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.


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