Its 1.30 am and am still wide awake and possibly due to the combo effect of altitude and jet lag. Being awake means now i can think about the trekking and mountaineering plans and also about choosing local trekking agents. Booking an agent from western world mostly ends up in high cost as they indirectly hire the expertise of the local agents. Several travel forums advised that there are plenty of travel agencies in Leh who provide multitude service tailor made to the expectation of the individual or group. The only problem is who to trust as there is no standards or reviews available for the agencies in this place. So far i have good reviews about Padma Guest house and that means I decided to get views from its travel desk to start with.
Dawn and dusk are the best time to take professional photographs Since i cant sleep, i could take photos of town during sunrise and explore around the sleepy town. Weather is not that cold and its fairly comfortable to get dressed and prepare to walk. I started walking towards Leh Palace but unfortunately it’s cloudy and can’t see the sunrise behind the Palace. I ended up walking around and taking shots of Leh Palace by climbing unusual places. Its better to climb further up the Leh Palace upto Shanti Stupa and take shots of Leh, Leh palace and the valley. But the climb is treacherous and cant go up as it’s slippery. The last thing to do is to to strain my ankle in the beginning of the travel. So I came down the slope and started walking around the town. I am surprised to see a heavily armored Indian Army jeep with huge mobile satellite dish passing through Leh’s High street. Behind the jeep, there were 2 trucks of heavily armored Indian Army soldiers with make shift barriers. It’s very unusual on a sleepy Himalayan town. I don’t want to lift my camera to take pictures of army vehicle as it’s not always advisable for a tourist( although the soldiers are ready to pose). If I am a media photographer, that’s a good shot to be taken. I started yearning for Numkin chai and that means walking back to Padma Guest house.
Travel desk at Padma Guest house is able to provide much guidance and help and willing to commit on all my expectation except for Stok Kangri climb. They assume that I don’t have an extensive climbing experience and also the fact that the ice at the summit this year is 7-8 feet deep. The mules can’t reach the second base camp with supplies and that means its climbing for long hours in the likes of 17 to 18 hrs (normally it’s 12 hours). Also there was previous incident last year where a lady has to be air-lifted to hospital after she suffered altitude sickness and people die in the mountain every year. Finally I am able to convince them based on my past trekking experience and explaining that Stok Kangri is listed as the one can be done by hard core trekkers. We are able to agree on a programme that includes drive to remote villages, Pangong lake night stay, monastery visit, white water rafting down the rapids, a day long strenuous trek in the Himalayas & finally Stok kangri climb. The plan suits me as I have ample time to rest, recuperate and acclimatise.
The first stop of the day is going to be a remote model Himalayan village, Alchi which is 60 to 80 km from Leh. The driver with me is a middle aged Ladakhian,a Buddhist by birth – humble and smiley. He speaks fluent Hindi but little English. The inverse of me. The vehicle is basic TATA SUV with no extra fittings. Although his manners are soft and humble like a typical Buddhist when it came to driving he is in fact aggressive, never gives way to vehicles coming in front, overtake in sharp curves and at times drive very close to the steep ridges on the roads – all this with a smile in face which is classical Buddhist. Nevertheless as a true Buddhist he prays before starting from the monasteries we visited and gave lift to an old Buddhist monk on way to Tipis monastery in a tough lonely mountain road. That’s sure split personality or the banal thing about people from that region.
I have no experience of the terrain we will be driving through but nevertheless prepared to see the incredible. We drive past several army barracks which is scary as this is the area of aggression in the past between India and Pakistan. We joined Highway 81 and the drive started with an incredible view of river Indus and Zanskar merging in a deep valley. Indus is green and clear while her cousin, River Zanskar, is brown and muddy. The confluence of the rivers, River Indus, eventually led River Zanskar to overpower Indus and kneel her down. From that point, Indus is not only brown but quite rough, unruly & untamed. We happen to crisscross it at several occasion during the drive and it’s always the same even if the flow is narrowed. Sometime it does look dangerously untamed.
The ride to the village was en-route two beautiful villages – Sastal and Bosgos. We encounter a pony man driving a pack of ponies on the highway on a barren mountain road. So earthly and classical. The route is picturesque and the Highway 81 is brand new. It’s clear that this place is not explored by British in the likes of Darjeeling in North India or Ooty in South India and therefore left pristine. High altitude, difficult terrain and weather must made the place more treacherous and difficult to maintain. Every where on the route, there are plenty of stupas in different shapes, ages and architectural patterns.
The first stop is at a model village – Alchi. I have seen few shots of Achi in the internet before the visit. It has layered paddy field & has one of the oldest buddist temple in the region.We stop the vehicle outside the and start to walk towards the temple. The paddy field in that high altitude waved beautifully to the wind blowing towards us. We are greeted by a ticket collector – a Buddhist monk outside the temple. Ticket is 20 rs which is quite high for that temple but is mean for maintenance. If only Indian Government takes proper care of tourism, India can equally muscle up with tourism revenues to the equivalent of any Western country. We leave our shoes outside & walk in to see the beautiful wall paintings of Buddha painted many centuries ago. Single word – SPELLBOUND. Photos are prohibited as it will damage the colors of the paintings. Its a small temple and nothing to explore beyond the paintings. We step out and start to walk towards a scenic path on its backyard which led to river Indus. It’s as usual – brown and unruly. We were able to walk towards the river and feel the gushing water.
The next stop is through an amazing unexpected spectacular scenic path. One thing to note is that the views are very panoramic, it’s almost impossible to capture it in one shot in my SLR. That gives me a good reason to buy a wide-angular lens for next travel. Even for the naked eye, the scope of change in natural scene is incredible to capture in such short span. Its immediately strike that i am rushing but i am not. In many places on the route, I just want to sit for hours and soak in the nature’s spectacular display. Only very few places in the world can provide such view but none can provide at an altitude of 3500 m.
The next stop is Tik Tak Monastery. This is a functional monastery and one of the place that’s inspired me to visit Ladakh from the photos in the internet. We miss the museum as its lunch time and its closed. We walk around the monastery to get a feeling. A massive gold plated Buddha statute built outside in the courtyard facing the Himalayas and it shines when the sunlight fell on it. There is a small beautiful green village down the valley and a stream pass through it. The monastery is in between brown colored rocky mountains and ice clad mountains which is pure visual bliss.
On the way back, We notice two toppled army vehicles and injured soldiers awaiting army medical jeep. Driving is still treacherous in that route if the vehicle is not properly maintained or the driver is reckless.
Before reaching Leh, I want to visit Shanti Stupa built above Leh palace and its the one i missed seeing that morning. I am exhausted due to heat and long drive. My lips starts to crack. Shanti Stupa is in ruin but still functional. The view from the temple is mind blowing and wish i climbed and saw the sun rise from here that morning. As its dawn, the crowd is at its minimum and that means i am able to explore it at my own pace. The climb is without any support and it look a bit risky as I felt my legs are weak. I am worried about climbing Stok Kangri if this continues. Or perhaps its my body’s way to fight altitude.
Finally i return to the guest house and started to take rest for a long trek next day.