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Cara's Kathmandu to Ladakh diary

The trials and tribulations of travelling in India

by Cara Langeland, USA

Cara and Suzy have had a succession of adventures travelling Asia, and met lots of people, including us... They met Jamie and Duncan in Kathmandu to talk about Ladakh, and even managed to get stuck over at the apartment during the curfews after the Palace Massacre - luckily Duncan had stocked up with red wine. In Leh Jamie met them again.

03 August 2001, Kathmandu

Suzy and I squared our shoulders, narrowed our brows, placed invisible shields over our psyches, and vowed to each other that our re-entrance into India would be less eventful and troublesome then our past exasperating experience. We were in and out of Delhi in 28hrs flat- no hassles, no tribulations, no delays. The heart and rich soul of Kathmandu, which I rediscovered in the last days spent within the city,  before moving on toward Northern India, became a distant memory. Pashupatinath, the sacred Hindu pilgrimage site, was an enclave of religious activity set amongst the temples and ghats that surrounded the holy Bagmati River. Dozens of naked, brown, bathing little boys were running and jumping kamikaze into the milky, snake-infested water that was littered with a colorful array of flower petals offered for puja.  Along the river's edge, on the ghats, funeral pyres burned iridescent orange and purple in the already searing midday sunshine while the smoke from burning wood and flesh rose like heavy, putrid incense into the sky.Dread-locked and scraggly bearded saddhus sat riverside in bright orange robes holding tridents erect, drums and conch shells sitting at their sides, smoking their way into either nirvana or oblivion.

My last night in Kathmandu was spent wandering alone, half-lost, weaving in and out amongst the narrow, crowded streets and bazaars around Durbar Square. I was trying to retrace my previous days steps to a tiny street stall where I had to retrieve a purchase I had made the day before. I could have stayed lost forever in the beating heart of the crowded bazaars. Vivid, whirling colors or textiles, fruit and vegetable stands, pungent incense rising and filling the air, warm and smiling faces inviting me, a stranger, for a cup of tea. I was overwhelmed by the richness, simplicity, joy, and generosity of the people of Nepal.

India

Back in Indian territory we traveled without incident until we were riding the Panthekot Mail express night train out of Delhi. And then....Want to know how to tick me off? Be an Indian military man in uniform, carrying a rifle, and arouse me from a reclining, resting position on the sleeper train around midnight while I am alone in a compartment full of Indian men and my travel companion is in the bathroom. Tell me threateningly "check bag!" and kick my padlocked, wedged duffle bag underneath my seat.  When I ask why, say only "bomb" in a highly suspicious manner. Then make me pry my entire huge, extraordinarily tightly packed backpack out from the protective duffle. THEN start rummaging through everything that I am carrying with me for my travels, including a bag of feminine products, in front of a compartment full of beady-eyed, snickering Indian men. "Tampons!" Suzy yelled vehemently when she returned and saw my predicament. "Tampons! Do you know what YOU could do with these? Do you know where I could shove these right now?" she yelled at the army officer.

After leaving my life's possessions, which had previously been packed painstakingly well, scattered all over the seat, he demanded that I open my purse and show all my foreign currency in front of the entire compartment. I lost it. I didn't care that he wore a uniform and carried a rifle. I refused, and more than that, I started bellowing against his violations and throwing my already scattered belongings around the compartment in protest. It's crazy but India can drive one to these ends!!

The last straw was when I was putting my backpack on and trying to get off the train and someone stuck their hand through the window trying to grope me. I turned around and all the men in the compartment were laughing. The sad thing was that I was not in the least surprised by this action. In fact, I was rather surprised that I had thus far survived India unscathed. I found very few redeeming qualities about the Delhi area and even fewer about the male population there in general.

Despite this frustrating episode of the trip, India has been much gentler to us this time around. Perhaps we are wearing our "don't mess with us" attitudes as solid shields. Maybe we just knew what to expect this go round.

Dharmasala

After a 17 hour journey from Delhi via auto-rickshaw, train, cycle rickshaw, local bus, then taxi, we arrived in rainy Dharamsala amidst howling monkeys and the sounds of tropical birds. Translated, Dharamsala appropriately means "rest house for pilgrims". We settled for a few days in the formerly British hill station that has served as the seat of the Dalai Lama, Tibetan government in exile, and home for Tibetan refugees since 1960.To our surprise and delight we arrived in time for the holiday celebration of the Dalai Lama's 66th birthday. We spent the day around the Namgyal monastery and temple watching the Tibetan community perform traditional Tibetan dance and song in rich regalia of full costume. The experience was beautifully rich in tradition but left me wondering. In Tibet the Tibetans have their land (though shared, or rather, occupied by the Chinese) and their old way of life. In India they have their government and "freedom in exile" but so little about their way of life is traditional. It is difficult to imagine that a people so partitioned by history and events yet longing, enduringly, for unity can overcome such obstacles and remain strong.

By bus we traveled another 16 hours through the Kullu Valley of Himachal Pradesh to Manali and Vashisht. Because of continuing political turmoil in Kashmir, Manali has become the region's chief resort for domestic tourists. I suppose it was an interesting enough look at modern Indian life and leisure but, for us, it served mainly as a brief interlude before embarking on yet another epic road trip.

Manali to Leh bus

If I have a choice I may never board another bus in my life. Some force must exist that turns my intestines to mush every time I so much as get within a 3 foot radius of a bus. The Manali to Leh highway is a stretch of road (calling it a road is the real stretch) that deposits weary and worn travelers 485km north and 30 hours later in an area called Ladakh.  More on Ladakh later...back on the bus y'all.... So, back to the arduous and unforgettable bus ride. I wish I could say I enjoyed some of the scenery- sweeping views of stark, lunar landscapes, windy, barren brown passes at over 17,000ft, icy gray glacial streams. The expanse of land leading northward as we traveled contained only gloomy Indian army soldiers serving time at the lonely army check posts, nomadic shepherds, and coolies who spend the entire 3-4 months that the road is actually open trying in vain to maintain a surface area that is continually subjected to intensely harsh climate. What could have been a spectacular, otherworldly experience turned into my nightmare to be endured. I woke in the morning of the first day feeling as though someone had kicked me in the stomach. I urged and begged the driver to stop so frequently that he soon turned a deaf ear to my pleas and refused to stop. I resorted to hanging my head out the window and vomiting pathetically at intervals while tears of misery streamed down my face, humiliated despite the patience and kindness of the young British guys seated behind me, witnesses to my suffering. I stooped to such a low point that I remember observing with faint interest, bordering on hope, that the bus was bouncing dangerously close to sheer rock walls and that the passing lorries were but a few inches from my lolling, ashen head. I wondered if decapitation might be the lesser of two evils- a quick end to the agony. Yet two days and three broken buses later I arrived in Leh, capital of the Ladakh region, apparently none the worse for wear.

Ladakh and Leh

"Ladakh, the far-flung eastern corner of troubled Jammu and Kashmir state, is India's most remote and sparsely populated region: a high-altitude desert cradled by the Karakoram and Great Himalaya ranges, and criss-crossed by line upon line of razor-sharp peaks and ridges. To government servants and soldiers from the plains, charged with the unenviable task of guarding it's fragile frontiers with China and Pakistan, this barren, breathless land is a punishment posting" (Rough Guide 1999).Ladakh, translated, means "land of mountain passes". Culturally, it is Tibetan, which is evidenced by the region's music, dance, language, art, religion, architecture, and music. Living side by side, Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist people share a peaceful existence. The land of the region is frozen for eight months then scorched by the sun for the remainder for the year. Less than 4 inches of rain fall annually but through an intricate and elaborately devised system of irrigation canals the Ladakhi's have managed a completely sustainable and thriving agriculture. Barley, peas, turnips, wheat, mustard, apricot and walnut trees all grow in abundance under careful cultivation. Theirs is a culture in which absolutely everything is used- from human and animal excrement to apricot pits - and nothing is wasted or simply thrown out. The Ladakhi people are unfailingly cheerful, offering joyous smiles and easy, infectious laughter to all those around. Ladakh is wonderful- a little piece of heaven despite it's harshness.

While organizing for yet another trek through the mountains Suzy and I relaxed and explored Leh and its surroundings. We played many matches of mixed doubles tennis at India's own Wimbledon court, perhaps the world's highest tennis court above 11,500ft.We hiked up to the looming Shanti stupa to enjoy quiet dawns as well as ready our bodies for the up coming trek. We explored the vibrant bazaars filled with Kashmiri, Tibetan, and Ladakhi traders peddling their goods to anyone who would take a look. The sky was so endlessly blue and the days easy.

Trekking

We just can't get enough. For a variety of reasons, most notably the remoteness of the region and the desire to travel lightly, we opted to hire two pony men. I can't sing enough praise for this method of travel. The joy of being served "bed tea" at 5:30AM, having all the meals cooked and a tent set up for us, and having ponies carry our packs! LUXURY. We hiked hard and light and felt as though we flew like the wind over our 7 day Markha Valley trek. 

Sparsely populated by a few nomads and several isolated, serene Buddhist monasteries, as well as blue sheep, fuzzy marmots, wolves, and the elusive snow leopard, the Markha valley lies barren and hushed, parallel to the Indus River. The landscape is much like Tibet and, in fact, this region is an extension of the Tibetan plateau. Stark, crumbling brown mountains and carved canyon walls stand swirled with the deep color of merlot and vivid greens. Days were hot while nights could be frigid with occasional snow storms even in the summer months.

Leaving?

At the end of our three week stay in Ladakh we packed our bags, abandoned our boots and cold weather gear, and headed to the airport with the expectation of being in Thailand in under 24 hours. It didn't occur to us, being #1+2 on the standby list for seats, that we might not fly out. Six hours of frenzied pushing, yelling, and shoving later at the world's highest airport, we were denied a flight out. We forlornly hopped a cab back to Leh to reevaluate and sort out our options. 

Rather than travel overland for 5 or 6 days back to Delhi, we booked the next available flight back to Delhi 8 days later. Then we proceeded to plan the next grand adventure. Things fell oddly into place with friends, gear, weather, and timing. Suzy, myself, and our friend Jamie, an experienced Himalayan mountaineer, planned a climb or the Stok Kangri massif, a 20,188ft (6153m) peak wedged somewhere between the colossal Himalaya and Karakoram ranges.

Stok Kangri climb

We set out from the small village of Stok, our packs crammed with a minimal amount of technical gear, warm clothes, and a maximum amount of food to propel us into thin air. After our leisurely Markha Valley trek it felt obscenely good to shoulder the weight of my own pack again. A few days of walking at a relaxed pace in through occasional light rain in easy company brought us up to base camp @ 16,300ft.Amidst dark, heavy skies and light, evening snow flurries, we cooked up a pasta supper that turned into a giant glob of edible goo. Jamie, who had opted to travel ultra light without consulting us (he was the owner of most of our borrowed climbing equipment and tent - what could we say?!), had left the tent behind at the hotel and carried only a worn fly for a 2 man tent. He was forced to sleep out in the rain the first night after we thoroughly berated him (I guess we found plenty to say!). The following night we dug deep for sympathy due to the cold and inclement weather and spent a sleepless night packed like sardines under the weather beaten fly. Every hour or so one of us would peak a head out and check on the sky and weather conditions, then report back to the other sleepless, weary, cold climbers. I later learned that I was the only one who was cold and sleepless!

Brilliantly, at 4:00AM the clouds disappeared while crisp air rolled in and bright stars greeted us. We took advantage of the change in weather conditions, boiled up a pot of hot Tang, and set out for our summit attempt. We marched upward at a steady clip with numb fingers and toes until the sun finally hit our backs and warmed our bodies comfortably. It was at that point that the real climbing began.  The rocks strewn over the terminal moraine thinned out and the snow slopes slanted steeply upward. We donned crampons and ice axes and began our steep ascent. Thousands of feet of snow slopes slid behind us as the hours slipped past and I fell into that comfortably dulled zone of high altitude hypoxia mixed with just enough adrenalin to keep me alert and sustain the muffled crunch, crunch, hack, crunch, crunch, hack of steadily ascending crampons and ice axe. We raced breathlessly in slow motion, for the summit, with a massively expanding cloud formation moving in from the northern valley that I waged to be cumulonimbus in origin. 

After traversing a steep razor back ridge of mixed rock and snow we gained the pristine snow capped summit that dropped off steeply into the abyss on all other sides. As we celebrated with customary photos under whipping prayer flags of radiant red, green, yellow, white, and blue set against dazzling white snow and cornflower blue skies, the clouds receded in defeat. Suzy wisely headed down while I stayed, mesmerized on the summit feeling like I could conquer the world. From my perch underneath shimmering blue skies and sunshine, I gathered 360 degree views of the Karakoram, Himalaya, Zanskar, and Ladakh ranges. I could have stayed at that spot for eternity, standing upon the summit of my own little Everest.

As it is, all good things must end, or at least change. Views and experiences evolve into memories to be tucked away and stored forever in some reveling little corner of my heart. The journey down flew by as I glissaded over sun-softened snow turning to mush over ice and rock. Once off the steep snow slopes we slowed down, enjoyed PB+J sandwiches and chocolate, lazing naps, and glimpsed a graceful little avalanche falling from a small hanging glacier high above the surrounding cirque.

Leaving

Now I am back in sunny Leh, resting and enjoying that odd bit of hang-time, feeling neither here nor there but floating in between worlds. Tonight we will share a meal, loads of laughter, a drink, and perhaps a game of cards with our ever-changing network of colorful traveling friends- all of whom leave lasting impressions and warm, smiling memories. Tomorrow will bring us from Leh to New Delhi to Bangkok in 22 hours if all goes according to plan. I have learned not to count on things but, rather, roll with whatever may happen.

The next leg to the journey will bring me through to a completely different part of the world, Southeast Asia- Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. I have no idea what to expect and grow more and more excited as I traipse forward.

Julley Julley, (Ladakhi hodge-podge word for hello, goodbye, thank you, bless you, good health, a rich life, safety, peace, etc.) 

 

Julley, Cara

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