We have finally landed in Leh, the capital of Ladakh. The Ladakh vacation was something which we have been planning for about five months, and something which I have been reading about for quite some time. It all started over a couple of pints of beer in November 2009 when my friend from India told me so much about this ‘Little Tibet’ in Jammu & Kashmir region, the northernmost state of India. Also, I have watched a comedy called ‘3 Idiots’ which filmed a couple of scenes in Ladakh.
Ladakh is dominated by mountain ranges especially the Himalaya and Karakoram ranges, and its capital, Leh is situated at an altitude of approximately 3,500 metres (11,500 ft). When we came out of the airport, we were greeted by snow-capped mountains and cool crisp air. The weather was perfect – not too warm or too cold – I reckon it was about twenty or twenty-two degrees Celsius.
We were whisked off to our hotel – Hotel Kaal – which is located about ten minutes away from the airport. As soon as we arrived, we were greeted by hotel staff offering a Tibetan white scarf, masala chai and ginger biscuits. Although I was enjoying my tea, I was exhausted and looking forward to catch up on some sleep. We woke up as early as 2.30am to catch the 5:45am flight to Leh. The hotel was pretty and pleasant, and my room had a private balcony at the back which had the expanse views of the mountains. It was quiet and I could hear birds chirping – what more can I ask for – especially after a few days of blistering summer heat and traffic noise in Delhi.
We didn’t do much for several hours except resting and relaxing at the hotel. Because we flew in directly to Leh, we had been advised not to travel anywhere during the first day in order to acclimatize to the high altitude. Earlier at the airport, we were given a leaflet which provides tips to acclimatize by resting completely, preferably thirty-six hours after arrival, and moving about slowly and breathing deeply so that the body can adjust to lower oxygen levels.
However, by four o’clock in the afternoon, we were bored and decided to go out to see a little bit of Leh. We went to the ruins of the ancient Leh Palace, a former mansion of the Ladakh royal family in the seventeenth century. The roof provides a panoramic view of the medieval quarter of Leh and the surrounding areas. We also spent time in Leh market where there are numerous shops, both old and new. If you are looking for general provisions, Tibetan art & craft, pashmina shawls, hiking paraphernalia and even German apple strudel, you can get all of them at the market.
By sunset, we headed to Shanti Stupa, a Buddhist white-domed stupa on a hilltop, built in 1985 by the Japanese to promote world peace and to commemorate 2,500 years of Buddhism. Apart from its religious significance, Shanti Stupa is also popular amongst tourists for its panoramic views of Leh.
After spending about thirty minutes or so at Shanti Stupa, I began to have a migraine. I wasn’t sure if it was the chilly wind in the evening as temperatures dipped or the effects of high altitude sickness. My friend was feeling tired too and by dinner time, we were grumpy and felt like crap. We probably should have stayed in the hotel instead of traipsing around in town earlier. As much as I was hungry at dinner, I didn’t eat much. Instead all I wanted to do was crawl into bed and sleep.
Jullay! Jullay! Jullay!
I knew it was high altitude sickness which brought on the headaches and considering the fact that we are from the tropics, our rate of adjustment to lower oxygen levels was probably slower than the locals. Fortunately, we felt slightly better in the morning and managed to enjoy a good breakfast of warm toast, puri, fried eggs and lovely masala chai.
We met our Ladakhi guide, Stanzin and driver, Gylsom who were going to travel with us for the next three days. Stanzin is an unassuming, witty and candid fellow who has just returned from a tour accompanying Belgian tourists from Srinagar to Leh. He spoke relatively good English and regaled us the delightful stories of Ladakhi history, culture and ways of life. Gylsom was an experienced driver who spoke little English but well enough to tell us the reason that he never wore a seatbelt so he could jump out immediately in the case of an emergency! Right, Gylsom…my life is in your hands!
Ladakh was formerly a kingdom of western Tibet, hence geographically and culturally it has more in common with Tibet than India. Until the mid-1970s, Ladakh was an area prohibited to both foreign and Indian visitors. Situated between central Asia and India, Ladakh was formerly a gateway for trade and became an important link from India to the Central Asia Silk Route running from China to Europe. As such, trade was a lifeline for Ladakh and those trade routes were the only contact this ‘Little Tibet’ had with the outside world. It became almost remote when borders were closed and the very nature of its mountainous terrain helped to protect its culture and natural environment in a way not possible elsewhere.
The best time to visit Ladakh is between June and October. Ladakh is completely cut off during winter where temperatures can drop to as low as minus twenty or thirty degrees. Travellers are now given the option to fly to Leh which unfortunately deprives you the slow acclimatization process that road travellers enjoy (that explains the headaches and the blues we experienced the day before). The Indian military opened up the old trade route to civilian vehicles travelling via Manali in Himachal Pradesh and until fairly recently, the Srinagar to Leh highway was also made suitable for vehicles. Both road journeys take two days and both routes are usually open during the summer until October, dependent on the weather.
The most useful word of Ladakhi for travellers is “Jullay!” which is the universal greeting for “hello”, “goodbye” or “thank you”. If you only learn one word, this is it! And I like the way Ladakhi people say “Jullay!” “Jullay!” because it immediately brings smiles to people’s faces. It is said that Ladakhi people begin a day with a smile and end with a smile. Wouldn’t it be lovely if “Jullay!” is the customary greeting around the world?
So we set off early from Hotel Kaal at eight o’clock in the morning and drove towards Alchi. The journey to Alchi was not too far as it was only about sixty-seven kilometers from Leh and we stopped en route to explore the Maitreya fort in Bosgo village. As the journey continued, my friend and I were absolutely awed by the spectacular landscape of Ladakh and its contrasts – at one end, you can see snow-capped mountains with beautiful valleys dotted with trees, mustard seed plants, but on the other end, the landscape changes to desert-like dry terrain. You see different colours on the left – green, striking blue and yellow – and then suddenly on the right, it’s just big brown and grey rock boulders. The colour of the sky is absolutely blue and so surreal but this means excessive UV light which one has to be aware of, thus, best to slap on some sun block.
We arrived at Alchi village which consists of four separate settlements with monuments dated to different periods. Of these four hamlets, Alchi Monastery is said to be the oldest and most famous, and it houses some of the most exquisite Indo-Tibetan art in India, huge statues of the Buddha, elaborate wood carvings and artwork. Stanzin showed us the various Tibetan thangka murals inside the temples – some murals were already faded in colour due to centuries of environmental wear and tear, and possibly neglect as well. The good thing is the buzz word now is ‘conservation’, so there are many conservation projects going on in Alchi with art students coming from all over India and overseas to help restore these thangka paintings. One of the things which I clearly observe is the nondescript looking doors forming the entrance to the temples. The low doorway forces all who enter to stoop but I stood up too fast, thus hitting my head and this happened to me three times in Alchi! Hopefully third time’s a charm…
As we were tying our shoelaces outside of a temple, a monk invited us to have morning tea with him in the courtyard. We were offered butter tea (made from tea leaves, yak butter and salt), masala chai and biscuits (I was not game enough to try the salted buttery tea!). Shortly after tea, Stanzin reminded us of our conversation regarding Ladakhi beer. Ladakhi beer is called chang, a home brew of fermented barley. You can’t buy it from the shops. We met Stanzin’s aunt earlier just as we entered the monastery. They were both pleasantly surprised to see each other since Stanzin lived away from Alchi and he was constantly travelling as a tourist guide. He asked his aunt if she had any chang in her house so that we could have a taste. She didn’t have any however she was sure that her neighbor had some and invited us to drop by later after our tour of the temples. My friend and I happily accepted the invite to have chang, I mean, what are the chances of meeting a local and to be invited to her home for a drink? And oh yes, this chang-drinking was before lunchtime!
Stanzin’s aunt wore a Ladakhi traditional dress, a thick wraparound robe tied at the waist with a scarf and a patterned shawl over her shoulders. Her face and hands are deeply tanned from exposure to the strong rays of the sun at high elevations, hence giving her a harsh, weathered look. We entered her mud brick home and as we sat on the floor, a cute little Ladakhi boy peered curiously at us at the doorway. Stanzin’s niece served us chang and the home brew tasted surprisingly refreshing and if you are not careful, a couple of chugs could set you back with a massive hangover! Stanzin’s aunt, niece and two other toddlers joined us in the living room – it was quite an experience and fun especially when Stanzin’s aunt kept pestering him with questions like ‘why haven’t you come to visit me lately?’, ‘can you send some things to your father?’, etc. Although there was certainly a language barrier there, we understood the conversation from the intonation of her voice and the series of questions. The scenario in the living room reminded me so much of nosey old relatives we have in our families. True enough, Stanzin said that his father regarded his little sister as the annoying and noisy one!
To avoid getting drunk, we politely declined our host’s gracious invite to have more chang and left Alchi Monastery to check into our accommodation. We stayed at a camp in Uleytokpo located on the banks of the river Indus in the apricot orchards and this was our accommodation for the next two nights. After lunch and siesta in the afternoon, we visited Rizong Monastery. Rizong Monastery, noted for its high level of monastic discipline, is a stunning and isolated monastery situated at the top of a rocky valley. There are students in the monastery school ranging from six to fifteen years, and when we arrived, there were groups of them playing cricket outside of the monastery grounds. It was probably their playtime before dinner…sounds like boarding school. Stanzin doesn’t like cricket, in fact, he calls it a ‘funny game’ as he doesn’t understand the fun in throwing a ball, hitting it and running back and forth! Well, I don’t understand cricket either but I found his honesty quite hilarious.
We explored Rizong and took quite a number of photos of the monastery amid the breathtaking light as the sun set. Stanzin also took us to a nunnery under the governance of Rizong Monastery and we walked in time for their evening prayers. Since there were only three of us, the nuns allowed us to join them as they went on chanting prayers. It was like a dream for me – images that I have seen on a travel program or a National Geographic documentary – sitting close to a group of Buddhist nuns chanting and praying in an isolated nunnery – simply surreal. We sat there for only fifteen or twenty minutes, and we took our leave. We didn’t want to intrude upon their prayer time but we felt peace.
The landscape of Ladakh continued to change as we travelled around the region. From Alchi, we gradually ascended and maneuvered a number of hairpin bends towards Lamayuru. And each time we climbed higher and higher up the mountains, vehicles at the bottom of the mountain range looked like tiny beetles crawling up the terrain.
The main highlight of Lamayuru is the Lamayuru Monastery which is one of the largest and oldest gompas in Ladakh. In the past, the monastery used to house four hundred monks, many of which are now based in gompas in surrounding villages. However, the population of the monastery now stands at a hundred and fifty monks. The monastery is made up of a number of shrines, and has a very rich collection of thangkas and wall paintings.
As we explored the monastery grounds, my friend and I spun many prayer wheels. It is said that prayer wheels are used to accumulate wisdom, merit or good karma, multiplying prayers and blessings. Or according to Tibetan Buddhist belief, spinning a prayer wheel is just as effective as reciting the sacred texts aloud. Each time the prayer wheels are set in motion in a clockwise direction, pilgrims typically recite the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum (translation: hail the jewel in the lotus) as this increases the mantra’s effects.
Apart from this breathtaking cliff-top monastery, Lamayuru is also renowned in Ladakh for its moon-like landscape. It was such an extraordinary looking landscape – as if it was taken away from the moon and put directly in the Himalayan Mountains – its rock formations and rugged cliffs made Lamayuru Monastery looked like a lost Shangri-la surrounded by harsh and desolate terrain.
Hello? Is Anyone at Home?
We left Lamayuru and pushed on for another four hours to Dah Hanu village. The village has a special interest whereby its inhabitants are said to be of pure Aryan descent. It is a small community of a thousand people whereby they have more pronounced noses and a taller height. The Drokpas are Buddhists by faith but racially and culturally different from the rest of the Ladakhis. Historians have noted that the Drokpas settled here between 200-300 BC when Alexander the Great brought his entourage with him through the Himalayas from Greece and Persia.
As we arrived at the village, I immediately noticed the apricot and walnut orchards, and vegetables patches. The surrounding terrain of this village is desert-like and rough, thus the orchards provided shades and protection from the fierce rays of the sun. With the intense heat from the sun, I guess it was possible to grow these crops and yet as we walked closer to the mud brick houses, I sensed the general socio-economic condition of these people remained poor.
The village seemed very quiet as if it was abandoned. Not a single human being could be found except for the children. Stanzin asked a little boy where the adults were, and the boy said that they had gone to another village to welcome a newborn. As cynical as ever, Stanzin was bemused about the entire adult population traversing to another village to welcome one child but leaving their children behind.
Because we had travelled quite a distance from Lamayuru, we didn’t want to just leave Dah Hanu for nothing. So in the end we spent some time playing with the children. I reckon the kids were curious about us – they sang and danced – they were so excited to meet us. When we were about to leave the village, we chanced upon a Drokpa old lady dressed in a traditional costume. We wanted to take a picture of her – discreetly – but she saw us and immediately requested for money. Since Dah Hanu village is one of the two villages open to foreign tourists, the community now takes advantage by asking for money each time tourists takes a photograph. Stanzin warned us that the villagers sometimes asked for exorbitant sum of money, hence we decided not to take her picture.
As I had mentioned earlier in this travelogue, we had been planning for this Ladakh adventure for five months. So we made sure that our trip to Ladakh coincided with the Hemis Festival in June. The Hemis Festival is held every year in the courtyard of the Hemis Monastery. The Hemis Monastery is the wealthiest and biggest gompa in Ladakh, and my guess is that its fame stems from the major annual festival held here in the summer. During the colourful two-day event, hundreds of tourists join the huge crowds of locals and devotees, dressed in their elegant traditional garb. The monks gather around the central flagpole in the courtyard, and perform mask dances and sacred plays. The performances are usually accompanied by music from drums, cymbals and long horns.
When we arrived at the courtyard, I was taken aback by the sheer number of people. Every nook and corner was taken up by spectators, hence it was impossible to sit down (couldn’t see the performances) or stand (people behind you would reprimand you to sit down). The media was everywhere filming this spectacular event.
As much as we would have loved to stay and watch a few more performances (I was told this would go on for another four or five hours) but we only spent forty-five minutes in the courtyard. The crowd was getting larger and the ushers were not able to control. We walked out to look for Stanzin as he had our lunch packs. We found him and sat down outside of the courtyard to eat our lunch. As I was eating, I had realized that this festival was a social event for Ladakhis. There were exchanging of gossips, gambling, food stalls selling momos (Tibetan dumplings) and a colourful fair displaying some of the most exquisite handicrafts of the Ladakh region. If you think about the climate and geography of Ladakh, I can understand why the Hemis Festival is an important social event for the locals – imagine being cut off from the rest of the region when winters last for six months or so.
Two Idiots at the Lake
We are now on the final leg of our Ladakh adventure as we departed for Pangong Lake. We were really excited about seeing Pangong Lake mainly because this scene was featured in the Bollywood comedy “3 Idiots”. The drive to Pangong was approximately five to six hours, southeast of Leh and the journey would typically traverse through Chang La Pass (17,586 ft or 5,360m) which is the second highest motor pass in the world.
Pangong Tso (Tso: Ladakhi for lake) is one of the largest saltwater lakes in Asia. It is 134km long and extends from India to Tibet, and interestingly, sixty per cent of the length of the lake lies in Tibet. Pangong Lake is in disputed territory whereby the Line of Actual Control passes through the lake and incursions from the Tibet / Chinese side are common. In 1962, the lake saw military action during the Sino-Indian War whereby the Indian army experienced bitter losses along its shores. Until the mid-1990s, this area was off-limits to visitors and tourists still need a permit to come here.
We stayed in tent camps by the lake – actually we were given a choice of staying in a brick accommodation or in a camp – we chose the latter. My tent was interesting – it had three mattresses on the floor and some kind of an attached bathroom – nevertheless accommodation was very basic. As usual, we were served tea and biscuits upon arrival and soon after we went down to the lake to explore the area.
Pangong Lake is just plain beautiful. I have never seen such striking landscape before – the colour of the lake is blue – the deepest hues of blue in the middle and turquoise shade near the bank – and the colour changes dramatically when the sun moves. This immense beauty of a lake is set against a backdrop of rugged mountains of various shades of brown on one side and flanked by snow-capped mountains on another side. Gylsom mentioned to us that the distant mountains in the east are in fact in China.
It was cold – bitterly cold – even though the weather was probably around ten to thirteen degrees but it was extremely windy and it wasn’t sunny. We didn’t mind it because just standing there admiring the exquisite beauty of Pangong was absolutely worth it.
We met a number of travellers as well at the campsite. There was a group of retirees from Chennai, an English couple who motorcycled in Ladakh for the past one week and other young bikers travelling around the region on their Royal Enfields. Temperatures continued to dip as the sun went down and the wind became even stronger. At one point I thought my tent was going to be blown away by the wind! Dinner was supposedly to be tasty but we were freezing our butts off and the high altitude made us unsettled and disoriented, thus we didn’t quite enjoy the food. Although I slept with two duvets and wore three layers of clothes, the night was still extremely cold to sleep comfortably. Fortunately, the people who ran the campsite gave us hot water bottles so that helped a little bit.
I couldn’t wake up early to see sunrise by the lake but was woken up early enough to hear Indian Army choppers flying close to our campsite. Not surprising when our campsite was just 140-150kms away from the Chinese or Tibetan border. Although it was still chilly and windy, it was nice to be out of the camp and the sun was shining bright. After a light breakfast and taking a few more photographs, we left Pangong and travelled back to Leh.