14th August 2010, Leh.
A little more preamble than usual is required for this email, so please bear with me.
I am writing from Leh in Ladakh, and for those of you who have heard of the natural disaster to befall the area and have been concerned about me, you will realise by now that I am alive and well. For those of you that haven't heard, at approximately 0030hrs on 6th of August a "cloudburst" caused severe landslides, wiping out a significant proportion of the city, and a further twenty plus villages in Ladakh. The final death toll is as yet uncertain, but I think it's fair to say it will exceed 1,000.
I'd been composing this email as I went, so the first half is incredibly trivial compare to the second, and I shall send the two halves separately.
After enjoying my birthday in the near-comatose village of Kasol, it was time to return to Manali, and arrange transport to Leh in Ladakh. Two bumpy and crowded bus rides, and seven or so hours later, I was back in Manali. Within half an hour of arriving I had my onward transport arranged; a two-day trip by minibus to Leh starting the following morning. I'd entered the last month of my time in India, so didn't want to delay any further, as it sounded like Ladakh had so much to offer.
Despite the 0630 pickup time, it was just before eight once we had everyone on board and hit the road. I had experienced the first section of the journey before, on my way to Spiti - but I'd forgotten just quite how many stalls there were along the way renting fur coats and scabby ski suits - and their random numbering, as shop number 86 sat between shop number 1085 and shop number 236. It must make things very confusing when returning the hire gear. Judging by how little snow was on the pass now, these shops would soon be going out of business until the autumn.
Surprising to me, although I guess it makes sense, was how much of a worse condition the Rhotang Pass was in. Last time we passed huge, dirty snowdrifts alongside the road, but these had now mostly melted - and the resulting water had all but melted the road in places. Some sections were so muddy that lorries had serious trouble negotiating them. Khaki-clad BRO (the road builders) officers armed with walkie-talkies co-ordinated efforts, holding back the rest of the traffic while a truck skidded and wheel-spinned around a particularly tricky corner. Local vendors were capitalising on the daily traffic jams, some bringing heaps of corn to sell, others with trays of channa, spicy chickpeas, while some shifty-looking characters sidled up to the stationery vehicles producing pots of saffron for sale. The "snow line" - a very popular attraction for domestic tourists - had now been reduced to an embarrassingly small snow drift, where men peddled pony rides and a handful of Indian tourists posed for photos.
Six hours into the trip we entered new territory for me, still following the Chandra River through the Lahaul Valley, but in the opposite direction to last time. The mountains were very green, and already I was comparing it unfavourably to the delightfully stark scenery I'd seen on my journey to Spiti. At Tandi we turned away from the Chandra, and started following the Bhagha River, and the scenery began to get more rugged, which pleased me. The sun had slipped down behind the mountains, but we still had a lot of ground to cover before we reached camp, and the going was slow. In some places the road was immaculate tarmac, but in others spots its condition was appalling. Frustratingly the views were getting better as the light failed. At one point we turned a corner on a high pass, where the last rays of the sun just tipped the mountaintops, to be greeted by the almost full moon peeking from between the peaks.
We were treated to a beautiful sunset, and then the blue of the sky began to darken as we continued on the high mountain pass. We passed a lake, stopping for pictures of the moon reflected on it, and continued on our way to Baralacha La, which peaks at just below 5000 metres. It was full dark now, but still we had hours to go before we reached the camp at Sarchu. I am convinced that we hit the best scenery of the day once it was too late to enjoy or photograph it, but I shall have to test that theory when I travel back to Himachal Pradesh. The first "luxury camp" we tried at Sarchu was full. The driver explained that while there are six or so in total, this was the cheapest - some charging truly extortionate rates for a night under canvas. We pulled in to the next camp, which charged Rs500 per head for two people sharing a tent - more than I like to pay for a room. Admittedly the tents did have proper camp beds, blankets and astoundingly an en suite flushing toilet. Often, in these parts, when you enquire about the toilet you receive the reply "the toilet is open" . . . meaning in the open - go wherever!
I shared a tent with an Italian woman, and we both declined to pay Rs250 for a dinner of rice and dahl (which was by all accounts pretty foul). In our tired state neither of us thought to ask what time we were setting off in the morning, and consequently we were rudely awaken a while before seven and told that we were late, the mini bus was packed and ready to go. The driver had the arse, and refused to put our bags on top (fortunately a man from the campsite did it for us), or tie them on (again, campsite man to the rescue) or cover them with the tarpaulin. He pointed to his watch as he ticked me off for my tardiness . . . then went and had a cup of tea while we all waited in the vehicle, engine running. A case of exerting his authority, I think; I don't wait for you, you wait for me. Once he'd made his point we were off.
The second day delivered more of the dramatic scenery I'd been hoping for; stark, rugged mountains, impossibly large, with the tiny ribbon of the road winding through them, the puffs of dust thrown up by far off vehicles marking the route. At one point we crossed a dry lake, 35 km in diameter, surrounded by mountains. Here and there herds of yaks grazed, while the wind whipped up willy willys, small twisters of sand. The blue sky was filled with little fluffy clouds, like a child would draw. Unfortunately those little clouds decided to huddle together into one big one, and we even thought it might rain (which sent me scrambling up onto the roof next pee stop to retrieve my laptop from my uncovered pack). The rocks became more colourful - green here, red there - and the peaks more jagged. The further into Ladakh we got, the better the roads became. The driver increased his speed as we hit the tarmac, and we passed numerous white stupas (Buddhist monuments), and settlements, with monasteries perched precariously above them. After the remoteness of Spiti I was surprised at how developed Ladakh was - it's still empty compared to the rest of India mind. Either side of the Indus River is vibrantly green cultivated land - Ladakh has a very short growing season, so they must make the most of summer, ensuring they have enough supplies to get them through winter.
Finally our epic journey was over - we'd made it to Leh. The driver washed his hands of us at the bus stand, and I joined a few of the other passengers in catching a cab to the Changspa area of the city, which I was assured was much nicer and quieter than the centre, but still in easy walking distance. Tiredness and the high altitude made the usual trudge around looking for a room tough, but I eventually found a nice room; basic, but large and clean, and with a handy recessed set of shelves. Cupboards and drawers are dangerous when travelling, and I seldom use them for fear of leaving something behind, but shelves, hooks and tables are always handy. From my window I could just spy the snowy tops of far off mountains through some trees. Although a little chilly in the evenings (around 20 degrees most nights), I enjoyed leaving my window open and listening to the sound of a nearby stream, rushing on its way down the mountain.
Determined not to be Leh-zy during my time in Leh'd back Leh (okay, okay, I'll stop it now . . . without further de-Leh!) I went out the following day in search of activities - and there are certainly plenty to chose from here, from white-water rafting to mountain climbing, and of course the obligatory trekking. Treks can last from a couple of days to a few weeks; they can be easy strolls enjoying the countryside to hardcore, gruelling hikes with ice-picks and mountaineering gear required. I knew I wanted to do one that erred on the easy side, and browsed the signs stuck to the windows of the numerous travel agents: "two people wanted for 8-day Markha Valley trek, apply within".
Still undecided I happened across a bicycle hire shop called Summer Holiday, which I'd read about in my guidebook. I enquired about their downhill cycling expedition, where they transport you to the 5602 metre peak of Khardung La and then you roll back down. It sounded like my sort of cycling trip, so when I discovered they had one going the next day I signed up. Not far from there I found a motorbike rental shop, where I negotiated to hire a 350cc Enfield Bullet for the following five-days so I could explore the stunning countryside under my own steam . . . plus satisfy that overwhelming urge I've had of late to have something big and throbbing between my legs, fnarr fnarr!
After breakfast the next day I went to Summer Holiday, a little earlier than ten, when they had told me to turn up. The trip began in true Indian style, as we didn't get going until just before midday. I sat and chatted to a few of my fellow mountain-bikers until it was time to jump in the minibus and set off. It was a long and winding road up to the top, but nicely paved for about half the way, until the South Pullu army base, which marks the beginning of the restricted zone. From there on the road was very rocky, with melt water streaming across it in a number of places, as we were now above the snow line. It took almost two hours to reach the summit, and I wasn't the only one wondering if I had bitten off more than I could chew. The weather was overcast, and the ominous clouds threatened rain. Without the heat of the sun it was very chilly, especially when we reached Khardung La and alighted the minibus. A sign told us that this was the highest motorable road in the world, but I have been reliably informed that is untrue, as there are many higher in Tibet - but still, at over five and a half kilometres above sea level, it was damned high.
After a hot cup of spiced black tea I set off, tentatively at first, riding the brakes and wobbling over the stones. I soon realised that it was best to pedal through the puddles, after nearly falling off a couple of times - the only downside of that was considerable splashing, and within twenty minutes my trousers were soaked and covered in oil . . . and will have to be discarded. By that time though I'd got into the swing of things, and was having great fun. I bumped and jolted my way down the switchbacks, looking back at the road and being surprised at how far I'd come already. The sun came out as I hit the tarmac, which lit up the treeless countryside beautifully, bringing out the subtle colours in the rocks. The improved road surface meant I could enjoy my surroundings, rather than constantly stare at the road ahead as I sailed down the mountain, happy as a sandboy. It was a very enjoyable experience, and I might even have another go before I leave. It also helped me to feel more confident about hiring a motorbike. Whilst I've had my license since the early nineties, it's been a good twelve years since I rode regularly.
The next morning I picked up my Enfield Bullet Roadster, somewhat nervously I might add. Whilst the mountain bike had raised my confidence levels, I was still a bit apprehensive - they look bloody big and heavy bikes up close, maybe it would be too much for me? I told myself to stop being a big wuss, and took the bike out for a very wobbly test drive, dodging the multitude of army vehicles that clog up the town's roads, and keeping an eye out for dogs, children and dozy foreigners wandering aimlessly in the centre of the street. It wasn't too long before I was wobbling less and smiling more, and feeling more relaxed in the saddle. I took a few back streets to avoid the worst of the traffic, then headed halfway up the road I'd cycled down the previous day to get used to the bike.
I spent the rest of the day raising my confidence and enjoying being on two wheels: the feel of the wind in my helmet, the loud chugging of the engine, a sense of freedom. I visited a few stupas and monasteries locally, including Spituk, which sits just past a sizeable army base; military bases pepper the countryside around here. Whilst Ladakh is divorced from the trouble in the rest of the state, it is technically in Kashmir, and I guess its proximity to the border with Pakistan makes the military presence necessary. The weather wasn't the best, and it even rained a little, so I didn't stray too far. The hairiest moment I had was when a cow bolted out in front of me, forcing me to brake hard. I'm not sure who would have come off worse, but I figured I'd be in a whole heap of trouble if I hurt a holy cow. The low centre of gravity of the bike meant that the weight was quite manageable - it was the kick-start that gave me the most trouble. When the bike was warm it started second kick, but in the mornings it sometimes took as many as twenty kicks to get it started . . . and with the thinner air, that left me panting.
On my second day I rode to a place called Chilling, which sits along the beautiful Zanskar Valley. Most of the side road had been newly tarmaced, and with very little traffic it was a dream to ride along. I took my time, admiring the spectacular scenery along the way, the alternate red and green stripes of the jagged rocks. I stopped a fair bit for photos, being careful not to let the side stand sink into the newly surfaced road; had the bike fallen over, I’d have had a hell of a job to get it upright again. About half way along the tarmac ran out, and the road became bumpier, and had been nibbled away by erosion in places. At Chilling I turned round and made my way back, passing groups of packhorses, which are used for trekking. I sat for a while by the Zanskar River, skimming stones on its surface, and easing the tension in my back from riding. It was a great day out. I began to daydream - I could get a Bullet when I returned home, learn how to maintain it, and one day ride overland to India. Now that would be an adventure . . . and I'd been wondering what to do for my mid life crisis!
The following day I chose a more challenging destination, although I didn't realise it at the time. I headed off in the same direction as the previous day, continuing on past the turn off to Zanskar. The main road was in great condition, and I chugged along, keeping an eye out for rocks in the road. Some of these are the naturally occurring results of small landslides, but others are down to thoughtless drivers. It is the norm here, when stopping your vehicle, to chock the wheels with stones as an extra back up to the handbrake - however most drivers then just drive over the stones when they're ready to move on, rather than throwing them back to the side of the road out of harm's way. Large stones are also used to mark off sections of the road that are being worked on by BRO - the Border Roads Organisation. I always did drive defensively, but here it's essential. You have to expect everything to pull out in front of you too, especially trucks, as invariably they will.
When I got to the town of Basgo the great road disintegrated into a rocky mess, where they were widening the road, with bumpy, narrow sections and sticky patches of mud in places. I kept my nerve as the back end slid this way and that, gently accelerating out of trouble. My bike was slipping gears, which didn't help; the confidence I'd had in it the day before was fading somewhat. I quietly folded up my dreams from the previous day, and stuffed them into an over full drawer in my mind marked "Pipe dreams - never going to happen". I was aiming for a town named Alchi, and was not far from the turnoff. I'd just passed through the village of Saspol, on a bumpy, bendy section of the road. My bike slipped out of gear and then stalled on a blind bend. I looked up at the bus heading straight for me, and frantically pushed the bike into a stupa-lined lay-by - fortunately the condition of the roads meant that everything was moving so slowly I was never in any danger, although I’ll admit that my pulse quickened a bit. I went to start the bike to continue on my way, but couldn't - this time the kick-start was jammed in place and would not budge.
I gave it a few minutes, pumping the decompression lever like I'd been shown, but nothing. My limited (or should that be non-existent) mechanical knowledge meant there was no way I was getting the bike started, so I walked back to the village and asked some women if I could use their phone to call the hire company. I spoke to the owner's wife, who told me that she'd send a replacement bike out to me, but I should expect to wait at least an hour an a half. I returned to the bike, figuring that it would be a good two hours before I saw anyone. I've learnt to be a lot more patient in India, so the wait wasn't too bad for the first couple of hours - but once I'd been there for three hours I'd had enough. Eventually the owner and his mechanic arrived, explaining that they'd had a puncture on the way, so I couldn't really be annoyed at them. I took the spare bike they'd brought me, and left them and their spanners with my abandoned one. I had a quick look around Alchi Gompa then returned to Leh without incident.
I spent the rest of my time with the bike visiting some of the other monasteries in the area, including Shey, Hemis and Thiksey. At Thiksey I had tea with a monk - he'd beckoned me down, as I was about to leave the monastery, inviting me into his small but cosy quarters. He made me some milk tea, and forced custard creams upon me as we sat on the floor and chatted. It was a cool and unexpected experience. By my fifth day of hire I was knackered. My legs were bruised (plus burnt where I accidentally tipped the exhaust pipe), my hands blistered and my back and neck kept cramping painfully. I'd had heaps of fun on two wheels, but I was happy enough to return the bike and have a rest.
Whilst visiting the Zanskar Valley on the bike, I had seen a number of groups rafting on both the Zanskar and Indus River. I'd tried white water rafting once before, in Africa, and hadn't enjoyed it much, but decided to give it another go. The day started in the usual haphazard fashion: wait around for half an hour here, hang around there for a bit longer. Eventually though we were on our way to Chilling, the put-in point for the rafts. We were given shortie wet suits, life jackets and helmets, and given a surprisingly comprehensive safety briefing before jumping in our inflatable boat and setting off. With me were three young cloggies, a lovely 50-something Israeli woman called Orly and four domestic tourists from Bangalore, in the south of India, and our Nepali rafting guide, who's job it was to shout directions and steer.
In Africa I'd lost count of the times we'd ended up in the water - pretty much every rapid, if my memory serves me well. Here however it was a different story - the aim was most definitely to stay in the boat. The water is around ten degrees centigrade, and I learnt on my way downstream that a few people have died from hypothermia whilst rafting the Zanskar River, having fallen in the water; I'm glad I didn't know that beforehand, as I'm sure it would have been enough to put me off. The river flowed fast enough for us to relax between rapids, and let the current take us. As we approached each roaring rapid, we'd frantically paddle forwards, backwards or hold on, as instructed by our guide. A young Nepali lad in the safety kayak paddled ahead of us, warning where the whirlpools were - as it is these that can prove most dangerous. There were plenty of refreshing splashes from the river as we passed through the white water, and a great deal of fun was had by all.
So by now I'd ticked off a number of adventurous activities in Ladakh, but I still hadn't got around to trekking. Orly had tried to talk me into doing the Marka Valley trek with her and her friends, but it was a little longer than I fancied. My initial plan had been to hire the bike for five days have a day's rest and then get the trekking arranged - I figured this would give me ample time to acclimatise to the altitude before going any higher. Once I'd handed the bike back I'd spoken to the friendly, helpful guys in the travel agency/internet cafe connected with my guest house, figured out which trek I wanted to do, and they had then put a sign in the window to attract more trekkers. With hindsight, this was a mistake. What I should have done was joined up with someone else's trek, as after three days there were still no definite takers, just a few people who might be interested.
On the fourth day I attempted to rectify my mistake, telling the guys to take the sign down, and went in search of a suitable trek that I could join. In was in my hunting that I discovered that the trek I'd intended doing was currently impassable, as three bridges had been washed away by the rain the previous night. There had been a fair bit of rain here of late, especially when you consider that Ladakh is supposed to be a high altitude desert. I also discovered that the road to Manali was "broken" - from what I could gather, it was Rhotang Pass that was the main fly in the ointment - and considering how muddy it had been twelve days earlier when I'd journeyed to Leh, I could well believe it. This information gave me pause for thought; while my flight to Nepal was still a couple of weeks away, I didn't want to find myself stranded in Leh. A few treks I found that would have suited me would be returning to Leh in seven days time . . . but would that be cutting it fine to get back to Delhi?
In the end I decided to postpone my trekking (sorry Chris, but you're going to have to come out to Ladakh with me sometime and we'll go trekking then). Instead I opted for a shared, overnight jeep trip to Pangorn Lake (or Tso Pangorn, to give it its Tibetan name), and planned to take a three day trip back to Manali via Tso Moiri, another of Ladakh's famed lakes. At least this way I'd get to see some more of the wonderful landscapes of Ladakh, and hopefully get the dodgy roads behind me without cutting it too fine for my flight. I did a fair bit of soul searching, and I think my motives for scrubbing the trek were genuine, not merely laziness, although I'm not entirely convinced.
At least that was the plan.