Wednesday, 30 September 2009

The Road to Leh

Sometimes getting from A-B is just a means to an end and sometimes the ‘-‘ between A and B is just as interesting. That is certainly true of the road from Srinagar to Leh. Except the bit slap bang in the middle where the buses and jeeps decide to stop for the night – but I’m getting ahead of myself – so let me start from the top.
After a couple of hours of driving in dark and early dawn light from Srinagar we arrived in Sonamarg; a one horse town that one might say you could blink and miss – but if you are smart, and do your research before you go, you’ll definitely want to stop off for a stroll. This place is the home of Sonamarg Glacier, which is hidden away just around the bend and out of sight from the main road passing through, so if you aren’t aware, it would be easy to pass it by. As we awoke from our early morning car naps, alighted the vehicle pulling our wooly hats firmly over our sleepy cold heads and headed off to the trail, leaving our prepaid driver to wait, watch over all our worldly belongings (including 2 laptops and $800 in US cash and TC’s) and probably take a nap of his own (hopefully with the jeep door locked) we were excited to see the first real signs of those much dreamt of ‘snow-capped peaks’ of the Himalayas. There had of course been sprinklings of snow on far off distant peaks in Srinagar but now it seemed we were in the heart of snowy country and we could feel it in the fresh icy air as we inhaled deep into our lungs. The trail to the Glacier led us up from the road behind one of the many India Army camps we would see over the next 2 days on the road to Leh, guarding and patrolling the much disputed border of India and Pakistan. This particular camp seemed fairly calm and relaxed at present but in recent times had, I believe, been the victim of considerable insurgent attacks, so we were once again reminded of the fragile state of ‘peace’ in this land. In any case – we strolled past and up, into the fields, following the dirt track which led us around a bend to be greeted by a spectacular hidden valley, housing the Sonamarg Glacier. When we finally reached the end of the trail we were greeted by some local chaps who were very excited to see their first ‘tourists’ of the day at 8:30am and quickly set up shop to ensure that they could provide for our needs. 4 plates of Maggi noodles were ordered up and we enjoyed fresh, warm, spicy ‘breakfast’, basking in the first warm rays of sunlight beneath the glistening snowy frosted rocks of the crags surrounding us. Now that was a breakfast of champions…….and we have the photos to prove it!

As we began the return journey my thoughts turned to ‘Nasir Hussein’ our faithful driver and ‘guide’ whom we had entrusted with our lives and backpacks. Would he still be waiting or would we be stranded with only the clothes on our backs in Sonamarg? These thoughts however did not deter me from taking a slight detour off our original path to find numerous photo opportunities where locals seemed more than happy to pose for a shot or 2. Fancying myself as the next ‘Nat Geo’ front cover photographer I snapped away to my hearts content and when we did finally return to our drop off point I was relieved to find that Nasir was fast asleep inside the car with backpacks and all safe and sound. (I won’t mention that in the final few minutes of walking back to our starting point my heart skipped at least one or 2 beats as my eyes frantically searched for a Jeep with our backpacks inside, not remembering the colour or make of our vehicle and wondering how many stupid tourists fall for this one and how much a Mac laptop would go for on the Indian black-market.)
Once more we hit the road and after quite a drive reached our highest point for the day – the Zoji La pass, with an altitude of 3529M – after being at only 1600M in Srinagar the altitude was quite dizzying, but we only stayed briefly before once again descending the pass to find a perfect spot for lunch. In our many travels around the globe one of the things that Darko and I love to do is ‘scenic picnics’ so when our driver pulled up and used one of the 17 words of English he knew to indicate that this would be our lunch spot ‘lunch’ we were dismayed. All this natural beauty and he had chosen to pull up in the middle of the only village in a 50KM radius that seemed to consist of corner stores and greasy garages. ‘No’ we said – ‘drive on’ – ‘we find viewpoint for lunch’. He looked a little confused and perhaps thought that we were Muslim too and weren’t planning to eat our pre-packed lunch at all, but complied and ‘drove on’. After some minutes we cleared the village and began heading down into a lovely valley with a river running through it (sounds cheesy I know, but that’s exactly what it looked like). We instructed Nasir to pull over, jumped out of the jeep with picnic bags in tow and bounded into the field beside the road, which would lead us to the water’s edge. 2 minutes later we were spreading our raincoats on the ground, unwrapping the newspaper package containing our roast chicken and potato lunch and admiring our waterfront position. Scenic picnic #1 – done!

Our final destination that day was the thriving metropolis of Kargil (the aforementioned ‘slap bang in the middle’ bit of the ‘-‘ from A – B) – possibly one of the 7 anti-wonders of the world – if there is such a thing! On arrival in this place that used to be a significant trading post between Baltistan and Zanskar we tried to persuade our trusty driver Nasir to continue further on to the next village on our route ahead – but since this had been the proposed stop when we arranged the drive several days earlier through our houseboat owner, apparently there was to be no deviation from the plan. We would go no further! Now if you ever have the good fortune to be traveling between Kashmir and Ladakh I firmly recommend that Kargil NOT be on your itinerary if you can absolutely help it. My lasting memories are of multiple posters of Ayatollah Khomeinni on every tea shop wall and the bodiless heads of 2 goats that had obviously been slaughtered just prior to our arrival sitting unceremoniously on the butchers table, next to the hanging carcasses of several gutted and skinned animals ready for purchase. In most of India it would seems that the concept of refrigeration in a butcher’s shop is indeed a long way off, never mind any standard of hygiene – so if you need any incentive to become a vegetarian in India simply keep this description in mind. Sure the meat may be fresh, but how long can a carcass hang in the fly filled, musty air of a place like Kargil without being tainted, filthy and poisoned? Not a question I want to put to the test!

So, after a failed attempt at killing time in a ‘tea house’ with tea so sweet even ‘Willie Wonker’ would turn his nose up we realized the only thing for it was cards. Now I don’t know what card games you all choose to play in your free time but the Spanish apparently like to keep it simple so we learned a couple of new games that day – one involved the loser being a donkey – that was me – twice! And the other resulted in the loser being an asshole. Now even though I lost – donkey was my favourite because in this game you have to make the pre-chosen animal sound of your opponent when your card and theirs are a match. A lot harder than it sounds and you get to watch your new Spanish friends making complete idiots of themselves. So Kargil wasn’t that bad after all!
Day 2 of our drive to Leh was again marvelously scenic but this day was really all about the culture. First we stopped for breakfast in Layamuru, home of an impressive Buddhist Gompa, (monastery) which was built in the 10th century. Despite our lack of acclimatization we managed to scale the hillside behind the Gompa (at an altitude of 3390M) to gain a spectacular perspective over the valley surrounding the area. Due to wind and weather conditions there was an amazing area of rock formations to one side of the Gompa that looked more like a moonscape than any place on earth and for the first time we felt that we had departed Muslim Kashmir and were entering a zone of more silent spirituality, peace and tranquility.
We took lunch in Alchi, another Buddhist site beside the powerful Indus river under the shade of an apple orchard and after food, wandered the complex of Temples containing spectacular examples of Buddhist art and sculpture, including intricate mandalas and several story high Buddha statues that left one feeling dwarfed and ultimately humbled.
Our final destination that day was scheduled to be Leh, the capital of Ladakh, but we decided that, on the advice of our new travel partners and friends (who had also been advised by their friends), that we should make one final pit stop at Likir (one more of the Buddhist villages along the way). Since we would be only 67KM from Leh, we decided that we were close enough to make it on our own the next day so we communicated this to our driver (through a friendly stall holder in Alchi who happened to have at least 200 words of steady English in his vocabulary, compared to our friend Nasir and his 17) and the plan was made. On arrival in Likir, Nasir made sure that we had a place to stay and then happily unloaded our belongings and went on his way. Our first attempt at finding accommodation did not go too well – the place was closed and locked for the season – but we persevered and eventually found a ‘hotel’ that in fact seemed somewhat out of place in these humble buddhist surroundings. We had tiled floors and a room with a view. A room for 2 (after bargaining) was the meager sum of 500INR (just over $10) including all meals. We should have stayed for a week! And the food was good too – our host and hotel owner was such a friendly Ladakhi chap, it was a pleasure to be there. He also agreed (for a price) to drop us off in Leh the next day whenever we were ready to go – so it was a perfect plan.
The fascinating thing about Ladakh is that because of the altitude it can get incredibly cold at night (especially in winter, when temperature plummet to -30) but due to the dry air and cloudless skies, when the sun is up it can be scorching hot. The region is basically like a mountainous desert at altitude. Amazingly, it is possible to be burned by the sun, while your toes in the shade become frostbitten all at the same time, so as soon as the sun goes down it’s time to pile on the layers and dinner was enjoyed by candle-light with wooly hats and down jackets adorned.
After breakfast the next day we ventured off to explore the sole object of our curiosity in Likir – you’ve guessed it – a Buddhist Gompa – but this one had it’s very own 30 foot, golden Buddha, clearly visible from miles away and unlike many of the monasteries we visited, a Gompa school. We happened to arrive on a day of holiday so had the opportunity to watch the little monks in training playing and enjoying a day of ‘relaxation’ and were even invited to join the monk elders for some tea in the garden and gatecrash their picnic. Darko took portraits of all the monks, which we later emailed to them on their request (yes even in remote Ladakhi villages the monks are online these days), and we explored the monastery all morning before returning to our hotel for lunch and the journey to Leh.

This final leg of the journey ended up being quite entertaining, since it turned out our friendly landlord had perhaps over-estimated the abilities of his trusty open topped jeep. I was the ‘fortunate’ one in the cab, out of the wind, while my travel companions rode open air, to enjoy the ‘fresh’ Himalayan air. I’m sure if you picture an open top drive through the Himalayas the last thing you expect is to be gasping for clean air. The reality is that you will actually end up being gassed by the noxious fumes that spew from the exhaust of almost every truck and van that passes you by on the road (black clouds of poison literally pour from the tale end of every vehicle in this part of the world). The real fun part of the journey started when about half way through our 2 hours journey the engine began to overheat and our ride seemed like she had bitten off more than she could chew. We stopped several times for our friend to pour water into the thirsty engine and on multiple occasions, while climbing a hill, we were forced to pull over so that he could pop the hood and bang things around. Amazingly we actually made it to Leh! We found a place to stay on the outskirts of town with an incredible view looking out over the town with the stunning Stok Kangri Range in the distance, just as the sun was setting. Little did we know that staring at that range from a distance was not all we would do in the days to come – but more of that in my next installment!

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