Stok Kangri

The day finally arrives for me to start for finale of the trip – Mountaineering in Himalayas. After trekking, river rafting, safari and camel ride, its time to climb some serious mountain. Its serious as its the highest in the range and as well taken human lifes in the past.  I have my things packed up for the four day climb to stok kangri and waiting for the guide and sherpa. The guide is Naresh Lama, 26 year old Nepalese. He is young, energetic, enthusiastic and sensible to traveler’s need. He has already done Stok kangri twice but on both occasion the peak was without much snow. He is told to be guide until basecamp two and stay there until I climb & descent with the sherpa. The sherpa is an experienced Himalayan climber and also from Nepal. He is scaling the Stok Kangri for first time and am told that’s Stok Kangri is an easy climb with less technicality to apply. All sounds very promising.

The first step is to travel to Stok village which is 24 km from Leh. The SUV is packed fully with all trekking items for 4 days. We reach a small cafe in Stok and Climbing permit is submitted to Indian authorities for approval. Meanwhile the things from SUV are unpacked and started loading into ponies which is hired for the entire trip. My big rucksack is also safely loaded into one of the big bags to be carried by pony. I have my small backpack with SLR, water bottle & medical kit. Once everything is settled, the Sherpa and myself  started to walk towards base camp one along the river stream.  Sherpa and the guide are very friendly and the walk started to change from easy to normal.

For the first half of the day, we followed a stream with shade & breeze. We walk pass a Stupa sized water tank, an abundant fort and we have to do a steep climb to reach a small stupa with colourful flags attached. Since i have already done a research on the walk, i am able to recollect the milestones of the path which is fascinating. We walk steep down into a small valley and then into rocky patches by the stream side. The views during the walk are all amazing. There are plenty of wild life around the area including blue sheep, wild ponies, marmot, pigeons.etc . They are well adapted to the extreme weather and altitude.

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After three hours of steep climb, we are able to spot a small tea hut where we are supposed to have the packed lunch from guest house. Sherpa accompanied the ponies and took a different path to reach the hut to make sure the ponies are able to climb without any trouble. They arrive after few minutes to join for rest and lunch.  The hut is situated at a cross road for two different trek routes. People coming from Stok-Spituk trek also rested in the tea hut. After filling our stomach and resting for a while, we aim to reach the base camp one non-stop. The walk is strenuous and have to walk through rocks and stones by the stream side.

Finally we arrive to the base camp one and i am totally knackered. I decide to rest in a tea tent while my tent is being prepared. Sherpa and the guide also started working on kitchen tent and unloading the kitchen items and groceries. Its evening when i felt the urge to wake up. The stream by my side of the tent is making beautiful water flowing sound and water is freezing cold. I lay down by a huge sloppy rock by the stream, with my sunglasses on. I slept for few minutes. I can feel the stream water flashing on me and it’s a blissful feeling. After few minutes when i open my eyes and start to watch whats new happening around me. I see additional tents in the camp which means there are either people coming from Stok village after us or people coming down from base camp two. I am told that the tents belong to five french girls who are trekking only to base camp two but not summiting Stok Kangri. I can also see people coming down from base camp two along with their ponies. What starts as a dot in the distant, over a period becomes a cavalier of humans and ponies when they are close to base camp one. Its fascinating to observe.

The air is thin. My appetite is reducing and I realise it when i had my super in the tent with Sherpa and guide. I had my iPhone charged up before I left guest house and have to use it prudently. I have around 700 songs downloaded in my iphone and I will use it if I need motivation to climb and also keep to my mind occupied. Its a pleasant end of the day and so far the expectation is fulfilled

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Its the second day. My day starts with watching the sun rise from my favorite rock by the stream side. It’s incredible and memories will be with me for long period. Its time to pack things again and walk towards base camp two after having morning tea and breakfast. Appetite is going down faster than i imagined. Its good in a way as the body is adapting owing to lack of oxygen. Its either shutting down organs or making the metabolism slower to make sure that only essentials are able to work for basic human survival.  Because its packed up with snow in Advanced base camp, the ponies cant reach it. Without ponies its difficult to survive the base camp. In such situation, they have an alternative base camp but its not very far from base camp one. This means the distance is going to be longer and tiring during the summit day.

My guide already told me its going to be a difficult climb to base camp two as the steepness and harshness of the terrain will increase. While having the morning tea, i happen to chat with the guide of the French girls. He is approachable and an interesting guy. He is very pleased to know that i am attempting Stok Kangri. He himself has done it once and tried to take a wheel chair bound climber but failed due to bad weather. The girls are going to walk until glacier and return to base camp before they go back to Stok village. The walk to base camp two is strenuous but shorter than the previous day. The lack of oxygen is adding to tiredness and have to put more strength to pass the slopes. Since Sherpa and guide have larger lungs, they are able to do it quite normally. All along the walk, climbers from base camp two are passing by after they have either successfully or not climbed it. Everyone is saying that the snow/ice is quite deep than they expected. It clearly set an expectation for us (atleast mentally prepared for it). There is a guy who gave up climbing stok kangri due to ice and steep long climb. Interestingly I also bump into a friend of my guide, a young Nepali Sherpa who has done difficult climb in several 7000m+ Himalayan mountains. My guide is always impressed with his climbing abilities and dream to be like him in future. We witness a wild chase between a mule and black sheep herd. We don’t know what triggered it but it’s a heavy chase down slope with less time to react. After just three hours of climb, we arrive at the base camp two.

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The climb is short as this base camp two is close to base camp one. The view from base camp two is amazing. They have taken pain to establish the camp in a beautiful panoramic setting. We started setting up the tents to settle comfortably. The wind is howling and also can hear the sound of the stream. Most of the tents are empty as the climbers have gone to the summit. There are few descending down and everyone is saying its bad up in the summit. The ice depth is too deep than expected. Initial plan is that its only me and Sherpa to go up in the summit. The guide volunteered to come with me as he has not done a difficult climb of Stok Kangri when its covered in ice. Also its good to have one more hand in help since the condition in the summit is worse than we anticipated. The summit is further away than usual due to alternative advanced based camp which means we have to start early so that we can summit early morning. If not, the sun will melt the ice and it will be difficult to descent. The time is set around mid night to start the climb. The visibility is going to be poor and the condition is going to be treacherous. I am going to miss the beautiful views if I walk in the night but on the other hand i can catch up with the views during descent.

I rest in the tent and I have plenty of time before starting to summit. My thoughts span around my recent life adventure – the people I met, the places I went and the events that shaped/shaping my life. It’s extremely cold inside the tent and windy at 5700m. I can hear the howling sound of the wind. The night sky is clear and filled completely with stars. Its been many years since I witness the night skies in such a clear and undisturbed way. To experience it in one’s own eyes is a bliss. Even if I fail to reach the summit, the experience and views I had so far will stay with me for years. I am not able to sleep as many things are haunting my mind combined with oxygen deprivation. Possibly my nervous system is also slowing down and panicking. My pack to summit is light weight and include – a coat, two mid layers, balaclava, sun glass, water bottle, first aid kit, camera, gloves and spare shocks. Around 11 pm, I walk to the kitchen to get some hot drinks and a light meal. I can only have a toast and can feel my fat and muscles are being eaten by the mountain. Both the Sherpa and guide is up all night discussing and planning for the final summit push. We started sharing stories about London, Nepal, climbing history and weather.

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Around 12 mid night, we start to leave the base camp two and head towards the steep hill. Anyone who is visualing us from the top of the hill, will see three tiny equi-distance dots moving towards them. First one hour is a steep climb which consumed most of my stored energy and constantly grasp for oxygen in the air.  The terrain on the top of the hill is still dry. The sands are loose and have to cautiously walk/climb focusing my head torch in the path before me. I can’t see anything beyond the scope of my torch light and its pitch dark everywhere. Even the star lights is not helping us. We reach a flat surface and after walking few yards, we step into ice and from that point the climb is going to be in ice for next 13 hours.

I am cautious in using ice axe but its too early of the day to set up an avalanche. The path narrows down to a single file and can feel that its a ridge but i still dont have visibility on both sides. The ridge is slippery and made me wonder why we are not still wearing crampons. I can feel If I fall its going to be lethal but the thought is not bothering me for unknown reason. We are also not connected by ropes like alphine climbing (I don’t know why it didn’t strike me that time) but just keep moving at steady pace and avoid slippery patches. After few hours of walk, we came to steady slow climb on a vast area of snow. I realise it must be a glacier which is further confirmed by my guide. It means we have to watch out for glacier crevasse. The team is prepared with ropes, harness and fasteners in case if anything happens. The only question is the energy levels at that time. The climb is getting strenuous while my energy levels are going down. I am mentally strong to reach the summit at any cost unless the weather turns bad. I have a slight altitude sickness but its early sign and over a period started to fade out. Sherpa keep asking me whether I have vomiting sensation, head ache or giddiness. I am truly aware that If it happens, then the climb will be abandoned.

We rest at a snow patch and hydrate by having water. The temperature is many degrees below zero and the ice  is  compressed ice. We started to use the path followed by previous climbers as its hardened by their foot prints. Its around 5 am and my peak sleeping hour. My body is naturally shutting down and i can feel it. The only way i can keep myself awake is to climb without resting or thinking. If i get pass that hour, I will be fine for the next more hours. At approximately 5.00 am, the sun start to raise and we are able to see the summit. It  look close enough and my rough estimation is 20 minutes or at most an hour.

We fit crampons on the climbing boots and connect each other with ropes through harness. We switch to Alphine climbing for the rest of the climbing. If one falls, the other two will hold and recover. It’s almost a vertical climb and even Sherpa is not anticipating that steepness and ice. Its one of the worst years for Stok Kangri climbers due to heavy ice. In a way I am loving it as I am doing it under extreme condition and will give me both encouragement and experience to climb other peaks. Its more than an hour and the summit still looks the same distance as i saw on the down of the slope. I stop estimating time and instead concentrated on my strength to push forward. My physical strength is almost zero but my mental strength is still strong. It’s more like conquering mind than summiting peak. Sherpa notice my weariness and  enquire whether I still want to go up. What looked like a 20 minute climb took 3 hours to reach the summit. I am gasping for oxygen, tired, sleep deprivation and also less food due to loss of appetite. My stored body fat is eaten away fast in body metabolism. Giving up never occur even once in my mind during that tenuous three hour climb in extreme icy condition. Everything is falling apart around me and my nervous system is in absolute wreck as brain is slowing down due to oxygen deprivation. My hand co-ordination is grumbling and I keep slipping now and then but manage to hold and climb up. At last we reach the summit. The summit has a rocky patch and a small amount of rocks piled up with Buddhist flags attached to it.

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The sun is out fully and the ice shinning on the mountain is beautiful. The view of the cloud flowing through the mountain peaks in the Ladakh range is breath taking and viewing it from the peak of the tallest mountain in the range is the most spectacular. It’s one of the most exciting moment in my life. On the summit, neither can i handle the camera nor I can talk. My lips have totally cracked even after using lip guards. I am aware that i don’t have lot of  time in the summit as the ice will start melting due to sun light and heat and the wind speed will increase. After settling down for few minutes, i start to take pictures of the summit and the surrounding peaks.

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After 20 minutes of stay in summit, we start to descent. The descent is not bad as the ice is still hard. We are able to see the panoramic view of the landscape and the glacier in which we walked during night. After an hour of descent, we decide to rest in a rock patch and recoup some energy. I close my eyes tight and slept deep for 15 minutes in hard ice. I did sleep comfortably with my sun glasses on. On further way down, I am able to see the ridge on which we walked last night. A slip or fall means certain death. Also the chance of avalanche is high. Placing ice axe strongly in wrong place may trigger an avalanche up in the slope which will land on us. Descent is faster though tiredness almost killed us. I stop counting how many time i fell during the descent. I even tore one of my pants when the crampons criss-crossed during one fall. We walk through the snow patch and finally enter the rocky terrain. Again the terrain I climbed using the night torch looked treacherous during day light. On the top of the final hill, we lay down our climbing tools and sleep facing the sun with sun glasses on. Then start to descent the hill and into the tent.

Its around mid day and the tent is hot. The sun is at his high. I can see many new tents in base camp and believe that there will be more climbers next week in the peak. That day its just me, Sherpa and guide in the summit. I have to wait for the sun to set to sleep properly but my tiredness force me to sleep inspite of so much intense heat inside the tent. I let the cool air pass through the tent by keeping it open. I am having terrible head ache after that short sleep. I took a paracetamol and started to walk by the stream side to get some fresh air. I waited for the cool air and sun to set. Jammu’s GODFATHER extra strong beer is divine drink in such a hot temperature and had a toast with Sherpa and guide as a form of accomplishment. I still can’t eat properly and able to have only one toast that night and retire to bed.

Its final day of the descent. After morning chores, I start to pack for long walk back to Stok. The estimated time to reach Stok village is 4 pm if we start at 9 am. That’s when I heard the news that a German has died in base camp one due to altitude sickness. He is young, 26 and came along with three other Germans. It looks like he misjudged altitude sickness and possibly made a quick ascent without getting the body used to altitude. Altitude sickness is nothing to do with the strength of the body and every one’s body behaves differently. Altitude impacts the performance of lungs and heart due to thin air. The lungs and heart needs time to adjust to the altitude. Unfortunately most people die when they are at sleep.

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We start to descend and reached base camp one quicker than expected. I am able to see the tent where the dead body is kept and it’s a poignant silent moment. On the way down from the base camp one to Stok Village, we walk pass a group of police officers heading towards base camp one to fetch the body to Leh. The walk is much better and the thin air is vanishing and able to breathe more generously now.

We reach Stok at 4 pm as planned and SUV is awaiting to take us back to guest house. After sharing a tea in the tea tent at Stok Village before all the rest of official formalities are completed, I return back to Leh from Stok.

Phyang monastery – Buddhist festival

I have a spare day to spend before i start to climb Stok Kangri. The original plan is to go around Leh and to stay at ease after the incident in Humur.  I am also moving to temporary accomodation in Hotel Yasmin as Padma is over booked for the day. Padma & Yasmin owners are business partners and therefore its easy for Beeky to make an arrangement for me. During breakfast, Beeky wanted to know whether i am interested to attend a Buddhist religious festival in a near by monastery  But i will have company in the form of three French girls. I am okay as the visit is short and will be back soon to shop for rest of trekking things. I will be travelling with Emy from Missouri (working as french language teacher in a boarding school – from Normandy,France), Peggy (working as public prosecutor assistant in Normandy,France) and Stefania (professional dancer from Geneva). Emy and Peggy are childhood friends. Peggy is visiting Emy on her holidays and they are travelling together to Ladakh after visiting Delhi. We are introduced and felt comfortable with their company.

Buddhist festival is in Phyang monastry, which is home for about 70 monks, is located on hill that is about 17 km to the west of Leh. On the day of the Tsedup, special prayers are performed. The sacred mask dance of monks in rich silk costumes is the prime attraction. Along with this, dramas or ‘Chhams’ are the main part of the festival. Devotees perform a pilgrimage to the huge Thangka of Skyabje Jigten Gombo (the founder of the Dringungpa monastic order), which is exhibited during this 2-day festival. This is unveiled once in 3 years in the years of the pig, the snake and the monkey of the Tibetan calendar.

Its crowded and am able to locate a place in front of the ground. The crowd is mostly of  foreigners & some locals.

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After the traditional dance, we went to visit the monastery. It’s yet another monastery with similar settings. We walked through village market and enthralled by the amulets and ornaments hand-crafted by locals. Its a lively market and down to earth festival.

Upon return to Leh, the girls are planning to see a video show arranged by women’s association of Ladakh about future of Ladakh. They invited me to join them and am curious to know the local social life. The video is taken in 1991 by a western traveler who stayed for few years in Ladakh and studied the place and people. Then a comparison is made to the way the consumerism and capitalism is making a wind fall change in modern youths of local community. The once self-sufficient community is in danger of losing it to capitalism. One main reason is the construction of highway and making the place more reachable from main land India. The lady who is involved enthusiastically in the concept is not able to provide answer to practical consideration about the issue.

After the video, I am on my own to shop for the climb but agreed to meet them for dinner. Peggy got ill due to sun stroke and decided to take rest. Therefore we ended having dinner in Padma. The evening went well with a long chat about areas of common interest. Its an interesting day and hope to meet them after i return from Stok Kangri climb.

White water Rafting on Indus and Zanskar river- Chilling to Nimoo

The pain killers did little to alleviate my lower back pain due to the fall from the camel in Humur. Luckily the pain is  due to muscle spasm than a broken back. The swellings due to the spasm are going away. After  my breakfast i pack spare cloths into my rucksack for white water rafting. I spray volini on the spasm and took a painkiller before departing. I am not sure how effective the pain killer will be as the body works differently in altitude. Its worth to give a try.

I am going to be picked up by a SUV from another tourist operator. The arrangement is made so that the cost will be shared and also can meet some fun people or fellow traveler. Fortunately the group is of four residents from Delhi – a strategy consultant for a pharmaceuticals, a photographer, as advertisement film executive & a student. The plan is to drive to Chilling and river raft to Nimoo. The grade of rafting is Grade III which is difficult passages; narrow in places and with high waves. The drive is around 30 minutes up the mountain by the side of the rapids. One of the group member is terrified upon seeing the rapids and later heard that the others dragged him out of his bed in-spite of his pleading. The rapids look dangerous at several points and need good skills to navigate without capsizing. Its all in the hands of the team spirit and the navigator.

We reach Chilling and immediately realise we are not the only ones to river raft that day. There is a group already waiting to start. There are three rafts and each can hold 8 people in it. Since I am alone, I am more likely to join any group with spare capacity. I prepared myself by wearing wet suits and life jackets. Then we are all given instruction in English for 15 minutes before we started. There are 5 commands instructed by the lead (guide) in the boat who will stear the raft – Forward pedal, backward pedal, stop, left forward right backward and right forward left backward. If commanded to dug by the lead, then all have to move away from the side seating position to center and hold the rope along with the rod. The safety instructions are also explained if someone falls into the river especially how to lift a person into the draft who has fallen into the river. Also a single manned draft will be travelling along to ensure safety of the person if they are pulled away by the tide. The final instruction is not to panic whatever happens & avoid drinking water. Then we set to draft after few trials in a calm part of the river.

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My raft is loaded with college students – 3 lads & 4 girls. My destiny is to travel with ever screaming crowd of youngsters in one of the toughest rafting place. On the other its going to be more excitement. All of them are filled with fear having seen the rapids on the way up the mountain to Chilling. My place is front left side of the raft and to take control if the right flank is not upto the mark. I instantly recognised that there is a high chance for us to capsize if the team is not performing together. The only good part is that the lead is a very experienced person. During rafting, our raft is the only one out of three which didn’t overturn. As expected the front right position is useless and i took major chunk of steering during wild rapids. It’s fantastic experience as apart from rafting the rapids, we chase dropped rods, provide temporary hold for people whose rafts overturned and steer into the confluence region of Indus & zanskar. The team work is fantastic and we bonded for 90 minutes and maintained rhythm and steered , encouraged & booed. So far the best 90 minutes of my trip. We are finally pulled out near a camp in Nimoo where I am able to find a tent to change to dry cloth. Lunch is provided by the operator before setting back to Leh.

In the vehicle, conversation went very well with the group of four people i traveled to Chilling. One of them has his brother stationed in Nubra valley as a Indian Army major. So they had the rare glimpse of Indian Army view beyond Humur. They share the experience of para-sailing, shooting & viewing Pakistan bunkers who are watching on Indian side for any border penetration. We exchange contact details and assure to be in touch. Certainly I ticked one of the bucket list I wanted to do for a very long time.

Hunder

I wake up early in the morning and think about what’s going to be today. I prefer to go back to Leh after visiting Diskit monastery and Hunder desert. The toilet is eco-friendly version and different. I went to the dinning hall to have my breakfast and had interesting conversation with Suraj & Nepalese guy. It’s interesting to know that Nepalese work from May to September in Ladakh, October in Nepal for Diwali and November to April in Goa. It’s good money as they get tips from foreigners and some sell drugs and drinks to foreigner. Some also end up having sex with foreigners. The Nepali guy had a short term relationship with a girl from Liverpool before when she stayed with her mom in the guest house a year before. She was 19 and told him that he is his 8th boy friend. He is still thinking her as his girl friend and i guess she doesn’t share the same view having returned to Liverpool. Poor guy. The Nepalese guy is up to date with western music and copying western culture literally without knowing what it means.

The next pit stop is Diskit monastery which is on the other side of the river bank. So have to cross the bridge and drive through a panoramic view of dry and barren land of the valley in the foreground and beautiful stretch of snow capped mountain. The driver is interested to show me a small waterfall on the way. The water is flowing from the ice melted from the top of the mountains. The temperature is raising gradually over a period of time in the valley. The average temp is 25 degree in July. The water is freezing but fresh. On the way to monastery, we went pass a herd of double humped camel grazing wildly in the mountains. The herd has the very old, male, female and young ones. I start to climb the rocks to get close to them and at the same time not to scare them. A military vehicle arrives and a bunch of soldiers start to climb the rocks and eventually succeeded in scaring the herds to my benefit. The herd started to walk towards me and had fantastic snaps taken by my guide/driver.

There is a new monastery built parallel to the old Diskit monastery. The new one has a large golden Buddha statue in the top on a podium. I preferred old one than the new one as the old is very authentic and contain fabulous wall paintings depicting Buddha & his life journey.

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Diskit Monastery also known as Deskit Gompa or Diskit Gompa is the oldest and largest Buddhist monastery (gompa) in the Nubra Valley of Ladakh, northern India. It belongs to the Gelugpa (Yellow Hat) sect of Tibetan Buddhism. It was founded by Changzem Tserab Zangpo, a disciple of Tsong Khapa, founder of Gelugpa, in the 14th century. It is a sub-gompa of the Thikse gompa. Old monasteries have same resemblance except for size. Diskit monastery is different as it’s huge and old and most of the wall paintings are invisible. It’s a normal monastry visit & nothing special except I bump into many Israelite again. More Israelite are visiting this part of the world but cant establish a reason yet.

The next stop is Hunder which is famous for high altitude sand dunes. The valley is beautiful with pleasant surprises of green villages, sand dunes, river, waterfall, hot springs, huge blocks of white rocks, small streams, etc.

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The driver drop me near a small stream which has a wooden bridge. The water is flowing swiftly. On the other side of the bridge, there are several tents and camels sat outside the tents. This is my first time in a desert and certainly want to try camel ride. After negotiation and price settlement, i am shown a camel which will take me through the dune and back. The camel looks old and am told that it’s the appropriate one for my weight. The amazing view is when it stood up. The jerk during the camel ride is pleasant. I expect otherwise.

After few yards walking in the desert, the camel came to a stop. The rider then pushed it hard but it didn’t move an inch. He called another man for help who then kicked it from the back. Its clear animal cruelty and am worried about the animal as well its reaction to whats happening. It moves a few yards and stops again. This time the keeper ask the other man to give a real good smack in the back. The camel didn’t expect it and started running fast after a hard smack. There are no fasteners for me to hold and am not expecting it to sprint. I lost balance and landed in the sand. I hurt my back but it’s worryingly lower back. The camel guides or the owner is ill equipped to handle these cases and pointed that the ticket clearly says its on my own risk. This is how it works in tourist spots with less equipped and money oriented. There is no point in arguing with these guys and came back to my jeep.

We head back to Leh. I am sitting calm and in one fixed position. I maintain the still position through out the journey. But unfortunately the ice started we saw in the forward journey is melting and the roads are flooded and patchy. I manage my pain and spray pain killers. I am now horrified if this is going to impact my Stok Kangri climb. I took pain killers upon return and rest in the bed. I was fast asleep due to tiredness.

Nubra Valley

Its strange to be cut off from rest of the world for days. I have no clue about the outcome of yesterday’s match. I wish Netherlands won. A kiwi lady at the restaurant enquire about the result as she has seen me watching matches before in the common guest room. Finally am told that Netherlands won by 3-2 and he heard it in the radio. I wish farewell to Nina and her mom as they are leaving to London today. She said she will mail me and possibly meet for a coffee in London. We didn’t exchange any contact details though.

I am all set for 2 night stay. I dropped rest of my things in a storeroom. Though the guest house management is good in suggesting places and booking tents, it’s business for them to suggest expensive pretty ones. I am not that bothered as I am here to have stress free travel and don’t want to rush or look for cheap unattractive options.

Today plan is to drive down to Nubra valley through world’s highest motor-able road and stay in a Turkish tent in a small model village called Sumur. The driver is the one who drove me to Alchis. He speaks little English but understands what i tell him which is more than sufficient for me. Also this time he has improved a lot in taking pictures. The drive started from west of Leh. The initial part is up slope which is steep and the roads can hold only one vehicle. Also there are many heavy vehicles on the road than contract tourist and private vehicles. At one point, there are 4 heavy vehicles and 2 contract hires negotiating a curve. Its utter madness to drive in this place. The weather pattern change as we went up the mountain and also very foggy.  The visibility went from worse to worst. Then the snow added to other difficulties. After much struggle, we reach the highest point in the world’s highest motorable road in the world.

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Its cold and am desperate for a hot drink. A couple from Rome in the tea tent is interested to know the world cup results as they are also cut off from rest of the world. After a warm tea, the drive start towards Nubra valley. The drive on down slope is hilarious as at every corner vehicles negotiate the snow ridden single carriage road. At one point, when we stopped for giving way,a rock fell on a car before us. Its a small rock and therefore not much damage. One of the curious stop is near a frozen pond surrounded by green pastures grazed by Yuks. Indeed i want to walk on the frozen pond and take photos with the snow clad mountain in the background. The driver is not happy but eventually helped me out.

The terrain became very normal down slope and I closed my eyes and had some sleep in the car for a while. When i wake up for lunch, its a small village in the tough terrain. I always wonder how the Ladhakis survive in this tough terrain. They look fragile in appearance but not in heart. They must have high endurance which they could have inherited from their religion. It still amuses me the way the kings and monks have constructed Buddhist temples and stupas in very unusual and unyielding terrain. Also the material is sand and clay which stood the wrath of extreme climates. I wish i have a heart like them and not to give up even under extreme dire circumstances. The Ladhakis smile is incredible and their life is so simple, content and self sufficient. Behind the calmness and humbleness lies the hardship and survival instinct without compromising integrity. But the current generation in Leh is fast getting westernised which is major concern to many traditional Ladhakis. One good thing is it’s not happening in places other than main towns. There is concern that this may also change as more foreign trekkers pass through the villages and share western products.

After lunch the drive continue towards Nubra valley. I learnt from the Ladhaki driver that the Kargil war between India and Pakistan in 1999 was fought in and around Nubra valley. When kargil war took place, i was doing my 3rd year at University. Pakistan army and PoK mujahideens entered Kargil and mountain region during winter when heavy snow covered the mountain when usually both Indian and Pakistani troops retreat to lower grounds. During summer, Pakistani soldiers started advancing to the valley & India was shocked to see them and defended the territory.There were heavy casualties on both sides and the war ended after Pakistan and mujahideens retreated. One of my immediate senior’s brother at university was a Army Major during the war and died defending his battalions. He was posthumously awarded Param Veer Chakra which is the highest award for bravery in Indian Army. Now the valley is safe with huge Indian army presence. There are constant checks when travelling through important passes bordering Pakistan and China. Clearly this is a buffer zone between the nations and the terrain is the highest battling ground in the earth.

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After few minutes of drive, the valley iss visible. It’s another incredible sight as the valley stretches for miles with  villages as green patches in between them. River Sheby flows through the valley and it’s breath taking panoramic view. This is one of the view that attracted me to Ladakh in the first place.

The destination is a village by name Sumur. The drive went through beautiful scenic stretch which makes this place special. There are buddhist temples and stupas all over the place. The flora is a velvet bush like flower which looked amazing from distance. We finally arrive to the guest house in Sumur where i am going to stay that night.  After refreshing, we drive towards Sumur monastery. It’s comparatively modern to the ones i have seen so far and a function being arranged to celebrate Dalai Lama’s birthday. Later heard from the driver that Dalai lama is going to visit the monastery in September and offer his blessing.

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The driver is very keen to show me hot springs not very far from Sumur. But its very close to the Line of Control between Pakistan and Indian and in a place called Panamik. Most hot springs are indication of seismic activity but the driver and the locals have no recollection of any earth quake or seismic activity in the place. The hot spring is bigger than i expected and its very active.

We return back to rest and be prepared for the next day. Its a long day and one of the best visual days of the trip.

Buddhist Monasteries in Ladakh

The drive from Pangong Lake to Hemis is not the one i expected. The weather has turned sour and it started to snow. Also the visibility of the path is restricted to few meters. The usually benign driver is now aggressive. As his health got better, he is now in full strength and mood to drive. The roads are bad owing to previous night’s snow. I myself can’t see any vehicles before me to make a decision to divert. To add to my worries, the driver switch on the hazard lights when I  asked him to switch on the fog light. It’s clear he doesn’t have a clue about fog lights. I am wrong as i came to realise that the cars in that region use hazard lights to warn other users than the fog lights to improve visibility. None of the cars coming opposite have any lights on and let alone few with hazard lights. The car is now going through a treacherous stretch of road where rocks are frequently fall from the mountain. So any time rock of any size can fall on us. There is no boulders by the side and the car can be easily crushed by one stone as it gets momentum from the mountain top.

While i am worried and clinging on to my seat belt, the driver is driving casually with one hand at a speed of 40 km/hr when the maximum legal speed on that road is 20 km/hr. Its not that he doesnt care about his life but he is doing it day in and day out every year. He also overtake few cars during this extreme tough situation. I am counting time to pass this situation and can feel the high adrenalin rush sitting comfortably inside Toyoto Nova. He also follow the Indian tradition of not wearing the seat belt as its uncomfortable for them.

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We went pass the difficult terrain and i can realise that i am back to normal. I am not sure i can do it again. The first stop is Hemis Monastery. As we are heading towards it, we almost had an head to head collision with the L-plated car being driven by a Ladakhi monk. Its a first time i am seeing a monk driving a car and both the drivers are smiling even though its a conflict situation. It can only happen in this part of the world. Hemis Monastery existed before the 11th century and is the largest monastic institution in Ladakh. It belongs to the Drukpa Lineage or the Dragon Order of Mahayana Buddhism, with His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa as its supreme spiritual head.

Its lunch time and can see a lot of young buddhist disciples are having free time and they are willing to pose for photos. There is a young charming boy who is interested in the camera. I gave him a chance to take photos and he is in all smile. Its not the case with an old monk. He doesn’t want to be photographed as i guess he has prior experience with tourist and just not into it anymore. The view of the valley from the monastery is beautiful. The courtyard is very old but interesting.

The next monastery is shown to me on the way. Its Shey monsatery . As we are hard pressed for time, we drive to Thiksey bypassing Shey. Every monastery in Little Tibet is constructed on top of a hill. Underneath the hill or mountain will be a valley and a green patch of cultivation. They have to sustain the extreme weather of the terrain. Its extremely hot in summer and extremely cold in winter. Still the people live with a smile without complaining. Also they are able to maintain the monastery which are several hundred years old. Its a different world in itself and you can see and feel the calmness being in the place. Not only for the terrain but also for people and religion of the place. It looks everything came into one place either by sheer luck or by destiny.

The view of Thiksey from a distance is magnificent. Even before entering it, it creates an expectation of magnanimity. Thikse Monastery is a monastery of the Yellow Hat (Gelugpa) sect, located on top of a hill, approximately 19 kilometres east of Leh. It is noted for its resemblance to the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet and is the largest gompa in central Ladakh. It is a 12-storey complex and houses many items of Buddhist art such as stupas, statues, thangkas, wall paintings and swords. The monastery precinct at the foot of the hill has a courtyard from where a flight of steps leads to the main monastery (one of the 10 temples here), which is 12-stories in height. It has two main chambers. The monastery is painted in red, ochre and white and houses 60 lamas. There are excellent views across the Indus Valley flood plain both east and westbound from it, from which the gompa at Matho (to the east), the royal palace at Stok (across the valley to the south) and the former royal palace at Shey (to the west) are clearly visible.

One of the main points of interest is the Maitreya (future Buddha) Temple which is installed to commemorate the visit of the 14th Dalai Lama to this monastery in 1970. A 15 metres (49 ft) high statue of Maitreya, the largest such statue in Ladakh, covering two storeys of the building is deified in the monastery.

Pangong lake via Chang La pass

The previous days long trek did’nt have any effect on me when i wake up this morning. Today is going to be a long drive to Pangong Lake via Chang-La pass. Pangong Lake is five-hour drive from Leh, most of it on a rough and dramatic mountain road. The road crosses the villages of Shey and Gya and traverses the Changla pass, where army sentries and a small teahouse greet visitors. Road down from Chang-la pass leads through Tangste and other smaller villages, crossing river called Pagal Naala or “The Crazy Stream”.

Pangong lake is an endorheic lake situated at a height of about 4,350 m. It is 134 km long and extends from India to Tibet. 60% of the length of the lake lies in China. During winter the lake freezes completely, despite being saline water. Pangong lake is in disputed territory. The Line of Actual Control between India and China passes through the lake. A section of the lake approximately 20 km east from the Line of Actual Control is controlled by India but claimed by China. The eastern end of the lake is in Tibet and is not claimed by India. The western end of the lake is not in dispute.

My day starts with a breakfast and end up meeting Singapore Indians in the restaurants. After few rants about football, their life & about London, i wish them farewell and safe journey back home. Since i will be staying by the lake that night,I vacate the room and hand over key to Mr Beeky.

The driver is young Ladahki and can’t speak English. Since it’s not going to be trekking, I manage to communicate with him through broken English and sign language. One good thing about him is that he took good photos & quickly learned to use my Nikon D90. Bad thing is that he had stomach ache and frequently stopped. I gave him Ranatin, a pain killer, after I reached the lake. Also like the previous Ladakhi driver, the young driver drove fast, overtook vehicles in narrow roads and used one hand to change songs while driving with another hand even when the roads are treacherous and narrow.

As soon as we left Leh, we met a convoy of army trucks. It took 30 minutes to overtake all of them. Then came the tough ride to Chan-la pass. It is situated 5600 m above sea level and holds Guinness book of records for highest check post in the world. On the way towards Chang-La pass, we came across an abandoned SUV with all it’s wheel removed and covered in hard ice. We crossed many red flags on the route which is kept to indicate they are avalanche prone zone. Its scary and also heard several stories of ice covering vehicles in avalanche in less than a second.

Fortunately the ice is compressed due to morning cold and nothing sinister happened. Chang-la is a small army post with few refreshment stalls and toliets. We stopped over to get a picture. Luckily an Army office accepted to pose with me. The terrain look stunning with hard ice covering it. I walked on top of a frozen pond and can see few cracks here and there but didn’t deter me at all.

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The drive to Pangong lake is fantastic. We had lunch in small village and the driver is able to establish conversation with local people. It seems he knows a lot about them and must be frequently passing through. He is still in pain but just holding on. The drive is a long one we went through several mountain passes and captured wild life in camera. The driver is gracious to stop over at places. Then we reach a sign post saying that its the first point of view of the lake from that road. The view give a glimpse of the tail end of the lake but not the entire lake. As we pass through a narrow pass, the view of the lake unfolded. Its so calm, pristine and surrounded by snow clad mountains.

We reach a small camp area and a room is already blocked for me. The room is at end of the corridor and the window faces the lake. The view from the window is spectacular. I took my SLR and went for a long walk. It took several photos for 2-3 hours. During dinner time, I heard that there is going to be a camp fire by the tent. I love camp fire but its not for everyone. A family has already booked in and not to include any private members. Its a disappointment but possibly i will do it when i visit this place again.

My sleep pattern that night is okay. But i kept alarm to wake up early and walk by the side of the lake during Sun rise. In the morning, i am alone by the lake side. I just sat their and watched the sun rise from east and its a view i cant forget in my life. The view is well captured in my photos. Later realise, i am not alone but there are group of Americans trying to do the same i am doing. They have their own tent instead of rooms. Everyone left except for a Chinese American with whom i had a brief chat. They are from California and exploring India along with friends who have ancestral homes in India. She seems tired but enjoying the view.

After having my breakfast, i am on way back to Leh but before that its time to visit some monasteries on the way.