10 September to 03 October 2010
In an effort to escape the tail end of the monsoon and the steamy humidity we decided to head to the hills – Ladakh in the Indian Himalayas to be precise. Approximately 6 weeks prior to our arrival Ladakh had experienced a devastating cloud burst which had devastated homes and infrastructure and left many people dead. Although life was as back to normal as possible for most people, the media reports had pretty much destroyed tourism in the area for the rest of the season and things were pretty quiet. However, Leh and the surrounding areas were as stunning as I remembered and it was great to be amidst clear blue skies and colourful prayer flags. Ladakh is a strongly Buddhist area and aside from the scenery, which is not dissimilar to Tibet in parts, one of the reasons to visit was to see the many monasteries and generally soak up the Buddhist vibe. Leh is the capital of Ladakh and the base for trips into the surrounding valleys. The first trip we did was by jeep into the Hunder Valley and the second one to Lake Pangong. Both offered stunning high-altitude scenery and on both we had to cross high passes. The scenery is quite diverse and we came across sand dunes and camels.
Thiksey Monastery, Ladakh
Cuter than camels, marmots are prolific in this part of the world, also. In one place they have obviously become so used to people stopping to feed them, you can almost stroke them. The avid blog readers with good memories among you may recall than when we were in Mongolia, marmot pasta was (apparently) a treat whilst we were on one of our jeep jaunts. It wasn’t a meat I would seek out again but now having got close up and personal with the little critters I’m kind of sorry I ate one in the first place!
For the last couple of weeks of our time in India, Mark’s dad, Ben, flew out to join him so they could do some more trekking following their adventure in Nepal last year. He flew into Leh via Delhi where we met him. We had a couple of days all together whilst they made the final plans for their trek and packed and re-packed their kit bag a few times!!
Ladakh: Leh (left), the meeting of the Indus and Zanskar Rivers (centre) and Lamayuru Monastery (right)
Ladakh: Pangong Lake (left) and Changthang Valley (right)
So as Mark and Ben set off on their trek, I set off on my own little adventure. Travelling with a couple of guys we’d met on our jeep trips, we headed north of Leh for some more monastery visits including a stop at Lamarayu which is probably one of my favourites in Ladakh. It’s one of the largest in the area and has a stunning hilltop location. Well, actually most have a hilltop location – there aren’t many that don’t involve climbing a huge amount of stairs in order to visit them. Monks must be pretty fit I reckon!
From Lamarayu we continued to Kargil. The plan was to try to get to Kashmir but they’d had a pretty eventful couple of months and things were currently a bit volatile. The discontented youth were voicing their frustrations with violence and things became exacerbated by the fact that the police and military had killed around 100 civilians with no reciprocal loses. As a result, many towns in the region and in particular Srinagar, the capital, were currently under curfew to try to bring things under control. We thought it best to give it a few days so we hired a jeep to take us into the Zanskar Valley and headed for Padum.
Padum was freezing cold with a biting wind but the journey there and the surrounding area were stunning. I know I keep using that word but it’s the right one to use and the mountains were even more impressive here than in Ladakh. I don’t know whether it’s because the monasteries here receive fewer visitors than those in Ladakh but we encountered a lot more hospitality than on our other trips. We also visited a nunnery where the nuns invited us into their kitchen for a cup of yak butter tea – yuck! I’d had it before and knew how disgusting it tastes but etiquette dictates you can’t turn it down. The flavour does vary a bit but for those of you lucky enough not to have experienced it, this one tasted a bit like warm blue cheese but not in a good way. The nuns then insisted we stay for lunch which was a rather more tasty potato curry. Another couple of monasteries and a few more cups of tea and some biscuits later it was time to head back to Kargil. This time the word was that things were settling down a bit in Srinagar and the curfews were starting to lift so we decided to go for it.
Zanskar: Stongdey Monastery (left), Drang Drung Glacier (centre) and Zanskar Valley (right)
We took a shared jeep and the journey was spectacular if not a little testing on the nerves. This wasn’t helped by the fact that the jeeps didn’t leave until early afternoon for the 8-9 hour journey. We never found out the reason for this but it didn’t make sense as the narrow mountain roads were treacherous once dusk fell and our nerves were less calmed when we were delayed by traffic caused by a couple of trucks going over the edge. It was also a pity that we could only enjoy the scenery for half the journey. Needless to say, we made it in one piece!
The following day was the first day that the part of town we were in, next to the famous Dal Lake, had their curfew lifted after two weeks. Although there was a heavy police and military presence and lots of road blocks, people were out and about and the atmosphere was fairly relaxed – everyone seemed happy to be out in the sunshine and seeing their friends and neighbours. Our next task in-hand was to find a houseboat. After all, this was the reason that people flocked to Kashmir in their hundreds ten to fifteen years ago when tourism was at its height here. Sadly, the political situation ever since has reduced those numbers to a trickle and it’s hard to see how things will ever bounce back.
Shikaras on Dal Lake near Srinagar, Kashmir
Back to the houseboat; we were approached by a guy keen to show us his boat and thinking we had to start somewhere, we decided to take a look. As soon as we stepped onto it was clear to all of us that this was going to be out of our budget and after what was to become the first of many cups of Kashmiri tea and some pleasant chat, the big question arose …… “What was the price?”. “How much do you want to pay?” came the infuriating but oft-asked question in this part of the world. “About 700 rupees per person, including meals” (about £10). Guessing this was around a quarter of the going rate and fully expecting to be laughed at and forced to engage in a haggling match that would still result in a too-high price, we were surprised when the owner instantly agreed. I guess he was sensibly thinking some business is better than no business – great for us though.
Luxury houseboat on Nagin Lake, Kashmir
Life on a houseboat is a pretty relaxed affair, a million miles away from the problems that may or may not be going on in the town. You get around the lakes by small gondola style boat called a ‘shikara’ just enjoying the scenery, narrow canals of the town, and the birdlife. In a way, it reminded me of the Kerala backwaters but with not so many ss coconut trees and more mountains and an edgier feel! The boat itself was also very relaxing with plenty of aforementioned Kashmiri tea and some long-overdue warmth after several weeks in Ladakh and Zanskar.
Oh, one more thing …… don’t mention to Mark that I’ve been to Kashmir. It’s been on his list of places to visit for as long as I have known him!
Before all too long it was time to leave my new travelling buddies and head down and across to Amritsar; somewhere that has long been on my “must-see” list. The beautiful Golden Temple lived up to expectation and I spent many hours sitting in the temple complex people watching and chatting to other visitors/pilgrims – the Sikhs are incredibly hospitable and unlike in many other places want nothing from you. I also went to the border with Pakistan at Wagah to witness the border-closing ceremony famous for the guards and their Monty Python-style “Ministry of Silly Walks” performance. The ceremony was “as advertised” with plenty of strutting high kicks and menacing looks across to the Pakistanis but what was equally, if not more, fascinating was the “pre-show party”. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Indians turn up for the ceremony which turns into a full-on show of nationalistic pride. First up is the pumping Punjabi dance music which gets the crowd on their feet patting the dog and shaking the can whilst waving their Indian flags. The MC is there to gee everyone on with things like “They can’t hear you in Pakistan – make some more noise” – all along the lines of “Show them how much fun we have in India and how much better it is here …..” etc, etc. I was also told there were a few “Death to Pakistan” chants thrown in for good measure.
Golden Temple, Amritsar
The scene on the Pakistan side was more austere with fewer people sitting quietly with more low-key traditional music – could have been the National Anthem and the like. Then there is the part where they get as many female volunteers from the crowd as possible (with extra points for Westerners) to run along the road towards the gate with Pakistan waving gigantic Indian flags. Maybe to demonstrate how pretty Indian girls are and how liberated they are? Finally, women and school children are invited down for a final dance-off to more Punjabi and Bollywood pop beats. Then the what is intended to be macho, but actually looks a bit camp, strutting to the border begins, the flag is ceremoniously brought down, folded and presented to the crowds for a final patriotic cheer.
Wagah, near Amritsar
From Amritsar, I returned to Delhi to meet Mark and his dad who had survived their own trekking adventure – not sure if you’ll get a blog now though. We had a good couple of days catching up with friends and enjoying a hotel at what has now become our definition of luxury – attached bathroom with hot running water, electricity, clean sheets, flatscreen TV and even a mini-bar – before flying back to London together for some more luxury aka parents’ homes and lots of delicious mummy-cooked meals!