Sunday, 24 May 2009

Travel Diary: May 13 - 17

Day 6 – Wednesday – May 13


Election day today. Had breakfast at the guesthouse at 10.00 and took a long walk along the outskirts of town before meeting M at around 12.00.

We searched for a restaurant for him to have breakfast at. Everything’s closed today and I’ve been feeling really exhausted. We finally find a place to eat – Kangla Chen restaurant.

We met up with P and T at Jigmet later and we all go searching for lunch. Strangely, Kangla Chen is now closed. An already ghost like town had become even more of a ghost town. I felt progressively worse, and was in no shape to go searching for lunch.

I walked back to the guesthouse, every step an effort. This tiredness seems to be a continuation of yesterday evening’s exhaustion. I was fine during my first two nights and days, apart from the loss of appetite. The exhaustion really set in yesterday evening during my walk back to the guesthouse, and today’s walk seemed like an eternity. I guess it’s the altitude. The trip from Srinagar to Leh was really gradual an I didn’t really face any high altitude problems I'd read about. I do remember suffering from a little shortness over the Zozi La but that’s about it. I’m only feeling the effects of the altitude now.

I guess I need to stop over exerting myself. I will be moving closer to town tomorrow to prevent the long walks back to the guesthouse. The exhaustion is also probably due to the lack of food. I’ll have access to ready meals in town if I move there. Come to think of it, I’ve only had a real dinner here on my first night. The next two days consisted of mostly breakfasts and snacks. I really need to eat more.

On the plus side, I’ve just had dinner with the family that owns the guesthouse I’m staying in. They gave me the royal treatment, with rice, mutton, veggies, and curd. I really needed this.

Day 7 – Thursday – May 14

I checked out of the guesthouse today. Met up with the guys for breakfast at Kangla Chen. Had a pancake (Rs.50). Could only finish half. Checked into M’s hotel, where I dumped my bags, and then visited a tour operator to book an overnight trip to Nubra for tomorrow. Foreign nationals need to submit their passports to get a permit to visit the area, while Indian nationals need to submit some ID proof. I used my PAN card. Tour operators can arrange the permits themselves at an extra cost.

M and I took a shared taxi to Hemis and Stok monasteries (Rs. 600), while P & T looked for a new and better place to stay for the same price. I threw up on the way. Really didn’t like that pancake. Hemis is really high up. I had a bit of a headache at the monastery, and a nose bleed as well.

Still, it was worth seeing these two places, if only for their museums. Hemis is really large. I don’t know how the resident monks at these monasteries celebrate their open air festivals in winter, it being so cold. It's May and I'm freezing. The museum could be improved with dates added to the exhibits though.

Stok palace and monastery is slightly smaller and looks more nondescript compared to the grandeur of Hemis, focusing on turquoise ornaments worn by the royal family along with their pictoral history.

In contrast, Thiksey and Shey seemed to be more popular as monasteries only, with people going there to see their ruins and prayer rooms with their respective religious displays.

I felt better on the way back to Leh. We reached our hotel at 6.00 P.M. I freshened up, went to get a water refill (there’s a place called Dzomsa that fills your one litre plastic water bottle for Rs.7), and went to finalise our booking for tomorrow.

Had dinner with M. Paneer Tikka Tandoori (Rs.80) and rice (Rs.30). Talked about movies. He loves Tremors as well. Really cold on the walk back to the hotel. Paid for one night since I’ll be checking out tomorrow for a day. Watched a bit of the RR vs MI match on the T.V in the lobby, before going to sleep.

Day 8 – Friday – May 15
Leh/Khardung La/Nubra/Sumur/Diskit

Left the hotel at 7.00 A.M. Met up with the guys at the tour office. They had a Scorpio with a driver waiting outside to drive us to Nubra, in which I dumped my bags.

We drove north and upwards, really high up, soon crossing the snowline, toward Khardung La, the highest motorable road in the world. We stopped to show our permits at one point, at North Pallu, for half an hour, which seemed a bit long.

Then we got stuck on an ice patch on the way to Khardung La, which was scary since there was a sheer drop on the other side of the narrow ledge we were on. Still, the scenery was very beautiful – white everywhere – that we couldn’t look at too long without sunglasses because of the strong glare.

It was snowing and we all got out of the vehicle while our driver tried to get it started, our feet sinking into the snow and slipping on the ice. We finally made it past with the help of the driver from the vehicle behind us, who got the Scorpio past the ice patch, and we all got back into the car.

We made it to Khardung La at last. There was a sign on top of a little snow bank saying it’s the highest motorable pass in the world, and it was fun scrambling up to get our picture taken next to it, before running back into the car. We had no idea we wouldn’t be moving for a long time.

Turns out an army convoy was coming up to the pass from the other end, and since it’s mostly a one way road, we had to wait for over an hour for them to arrive, break and then continue on down the part of the pass that we had come from. Now it’s not recommended to spend more than twenty minutes at a really high altitude like this. We were here for over an hour, with nothing to do. I was starting to feel a bit down; maybe got a bit of a headache even. While the other guys walked around, I tried taking a nap in the car.

Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, the convoy moved off (I counted fifteen large army trucks), and we started on our way down the pass into Northern Ladakh and the Nubra valley, only to be delayed again by three straggler army trucks that were coming up the other way. Instead of backing up the way we had come, what was by now a little procession of tourist jeeps managed to squeeze through each army vehicle one at a time by using a little clearing at a curve in the mountain.

On the Nubra valley side of the pass, it took us a couple of hours to drive down to the valley and our first stop was South Pallu, where we stopped for brunch. I had a slight headache by this time and a hot cup of tea really made me feel better. The steamed veg Momos and Thukpa (noodle soup) also helped (my first Tibetan meal, it was refreshing but really bland), though I didn’t have much of an appetite, and couldn’t finish them. But that and a bottle of mineral water really picked my spirits up and I looked forward to the trip yet ahead.

We drove north to the village of Sumur – a really small quiet town with free monastery entry. It felt good there. A monk showed us through two prayer rooms. I noticed a lot of colourful devotional ceiling cloth hangings., something I’d not seen in any other monastery so far. This monastery, M tells me, belongs to the Gelukpa sect of Buddhism, the Dalai Lama’s branch.

We drove from Sumur down and across to the west side of the Nubra desert to the town of Diskit, and checked into the Sand Dune guesthouse, where we freshened up and went for a walk. Diskit is a really small one-street town, somewhat deserted (like Leh, many shops were closed at this time of year). We noticed that we were getting sand in our teeth all the time, and I realised the haze over the town was really a cloud of sand. We seemed to be in the middle of a kind of sandstorm, being next to the desert.

P challenged some children to jump from the first floor veranda they were on, which they promptly did, on to a sand pile on the ground below.

We walked back to the guesthouse and sat around a table in a little enclosure in one of the guest buildings, waiting for dinner to be served. Noticed sand everywhere again – on the table and chairs. We used the time to talk about movies – I notice that the other guys are movie buffs as well - and played a game of cheater, which P won.

Dinner was a mostly North Indian affair – rice, vegetables, and dal. Very tasty. I filled my bottle up with warm drinking water before confirming with the driver what time we were to meet the next morning, and then going to bed.

Day 9 – Saturday – May 16
Nubra/Diskit/Hunder/Khardung La/Leh

Woke at 6.30 A.M. Freshened up, had a head wash with hot water, and called on the others.

We went to Diskit Gompa, the local monastery, which was built in a way that made it seem like it was stuck into the side of a mountain. Driving along the monastery’s steep winding approach road was another somewhat harrowing experience – people who are afraid of heights certainly wouldn’t enjoy all the vertigo inducing drives in Ladakh. The Buddhist architects seem to take pride in making their monastic creations as inaccessible as possible.

The monastery with its prayer rooms was the same as most others I had seen. Their insides all look the same to me now. There’s always a prayer room with low tables, mattresses for monks to sit at, wall paintings of the deities, and a central altar like place where offerings are made. The best part of the monastery to me was not the monastery itself, but the excellent views of the town to be had from its roofs.

We came back to the guesthouse for breakfast – Ladakhi bread with honey, jam and butter; and tea – after which we paid for our room and board (Rs.380) and drove to Hunder, the last town along the west side if the desert. We stopped along the road to take in the desert with its sand dunes. It wasn’t a complete desert. The sand dunes did have rocky outcrops and electric poles sunk in. We also saw Bactrian camels there. They let tourists ride them for a price.

We drove on until we reached Hunder, where a bridge across a small river to the town was the last point we could travel upto, the Pakistan border being not too far off. We walked around the Gompa situated before the bridge and then drove back to Leh – a very uneventful ad smooth ride. We played 6 degrees on our way up to Khardung La, which was peaceful, quiet and not snowed in this time around as opposed to yesterday. I actually took a walk about and made snowballs for the first time in my life.

We probably reached Leh at around 4.30 P.M, and paid the tour organiser the balance amount. I rechecked into the hotel, freshened up and met M, P & T at the shake place (the same place that I had the mango shake on my first day here - we all seem to love it), and decided to put off the lake trip we were planning for tomorrow. We met a funny British guy and his gang - he cursed a lot about the expensive flights out of Leh (he had paid Rs 10,000 for a Leh – Delhi ticket). The four of us also decided to meet up at 6.30 for dinner.

I killed time walking around and surfing the net for an hour (it’s Rs.90 an hour here or Rs. 1.50 a minute), then met the others for pizzas at Gesmo restaurant and German bakery (Rs125 for large plate sized chicken and marguerite pizzas). The pizzas were pretty boring - they didn’t seem to have much on them, even the chicken ones, but they were filling, at least for me. The others had to order something else to fill up – they seem to have larger appetites.

I went to bed, after checking out P & T’s new hotel room, arranging to meet tomorrow for dinner, collecting my laundry, and having a steaming hot bucket bath.

Day 10 – Sunday – May 17

Woke at around 9.00. Had a cheese onion tomato sandwhich (Rs.45) at Kangla Chen restaurant. Felt energized.

Walked to Shanti Stupa. Or rather, walked to the hill with the stairs leading to Shanti Stupa, the large Stupa built by the Japanese on a hill overlooking the town. It was a gruelling walk. I had to stop for a few minutes every 20 steps or so – and it was around 300 steps to the Stupa’s main base. As usual, it was all worth it – the views of Leh town were the best yet. People in cars could of course use a separate approach road to the main base, which houses a little monastery of its own, along with a parking area.

A little slope from the main base leads to a large wide platform on which the Stupa is located. The platform is splendid. When on it, it appears to be floating in the sky. Height wise, the Stupa is located higher than Leh palace, and the view was better as well. There is a Gompa above the palace that I must visit. It seems higher than the Stupa.

Rested at the hotel for a while, then lunched at a North Indian restaurant down the road from the taxi stand. Had chicken corn soup (Rs.50). Walked through the Tibetan refugee market opposite, and found a snooker place hidden among its back streets. I kept walking down the road from the refugee market, figuring I might arrive at the Hall of Fame museum on the airport road, which I wanted to see.

I soon came to the outskirts of town, and found myself walking through its industrial district, where I realized I would not be seeing the museum today, and upon my return, found a pharmacy that actually stocked Avomine, the travel sickness tablets that I had finished on the Nubra trip and that the main pharmacy in Leh had run out of as well.

Rested at the hotel for a few minutes before walking to P & T’s, where I watched part of the DC vs KXIP IPL match while sipping on vodka and apple juice. It seems P & T had gone out searching for alcohol and finally found a place that sells some, though their quest for beer still hasn’t been fruitful. They’ve been asking for some at every restaurant they’ve been to, with no luck.

M turned up, we went to the same N. Indian place I went to for lunch, and I convinced everyone to have chicken sizzlers (Rs. 130), Not bad. M and I went back to the hotel after dinner and I wished him a safe journey – he leaves tomorrow for a three day mission to organize things before leaving for Bangkok.


Friday, 22 May 2009

Travel Diary: May 8 - 12

Day 1 – Friday – May 8


Woke at 7.00 A.M. Left home at 9.00. The rick to the airport took just half an hour. Cooled down inside the terminal. Got boarding pass. Killed time walking around checking out the shops. It was 10.30. Went through security check at 11.00. The flight to Srinagar was a bit late.

Felt really sleepy on the plane. Ate a Rs. 120 chicken sandwich. Soon saw beautiful mountains with snow-covered peaks from the plane. The first time I’ve seen snow in real life. Couldn't take my eyes off them. The peaks gave way to unending green plains. As beautiful.

Arrived at Srinagar at around 2.00 P.M. Walked from the plane to the terminal and noticed how cool it was – really beautiful weather – around 16 degrees – wonderful for walking in. I enquired at the tourist reception center at Srinagar airport about a hotel. They were very helpful, giving me a guesthouse address. There was another stand at the airport with a guy who helps with hotel bookings but he couldn’t offer anything in my price range and was too pushy.

I took a prepaid taxi (Rs.375) to the guesthouse. Chatted with the driver on the way – he wasn’t too talkative. I stopped at an ATM on the way. J&K Bank is everywhere over here.

Went for a walk after checking in. My guesthouse is close to zero bridge, which is close to the main bus station from where I bought a bus ticket to Leh for the next morning for Rs.710.

Continued on my walk. Saw houseboats and shikaras in the river with interesting names – Pintail, Starling, New Mandalay, Queens Lap, Not the King’s Wood, Kingfisher, Monalisa, Young Fairy Queen, Lotus.

Climbed up a small hill in the center on town with a bungalow on top. It’s very quiet here. I haven’t seen many tourists. The locals have very distinctive facial features. I stand out here. Irritating touts and rickshaw and taxi drivers everywhere hounding me with special offers.

I bought some emergency rations for the two-day bus trip ahead (Rs.145) and got back to my guesthouse by nightfall. It’s colder now – I ordered some dinner (roti and subji), paid for the room and board (Rs.360), and decide to turn in for the night.

Day 2 – Saturday – May 9

My mobile alarm woke me up at 6.00 A.M. I noticed how bright it was outside for this time. Had a lukewarm bath. Walked to the bus station 10 minutes away – quite cold – I wore four layers of clothing for good measure.

Found my bus and seat number. A few foreigners on the trip as well. The Srinagar-Leh bus journey is a two day trip with a stopover at Kargil. It was supposed to start at 7.30 A.M but finally left at 8.00.
We made a pit stop at 10.00 for breakfast. Had two good parathas for Rs.40. Met an Australian guy on my bus named Mick, short for Michael, who’s going to Leh before going to Bangkok. He’s spent eight months traveling in the North, most of it in Himachal teaching English. I noticed the snow covered peaks in the distance and how close thew seemed.

Our bus trip continued on. We stopped twice at check posts where foreigners had to show their passports and register. We were moving higher, into the mountains, closer to the snow line.

Pretty soon, we crossed the Zozi-La, which was a kind of path running alongside a mountain that cut through a frozen layer of ice and snow. We were driving through an open-air tunnel of ice and snow, with just a thin wall of the same to protect us from the ravine to one side. It was breathtaking. Ice was within my reach from the bus window. It closed in on us on both sides. It was so close the bus could have scraped its icy walls on its way through the pass. I noticed it wasn’t too cold though. I was expecting it to be freezing. I guess the ice was mixed with mud and was melting.

We stopped at Drass at 3.00 P.M. – the second coldest inhabited place on Earth after Siberia. Pretty much a one-street town. I went for a walk and spoke to a man called Padum. He told me a lot of Ladakhis are named after the regions they’re from.

We drove on until we came to Kargil in the evening. A man called Drass helped me find a room for the night in a guesthouse for Rs.250. It’s quite a dump. The only other hotel he showed me is probably the only good hotel in Kargil - Hotel Siachen, which is Rs.800 for a double bed – too much for me. Kargil is a really sad depressing town. There's something about it that seems to sap your happiness.

I went for a walk after checking in to find something to eat. Met M doing the same thing. Had dinner with him at the restaurant at Siachen and we talked. Found out he used to do the same kind of work I do now, before coming to India. He also told me this is his second trip. We shared a chicken curry and mixed veg for Rs.140 each.

I’m sleeping with all four layers of clothing on. It’s really cold now. It was quit pleasant uptil Kargil actually.

Day 3 – Sunday – May 10

Woke up a 3.45 A.M. Got up intermittently actually as there was no charge point for my mobile and its battery was low so I couldn’t use the alarm. I left the guesthouse at 4.20. We were asked to meet at the bus station at 4.30. I made it in time but it was very dark outside – no street lights and I had to navigate my way from the guesthouse to the station from whatever stray lights I could find. In the five minutes it took me to walk to the station, I noticed my fingers were numb. It was colder than I’ve ever felt before. I brought out the gloves for the first time. They were leather and not much help, but they kept the circulation going in my fingers.

The bus left at 5.00 A.M. I’d never been so cold before. I had 5 layers of clothing on, plus my gloves and a monkey cap. And the guy on the seat next to me on the bus was kind enough to share his blanket with me.

The trip only got colder after Kargil. We drove up over the snowline, stopping for a few minutes at a checkpost that was in the process of being heavily snowed in. For the first time in my life I was seeing actual snowfall. I always thought I’d enjoy the moment tremendously, but at that point I was no numb I wasn’t even inclined to take a picture or a video. I couldn’t even be bothered to unzip the backpack in my lap, take out my camera, and switch it on, because that would mean removing my gloves. That’s how cold I was.

We slowly descended, and stopped for breakfast at 10.30 A.M. I had a lovely hot meal of rice, beans and veggies. It was still cold but not as cold as before. We soon crossed into another area entirely; where snow covered mountains gave way to rocky barren brown mountains. I guess this is Ladakh. I've seen pictures but seeing the stark barreness of the area yourself is something else. We stopped again for lunch at 1.30 P.M, but I was so full of breakfast I couldn’t eat anything.

We continued on, coming to Lamayuru, the Guru Pather Sahib Gurudwara, and army camps, to Leh, reaching to bus station at 3.20 P.M, at which point it started snowing. I finally got to experience snowfall and enjoyed it too, though it was shortlived.

I called up Lassu guesthouse from a PCO (it was recommended to me by someone I had contacted from Mumbai) and the owner drove up in his car and picked me up. I decided to meet M and P & T (the other two Aussie guys from the bus) later around town, leaving them to find their own accommodation.

Lassu guesthouse is on the outskirts of town, I soon learnt, but very beautiful and quiet. I went for a walk after dumping my bags in my room and freshening up. On the walk back to town, I noticed Leh is quite deserted and cold. There are very few tourists around. I met P & T at the Tibetan refugee market, and had dinner with them at Budshah Inn restaurant. Had a chicken curry with rotis for Rs.80.

It was 7.00 P.M by the time I started walking back to Lassu, and I was soon enveloped in complete darkness by the time I reached the outskirts of town. There are no street lights in this part and I almost couldn’t find my guesthouse. It must have been after 7.30 by the time I did find it.

I’ve got a really nice room for Rs.200/night. It’s very cold though. I need to buy a scarf and woolen gloves. My leather ones aren’t very effective.

Day 4 – Monday – May 11

Awoke at 9.00 A.M. Had a hot bath. It’s been two days since my last one. Left the guesthouse at 11.00.

Went to restaurant called Little Itealy and had a Spanish omelette (Rs.45) and coffee (Rs.15).

Walked to Leh Palace, a landmark right in the centre of town but perched on a hill. I must have reached it by 12.00 after a bit of climbing up a path through old mud brick houses and through steep paths that probably only goats and dogs use on a regular basis. I noticed I had to stop and rest after every few steps. Must be the altitude. Leh is at 3,500 metres, and anything above 2,500 can give you problems.

It was all worth it though. The palace is breathtaking. The benefit of walking up from Leh town is that I got to see a lot of the area around the base of the palace, especially the views of the Leh itself, before coming to the front doors and going inside. No entry charge for me, being an Indian national. I explored the different floors, some accessible by ladder only, though a large part of the palace is under renovation.

There is a pretty good exhibition room somewhere in the centre of the palace, and it’s entirely possible to miss it altogether. Such is the complexity of the palace. It’s so large with so many rooms and a complex series of corridors and connectors between them that it would make a great Wolfenstein game map. The exhibition room shows details of heritage sites in J&K before and after renovation.

Took a lot of pictures. Both of the palace and of the view of Leh. I also noticed a separate approach road for vehicles that traversed half the circumference of the hill. That’s what tour groups and people with vehicles use to come up here, though I‘m sure my way is more fun.

I climbed back down into Leh town by 3.00 P.M. Had a mango shake for lunch and then strolled through the market. Withdrew cash from an ATM. I met M and we exchanged numbers. He bought a SIM card in J&K that actually works out here.

I went on to buy woolen gloves (Rs.140) and a scarf (Rs.70). Walked back to my guesthouse, and met M again, who was on his way to Shanti Stupa, another landmark nearby. We made plans to visit Hemis monastery tomorrow.

Back at the guesthouse, I just had nuts for dinner. I seem to have no appetite. Must be the altitude.

Day 5 – Tuesday – May 12

Awoke at 7.45 A.M. Had breakfast at the guesthouse – Ladakhi bread, omelette and tea. I couldn’t finish it.

Left a little after 8.30, and met M at 9.00 at the market. We walked to the bus station. There were no buses to Hemis, we were told, so we took one to Thiksey. We reached the place at 10.00.

Thiksey is a town centered around a monastery. The monastery itself and all the monks homes are either built on or seem stuck to the side of a hill.

Again, we had to stop after every few steps on our climb up the hill. It feels unnatural to feel so tired so quickly. We were stopping every 10 steps or so on the staircase built into the hill, to catch our breath. What’s was also unnatural was how much Thiksey resembled a ghost town for most of our climb uphill. It was only near the top that we finally spotted a young monk, and a few tourists, and were assured of some human presence. This was the first time I’ve seen any Indian tourists in Ladakh, There seems to be no one in Leh, except a few white tourists. I guess because it’s off season, and still winter here.

This is the first monastery I’ve ever been to. We had to take our shoes off before entering the various prayer rooms, which were full of benches for the monks to sit on, and paintings on the walls depicting Hindu Buddhist motifs and Gods.

I always pictured Buddhism as being more subdued, a religion where Buddha is seen as just a man, M tells me that the version of Buddhism practiced here in India and in Tibet is a more tantric or Hindu Buddhism rather than the simple Buddhism I have in mind. That version, he tells me, can be found in Thailand.

I tell him that doesn’t make sense since, if Buddhism originated in India, it should be the version closest to the original that should be followed here, with the religion evolving into a different form as it spreads farther from its point of origin. But the opposite seems to have happened here. With Hinduism already a major force in India at the time of Buddhism’s origin, it’s the more tantric form that took hold here, as the two religions combined, and the original simple Buddhism survived far outside India, where there was no clash or need to evolve.

As M and I took another path down the hill, we noticed a few other tourists using it as well. It turned out to lead to an approach road to the monastery, along with a restaurant and gift shop, where we relaxed for a while. There also seemed to be a guesthouse with rooms for rent.

We left the restaurant around 1.00 P.M, walked down to the main road, and then walked the three kilometers to Shey palace nearby. It was a bit tiring, but certainly not as bad as walking uphill.

Arriving at Shey palace, we first rested at a restaurant on the road opposite the palace, me forcing down a chocolate bar for lunch and energy before crossing the road and walking along the short road to Shey’s main entrance, definitely more gradual and not as high up as Thiksey. We met a family from Dombivli there, who tell me they've also been suffering from a loss of appetite.

Shey palace really exists in three stages. The palace itself is low, small and quickly explored, A short scramble takes you to the ruins of a fort above the palace, a bit tiring. And a serious and probably very tiring climb takes you to another set of ruins on the hill far above. We were in no shape to be bothered, climbing up to the second stage before going back down and catching a bus back to Leh.

At Leh, we walked to the Jigmet guesthouse to meet P and T, and some of the other foreign residents. There was an Am/Can guy reading Shantaram who talked about visiting Alchi. T was also reading Shantaram. At this point I was extremely tired with all the walking. We decided to meet tomorrow.

I walked back to my guesthouse, exhausting myself even further. I’ve got to find a place closer to town. I reached the guesthouse at around 6.30. No appetite. No dinner. Straight to bed.


Thursday, 7 May 2009

Off to the Himalayas

And so I've finally booked my tickets and am off at last. I'll be leaving tomorrow and returning on the 14th of June, which gives me 38 days of travel, two days less than the 40 I had originally wanted to have (40 sounds so much more rounded and cool), and a lot less than the 56 days in total I've taken off from work.

But what can I say - it's tough to plan a trip like this. I've wanted to visit the Himalayas for a long time now - since 2007. But the summer of that year saw me shifting jobs with a small break between and no way to plan a last minute trip. Then 2008 came and I wasn't too sure about taking two weeks off in the summer since I planned on travelling in late 2008 or early 2009. I did take a ten day trip in Jan '09, which only whetted my appetite for more travel, making me make up my mind about visiting Ladakh in the summer. I certainly didn't think I'd be able to take an extended trip but maybe instead something along the lines of two weeks. And then came the news that I wouldn't have too much work at the office for the first quarter. Which led me asking for a two month sabbatical. Which I shortened to one month and three weeks to finish off some last minute work. And that's how I ended up with 56 days to kill.

Now I had started researching travel options about a month before going on leave. Like I said, I've been entranced by the Himalayas for a while now, and had worked out in my mind that the best way to use the time I had was to do a really long three week trek through the Himalayas to begin with, stopping at villages along the way to get a feel of the place.

Research showed me it wasn't that simple. The Himalayas would take more time to explore, the treks offered a deep exploration of only a tiny slice of the pie, and none of the companies I contacted seemed keen on responding, or were mostly aimed at professional backpackers or trekkers from abroad and charged huge rates.

It was around that time that I shifted my focus to Ladakh, which I've been reading a lot about. What attracted me most to it was it's pure desert feel - seclusive and all. I soon came to the conclusion that I'd need at least two weeks to explore Ladakh, and another week at least for a mild trek, which seemed doable. Any other travel could be arranged around Ladakh.

The problem, I soon learned, was that apart from air travel, the only other way into Ladakh was by road i.e the the two highways, bot of which were preferable to travel by because of the scenery, and both of which could be closed uptil mid June, which is exactly when I was supposed to be back at work.

Near panic soon set in. As my life slowly became a tangled web of search engine results, I got to know that the roads could open sooner (in fact, I've just learnt a couple of days ago that the Srinagar - Leh road is now open). This turned out to be a good thing as I figured I could do a bit of travelling before hitting Leh. Planning began in earnest. Do I go backpacking or join a tour? I had made up my mind at the start to never join a tour in my life. To me, they seem more geared towards tourists than travellers.

Unfortunately, none of my friends seemed to be willing to take even a week off from work to travel with me, making me lean towards a tour (as I didn't want to travel alone) or at least to start off with a tour group and then do my own thing once the tour completed.

It was around this time that I started on my sabbatical. I spent the first week continuing with my tour finding effort, but with no luck. None of the tours I found were in my price range, or seemed to my liking, except one. Meanwhile, I was also planning an itinerary for travel during the start of May, as all the tours I'd found only had trips beginning in the middle of May. But planning that itinerary was a real effort, because it forced me to come to terms with the fact that I'd be backpacking alone for the first time in my life. And that too for an extended period of time. And since I'd be backpacking for the first two weeks of May, I might as well backpack for the remainder of my trip as well.

I took this last decision on May 1st, when I realised I had to put a start date on my trip as enough time had gone by. Ideally, I would have liked to leave as soon as I had voted; I would have had 45 travel days in all. But all these decisions took time. I put May 6th as my tentative start date, with me leaving for Delhi and then Himachal first (as that's where all the good tripping points are) before travelling to Leh as soon as the highway opened. Then I decoded I needed at least a couple more days to deal with some last minute bank work. And during that time I heard about the Srinagar-Leh road opening up, which spurred me into booking a last minute ticket to Srinagar instead of Delhi.

And so I'm off at last.


Monday, 4 May 2009

Movies Seen Recently: Killing Words, Like Water for Chocolate

Killing Words

A 2003 Spanish psychological thriller. A man is picked up for murdering his wife. Did he do it? The narrative continuously skips between the present and flashbacks. Reminds me a little of The Usual Suspects. Not a bad watch.

Like Water for Chocolate

Could have done without it.