Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Leh Diary@Day 9

September 12, Saturday: Back to Delhi

We have a 7.00 am Kingfisher flight back to Delhi. We leave the hotel early and soon I am on my seat, the seat-belt clasped. The aircraft takes off and I crane my neck- looking out of the window to see the last of Leh. The week we spent here was wonderful. We relaxed, we saw a different people and culture and more than anything nature at its best. I feel lucky visiting and learning about this place, which, in turn taught me some things about myself. So long!

Leh Diary@Day 8

September 11, Friday: Pangong Tso

It is our last day in Leh and we have reserved it for Pangong Tso. Pangong Tso ( Tso: Ladakhi for lake) is a salt water lake in the Himalayas at a height of about 4,250 m (13,900 ft). It is about 140 km long and extends from India to China. Two thirds of the length of this lake lies in China. It is 5 km wide at its broadest point. In winter, the lake surface freezes completely overnight. The drive is 5 hours one way and we leave the hotel by about 7.

The drive: It is some time before we enter unchartered territory. Like all our journeys in Leh, this one also has merismerzing views. I know this is our last day here and I am busy looking out of the window trying to soak in as much as possible. We cross Chang-La pass (18,000 feet / 5,475 m) on our way after a couple of hours. It is extremely cold and windy here; much more than Khardung-La. We quickly click some pictures and pack right back into the car. The road winds its way across snow-capped mountains, bare brown valleys and green plains. The road is very good, and again, maintained by the army. They have put some amusing road-signs on the way. We rattle them off as they approach. “If married, divorce speed”; “It is better to be Mr. Late than Late Mr”; “Peep Peep, do not sleep”.

Wildlife: The route from Chang-La to Pangong is almost uninhabited except army presence. We see yak, wild untamed horses, blue sheep (they are brown but for some reason called blue sheep) and various birds. We also site this very cute rodent like creature known as “walmuthu” locally. We name it “muthuswamy”. It stands about a feet tall and is furry. Sanjay and Rahul get out and feed it biscuits. And then some choco-pies, kit-kats and cookies! And muthuswamy eats it all and wants more! It is certainly not calorie conscious.

Lake: We begin to approach Pangong at about noon. I can see this patch of sapphire enclosed between bronze-gold mountains. We get closer and realize that the trip is worth the distance. Vast like the sea, the lake stretches right into the horizon. Mist clouds the horizon. It is very cold and windy as the area is open. We walk around the edges, taking in the place.

After an hour it is time to head off. We all doze off at various points on our drive back. The landscape passess by...

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Leh Diary@Day 7

September 10, Thursday: Khardung-la

We are in no hurry today and everybody wakes up later than usual. The only thing on our agenda today is the Khardunga-La for which we start at about 10.00 am.

Fast facts: Khardung-La has the distinction of being the world’s highest motorable road at 18,380 feet and possibly one of the most scenic. It lies at the crossroads of the ancient silk route. The road was constructed here at second attempt in 1972 by 201 Engineer Regiment of the Indian Army.

Tourists need passes to access Khardung-La and the guesthouse has arranged ours. It takes us a good two hours to reach Khardung-La but not a moment is boring. The ever changing landscape keeps us occupied. The road is in very good shape. Our driver tells us this is because it shuts every Monday for repair and maintenance. The work certainly shows. The drive is smooth for most parts, albeit scary at times with a random reckless driver from the opposite end.

The pass: The top has army presence. We can see snow all around and waste no time in throwing fistfuls at each other. And do they hit hard! Peace prevails and we decide to make a snowman instead. But the winds gather speed and it gets chilly. I make a quick stop at the tiny temple and pick up a mug at the sovenier shop run by the army. We chat with the army person who has fought in the Kargil war. Solemnly, we head back to Leh.
It is evening as we reach back. Since we are changing our hotel for the last couple of days we pack and move to the nearby Leh-Chen. It has opened just 2 months back and is new. What we all really like is the food. We wrap up the evening looking out with hot chai and pakoras!

Leh Diary@Day 6

September 9, Wednesday: We trek a lot more!

We get up early at 5.30 am, the plan being to start from Rumbak by 7.00 am last. We pack, tidy up the room and load ourselves with layers of clothing.
Starting off: It is very bright and very cold. The puddles which have frozen to ice at night are yet to thaw. I need to breathe with my mouth even though my throat seems to freeze with every gulp of air.
Pretty isolated scenes greet us. We see a well like structure across a flat area. It is for the nomads who will pitch their tents here when they pass. We keep walking and after about an hour the climb starts to become steeper. Tashi points towards Stok La-our destination. It is a ragged top of boulder stones very high up. I pause. We are climbing up there? Is he serious? I decide its best to concentrate on short targets-mine now being one step at a time. I realize that I am climbing better, having learnt from the last few hours.

Stok La: We approach Stok La at about noon, five hours after we left Rumbak. The last bit is almost vertical and I drop as we reach the top. The Stok La pass is about 5000m high and completely isolated. We all practically collapse and few minutes pass before we get up and notice our surroundings. There are mountains and valleys all around. And steep trails on either sides made by climbers. Tashi points out to Stok Kangri, the highest peak of the area at about 6,000m. Maybe one day. For now Stok La is my Mount Everest.
Downhill: A stop of half an hour and it is time for the descent. We can see the trail, round and round across mountains. It is a long way off to Stok village and we are unable to see our destination. We start downhill. The gravel is loose and my pace slows considerably. It is some time before I get a grip. I realize I must walk straight with one foot right behind the other as if on a tight rope. I can see Sanjay and Rajat speeding ahead excitedly. After about an hour and a half of walking we start becoming impatient. We still cannot see our destination. Tashi tells us it is behind the mountains. We are now in mid of gorge like mountains.
Pit-stop: At about 2.30 PM we site an orange tent and cheer up. It takes us another half an hour before we arrive there, crossing atleast 4 mountainsides. We make a stop of half an hour. It is maggi time again and some chilled sprite. I wash my face which is now covered with dust and grime. It is another 3 hours walk before we reach Stok. We pack up and move, our pace brisk. We are determined not to stop anywhere in between.

To Stok village: The trail from here is a large river bed. It is dried for now and we follow it. The mountains around are all brown with large rocks with few specks of green in between. Every now and then we spot a lizard. It is sunny and hot. At about 5.30 pm we sight the green trees of Stok village. It is encouraging that we can atleast see it now. The last bit takes almost about an hour, even though we are walking quite fast. We arrive at the Stok base camp and are glad to find the taxi waiting to take us back to Leh.

Back at Leh: We reach the guesthouse and I head off straight for a hot shower. It is only later, wrapped in warm clean clothes and with a mug of steaming chai that I am able to really think. I walked for over 12 hours on mountain terrain in sun and cold. I saw the most beautiful places- untouched by man and isolated. I did something I never thought I could.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Leh Diary@Day 5

September 8, Tuesday: We trek

We have zeroed in on the Zinchen (Jingchan) to Stok trek. We are going to do this in 2 days, though, this is usually done in 3 days (I realize later why!).

The plan: We will drive from Leh to Zinchin via Phey village. Zinchen is a base camp for a number of treks and about 2 hours away from Leh by car. From Zinchen we will trek for 5-6 hours to Rumbak village where will stay overnight. The next day we will trek for about 10-12 hours to Stok La (4950m) and then head towards Stok village base camp.
To Zinchen: We leave the guesthouse at 9.00 am after breakfast, all we need packed into 3 knapsacks (for 5 people). We meet our guide Tashi who is from Sikkim. We leave behind the town, driving along the Indus river and cross Phey village after about an hour. We cross vast stretches of desert with dust and the burning sun glowering on those who have chosen to hike through this. I am glad we are driving instead.

We head off: There are several tents and horses here at Zinchen, with a number of treks making this the start point. It is about 11.00 am and we head off between the gorge like mountains. The terrain is mostly a rocky climb with narrow loose gravel paths when crossing mountains. It is sunny and we tire in half an hour because of the heat and altitude. A rest stop is in order where we drink some water and pop in some candy for a sugar boost before we are off again. Progress though slow is steady; we stop every now and then to admire the mountains and cross small streams.

Camp Lunch: After about three hours we arrive at a small tent in the middle of nowhere. This is a stop-point for trekkers to refill their tummies and water bottles. Of course they serve hot maggi-and we order 5 servings without any delay. I wash my face in the nearby stream and we refill our now empty bottles. The mix of fellow travelers is interesting- people from Australia, Germany, Israel, Czech and Hungary. But no other Indians! We exchange stories. The German lady tells us she has visited Leh several times. The Czech and Hungary group are out for 10 days all on their own, each carrying 35 kilos on their back. The Israelis are out on a break from school. It is soon time to be on our feet.

Recharged from our break we walk faster. The terrain slowly becomes flatter and more scenic. The air is cooler too. We reach Rumbak at about 4.00 pm. It is a small village of about 10-15 homes made of stone and wood. We talk to the villagers about the “home-stay” option. They allocate us two different homes and we go with the respective families.

Rumbak, home-stay: The family myself and Sanjay are staying with are relatively well to do. They have a separate room for guests on the terrace. It is clean and comfortable. The lady serves us tea and we settle in for the evening. The rest of the gang comes over too; we chat while stretching our legs and flexing toes to relieve aches and pains. Looking out of the window we see sheep and yaks. Sanjay and Rahul head off to explore. They come back and tell us that the villagers grow wheat and also use wind power. In turn, we also use the typical Ladakhi toilet- basically a hole in the ground where you do your business and throw in some mud! Dinner here is served early at 7.00 pm. The lady of the house brings us rice, dal and cabbage. We eat and prepare to sleep. I load on a couple of quilts on me but don’t feel very comfortable. Every now and then I look out of the window to the prayer flags fluttering furiously in the cold. It is quite some time before I manage to sleep to the sound of the wind raging outside.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Leh Diary@Day4

September 7, Monday: Chill and Shop

We all got up late, as today was reserved for strolling around town and gearing up our energy reserves for the trek ahead. We headed off to the market at about noon for lunch at the Chopstick Noodle Bar. It serves Chinese, Thai and Tibetan food. The place is neat and chic. Most importantly the food was great :)

With food and fuel taken care of we began checking out the shops and their wares. The Leh town has about 3 main streets. Most large shops are owned by Kashmiris and sell carpets, pashmina shawls and jewelry. The smaller shops owned by Ladakhis offer clothes, woolens, stone jewelry and local bric-a-brac like prayer wheels, musical bowls and copper daggers. They are lined with interesting touristy t-shirts proclaiming “yak yak ladakh”; “tin tin in Tibet” and “I trekked from Manali to Leh”. Ultimately, we picked a couple of traditional wool caps, a muffler and a turquoise pendant. We found a shop selling homemade apricot products and added some jam, oil and scrubs.

Leh Diary@Day 3

September 6, Sunday: Monasteries and other landmarks

We have a packed day today with visits to the Hemis and Thikshey monasteries and then the Magnetic Hill, Gurudwara Pathar Sahib and confluence of the Zanskar and Indus rivers.

Hemis Monastery: Located about 47km from Leh and in a gorge, it takes us about an hour and a half to reach, with the scenery changing from brown to green to brown. We know we are approaching Hemis when we start seeing walls with prayers carved on each stone. Built in 1630 by the Dubka Order, Hemis is the largest and the richest monastery in Ladakh. Various valuable scripts and painting are kept here. Legend has, that it even houses a page of the holy Koran. Prayer wheels and paintings flank a large open courtyard. We go inside and bow to a statue of Padmasambhava about 2 storeys high. The inside of the monastery has ornate paintings. I am surprised to see one of Kali too!

Thiksey Monastry: We head back almost halfway towards Leh, with our next stop at Thiksey. We reach here at about lunch and so first head to its café. The monastery opens again by 2.00 PM and we are off, climbing the stairs yet again. The monastery in white, ochre and red appears to “grow” out from the hillock it stands on. It has 10 temples and many lamas. We go straight to the statue of Maitreya (Future Buddha). I make it a point to turn all the prayer bells. I find something comforting about doing so.

We were now off to “sangam”, the confluence of Zanskar and Indus.
Magnetic Hill: We cross this on the way to the confluence. Like promised in all articles, the car travels uphill by itself on neutral for a good 50m. An army person found this phenomena though many say it is simply an optical illusion. Sanjay, Rajat and Rahul get out of the car and record a video. I for one don’t think much of this.

Confluence: We see ourselves approaching the confluence from a distance and it is an amazing sight. We get out of the car and head towards the rivers. It is chilled! That does not stop us from removing our shoes and socks and dipping our feet in the water.

Gurudwara Pathar Sahib: It is time to head back. We halt at the Gurudwara. Legend goes, that when Guru Gobind Singhji was meditating here, a demon tried to kill him by pushing a boulder from a nearby hill. The boulder, however, stopped rolling as it touched the Guru. The Gurudwara houses the boulder. We folded our hands in respect and accepted the prasad closing the day on a sweet and auspicious note.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Leh Diary@Day 2

September 5, Saturday: Sights and sounds

I get up early at around 6.00 am, expecting a headache but relieved to find none. I head down for a quiet walk and am joined in some time by the rest. Our plan for the day is a visit to the Shanti Stupa, the Ladakhi music festival and planning logistics for the days to come.

After a breakfast of baked beans and potato rosti washed down with glasses of honey-ginger-lemon tea (something we end up drinking the most in days to come) we head to the Shanti Stupa. Located on a hilltop, right next to our guesthouse, we climb about 560 steps (yes we counted!) to it. It was sunny and windy and we halted after about every 100 steps or so. We reached up only to find that a nice road also leads right up to it!
The Stupa: Built in 1983 by a Japanese monk, with help from the Central and State government, the Stupa is dedicated to world peace. It is white and has various depictions of Buddha. We sit here for almost an hour enjoying the view of the area spread out below us. On our way down, we relish some apricots straight from a tree. Ah! the small joys of life!

The Festival: It is 6.00 pm in the evening and we are off to the banks of river Sindhu for the Ladakhi dance festival. It is cold and the winds whip up. We huddle under huge tents set up for the audience. The festival begins with an ode to the gods- a rhythmic beating of large tablas. The performances begin by villagers of different areas each representing their own culture. The Ladakhi dances, are essentially slow, where the participants will gracefully move the feet and arms and turn around displaying the rich dresses and headgear. The themes of the song vary- from a lullaby for a young prince to an ode to a loved one in the month of spring.
We watch, sip hot tea and click lots of pictures!

Leh Diary@ Day 1

September 4, Friday: We settle in

Five of us (myself, my husband Sanjay; our friends, RahulDeepti and Rajat) had booked our tickets to Leh over two months ago. We meet at the airport, all of us super excited for this trip-of-a-lifetime spanning 8 days.

Our Air India flight to Leh leaves Delhi at 5.45 am sharp. In less than an hour I was looking at snow covered mountains from the window of the craft. I now know why Shiva and Zeus live in remote mountains. The place, is most certainly a fitting abode.

As we land, the captain announces that the temperature outside is 8*C, but I am so thrilled to be here that the cold does not bother me. For now. By the time we board our taxi, I have my shawl tightly wrapped around me. We head to the Oriental Guest House-a family run place in Changspa. It is a large building in white with its own kitchen garden. Our room on the 3rd floor has postcard perfect views. We head down for breakfast and bask in the sun until lunch. Lunch here is made of fresh vegetables from their kitchen garden.

We know it is important to rest on the first day to acclimatize. Being sensible :) and wanting smooth days ahead we are not taking any chances. The rest of the day is spent lazing, playing card games and telling each other ghost stories in late evening.
We wrap up early, filled with plans for the days ahead!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Taj Mahal Palace - Mumbai

This was my first visit to the Taj after the terror attacks in Mumbai in 2008 and I have to admit I could not walk in my usual nonchalant self. This time my eyes saw it as a historical building. I gleaned over coffee table books to learn some more...

The Taj started off as a Green's Hotel at Appollo Bunder. Commissioned by Jamshetji Nusserwanji Tata in the latter half of the 19th century, the hotel has been built in Mughal-Gothic style architecture. It is said that the English engineer W. A. Chambers designed it from back to front. The result of this is that the rooms facing the back of the hotels are better with views of the luxuriant pool and gardens (now under renovation) than those in front which look out to the sea.

The Hotel opened to all in December 1903 with a party in the Ballroom. An equally (or more) grand party was organised when the Hotel completed its 100 years in the same room. The decor and theme was in white and gold. The art and antiques collected over the years was on display and of course the best china used.

The Taj has a long list of distinguished guests. From Sarojini Naidu who apparently stayed here for months on end to the Beatles and Jackie Keneddy and more recently Hillary Clinton. The Hotel however, manages to hold its own treating each guest with lavish attention. I stopped by in the lobby at the Memorial Tree (for those who lost their lives in the attack). The musician at the piano nodded to me and began to play a tune which though soft resonated of cheerfulness. It is this kindness and charm of those attending to guests which stay with you long after you have left.

The coffee table book at my room says- The splendour that is the Taj! I could not agree more.