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Uleytokpo - Lamayuru – Leh (eventually)

Closed monasteries, impounded by the army and huge landslides

semi-overcast 30 °C
View Mountains, monasteries and much more - Lakakh and Kashmir 2013 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Initially this morning the road was nice and smooth and new, then turned into a rough dirt track. After a bad dream last night, in which I was pushed off a steep cliff, I felt uncomfortable on the steep sided hair-bend roads this morning. At Khaltsi Police Check Post, the driver took our passports and went off in a truck. After several minutes he came back again and we were on our way.

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The old bridge with the new one under construction

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One that didn't make it

The next stretch of road saw literally hundreds of army trucks on the move – in the opposite direction! With such a narrow road, which in places was covered by rocks from landslides or part of road having collapsed into the ravine below, it made for slow going.

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This does not look like a safe workplace.

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It seems improbably that a road could be built in these sorts of landscapes. But it was.
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And then the road deteriorated again, with a danger of avalanche. Great!

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Most of the road workers we saw in this region were women.

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Moonland
The scenery here has more in common with the lunar landscape than any other place on earth. Being in a complete rain-shadow region, cut off from the monsoon clouds by the Great Himalayas and a host of subsidiary ranges, it is a cold high altitude desert where the wind, water from the minimal winter snows, and chemical reactions within the rocks themselves, have carved a fantastic, sometimes grotesque, landscape. Described as part fantasy, part reality, this is where the powers of nature colluded to furnish a magical chimerical landscape full of extremes: parched desert and shimmering blue lakes, fiery sun and freezing winds, dramatic glaciers and rolling sand dunes - a primeval battleground of the titanic forces which gave birth to the Himalayas.

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Lamayuru
Lamayuru is one of the most holy sites in Ladakh. Legend has it that around the 1st century BC, at the time of the first (founding) Buddha, Lamayuru Valley used to be a beautiful clear lake, resided over by the King of Nagas (holy serpents) and his retinue. Predictions suggested that the lake would eventually dry up, making way for the construction of a Buddhist monastery. Later, in the 11th century, a crack in the hillside surrounding the lake appeared, said to be formed by a Buddhist scholar who sat for many years in a cave, meditating. Through this crack, the lake started to drain and when all the water was gone, a dead lion was found lying half way down the rocky banks. On the same spot, the first temple of the area was constructed, known as the Sengye Gang (Lion Mound). The temple is known as the “Oldest House of Faith” in Ladakh and is believed to have been wrecked and reconstructed several times.

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Lamayuru Monastery belongs to the Kagyupa Order of Buddhism (one of the three Red Hat sects) and houses approximately 150 Buddhist monks. The monastery is made up of a number of shrines and also has one of the finest collection of thangkas (painted and embroidered scrolls), frescoes and carpets in the region.

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When we got there, we found the monastery closed because of terrorist attack on Bodhgaya (the holiest place for Buddhists, where the Lord Buddha attained enlightenment), and all the monks at Lamayuru were holding prayers. As we walked around the stupa, turning each prayer wheel for world peace, I found myself welling up at the thought of man's cruelty to man.

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Back to Leh we go then. Or so we thought. This really was one of the most incredible roads we've ever been on! Plenty of road works happening to delay our journey and the road surface was of varying quality.

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Back at the police check, the driver is not happy, but he did come back and carried on further. But not for long.

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Travelling through Khaltse village, everything was closed “because of a problem” the driver explained. When we got to the military camp and check point, all became clear. Following yesterday's terrorist attack, all vehicular movement has ceased between 10:00 and 16:00. We missed it by 20 minutes. So, we were stuck at a military camp for almost six hours, with nothing to do. Mind you, it was better than being caught up in a terrorist attack, That explains all the army trucks we saw earlier! Over the next hour or so, more and more vehicles turned up - the huge Tata trucks, public buses, tourist vehicles, local cars and motorbikes. I am not quite sure what closing the road between 10:00 and 16:00 is going to achieve – I can only think of two possible reasons: 1. sheer hysteria, and 2. they've received some sort of intelligence/information pertaining to this area. The army general explains “it's for your own safety”. Of course, photography was strictly forbidden.

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We spent our time sleeping, writing my journal, chatting to other travellers and the army officials, snacking, reading and generally feeling hot, frustrated and bored. Mid-afternoon David wandered over to Mr Officious the too-big-for-his-boots army general to ask what the estimated time of departure was (at one stage it was rumoured we'd have to spend the night there!). His answer was “pwoah” “pardon?” “pwoah”. Shake of head “I don't understand...” One of the locals came to David's rescue and 'translated' the reply to “four”. How to upset someone who's already got an attitude problem!

I was really quite surprised to find a reasonably clean ladies' toilet in the army camp, as I never saw a single female soldier in India.

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At around twenty to four, the excitement started to rise, as people began to return to their vehicles. “Gentlemen start your engines!” Horn Please”! As expected, total chaos ensued. Most people were going the opposite direction to us, and trying to turn left out of the compound turned out to be a little problematic. From here the road was quite reasonable and we were making good time. There were a few road works along the way, but nothing major. We should be back in Leh in not time. With the wind in our hair, beautiful scenery all around, no restriction on photography and the open road ahead, life was good again.

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Just as we thought we were doing so well, we get stuck in another traffic jam. There are about a dozen or so vehicles in front of us, and a soldier carrying an AK57 rifle (confiscated from Pakistani 'terrorists' in Ladakh he tells us later) goes running down the road. We decide to follow (at a much more leisurely pace, I hasten to add; and minus the gun!) to find out what's going on.

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There's been a landslide a few minutes ago, with a huge boulder (and many smaller rocks) tumbling onto the road from the sheer rock face above, probably dislodged by the nearby road works. The rock is too large to move with a bulldozer, so after considerable discussions, dynamite is called for.

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Of course, this means that the first 15 or so vehicles in the queue need to be evacuated in case the explosion dislodges more rocks. Trying to turn that many cars on an already narrow road, with a line of vehicles one side of the road and a sheer drop into the river on the other, is not the easiest of manoeuvres.

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The explosion is huge, and can be heard several kilometres away! After another 15 minutes or so of clearing the debris, we're on our way, although there is now total bedlam again with two lines of cars (everyone wants to be first!) going down hill and trucks trying to come uphill.

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The truck can't quite make it past the rubble.

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Clearing away a few rocks for the truck to pass.

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The bus is through.

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Almost our turn - this is very slow progress!

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Still holding the red warning flag from the explosion, a worker stands on the rocks brought down by the avalanche.

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We're through! Finally!

For a while the journey was uneventful, despite the worry of seeing skid marks across the road, over the edge and into the ravine below; and the driver frequently taking both his hands off the steering wheel to adjust his sunglasses on the bendy road. The late afternoon light casting long shadows from the craggy mountains and a warm glow over the peaks took my mind off it to some extent.

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Shanti Stupa

Finally we reached our hotel and discover that Leh has been in total lock-down over the last two days because of the terrorist attack, with all the monasteries, markets, shops and restaurants closed. We were told that a mini-riot had broken out, with people smashing windows to get to food as they hadn't eaten for two days! Looks like we picked the perfect time to be out of town.

As there was no power, hence no hot water, we decided to pop into town and ring my dad then go for dinner. The first public call box we tried managed to connect me, I could hear my dad say “hello”, but he couldn't hear me and after the initial connection the line went dead. I tried three times before moving on to the next place. The next two places could not be use the phone because of the power cut. Our new mobile phone has not had any credit added to it yet, as the shop has been closed for the last two days! Mr Din (the incredibly kind shop keeper who has been sorting the phone for us) kindly let me use his mobile to ring my dad.

Not having eaten anything (other than a few plain biscuits and some sweets) since breakfast, we were very hungry, so popped to the Chopsticks Noodle Bar for dinner. They informed us that tonight they would only be serving vegetarian food, which was no problem to us. We chose a combination of Chinese, Indian and Tibetan food and it was all very good, but we got surprisingly chilly sitting outside on the rooftop.

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Fried vegetable momos

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Szechuan Chilli Garlic Noodles

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Mixed Vegetables with Szechuan Sauce

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An interesting drink - salted fresh lime soda.

We were so hungry after not really eating all day, that we even had desserts!

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Banana Pancakes

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Chocolate chilli spring rolls

The power came on while we were there, but they had no wifi, so after we'd eaten we went in search of an internet café. The first one was full, the second one had problems with their connection, but we were third time lucky! I decided not to spend time trying to upload photos to my blog at this stage, as it can take up to several minutes per picture – just as well I didn't, as the power went again about 15 minutes after I logged on! This seems to be the story of this trip! Just as I was logging out, I felt a severe rumbling in my stomach and the floor started to move up and down on me. I knew I was very dehydrated as I didn't dare drink too much this afternoon (what goes in must come out), and now I also had the runs. Great! Just what I wanted for the long journey over the high passes tomorrow!

I downed a litre of water with rehydration powder added and felt a little better, but every time I laid down I started to cough. I seem to be very congested at the moment, wheezing with a rasping cough, and the altitude is not helping. As soon as we went to bed, the power went off again and stayed off most of the night, which meant none of our appliances got charged overnight.

Shouting, slamming of doors, barking dogs, stuffy hotel room, call to prayer at an unearthly hour of the morning – welcome back to civilisation! Give me the fresh air, solitude, wind rustling in the trees and bird song any day!

Posted by Grete Howard 12:20 Archived in India

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Comments

I'll see how much of that I can re create for you for that added sense of "adventure" whilst you are visiting...

Seriously, be safe!

by Homee

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