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.



melvin said...

Way to go Dan... I'm proud of you!
You've done & are doing something I've always dreamed of but havent done... as yet!!!

You see I'm still optimistic.

You've gone off on your own into the wild.

I hope & pray you have a safe adventure & lookin forward to drinkin with you when you're back & hearing all your adventures.



Bits and Pieces said...

I agree with Melvin... this is one of those awesome things that I keep telling myself I must do before I pass on, but have never gotten around to doing it. Its refreshing to see you actually Doing this stuff. Makes me reinforce my own dreams.

Do keep with the travelogue - I am avidly following it. Thanks for putting down costs wherever possible, its good for the rest of us when we plan for something like this. How often do you access the net?

I found a few things quite interesting:
1. Houseboat named 'Not the Kings Wood'. What the heck does that mean?!

2. Mick - I know of several foreigners who teach English in foreign countries such as China, Japan, Indonesia, VietNam, Malaysia. Not many come to India, because India has plenty of well-qualified, gifted homegrown English teachers, unlike in other Asian countries where English is often not a major language.

3. The food - seems you;re eating a lot of parathas, beans, veggies, rice. Guess its not too bad for a vegetarian like me to survive there? And whats Ladakhi bread?

4. Leh Palace - will you put up pics of this amazing place?!

5. The nature of Indian Buddhism. Quite interesting. I have been to places like Thailand and some parts of Malaysia where people have no clue that Buddhism actually originated in India, and that it then spread to these countries. Those people seem to think its their own home-grown religion! They've got monuments etc. depicting the birth of Buddha. They call places in India, in native names. Like Ayodhya, is called Ayuthaya in Thailand!!!

Fangs said...

sounds like loads of fun!

have a great time!

Daniel said...

@ Mel - we will meet on my return, but will you be able to get away from your better half for a drink?

@ Asha- Do try to visit Leh. It's an amazing place.

Living here is cheap - you can get a room in a guesthouse for two for Rs. 200-300.

Travel is expensive though, and a lot of the interesting places to visit are elsewhere in Ladakh, far from Leh, and buses aren't always available, but you can always join a group. Noticeboards advertising places available on a jeep tour are everywhere.

I try to keep busy so accessing the net isn't always possible, especally when I'm trying to be frugal with money :-)

But I guess a separate travel blog is in order - with lots of pictures.

You get all kinds of food here, this being a backpacker travel centre. Loads of continental, Israeli, Italian, etc. Definitely O.K for vegeterians :-)

Ladakhi bread's really thick - but kind of hollow so you can tear it across the side and spread something between the thick upper and lower halves.

@ Rohan - you really should visit this place.

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