Monday, June 25, 2012

Ladakh Travelogue - Part 2

... Continued from Part 1

As soon as we land at the airport and get down from the aircraft, its difficult to not fire up your camera and start clicking pictures. That's what the 150 odd passengers all started doing. I, on the other hand, seemed to be very conscious that I now am at an altitude of about 12000 feet above sea level and the air is very thin. I don't know if the awesome scenery left me slightly breathless, or was it the altitude! 

I was worried whether we'd have someone pick us up from the airport, especially given that we were 3 hours late! But thankfully, there was someone to pick us up and drop us to our hotel. We soon checked in to our room at Royal Palace hotel. The staff were very friendly and very warm in their reception - something that we continued to experience each and every day during our stay there. We had the rest of the day for ourselves to get acclimatized to the high altitude. Our room was a nice cozy place - wood paneled walls and carpeted floors to keep warm! We had lunch and retired to our room, just spending time viewing the lovely scenery from our room window, watching some TV, sipping chai, drinking lots of water as we were advised to (to help get acclimatized). 

We retired to bed early after dinner as we had to get started with our sight seeing at 9:00 am the next day. I could not sleep well for some reason and also woke up in the middle of the night with a maddening headache. I took a disprin and went back to sleep. But the headache was still there in the morning! It'd not go away till after breakfast and another disprin! (Probably that completed my acclimatization process, or so I thought then!)

We met with our driver, one Mr. Urgen Chonjor, in his late forties and a rather genial and outspoken person. The first day of our itinerary was all about monasteries. We were to visit 3 different monasteries around Leh. 

 First stop was Hemis monastery - situated about 40kms from Leh, it took us a little more than an hour to get there. Its hard to imagine a giant monastery nestled right in-between mountains, till we actually see this! 3 giant flag posts in the courtyard, prayer rooms on one side and a big basement museum on the other side of the courtyard. It started to drizzle a bit and we had to rush for shelter inside one of the prayer rooms. Dimly lit and filled with the sound of silence, it imbibes a sense of peace that one can just not be familiar with being in a city-life. The museum contained variety of ancient Tibetan articles - paintings, holy scripts, warcraft, etc but unfortunately photography was disallowed inside the museum. We spent almost an hour exploring this monastery before moving on and headed towards the Thiksey monastery.

Thiksey, I should say, was the most colorful of the monasteries I visited during my trip. Its located on a gentle hill and strong winds are prevalent atop the structure where one can see a line of stupas and colorful prayer flags forming a fence around them! This setting is any photographer's wet dream! I must have clicked at least 50-60 photos there. My wife spent some time talking to a Llama there asking about the significance of the stupas and prayer flags. I was still clicking and had to be dragged on - it was past lunch time and we were very hungry. We stopped briefly for a Ladakhi meal of thupka and some soup at a cafeteria at the base of the hill.

The last stop for the day, was the Shey palace. Shey was the capital city of ancient Ladakh and the Shey palace housed the royal Ladakhi family. The Ladakh royal family exists even to this day and stay at the Stok palace, in Stok. One has to climb steep ascent to get into the palace innards. The palace balcony offers magnificent view of the surroundings and the Thiksey monastery is also seen at a distance. 

We explored the palace a bit before heading back to our hotel. We reached back at 4:30 PM. On our way back, we realized one thing. The warm clothing we had come with was not going to be sufficient and we needed reinforcements! We requested our driver to help us find some economical place to buy sweaters and caps. He was more than helpful and got us some nice sweaters and caps from the Leh market. 

The next day, we had to head into Nubra Valley - traveling through one of the highest motorable roads - Khardung La (~18000 feet above sea level). We got back to our room, packed stuff for the next day and started to mentally prepare for the arduous journey that awaited us the next day. 

To be continued... 

Friday, June 22, 2012

Ladakh Travelogue - Part 1

It is but human nature to nurture dreams. I had this one from almost 2 years. The dream to wander in the high, cold deserts of Ladakh. The dream finally turned into a reality when I started firmly to plan for this trip with my trusted travel people at Panache. After a few rounds of discussions on travel and location options, the plan was set and all necessary bookings done by April.

We got to Delhi by air from Bangalore in an early morning flight. We had for ourselves, a day to spend at Delhi. We stayed at a hotel close to the airport, for we had an early morning flight to catch the next day. 

We did a bit of exploring Delhi making good use of the Delhi Metro and haggling with auto-rickshaws in between. In the blistering heat of ~40 deg C, we managed to take a peek of Qutub Minar, Jantar Mantar and went to the Karol Bagh markets in the evening to look at the old Delhi scene and to relish some fantastic Delhi chats. We retired to our room after a functional dinner. 

I figured I was not really prepared mentally for Delhi. I started from Bangalore, with a mindset to visit Ladakh - the pictures I'd seen, the stories I'd heard, the images my imagination had created in my head. Delhi was just stark in contrast to all those. That would have needed a very different kind of mental preparedness. 

The next day, we woke up early, got ready and headed for the Delhi airport. Even at 6:00 AM, the airport was jam packed with travelers. We got to our gate at 8:00 AM and the flight was at 8:40 AM. However, there was a delay and the ETD was announced to be 9:40 AM. We waited uneasily at the airport, not wanting to miss even a minute of time that we could spend at Ladakh! Eventually we boarded the flight. The cabin crew even finished demonstrating safety procedures. But, no sign of the flight taking off yet. On enquiry, we were told that the weather in Leh is bad and we could take off only once we get clearance from Leh traffic control. Sigh! More uneasy moments. We took off from Delhi only at 11:45 AM.

After having experienced unexpected delays, being in a rather irritated state of mind, what took me away from all those feelings and immediately made me feel excited was the look outside my flight seat window, as we started descending into Leh. We were cruising at 35000 feet, and could only see clouds down below us and nothing but blue skies and bright sun for view. Once we starting descending, as layers and layers of clouds went past above us, we are suddenly in view of mighty mountains all around us! Its exciting and terrifying at the same time! Slowly, the white snow clad terrain turns brown and barren. The mountains seem much more rough and rugged than the ones covered in layers of powdery snow!

We landed at the tiny Kushok Bakula Rinpoche Airport at Leh.There was a person from our hotel to pick us up from the airport and soon we checked into our hotel Royal Palace.

To be continued...