Sunday, October 26, 2014

Scaling the heights - Leh

This was one travel blog post pending for a long time, so much so that the next trip started before completion of this one. Finally it was time on a lazy Sunday afternoon to start typing the experiences and memories of Leh. The rooftop of the world has been on the list of places to visit for me & my better half, with whom I co-author this blog post. However, lack of time and money kept delaying this.

Between me and my wife, we always have two different lists of places to visit based on interests. Thus, finding common ground is difficult and Leh happens to be one of the common places ranking high on the list.

It obviously helps to have friends in the industry and making your own itinerary is what we eagerly look forward too. A lot of research on the internet, followed by reading books, blogs and culture and history is done by the wife and its over to the husband to fit it in the trip with all the weird routings and airlines.

However, Leh was different, we wanted to club as much as possible. Do we go from Srinagar with a stay in Kargil and return via Manali? Or do we do the reverse? A plethora of options lay in front of us as we asked for a quote for each of them and it turned out to be way too high, as expected. Yes it was a last minute travel plan for a place like Leh, we were booking only 2-3 months in advance.

A random check on the booking engine, showed a round trip fare of 28k INR per person on Delhi-Leh-Delhi sector. While flights to Srinagar were cheap, the vehicle cost was astronomical between Srinagar and Leh.

As luck would have it, I generally search for fares and flight options on Cleartrip, because it is easy out there to select From/To based on airport codes and on this day, it was MakeMytrip(MMT) on which I was searching and I glanced at their packaged deals section.
Leh-ladakh 7N/8D read the caption, and the package was titled amazing Ladakh! Quick checks and double checks on the dates, reading the policy and terms and conditions and then finalization! Ladakh – here we come!

13th to 20th July to Ladakh. The likes of MMT have been doing this charter business for a long time, organizing a weekly charter on a particular day each week. First Sunday – take people to Leh, and get them back the next Sunday, which deposits another set of travelers to Leh. It’s cheap because the charter is pre-booked and MMT or the likes get handsome deals with hotels as well as vehicles for long term pre booking. So what could have cost around 50K+airfare per person resulted in costing us 32K all inclusive ex-Delhi. “Steal!” remarked people who had already been to Leh.

We made it a point to check with family and friends, who had travelled to Leh and the bone of contention was Diamox. Is it helpful, is it not? Does it react? The suggestions were extreme like you need to take it a day or two in advance to check its reaction to its not really needed, it doesn’t kill altitude sickness, but is only a diuretic.

Well, well, Priyanka’s curious mind was bound to initiate a google search on Diamox and Voila!, Diamox indeed is a diuretic and it adjusts your pH factor and helps you adjust to the hills better. And as it adjusts the pH factor, one urinates a lot! Well, there you go, the reason of regular urination is not being at high altitude but the medicine which you took few hours ago!

(L) Sunrise from the aircraft, (R) Snow clad peaks enroute Leh

As we landed in Leh early one Sunday morning, we felt the lack of oxygen at every step and kept ourselves to our room and slept the entire day. You start believing in karma when you notice that the people who suffered altitude sickness at KhardungLa were the same ones who had quickly changed into shorts and vests on day 1 to visit the market for some shopping. If that was not enough, you also notice that these are the same ones who against advice are eating the oily food stuff like Theplas and Khakras!

Having a pre-planned itinerary was helpful as we went around seeing places in groups. Sightseeing started with visiting the Shanti Stupa – built on a hillock and similar to any other shanti stupa in the world, Hemis Monastery – perched on a hillock, about 40 kms from Leh, and Thiksey monastery which resembles the Potala palace in Lhasa, Tibet. As if the lack of oxygen is not a challenge enough, you end up climbing some more stairs to visit these monasteries. And we kept wondering why couldn’t the monasteries be built in the plains of Ladakh??!

    (L) Hemis Monastery, (R) Thiksey Monastery. This is modeled after the one at Lhasa, Tibet, which is the holiest

    (L) Maitreya Buddha at Thiksey Monastery, (R) Shanti Stupa

गोटा Tyres ! (Worn out + remoulded)
On day 3, we left for Khardung La and onwards to the beautiful and remote Nubra Valley. Starting early, and going through the winding roads we reached the world’s highest motorable road – Khardung La, a title which is being contested now because the modern equipments say that the altitude is not what is claimed! The Border Roads Organization (BRO) which is famous for some really witty and great messages on the road, has to be commended for the smooth roads at this altitude, but till South Pullu, where one has to report at Police Outpost and show the Inner Line Permit (ILP). The road from South Pullu to Khardung La and onwards to North Pullu is a dirt track to say the least. Despite repeated attempts by BRO, it has not been possible to have an all weather road due to the constant rain and snow.

    Leh Landscape, enroute Khardung La

    (L) Army Supply C(H)ore?, (M) Where ordinary mortals struggle to walk, superior beings take it to another level, (R) Snowstorm on its way

Khardung La seems to have more pollution than congested areas of Mumbai, because of various factors like the narrow road, vehicles not shutting down their engines and long traffic jams. With family and friends in the Indian army, we were well versed with Army Supply Core being blamed for corruption inside the army, but our informative and resourceful driver-Rigzin, said how ASC is known locally as Army Supply Chor and later showed us an example, wherein a truck carrying live stock halted at a temporary residential area of immigrants from the Hindi heartland and was selling poultry meant for forward Army posts!

The entire worker population at these heights comes from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and it was sad to see them work at such altitude and cold without a proper gear. Our taxi driver, was probably a perfect candidate for one of the radical parties in our home state Maharashtra – since he quipped – “Ek Bihari, Sau Bimari” (One Bihari gets hundred ailments along).

On the other side of Khardung La into the Nubra valley, there are limited things to do, one of which is visit to Diskit monastery – with the Maitreya Buddha facing towards border, believed to be guarding India and the sand dunes where you can have a double humped camel ride.

    (L) सरसो (Mustard), (M) Bactrian (Double Humped) Camels, (R) Sand Dunes

    (L) Onset of Rainbow near Hunder, (M) Maitreya Buddha at Diskit, (R) The vast expanse of Shyok river

    (L) Tented campsite at Tirith,Nubra, (R) Our resourceful driver - Rigzin

We stayed in Swiss tents at village Tirith in one of the tented camp sites, near river Shyok to return the next day, when we experienced snow fall at Khardung La. What luck! And this followed when we crossed Chang La – world’s third highest motorable road enroute the magnificent Pangong Tso.

The lake is a natural wonder – over 130kms long and 5 km wide at the broadest point, it is 40% in India and the rest in China (in reality Tibet). It’s a salt water lake and freezes in winter. We had an experience of a life time as we decided to stay put for that day and stayed few kms further away near the China border, away from the maddening crowds at the regular places made famous by 3 Idiots. We spent a memorable evening in freezing cold. 

    (L) Chang La, (M) Curtain Raiser - Pangong Tso, (R) Serene!

The lake, famous for its changing colors, did not disappoint us and next morning, we were lucky enough to see another memorable sight – Golden peaks; when the first rays of the sun fall on snow clad mountains, the peaks turn golden for few breathtaking moments, something we had last seen in 1999 in Annapurna range.


    (L) Lucky Charm - the stone sculpture, saw many of them at Pangong, (R) Day Break

    (L) Golden Peaks, (M) 3 idiots cafe, (R) FYI :)

We missed out on Lamayuru – which is another monastery towards Kargil, but did complete the local tourist circuit – Magnetic Hill, Gurudwara Pathar Saheb and the confluence of Indus and Zanskar. It is such an interesting sight that the two rivers, having considerably different colors of their water, show so much resistance to mix and flow together from thereon.

   (L&M) - Magnetic Hill, (R) Confluence of Zanskar & Indus

Our resourceful driver, a staunch BJP supporter, had some more information for us at this point, where he showed us the road which will soon link Leh to Manali – a project, which I have been following since the time it was announced, because back then I was a regular at Manali. Apparently the work has restarted within days of Modi government taking oath and was completely on the back burner during the decade of UPA rule.

A visit to Leh is incomplete till one visits The Hall of Fame - an Army museum, showcasing the life at high altitude, local culture and glimpses of Kargil War.
Army Hall of Fame Museum

Leh market is over rated, with limited things available for purchase. We did take tour of the multiple markets in the town and couldn’t find anything exceptional and interesting. However the food had to be tried and the locals suggested we try Thukpa and Thenthuk. Thukpa is a Tibetan noodle soup while Thenthuk is a variety of Thukpa which has hand pulled noodles.
As we returned, we kept thinking about the life of people in Leh, the difficulties they face, and struggle for survival and livelihood,, being in Goa for the peak season and back in Leh for the peak season in Leh, families, education and despite the hardships, their patriotic nature and support for India, unlike much of the rest of the state.

One stark observation has been the patience, the locals show. Even during traffic jams, the only vehicles which were honking were those which were not having a JK registration. The next is caring and sharing. It is heartening to see how at 14000 feet, the driver just waved at the roadside worker who was having his meal and this person gave him more than half of Sattu, a local delicacy.

The hills make you a completely different person when you are back to the plains and you come back with a lot of gratitude, humility and respect for people and nature. Just the realization about the grandeur of nature in front of you, makes you understand your rightful place in this world!

When to Visit: Leh is not a year round destination. The peak period is from May through September. The tourist season ends with the Ladakh Festival and begins sometime around March end.

By Air: Air India, Jet Airways & Go Air have direct flights to Leh from Delhi. On few days of the week, Leh is connected to Jammu & Srinagar by Air India.
By Road: One can make a one stop trip from Srinagar (Stay at Kargil) or from Manali (Stay at Sarchu)

Stay: Luxury accommodation is not available in Leh and hotels of all budgets are available but need to be booked in advance. We stayed at Hotel Leh-Chen near the Shanti Stupa, away from the town and market.

Local Travel: All vehicles are non AC and mostly Scorpios/Innova are available

Medication: Diamox is recommended starting from the day prior to arrival in Leh if you are landing in Leh. If you are travelling by road, you acclimatize on the way. Advanced medical facilities are available in Leh, thanks to the Indian Army.


    (L) Leh landscape, (M) Our Hotel, (R) View from Hotel

Folk performance by Locals

About the Authors:

Priyanka Sharangpani - Joshi is a lawyer by profession & a passionate traveler. Priyanka is founding partner at Lex Credence, a law firm based out of Pune. She dreams of visiting all continents in the next 10 years!

Ameya Joshi is a Management professional who dreams of completing atleast one Round the world trip and loves to personally route each trip. His dream destinations Moscow & Istanbul already visited, he now tries saving for a trip to Tahiti.

Both of them wish for an opportunity to be sponsored for World Trip.

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