Leh, Hemis, Khardung La, rafting, biking
07.07.2011 - 13.07.2011
The northern high-altitude (3505m) desert region of Ladakh, which means the “land of high mountain passes”, is an entirely different world compared to the rest of India. It is the most isolated and sparsely populated region in India and is called “Little Tibet”, owing to the dominance of Mahayana Buddhism for the past one thousand years. Being there I felt like I had left India- as there were no visible signs of Hinduism and the native people living there look Tibetan. The land is dominated with Buddhist gompa’s (monasteries) built on the sides of cliffs and there are colourful prayer flags everywhere.
Leh is the capital of this region and is made up of both mud brick houses and also modern-looking buildings. All around the town are huge mountains and in the distance I could see many snow-capped peaks. Even though the town has upgraded its technologies to keep up with the times; there is still a feeling of oldness and authentic-ness of days gone by. Walking around the Old Town I could almost get stuck in what past could’ve been like.
Due to the close proximity of China and India there are many soldiers and army bases in this area. This does kind of deter the magic and mysticism of the place, but I guess the ugliness of politics ranks first in these parts.
We arrived in Leh in high season, so finding accommodation wasn’t so easy. Me, and another girl who traveled in the same van from Manali, walked around to try finding a place. We eventually came across a sweet old lady who offered us some rooms at a fantastically low price.
For the rest of our first day Angie and I just chilled and enjoyed choosing where to eat next (but when I am finished with my travels I will not step forth into a restaurant for a very long time. I am so over deciding what to drink and eat!).
Since we had limited days in Ladakh we had to choose wisely what we were going to do. We decided to not go anywhere on our first day; since we had been traveling for 2 days it was a good idea to stay away from any kind of transport for a while and just enjoy the town. The other people who traveled from Manali with us rushed off to get their permits to visit the surrounding areas the following day. Crazy I tell you! After spending 2 days in a car, they went on a one-day trip to see Pangong lake- which is 5 hours away! So they went there, saw the lake for 1.5 hours and turned around and came back! We were contemplating this, but I couldn’t see the point in just going to see a lake, even if it’s beautiful!
There was a feeling of some kind of peer pressure to see all the “must-see sights in Ladakh”. And we rebelliously went completely the opposite way. Instead of spending hours in a car just so we can say “we saw the lake; here’s a photo for proof” etc, we went river rafting down the Indus River :-)
We choose the best day- cold, overcast and raining, but this didn’t deter us from feeling excited to be going down a river with the great Himalaya’s flanking our course. We were the only westerners, so this was nice! We were given life vests and told about safety rules etc. There were 8 tourists and 2 pro’s who sat at the back and shouted commands at us. It took us a few attempts to get out, since we had to row quite hard and fast to overcome the strong currents. The first rapids were actually pretty scary- with the raft going up and down at huge angles. My feet held on tight- there was no ways I was going to fall into the icy Himalayan water! We had a few more exhilarating rapids and then it was calm. Everyone else was jumping in saying “oh it’s so nice, get in!”, but Angie and I refused to go in. I did not want to be sitting wet, on a wet boat, with no sunshine to warm me up. Ya, we looked like old boring grannies, but they were the ones who almost lost their teeth due to their incessant chilly- chattering!
Leh also brought a new batch of tourists! Unlike our previous experiences of solely Israeli’s, we now heard German, Swiss, French, American, Australian and Korean. It was rather nice to see so many Koreans :-) We treated ourselves to the Korean restaurant, which did a good, yet expensive bibimbap. I am becoming an expert in recognizing where people come from, from their height, shoes, clothes, and how they carry themselves. I was walking behind a group of people and before I heard them speak I just knew they were Czech- they just can’t hide their practical-ness to their attire ;-P.
While we were waiting for the van to pick us up to go rafting, we met two guys who invited us to tea later that evening. They were rather charming lads; one was from Germany (but now working in Basel, Switzerland) and the other from Argentina. They entertained us with funny and interesting stories of their past travels. And it seems that almost all the Germans we have met have seen more of South Africa than we have… I guess this is good inspiration for me to stop leaving South Africa for “greener pastures”.
We also had a chance to visit a famous Buddhist festival in the town of Hemis. The “Hemis Festival” celebrates the birth of some monk or something else (I forgot!). Everyone told us “you must go, it’s going to be fantastic”… Hmm… We took a local bus and walked up to the monastery along with hundreds of other people-local and tourists. I don’t know if I just can’t appreciate a cultural event like this, but I was disappointed. In the middle of the courtyard, monks donning old traditional facemasks did some dance against evil while others bonged on a drum. Maybe it was the huge crowds which took its meaning for me, but I was bored within 20 minutes and spent more time taking artistic photos of this old women’s hand while she leaned against a wall. Nevertheless it was nice to see the countryside and eat 2 minute Maggie noodles with the locals..
Khardung La is the world’s highest passable road, at a height of 5578m! In keeping with our vow to spend as little time in a car as possible, we signed up to a mountain bike ride of a lifetime! A 4X4 with bikes in the back drove us up to the top. As this is a popular spot, the place was bustling with people. They all seemed to think we had rode up to the pass, so gave us great nods of admiration (haha, little did they know…;-) ) We stayed there for a bit (in order for altitude sickness not to set in), took some photos and got excited when snow flurries fell down! We kitted ourselves up with scarves and beanies and hit the road! We were with 2 other boys from Israel who acted like 12 year olds whose voices hadn’t broken yet. Their English was as good as my Hindi so not much conversation went on. There were a number of times I almost crashed into them due to their inability to judge distances between bikes! Stupid boys! Dammit, I’m beginning to sound like an old maid!Help!!
The ride was incredibly! Besides it being downhill all the way- we had the most stunning views of Leh and the mountains around it. I felt like I was on the top of the world! My brakes weren’t the best in the world, and I had to anticipate a stoppage a good 30 seconds before the event. There mustn’t traffic, so we had smooth sailing most of the way.
We stayed in Leh a total of 6 days after which we took a short but mesmerizing flight to Srinagar, Kashmir. I am writing this on the deck of a quaint houseboat on Dal Lake, which is by far, one of the best places I have visited so far. But I am afraid that’s all for now children- as it’s time for bed. More about Kashmir another time. Good night! ;-)