Leh, Ladakh

Trip Start Jun 24, 2007
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Trip End Jul 17, 2007


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Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Manali - Leh Highway is the "second highest motorable road in the world," according to the signs.  It travels from Manali in Himachal Pradesh to Leh in Ladakh and scales passes of 4800, 5000 and 5300 meters (17,500 feet).  The highest pass is also in Ladakh at a whopping 5,600 meters.  For all of you Google Earth fans out there, here is a link to an overlay of the route. 

We bought seats in a Jeep from the local taxi office.  Since there were no other takers from Keylong, we arranged to be picked up by a Jeep originating in Manali.  In order to make the 17+ hour journey by nightfall, Jeeps leave Manali at 2 AM and pull into Keylong about 5 hours later.  We shared our car with two Indian travelers; a Ladakhi woman who worked in a children's home in Manali and her friend.  They were headed to her home to visit her family in Leh.  Our driver informed us that he'd had one hour of sleep the night before.  Hmmm - perhaps we should reconsider.

The Highway passes through some of the most beautiful terrain I have ever seen.  It is the only road connection between the Ladakhi interior and the rest of India for the 4 summer months.  The rest of year, the only way to get to and from Leh is to fly.  Although the road is of better quality than the one in the Spiti Valley, it still was a hair raising adventure at points.  The road is so high that there are no permanent settlements on the route; only summer nomadic encampments and tent villages catering to foreign travelers.  Most people seem to make the journey in one long day.  We did see a few die-hard cyclists intending to complete the route in 12 days or so.

I had re-acquired my taste for chapatis, rice and dal, which was a good thing since this is the standard fare at the roadside restaurants.  We were practically sailing down the road, albeit at 25 km/h, when we reached a huge "traffic jam," as the driver put it.  An army convoy of trucks (about 30 of them) was stopped dead in the road.  All of the tour buses and jeeps disgorged their passengers into the conveniently located tent restaurants, to wait for a break in the "traffic."  It turned out that the jam had been caused by the rear wheel of one army truck falling through a bridge.  I walked up the road to inspect the project of lifting the truck out of the hole.  This sort of crisis must be known to happen in this kind of convoy, since the convoy travels with their own, heavy-duty tow truck.  After a couple of hours, they managed to extricate the truck, patch up the damage and get us all moving again.

The late start and the "traffic jam" conspired to make it a very late arrival in Leh.  We rolled into the center of the tourist area at around 11:30PM, after dropping our traveling companions on the outskirts of town.  Nate and I watched our heap of bags, while Lloyd searched for a hotel with its light on and a room available.  We would find out in the daylight that Fort Road probably has at least 50 hotels scattered along its length, but at this time of night there were only one or two that showed any signs of life.  Lloyd found one for 1200 rupees, but at the same time, a couple of guys rode by on a motorbike and offered us a "new, clean" guesthouse room for 400.  Sold.  Perfect.  The guys that ran the Druk Guesthouse (brothers?) were extremely willing to please and very helpful.  They would bring mint tea to our room at all hours of the day and night.

We became enamored of the food at the Penguin Cafe.  An odd name for a restaurant in the Himalaya, but oh well.  Great desserts at the adjoining bakery as well.  We took the first day fairly slowly, heading up to the former royal palace in the afternoon.  The royals apparently live up the road in Stok, now.  We explored the empty rooms and admired the view from the rooftops, where a couple of kestrels could be seen engaging in aerobatic displays.  Lloyd sweet-talked a Danish woman with a Canon SLR camera into letting him "charge his batteries" at her hotel room, since his charger died somewhere along the way.  Unfortunately, I didn't get to charge mine.  This would come back to haunt me.

The next day, we ventured up the road to one of the many monasteries in the valley, which, by happy coincidence, was hosting a 2 day festival.  Our hotel man walked us to the bus station, where we packed into the bus like sardines for the 40 minute ride.  The monastery was an absolute zoo, with no fewer than 100 jeeps and maybe 20 tour buses parked on the grounds.  There were hundreds of pushy tourist with $200,000 worth of cameras and enormous lenses with which to capture an authentic cham dance.  After an hour or so, I had had enough.  After a lunch of yak cheese (yum) and bread, I parted company with Nate and Lloyd who decided they would persevere at the dance.  They reported that the other tourists all got tired and went home by mid-afternoon.

I had been planning for one last adventure to end my holiday, and boy did I get one.  I started walking away from the monastery and into the barley fields of a nearby village, pausing to take one last photo of the monastery - it would turn out to be the last photo I took with my camera in India - my last battery was dead.  My plan was to climb a peak that was visible to me from the monastery.  I was at 3600 hundred meters and my target looked to me to be perhaps 4400 and 4 or 5 miles away as the crow flies.  Unfortunately, I can't fly.  At the beginning of my walk, I met Gil, an interesting Israeli guy - not one of the 20 year old potheads, but someone closer to my age who had been around a bit more.  He had spent 7 years as an F-16 navigator in the air force and had attended MIT for an MBA after his military service.  I told him my plan and invited him to join me for a while.  We walked for a couple of hours up the valley - it was much longer than it looked.  I left with Gil, who was wearing sandals and was out of water, and headed up a rough slope, eventually making a rocky, undulating ridge.  2.5 more hours of climbing up the ridge, and I could go no further.  I was exhausted and had reached the high point.  My original target mountain still looked to be 5 miles away and 1000 meters higher.  I had climbed up to 4850 meters according to my watch - over 4000 feet above the monastery.

Exhausted, I dropped my backpack and sat down, heavily.  I had run out of water a couple of hours back, after sharing mine with Gil who wasn't prepared for a long walk.  I was 5 hours into my walk and it was about 2 hours to sunset - I had a lot of work yet to do, and it was very late.  Almost immediately after sitting down, I heard a snort, then another.  I looked down the ridge and had an amazing view of a huge male ibex silhouetted against snowy mountains in the distance.  They do exist!  There were four or five of them, the alpha male keeping an eye on me while the others munched the sparse vegetation.  They were perfectly placed for a photo - real National Geographic stuff.  I'd be famous, if only I could get my camera to eke out one more photo.  I popped the battery out and warmed it in my armpit.  I pleaded with my camera, to no avail.  I would just have to savor the memory.  Slightly dejected, but thrilled to have seen this elusive animal, I packed up my gear and shouldered my pack.  I took another look down the ridge and was amazed to see about 20 ibex, all perfectly lined up on the ridge, their impressive horns giving me a view I will not soon forget.  After a minute of checking me out, they all bolted in a cloud of dust.

I turned tail as well, and headed down hill by a different route.  I had seen a goatherd's path in the distance that seemed more conducive to a quick exit.  Again, I was tricked by the scale of the place, however.  It was an easier walk back to the valley road, but quite a bit longer than my ascent route.  It quickly became clear that I wouldn't be back to the monastery by nightfall.  I had no idea when the buses stopped running, but was fairly confident that I could buy a seat in one of the many jeeps.  I walked as fast as I could, in my exhausted state, and arrived back in the farming community around 8:15.  I met some university students who were visiting a friend in the town.  They tried to convince me that I had no hope of getting back to Leh that night, and I should stay in the local guesthouse.  The buses had stopped running an hour before and the jeep drivers were in their homes for dinner, apparently unwilling to come out.  After a little negotiation, I got one of them to borrow a friend's motorcycle to take me 10 km down to the main road where I hoped I'd have a better chance of catching a ride to Leh.  Down at the road, however, things didn't look much better.  Traffic was sparse and no one was stopping.  I pleaded with my new and only friend to take me back to Leh, and he agreed.  It was a hair-raising ride back.  We were flying.  Nate and Lloyd had a good chuckle at my windblown hairstyle while I related my adventures.  It turns out that they had had an adventure of their own after the ceremony concluded.  The buses apparently had stopped running much earlier and they were left with the task of hitchhiking back to Leh.  It took them 2.5 hours and a couple of rides in military transports to get back to town.  I was suddenly feeling very lucky to have gotten back relatively quickly.

They were nice enough to wait on dinner for me, so we headed off to one last meal at the Penguin Cafe, where we all pigged out after a very long day.

The next morning, Nate and I bade farewell to Lloyd and headed to the Leh airport for our flight to Delhi.  Where will we meet up next summer, I wonder?
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