Ladakh — Chapter 1

The Shanti stupa

The time had finally arrived for us to travel to Leh, in Ladakh. We had first heard of the region from a pair of miserable French Canadians we had met in one of our first stops, Ella, on day three of our journey through Sri Lanka. The region is famed for its incredible Himalayan mountain vistas, its lengthy treks, balanced dry climate and also its thoroughly Tibetan heritage. The area is located very close to the Tibetan border and is also not all that far from Pakistan. The state of Kashmir, where Leh is located, is currently experiencing a great deal of turmoil from those that want to establish an independent state of Kashmir, free from both India and Pakistan; something that has been on-going for quite some time. Due to this unrest Leh is best reached by plane, as travel by vehicle through the capital city of Srinagar would potentially give rise to travel complications.

We caught a flight from Cochin via New Delhi which was twenty-odd hour another sleepless affair given stop over time etc. We never seem to manage to book a flight that allows us to sleep and so as usual we arrived into our destination shattered and immediately looking for rest. We disembarked the plane and the first sensation of the dry, thin mountain air slapped us with a breeze. The elevation here was around 3400m above sea level and is apparently one of the world’s highest commercial airports. One of the key issues surrounding travel to this region is the potential threat of altitude sickness which actually affects quite a large number of Indian tourists who travel there given that most of the country is barely a hundred metres above sea level. With this in mind it is advisable to acclimatise to the area by spending a day just relaxing and not exerting yourself too much to get used to the low oxygen content of the air. Luckily for us, our experience with altitude to date has always been good. Living at near 2000m for around 5 months in Val D’Isere and reaching peaks of 3400m, also having spent the week prior at around 2400m in the hill country of Tamil Nadu should help a little. One thing to note is that sleeping is not advised during the day time given that the body’s breathing rate drops during sleep, which isn’t the best when you are oxygen deprived.

Back to the actual events; we led our way out of the airport and into the taxi ranks which were swarming with local drivers looking for a fare. We got ourselves a prepaid ticket which solves all the issues of price negotiation but I was still moderately surprised at the 250INR it cost us. This seemed high for a 4km journey (around 3 of the finest sterling pounds), especially in relation to the rest of India. We were allocated our driver, named Jaghu, a small unassuming man wearing a traditional head wrap stuffed with three pairs of glasses, a rather lavish Tibetan purple silk-look, long-sleeve jacket and a fetching utilitarian high vis waistcoat. He took us to a small “Eco van” — a Toyota model that somewhat resembles a Bedford Rascal, and crammed our stuff into the back before we jumped aboard what was to be one of the most deathly slow journeys of our lives; he crept glacially along the side of the road all the while talking to us of his life and the local area. It was here we learned of the pricing structure for the local taxis. All of the fares are fixed for a vast range of journeys and was implemented by the local government to prevent penetration into the market by tourist companies from other Indian states. Only local people are allowed to provide tours in the area and all of the prescribed prices offer a fair (ish) rate for the distance, thus helping to boost the local economy and growth in what is otherwise a fairly barren region.

Arriving at the guest house which we had pre-booked for our 11 day stay in the area, we were met by a lovely basic room, with 5 full length windows across one wall and a patchy curtain that just about gave you enough privacy. The time was about 9.30am by this point and we had a quick spot of brekkie before lashing our stuff down and crashing onto the bed. We were thoroughly exhausted and slept solidly until 6pm. I awoke a little confused and somewhat disorientated from my slumber and moments later was greeted by a pair of voices talking between themselves just outside the door. After a little rap at the door, I jerked the curtain aside to reveal the hotel owners with fretful concern upon their faces. It transpired that they thought we had been taken ill, given that they hadn’t seen or heard from us since we’d arrived. Cuties.

Our first trip out was to the Shanti stupa, a Buddhist monument which took pride of place over the western slope of the valley in which the town was located. We’d set off just before midday and learnt the hard way of the punishing high altitude sun which sat directly overhead us most of the time. After a lengthy climb up the steps we got our first look across the valley (not including the top down view we got from the flight in) and just how the town had sprang up all the way along the shores of the mountain river and gradually wormed its way outwards as more and more land was irrigated. Water in this place is a precious commodity, and waste water is cleverly channelled back into the land. The thirsty air wicks away sweat in moments and so despite the heat we arrived at the top quite unlike the drenched sweat beasts we normally are in the rest of humid India.

The view south towards the Zanskar range. The peak to the right of the photo is Stok peak

The stupa was quite newly built (late 1980’s) and so was a far cry from some of the ramshackle Buddhist monuments we saw in Sri Lanka, but for us the main attraction was the incredible view. Sandwiched between the Zandskar mountains and the Himalayas we were treated to peaks that pierced the sky on our north and south flanks, some topping off at around 6500m. It was particularly special for me, given that it has been a lifetime ambition of mine to visit the Himalayas, but took nothing away from the experience we both shared there. We stayed up there for quite a while, drinking the place in — but mainly catching our breath. We thought we had a reasonable level of fitness but the air is about a 1/3 lighter on oxygen than it is down the hill and so it just takes that little bit extra out of you.

The rest of the day consisted of wandering the town streets, and finding a gem of a restaurant that served a delicious Tibetan noodle-soup dish named Thuk-pa which highly resembles a Japanese ramen. It was delivered with an angry looking chilli sauce that I’d assumed would be not all too spicy given our experiences with the “super-hot fish of Kerala” and “Anju’s mum’s bad boy red sauce”. It was to my utter surprise that this really was a spicy sauce for once and it proceeded to blow my bollocks off after I’d lumped four or five good sized dollops into my soup. Gemma had befallen the same fate, if only a dollop or two better off than I as she was a little less liberal.

The following day we ventured up to the Tisuru stupa a little further up the valley. We’d caught a glimpse of it from the Shanti stupa and given its stark contrast in appearance, we decided to pay a visit. Stupa are usually constructed as a dome or taller cone (in the case of the Nepalese dagoba) and over the top of a number of holy relics which are buried deep inside the brickwork. This stupa was a little different however, as it was only vaguely circular and had a number of tiers that could be reached by walking an outer perimeter. With its terracotta mud coated brick and Inca temple feel it was a little South American in flavour, although I didn’t lick it though so can’t confirm this 100%. After a little break down by a stream under the shade of some lavishly green trees, we carried on meandering our way through the up and down roads, some dusty tracks, some recently paved, until we made our way back down to the town proper. That night we ascended the opposite side of the valley by a couple of hundred metres to take in the sunset at a ridge which housed, you guessed it , even more stupa! These were considerably smaller in size and were treated in the way westerners would treat a grave. Local families each owned a small rectangular stone casket that would be used to cremate the body before the ashes were buried inside the stupa. So yeah, we watched sunset from a graveyard.

Our unusual stupa, renovated to appear as it once did prior to the effects of entropy
Walking the perimeter, the Shanti stupa in the near distance

We sat for around an hour, feasting on local bread that we’d bought from the back street bakers and had come fresh from the tandoor all wrapped up in local newspaper. Slipping and sliding back down the skree-esque slopes, we ended up in a back passage leading behind some houses. In the fading light of the alley way we bumped into a yak that seemed to be coming home from work. We stopped to snap a few pictures and seemed to hurry him on his way home. He stood a while facing a small gate which led to a 3 metre square paddock which we think was his residence, before he got bored and started to head butt it. Once this seemed to be having no effect he promptly turned round and stepped down some steps and into the passage in front of the houses. With a deft skill, he used his right horn to push open one of the doors of the houses and started to make his way inside. We thought initially that it might be a stable or such that just had the appearance of a house, but after he had disappeared inside I took a quick look into the hallway and was greeted by the sight of a long side-table and a few chairs lining the hall. This was definitely a house. We waited a moment or two, half expecting to hear a calamitous crash, when he sheepishly reappeared at the front door, apparently unable to find whatever he was looking for and made his way back into the courtyard.

The yak does what the yak wants, and at nearly a ton a piece, you can understand why.

Sunset at the ridge
Entry denied
The domestic animals of Ladakh

The following morning, after an incredible Israeli style breakfast spread of hummus, pitta, sesame salad, fried egg, coffee and lemon nana (look this drink up!) — we made our way to the palace. Nestled upon the eastern ridge a little further down from where we watched the sunset — it is an empty, imposing structure of a similar material to the Tisuru stupa (dried mud being used liberally around here). The palace features almost nothing in the way of interest, apart from the views, although there are some stunning examples of the traditional wood carving surrounds and beams that can be seen throughout the town on many of the buildings. Though few appeared contemporary, their presence in some rooms gave grace to what was in places, quite frankly, a drab and empty experience that was made a little easier by our foreknowledge of having to take a head torch. There was one great moment where I stood on a balcony, hanging over a few hundred feet drop, and in my typical dickhead ways to try and scare Gemma, did a little jump to make her freak. It was however, me who freaked as the wooden slats under my feet creaked and gave a little before I jumped back inside with my balls somewhere up inside by throat.

Replicate this room a hundred times and you have yourself a Ladakhi palace

Later that day we went to one of the local tourist agencies and began to look at booking a day trip to the nearby Pangong Lake, a 140km long lake that stretches all the way from India and across to Tibet. We needed to organise a group or find a few others that wanted to share the trip with us as the price of the jeep would be fixed, so for us, the more the merrier. We ended up in an hour long discussion with the agent and got involved, myself a little more than Gemma, in negotiating the price of the permits* for our three companions that would be joining us on the tour. There was a little drama as two of the three had been suffering altitude sickness already and the agent felt they may not be properly acclimatised for the trip, and could DIE (his words). It is necessary to pass over the Chang La pass, at an altitude of 5300m to get to the lake, and so true acclimatisation is essential. No shortcuts here. Long story short, we argued the case that the pair had spent more than enough time (ie the 3 required days) at 3400m and he failed at changing our booking around to what appeared to be suiting his own agenda.

After a tiring hour of debate and deliberation we had booked ourselves a taxi to azure waters. The van would consist of Gemma, myself, Kristina and Rob (a Canadian couple), and Benjamin (a tall French lad with masochistic trekking tendencies). It was Rob and Ben that had suffered a little from altitude sickness, but this is not helped by the fact that the altitude sickness medication can materialise altitude sickness symptoms. Well done drugs manufacturers. Great job! The jeep was scheduled for an early 6:45am pick up the next day and so we made our way to bed, prepared for the 10 hour round trip through the windy, rocky and ultimately treacherous mountain roads!

*Due to the proximity of national borders and military it is necessary for all tourists to acquire a permit, valid for 3–7 days at a time, at a FIXED government fee. It was his flexibility on the ‘fixed’ element that got us going.

A moment’s contemplation in the meditation hall down from the Shanti stupa
The ascent/descent to Shanti stupa given visual perspective
Buddhism being its normal bright and vibrant self, this being the painting over the pillared entrance to the Shanti path
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