sunday, we left the road behind and started along a trail designed for humans and the preferred four-leg-drive transport of the area, donkeys. The terrain was increasingly barren, with forlorn-looking trees giving way to patches of dry, spiky grass which reminded me of the spinifex you see the desert regions of Australia. After less than three hours on the road, we arrived at a village named Rombuk. Rombuk was a bit larger than Zingchen – maybe half a dozen houses – and looked relatively well set up for tourism, with four of the houses having big signs up announcing that homestays were possible. There was even a small shop.

We arrived quite early at Rombuk, and after finishing Shantaram, the only reading material I’d brought with me, I oollapsed in bed for a while. After dinner, Manzoor wanted to turn on the telly to see the IPL cricket results – it turned out that the team he supported had just lost a match. Afterwards we sat and watched a game of 20-20 between Bangalore and Rajasthan Royals. Despite not really being into cricket, and knowing nothing about Indian cricket at all, I found it quite entertaining – much faster paced than interminable test matches. I was also surprised to find that the Indian teams had quite a few Australian players, and even one of the commentators was an Aussie.

Monday morning we set off early. We were the first trekkers to attempt Stok-La this year, and it would be easier to pass early in the morning. Manzoor told me that we had eight hours of hiking ahead of us – five hours up, three hours down. Soon after we set off, it started snowing gently. As we got closer to Stok-La, the path was getting increasingly treacherous. Manzoor had brought a trekking pole for each of us, and this was the first time I’d ever used one. I was pretty nervous going up through the steep snow, despite reassurances that this was easy. After a while – perhaps half-way up – it got to a point where I wasn’t really comfortable going further. The snow was getting heavier and visibility was getting worse. Manzoor thought we’d be able to get a little bit further, at least, but we weren’t anywhere near prepared enough to make it over the pass. We decided to turn back.

As we went back down – which was initially even more terrifying for me than the way up – we looked behind us and saw the mountains covered in cloud and falling snow. Very glad to not be up there any more! Walking down, we saw mountain goats and yaks by the side of the trail … no photos, unfortunately. At Rombuk, we called and arranged for a taxi to meet us at Zingchen. And so the trek ended.

Back in Leh, I found out that the road to Srinagar was not yet open as the rumours before I left suggested it might have been. There had been an avalanche two days previously, and it would take another couple of weeks before the road was clear. This meant that I’d missed out on my opportunity to see Kashmir on this trip. But, tomorrow morning: flight to Delhi, and the day after, a first-class train ride to Varanasi.

For my final dinner in Leh, I went back yet again to our favourite cafe, Friend’s Corner, and was served once again by my favourite waiter. I was so incredibly hungry after the trekking that I ordered three dishes and finished maybe 2.5 of them. Gluttony is a fantastic thing. At the end I told the waiter – whose name I forgot to ask – that today was my last day in Ladakh. He made me promise to come back to Ladakh next year. And I’d really love to return, although next year seems unlikely given my university plans.

Come Tuesday morning, I was on an aeroplane once again, looking down at the same amazing view as I’d seen on the way into Leh and wishing I could stay there for longer.

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