Sunday, 14 June 2009

Travel Diary: May 23 - 27

Day 16 - Saturday - May 23


Woke at 9.45 A.M. Had breakfast at Gesmo today - Aloo Paratha (Rs.20) and a coffee (Rs. 20).

Spent the morning on the internet. One and a half hour offline and one hour online (Rs.130).

Met P, who lent me one of his books - Mark Tully's India in slow motion. T was sick today, so P and I went for lunch ourselves, to Gesmo again, where we both had yak cheese chicken sandwiches. I took a photo this time around. P tells me they really should be called nak cheese sandwiches, to denote the female of a yak, which is really where the cheese comes from.

We spoke to another guy who organises treks to the Markha valley, who told us it's Rs. 3,500 per person for 3 nights from Spituk to Stok. The other guy recommended to me was closed today so we couldn't talk to him to compare prices. At this point, we're just looking for ways to kill time for the next few days while we wait for the highway to Manali to open so we can be on our way.

I went for a walk with P. We hit a couple of army surplus stores in the market. They stock army boots, caps, hats, balaclavas, etc. I was looking for a cap, but the ones there were of an inferior make.

We walked through three 'Tibetan Refugee' markets, though not all the sales vendors there are Tibetan.or refugees.

I went back to the hotel and read for a while, before going for dinner with the guys at 8.30. We went to a new place again, and I tried a chicken Schnitzel (around Rs.100). It's supposed to be Israeli.

Day 17 - Sunday - May 24

Went to Kangla Chen restaurant for breakfast. Had the French toast. Found it oily and hard.

Met P on the street outside, and we went back to Kangla Chen so he could have breakfast there. These guys start their days later than I do.

Went to an internet place on Fort Rd next. I had planned to spend the rest of the morning there, but went back to my hotel to rest after I started feeling a bit sick - dizzy and low on energy - not sure why. T was sick yesterday, and I'm sick today.

I skipped lunch and slept the whole afternoon. Met the guys in the night for dinner. We went to Happy World restaurant where I had a sweet chicken corn soup. It made me feel a lot better, and I ordered a chilly chicken to follow.

We decided to put off our plans for a trek. It's too cold to trek anyway, and we're not feeling up to it.

Day 18 - Monday - May 25

Went back to Happy World restaurant for breakfast today, where I had a mushroom omlette (Rs. 35).

Then went back to the hotel to decide to do something more productive today as compared to the last two days.

I decided to visit Shakti village in the Chemrey valley, south of Leh, much more south than Thiksey but along the same route more or less. I walked to the bus station, around 10-15 minutes away, but had to wait an hour for the bus to leave, it being 12.30 by the time it did.

I reached my destination at 2.00 P.M, after a long but scenic bus ride that took me through Shakti village and terminated at a point soon after. I confirmed with the bus conductor that the last bus out of the village and back to Leh was only two hours away, and then began my walk back through the village.

I've not had a chance to see a lot of greenery in Ladakh, most of it being in Leh, and that too just restricted to small farms, but Shakti had full blown pastures, something I haven't seen here so far. Naturally, I had to take a lot of pics.

I caught a bus back to Leh on my walk out of the village. Another one and a half hour bus ride. I notice how well people adjust in buses here. There are absolutely no arguments or fights breaking out, despite the buses being crowded. Also, women seem to be treated with a lot more respect here, or rather, it would be more accurate to say that they're treated more like equals here than in many other places I've been to. There's absolutely no hesitation or fear from them as they share close confined spaces and seats with male strangers in crowded buses.

It's something I've noticed a lot here. Young Ladakhi women (all of them really beautiful, don't know how they do it) seem to lead more confident and liberal lives here as compared to other places I've been to in India. They have no reason to feel uncomfortable in or fear public or crowded areas. And Ladakhi men in turn seem to be really respectful, in the sense that they never seem to do anything to make a woman, either local or an outsider, feel uncomfortable, like stare at her or anything.

Ladakhi women also tend to play larger roles in the community, many of them in charge of operating shops and restaurants, unlike other parts of India where managing an establishment would be left to the men only. And the men seem to take this freedom that women have for granted. The liberal lives that women in Ladakh seem to lead just seems to be a part of the Ladkhi culture, ingrained in them, and not something their women have had to struggle or fight for.

I don't mean to paint a picture of a Utopian society where women are treated as complete equals. Gender discrimination no doubt still exists in Ladakhi society. A woman wouldn't be encouraged to take up a career in mountaineering or single handedly leading trekking expeditions, etc. Close knit traditional societies like the ones that exist here simply cannot change overnight.

But the liberal lives I'm referring to are more to do with how women seem to hold themselves over here. They do so with a lot more confidence than anywhere else in India that I've been to. In Mumbai for example, women tend to avert their eyes in public, looking down as they walk. Also, they wouldn't be very confident or willing to converse with a male stranger. Women don't have a reason to behave this way in Ladakh.

Anyway, it was around 6 by the time I reached my hotel. I ate a small packet of dry fruits since I missed lunch. P dropped by to give me news I'd been expecting - the road to Manali opened yesterday or today and the first batch of people have come in today. I thought I saw more people on the streets today. But of course, that could just mean that the tourist season is taking off.

It's amazing how much this town has changed since we arrived here 18 days ago. It resembled a ghost town then, half the shops still being closed. And we've slowly seen it transform into a proper international traveller centre, and get somewhat warmer as well.

P told me that T and he have booked jeep tickets for early tomorrow morning, and asked if I'd like to come along since there's going to be place. I told him I'm good to go. So we finally leave for Manali at 3.00 A.M tomorrow.

Day 19 - Tuesday - May 26

Left the hotel to meet the guys at 2.30 A.M. It was really dark outside but not as cold as I'd expected. We had booked a taxi the previous evening so we didn't have to walk all the way to Leh bus stop with our heavy backpacks in the dark.

The jeep stand was next to the bus station. We found our vehicle, got into it, and left at 3.00 A.M. It began snowing on or way to the second highest motorable road in the world - Tang Lang La - which we'd have to cross on our way to Manali. Visibility was bad as we climbed up and the convoy we had set off in had to stop at the pass for daylight to arrive before we could continue at around 5.00 A.M. It had drizzled a bit the previous evening and we had seen a lot of dark clouds here for the first time but thought nothing of it as it rarely rains in Leh.

We continued on, stopping at Pang for breakfast - omlette, chapati, and tea (Rs. 40) - which refreshed us. We then stopped a little before to change tires around 12.30 P.M. Most of the trip seems like a real blur since we travelled a long way - 450 kms - in 18 hrs. I remember driving by wide plains in a large flat plateau like area afterwards, and then down the mountain for a long time through the twenty Gata loops and past Sarchu, then through Darcha (where we first began seeing green mountains after almost three weeks of barrenness and where foreigners need to register), Jispa, Keylong and Tandi, then to Khoksar (a small town full of dhabas where most people break immediately before or after attempting to cross the Rohtang pass) and then further uphill to the Rohtang pass itself, during which time night fell, and we drove on in darkness all the way over the Rohtang and down the other side and the 50 kms to Manali.

We arrived in Manali hungry and tired. The whole town seems to consist of only hotels and restaurants, and is very crowded and dirty. None of us liked it from the moment we set eyes on it. Still, we had to spend the night here and so began looking for a cheap hotel. We finally found one that would take all three of us in one room for Rs. 800. It's the tourist season here and everything seems booked up.

We checked in and went looking for dinner. I like the weather here. It's cool without being cold. A relief after Ladakh. We found a restaurant on the main road, crowded, and I had soup (Rs. 65). Then back to the hotel for some well deserved sleep. We simply can't believe that everything that we saw and did today really took place today. It seems more like this morning or afternoon actually happened two weeks ago.

I also notice that I've reached day 19, the halfway mark in my travels.

Day 20 - Wednesday - May 27
Manali/Old Manali

A lot of noise outside woke me at 5.00 A.M today - traffic noise - and again at 7.00, after which I just couldn't go back to sleep. It seems Manali gets up real early.

I had breakfast at the hotel - Aloo Paratha (Rs. 15) - and then walk with P to Old Manali to find a new place to stay while T slept in. I can't imagine why anyone would want to stay in Manali. Old Manali was supposed to be a better place, according to the LP guidebook, and it took us a about a half hour to cover the 2.5 kms there.

I liked Old Manali immediately. It's small, friendly, and full of international travellers and backpackers, which means most of the people here are more or less my age, and there aren't any noisy children or traffic problems around. The town is really close to the roaring Beas river, and we found the main guesthouse-restaurant area after an initial wrong turn. These seem to be built along a slope with a narrow road running uphill through the town, which seems to be used mostly by Indian tourists in their hired vehicles from Manali coming to visit Manu temple at the top of the hill and end of the road.

Indian tourists bug me. They roam about with their large families, take a lot of pictures, make a lot of noise, leave plastic about, and then leave in their noisy vehicles. They don't ever dwell on any of the places they've visited, inquisitive about its history or significance. They only seem to want to have some kind of pictorial record of a place that they can tick off their list and brag about visiting later to their friends.

One thing I noticed in Old Manali is the number of international tourists, or rather, the lack of Indian tourists living here. A lot of Indian tourists pass by the town in their vehicles to Manu temple and then go back to their hotels in Manali or elsewhere. But none of them actually stay in Old Manali. I'm trying to figure out why. Maybe a place gets a certain type of reputation after a while, and Indian families don't want to be associated with that kind of reputation.

Also, Indian families like to stay in hotels - the more expensive the better. Probably because they mostly travel as part of a tour group, that prebooks hotel rooms for them. Foreigners, not bound by this constraint, are free and in fact prefer to stay at cheap quiet guesthouses with gardens and cafes and like-minded company where they can relax and do their own thing and not be disturbed, like reading a book on a balcony taking in the scenery, as opposed to living in a characterless hotel room with all its typical depressing features that lean towards anonymousness.

Furthermore, foreigners want to live in a place they feel comfortable in, not a place where they'd be conspicuous or made to feel self conscious, and the only places in India like this tend to be places already populated by foreigners. The same applies to Indians I guess - they'd like to live around other Indians when they travel.

So P and I walked through Old Manali inquiring at different guesthouses about prices and rooms. They all had rooms available, and though some were more expensive than others, we each found something in our price ranges. Mine is Rs. 300 a night. We waked back to Manali, checked out of the hotel with T and took a rick to our new homes.

Again, the climate here is excellent. It's hot in the middle of the day - but only if you're in the sun. You do sweat a lot if you're walking along an asphalt road in the afternoon. But the moment you step into the shade, you cool down. Five minutes in the shade and you wouldn't believe you'd been sweating five minutes ago. I love this kind of heat. It's dry heat. Not something I've experienced in Mumbai. There, the humidity keeps it hot no matter what the time of day it is. This is the first time I've been so comfy in the last week of May. People in Mumbai must be suffering right now.

I rested for a bit at the guesthouse, then went for lunch and a walk with P & T at the Shiva Garden Cafe and Restaurant, where I tried Israeli food - Pita, Humus, chips and salad. Quite good. I continued alone uphill to the end of the road and Manu temple, and then walked to an ATM in Manali, walked back and got a haircut. I also bought a few nuts and biscuits I might need for lunch if I go an a trek here.

And I've been drinking more water here. Unfortunately, no one here offers refills so I have to keep buying bottled water.

I met the guys for dinner. We went to Dragon Restaurant (attached to the Dragon guesthouse) where I had mixed veg and naan (Rs 100).


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