A Travellerspoint blog

The Parcel

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Nell had been collecting various souvenirs and gifts for others over the days we had spent in Leh. We thought it would be a good idea to send them home by parcel mail rather than carry them with us for the next few weeks and then pay excess baggage for them on the plane. [Let alone get them through the quarantine and security checks back in Australia.]

“I don’t mind how long they take, we may even get home before they arrive,”said Nell.
She had taken a fancy to a large patchwork wall hanging made from bits of recycled sari and cloth, which was displayed opposite Javid’s little shop. We had got to know Javid quite well after browsing in his shop several times before. He seemed genuinely more interested in us than the majority of rather pushy and intrusive young salesmen that we had encountered in the touristy souvenir strip leading up to Changspa. Or it could be that he was just a better salesman by being so laid back.

It baffles me that these youngsters actually seem to think that being pushy will help them sell more stuff; but then, many of the tourists have not been to poorer countries before and get bamboozled into a shop where the hard sell really starts. Hmm...Which technique will I use for these tourists, this guy looks well travelled and experienced but the lady...she looks very kind...a soft touch. The salesmen may be young but they are very street wise. It’s a pity they are not more creative with their pitches. “Come look inside, best prices for Pashminas...Buddhas, Tibetan artefacts, Tankhas...Tankhas...” Tankhas, but no thankas, I thought.

So on Saturday [when, we had discovered, the post office closes at 2pm] we walked about two kilometres uphill to arrive at Javid’s shop at 9.30am, packed a box with patchwork and pashminas and trotted back to the guest house carrying the box.

10am We decided to fit in some clothes we were never going to wear and added more gifts and trinkets until the box was full. May as well; we congratulated ourselves on this neat way of lightening our backpacks. Javid had told us we needed to pack the parcel in a certain way; it had to be wrapped in a white linen cloth with the address written on in indelible marker. We would be able to get it done very easily at a local tailor. He knew a good one and said, “my boy, when he gets back, will show you where to go and translate.” So Nell puffs back up the hill to Javid’s shop to collect the boy. In the meantime I carry the heavy box down to the mosque in the centre of town to wait for them, and watch the action on the street.

The Muslim men are gathered together in grey suited groups. They mostly wear beards and little skullcaps which make them stand out from the majority, but they seem to be of a different race too; more like Afghans or people from the ‘Stans, which they probably are. They are looking at me suspiciously. Why? I’m not doing anything! [Later I realised they may have been wondering what was in that large box right outside their mosque. Was this a bomb? Was it mine? Did I look like an American suicide bomber out for revenge?]

A milk truck parks nearby, which seems to be the reason for the gathering of many of these men. Milk and yoghurt is ladled into bowls and containers as the people push forward. Is this a handout for Afghan refugees? Now there are women too, filing out of the local shops and houses. Are these Muslim women? Is this special halal milk? Can milk be halal?

Some street dogs are hanging around the truck and when it pulls away they look for other things to keep them amused. One of them, a youngster, trots towards me, tail wagging playfully. I know the language well, having owned dogs, and can read that he is friendly. Checking for ticks, mange and other unpleasant conditions, I see that he is well looked after, healthy and clean so scratch him behind the ears, that favourite caress of all dogs. Now he is my best friend and especially likes my box, which he snuffles with curiosity, leans against and finally, when nothing is forthcoming, guards with his life.
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10.45am Nell finds me, and we [including the dog, who told me in Dogue that his name is Rusty, by the way] head to the tailor shop where the “Boy” [Javid’s cousin], is organising the wrapping of the parcel. He translates that the Tailor will sew up the parcel completely despite our misgivings, as they no longer ask you to open the bag up in order to check the contents. They now have a machine which can do all that; easy! The cousin leaves and we watch the parcel being sewn up. Then we watch Rusty who has found a cute playmate and is romping about with her in the alley. Oh, what it is to be young and fancy free! He disappears around the corner with his lover; best friend with the parcel abandoned and already forgotten. We paid the tailor Rs200 plus Rs50 as a tip for the boy. “Be sure to give that to him”, we said.
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11.30am The post office is a long way down near the airport so we caught a taxi there for Rs100. The man at the counter raised his eyebrows when he saw our parcel and pointed us in the general direction of a board on the wall which indicated that there were, in fact, prepaid boxes for international parcels up to 5 Kg at Rs 2500 for standard air mail. “These ones are expensive, no?” said the man at the counter. We agreed; glad that our traditional parcel would be cheaper, it must weigh less than 5Kg.
We decided to go ahead and turned back to the man behind the counter. This time he indicated that we would have to go around the counter, through a door to the back of the office where somebody would fill in a form for us. Everybody was very friendly and cheerful as though they were having a great time doing something different to relieve the incredibly dull work they were normally engaged in. Smiles and jokes were being shared by customers and staff alike. Our arrival had cheered the place up no end.

And then the man behind the counter asked us to open the parcel.

“But...umm, you have got a machine...you know...x-ray,” we stammered. “No machine,” the man behind the counter said, “you can go there” pointing towards a shelf. One of the Post Office Ladies handed us a pair of scissors, a needle and some thread; it was obviously a common occurrence for they had the materials readily at hand. Opening the parcel was quick enough, as was the cursory inspection that followed, but sewing it back up by hand took us the best part of half an hour.
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By now we knew everybody personally, it was a most relaxed atmosphere. The tellers were doing Facebook on their computers, their families gathered around with the kids playing on the floor together. Names and addresses were being exchanged and photos taken so that we could send them to everybody when we got back home. We all had a lot of fun.
“That will be Rs 5975’’ said the man behind the counter [whose name is Stanzen Tondup by the way, we knew that by now]. “ Yes, look, weigh more than 8Kg.”

“More than 8 Kg...? There must be something wrong with the scales!” I exclaimed.

“Can that be right...almost Rs6000?” I asked Nell [hoping she would tell me that someone had made a mistake]. “Um...it looks like it” she replied slowly; “how much is that anyway?”[Hoping that I would tell her that it was not as much as she thought.] But we had both worked it out by then...a lot...more than all the gifts in the box put together. More than all the gifts and the folded up clothes [the ones that Nell had decided to send home as she was not using them] put together.

What’s going on? This is India, where everything is cheap! We were confused; as Stanzen had said that the prepaid boxes were expensive, so our old fashioned, slow mail parcel...

12.30 pm We did not want to argue with our new found friends, they were so nice, and so cheerful; so we just paid and left.
Refusing to pay for a taxi, we had a long, uphill but rather pleasant walk back up to Leh, through country lanes and little barley fields. The way Leh used to be before the tourist influx. We enjoyed the sound of babbling streams and birds and yet we were only a few hundred metres away from the hubbub, heat and dust of the main road.
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2.15pm We arrived thirsty and hot back at our favourite trendy watering hole the Open Hand Cafe, where, slurping our ice cold lassis, we pondered on the day’s events. By sending this parcel we had made the day for quite a lot of people; Javid, his cousin, the tailor, the taxi driver, Stanzen, Stanzen’s family, possibly his colleagues and their families, probably a corrupt post office manager, no doubt a high ranking civil servant and definitely the owners of this trendy cafe with their expensive lassis.
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It’s good to know that a day’s effort and a few bucks go such a long way. In India.

The parcel arrived a month after we got home.

Posted by takinitezy 27.10.2012 03:38 Archived in India Tagged rupees sari lassi indian_post_office tankha Comments (0)

The Nubra Valley

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We had a few days of recuperation in Leh after our trek and managed to find an organised tour into the Nubra Valley which is very close to the Tibetan and Pakistani borders. Over the last couple of years they have opened these areas to tourism as there have been no border disputes, although special permits are still issued to those who want to go there.

Before we had left on our trek we had put a poster in an agent’s window asking for extra people to share the cost of a jeep hire to Nubra. The agent soon found two more sharers but, as this is India, and backpackers are always looking for a better deal, they had dropped out when we arrived back in Leh so we had to plan again. The nice Tibetan guy with the long plait, who had organised our rafting earlier, was able to slot us into a Nubra trip with just enough time to find us a permit that day [we had to provide him with our passports].

One evening we saw the grand final Polo match of the Leh festival, which was rather disappointing; not really a spectator sport as most of the action is a long way away on the other side of the enormous playing field. There was the odd time it did get exciting when a group of ponies thundered past and stirred up the dust, the riders flailing their mallets in the general proximity of the ball. It seemed to me that the ball was only touched very occasionally, more by chance than judgement. But hey, who am I to comment? I know how hard it is just to stay on a horse let alone steer the animal where you want it to go with one hand!
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The locals next to us were happy enough, smiling their toothless smiles at us as we did a running commentary as though we were at home in front of the telly watching a World Cup Football match. “YES, good try mate... that’s it, that’s it...NOW!! OH NO, he missed the effing ball!! What a useless game this is!” The old guys grinned broadly and nodded encouragingly.

We wandered back through the old part of town where a multitude of businesses plied their trade; fabric shops, hardware, goldsmiths, tinsmiths, barbers and so on. These were real shops with real prices for real locals, not catering for well heeled tourists from afar.

Day one

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“WELCOME TO ONE AND EVERY TOURIST KHARDONGLA HIGHEST MOTORABLE ROAD IN THE WORLD ALTITUDE 18380 FT.” said the sign on the pass. Work it out in metres for yourselves if you like, but I’m not sure of either claim; the height or the motorableness. The jeep was full of six of us; Tom the psychologist, Arek the microelectronic engineer, Paul the social worker/ DJ, Ernesta the teacher, us two oldies and the driver. It had taken us an hour and a half to get here on endless hairpin bends as we ascended the mountain with the snows of Zanskar rising and the fields of Leh dwindling, still visible behind us for most of the climb.
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Some small patches of dusty snow, a hopeful host of prayer flags, military huts and oil drums littered the pass. It was cold, dirty, scruffy and smelly as we visited the highest public toilets in the world which emptied their contents a few meters down the slope through open pipes. We felt dizzy and out of breath due to the lack of oxygen and the excess of methane and ammonia. But despite the discomfort I was excited, because way in the distance we could see a spine of snow capped mountains; the edge of Tibet.
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It’s strange how drawn I am to Tibet. I had been very close to the border in Yunnan Province of China a few years before and I was enchanted then by the rosy cheeked character of the people. They seem to shine with an inner beauty, just like those Ladakhis we had got to know on our trek. The magical mystery of Tibet is enhanced by the difficulty in getting there; I had not been able to go from Yunnan but I always wonder whether there will be any magical mystery left after many years of Chinese occupation. In Yunnan my friend Daniel had said that to go there would only cause me distress, when I saw the destruction and oppression of such a unique and beautiful people.

The scale of this place is difficult to appreciate. Somehow the mountains are quite approachable from here and it seems possible to climb them in an hour or two. Up the scree slope, along that ridge and you’re there; not too bad really. But when you descend in the jeep for hours through the same valley with the same mountains constantly in view, not seeming to make much progress, you realise that the valley is a lot larger than you had thought.
It is not until you have something to compare with, that the scale becomes clear. There was not a single tree to be seen. Those little brown bits of grass are barley plots and whole villages with houses. When you spot a little dot moving across the slope you realise that it is a truck on the road 4 kilometres ahead of you. What looks like an eroded gulley in a dusty creek is in fact a hundred metre deep river gorge. Yaks look like ants; pebbles are the size of houses as you get closer to them.
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The road was wickedly bad. We bumped and swayed, held on for our dear lives as we passed other cars stuck axle deep in mud and trucks that had overturned the previous week. Amazingly we saw guys on motorbikes [mending a puncture] and even someone on a mountain bike with all his gear in saddlebags. [Doing the Himalayan Trail, one of the ultimate cycling challenges].
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As we got further down, the road got a little easier, but now we were worried by the speed the driver was doing down the single gravel lane, often with a deadly drop on one side and a rocky cliff the other. There were endless blind corners but he did not slow down at all. The men in the car were trying to keep their cool, pretending that they were used to this kind of reckless rally driving. It was up to the women [always more sensible] to speak up and Nell was the first to do so. We spoke up; the driver reluctantly agreed but it did not last long. Ten minutes later he was at it again. Several times we screeched to a halt just inches from the front bumper of a vehicle coming the other way around a blind corner. There was little we could do except remind him from time to time. It’s just the way people drive over here. They rely on their luck, or to put it another way; their Karma. If you have led a good life then your next one will be even better.

After spotting a marmot we looked for them on the slopes but soon realised how much they look like rocks. So we did a lot of rock spotting but saw very few marmots...it kept us amused. “Was that a marmot?” I asked the driver, knowing full well that it was. I regretted making such a stupid tourist comment immediately afterwards. No wonder they think tourists are stupid. I did it to try and involve him in our enthusiasm for every little detail of our trip, but should have realised that all he was thinking of was how to get us to our destination before it got dark; or whether his heavily pregnant wife was beginning her contractions yet; or that he would not have to talk to us too much. He was obligingly enthusiastic saying, “yes, many Mamot here, many many Mamot!” We saw three.

After Kardung village, which was strung out for quite a distance along the hanging valley we diverted for many kilometres around a gorge and ended up on a high shoulder above the Nubra valley. It seemed even dryer than the Indus valley around Leh. Very rocky and sandy with scorched scrub desert, the only patches of green around villages. The river was like flowing mud and could hardly be distinguished from the landscape at first glance. It took some concentration to see that part of the wide and flat valley floor was flowing...that part was the river.
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On the valley floor there was quite a different flora to the Indus valley. Here the trees and shrubs were reminiscent of a desert; thorny scrub, Acacia and occasionally Casuarina. Most of the hedges around settlements and farms were piled up thorns, presumably to protect the livestock against Wolves and Leopards. The valley narrowed as we drove for many kilometres towards Turtuk village near the Pakistani border. We passed many military camps, an airfield and had to stop twice for passport checks. Turtuk had only been opened up very recently and was the “cool” place to go. The river now raged through the precipitously narrow valley, past mountain-sized blocks of stone, twisting between unbelievably huge scree slopes and suddenly opened up onto Turtuk.
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This village and its people are of a very different character. It is Muslim. There were excitable youths and charming children who plied us with questions. Tourists were still a novelty to them. The driver did not know about any accommodation here and after asking a local took us to a very expensive tent “resort” which we rejected immediately. After wasting much time we asked him to drive us back up into the village and found another place ourselves, the Balti guesthouse which was tucked way into the alleyways of Turtuk. We had spent nine hours in the car, which left us with very little time to explore the village. As always, organised trips are far and fast travel, waste too much time driving and do not provide enough time to enjoy the character of a place.
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Being located in such a steep valley, the light soon disappeared behind the mountains so we wasted no time in going for a walk through the village. The women wore veils; the men little white skullcaps. There was a mosque with a rickety wooden minaret. It was how I imagined a village in Pakistan or Afghanistan would be; no longer like Ladakh. Turtuk was greener than any village we had seen before; there was no lack of water from a rushing, icy blue mountain stream that runs through the centre. A bouncy suspension bridge connected the two halves. Being tucked between the mountains meant that the crops did not scorch in the relentless desert sun and we saw lots of veggies growing on the terraces.
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But despite being such a remote village with very little tourism, it seemed more prosperous than those we had visited on our trek. The little children could all speak remarkably good English so the education must be good. We had fun with them as we strolled around the alleyways. The prosperity was probably due to the large numbers of military personnel in the area, some infrastructure has to be provided. Military presence has its positive spinoffs.

It was getting dark and we found some food at the only little eatery in town; SELMO RESTURANT, less of a restaurant really than a teahouse. We had booked ahead and a special Chef had been brought in to cook for us. He was just one of the local youths who seemed to run the place. I don’t think there was anyone older than twenty five. This was their regular haunt where they could gather for a drink, play cards and dream of riches brought by tourists like us. Dinner was simple enough, Chapattis and Dal, but it took about an hour of lighting the stove, making the bread, burning the first lot and starting again with much arguing in the kitchen; only then to arrive in dribs and drabs. We had two lots of tea while we were waiting, and even those took forever to arrive. But we did not mind, it was fun being served by a different kid every time. They were falling over themselves to help us.
We watched the roadside entertainment with people, tractors and trucks passing by from higher in the valley. The trucks were brimming with men who grinned and waved enthusiastically at us as we peered over the banister. There certainly was a jolly atmosphere in Turtuk.India_2011_1007.jpg
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Day two.

We were off to Diskit, which meant driving all the way back along the same road, spectacular enough but somewhat wearying the second time around. As we passed through little villages we saw lots of flags and flowers along the road. People were gathered in little clumps wearing their Sunday best clothes; or in this case, the traditional costumes worn only on very special occasions. Today a very important Lama was passing through, coming home to this region where he is Chief Buddhist administrator. [He was of Rinpoche “rank”]. I would have liked to stop and take some photos but the driver had a purpose.
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The villagers had made a huge effort to welcome him home after his travels, all for a brief glimpse and wave as he passed through in his large four wheel drive. We stopped for lunch and saw the convoy of security and retinue vehicles pass by. We could not even determine which car was his, but guessed when the locals suddenly cheered.

Then we went for a camel ride in some sand dunes. Yes, I know; touristy! But my motto is; DO WHAT THERE IS. [Which is actually a second hand motto, provided to me by a diplomat lady friend in Kenya who was showing my wife and I how to feed giraffes from a high platform at the time]. It was silly but it was fun!
More authentic was when a large flock of goats and sheep came through the valley and completely surrounded us as we were walking back to the jeep. An opportunity to get up close for some nice photographs.
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The Gompa at Diskit was closed for lunch when we got there. Nell and I seem to have a habit of doing that. Bad timing; but a kind monk opened up especially for us. Nell stayed near the toilets as she could feel another bout of Delhi Belly coming on. In the main temple, which also served as a canteen the monks were having bread and soup, and managing to chant at the same time; no mean feat. In one corner there was a wonderful sand Mandalay in a cabinet. I could not understand that, since I thought the whole idea was to destroy the beautiful creation as soon as it was finished, to illustrate the impermanence of everything.
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Some other tourists showed little respect for the kind monk who had let us in. He had asked us to be as quiet and unobtrusive as possible, but the other tourists marched through loudly and took flash photographs as though it was all for their entertainment. It’s a wonder the monks let tourists in at all. Another, older temple had very delicate Thankas and precious artefacts. The monk stood by to advise us again that no photographs were allowed here. The other tourists still took them behind the monk’s back. I could hear the clicking of their shutters and so could the monk.
From the Gompa on top of the hill we looked down towards a large, rather garish statue of the Buddha but we had no idea of how big it was until we arrived there.
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The plan was to stay in this town for the night but we asked the driver to take us to a small village called Saumur further up the valley, since Diskit was rather scruffy and uninteresting. It did mean another two hour drive but we had not seen this bit before and it turned out to be well worth it. A charming guest house was found very quickly and the whole group went for a lovely walk in the evening which turned out to be much further than anticipated but gave us a good appetite for the evening meal. Whether it was our appetite or the skill of the cook we will never know but I can say without hesitation that the aubergine curry was the best food we had eaten in India and still rates amongst my most delicious meals ever. We all agreed and asked for more, much more of the same please! We still strive to recreate that recipe and send each other e-mails to see if we have discovered the secret. [I suspect it has something to do with using a rare Himalayan mutton stock...]
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Day three

I was up early. The mist was still hovering over the barley fields. Already the locals were heading out to harvest. A glow of sun touched the tops of mountains but it was cold. I followed the raised runnels used to irrigate the terraces, walking along the low dikes which served as footpaths. The bunches of Barley were laid in neat rows ready for the sun. Rows of twisted lentil plants had been cut and snaked through the fields. Clear water ran through the channels. The hedges were of thorns and more than two metres tall. This was life in the Nubra valley; all was as it should be. The harvest was coming in, ready for the long winter ahead. No doubt villagers on the other side of the border were doing the same. Where the borders are is irrelevant.
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Not far from the guesthouse was Samsteling Monastery which was where the Dalai Lama would stay on his rare visits. It was fairly modern by Gompa standards and very smart and prosperous looking. The colours of the wall paintings were particularly bright because they were only a couple of hundred years old. I personally prefer the really old ones which have faded into subtle shades; they exude mystery even though they are not so perfect. [Sigh] wall paintings are not what they used to be. It was a cheerful visit that made us all smile. Someone had offered a packet of Hobnobs to an image of the Dalai Lama. Lots of young monks came out to play football during their morning break from lessons.
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The trip back to Leh was quite nice to start with. We saw Tibetan dogs, marmots and gentians when we stopped for tea. But then we ground and bumped back up to the pass with the hot sun glaring and Nell and I developing a headache which got worse when we had to wait for two hours right at the top for an army convoy. The lack of oxygen, altitude and diesel fumes made us feel quite ill. It took several hours down in Leh and numerous strong pills for our headaches to subside.

Posted by takinitezy 12.10.2012 02:25 Archived in India Tagged river valley himalayas buddha lama jeep ladakh leh nubra scree Comments (0)

The Sham Trek part 2

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Likhir Monastery

Breakfast was a bottomless tea flask, home- made chapattis, butter and jam. Dad was going to Leh on the 9am bus and we were going to walk up to Likhir Monastery further up the valley which is one of the most active in Ladakh, with more than a hundred monks in residence. It dates back to the 11th century and the Gyalukpa order was later established in the 15th century by Lama Lawang Lhotos it said in the brochure.

Dad waved to us from the hill where the bus waited while we huffed and puffed to meet him there, so that he could show us where to find the path up to the monastery. It did not look far in the crystal clear air, but took us three hours, losing the path twice in that time. Much of the time we walked along the edge of irrigation channels built from stone along the contours of the valley sides. Water was conducted from many kilometres higher up to be distributed on the terraced barley fields of villages and farms. There was no need of pumps to lift the water; everything was done by gravity and had been done so for centuries. These aqueducts are a testament to the incredible effort made by the Himalayan people to eke out a living from the harsh environment they live in. Other than the tiny irrigated fields and orchards there was barely a sign of greenery on the slopes of the steep mountains all around.
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Walking along these channels on top of the walls meant we were climbing almost imperceptibly towards the monastery although we could not see it until we climbed further up the slope and back towards the main path. Most of the fields around the monastery provide an income and food for the monks. We saw monks and villagers working side by side to bring in the harvest. The barley is cut with little hand scythes and left in bunches then turned to dry. Later the bunches are tied together and piled on the backs of people who carried the stack to another place to be threshed, sacked up and distributed. They looked like walking haystacks, especially from the back. I wondered what the donkeys were for; they seemed to have a life of leisure tethered to a stake in the middle of a field.
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Nothing had changed for centuries; it was like wandering through a mediaeval feudal village, apart from the clothes people were wearing. Rows of harvesters squatted amongst the golden waving fronds, sometimes singing or chanting to lift their spirits, swinging their scythes to the rhythm. Purple mountains towered in the background with a patch of snow on Stok Kangri shining like a jewel in the crown. We rested in the shade of a wall and drank in the peaceful scene for quite a while.
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We walked back into the 21st century at the monastery, climbing up some steps and hitting the tarmac road, where some jeeps were discharging sightseers and a roadside cafe beckoned us in for refreshments. They were building a completely new wing onto the monastery, but with traditional materials of rock, mud and wood so that it blended in seamlessly with the existing style of the building. The old building crafts were alive and well, despite the convenience of concrete and steel. The 20 metre tall Buddha statue was also undergoing a restoration with bamboo scaffolding all around to enable the gold leaf to be applied. I doubt whether the somewhat garish paint they used for the decorations was traditional.
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These ancient buildings always look bigger from a distance than they actually are. Built in a monumental style and perched on top of a rocky outcrop, the massive walls sloping in towards the top create a false perspective. From afar there seem to be several layers piled on top of one another like a wedding cake, but in fact the layers are seldom more than two storeys tall and the layered effect is due to the contours of the outcrop they are built on. Then when you enter, you suddenly realise that these building were made for small people, the doors and windows being proportionally smaller too. We had to duck through doors built in the 11th century and bend down to peer through the windows.
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Our eyes were assailed by a confusion of extraordinary images as we entered the temples, most of which we did not understand. Strange objects, deities and effigies were enclosed in glass cabinets with photos of the Dalai Lama and other high ranking Buddhist monks propped up next to them. Bizarre, sensual, sexual and violent images were painted on the walls. A bull-headed black monster with multiple limbs and bulging eyes was both dancing and copulating with a blue-skinned woman. Necklaces of human skulls featured prominently as did lions, rats, elephants and strange hybrid creatures. I even spotted a lion tattoo on the arm of a deity [They’re pretty cool these Buddhists]. The weirdest thing of all were the woollen cloaks of monks arranged in neat rows like squirts of Mr Softie ice cream, along what can only be described as pews. They looked as though they had been there for centuries. Did they contain the shrunken remains of monks?
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In fact the monks had gone to lunch, but one’s imagination can go into overdrive when confronted by this cacophony of fantastic imagery.
I have tried to make sense of the images I saw in these Gompas but after doing a bit of research found the incredible complexity of it all too much to comprehend. It seems to be a blend of ancient beliefs and different sects of Buddhism with their own paths to enlightenment and their own particular symbolism. Throughout the ages there were many contradictions and disagreements between the various schools of Buddhist philosophy and every monastery would have their own local variations in their temples. If you had been raised in this culture it would all be part of your everyday life, but it would take me years of study to begin to understand.
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There was also a little museum with ancient Thankas [religious paintings such as Mandalas on cloth] and strange old artefacts; chain mail, swords, guns, manuscripts, religious items made from human bones and so on.
In the courtyard was a public tea urn and we helped ourselves on this hot afternoon. We were the only visitors at this hour but then a tall, tanned European, perhaps around forty years old, loped towards us and said hello as he came through the courtyard door. He was Dutch and, drinking his tea, told us he walks nearly everywhere, occasionally hitching a ride with a truck driver. For years he had travelled in this way all over Asia, with a small backpack and a little money earned by teaching and doing odd jobs. You would think he would have learned the art of patience and taking one's time by now, but he was restless and rushed off to the temples. When he discovered they were closed for lunch he shouted goodbye to us and said he could not be bothered to wait and would walk back to Leh [which had taken us 4 hours in the bus]. His basketball shoes were worn out and had split at the soles.

We followed him out and saw him taking a short cut across the terraced fields towards the only bridge. Our path was less steep and he soon disappeared up the valley side and towards Likir and the main road. It was around 30 degrees C and we hoped to find a cafe open in Likir village but were disappointed. So scrambled back across the steep gorge to our lodgings and crashed for a couple of hours. The visit to this Gompa was our test to see if we could handle the altitude [between 3500 and 4000 metres]. We had walked much further than anticipated, but took it very slowly so had been out all day. After tea and an amazingly ample dinner of Samosas, Momos and barley pasta with Sitoo [vegetable curry] we were exhausted and had an early night once again.

Breakfast was the same as yesterday, as was the packed lunch Sonom gave us for our walk; Chapattis and jam. With our fairly heavy packs we climbed up to Pobe La, at 3550 metres [or 3747 m according to the text]. Or was it Chagatse la at 3610 metres [or 3650 m]? We were discovering that the brochure and map were not very consistent. The morning was cloudy and cool so progress was good as we levelled out onto a twisting road with staggering views all around.

At Sumdo, a tiny hamlet of no more than two houses, we stopped by a rushing stream to bathe our hot feet and eat our lunch. The bridge had been rebuilt very recently after the damage of the previous year. A couple of French trekkers were just leaving this cool spot as we arrived and fifteen minutes later two young Israeli guys came from behind us for a chat. We were not the only trekkers on this route, but by far the oldest, which perversely made us feel pretty good.
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As is the way of treks, we had to climb to the next pass, which was higher than the first. The path led up through a gulley which was sheltered from the cool breeze and in the high altitude sun became scorching hot. Nell was struggling and I, even though I was used to walking in northern Australia, really felt it too. Climbing in the rare air, Nell developed a system of counting the number of steps she could manage and then taking a breather. Each slope was different of course but the system helped us to concentrate on moving with the minimum effort, refining our technique as we placed one foot in front of the other and being able to increase the number of steps accordingly.

We passed a number of remarkable pillars of rock capped by a hard layer, which, when the softer rock was eroded away produced giant mushroom shapes. The colours of the earthy mountains ranged from pale yellow to pink, green to white, often with sharply defined edges where convoluted layers with certain minerals provide the pigmentation. The rocks were shattered by frost into tiny particles which slide down into steep, vee shaped gullies cut by streams and rivulets that eventually end up in the soup like river Indus. These were the living rocks of the Himalaya, always moving upward, twisting, cracking, shifting, sliding, eroding and blowing away again.
This was to be the overall impression on our walks between tiny villages tucked into the valleys. A continual magnificent display of the Earth’s crust being transformed into this lunar landscape without the stabilising roots of vegetation slowing down the process. Each new day was as spectacular as the last as the clouds added their own contrast and colour to the drama of light and shade under the ultramarine sky.
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Yang Tang Tokpo lies in the river valley below Yang Tang, and was completely hidden from our view as we approached along the road, so we asked directions from someone at one of the basic campsites provided for those trekkers who did not stay at homestays. As we reached the rim of the gorge we looked down on a patchwork of small barley fields with the harvest neatly arranged in rows and the river cutting between traditional whitewashed farmhouses; a little microcosm of old Ladakh, hidden away from the world and without visible signs of the 21st century.
The bridge here had also washed away and not been repaired yet, so we had to cross over the river to our homestay balancing on rocks and some logs that had been placed there for temporary access. A woman in her late thirties waved to us and led us towards her house above the river. The family was engaged in harvesting apricots but were having lunch in the shade of a tree. We had arrived in the middle of the day and Dolker, the woman who had greeted us prepared some lunch of tea and Tsampa [a dough of barley flour] with mashed tomato and onion. She made her excuses and took a tray of food out to the family.
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Nell was eager to see the harvest so after lunch we headed out to where Tashi, the father, was perched in an apricot tree, bashing the branches with a long pole to knock down the fruit. His son Gurmat was collecting them in tins and emptying those into a triangular, wicker carrying basket. There were only two tins and when we started to help Gurmat fill one, he went back up to the house and came back with some more so the work could be done quicker.
Gurmat was around 17 years old and could speak some English, fairly typical of young people and children in the region. His parents could not, so he was our interpreter for the length of our stay. We discovered that he had a younger brother and sister but they were at school in Hemis, the next village along our trekking route about 4 hours away at our pace. They board there during the week and walk home on Saturday afternoon for a day at home. Apparently some children walk there and back every day if their families could not afford the boarding fees.
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The apricots were carried up to the roof which was thankfully only a few steps up at the side of the house, where grandad Stopgas was pitting the fruit by hand and building two piles. The stones would be crushed to produce oil used for massage and cosmetics and were in fact the main income from the fruit; the flesh was dried in the sun on long planks of wood, to be eaten in the winter. [We always carried a bag of dried apricots with us on our trip to India as snacks, but they were dryer and harder to chew than those you see in supermarkets, which have preservatives added]
When all the apricots had been collected from that particular tree we helped Stopgas with the pitting and sorting of fruit. Despite being amazingly practiced and rapid, he was getting behind as the supply increased. I lost count of the Number of times I threw the stones onto the wrong pile trying to keep up. Nell then helped with the shelling of small green peas which were to be our dinner later that evening.
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Sharing work like this made us feel closer and more at home with this lovely family. We chatted for a while over many cups of tea and Stopgas played his double barrelled flute for us which we recorded and filmed. That evening with the haunting, wavering sound will be in our memories for ever.
Dinner was homemade [of course] barley pasta with veggies [peas, carrots, cabbage and turnip], mild curry with chilli powder to taste, tea... We chatted some more. Spoke about the terrible floods two years before which washed away some of their paddocks, bridge and most of their livestock. They got no government assistance to rebuild. Life is very hard for subsistence farmers. They were glad of our visit to help re-establish the farm. Grandad Stopgas listened to the radio and twirled his prayer wheels. The Ladakhi governor was spouting tourism politics at the opening of the Leh Festival; “More eco tourism was required.” I hope he meant the kind we were engaged in, where most of the money went to the poor farmers.

Yang Tang to Hemis

Brekkie at eight was the usual plus the obligatory packed lunch. Gurmat guided us to the start of the trail where we meet the same Frenchies with their guide plus an Aussie with two other young French people. They soon left us behind as we slogged up another hot and steep gulley with the road zig zagging nearby. We saw a bus and a Ute [Aussie for a pickup truck] and that was all.
At the pass we could see both ends of our day’s trek. Both Yang Tang and Hemis seemed ridiculously close in the clear mountain air. Had we really slogged for hours to make so little progress? It was hot and dusty, our feet were throbbing, Nell was overheating and as were resting at the edge of the Hemis valley a woman approached us with the promise of showers at her guesthouse nearby. We still had several kilometres to walk to a homestay so it did not take much persuasion to follow her.
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The shower turned out to be a bucket of hot water in a shed, but hey; this was luxury compared to an icy cold runnel near the house! We needed a wash badly. For 800 Rupees we got 3 delicious meals, including lunch as we arrived, the shower and electricity in the room. That is good value for an extra A$2.50 but I regret that we had not gone to a SLC homestay where the money was evidently more needed and used for a good cause. We ate with the family as in a homestay. The owner is in military administration and works in Delhi for most of the year. We gathered that his wife manages the farm, as well as cooking for him, the guests and some Nepalese workers who were hired to help with the harvest. To the Nepalese, even the pitifully low wages in India was good money in comparison. The Nepalese were very dark skinned and slept outside whilst we read our books by the priviliged light of our electric bulb.

Hemis to Ang

A long gentle slope led us past barley fields and a stand of ancient Juniper trees. This was one of the last stands of these trees since the leaves were used widely as incense in monasteries over the centuries. The village community are now engaged in their protection. The first pass, Rhongi La of 3816 metres was already visible at the end of a long dry incline, some Stupa and prayer walls. This was an easy start. All the trekkers started at the same time, in the cool of the morning. There was the French couple with guide, then a couple of Swedish guys of our age, travelling very light with water, some toilet paper and lunch. We got to the pass and were overtaken by a German family who disappeared rapidly down the loose, brightly coloured scree slope before us.

A long, rocky traverse across a wild and remote mountainside led us to a shady spot at noon, to eat lunch and replenish our reserves for the formidable screed slope to the second pass towering above us. Nell battled up first; the soft sand yielding under our weight as we slide back a little for each step we take. Agonisingly slowly we reached another path much less steep. Then we realised that Nell had found a shortcut, more direct but much harder. The proper path seemed relatively easy now and we made good progress; Nell managing about 30 to 40 steps/breather and 20 to 30steps/breather on steeper bits.
We were proud of ourselves with the achievement. A 300 to 400 metre climb on soft screed, in burning heat, carrying packs and, most importantly, up to an altitude of 3845 metres is something to be proud of!
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A long ramble down a dry eroded gulley later we were sitting in a parachute tea shop near Ang, being served cool drinks from the mountain fridge; a splashing mountain stream. Having carried a tent all this way we felt obliged to use it once at least, since this was the last night on our trek. We camped on a grassy bank next to Fridge Rivulet and a couple of tethered Dzos. We crashed out for a couple of hours then walked to the village, had fun with kids and spent an uncomfortable night under canvas. My advice is; stay at the homestays, don’t bother with a tent.
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Reflections on the bus back to Leh

We were told the bus was 15 minutes down the valley, where the road was better. We could see the damage caused by the flooding of the previous year. In places the road ended sharply at the river bank and continued on the opposite side of the river, although we were walking along a temporary track.
There was no obvious place for a bus to stop even after 40 minutes of walking. Temishgan the next village was ahead and below us. “Yes, 10 minutes further” we were told by a woman. We panicked; the bus would have left by now.
Then a loud hooting from behind us! There was the bus, already quite full with passengers from Ang. We had not needed to walk anywhere. The trip back to Leh took 5 hours, a bumpy and precipitous road along the Indus River, where flood damaged villages cling to the edge of the gorge.
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I thought about the simplicity of life we had left behind in the high villages and how the floods had caused such devastation. The shadow of climate change looms over them. The poor farmers seem so vulnerable. The floods would occur again and ever more severe; the glaciers are shrinking and their water supply would dry up. Centuries of labour to construct the aqueducts would have been in vain. Whole villages would be washed away.
What do Tashi, Dolker, Stopgas and Gurmat know of this? What is in store for them as they bravely rebuild their farm and lives? I would not speak to them of this while we sat together. It may have devastated them and shattered their hopes. Or did they know and had no choice but to continue as before?
But then I compared them with our western world and realised that they were better prepared than us. They are more resilient than us, the way they live; with a local economy, communal support and self-sufficient ways. They have that tough, inherited mentality of past generations surviving in this harsh environment. They also have the gift of happiness in hardship which is brought by acceptance and belief in a greater force than themselves. I don’t believe in deities or gods but I do believe in the worth of belief itself. Call it trust in the future, or optimism, or belief in the essential goodness of Man.
When rich countries are fighting wars over dwindling resources and food, they will continue to grow their crops and herd their beasts in some remote place where life is hard and happy. I hope that this way of life will not be lost for we can learn much from it and it will be good for the future generations of these wonderful people.

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Posted by takinitezy 23:07 Comments (0)

The Sham Trek

Part 1

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An organisation called The Snow Leopard Conservancy [SLC] displayed several posters around Leh town which caught my interest. They were advertising a scheme which involved local communities to protect mountain ecosystems and hence the habitat of the highly endangered Snow Leopard.
Whereas previously the villagers would shoot leopards and wolves when they began to take their livestock as prey, they are now engaged in their protection with this innovative, highly participatory scheme.
The SLC has established the Himalayan Homestays program along some trekking routes in Ladakh, Zanskar and Spiti. Homestays offer the trekker a unique opportunity to stay with, and share the culture of Ladakhi people in their traditional homes in remote villages. It allows you to enjoy the rhythm of life in hamlets where farming and livestock herding has been the way of life for centuries.
Although only recently established, the organisation has already been very successful. They have trained over 90 homestay providers at more than 20 sites in Ladakh. Of the average of 500 visitors annually, 91% have rated the host service as excellent.
The first ever fully sustained livestock insurance scheme was initiated at Ulley village [the highest and most remote where Snow Leopards and Wolves often prey on livestock] and others soon followed. The majority of a village’s large able-bodied livestock are insured against predatory animals but also other accidents.
There are also community led conservation drives that include restoration of village cultural features, garbage management, ban on the sale of plastic bottles, fencing of tree plantation areas and setting aside pasture areas.
Predator-proofed corrals were built that directly benefited more than 300 families and prevents incidents of multiple predations where 20-50 or more sheep are killed at a time.
By opting for a Himalayan Homestay, you help local people generate income from tourism activities in their village. This additional income helps in many ways; offsetting livestock losses caused by Snow Leopard and other predators; increasing local communities’ stake in conserving wildlife, and supporting local conservation actions that protect cultural and natural heritage.

We were impressed and wanted to contribute to this excellent scheme so chose an easy 5 day walk called the Sham Trek. Whether it was called Sham because it was not a “proper” trek I don’t know; but in retrospect it was hard enough for a couple of unfit 60 year olds [well, one of us anyway]. To avoid being “packaged” and spending a lot of money on guides and porters we decided to go on our own. The brochure had instructions which indicated that it would be easy enough to find the route.
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Our first local bus

We arrived at the bus stand an hour early but unfortunately all the seats had already been taken. There was only one bus per day serving several villages along our trek so a lot of locals would pile into the bus for the four hour trip to Leh in the morning, do their business and then return on the same bus in the afternoon. It seems that most of them had already completed their business an hour before it was due to leave.
After a few minutes of looking dejected [Nell had said there was no way she was going to stand], some young girls offered us their seats with no apparent prompting . We cheered up immediately and with big smiles on our faces thanked the girls profusely and sat down with our packs on our laps as they would not fit into the overhead racks. Nice to see some respect for elders still survives here.
We waited on the sunny side of the bus for more than an hour as, predictably, the bus was late and looking for a couple of extra passengers to cram in. We baked and burned our faces on one side, but refused to budge in case our seats would be taken by some-one else. In the meantime the girls and other passengers wandered on and off the bus to buy cold drinks and ice cream.
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Due to the discomfort we endured rather than enjoyed the journey. Apart from gazing open mouthed at the unbelievably rugged scenery unfolding on the other side of the dusty pane, the most memorable part was the communal smacking of bubble gum, an activity engaged in by the majority of passengers, often in time with the music blaring on the radio. We bumped across piles of rubble where the road had been washed away by floods. The worst damage had been done right through the centre of villages which had obviously been built long ago beside mountain streams, the lifeblood of this high altitude desert. This kind of damage had never happened before. Once again, here was visible evidence of unprecedented extreme weather events due to climate change.

Tarutse

We were dropped in the evening sunshine right in Tarutse the village where we had decided to start our trek, and walked down through narrow mud brick alleys until we saw a large traditional house with a discreet SLC sign on the roof.
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Our frantic gestures and mimes were politely interrupted by the young woman who greeted us at the door as she spoke in hesitant English; “yes come. You like some tea? Please sit.” She removed her shoes and we did the same before entering a small kitchen with mats and a low table that looked like a bench. We almost sat on the Choktse until we clicked that this was in fact, the Ladakhi table.
The woman’s name is Sonom; she was heavily pregnant and had a shy toddler clinging to her legs as she busied herself boiling a pot of water on a little two burner gas stove.
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An older man came in with a ruddy, weathered face and sparkling smile. He had been working in the fields and his clothes were worn and stained with earth. His hands were gnarled and powerful, used to hard labour; he stooped and limped slightly as he moved around the room. A little later when we enquired, with Sonom’s help as translator, he showed us his swollen knees and told us he owned the farm. Sonom is his daughter in law; his son was in the army and away on the Pakistani border somewhere incredibly remote and inhospitable for a period of many months, even years. Then his wife came in too, she had no English but greeted us warmly and had an aura of capable confidence about her.
After several cups of tea, some black and one with salt and butter, we were shown our room which was up a flight of stairs leading onto an enclosed roof courtyard. The whole building was made of mud, including the flat roof; an indication of the very low rainfall in this region. Our room, on one side of the courtyard was the biggest in the house and had large windows without curtains on two sides. The bed was two thick mats rolled out onto the floor and some blankets.
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Sonom and the toddler slept next door. The toilet was also on the roof and consisted of a dark room, the rickety door fastened by a piece of string, a pile of dirt, a shovel and a hole in the middle of the floor. This was the traditional Ladakhi long drop composting toilet; the compost would be collected a couple of years later and end up on the farmer’s fields. Our room was mirrored by another guest room on the other corner of the house and Dad’s bedroom was along the back. I peeked inside and saw a little decorated altar with a Buddha, a picture of the young Dalai Lama and incense burners gently filling the air with a perfumed haze.

After a short nap we went for a quick walk around the village and took photos in the dramatic evening light.
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Our meal was being prepared and we ate our barley bread, vegetable curry with curd and rice in the company of the family. More tea.
We were shown into the large traditional kitchen and living room next door, the walls of which were covered with rickety cupboards filled with many polished copper, steel and tin pots, pans, plates and cups. It was as though the family wealth was on display, just like the European “Parlour”. The largely empty polished earthen floor was punctuated with crooked, carved pillars supporting the roof courtyard above. Low tables and mats were arranged along the window wall and a huge traditional earthen wood burning stove dominated the space as well as a smaller, decorated metal one.
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They showed us the store of barley chaff under the floor, which would be used in the winter to feed the few animals they kept in high walled enclosures next to the house. Every evening they brought in their animals, presumably to protect them from predators.
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Nell showed the family pictures of Tasmania and her house, in which they took great delight; especially the photos of cows and sheep grazing in a lush landscape so different to theirs. After more cups of tea, Mother occupied herself with making curd from fresh milk and Father sat in the corner and murmured prayers from an ancient prayer book whilst spinning his prayer wheel. He would do this at every opportunity, during breaks from work in the fields; a devout and kind man, with hope and laughter shining in his eyes.
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I could not help noticing a resigned sadness in Sonom’s demeanour; she moved around quietly and gracefully, the toddler peering at us with wide open dark eyes from behind her mother’s loose pants. She obviously had the task of serving the guests and did so most attentively but we learned that she was waiting to buy her own farm with her husband’s earnings whilst he was in the Army. It would probably take many years of separation and loneliness whilst living in with her parents-in-law.
We retired to bed early, brushing our teeth at the outdoor bathroom which was no more than a tap by the front door with a bucket to wash yourself in.
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No doubt the family were tired and so were we after a day of new experiences. We were both thrilled to be here; these were the kind of experiences we had hoped for when we came to India. Dad was softly chanting and murmuring prayers as we fell asleep to the smell of incense and cow dung.
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Continued in The Sham Trek -part 2

Posted by takinitezy 00:25 Archived in India Tagged trekking homestays ladakh snow_leopards Comments (0)

Leh

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We were looking forward to our flight across the Himalaya, from Delhi to Leh in Ladakh. The flight always leaves early in the morning because the weather can get thundery and violent at this time of year, the end of the monsoon. Nell was keen to see the snowfields and glaciers which signified the end of her humid heat treatment in Delhi. She had never flown across high mountain ranges before and peered keenly out of the window at any patch of snow she could spot. She thought they were awesome but I must admit I was not hugely impressed having flown across the Alps in winter, when the whole landscape was blindingly white, the faceted peaks sculpted as though from giant blocks of ice, reflecting and silhouetted against a deep blue sky as the aeroplane I was on banked and descended towards Geneva.

To the left, or western side of the aeroplane we were on, we could just see the Karakoram Range, several hundred kilometres away in Pakistan, as they towered above the rest. The mountains nearer to us were not as spectacular, although they were between five and six thousand metres tall which is normally more than high enough for plenty of permanent snow, but not in this region.

I remembered that this is a high altitude desert and precipitation is low. The monsoon is blocked by the main and highest range, the Himalaya proper, which we crossed in only ten minutes, did have some snowfields but were a little lower just here. After that there were huge areas of bare brown slopes instead, devoid of vegetation. Only the summits and shadowy valleys radiating from them had snow with small, dusty grey glaciers crumbling down the steep slopes.

The landing was fun, circling across the upper Indus Valley with rugged tributaries carving their way through kilometre high piles of rock. This is erosion on the grandest scale imaginable, millions of tons of the Earth’s crust being carried down to the ocean. Tiny patches of irrigated greenery marked the presence of Humans on rare, gentler slopes and as we dropped between the peaks became more defined as villages with fields and trees. It was only now that we realised the scale of the landscape. As we levelled out more than two kilometres below the summits; whole towns and villages were dwarfed by the mountains towering above them; Man making just an insignificant scratch on the Earth.
Long after Man has disappeared and their scratchings healed, these mountains will still stand tall [in fact growing higher due to tectonic lifting] and the rivers will still be grinding away; that is, if there are any glaciers and rivers left after Climate Change.
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Whoa! We felt the weird sensation as we walked from the little shuttle bus into the terminal. It was hard to catch our breath and we felt quite faint. Slow down, there is less oxygen up here at 3500 metres! Admittedly we were both still weak after several days of “die-a-horror-‘ere”. In fact, Nell was beginning to flake out altogether, rushing to the toilet and afterwards sitting quietly for a while as the terminal building emptied of passengers.
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I held it together as we found a taxi [run by a co-operative, so the prices were regulated] and tried to find the guesthouse we had decided on. We were misdirected three times, as the taxi driver had not heard of it, and ended up in such narrow streets that the taxi could only reverse out. Nell was looking grey as a glacier and would not last much longer. We got out, staggered painfully slowly up a narrow alley to find the place, until Nell collapsed on the steps of a guesthouse. They had no rooms available and my heart sank; not having booked and imagining that the whole of Leh was packed out. I tried another, leaving Nell behind on the steps. They had a room, and it was really nice compared to the ones we were used to in Delhi. The western style [does not mean with saddle] toilet actually flushed.

If it had taken me a long time to get up the stairs, it took Nell twice as long, taking a rest every twenty paces on the flat, or every six steps up. Poor Nell; she looked at me desperately [as if I could do anything about her condition], but was grateful that I had been so quick to find a room. I soon found out why she was looking so desperate, when she immediately disappeared into the bathroom. [No need to describe the ‘orific noises that echoed through the guesthouse.]

We really had found a great room at the Indus guesthouse, with a view of the palace, fort and monastery on the mountain sized rock that overlooks Leh and is visible from many kilometres away. It was also a tranquil spot with only a narrow pedestrian alley separating it from poplar trees and vegetable gardens. Nell was asleep and exhausted as I walked slowly around the block to get my bearings. It was so different to Delhi, thank goodness. There were no touts, the streets were relatively clean and the people all looked as though they at least had enough to eat and a home to eat in.
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Leh is one of those “Traveller friendly” towns. A place where all the usual facilities are available. Accommodation ranged from luxury hotels to cheap and scruffy backpacker hostels. There was a wide choice of restaurants with huge menus featuring tandoori pizzas or dal and chapattis; banana pancakes or chow mein. In fact the twenty page menus seem to have been copied from one another, trying to cater for tourists from as many different countries as possible. Italian, Greek, Middle Eastern, German, French, Chinese, Indonesian, Indian and yes, even Tibetan cuisines were represented. Oh, and “International” whatever that may be. This was the first time we came across Israeli food, for the benefit of the large numbers of young Israelis who can be found all over India these days.

There are internet cafes, German bakeries, coffee houses and cool places to hang out and strum a guitar. Many businesses cashing in on the tourist trade; stallholders, markets, little garage sized shops and “adventure” tour agents through whom you could book four wheel drive or motorcycle tours; treks, rafting or bicycle descents. Only a few of these businesses seemed to be owned by locals, their owners commuting seasonally from other parts of India or the big cities like Delhi. [I have only my personal encounters to rely on for this statement, but most of them were closing at the beginning of September already].
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The locals were occupied in getting on with the normal daily commerce that only incidentally included the tourists. Tailors, barbers, bakeries, religious artefact makers, tinsmiths, hardware stores and so on. Even the town itself was separated into the touristy bit on the green fringes, and the authentic bit in the alleys of Old Leh. Mostly the “traveller” would venture into the authentic, noisier, dirtier and more confronting part of town to have the “experience”, take artistic photographs, or buy some Immodium pills before scuttling back to their smug and cosy cafe to hang out with their cool countrymen. This planet is not lonely anymore.
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Enough comforts of the western world are available to enable even the most naive, young and sheltered to retreat into. But that is not necessarily a bad thing, since at least the relaxed atmosphere of the peaceful Buddhist society that exists here allows us westerners to glimpse the hard side of life in this place; if we are sensitive enough. A place such as Leh can serve as a tame introduction for travellers to begin to understand how the largest sector of Humanity; those who live in developing countries, have to struggle for the very basics of life. Or how women are treated in certain societies; or how few children ever make it to higher education and are taken out of school early to work for their parents. And so on.
If the Tourist or Traveller is sensitive enough to see, and does not believe that Travellerfriendlyland is Ladakh.Leh_region__217_.jpgLeh_region__216_.jpg
Ladhakis have, over the centuries, developed a society which, of necessity, was largely self- sufficient. Himalayan valleys were isolated from one another by high passes and severe cold, ice and snow in the winter. They grew crops of barley on tiny terraces, herded a few goats, hardy sheep and Yaks to provide them with enough food for their family and perhaps have a little left over to take to market in exchange for something extra to enhance their hard lives.

Leh was the market hub of Ladakhi society but in the last fifty years has become accessible by road and more recently air. The rest of the world has arrived and now the challenge is how to retain the peaceful and ecologically sound way of life developed through the centuries, nurtured by Buddhist principles, and at the same time bring the benefits of modern medicine, education and human rights to the local people. In my opinion and with some important reservations, it seems to have been achieved fairly well in Leh. We saw and met contented [no, more than that], happy people who greeted us always with a beaming smile and a cheery “jule”. There were nice looking schools and pupils with immaculate uniforms. Many of the older houses were rustically run down but reasonably comfortable on the inside. There was nobody sleeping on the street at night; nor did there seem to be much crime.

At the same time life is still hard. The locals continue to harvest their crops by hand and grow their own vegetables. They still keep a few goats or Dzos [cross between yaks and cows, a modern hybrid for improved yields]. They still earn a pittance from selling vegetables, making tin pots or sewing clothes. They wash their clothes in the streams and fetch water from public wells. Nevertheless tourism does seem to have brought some modest benefits, a way of earning a little more; some employment opportunities, improved infrastructure and Governmental support.
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While we were in Leh, the annual Ladakh Festival was on. The Governor of Ladakh in his opening speech extolled the virtues of “Ecotourism” and was boasting of the achievements to date. He saw a future of great expansion, with new flights into Leh and more accommodation and infrastructure planned. I heard his speech, which was in English, whilst sitting in the traditional kitchen of a struggling farmer’s homestay in a dry, rugged valley and could not help wondering what the Politician meant by Ecotourism and how Leh would be in a few years time. Leh was a world away from this simple farm.

Already there seemed to be far too many guesthouses for the amount of tourists and dozens more of them were being built all over. [Although admittedly in a restrained, traditional style...mostly]. Who in India, is going to place limits on expansion, and then regulate the process? Getting a room was always easy, the main issue being whether there was a better view or more value for money, at one or another. Eco and Tourism are two concepts difficult to combine in one word.

But we were Travellers too, or Tourists, or something in between [Travourists, Tourellers?]. Enjoying a respite from the stressy, messy streets of poor Old Delhi. To recover a bit from those nasty little gut bugs breeding inside us. We wandered about the green lanes and narrow alleys, climbed very slowly up to the Gompa and fort on top of the huge rock; visited the restoration work at the old palace of the King of Ladakh and generally explored and soaked up the pleasant atmosphere of the place.
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The local people were very cheerful but kept to themselves. Most of them had little English so we spoke to other Tourellers and sipped Lassi while we listened to beautiful young people strumming their guitars.
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One afternoon we came across a Muslim demonstration. A group of angry young men were raising their fists, chanting slogans and waving placards with pictures of Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran.
“One who gets up in the morning and is not concerned about the affairs of other Muslims is not a Muslim,”read one placard; “Free Palestine, end Zionists,”another. They were followed by a whole schoolful of schoolgirls wearing their Hijabs and looking somewhat bored but obediently joining in with the chanting. The demonstration was carefully orchestrated to create as much disruption as possible in town, weaving its way slowly through the streets and blocking traffic.
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It was the last thing we expected in this Buddhist stronghold and we wondered why Muslims would want to demonstrate here. Surely they were not appealing to the Buddhists who stood and watched the march passively and soon carried on with their own business. It was us, the tourist, they had in mind, as well as trying to reach the media. No doubt their main target was the large number of Israelis who were in town.
But then, the Muslim minority were very loud here. Their Muezzins had the volume cranked right up when they called for prayer. For a couple of nights, the sounds of their congregations were broadcast loudly until midnight, keeping everyone awake.
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On another day Leh was closed for some hours in remembrance of a bus accident on the notorious Manali road two weeks previously, when more than a dozen local people were killed. Although we had planned to “do” the Manali road initially, we now decided not to go. We had by then, both suffered the effects of altitude sickness on the highest mountain passes and going along this road would have meant long periods at the same kind of altitude. We heard some agonising tales from other travellers, of when their jeeps were delayed for days due to landslides or bad weather. We would, after all, head for the Kashmir Valley instead.

We played for a day, joining the ranks of the “Adventure” traveller, by doing a little rafting on the Zanskar River. The amazingly rugged scenery was perhaps more memorable than the rafting itself, although the adrenaline fix gave us a high for a while. The silt laden water was like liquid rock flowing between solid rocks of exactly the same colour.
At the first and wildest rapid, the other raft capsized. Perhaps due to carelessness of the leader rather than the grade of difficulty of the descent. There was an irresponsible flirting with danger in the attitude of that particular leader. He wanted to make it more exciting by heading for the highest waves, whereas our leader skirted the worst of the turbulence. Everyone was shocked but hauled out of the water quickly. A young Indian woman lost her sunglasses and expensive hairdo. When everyone was safely back in the raft, a more experienced leader took over, although the irresponsible novice did not seem to have learned a lesson and continued annoying the cold paddlers by splashing water over them, long after it had ceased to be funny.
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Already, at this early stage of our trip I knew that Leh was not really what I wanted to experience in India, enjoyable though it was at the time. I had visited “Traveller friendly” towns like this before in various Not So Lonely Planet Anymore routes throughout the world; Central America, the Caribbean, China. In the back of my mind I held images of wandering with a small pack through the heat and dust of central India, paddy fields and mud villages where no tourists ever came. Walking under a large hat, riding on donkey carts or local buses, moving very slowly, speaking to the local people and perhaps even staying with them to help make their lives a little easier.
A rather romantic vision, I know, and perhaps that India no longer exists but I would have liked to have given it a try and hopefully still will. I wanted to travel way out of my comfort zone.
I also realised well before this trip that I would not be able to impose the heat, physical hardship and attitude towards women on Nell. My particular trip would have to be on my own, and would have to wait.

But, having spoken of all that and catching our breath, both figuratively and physically, we decided to go on an easy trek where we would be living in peoples’ homes and walking from village to village in the dust and the heat...

Posted by takinitezy 20:40 Comments (0)

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