A Travellerspoint blog

July 2013

Srinagar - Mughal Gardens and Dal Lake

Gardens and Lakes

sunny
View Mountains, monasteries and much more - Lakakh and Kashmir 2013 on Grete Howard's travel map.

After a lazy late start (the only lie-in we've had so far on this trip – we didn't actaully leave the boat until 09:50) and a very nice breakfast of masala omelette and birthday cake – with David being very excited at being offered hot OR cold milk for his corn flakes (that's a first, cold milk has been almost impossible to get here in Ladakh and Kashmir – corn flakes with hot milk is a bit like... erm... porridge) we noticed a dead fish in the lake water just off the boat. I didn't realise the champagne was THAT bad! Poor little thing, but what a way to go!

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Ali, the trusted Shikara paddler (there are only hand paddled boats on the lake, not motorised craft) took us to a different ghat (dock) on the mainland this morning which meant we got to see some different parts of the lake.

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At the ghat Tariq was waiting in his Innova to show us around Srinagar.

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The Mughal Gardens
The famous gardens of Srinagar were the Mughal Emperors' concept of paradise, and still give pleasure to locals and tourists alike. The gardens which are based around the lake, were laid during 16-17th century and back then they numbered was about five hundred but now only a few of these have survived. The layout was broadly taken from the Persian gardens, consisting of three terraces with fountains & lined with Chinar trees. Each of the 3 terraces carried distinct importance, the first one being the public terrace; called the Diwan-e-Aam. The second terrace called the Diwan-e-Khas was accessible only to nobles or guests of the court. And the third & the highest terrace called as “Abode of Love" was reserved for the king and the royal ladies.

Chashmashahi
The first of the beautiful Mughal gardens we visited today, Chashme Shahi Garden (also known as Royal Spring), was founded in 1632 with a length of 108 meters and breadth of 38 meters making it the smallest among the famous Mughal gardens. Tariq was not only our driver, he also acted as a guide and came around the gardens with us. He spoke very good English and was a joy to be with.

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At the second level of the gardens, a photographer took pictures of us dressed in traditional Kashmiri costumes, which we could then collect later at the exit. It was quite hot in the outfits, but we certainly amused the locals!

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The natural springs near the top are said to be hot in winter and cold in summer. One of the things with Tariq, was that he always assumed that we wanted our photo taken everywhere we went, so we probably have more photos of both of us from this one day withTariq than all the other days put together. I suppose having their photo taken in front of various attractions is what Indian tourists do....

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Shalimar Bagh
Mughal garden in front of the Dal lake constructed by Emperor Jahangir in 1619 for his beloved wife Nurjahan, with four terraces, imposing fountains, well laid out manicured gardens, tall trees & fresh mountain air.

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As we were walking along the path by one of the little ponds, I suddenly felt a sharp pain in my leg. The another. At first I thought I'd been bitten, then it dawned on me that the strimmer was spewing out cuttings at the speed of light. They really quite hurt by the time they hit me!

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The gardens were very much 'under reconstruction' and I am sure they will be very nice when they are finished, but...... It didn't seem to put the thousands of Indian tourists off though.

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India is not known for its high standards of Health and Safety, and there were a few areas of these gardens that would probably have been condemned back home.

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Nishat Bagh
Situated on the banks of the Dal Lake, with the Zabarwan Mountains as its backdrop, this 'garden of bliss' was designed in 1633 by Asaf Khan, Nur Jahan's brotherand it is among the largest of the Mughal Gardens. It was also my favourite out of the three we visited today.

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Through the centre of the gardens, ran a little stream, with a series of cascades. Stepping stones and large slabs of rock acting as little 'bridges' allowed you to step from one side to the other, and was also used as props for Indian to photograph each other. And us. Every few yards we were stopped and asked by a group of Indians if they could have their photo taken with us. Initially it was just the brave young lads, then others jumped on the band wagon. We didn't really experience this so much in Ladakh (just on the odd occasion) but we have found it in some of the lesser touristy areas of India in the past.

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It was interesting talking to people in Ladakh about the fact that we were coming to Srinagar after – the opinion seemed to vary between: “Srinagar is so dangerous” and “Srinagar is so romantic”. I can't say I have found it particularly dangerous, not do I find these gardens especially romantic. But each to their own.

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Just as we were leaving, we were given a little rose bud each – for a small baksheesh of course.

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Arts and Crafts Emporium
We really thought we'd got away without having to do any shopping on this trip, but Tariq took us to the Arts & Craft Emporium where the carpets and shawls are mostly made by handicapped people – apparently some 8500 families are being helped by the work in this place. To be fair, the guy who showed us around did not put any great pressure on us to buy – we made it quite clear from the start that we weren't shoppers, but he insisted it “is a pleasure to show you around”.

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He explained that as today was a holiday, all his workers were off, but he was able to show us how each carpet has up to 600 'patterns' (the orange paper on the table), which is not written in Hindu or English, but in 'Carpet Language'. Each pattern is hand drawn completely by freehand, then the colours are added.

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Then of course he started to show us carpets, explaining about the various combinations of silk, cotton and yak wool. This gold and black carpet
This particular gold and black carpet took two people four and a half years to make.

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Because we so obviously weren't going to buy a carpet, the shawls came out, then the tablecloths (at my request). Unfortunately, all the tablecloths were square (and our table is rectangular), otherwise we might have bought something. I couldn't believe the amount of stock they kept – a huge room full of shawls, stacked from floor to ceiling.

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Back to the docks for the shikara ride to the houseboat for lunch, with a bit of bird watching along the way. Ali was always so good at slowing down when we saw something interesting and even turning the shikara around so that I could photograph the birds.

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When Mahmoud asked us yesterday after dinner if the food was OK as far as spiciness goes, I mentioned that I haven't yet found anything that has been too spicy for me, and when he brought our lunch today, he mentioned my 'challenge'. He made the dhal “very very spicy to suit madam” - it was still only a 7-8 on the Grete scale of spiciness, but it sure was delicious! We also had some aloo gobi (at David's request) and rice of course.
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Dal Lake
Later in the afternoon, we got Ali to paddle us around the lake. Affectionately known as “Venice of the East”, the “Kashmiri Venice” or Srinagar's Jewel, Dal lake is spread over 26 km²; partitioned in to four areas by four causeways and a myriad of inter-connecting channels.. The lake is an important source for fishing and water plant harvesting, and is part of a natural wetland which covers 21 km², including the floating gardens with its aquatic plants used as food, fodder and compost. These floating gardens, known as "Rad" in Kashmiri, are full of lotus blossom at this time of year. I loved the relaxing time, just watching the life on the water, with all its inhabitants – tourists, vendors, locals and workers.

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Where the lake opens up at the far end, several fountains are set into the water, and with the late afternoon sun, they created the most vivid and amazing rainbows I have ever seen!

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At this point Ali turned the shikara around and headed back into the sun.

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Taking a different route back to the houseboat, Ali showed us the 'floating market' and shopping district of the lake, with literally hundreds of shops on stilts at the edge of the water or in boats, paddling up alongside your boat, showing you their wares (and getting in my way for photography!).

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Further along, within an area that appears to be a maze of little canals, was the market gardens, where vegetables are grown - an area that was teeming with birds, including penguins. Penguins?

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With the narrow canals, this area seemed particularly busy with tourists, and we found ourselves being photographed constantly. At least this time we didn't have to actually DO anything, just sit there and look...arm... 'western'.

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Back at the houseboat we had a nice long chat with Ajaz, the owner, when the muezzin call to prayer could be heard, and Ajaz stopped mid-sentence with an "excuse me, I have to go for to break the fast". After 16 hours of not eating or drinking in this heat (Ramadan started a few days ago), I am not surprised about the urgency!

This being our last night in India, we had a love curry dinner, followed by half a night's sleep!

Posted by Grete Howard 09:32 Archived in India Comments (1)

Leh - Jammu - Srinagar

♪♫♫♪♫ I'm jammin' in Jammu, I hope you like jammin' too ♪♫♫♪♫

sunny 34 °C
View Mountains, monasteries and much more - Lakakh and Kashmir 2013 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Not a very good photos to writing ratio in today's blog I'm afraid, as most of the day was spent travelling.

Another early start this morning, leaving the hotel at 06:00 for the five minute drive to the airport. Really today was a day full of Indian bureaucracy – starting with the driver's paper being checked in order for us to even enter the compound of the airport, which is where the driver and the agent left us.

In order to enter the building, our papers were checked and again before all the luggage had to be x-rayed where David and I had to go through separate entrances (women get taken into a curtained cubicle for a pat-down, whereas the men are frisked in public). We were then able to check in at the Air India counter for our flight. For security reasons we were unable to check in all the way to Srinagar, despite the flight from Jammu also being Air India. Next came another security check, again with men and women having separate entrances, where all the carry-on luggage was x-rayed. Despite large notices stating that NO hand luggage was allowed on the plane, we were given the green light to take not just the camera bag as I expected, but also the large rucksacks. Of course, our passports and boarding cards were checked at this stage too. After another pat-down, all the luggage labels on the carry-n plus the boarding card were stamped and little squiggles added.

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We were now through to the departure area, where we had to go outside on to the tarmac to identify our checked in luggage against the luggage tags given at check in. Before we were even able to join the queue at the gate our boarding cards were checked, and at the gate the bag labels were again checked to ensure they'd been stamped, and the labels and the boarding cards were stamped once more. Ten yards later, we went through the same procedure again, with yet another stamp on the labels and boarding card. It was now time to board the sardine bus for the 50 metres to the aircraft.

I was asleep before the plane took of, woke up to take a few photos of the mountains we flew over, then was once again asleep when we landed. I woke up briefly on touch down but went straight back to sleep until it was time to de-plane.

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Collecting the luggage and leaving Jammu airport was painless, but it was when we tried to get back in to the departure lounge to check in for our next flight, that the problems started. It was now 09:00 and we were told we couldn't go in until 10:00. At this stage I really needed the toilet, so I tried to get back into the arrivals lounge, but no chance. Eventually, after a lot of pleading with the army official with the AK47, a very nice man took pity on me and showed us to some sort of VIP lounge where there were nice seats, a fan, a toilet and a snack bar.

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At 10:30 we went back to departures but were told we had to wait another ten minutes. By 10:50 they took pity on us and let us in, checking our tickets and passports of course. Again we went in separately, and I was asked to open my camera bag. A body scan followed and a pat-down. In order to enter the building, and all the luggage had to go through an x-ray. At this stage we were told to put any loose batteries in the check in, but I was told my big rucksack was fine for carry-on. When David's case came through, it was leaking a brown liquid – turns out a can of Diet Coke had burst. The checked in cases were wrapped with a sealing tape around the belly.

No check-in until 11:15 apparently, but when we were finally able to, it was very fast and efficient, almost casual. At this stage we were unable to carry on through security yet, as the notice board only stated “check in”. So we hung around for over half an hour until the board changed to “security check”. Men and woman separate of course, and the carry-on bags as well as my hat had to go through the x-ray. Another body scan and pat down. I was asked to open my rucksack as they found a couple of AA batteries in a little fan I had with me. They were confiscated. The insect bite cream (which I was told was “not permitted”) however, was placed back into the rucksack, buried deep in other stuff, with a huge grin. At this stage there was no sign of David, so I assumed he'd been sent back to check in with a bag or something that wasn't permitted as carry on (we did see several people being turned away with bags much smaller than ours. It was definitely a case of 'if your face fits'). Eventually he turned up, having been delayed by the number of men in the queue before him. Next came the luggage identification. My boarding card was checked as I left the building, the tags were checked against the luggage on the tarmac (and squiggles added – it seems they do a brisk trade of squiggles in the Indian airports), and my boarding card was re-checked by the same official before I was allowed back into the building.

When the flight finally departed (we were delayed 45 minutes), the boarding cards and luggage labels were checked and stamped at the gate, and just outside we went through another body scan and pat down and check/stamp of the boarding card – men and women separate of course. The boarding cards were again checked at the bottom of the steps to the plane. By the time we actually sat down in the plane, my boarding card had been checked 7 times, the hand luggage had been x-rayed 4 times and I'd been through 4 body scans and pat downs. To be sure to be sure.

When I got to my seat I discovered someone already sitting in my seat (I had the window seat) but as it made no difference to me, I let him sit there. He was the same chap that had tried to jump the queue at check in and been sent to the end of the line by another angry passenger. I got my own back though - as soon as we landed in Srinagar he started to get up well before the plane had even stopped, let alone the seatbelt sign switched off; and he was so keen to get out of his seat before anyone had even started to move along the aisle. I deliberately stayed in my seat until the very last minute when everyone else had left the plane. By this time I could see him getting more and more impatient. Revenge is so sweet.

On entering the arrivals hall, we were immediately given a foreigner registration form – they weren't doing a brisk trade in the forms, we were the only westerners on the flight so I suppose we did stick out like sore thumbs. When handing in the form near the exit of the hall, we were told we'd filled it in wrong – it seems despite being part of Jammu and Kashmir state, Ladakh is not really considered Kashmir. Oh well.

Outside the hall we saw a man with a sign saying “Mr David” and we wondered if that might be us, until we saw another sign with “Mr Grete”. That was definitely us. We were led to a mini-bus which was quite hard to get in to, especially as I seem to have injured my wrist at some stage today, not being able to put any weight on it. The large bags were just placed on top of the vehicle – not secured down in any way - and we were off through the awful traffic in Srinagar. Every few hundred yards, were armed police or soldiers with AK47s. I thought there was a lot of police and army presence in Ladakh, but it was nothing compared with here. Srinagar has a totally different feel to Leh, the people are not as open or immediately friendly, but we didn't experience any hostility either. It's a very Muslim town and there were lots of women with the full veil on the streets.

Srinagar
Srinagar, famous for its gardens, is the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir state. The history of Srinagar is said to date back some 2000 years, but it has 'only' been the capital of Kashmir for just over 1000 years. The city is very proud of its nine old bridges spanning the Jhelum River, connecting the two parts of the city. The name Srinagar literally means 'the city of wealth & abundance' in Sanskrit.

Unfortunately, for a number of years, this predominantly Muslim area has been in conflict and as a result, Kashmir featured on the Foreign Office's “Don’t go there” list, meaning it was out of bounds for tourists (at least if you wanted to be sensible and for the insurance to cover you. To this day it is only Ladakh, Srinagar and Jammu within the Kashmir region that is considered “safe” by the FCO). Although Sinagar city has become a safer destination in the last few years, the streets are still lined with armed soldiers. Any valued building is protected by a sandbag bunker and razor wire. In February, three people were killed and over 50 others (including 23 policemen), were injured in clashes between protesters and law enforcing agencies in the wake of the hanging of Afzal Guru who was convicted of the 2001 Parliament attack . I suppose the rape and murder of the young British girl on a houseboat on Dal Lake in the city in April this year, did nothing for the reputation of Srinagar as a safe destination.

Srinagar is at an altitude of only 1600 m above sea level, and it is a bit of a relief to be able to breath easily again.

At one of the many ghats (docks) on the side of the lake, we were greeted by Mahmoud, who is to be our 'butler' for the next few days. Mahmoud was sweet natured, extremely helpful and kind, and he assisted us in transferring us and the luggage to a little paddle boat (a little like the gondolas in Venice) called shikara for the transfer to our houseboat.

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The transfer was reasonably quick - our houseboat appeared to be moored on a little island just off shore, the opposite side to the ghat. We got our first glimpse of life on the lake - people, birds and boats.

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Black bellied tern
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Little Egret

Houseboats
Our main reason (actually, our only reason if I am honest) for travelling to Srinagar, was to stay on one of the elegant houseboats which the city is famous for. I remember seeing pictures of these ornate floating hotels in brochures back in the 1980s and hoping one day to have the pleasure to stay in one. Many of the intricately carved houseboats were built in the early 1900s for the Raj as summer retreats from the heat of the Indian plains. Others later became home to these people after they were denied land grants in the state. An idea that started from constructing small boats was later revolutionised with transforming these boats into spacious modern styled floating hotels. Houseboats are all made of the finest cedar wood with intricate walnut wood carvings, panelled walls and tiled baths. The houseboats do not actually float free around the lake, but are anchored off-shore, and are accessible either by road, or by a short "Shikara" boat ride (gondola-like taxi boats). The whole shoreline of the lake (15.5km / 8.6 miles) is lined with decorated houseboats.

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Our boat has two bedrooms, and we debated long and hard before booking if we should pay a small additional sum and book the whole boat to ourselves. Sharing – mostly likely to be an Indian family as domestic tourists far outnumber foreign visitors – could be fun and educational if our cohabitants spoke English and were the social, friendly types, but could equally be highly embarrassing as has been the case in the past with Indian tourists staring, giggling and wanting their photo taken with you every five minutes. In the end we settled for a bit of privacy, especially as today is David's birthday. We also decided we may very well be feeling totally antisocial ourselves by this stage, or in need of total relaxation after a week at high altitude.

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The boat was a little bit of luxury at the end of the trip, as not only did we have two bedrooms to ourselves, there was also a fine dining area and a lounge cum sitting room, a large front seated balcony, and a small kitchenette. The boat also had a 24 hour power back up (albeit at reduced power, not always enough to work the fan), modern plumbing and clean water supply, plus of course Mahmoud and his two helpers who would cook and take care of us during your entire stay. There was also a small shikara (paddle boat) that was “placed under our command” to take us out into the open lake or across to the mainland.

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When we arrived, Mahmoud brought coffee and home made cakes. I have become really hooked on the Indian milky coffee, which is really unlike me as I am not keen on milk in anything usually. It must be the sweetness of it - I am sure it has tons of sugar in it!

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We spent the afternoon lazing on the balcony at the front of the boat, watching life go by on the lake, with shikaras ferrying tourists around, traders with their wares and locals going about their daily business.

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From the balcony we could see a wide variety of birds passing by, including the magnificent Brahmany Kite and even a Kingfisher stopped by.

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Later we opened a small bottle of champagne I'd brought with me from Bristol to celebrate David's birthday. Imagine our horror when we realised that the champagne had actually gone off and tasted like vinegar. That is just so typical, as I'd managed to secretly carry it all the way from home and then having to pour it into the lake.

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As the champagne was off we moved on to the Duty Free Morgan's Spiced. We were one Diet Coke short (as it had split open on the first flight this morning), but not to worry - there are lots of shops floating by, you just have to signal and they'll bring you their wares to your houseboat. Also, as soon as he realised we wanted Diet Cokes, Mahmoud managed to get us some more to put in the fridge for tomorrow.

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We were just relaxing nicely when a young Australian couple turned up, back from their day trip, and walking on to our boat. As I thought we had the houseboat to ourselves, I was rather surprised to find there were actually THREE rooms on the boat and the Australians were in the one right at the back. They were no trouble at all though, in fact they were really sweet and kept themselves to themselves even more than we did.

We stayed outside on the deck until after the sun had gone down.

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Mahmoud arranged dinner at a time to suit us, and we had complete carte blanche as to what we wanted to eat, making it very difficult to choose. In the end we settled for a most delicious spicy roast chicken (probably the best roast chicken I have ever had), with some roast potatoes, mutton in curry sauce, vegetable curry and rice (with a bit of prompting from Mahmoud); followed by a chocolate birthday cake complete with candles!

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After dinner we went back out on the balcony for some time after dark, just watching the lights on all the houseboats reflecting in the lake.

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Posted by Grete Howard 03:34 Archived in India Comments (2)

Leh - Khardung La - Leh

Higher than high!

sunny 27 °C
View Mountains, monasteries and much more - Lakakh and Kashmir 2013 on Grete Howard's travel map.

After the problems I encountered at Chang La Pass, I was advised not to undertake today's journey to Khardung La Pass. But being defiant, I drank lots of water with electrolytes overnight and took some Diamox and set off with the driver this morning.

As we started to climb towards the pass, the view of Leh Palace was amazing. How bloody difficult is it to understand “can you stop for a photo please?”
“Stop?”
“Yes please”
“Now?”
“Yes please”
Driver carries on...
“Can you stop please?”
“Today?”
“Yes, NOW”
Finally got through to him that I wanted to stop for a photo.

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Leh Palace

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Shanti Stupa

Today's journey to Khardung La is only actually 39 kilometers each way, but we climb over 2000 metres in that distance. Look at the road snaking its way up the mountains in these photos:

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At a viewpoint the driver stopped (voluntarily) for us to take some photos.

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Our trusty driver

Today's road leads to Nubra Valley and on towards the Pakistani border, so we had to show our passports and Special Permit at the 2nd police check (at the first, just the driver's papers were necessary) at Pullu. We also picked up a soldier at this point.

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Loved the motorbike with prayer flags!

The road to Khardung La was not as memorable itself as yesterday's, this is wider and less scary. The scenery is not as spectacular either, very barren with just the odd yak for company. As we climbed higher, the road got wider – a lot of construction work is going on, the plan is to widen the road to two car width and cover it with tarmac. You wouldn't think it would be possible to build a road at all here, let alone a wide tarmaced one. You've got to admire the engineers!

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Look at that road:

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As we climbed higher, my face started to tingle and I could feel the air was thinner to breathe in. I tried to practice the breathing method my dad was taught for his COPD – breathe in slowly through the nose, then out again even slower through the mouth, puckering your lips as if you are going to whistle. It seemed to do the trick. I was also drinking plenty of water with rehydration salts – better to endure the awful toilets than Acute Mountain Sickness!

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We've come a long way!

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When I said the road wasn't so scary......

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Ever upwards...

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Suddenly, without warning, we reached Khardung La. I don't know what I expected – some sort of pomp and circumstance? A fanfare? Whatever it was, initially K-Top as it is known, was a bit of an anticlimax. The place was quite dirty on the one side of the road, with a shrine on the other. From an aesthetic point of view, Chang La was much more pleasing.

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Khardung La Pass
Loftier than Everest base camp and the highest motorable road in the world, Khardung La Pass (K-top as it is popularly called) is 5,602 above sea level (18,380ft) – Everest Base Camp is a mere 5,364m.

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Let's put some perspective into the altitude of this place:
Khardung La Pass 5602
Everest Base Camp 5364
Vinson (highest peak in Antarctica) 4892
Mount Blanc (highest peak in Europe) 4810
Matterhorn 4478
Mount Elbert (highest peak in the Rockies) 4401
Galdhøpiggen (highest mountain in Norway) 2469
Kosciuszco (highest peak in Australia) 2228
Ben Nevis (highest peak in the UK) 1344

In other words, Khardung La Pass is higher than all of Europe, Australia and Antarctica; in USA, only Mount McKinley is higher, in Canada only Mount Logan stands taller, and Kilimanjaro is the only peak in Africa which exceeds Khardung La's elevation, but only by 189m. This place has some serious altitude!

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Helicopter circling above

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Built in 1976, the road was opened to motor vehicles in 1988 is maintained by the Border Roads Organisation - the pass is strategically important to India as it is used to carry supplies to the disputed Siachen Glacier area. Khardong La is also historically important as it lies on the major caravan route from Leh to Kashgar in Central Asia. About 10,000 horses and camels used to take the route annually, and a small population of Bactrian camels are still around – I was hoping to catch a glimpse of one but no such luck. During World War II there was an attempt to transfer war material to China through this route.

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One day last summer army and police had to rescue more than 400 people – tourists, labourers and locals - from the pass as a result of landslides triggered by heavy rain. They were stranded in sub-zero temperatures when a 10km stretch of road was cut off by landslides, trapping 150 cars.

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We were warned not to stay at the pass for any more than half an hour or so due to the thin air and lack of oxygen, and to take warm clothing as the temperatures drops drastically at this altitude, especially with the wind chill factor. I do remember that from the high altitude passes in Tibet.
My tingling face had by this time turned into pins and needles and spread down my neck, shoulders and arms, with the worst affected area being my fingertips. I felt very light-headed and my brain felt like it was rattling around in my head. It all got very much worse after squatting down in the disgusting toilet.

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The temple at the top (I wonder if this is the world's highest temple?) is a working shrine with a Ganesha idol where worshippers are requested to "pray for our brave soldiers and for the peace and longevity of our nation".

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Prayer flags
Each colour represents an element: blue (sky/space), white (wind/air), red (fire), green (water) and yellow (earth). Their purpose is for wind to blow prayers of harmony and happiness into the world.

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Time to make that journey back to Leh..

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Coming down we met a whole load of pedal cyclists – I take my hat off to them, the gradient may not be much as the road traverses the mountain, but they still climb a total of over 2,000 metres or 6800 feet. That's no mean achievement. Some companies in Leh offer a service where they drive you and the bikes to the top and you cycle back down. That sounds more like my kind of thing, although I not sure how safe I would feel on these roads.

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The car carries the bikes and riders to the top and they cycle back down again. Neat idea!

What do you do if the only road back to Leh is closed? Move the bollards of course.

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Get your ass off this road!

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Last stop of the day at Gompha Viewpoint with great views over the valley and Leh.

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The atmospheric pressure at altitude played havoc with David's water bottle.

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Today's main scare: coming down on a narrower stretch of road, with sand spreading in from the sides, we met a Jeep coming the other way. The driver braked hard, and started to skid towards the edge. Nothing happened, but it was a tense moment. We made it back to the 'lowlands' and Leh safe and sound though, even in time for a late lunch.

For lunch we tried out the hugely popular Gesmo Restaurant and their yak cheese pizza. We even bought some yak cheese to take back home with us.

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Mint, lemon and ginger juice - very refreshing!

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Yak cheese pizza at the front and Gesmo special in the back (chicken, boiled egg, oregano and sausage)

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Cutting the yak cheese for us to take away.

From there we went over to Mr Din's shop to pick up the mask he'd got for in especially for us. I have never known anyone so trusting: “you don't have to pay me now, you can pay me later”. “But we leave tomorrow morning”. “Yes, but you will be coming back to India in a couple of years' time?” Needless to say, we did pay him.

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Mr Din, the most helpful shopkeeper we've ever met on our travels. Check out their shop near the Dreamlands Hotel (DIN BROTHERS JEWELLERY).

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The ganesha mask fits in beautifully amongst all our other masks at home

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David tries on one of the beautifully soft pashiminas in Mr Din's shop.

After all the dusty roads, my shoes were looking a real mess, so I stopped to have them cleaned by a sweet shoe-shine boy from Rajasthan who'd come to Leh to escape the heat from the Indian plains.

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He did a very thorough job and my shoes looked immaculate afterwards - just in time for tomorrow's flight.

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Before we left home I made a list of restaurants we wanted to try out while we were in Leh, and this evening we went to Lamayuru. Next door to Gesmo, it was totally empty while we had lunch, whereas by this evening it was really busy, with people being turned away. The food was good but service was so-so.

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The biggest surprise was the Kashmiri Naan (centre) - stuffed with mixed melons! Clockwise from top left: peas pilau, gulab jamun, chicken do pyaza, chicken seekh kebab.

After dinner I went back to the room to update the blog, but found that the internet wasn't working. Typical!

Posted by Grete Howard 04:47 Archived in India Comments (1)

Pangong Lake - Changla Pass - Leh

What goes up must come down...

sunny 27 °C
View Mountains, monasteries and much more - Lakakh and Kashmir 2013 on Grete Howard's travel map.

I had been rather worried about sleeping at this altitude (4,350m / 14,270ft) as this is another first, but I needn’t have worried – I had the best sleep I've had since we arrived in Ladakh! David, on the other hand, had the worst sleep. All the other mornings I have been awake by 04:00 at the latest, but this morning I slept in until 06:00 and missed an amazing sunrise apparently.

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I may not have seen the sunrise, but at least I can say I was up with the lark.
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Horned lark at the water's edge

The weather was totally different this morning: no wind and brilliant sunshine with particularly deep, clear blue skies - probably due to the thin, clean air.

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After a nice and spicy breakfast of aloo puri, we drove down to a little promontory further down the lake for photos.

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Today the lake was a beautiful iridescent blue with some stunning reflections in the clear, still water. The iridescent, hypnotic blue of the lake against the bleak brown, towering mountains was dazzling!

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We didn't see as many birds in this area as we had hoped for, but there were some black-headed gulls circling above the lake.

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Strangely enough, we could both feel the altitude more today than we did yesterday, with laboured breathing and taking little baby steps so that we didn't get totally out of breath.

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Reluctantly we left the gorgeous lake behind and head up through the hills again, although I suppose 'hills' is a bit of an understatement (and probably even an insult) for some of the world's highest mountains.

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You gotta love that road snaking its way up the mountainside!

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This is what happens if you don't heed the Border Road Organisation's warnings!

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Not many public toilets on this stretch of road.

The road took us though a dry, almost desert-like area.

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Many of the roads across the pass looked very temporary structures, although I guess they were not.

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Maybe one day when they have finished the improvements, all the roads will look as smooth as this.

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It seemed a different type of scenery awaited us behind every bend.

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Road works ahead

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For a while we followed this dried up river bed.

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The cascading torrents of water have obviously at some stage brought down some huge boulders.

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After a while the dry rocks gave way to marshland.

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We stopped for a while again where we saw the marmot yesterday, and today a couple of them they hung around long enough for me to take a few photos.

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Our driver may have been young and attractive (and very vain), but I felt very confident with him at all times.

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How many times does a man need to adjust his sunglasses?

In this more verdant and arable area, horses, yaks and sheep were seen grazing along the side of the road. It's a tough life here for people and animals.

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More road improvement works on the way.

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The scenery here was harsh, with austere and unforgiving looking mountains looming over a narrow strip of land for grazing, later huge boulders lined the valley and what I can only assume were lime deposits were visible on the green flats.

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As on the journey to Pangong Tso yesterday, the scenery was dramatic and varied.

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More road works, but I think the workers had a sense of humour here...

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Huge army camps.

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The driver takes both hands off the steering wheel again - at least it was a straight stretch of road this time.

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Men on their way to help out at the roadworks.

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And then the road deteriorated again.

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We followed the river again for a while.

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I wonder if the river water ever fills the entire width of this river bed?

Around each bend was a new surprise, including a landslide being cleared away by a large digger, and just as we were passing, a big boulder rolled down the hill just in front of the car.

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There was still snow on the ground in places. Fortunately we didn't encounter any snowfall on the way - these already treacherous roads would become lethal!

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It was getting colder and colder as we climbed higher and higher through avalanche-risk areas on roads that left a lot to be desired.

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At this altitude, streams and puddles sport a thin coating of ice.

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Up until now, the traffic has been scarce - one of the benefits of starting out early. However, now that it is nearing lunchtime, we are beginning to meet vehicles coming the opposite direction. Passing can be hazardous and time consuming.

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Chang La Pass
Before we knew it we were at the top of the Chang La pass again.

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"Loom mum, no hands!"

Yesterday we both felt fine here, today was a different story. While David noticed the thin air more than yesterday, I was feeling pretty bad, very dizzy and rather vacant. I panicked when I got back to the car and was sure I'd left my camera bag in the café but it was not there when I went back for it. Of course, I found that I'd left it in the car all along. Doh! I was really struggling to breathe and almost passed out at one stage. My SP02 was 78 while David's dropped as low as 74. With hindsight, I really should have gone to the First Aid centre, but one of the symptoms of Acute Altitude Sickness is the inability to think straight!

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Even the dogs are finding the atitude tiring!

Not good, and they don't recommend that you stay for any longer than 20 minutes at this altitude, so we headed straight to the cafeteria for some Maggi.

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As you can probably see from my photo, I don't look quite 'with it'.

Maggi
Having read about the “world's highest cafeteria” serving great Maggie, I was keen to try it. We've seen adverts for Maggie in various parts of the world but never really got to the bottom of what it is...

Apart from having an aunt by that name (and I don't think she has been anywhere near the Himalayas), to me the name Maggi is synonymous with a soy like sauce and stock cubes, and I felt pretty sure that the neither were worthy of culinary suggestions for visitors to the area. Having seen Maggi adverts all over Asia, West Africa and now India, we learned that the German company brought out some bouillon noodles some years ago which now have a large worldwide following, especially in India where Maggi instant noodles are a said to be “favourite for a quick meal at any time, from dorm rooms of colleges to late-night cooking in home kitchens”. It is so popular that many people in India simply call noodles 'Maggi'. So that explains it – in other words they are a local version of Pot Noodles. While no gourmet lunch, it filled a spot and I did feel some better afterwards.

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From here there is only one way: down!

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If you look carefully over on the right hand side, you can see a car that didn't quite make the bend.

Travelling down the narrow, winding roads, we were unlucky enough to met an army convoy of trucks coming the opposite direction. The driver managed to take a short-cut along an unpaved road to avoid further army vehicles.

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I didn't even see the smaller road that leads off down a steeper section on the left on this picture.

It was a narrow lane and quite steep in places.

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It worked and by the time we re-joined the main road later, all the army trucks had passed.

A traffic jam due to road works in Choglamsar (just outside Leh) gave me a chance to study local life.

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The hotel manager in Leh greeted us with the words: “the internet is working!”. So here we are! Also, the phone that Mr Din got us is now working so I was able to ring my dad from the room! Result! This blogging lark sure is time consuming – it took me three hours this evening to get the blog up to date until yesterday – and that's without including photos to one of the days (since added). I suppose it doesn't help that the internet is so slow and so unreliable here.

Thinking about it this evening, it now makes sense why I suffered so much more today at the pass than yesterday – lack of fluids! I deliberately didn't drink much on the way back as I really didn't want to have to use those toilets again. That would explain why I felt the altitude more today.

Tibetan Kitchen
This evening we tried out another of the recommended restaurants: The Tibetan Kitchen. It was round the back of the main drag, with a huge outside seating area as well as an indoor restaurant. It seemed to be very popular with tour groups, as two large groups of people arrived after we did.

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We ordered something called Sabagleb - the menu left us none the wiser as to what it was, so we asked the waiter. He called it 'stuffed bread', but I would personally describe it like a spring roll pie. David had cheese and vegetable, whereas I chose the chicken. They were very nice.

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Posted by Grete Howard 12:38 Archived in India Comments (1)

Leh - Changla Pass - Pangong Lake

With my feet in the lake and my head in the clouds

semi-overcast 17 °C
View Mountains, monasteries and much more - Lakakh and Kashmir 2013 on Grete Howard's travel map.

I was awake from 03:00 this morning with congestion and generally feeling unwell. We scored a first at breakfast (in a day of firsts) – getting cold (rather than hot) milk for cornflakes! As we were waiting for the driver to turn up, I got chatting to a chap in reception who was also going to Pangong Lake today with his family, and I was sharing with him my concern about the altitude. His reply did not allay my concerns any at all: “I'm a doctor and I am concerned too”. Great!

In Delhi, Sabu was telling us that warning signs act as an invitation to Indians rather than a restriction, and I noticed that with our driver this morning with a police stop NO ENTRY sign. Not just our driver but it seemed most other people went straight through! I also thought it was very sweet that he drove around one of the huge prayer wheels on the side of the road – clockwise of course – possibly to pray for a safe journey across the mountains today?

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Just before we started the climb, we had to check in with the police, with our Restricted Area Permit and passports. Then the fun began. Initially the road was quite smooth, tarmaced even, although the edges were uneven. It was barely wider than one vehicle, thankfully there was not too much traffic at that stage, as 99% of the time there were no barriers, just the occasional string of prayer flags and the odd memorial to those who didn't make it. Great views though.

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Chemdey Monastery

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As we climbed higher we began to notice the thinner air, in the breathing and in the ears. After a while the road deteriorated, and I have seen smoother dried-up riverbeds. The sign stating “Avalanche Danger, do not travel through between 10:00 and 14:00 (I didn't realise rolling stones had such strict timetable!) and do not stop vehicle. The only reason I could read the sign was because we were stopped right by it. Oh, and the time was 10:20.

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The road, and the accompanying view, was totally mind blowing. Words cannot describe it and pictures would not do it justice. This is truly a road trip of a lifetime and there was more, much more, to come!

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Not sure I like being so close to the crumbly edge.

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I loved looking back down to see how far we have come from the valley floor.

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We saw some yaks at one of the cultivated plateaus, and as we climbed higher, the little mountain streams tumbling over the rocks and into the road formed icicles where it touched the cooler stone. After a few kilometers we started to meet vehicles coming the other way, and almost without fail they would wave, gesture or make a V sign as if we all belonged to some secret exclusive club. In several places we had to ford rivers as they tumbled over the road – this journey is best undertaken in the morning, as the sun melts the glaciers later in the day, increasing the torrent of the rivers and often making the fords impossible to cross. One of the vehicles which didn't quite make the sharp, narrow hairpin bends was left halfway down the ravine as a sober reminder to drivers to take it easy.

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The one thing that surprised me the most, was the blanket of purple flowers at this altitude.

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Chang La Pass
At an altitude of 5,360m (17,590ft) above sea level, this is the third highest motorable pass in the world, and the highest altitude we've ever been to date. Our previous “record” was 5,220 m at the Gyantsola Pass in Tibet in 2005.

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We measured our SP02 at the summit and found it was dangerously low - the norm should be between 93 and 99.

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The pass is said to be named after the sadhu (an ascetic, wandering monk ) Changla Baba, to whom the pass temple is dedicated; although this is hotly disputed because directly translated Chang La comes out as “Pass towards the South”.

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Of all the passes in Ladakh, Chang La is said to be the steepest and due to bad roads at the final ascent it is also the toughest. No wonder they call it The Mighty Chang La. We didn't feel the effects of the altitude as much as we expected here, apart from feeling a little dizzy when bending down to crouch over the disgusting toilet, I was fine.

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David was very excited to have his picture taken astride a Royal Enfield which belonged to a biker from Mumbai.

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The pass is run by the Indian Army who offer visitors a free cup of tea at the top. David accepted their hospitality, whereas I was too busy running around taking photos.

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It's all downhill from here! Starting the descent, we had frozen glaciers one side of the road and a sheer drop the other. This area is part of the Ladakh Mountain Range which again is a segment of the Karakoram Mountain Range.

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This journey is best undertaken in the morning, as by mid-afternoon glacial meltwater could cause fords like this to swell up and become impassable.

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As we descended further, we caught up with and followed a river with its weak rapids and grazing horses on its banks.

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The road is really popular with motorcyclists, as most winding mountain roads throughout the world are.

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Because of the problems with glacial meltwater creating impassable fords on the road in the afternoons, bridges are being constructed in several places on this road.

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More road works

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Or just a bad road?

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Some decent road for a while

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Surrounded by stunning scenery.

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Time to descend further to the next plateau.

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Amazing road snaking its way down the steep mountainside.

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At Tangtse Police Check we had to fill in a book ourselves and a little later pay an entrance fee to the national park of 10 rupees per person (ca 12p).

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On this trip, David and I have been playing Road Sign Bingo. This part of India is well known for its sometimes amusing, often corny and always appropriate safety signs alongside the roads, and I have been trying to photograph as many of them as I can. Often I don't spot them until it is too late, and I don't always manage to focus the camera in time if we are going too fast – I only get half a point for an out-of focus sign (which to be fair most of them are). I can't wait to get home to check out my collection! I am still missing the “Accidents don't happen, they are caused”, though.

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When I got home I discovered there is a website devoted entirely to these amusing road signs

A couple of times in the last few days my camera has had an error message something to the effect of the lens not talking to the camera body, and the lens having come loose. This baffled me until I discovered that my knuckle often rests on the lens release button, and when I think I am focusing, I am actually unscrewing the lens. This afternoon, as I was hanging out of the window taking pictures of the ravine below, I suddenly found myself with the camera lens in one hand and the body in the other. Oops. Fortunately I had a good hold of both.

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The area around Pangong Lake is famous for its pashmina goats (the best wool comes from the chest), and we saw lots of them grazing along the side of the road.

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I also knew this area is home to marmots, and I had no sooner uttered the words “I want to see a marmot” before one popped his little head up from the burrow. By the time I had changed into the long zoom lens, he'd gone underground again. Also seen along this stretch of road are yaks, horses, cows and wild donkeys.

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I never expected there to be such varied scenery - from the majestic snow-capped mountains; to the barren brown scree-sided peaks; there were areas of fine sand – some of which was blowing across the road, making for treacherous conditions for bikers in particular; there was marshland; a silted up lake; as well as huge boulders and smaller rocks making up a moraine.

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Suddenly, in the distance, we got our first view of the lake (with a sign along the side of the road stating the bleedin' obvious: FIRST VIEW OF LAKE!).

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Later there were women washing clothes in the river.

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Still snaking our way down the side of the mountain.

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Before long we got a great view of the lake, stretching out beneath us.

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At this stage we were still travelling on a road clinging to a fairly steep hillside above the lake. I was busy hanging out of the window photographing the lake below when we suddenly went over the edge of the road. In a split second a number of thoughts went through my mind and I gasped loudly. The other two laughed, as I hadn't seen the turn-off from the main road towards the lake. It was one scary moment though!

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The road – if you can call it that – from the turn off to the camp was challenging to say the least. It was a bone-rattling drive over what was basically a rocky beach where vehicles had compacted the rocks a little in a certain area to form a kind of track. Finally we arrived at camp, shaken, not stirred, with a sense of relief – until we realised we have to do it all again in reverse tomorrow!

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Pangong Lake
Pangong Lake is an endorheic lake (a body of water that does not flow into the sea) situated at an altitude of 4,350m (14,270ft) above sea level. It is reputed to be the world's highest brackish lake, although I could not find any evidence to back this up. Two streams feed the lake from the Indian side, forming marshes and wetlands at the edges. 134 km long, and 5 km wide at its broadest point, the lake extends from India to Tibet, with 60% of it being in Tibet, which is today under China's rule, some of it in disputed territory. The “Line of Actual Control” passes through the lake - a section controlled by China but claimed by India. Pangong is still a delicate border point, with incursions from the Chinese side being common. In fact, when we got back to Leh again, we heard rumours that the Chinese had been making unpleasant stirrings in the area in the last few days.

I later read this in an on-line paper: "The Dragon is at it again. On two days last week, Chinese troops -- estimated by sources at as many as 100 -- crossed the Line of Actual Control in Eastern Ladakh carrying banners asking India to vacate "occupied" territory "

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In summer, the surface temperature of the lake can reach 19 °C (it certainly wasn't that warm today!), but the water will freeze completely in winter (despite being salty), and is devoid of any micro-vegetation. The mirror-calm water is cold, clear, and extremely salty, holding sufficient quantity of lime to form a calcareous deposit, which cements the pebbles together in patches of concrete on its bank. It is believed that there is a large amount of minerals in the basin of the lake, which result from the melting of the snow. We could see gulls skimming the surface of the water and the lake acts as an important breeding ground for a variety of birds including a number of migratory species, such as the Bar-headed Goose and Brahmini Ducks. Some varieties of scrubs and perennial herbs grow in the marshes around the lake. The region around the lake supports a number of species of wildlife too, including the kiang (wild ass) and the marmot, both of which we saw on the way here.

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Although this area is today a high-altitude desert, Ladakh was once covered by an extensive lake system, a few of which remain today, the grandest of all being the 604km² Pangong Tso. The name translates as “Long, narrow, enchanted lake”, and enchanted it certainly is. It would have been awesome to go out in a boat on the tranquil waters of the lake, but for security reasons, India does not permit boating (the boats you see in the picture belong to the Indian Army)

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Water Mark Camp
The camp was a collection of pre-erected tents in a single row, near the water's edge. The paths were quite uneven, so I am really glad I wore my hiking boots today.

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Not a bad setting for a camp.

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A glacier-fed river ran through the camp – it was almost dry when we arrived but quite full by the evening, with the sun having melted the ice on the glacier. OK, it was still not exactly a raging torrent, but we could see a marked difference as the day went on.

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The tents were on a raised concrete platform and were reasonably roomy, with two beds and a small table, and ample room for the luggage. On a further raised platform was the attached toilet and basin. Outside was a small 'balcony' with two chairs overlooking the lake. The lake was beautiful, but not as blue as I expected it to be. Maybe the gloomy weather had something to do with that.

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Storm clouds on the horizon

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It was incredibly windy – all the tents had been anchored down using huge rocks – even inside our tents they'd placed a rock to stop the whole side of the tent blowing in. This rock promptly fell on my leg and grazed it, and later we found the wind was so strong the canvas was being torn by the rock too.

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A nice lunch materialised, consisting of a buffet, with paneer masala (very tasty!), aloo, rice, chapatis and poppadoms, plus a dessert they called something like “sibea” which looked like vermicelli to me.

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After lunch we decided to have a siesta – we were both tired, dehydrated and grumpy – and we both woke up feeling much more positive an hour or so later. We walked around the area near the camp, photographing the scenery and generally taking in the atmosphere. The late afternoon sun was casting long shadows and giving a magical, charming and almost supernatural ambiance. I love the light this time of day.

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When we arrived this afternoon, we were the only ones here, but by the time dinner was served, the place was full. Apart from two Malaysians and us, the rest were all Indian tourists – some had come in a group of nine, with the girls coming by car with everyone's luggage and the boys on hired Royal Enfield Bullet motorbikes.

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The sun made a half-hearted attempt at a sunset, and had to give way to more dark storm clouds and the was even some precipitation in the air during the evening. Nothing came of it though, at least not by the lake.

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After a very nice dinner of mushroom muttar, dahl and egg curry, with the usual rice, chapatis and poppadums. It was all very tasty and we shared a table with a lovely young man from Bangalore.

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After dinner I got my tripod out and attempted a few times exposures of the tents at night, but I found the wind and cold too much after a short while - the wind because it made everything move, including the tents, flags and even some of the poles; and the cold because I didn't have a wind proof jacket. The photographic results were not as good as I would have hoped.

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Despite wearing all my clothes (including thermal pants and top plus a fleece, hat and gloves) and being covered with a thick quilt and a blanket; I was cold in bed. When I finally managed to get warm, and stopped panicking that I couldn't breathe, I went in to a deep sleep. The temperature dropped to +7 °C overnight inside the tent.

Posted by Grete Howard 12:35 Archived in India Comments (1)

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 Comments (1)

Leh - Spituk - Alchi - Likir - Uleytokpo

♪♫♫♪♫ Wherever I lay my hat, that's my...monastery ♪♫♫♪♫

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

Soon after we went to bed last night the power went out, and didn't come back until 04:35 this morning. I know the exact time as I was awake most of the night, between the barking dogs, the temperature being too hot or too cold, my nose bleeding (I remember the altitude having that affect when we went to Tibet too), feeling congested and waking up gasping for breath and the hard bed, I got very little sleep.

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They may look peaceful and docile during the day, but at night they wake up and fight loudly until dawn.

Spituk Monastery

Our first stop this morning was the Spituk Monastery, founded in the 11th century, and initially built as a Red Hat institution, but was taken over by the Yellow Hat sect in the 15th century. The monastery contains 100 monks and a giant statue of Kali. The name "Spituk", means exemplary as it is said that an exemplary religious community would develop here at the Monastery.

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I am still very confused about the different types of Buddhism, but the way I see it, Buddhism can broadly be divided into three 'schools' (routes to enlightenment): Theravāda, Mahāyāna and Tantric. Within Tantric Buddhism, there are several sub-schools, including Tibetan Buddhism, which is what is generally practiced in this area. Red Hat and Yellow Hat are further sub-schools of Tibetan Buddhism. However, Red Hat covers three different traditions: Nyingma, Kagyu (which the Drukpa Sect of Hemis Monastery is part of) and Sakya, whereas Yellow Hat only refers to the Gelukpa sect. Confused? Now you know how I feel.... Not that we ever actually saw the monks wearing their hats at any one time.

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146 steps up and down before 9 o'clock this morning, we're getting better at this altitude lark. This monastery had plenty of prayer flags all the way up, making it a little different to the others and really very picturesque.

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Inside the monastery there were lots and lots of vegetable oil bottles and ugly masks, and no photographs were allowed. The view from the top showed the south western end of Leh, including the runway we landed on a couple of days ago and the valley which the plane approached so dramatically.

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We followed a good road out of town, through our first check point when the landscape became much more barren. There was not much other traffic on the road, a few hardy cyclists, the ubiquitous Tata trucks and a convoy of foreign tourists, five to a car the same size as ours (glad we have a private tour!). Today the weather is quite cloudy, which has given us some relief from the stifling heat; but I suppose we must be getting used to it too, as the thermometer still said 30° C but it doesn't feel that hot.

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This bit may be flat, but there are many hills ahead...

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A Tata driver relaxes on his truck at a check point

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Group tourists packed five to a car! Love having our car to ourselves!

Magnetic Hill
A particular stretch of the Nh1 Highway is marked off to denote the 'Magnetic Hill' where mystical forces will 'pull your vehicle uphill, seemingly defying the laws of physics'. Local lore says the mountains have 99% properties of a magnet or that supernatural forces cause this curious phenomenon. It is not the first time we have experienced such an optical illusion but it sure is a bit of harmless fun. Coming this way, it seemed obvious to us that the car was rolling downhill, but when we returned this way the next day, the road did in fact look like it was on an incline.

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At the conflux of the Zanskar and Indus Rivers, we stopped for a while to watch the two differently coloured water merge at a bend. There were rafters on the Zanskar River, which looked like a lot of fun - mostly gentle with the odd rapid.

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Back into the verdant valley at Nimmu village, with a few 'interesting' bridges and a huge military camp. We then followed the valley on the NH1 before heading up a series of z-bends onto a plateau surrounded by jagged mountains, some with snow-capped peaks.

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Basgo Palace

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Likir
To reach Likir, we turned off the main to onto a rough track that took us up to the site. Trying to get the driver to stop so that we could take a photo from a distance seemed to be a little difficult. He doesn't quite seemed to have grasped the concept of photography yet...

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This seemed to be a little off the main tourist route, although there was a group of trekkers there when we arrived, who'd obviously got there on foot. Rather them than me!

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Founded in the year 1065 and consisting of a number of shrines inside its complex, this well preserved monastery also houses a 7.6m tall protective deity, wearing a golden armour. Building the monastery like a fort offered sanctuary to local inhabitants during periods of war. The monks here, who presently number around 120, wear Yellow Hats. This is the first place we've actually seen the hats on this trip - sadly the monks weren't wearing them at the time, the hats were just resting on their seats inside the monastery.

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There is also a school here at the monastery, housing some 30 students who are taught in Hindi, Sanskrit and English. The name Likir means "The Naga - Encircled", because the monastery is surrounded and guarded by representations of the two great serpent spirits. Lots of sculls on the roof too.

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Likir Monastery is the seat of the Ngari Rinpoche, the younger brother of the Dalai Lama. Although he does not permanently reside here, he attends for the more important pujas. There is a picture of him in one of the halls, surrounded by flashing lights. I found this whole monastery a little surreal in fact.

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In the Gongchang Temple, a one-man band (monk) created a prayer ceremony, playing the drums, cymbals and chanting.

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The museum (no photos inside) was opened up especially for us, as was one of the other halls, with a monk showing us around. It contained the usual paintings of Buddhas, daggers, coins, masks etc, some 500 years old, but my favourite was an 800 year old skull used as a drinking vessel by the lamas. While we were walking around the museum, the monk who let us in was trying out the ringtones on his mobile. As I said, surreal!

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On our way down the rough dirt track with its steep hairpin bends we met a brave tourist pedal cyclist making good headway!

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Back on the nice asphalt road more hairpin bends took us down through the valley with different coloured scree on each side – from beige, through brown and green to a deep, almost purply red. Around each corner was more huge, rugged and dramatic scenery. My camera was going off like a machine-gun, shooting off pictures though the window every few seconds.

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After a short while driving through another verdant valley, we were back in the barren landscape and turned off over a great bridge to head off to yet another monastery, Alchi.

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We even saw a game of cricket along the side of the road, on a rare flat piece of ground!

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Alchi
Along the approach road to the monastery were lots of little stupas, in various states of disrepair. Alchi seemed like a rural and poor village, and for ages we were stuck at some roadworks on a bend where there was only enough space for one car to pass the large truck, and between the vehicles passing in both directions, the workers tried to repair the road the best they could. By hand of course – or at least with just a pickaxe.

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Despite its humble approach, Alchi was the most touristy of all the monasteries we have visited to date in Ladakh, with the walk from the car park lined with souvenir stalls. I was, however, very pleasantly surprised at how un-pushy the sales people were - they all seemed quite happy with me taking photos of their wares. Mainly religious paraphernalia, there were also some beautiful pieces of jewellery.

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Alchi Monastery was very different in other ways too – first of all it was not situated on a hill (there were no steps to climb, yippee!!!!), secondly there were lots of beautifully carved wood around the doors and thirdly, the interior paintings were weathered and blackened by smoke; reminiscent of medieval European churches. Entry to the temples within the complex were through low doors and no photos were allowed inside. With so many temples on one site (one of which was called Lotsa!), our shoes were on and off and on and off and.....

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I really struggle with walking with my back bent over like that and then lifting my legs over a high threshold. As far as my back is concerned, it's one of the worst movement I can make. It didn't help that the visiting kids would block the doorway so I often got stuck half way in or out.

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The monk selling the tickets for entrance to the Sumtek Temple (at 50/r each - around 40p) - where unfortunately photography was not allowed. I did however buy some post cards, scanned copies of which are below.

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Four separate settlements, with monuments dated to different periods, make up the Alchi Gompa (Monastic Complex). Of these four hamlets, Alchi monastery is said to be the oldest and most famous, dating back to the year 1000 AD and containing some of the oldest and best preserved wall paintings in Ladakh.

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These local children caused a bit of a sensation with quite a few Indian tourists, and boy did they know how to pose! There was almost something slightly uncomfortable about it...

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Turning the prayer wheel at the gompa (monastery). The wheels should always be turned clockwise and the devotees very often recite the Sanskrit mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum” It is said that all the teachings of the Buddha are contained in this mantra therefore it can not really be translated into a simple phrase or sentence, although word for word it means something like: “The jewel is in the lotus” or “praise to the jewel in the lotus “. Of course to Tibetan Buddhist, Om Mani Padme Hum means so much more, they believe saying it out loud or silently to oneself (or spinning it around in a Mani wheel) invokes the powerful benevolent attention and blessings of Chenrezig, the embodiment of compassion.

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Not all prayer wheels are custom made and adorned.

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Last night we asked the driver (who speaks extremely limited English - although it has to be said that his English is better than my Hindi...) about lunch today – wondering whether we should pack a picnic or if we were stopping somewhere; and he told us we'd stop in Alchi for lunch, so when we got out of the car we asked him if we should have something to eat there before continuing. He dismissed that idea, saying “later”. With a wave of a hand indicating winding roads. That “later” turned out to be the camp where we are staying tonight.

Back on the road..

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Back over the bridge...

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The road certainly did not improve much...

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We saw several of these pulley 'bridges' along the way (basically just a metal cage supported on a wire and pulled from one side to the other by human power), and I would have loved to have had a go, but being unsure of the health and safety issues I never did. I now wish I had.

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We then came across a huge army convoy - and of course the road is not really wide enough for two vehicles to pass comfortably, at least not when one of them is a large truck. Not wanting to argue with the army, it was always us who ended up giving way and stopping to let them pass. David counted 31 trucks in total.

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At Uley, we entered a verdant valley.

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The bridges along this route make a heck of a lot of noise as you pass over them - they are basically just metal plates resting loosely on top of a metal frame.

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West Ladakh Camp and Resort
Although not where I thought we were staying, the camp was great! A number of large permanent tents spaced out amongst the trees on a narrow piece of land at the bottom of a steep valley with the ragged, sheer rock face looming threateningly the opposite side of the raging river on one side and the road on the other.

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After settling in to our spacious tent – complete with en suite toilet and shower (in an adjacent tent), we were asked if we wanted lunch.

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I love the glass basin in the bathroom!

Half an hour later we were seated as the only two people at a table for twenty, with a lovely vegetarian lunch of aloo muttar chapatis, poppadoms, dhal, tomato soup and enough rice to feed a table of twenty.

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After a much needed siesta, we settled down on our terrace (table and chairs on the ground outside our tent) with a drink, a few snacks, binoculars and the laptop. We'd brought Duty Free Morgan's Spiced with us from London, but even after three nights in India, the bottles remained unopened – not like us at all! The Diet Coke we bought in Leh spent a few hours chilling nicely in a little nearby stream and hey presto, we have a sundowner!

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At dinner there was only us again, it seems like we're the only people staying here. Conversation went as follows:

Us: drinks?
Him: drinks.
Us: what do you have?
Him: Yes
Us: Water? Beer?
Him: Beer.
Us: Yes please
Him: 150 Godfather
Us: 150 Godfather?
Him: Yes
Us: OK

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It was quite good beer, and the food was very pleasant too – pasta with tomato sauce, noodles, fried potatoes, vegetable rice. Nothing was particularly spicy though, but we did find a nice green chilli sauce on the table. large_West_Ladak..t_Dinner_1A.jpglarge_West_Ladak..hilli_sauce.jpg
Not sure about having an audience while I eat though.

As soon as I finished my meal, I rushed back to the tent to take some pictures after dark, I just about managed two shots before the power went off. I hung around for a while and as soon as the lights came back on again I jumped up and grabbed the camera but before I could even set up the tripod, the power went out again.

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I played with the torch for a while, then we sat in the dark outside the tent watching the stars. With no ambient light around at all, the stars were bright and the sky seemed enormous! A very thoughtful member of staff came over with a battery operated light which he placed on the table. As soon as he was out of sight again, we switched it off to continue watching the stars – no sooner had we looked up at the sky, the power came back on again! The lights went on and off a few more times, and after the fifth time, at around 21:45, we decided to go to bed. I don't think I have even known such complete darkness as it was inside that tent – you couldn't even see your hand two inches in front of your face! If I thought the beds at Namgyal Palace in Leh were hard, they had nothing on these camp beds!

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Posted by Grete Howard 13:20 Archived in India Comments (2)

Leh: Shey, Thiksey, Hemis

Red hat, yellow hat, red hat, yellow hat, red hat yellow hat.....

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

We took the laptop to breakfast with us this morning, including the LAN cable, hoping to be able to update the blog, but they are still waiting for an engineer to repair their internet connection. So much for that plan. Breakfast was good though, channa puri, so good in fact that I had three helpings!

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On the way to our first monastery, we spotted a large fair in Choglamsar – today is His Holiness the Dalai Lama's birthday, and the Tibetans are celebrating big time! Choglamsar was a piece of land given by the Indian government to Tibetan refugees, who by their own hard work and toil have turned it into an economically independent settlement from a barren landscape full of stones, rocks and sand. In 2007 revered Tibetan leader Dalai Lama had visited this settlement and had given his blessings to the refugees. In August 2010, an unprecedented cloudburst washed away large parts of the settlement and hundreds of people lost their lives.

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Shey
Shey is the ancient capital of Ladakh and home of the old summer Palace of the kings of Ladakh. Here you can also find the Shey Monastery or Gompa, built in 1655 by the king of Ladakh.

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From the car park there was a switchback track leading up to the bottom of the building, with a further 134 steps to take you to the top. The hike was so worth it though, the sight of the white stupa, topped in real gold, against the backdrop of the beautiful blue sky!

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Obviously we wanted to see the famous Buddha here, but it seemed that the door was locked. We waited several minutes, and one of the local ladies (who spoke excellent English) said she thought the caretaker had probably gone to the Dalai Lama Festival and wouldn't be back, so we started to make our way back down again. Two-thirds of the way down we met the man with the key, so up we climbed back up a further 83 steps. The Buddha was worth it though.

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Shey Monastery
The star attraction here is 12 meter Shakyamuni Buddha statue crafted in gold-plated copper. The seated Buddha is said to be the second largest in the region and attracts devotees from across the world. The icon covers three floors of the monastery, with images of Buddha and his disciples depicted on almost every wall around the statue. Cast in parts in Leh, with copper plates hammered on rock, then transported in pieces to the palace, some 15 kms away, for installation. It is estimated that 5 kg of gold was used for gilding the copper plates. The most important moment in the construction of any Buddha figure is when the eyes are created, as this is considered the moment when the statue can actually "see". For this reason, the artist will paint the Buddha's pupils over his shoulder, with his back to the idol, for no-one would dare to look the Buddha in the eye.

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The large bowl of wax with a burning wick in front of the Buddha burns for one year before being replaced. This flame represents divinity and purity and is present in front of all Buddha statues in the Ladakh region.

Thiksey
Just a few minutes later by road, we reached Thiksey Monastery. We stopped for photos at the bottom of the hill, and I was getting quite distressed at the thought of climbing to the top of this monastery – I hadn't recovered from the previous 217 steps yet!

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So I was very relieved when I discovered we would be driving almost to the top. I say almost, as there was still a very steep switchback track and 146 steps to negotiate to reach the monastery. This place seemed much more commercialised than Shey, and they had a nice café where we stopped for a diet coke break, and some spotlessly clean toilets.

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Said to be one of the largest and most impressive Gompas (Buddhist monasteries) in Ladakh, this monastery of the Yellow Hat (Gelugpa) sect, whose spiritual leader is the Dalai Lama, is another building noted for its resemblance to the Potala Palace in Lhasa. I have to say this one bears much more of a resemblance to the former official seat of the Dalai Lama than the one in Leh. (Incidentally, I cried when I first saw the Potala Palace from our bedroom window in Lhasa!) This is the most important monastery in Ladakh and governs ten more monasteries under it.

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Inside the main hall, the monks were performing a prayer ceremony with drums, cymbals, clarinets and chanting. It was very emotional and we felt so privileged to be part of something so special.

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One of the main points of interest in the 12-storey complex is the newer Maitreya (future Buddha – at 15m it is the tallest in Ladakh), built to commemorate Dalai Lama's visit in 1970. The 15th century complex comprises ten temples, an assembly hall, a nunnery as well as residence for over a hundred monks. The walls of the monastery are decorated with colourful murals depicting Buddhas, enlightened beings and goddesses mixed with demons and wrathful spirits. Many characters in Tibetan Buddhist art are not the kind you would want to run into on a dark night.

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Legend tells how a monk offering prayer services with a ritual cake some 3 km away, saw the cake being carried off by a crow. When he searched and found the cake in perfect order atop this hillock, he believed it to be an auspicious sign to build a monastery at this place. The name “Thiksey” means “perfect order”, referring to the undamaged cake.

The monastery also houses a school that provides free education (classes include knowledge of Buddhism as well as computer education) to children from poor families as well as providing food and medical assistance to the children.

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Hemis
Reaching Hemis involved a drive along the verdant valley sticking to either side of the river, with lots of military presence. We then set off on a series of hairpin bends into a side valley where there seemed to be nothing except mountains. Suddenly, hidden away in a secret corner of the valley, was the monastery. It was this hidden position at the bottom of a gorge that saved it from being found by invaders.

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This monastery is occupied by a different sect, the Drukpa Lineage (Red Hat Sect), and is revered as the largest (and wealthiest) monastic institution in Ladakh (some say all of India) with more than 200 branches and over 1,000 monks in the Himalayan region. It is considered to be an important living monument and heritage of Himalayas and its people. It is also said to be one of the highest monasteries in the world.

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I had expected great things from this monastery, reading about it before we arrived, but I found it a bit of an anticlimax. It seemed to be just a couple of main square buildings, and nowhere near as impressive as Shey or Thiksey.

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We did visit the museum (no photos allowed) and I am afraid I cannot get excited about paintings and carvings of Buddha after the first 15. There was so much of a muchness in there - however, a couple of items caught my interest: some very scary masks, enormous trumpets calling monks to prayer and a "pup born to female vulture (Really? I would have thought it more likely the vulture had taken the pup from its mother....) which was considered auspicious / good luck.

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The prayer hall (again no photos allowed inside) was closed from 13:001 - 14:00, it seemed we timed that rather badly, although we did manage to get a quick glimpse before they all went to lunch.

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Refurbishments were taking place at the monastery, and it was fascinating to see them drawing out the outlines for the murals on the walls, all in free-hand of course.

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We stopped for lunch in the small restaurant at the bottom of the monastery, with tables spread out under umbrellas amongst the trees. The food was quite pleasant, but the same could not be said about their toilets. A rough stone building, the toilet cubicle was accessed half way up a series of steps and hidden behind a Tibetan style curtain. One earth floored room with a square hole and not a lot else apart from dirt! This was not the time to have the runs!

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Back to Leh and the hotel where we took a much needed nap. The 350 steps we did today may not sound like much ( it's about the equivalent of a 17-18 storey building), but when the air is so thin and the temperatures are 30+C, it's another story. Or should that be storey. On the way we passed the Stakna Monastery, perched on a hilltop between the road and the river.

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Shanti Stupa
On the way up to the stupa we saw parts of Leh we had not discovered yet – it is much bigger than we first thought!
Constructed by a Japanese Buddhist organisation, the stupa was built to commemorate 2500 years of Buddhism and to promote world peace. It is also known as the Japanese Peace Pagoda. Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi donated the funds for the Shanti Stupa road, the Defence Ministry provided construction materials and the State Government provided timber for the Stupa. Members of all the Ladakhi Buddhist community worked voluntarily for three days, while Buddhist people in Japan and common people from India contributed financial support. It is considered a symbol of Peace, Unity and Buddhist Teaching as well as the ties between the people of Japan and Ladakh. His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, inaugurated the Shanti Stupa in 1991 - the Stupa holds the relics of the Buddha at its base, enshrined by the Dalai Lama himself.

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The view from the stupa was lovely, all over Leh and beyond as the sun was setting. A loud speaker was playing “om mani padme hom” over and over and over again as you circumambulated the stupa clockwise.

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The stupa does get flood lit at night, but we really couldn't be bothered to wait until it got dark, as we still hadn't been able to get in touch with my dad and I wanted to publish a couple of blog entries at least; so we headed back to Leh and our hotel.

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While I wrote my blog, David walked up into town to check if we'd heard from my dad via email. We hadn't, so we decided to ring him. We checked with the hotel but international phone calls were not possible from there. After a shower – which has to be carefully organised as there is only hot water between 18:00 and 20:00 - we double checked emails at an internet café in town before deciding to ring my dad from a pay phone. He was fine and we were both pleased to have connected!

As Dreamland Restaurant advertised free wifi, it seemed a good choice for dinner and publishing my blog at the same time. Unfortunately they had no signal tonight. This seems to be the story of this trip! They did have very good food though (we preferred it to the previous night) and offered us beer disguised in a jug and served in tea cups. It was nice to be able to sit on the rooftop terrace and see the floodlit Shanti Stupa in the distance.

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Yesterday we bought a cheap Nokia mobile phone and a chap we made friends with in one of the shops was going to get a SIM card for us to save us all the hassle of registering as foreigners (we know all about that from buying a dongle in Mumbai two years ago, so were very grateful for his suggestion.) We called in his shop after dinner and he fitted the SIM for us, but as there is no credit on it yet, we can't actually use it!

Our last stop of the evening was an internet café to plug in my laptop (as that's where I have written the blog) and I finally managed to get the first couple of days in India published. I know several people are waiting anxiously for my updates.

Posted by Grete Howard 08:30 Archived in India Comments (2)

Delhi - Leh

♪♫♪♪♫...Leh, lady Leh...♪♫♪♪♫

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

It was a very early morning start today (3am alarm) as our flight time had changed to 05:45 this morning. David managed to divert a baggage disaster at the check in desk – the clerk was just about to send the bags down the chute when David noticed his case did not have the label on it, the clerk was still sitting on it! Phew, that was close!

Today's pet peeve is airplane etiquette: when you reach your allocated seat, quickly put your bags in the overhead lockers. Surely you realise you are going to want your camera/glasses/book/purse/snacks BEFORE you get to that point? Pack them in a small bag just inside your hand luggage so that you can quickly grab it when you get to your seat. Better still, carry it separately in your hand, that's what I do. Do not spend five minutes standing in the aisle rummaging around all the pockets in your bag with your bum blocking the entrance for all the other passengers behind you. When you have found your stuff, there is no need to carry on standing in the aisle any more, chatting to your mates, completely oblivious to the people trying to squeeze past you to reach their seats. That was today's musings of an inconvenienced co-passenger.

We checked in on line last night to ensure we got a window seat, but the only ones available were over the wings (the plane carried a large French tour group and an English Explore group), but I still managed to get a few photos as we flew over the Himalayas. Daylight was only just breaking as the flight left the plains and entered the Shivalik Hills. At first everything was shrouded in a heavy mist, then the first 'little' peaks started appearing above the clouds, bathed in sunlight. Then more and more peaks come into view, until the whole horizon was jagged; the mist soon magically disappears and you were given magnificent views of the mountains below. This is said to be one of the most spectacular air journeys you can make in India and I would go as far as saying the landing was one of the most spectacular and dramatic we've ever experienced!

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Suddenly you go over the edge with the mountain peaks giving way to a fertile, inhabited plateau, and the plane starts to spiral to lose height, seemingly missing some of the lower peaks by just a few feet with the wing-tips before you land at Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport, one of the Highest Airports in the world at 3,256m (10682 ft) above sea level.

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Absolute chaos ruled in the terminal building, with two conveyor belts servicing luggage from at least three flights, all at random. Kashmir (and Ladakh by association) is a sensitive area, and foreigners have to register with the police on their arrival. As you step into the terminal building you are given a form to complete, which they collect as you leave the building. Surprisingly efficient and smooth for India.

Indians are masters of bureaucracy and they certainly don't make it easy for visitors to their country. The first point of contact with Indian red tape is the visa application. This being our eighth visit to India, you would have thought they'd store the information on their computers wouldn't you? Oh no, we have to go through the complete process each time. There is an added complication as I have a Norwegian passport, so they needed my address in Norway (!) where I haven't lived for 40 years. On the plus side, the Price of the visa for Norwegian passport holders is less than half that of British citizens.

Ladakh
The name Ladakh means "the land of high passes" and has affectionately been described as "The Broken Moonland", "Little Tibet", the “Land of Endless Discoveries”, the “Roof of the World”, and even known by some as "The last Shangrila". Nestled between Pakistan (or Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, depending on which side you are batting for) and Tibet, Ladakh is one of the most remote regions of India, in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. This high altitude desert (much of it lies at over 3000m and the Himalayas create a rain shadow preventing the monsoon reaching this area) is a part of the Trans-Himalaya as well as the Karakoram mountain ranges . Human habitation is confined to narrow strips of arable land clinging to the glacier rivers and divided from the mountains by sheer walls of rock and ice. Isolation has preserved a historical way of life, dictated by the changing seasons – until the arrival of aeroplanes, this region was only accessible by high mountain passes which were closed for large parts of the winter. An authentic land, like a forgotten moment in time, Ladakh is faithful to ancestral customs where life is characterised by intense spirituality. A mysterious place of myth and legends, set in an enormous and spectacular environment at an unbelievable height and surrounded by dramatic mountains, this is the highland bridge between the earth and the sky!

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For nearly 900 years, from the middle of the 10th century, Ladakh was an independent kingdom, its ruling dynasties descending from the kings of old Tibet. By the beginning of the 19th century, the Ladakhi king Tshespal Namgyal was dethroned and exiled to Stok, and the the kingdom was incorporated into the state of Jammu and Kashmir in 1846. It still maintains considerable autonomy and relations with Tibet, with the rugged region being home to one of the last undisturbed Tantric Buddhist populations on earth, protected from colonial interference, rampaging Mughals and the ravages of the Cultural Revolution by sheer force of geography. Ladakh is in fact one of the main centres of Tibetan Buddhism outside Tibet. When monasteries were destroyed in Chinese-occupied Tibet, Tibetan Buddhist culture was kept alive in Ladakh. The area was only opened to tourism in 1974.

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The Foreigners (Protected Areas) Act requires foreigners to obtain a Protected Areas Permit (PAP) or Inner Line Permit (ILP). For this, you require two photocopies of your passport and Indian visa as well as a completed form. One of the beauties of having an agent arrange your trip for you, is that they take care of that. As soon as we arrived, the guide collected the passports to go and arrange the permits for us.

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Theoretically you are supposed to travel in a minimum group of four people and to be accompanied by a liaison officer, but I suppose the local agent has managed to get round that somehow. Despite getting the permit, there are still restrictions on where you enter the area and where you go once you're there. The reasons for the restrictions are said to be twofold: for security reasons (Kashmir is a hotly disputed area) and to protect the culture of the local people from outside influences.

You are required to carry at least six copies of the permit with you when you travel, to show at check points.

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Leh, lady Leh...♪♫♪♪♫
Leh is the land of Lamas (the Buddhist Monks, not the animal), located at a crossroads of the old trading routes from Kashgar (on the Silk Road in China – we visited there three years ago), Tibet, and Kashmir. Its importance as a trading town slowed down with the partition of British India, and ended with the closure of the border in 1962 during the Sino-Indian war. We found the town to be small, compact, friendly and akin to a cross between Kathmandu in Nepal and Lhasa in Tibet.

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Altitude sickness
As recommended by nearly every website and tour agent I consulted, we have given ourselves 24 hours after arrival to acclimatise to the altitude before doing any sightseeing. Although the altitude here in Leh is not as high as it is in Lhasa (3505m in Leh against 3650 in Lhasa, Tibet, where we had no significant problems when we visited in 2005), I wanted to make sure we followed the sensible guidelines (it's not like us to be sensible, I know) as the only cure for severe altitude sickness is to remove yourself to lower ground. However, it is normal to feel slightly nauseous, light-headed and fatigued as well as having difficulty sleeping for the first 24-48 hours, the symptoms of which can mostly be relieved by taking paracetamol or ibuprofen.

We have been taking Diamox® which is said to cut the time process of acclimatisation by up to 50% by forcing the kidneys to excrete bicarbonate (the base form of carbon dioxide) which re-acidifies the blood and thus balancing the effects of the hyperventilation that occurs at altitude in an attempt to get oxygen. Alcohol (and smoking, which doesn't apply to us) is said to slow down your breathing, which could obviously cause quite a problem at this altitude, so we are staying teetotal, at least for the first few days. Contrary to what many believe, air is not sucked into the lungs but rather it is pushed into the lungs by atmospheric pressure. As altitude increases, barometric pressure decreases and therefore less oxygen is pushed into the lungs. Other physiological changes that naturally occur at altitude include increased heart rate, increased respiratory rate, increased metabolic rate, and sometimes an increase in blood pressure. We have brought a pulse oximeter with us to be able to monitor our blood oxygen levels and pulse as we ascend to ever greater heights... Normal Sp0²for me (at home) is 98-99% and an at rest pulse of 64-65. When we arrived in our room here in Leh, the SP02 was 84 with the BPM (beats per minute) being 106. Apart from feeling out of breath much, much quicker than back home, and a little bit of facial tingling when we stepped off the plane, neither of us have felt any real effects of the altitude. Yet. My roll-on deodorant on the other hand, suffered badly and exploded on me as I tried to apply it. At least my entire left side will not be suffering from smelly perspiration today.

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Having three girls half my size carry our luggage up three flights of stairs seemed so wrong when I was struggling to carry myself (and my rather heave camera bag) up to the third floor. Not a bad view from our room though being so high, and we have large opening windows with a small sitting area, making it almost feel like a balcony. The hotel is slightly downhill from the main town, but has lovely grounds with lots of seating areas dotted around outside. I am not sure I would have combined green and pink though...

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Great view from the room

Normally we hit the ground running when we travel, so having the luxury of free time on arrival at a destination is new to us, but how to spend it? First of all we took a much needed nap, then tried out the wifi in the hotel lobby. Not working. Walking into town, we found a café advertising wifi, so ordered a lassi and a cake to get in touch with my dad to tell him we'd arrived safely as unfortunately neither of us have any signal on our mobile phone. Although the wifi was working fine – I could send and receive mail via Facebook for instance – my iPhone suddenly decided the email accounts (gmail, Outlook and Yahoo) all needed a password, which it then didn't accept. So still unable to contact my dad.

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Chocolate brownie cake and sweet lassi - just so that we can use the wifi!

Our next choice was to use a PC at a proper internet café, but even that proved to be complicated, as Outlook needed to confirm it was us (because we'd never logged on in this place before apparently), and could either send a text to our mobile (not much good with no signal), or an email to our other registered account, gmail. That was fine, except we had the same problem getting into gmail! Eventually we managed to get round it by answering some security questions and got our security code for Outlook so that we could email my dad. Why does everything have to be so complicated? We even have two dongles – a British Vodafone one, which of course doesn't work here as there is no signal, and an Indian Tata Photon Plus which has been de-activated as I haven't used it since we were in India two years ago.
More walking around, more café stops for cold drinks, more photos, then back to the room to write my blog. In the evening we walked back up to town to go for dinner, taking the laptop with us to use the wifi in the café we found earlier with the good signal. Guess what? The battery on the laptop was dead! We seemed to be doomed with this blog here in Leh.

We had dinner in one of the recommended restaurants called Summer Harvest, which serves local Kashmiri and Tibetan food. We ordered a selection of dishes to satisfy our curiosity, but found it exceeded our appetite.

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Summer Harvest Restaurant

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Chicken Kanti

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Steamed mutton momos with spicy dipping sauce

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Rogan Josh

Despite no alcohol touching my lips, I still felt drunk this evening and retired to bed early. I went into a deep sleep, but it didn't last as the bed was so hard I woke up every 15-20 minutes having to turn to stop my hip hurting. It was also very warm, so eventually we opened the windows – the only sound outside at midnight was the dogs barking.

Posted by Grete Howard 09:39 Archived in India Comments (2)

Delhi - Qutb Minar - Akshardham Temple

The leaning tower of Delhi and Taj Mahal's rival

sunny 36 °C
View Mountains, monasteries and much more - Lakakh and Kashmir 2013 on Grete Howard's travel map.

More red tape at Delhi Airport, with a landing card to complete as well as a customs declaration. That was the only resemblance to the old Delhi Airport we knew and did not love. What a change! The airport is now voted the 2nd best in the world (after Changi), and I can see why! Superb – modern, spacious, clean, well organised.....

Delhi was nowhere near as hot as we had feared, with a temperature of a mere 36 °C. No idea what the 'real feel' was though. As we exited the terminal, we expected either Sabu our his driver to wait there to pick us up, but they were nowhere to be seen. We walked up and down the long line of expectant drivers with their placards bearing the names of arriving passengers and stopped to phone Sabu, when I spotted him outside the glass doors, waving frantically. It was great to see him again after four years! After lots of hugs and greetings, a traditionally clad older gentleman smiled broadly at me and grasped my hand, and a glimmer of recognition went through my mind, but it took a few seconds for me to realise it was Sabu's dad! What a wonderful surprise: Sabu had brought his mum and dad up from Dagri in Rajasthan to join us for the day in Delhi. I felt so honoured, especially as it was his mum's first time in the capital and the first time she'd travelled on an airconditioned train. Such a humbling experience to see these sights through their eyes. We met Sabu's parent four years ago when we were invited to stay with Sabu in his family home in a small village in Rajasthan.

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With basically just half a day in Delhi, we tried to fit in a bit of sightseeing we'd missed on our previous two visits to the Indian capital. I had three places I wanted to try and fit in: Qutb Minar, Humayun's Tomb and Akshardham Temple. As Qutb Minar was closest to the airport, it seemed natural to start there.

Qutb Minar
Qutb Minar is a huge pillar made of fluted red sandstone and marble and is believed to be a minaret, watchtower or victory tower - construction was begun by Prithviraj who won Delhi from the Rajputs in 1192. The 72.5 metre tall tower is covered with intricate carvings and verses from the Qur'an and comprises several cylindrical shafts, separated by balconies carried on muqarnas (those little stalactite-like corbels so often featured in Islamic architecture). The structure tapers from a 15m diameter at the base to just 2.5m at the top.

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The minar has been damaged by lightning and earthquakes on several occasions but each time it was reinstated and renovated by the rulers at the time, although it now leans just over 60 cm to one side.

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379 steep steps lead to the top, and the view from the summit is said to be awesome. However, after a stampede during a school trip in 1979 resulted in a number of deaths, the inside of the tower has been closed to visitors.

The tower is surrounded by several other ancient and medieval structures and ruins, collectively known as Qutb complex, including the Might of Islam Mosque, the first mosque built in India. According the an inscription over the mosque's eastern gate, the complex was built with material obtained from demolishing 27 idolatrous temples - thought to refer to Brahman Hindu temples.

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A 7m high iron pillar stands in the courtyard of the mosque and it is believed that if you encircle it with your arms while standing with your back to it, your wish will be fulfilled. Unfortunately, because of the corrosive qualities of sweat, the pillar is now surrounded by a fence. Considering its age though, the lack of corrosion is remarkable and is thought to be a combination of several factors, including the type of iron used (high corrosion-resistance wrought iron), the local climatic conditions, and frequent anointment with ghee.

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The whole complex is now a UNESCO Heritage site.

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As we've found with many other tourist sites in India, tourists are as much of attraction as the site itself. This time it wasn't just us: Sabu's mum and dad caused as much of a stir with their colourful and traditional Rajasthani clothing as we did, and they were frequently photographed too.

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After checking in to the rather luxurious five star Metropolitan Hotel (Sabu's mum's first time for that too, and even the elevator was a new experience for her (other than on a trolley in the hospital), we went for a lovely (and very late) lunch at Connaught Place.

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Got to love the mustache!

My plan for the afternoon was to visit Hamayun's Tomb, but I figured by this stage we wouldn't have time to visit both that and Akshardham Temple, so I suggested we'd skip the tomb and go for the temple as I knew Sabu was very keen on that. Boy, am I glad we did!

Akshardham Temple

I'd seen pictures of the complex and thought it looked quite spectacular, and I was right. Pictures, however, cannot to the place justice. The temple is a little bit out of the way, and you approach it on a flyover, from which you can see the scale of the complex, which is billed as “displaying millennia of traditional Hindu and Indian culture, spirituality, and architecture”. I would add riches and opulence to that too. In my opinion, it rivals The Taj Mahal!

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The large central temple is crafted entirely of stone (with no support from steel or concrete) and features a blend of architectural styles from across India with 234 ornately carved pillars, nine domes, 148 scale sized elephants and 20,000 other statues. To enter the temple is free, but you are not allowed to carry ANYTHING in there with you – no mobile phones, no cameras, no bags, no food or drinks. You are thoroughly security checked on your way in, including a pat down.

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I suffered terribly without my camera, it was like my right arm had been cut off, but once the shaking, sweating, twitching and hyperventilation had stopped, I went completely cold turkey and found it remarkably liberating. I confess that I see things in a different way when I don't carry a camera, and you have more time to really appreciate your surroundings and soak up the atmosphere. The intricate carving details, the gold friezes, the sheer opulence of the place, the other people... Despite being extremely popular with domestic tourists, we saw no other non-Indians at all there. At the heart of the complex, you can remove your shoes and enter the temple – walking on the painted white lines to avoid burning your feet on the scorching stones – to admire the jewel in the crown. The amount of gold, marble and carvings was mind-blowing.

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Despite having trouble walking, Sabu's mum did very well, and we had a couple of professional photos taken of all of us as a reminder of the occasion. I also bought a few post cards to show everyone what it looked like as I will have no photos of my own. The pictures here are those cards scanned in when I got home.

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After a quick shower we all enjoyed dinner in the hotel to celebrate David's birthday. It also happened to be our lovely waiter's birthday on the same day, so double celebrations! Then to bed for a very short night. Shame, as the beds were extremely comfortable by Indian standards.

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The two birthday boys

Posted by Grete Howard 09:22 Archived in India Comments (3)

Bristol - London - Delhi

♪♫♫♪♫ I'm leaving on a jet plane ♪♫♫♪♫


View Mountains, monasteries and much more - Lakakh and Kashmir 2013 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Indian bureaucracy is alive and well and living at Heathrow airport. Our documents were checked before we were even allowed to join the check in queue and obviously again at the check-in desk. At the gate three members of staff were walking around the seated travellers checking the boarding cards and at the gate when my boarding card was put through their computer, it said I'd already boarded.... more problems. Ten metres later another official checks the boarding cards again, as well as just as we enter the plane from the tunnel, and finally inside the plane itself.

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Air India offered plenty of legroom and good food, but why, oh why did we have to be seated right in front of the spoiled brat with the high pitch screech and unlimited energy? We finally managed to get 3-4 hours snooze after she exhausted herself.

Posted by Grete Howard 09:19 Archived in India Comments (0)

Aiming High: Ladakh and Kashmir in the Indian Himalayas

♪♫♫♪♫ When I’m on, when I'm on my way, yeah ♪♫♫♪♫

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Have visa, will travel.

Having travelled to India every other year since 2003, it seemed natural to plan a holiday there for 2013 too – there are certain traditions that do need to be maintained dontchaknow.... Initially I wanted to go to Allahabad for the Kumbh Mela religious festival in January / February, but after some serious deliberation we decided the crowds would be just too overwhelming. Reading the news reports from India during the Kumbh Mela pilgrimage, I know we made the right decision – some 80 million people are thought to have visited the Kumbh, making it the largest gathering in human history. Yes, it would have been cool to have been part of that, but not so cool for the scores of people trampled to death in the stampedes.

Anyway, after more consideration (David wanted to spend his birthday somewhere exotic) and discussions with our trusty agent in India (Sabu of Icon India Tours ), we came up with a plan, which included Ladakh and Kashmir in the Indian Himalayas.

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The Ladakh region of India

Packing for the trip has been a challenge to say the least, as the average summer temperatures for Leh and its surrounding areas can vary as much as between -10 °C and +35 °C. With its thin air, the sun feels even more intense here than it does at lower altitudes - it is said that only in Ladakh can a man sit with his head in the sun and his feet in the shade and suffer from sunstroke and frostbite at the same time. We also have to consider the start of the trip in Delhi, which is experiencing monsoon season right now (with massive amounts of flooding around), and a heatwave with temperatures in the mid 40s (centigrade)!

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The weather forecast for Delhi looks seriously scary!

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It looks like the weather will be very pleasant in Leh

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Maybe not the best temperatures for camping in Pangong Tso, but we've known worse! A few days ago they had -3 °C and snow!

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It could be chilly up in the mountains at Khardung La...

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...with a nice warm finish to the holiday in Srinagar.

♪♫♫♪♫ Led Zeppelin's Kashmir ♪♫♫♪♫

Oh let the sun beat down upon my face, stars to fill my dream
I am a traveller of both time and space, to be where I have been
To sit with elders of the gentle race, this world has seldom seen
They talk of days for which they sit and wait and all will be revealed

Talk and song from tongues of lilting grace, whose sounds caress my ear
But not a word I heard could I relate, the story was quite clear
Oh, oh.

Oh, I been flying... mama, there aint no denyin
I’ve been flying, aint no denyin, no denyin

All I see turns to brown, as the sun burns the ground
And my eyes fill with sand, as I scan this wasted land
Trying to find, trying to find where I’ve been.

Oh, pilot of the storm who leaves no trace, like thoughts inside a dream
Heed the path that led me to that place, yellow desert stream
My shangri-la beneath the summer moon, I will return again
Sure as the dust that floats high in June, when movin through Kashmir

Oh, father of the four winds, fill my sails, across the sea of years
With no provision but an open face, along the straits of fear
Ohh.

When I’m on, when I'm on my way, yeah
When I see, when I see the way, you stay-yeah

Ooh, yeah-yeah, ooh, yeah-yeah, when I'm down...
Ooh, yeah-yeah, ooh, yeah-yeah, well I'm down, so down
Ooh, my baby, ooooh, my baby, let me take you there

Let me take you there. let me take you there

Posted by Grete Howard 02:27 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (2)

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