Thursday, October 8, 2009

Ladakh travels

So excited to get the chance to travel to Ladakh..a Himalayan region of India. In the winter, overland travel there is impossible because of heavy snow. I read that in some cases, temperatures dipped to minus 46.

But I was going at the tail end of the summer – and towards the end of the tourist season.

It was mainly pretty hot and dry in the day; but nights could get very cold. Even so, places I stayed seemed bemused by my requests for extra blankets; in one basic guest house run by a monastery, I piled on 5 blankets!!

The landscape is stunning. Its part of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir: a lush and largely muslim area. By contrast, Ladakh is austerely stark in its landscape – bare mountains often covered by snow; and mainly Buddhist.
frequent flier

Its sometimes been called “Little Tibet” – the population is racially a mix of Tibetan and Indo-Aryan and many Tibetan refugees live there – opening up small restaurants selling momos, and market stalls filled with Tibetan jewellery and textiles. They can freely practice their religion and culture. Unfortunately, I just missed the Dalai Lama who visits every year who comes to give spiritual teaching to thousands of followers.

Ladakh literally takes your breath away: its the highest region of India; the capital, Leh is 3,500 metres above sea level. Many suffer altitude sickness; and for the first few days, moving around, however slowly, seems like a major exertion. You find yourself wheezing as you ascent a hill to visit Leh Palace or Shanti stupa.
I spent the first few days in Leh, acclimatizing, resting and then enjoying the start of the annual Ladakh festival – a colourful parade of costumes, sounds and dances – which lasts for 15 days at the beginning of September each year.

A friend recommended the charming Sia-La guesthouse – run by a lovely couple with a beautifully tended garden full of vegetables and flowers.

After a few days, I was keen to explore the region more. I shared a jeep with 4 other tourists and we headed to some of the beautiful lake regions – Tso-Kar and Ts Moriri. I’d decided to go there as the landscape was meant to be stunning but also part of the Ladakh festival was going to be held there for the first time.

Several of my companions who’d arrived in Leh a day after me became ill with the dizzying heights we were experiencing. We drove up Taglung La (or Pass) – the world’s second highest motorable pass; spectacular scenery along the way. I have never really been into taking pictures of landscapes..but Ladakh made me change my mind.

Tso-Kar and Tso Kiagar with both beautiful lakes on our way to Tso Moriri. We were originally going to camp at Tso Kiagar – but it was a really exposed and cold area and we decided to push onto the village of Korzok, situated next to Tso-Moriri.

This was our base for the next 3 nights. It was an incredible setting; a wonderful village and even more special because of the festival.

The gompa’s (monastery’s) lama came back from Dharamsala for the event…he was greeted by villagers in traditional costumes who made incense offerings. I found out he was only 19 years old and this was his first return in a year.

He presided over some horse racing along the banks of the lake…to me it felt like watching something on the Mongolian steppe. There was a lot of humour…the crowd laughed as one rider almost fell of his horse trying to pick up a white silk scarf on the ground; then rallied round in support for him as the underdog in the competitions.

In the evening, a cultural show…but this was really an event for locals more than tourists…They crowded into the community hall and watched as if it was the first time they’d ever seen the dances. Children laughed and ran in and out of the crowds.

More festival activities the next day – with a series of wonderful cham masked dances performed in the gompa (monastery). The village gompa was lovely – and a perfect place to stage the event since the two-storey building formed around a courtyard (almost Shakespearean in style) allowing everyone to have a good view of the spectacle.

I peered into the gompa in between the dances…which was a lucky thing to do since they happily let me in and take pictures as the monks were preparing their costumes and masks.

I didn’t want to rest up in Leh again so headed out in the afternoon with a guide for a mini trek.
I didn’t have proper hiking shoes with me and wasn’t sure how much abuse my day trekking shoes could stand. (As it turned out, not a lot…when I returned to Leh a few days later, the sole had come unglued from one of my shoes!)

It was good to get some more physical activity – the treks (taking in villages from Likir) were not so strenuous but took you through some really beautiful scenery and picturesque villages.

It was good to get some more physical activity – the treks (taking in villages from Likir) were not so strenuous but took you through some really beautiful scenery and picturesque villages.
Likir gompa

People I met on my trek

After the trekking, I hitched a lift to Lamayuru – a medieval looking town, famous for its gompa which clings atmospherically to the mountainside.

Though I was thankful for the lift, the Indian driver was hell-bent on trying to overtake 40 Indian army trucks as we crossed the hairpin bends of the Fotula Pass…one of the highest roads in the world and one of the scariest.I really thought this might be the end of my trip!

I was happy to be on terra firma in Lamayuru , spending the day exploring the gompa and the labyrinthine town.

The incredible Fotula pass

Back to Leh again…and preparing for a visit to Nubra Valley. I couldn’t get a jeep with other tourists…but one wonderful tour agent told me there was a cheaper option – a shared local jeep. I got up at some unearthly hour in the morning and found myself on the northern tip of the city…and yes, there were several jeeps all about to head to Nubra.
Arriving in Nubra valley

Road journeys are never boring in Ladakh. The scenery is magnificent, you always spot interesting things; and of course, this being India, my fellow car travelers were not good car passengers. One poor boy threw up most of the way there (and one woman threw up most of the way back when I finally made it back to Leh).

Buddha-like soldier in Nubra...close to the border with Pakistan

Nubra seemed like a was gloriously hot when I arrived. I was dropped off at a road by a gompa and walked down steps; crossing bubbling brooks, pretty trees and countryside. My guesthouse/campsite had a lovely garden – and a pet pashmina goat, which did tricks, standing on its hind legs, for food. It was lovely just chilling out there for a few hours before heading out to explore when it got a bit cooler.
Crazy clouds/sky in Nubra

The lighting that day was just incredible; the sky amazing and the clouds moving fast-forward like a psychedelic movie.

I’d decided that this was the place I would hang out for a few days. More Ladakh festival activities in Hundar (the town I stayed..though not really a “town” – more a village) and Diskit.

Nubra valley

Two humps better than one: Bactrian (2 humped) camels

Sad to leave and head back to Leh. But time was running out and I wanted to see some monasteries – and stay overnight to enjoy the atmosphere and morning worship or puja.

Nubra valley

Combat ready Indian police near the Pakistan border

Polo match, Leh

Alchi monastery

Leh tea shop

Ladakh festival in Nubra valley

Another trip - to the amazing Pangong Lake, which is crystal clear and changes colours during the day.
Snow journey to Lake Pangong..

Wildlife...this is a marmot

Beautiful Lake Pangong, crystal clear, and colours changing throught the day

Thikse monastery

Sad to leave and head back to Leh. But time was running out and I wanted to see some monasteries – and stay overnight to enjoy the atmosphere and morning worship or puja.

I stopped off to overnight at Thikse gompa, near the capital. It resembles the Potala Palace in Tibet. But because its so close to Leh morning prayers was also full of groups of tourists…not quite the atmosphere I had wanted. But it was still wonderful sitting in the semi dark and listening to the hypnotic chanting. Also watching some of the naughty young monks playing around before the new crowd of visitors.

It was enough to make me decide to travel to another monastery, Hemis. I hitched some more lifts and arrived around midday. It was a lovely place with a newly opened and very interesting museum. When the day-trippers left, I was the only foreigner staying there apart from another girl who apparently was visiting for several weeks to study Buddhism.

Morning puja was really special a very different atmosphere from Thikse and I’m glad I’d stayed the night.

Young monks at Hemis monastery

I was lucky to get a lift back to Leh. The morning bus never turned up!!
Part of the adventure and joy of travel.

Back to Leh again for final shopping before I flew back to Delhi.

An amazing holiday…incredible landscape; wonderfully hospitable people; I hope I will be back one day.