Ladakh: A Prologue

We were scheduled to leave from Bangalore by evening of 21st Jan 2015 for New Delhi from where we were to board a flight to Leh in the early hours next day. We were mighty excited to go on the fabulous Chadar trek – the frozen river trek – famed internationally. This trip was organized by Travel My Routes, a trip and treks organizing venture run by one of my friends. But on 17th we were informed that Chadar trek has been cancelled for the year due to landslide in the Zanskar region which had led to blockage of the river, formation of a wide lake and evacuation of the inhabitants by Indian Army. We were of course disappointed; saying we were not disappointed would be an earnest lie. In the face of this, the tour operator gave us the following options as per his convenience and asked to choose any one of them:

  • Sham Valley trek, which can be done in any season.
  • Only 50% refund of our trip fee since he had invested a lot to arrange our trip already (yeah, that’s what he told us).
  • Stok Kangri trek in June.
  • Markha Valley Trek in July.

I was supposed to go on Chadar trek with twenty-four people and out of twenty-four I knew only six people. As Chadar trek was not one of the options, five people chose to go on Stok Kangri trek which is one of the toughest treks in the world and all those five were out of the six people I knew in that group. My friend Supreeth, the one remaining, knew almost everybody in that left over group and I knew only him. We decided to go ahead with others to Ladakh on Sham Valley Trek as we had never been to Ladakh before.

*Kindly spare me from your opinions if you have taken the English meaning of sham and kindly forgive me for not being able to give you the native meaning of the same.

All nineteen of us were not traveling to Leh together. We were divided into several groups and individuals and reached New Delhi at different hours though we reached Leh at about the same time. On 20th, Supreeth was informed that our flight from Bangalore was delayed and would reach New Delhi only after our scheduled flight from New Delhi to Leh would have departed. It made no sense at all. Since he was busy, he asked me to call and request to reschedule our Bangalore-New Delhi flight and I was informed that the most feasible one would make us wait for seven hours in New Delhi airport. I said “Oh, well, what the hell” and promptly asked the Jet Connect customer care executive to advance us to the feasible one without consulting Supreeth who was later grumbling for a long time that he had to take extra half a day off.

It so happens that I and my friend cannot keep our mouths shut for a decent duration of time and can go on blabbering about anything and anybody. We made fun of a long bearded guy at Bangalore airport, we made fun of a middle-aged female sitting next to Supreeth on flight and we made fun of many other people whose description if I give here they might find me and kill me. Taken style – Liam Neeson. Once we reached New Delhi airport, we found our fellow trekkers one after another. Initially, people had a discussion of going out of the airport and roam around New Delhi at mid night. I, on the other hand, left them to take the lead and found solace in a bookstore inside the airport. They voted against going out and pulled me out of my paradise. We thought we will “sit and sleep” in the butt-numbing cold steel chairs arranged in a single file in the waiting lounge of the airport. Most of us couldn’t even take a nap. I, being a person who is perfectly capable of developing narcolepsy whenever necessary, wore my down jacket the other way around, covered my face with its hood and dozed off. Every now and then I was awakened by the joining of other fellow trekkers. Finally I woke up to find a charging point for my cell phone. I and Supreeth went around in search of a suitable charging point and in the process saw few more of our fellow trekkers who had dozed off on the other part of the airport.

*Note to New Delhi airport officials: You have lousy cell phone charging points.

By the time we boarded our flight to Leh, we had found all our fellow trekkers. Then too, we were divided into groups and flew to Leh separately. Our flight was delayed by two hours due to dense fog that gripped New Delhi and refused to budge. In order to pacify disgruntled passengers, the indolent air hostess provided us with early breakfast. Somehow, air traffic people gave a green signal to our pilot to take off and we flew to Leh. As soon as we entered the mountain range, our flight became turbulent and was wobbling in mid-air. Supreeth, seated next to me, was petrified that we would go down dying and there I was excited, clapping and laughing again at inappropriate time. Snow covered mountain ranges of LadakhWhen I looked out of the windows, I was greeted by the mountain ranges of Ladakh with their body covered with snow making them look like black forest cake covered with icing! Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport, LehOur flight’s awesome pilot finally got us landed safe and sound at Leh’s Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport which is allowed for public utility only for four to five hours in the morning after which it is only for the utility of the militia. Partial map of LadakhWhile we were waiting for our backpacks, our eyes hovered over Ladakh’s map hung on one of the walls of Leh airport and I found something interesting; a place named Skyu which is located near Stok Kangri. Then I started saying “Skyu you” to Supreeth and it just went on for a long time. After landing in Leh, we finally and officially met everyone in our group and drove away in cabs to our rooms booked for our stay in the town till we went on trek and after coming back.

A view from my hotel roomWhen we reached our lodgings in Bimla guesthouse, we were told that there were only three rooms available there, so only six people could stay there. Since we were six females in the group, we all stayed there. All the men moved to neighbouring lodges, Dolma and Indus guesthouse, where rooms were arranged for them. Our bellboy at Bimla guesthouse, Dhangiri Bom, was very courteous and helpful (guys in our group think that he is helpful only to girls.) Heaters, either electric or gas, are a must in rooms and houses there, else you will be shivering and soon freezing; we were of course provided with heaters. After we settled in, we were given hot water to freshen up and were asked to use it immediately else water would cool down. After everyone got ready, we went to a small eatery called Punjabi Dhaba in Leh market for lunch. They had only limited items ready and for rest we were to give order. So, we went ahead with what was ready. We binge on Chole-Bature and Dosas. We were eating like pigs from our plates and others plates too. It is true that drop in temperature makes humans hungry.

5. Name of a shop in LehAfter lunch, we were shown around the Leh market if anybody wanted to buy anything. Market there is full of shops selling trinkets, woollen clothing or Kesar and dry fruits. Since I had taken necessary things for the trip from Bangalore, I didn’t buy anything though I was tempted to buy a pair of cute gloves knitted in woollen and these gloves would form a flip-cap over the fingers. Shops in Ladakh have uncommon names that sometimes make me laugh.

Two of us had a wonderful idea that people drop inhibitions when they are high and bought booze for everyone and that helped everyone in getting to know each other. It was truly a noble deed. When we got high, but still could stand on our own, we all danced to some Bollywood music with Satya swirling torch above us to give disco lights effect. Thus, swaying mindlessly, we all became friends.

Sindhu GhatNext day was meant for sightseeing. We were taken to Sindhu Ghat where River Sindhu flows and is quite accessible at this point.Sindhu Ghat After clicking innumerable photos there, we moved towards Shey Palace where I saw a monastery for the first time in my life. Outside Shey PalaceGoing up the hillock where Shey Palace and further up from there itself a small trek for us. Prayer flags above Shey PalaceBy the time I reached the top where prayer flags were fluttering, I had already thrown away my down jacket. View of the surrounding village from the top of Shey PalaceAfter watching the serene landscape around there, we got down and walked towards our van. Some of us had decided not to reach the prayer flags and gone to a frozen lake opposite Shey Palace. When we saw what they were doing, we went down running to them!Frozen lake opposite to Shey Palace

Ducks on the frozen lake opposite Shey PalaceI was apprehensive to even step on the frozen lake. After the initial trepidation, I found myself sliding, skidding and dancing on it! Whattey fun! At one point of time, about ten of us were standing together and I was shit scared that ice will break under our feet and we all will go down. Then came along five ducks; one white and four grey.White beauty They too posed along with us and soon quacked away. After making sure that we had sufficient number of photos of this frozen lake as well, we moved towards Thiksey monastery.

Monks playing football outside Thiksey monasteryAs we neared Thiksey monastery, we could see monks playing football among them. Passing by them, we walked into the monastery. Buddha's statue at Thiksey monasteryAfter “checking out” one of the biggest Buddha statues in Ladakh, we clicked more pictures all over the monastery. One of us reminded that army museum called Hall of Fame would close by 5:30 and we all rushed to “check it out” too.

Hall of Fame, a tribute to our brave soldiers and martyrs in Ladakh and a gentle reminder to all Indian citizens what our soldiers are going through every day to protect us and our country. When you read about them and what conditions they are subjected to, you can feel blood racing through your system even in those sub-zero temperatures. All these things reminded me of a review that I had read about a book called The Himalayan Blunder by Brigadier John Dalvi. Hall of Fame also gives you details about Ladakh’s demography, flora and fauna. War memorial at Hall of FameBehind this museum is a war memorial where you won’t be surprised if you feel your eyes welling up. After few of us bought souvenirs at the museum-owned shop, we practically raced to Shanti Stupa.

Shanti StupaShanti Stupa is a peace memorial built to commemorate 2500 years of Buddhism. It is white circular granary-like building situated on a hillock. As usual, I and Supreeth were making fun of that also by calling it Shanti Thuppa (Thuppa means ghee in Kannada). We also managed to disturb a couple trying to get their picture clicked before sunset. After realizing that we won’t be able to get anymore pictures, we decided to go back to our lodgings.

I honestly don’t remember where I ate when, but I remember what all I ate! There is of course Punjabi Dhaba. In the same lane there was a restaurant that is supposed to be a Kashmiri restaurant, but didn’t have any Kashmiri dish on their menu. Just ate the same roti, naan and curry which I would get in Bengaluru too. There was a Tibetan restaurant where only I, Supreeth and three more people went to have breakfast on the morning of the day we left for Sham Valley trek. There we ordered momos which were served steaming hot along with some kind of ultra-spicy chutney. We also order for coffee there which was disappointingly watery. After dinner, we returned to our lodgings to discuss about next day plans and play Mafia.

I used to be a person who hated playing Mafia from the bottom of my heart. I mean, what kind of game is it? One god forsaken person will play God and chooses among the players to be villagers, cop, doctor, mafia and so on. Oh, God! I can’t explain this game. Kindly ask Google for the rules and the game boils down to identify Mafia members and save others. Well, I wanted to play a card game called bluff and everyone else opted to play Mafia. So, I opted to play Devil. Buhuhahaha! When people started discussing who’s who, I was irritating Satya, who was playing God, and was giving out hints to others. I even got rebuked for that and I told Satya “God is gube” (gube means owl in Kannada). No offense to all god-fearing people out there reading this blog. For unknown reasons, they refused to take my hints and made mistakes. After sometime, even Supreeth got bored and joined me in irritating Satya. Mission accomplished!

Next morning after breakfast, we left for Likir from where our Sham Valley trek was to start. On the way we saw an even bigger frozen lake on which people were practising ice skating. Till then, I used to think it happened only in Canada. It brought back memories of the movie Raising Helen in which a team of pastors play ice hockey with Queen’s We Will Rock You playing in the background. Ice hockey on frozen lakeJust as I was thinking this, I actually sighted a team practising ice hockey in a separate area on the same lake. We lost our minds soon enough, freaked out, slipped, slid, glided, twisted and turned like authentic lunatics brought from a place where it is not just cold enough to freeze. After an hour or so, our trek guide Mr.Stanjin (about whose name we made a lot of adult remarks) asked us to get back into our van as it was getting late for us to reach Likir.

Sindhu-Zanskar sangamWe passed by the point where river Sindhu (also known as Indus) unites with river Zanskar. How shall I describe this place to you? It looks like a painter’s palette with dunes of white, brown and blue colours running down with excess water. After breaking ourselves free from the spell of this beauty, we stopped at Nimmo village to have lunch at one of the eateries there. Hot and spicy momos and thukpa; perfect combo for that climate. Later we were transported to the point where the region of Likir starts.

After being dropped off by our van at this starting point, our guide walked us through troughs and crests in that chilling desert. Not steep; just like an evening walk. As we walked, the heat from within was enough along with down jackets and thermal wear to ward off the chill. After walking for a kilometre or so, people lagged one behind the other despite reminding about nearing dusk. When we were about to enter Likir village, our guide pointed towards a hillock and told us that he can take us to Likir monastery if we wish to go there. Since we were up for anything, we said yes for that too. So, our guide asked us to start walking fast to reach the monastery before closing time. For some time people walked faster only to slow down to take pictures again. I am a kind of person who will not take pictures anywhere and everywhere, so I kept walking ahead with our guide while our men and hengasarapalya (this is what I used to call the other five women in the group; only Supreeth knew till date) slowed down badly. What hengasarapalya means in Kannada is women’s village. Why I suddenly termed them on the whole like that, I don’t know. Anyway, by the time I and our guide reached the monastery, others were still climbing up.

Likir monasteryAt the peak we saw a gigantic Buddha statue, gold-plated, with the Sun almost set in the background. Can you imagine the sheen around it? Well, by the time we went around the monastery and came out of it everything was dark and how we stomped downhill I don’t know. I just remember that some of us slipped on the ice that had formed on some of the steps. After dropping us at the beginning of Likir, cook and helpers had gone into the village to pitch tents and prepare food for us. Since night had started its duty, our guide called his crew and asked to bring the van to the foothill and asked us to keep walking. Thus, we walked not only to the foothill, but up to the village junction from where our van took us to our tents where with delicious and sumptuous food we marked the end of our first day on Sham Valley trek.

In the morning I saw Srivardhan scampering around to charge his cell phone. After some time, I removed his cell phone and put mine to charge. He didn’t know what I did. The best things about mornings there were not only good bowel movements, but also frost that had formed on us while we were asleep and us standing with our bums to the campfire. After freshening up and breakfast, we moved towards Yangthang.

On the way to YangthangWith previous day’s experience, I had understood that I would stay warm as long as I would be moving, so I ditched my down jacket and trekked comfortably wearing a fleece jacket. Satya broke the camera lens of his cell phone and was like what the hell… By the time we had covered half distance between Likir and Yangthang, Srivardhan had given up. It had been almost two years since he had trekked or done anything physically excruciating and he was strained. He took his own time to reach the end point of second day’s trek from where we were again picked by our van to the place where our tents were pitched. And man….that place was mind-blowing!

Second day’s camping site in Yangthang was on the bank of a stream which was frozen half way. We reached there by noon and Srivardhan dozed off soon enough. I and Supreeth were as usual chattering some nonsense when Deepika, Satya and Satish joined us. We started playing bluff in one of the tents till evening. Fed up of playing, we came out to find everybody asleep in their tents and only Soumya and Lakshmi sitting next to the stream. Finding where the ice is hard enough to walk on, we crossed the stream to the other side only after clicking pictures in between (Lakshmi has not shared those pictures yet, even after four months since this trip. Even Keerthana has not shared). We took more pictures on the other side of the stream too. When we saw that others were waking up and it was getting dark too, we tried to go back to the campfire, but saw Srivardhan coming towards us. He announced that he was wearing 8 layers of clothes and had only stepped of his tent to get a picture of him standing with snow cupped in his palms. After fulfilling his wish, we headed back to campfire where others had already huddled. Not knowing what to do, Deepika asked Supreeth to sing and he sang all the songs that I had managed to detest. After dinner, we played dumb charades. I was so sleepy that I couldn’t even guess Inglorious Bastards. I don’t even know how I reached my tent and dozed off. I only remember waking up to one of the crew members greeting us with chai.

Every morning we had to defrost ourselves at the campfire. After breakfast we prepared ourselves to move towards Hemis when, out of nowhere, an old lady appeared with all smiles. We were told that Jullay means Hello in Ladakhi language, so we said Jullay to her as well. Later we got to know from our guide that she is the owner of the land by the stream on which we had camped the previous night. She was there to collect rent from us for a night’s camping. It is a lucrative business in Ladakh to rent out properties to tourists to make money, which is not bad at all. Well, our path towards Hemis was tar road in the beginning and later turned into mud roads. It was a good trek on the third day too. My doodle on snowI trekked easily by stopping here and there doodling on patches of snow. Pugmark of Snow LeopardWe even came across pugmarks of Snow Leopards, but we were unfortunate enough to not see them in real. We passed through mounts of variable sizes and one such mount caught my sight. Modaka GuddaIt was exactly in the shape of Modaka, a sweet usually offered to Lord Ganesh and eaten by devotees. Thus, I named it Modaka Gudda (means a hillock that looks like modaka.) Then we descended into Hemis village.On the way to Hemis

I absolutely love the gullies of Hemis! They are brown walled and narrow through which one yak at a time can pass in one direction. I mean these gullies were cute! Yes, gullies were cute! Our camping site for that night was an open ground and this time we had company. There were two other groups that had camped in that ground near us. Our crew was still preparing for evening snacks and dinner for night, so we started playing games that were long forgotten since childhood. On a vast patch of slippery snow, we formed two teams and played lagori (a game famous in rural parts of India which requires one team to stack flat pebbles and other team to stop them.) After we got fed up of lagori, we played Kho Kho. The best part of this was to watch Venky dodge the chaser of the opposite team. It was like he ran, flew and rolled on the snow-covered ground all at the same time! It was a treat to watch him! I don’t remember who won the game, but we all were exhausted and sloshed. Our guide told he would take us to Hemis monastery. By then, I and Supreeth were so damn tired of seeing so many monasteries that we simply opted out of that excursion and chose to play card games in a tent; me, Supreeth, Satya, Satish and Srivardhan. When people returned from Hemis monastery, Deepika came in to tell us that they sighted a fox, but stayed back to play Donkey with us. Then came in Keshava and Lakshmi. So, that makes eight people in a 3-people-tent along with three huge backpacks. Supreeth got a wonderful idea of making poker chips out of paper that Satish had in his bag. And things just got rolling. We successfully played umpteen number of poker games before the lighting of the campfire was announced. Our crew had brought locally prepared liquor called Chhaang along with them which was offered to us too and we didn’t refuse to take it. It was tangy, light and didn’t kick in at all. At the same time, one of the other two groups there played loud music. What else could we ask for to commemorate the last night on this Sham Valley trek? But our crew had baked a cake for us to mark the last night. We were touched. We know not how they baked such a delicious cake without an oven in that open ground of Hemis village, but we thanked them for this gesture. That night we played mafia again, all of us this time. And the worst part is Satya always chose me to be a mafia member! And everybody could easily guess. Cheater! After this game, our guide informed us that we all had to wear down jackets and sunglasses for next day as we would be going to higher altitudes on our way to Ang. With this instruction, we got into our tents. That night, I packed myself with a fleece jacket, down jacket and two sleeping bags. Oxygen level had already gone down and it was suffocating too to sleep packed like that. Somehow I dozed off only to wake up with frost layer on everything and everybody.

Our last day of Sham Valley trek saw us defrosting ourselves again, freshen up, eat sumptuous breakfast, pack and leave. It was slightly uncomfortable to trek wearing a down jacket. That day while trying to run, the loop of my one shoe lace got stuck with the lace hook of another shoes and I fell smack down on the snow. I did get hurt at the hip-joint as that was what hit the ground first, but I could trek ahead without any problem. Of all the four days of trekking, last day’s was difficult comparatively as it was all uphill. Keshava, who had got Quechua as his nickname by then, was the first one to end our trek at Ang. He didn’t lose his pace and ended the trek without getting exhausted. It was only noon when we reached Ang and were damn hungry. So our crew prepared chai and soupy Maggi noodles for us. While they were preparing this, some of us were busy clicking pictures with Ladakhi kids who had popped out of their homes to see us. Supreeth is not fond of Maggi and refused to eat it, so I took two servings plus his share too! Hot soupy Maggi noodles amidst frost covered mountain ranges. Yummmm! After we were done eating and drinking, we were taken back to Leh in the van marking the completion of Sham Valley trek.

With only two days left in Ladakh, we wanted to make most of it. Magnetic HillAfter the morning rituals, we started our second session of sightseeing with Magnetic Hill. This is what Magnetic Hill doesIt is said that Magnetic Hill has the capability of pulling a small vehicle towards it and the same was written on the road in front of the hill. After clicking pictures there too, we moved towards Lamayuru. MoonlandOn the way, we passed through Moonland. When we asked for an explanation why it is called as Moonland, our driver told us that the terrain of that area looked like that of Moon! We were dumbfounded by this answer. Anyway, we mindlessly clicked pictures there as well and proceeded to Lamayuru to see yet another monastery.

Lamayuru monasteryLamayuru’s monastery is said to be one of the oldest gompas (monasteries) in Ladakh. When we were taken on a tour of this monastery, we saw different types of fruits placed in front of each idol of the monks as an offering for them. Upon seeing grapes among the fruits, Deepika plucked one grape fruit and popped it into her mouth saying it is prasad (an offering to god/goddess which is later eaten by devotees) for us! I still laugh about it. Frozen waterfall on the way to LamayuruOn our way back from Lamayuru, we found a frozen waterfall on the side of the highway. Had we gone on the Chadar trek, then on the last day we would have passed by a gigantic frozen waterfall. Since we had lost that opportunity, we lost our minds when we saw this version of frozen waterfall. We posed relentlessly in front of it. Deepika, Supreeth and Satya even fell down while trying to climb it. Further from there we again stopped at a point to walk down to a bridge on Leh-Srinagar highway. A view from the bridge on Leh-Srinagar highwayView from that bridge is spectacular. You get to see how aqua blue colour actually looks. On our way back to Leh, we visited Pathar Sahib Gurudwara. Being agnostic, I cannot really comment about their devotion, but anyone can learn about hospitality from the Sikhs. After praying, when we were about to leave, we were asked to take chai and snacks. After a little chit-chat with the person in charge there, we went back to our lodgings.

KhardunglaNext day, we left for Khardungla where you will find the highest motorable road in the world at 18380 feet above the sea level. KhardunglaFurther from Khardungla lies Nubra Valley, where you will find the famous central Asian double humped camels, and Siachen base camp, which is at the Sino-India border. There will always be tight security on the way to Khardungla. North Pullu and South Pullu, where Indian Army is permanently present, form gateways to Khardungla. We, who were already stunned at -12°C, were informed that on the previous night the temperature had dropped to -40°C. We could only imagine how our soldiers tolerated this. Upon reaching Khardungla, we saw a board saying that we should not stay outside for more than 20-25 minutes. We all ran out of our van, clicked pictures everywhere possible and ran back into our van. Soon, Satya and Supreeth announced that they want to pee from the highest motorable road! I was like what kind of wish is this and I still tease Supreeth about this! It is quite possible to doze off at those altitudes due to low oxygen level; I did doze off only to be woken up by Supreeth again and again. Supreeth was obsessed over a random song which caught his attention. We couldn’t identify the language of the song and even the van driver who played that song didn’t know. He was cribbing for that song all the way.

From Khardungla, we went to Alchi gompa. I must tell you, I have seen enough gompas for my whole life already. Anyway, the last gompa to visit was in Alchi where I actually saw Lotsa temple. Yes, you read it right. I was chanting “I saw Lotsa temple” nonstop and it took Venky awhile to understand what I actually meant! Satish bought postcards sold there about Alchi gompa. When we opened them, each of the postcards had a picture of some naked goddess’ painting. Again, we got a reason to make fun of something. From there we went back to Leh for lunch. After lunch, we completed shopping for souvenirs. I and Supreeth bought apricots. We returned to our lodgings to finish packing. SouvenierThat night, Satish told us that each of us will get a postcard as a simple souvenir and everyone must sign in others’ postcard and could even write a message. We all cheerfully wrote for each other. That night, we played mafia again and also bluff. Most of us had flight to Delhi way too early in the wee hours of next morning, yet they were awake till late night; I, Supreeth, Lakshmi and Deepika had the last flight booked from Leh; Satish, Satya and Ashwini stayed back to visit Pangong lake.

Supreeth had not taken a printout of our tickets thinking that he can show the booking mail to airport security guards. When tried to open the mail in his cell phone, it just kept loading and loading. Somehow, we managed to get in and also check in. Just minutes before boarding, we were asked to identify our luggage. It was an extra measure taken at Leh airport to avoid transporting unclaimed luggage, but it could have made us miss our flight. That made me and Supreeth scoot around the airport looking for our baggage! Somehow, we left from Leh. After reaching New Delhi, we didn’t know how to pass time. We got to know that Srivardhan and Purushotham were in another waiting lounge upstairs. Lakshmi and Deepika had told us that their flight to Bengaluru was very late in the night, at about 11:00pm or so. When they went to ask for advancement in their flight, they got to know that Deepika was to fly with us at 4:00pm or so and only Lakshmi had to wait for so long. Leaving Lakshmi alone, I, Supreeth, Deepika and Purushotham boarded our flight with Srivardhan in the next one.

Living with 17 absolute strangers (Supreeth excluded, of course) for 10 days was not a first in my life. But not bathing for 10 days was definitely a first in my life! Even after four months, we all are still in touch, thanks to WhatsApp and Facebook! Supreeth searched and finally found his song that turned out to be in Marathi; song called Mala Ved Laagale Premaache. I don’t know how it would have turned out if we had been on Chadar trek, but I am glad I was on this epic trip. This is just a prologue to my next trip to this heaven on Earth.

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