Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Back on the Roof of the World

Leh, Tuesday June 12

Up at the Shanti Stupa overlooking Leh
I am back in Leh, the capital of the northernmost bit of India (Ladakh) for the first time in 7 years.  In 2005 my sisters and I cycled from Manali to Leh, around a few of the scenic bits of Ladakh and then out to Srinagar.  This time I'm here with Terri, hiking instead of biking.

Or, rather, trying to hike.  We've been here in Ladakh for 4 days trying to arrange some long-distance treks back across the Himalayas, but until today, we've had no luck.  But let's start at the beginning of the story.

Another year of teaching came to a halt just over a week ago, and I left for Geneva airport the morning after our staff end-of-year dinner, having been up most of the night packing up my apartment for the summer.  I headed to the airport laden down with my backpack, full of hiking gear, and my ski bag, full of mountaineering gear for the second part of the summer vacation.  A long flight to Delhi, a long nap, and I was ready to face India for the fourth time.  Delhi was its usual steaming, polluted self, but I found a decent hotel in the tourist slum of Paharganj (the inelegantly named Hari Piorko, hereafter known as the Hairy Porko), with quiet rooms, comfy beds and (best of all) an aquarium set into the wall of every room.

A shikara on Nageen Lake, Srinagar
Terri and I being paddled across the lake on a shikara

Terri flew in from Bali that evening, and the next morning found us at Delhi airport again, boarding a Kingfisher Airlines flight for Srinagar.  It seems ironic that on an airplane owned by a brewery, they don't serve alcohol.  We flew through heavy pre-monsoon turbulence and landed in a howling gale.  I managed to find our way back to the same part of Nageen Lake that Audie, Saakje and I stayed on in 2005, and we settled in for 2 wonderfully relaxing nights on a houseboat.  It was easy to sit at the stern, reading or sketching the elegant shikara boats being paddled by, watching kingfishers and moorhens on the water, and gazing across the lake to the old Mughal fort topping a nearby hill.

A 2000-year-old Kushan Buddha near Mulbekh
All good things must come to an end, and our brief stay in Srinagar was followed by a 2-day marathon of discomfort as we bumped and ground our way to Leh in a hideously uncomfortable jeep.  The weather was poor, with rain on the Zoji La (the pass across the actual Himalaya range) and clouds and showers the rest of the way.  The Indian government is pouring lots of effort and money into paving the entire Srinagar-Leh road, but so far the main effects have been a lot of piles of sand and rock being pushed around lethargically by emaciated Bihari road workers, inbetween bouts of staring vacantly into the middle distance.  The road is full of diesel-belching trucks as it was in 2005, but a new feature is the hordes of middle-class Indian tourists from the plains riding the road on motorcycles.  It was nice to stop off and see the ancient Kushan-era Buddha carved into a rock face at Mulbekh, but the best part of the trip was the fact that it finally ended in Leh.  It was far more fun, stimulating, engaging and comfortable to cycle this road than to bounce along its potholes in a vehicle.  

Stok Kangri, the tallest peak near Leh; I climbed it in 2005                                           The Zanskar Range seen from Leh
It was strange to be back in Leh, having spent quite a lot of time there in 2005.  Most of the restaurants and guesthouses are the same, but it's taken me a few days to dig my memories of them out of the archives.  The setting of Leh is stunning, and looks more impressive this year since it's earlier in the summer, resulting in much, much more snow on the surrounding mountains.  Leh sits above the north bank of the Indus, with 5700-metre mountains to the north (the Ladakh Range) and 6000-metre mountains to the south (the Zanskar Range).  On a clear day (and there have been few of those so far), the views from a high vantage point like the Shanti Stupa are stunning.  

Terri spinning the prayer wheels at Lamayuru Monastery
The reason for this trip back to Ladakh is to do some trekking; in 2005 there wasn't much opportunity for that, as we had the bicycles, so we thought that this year we'd be free and easy and would walk all the way back nearly to Manali.  Little did we reckon on how difficult it would be to find horsemen and donkeymen willing to rent out their animals' services to carry our food.  We have had to abandon our ambitious initial trek (from Hemis to Darcha), and even the old fall-back from Lamayuru to Darcha foundered because there were no equids to be had in Lamayuru.  Lamayuru itself is a pleasant enough village, with a wonderful monastery and lovely surroundings, but it was frustrating not to have any luck in finding four-legged transport.  
A chukar partridge; the hillsides teem with them

We've finally pared down our ambitions to a tame 8-day walk up the Markha Valley, and have convinced a horseman to rent us no fewer than 4 horses (!) to carry our gear for us.  We leave tomorrow, and not a day too soon; 4 days of kicking our heels here in Leh and in lovely Lamayuru was too long!

So off we go tomorrow, hoping for less rain and snow, and for the passes to be clear of snow.  I'll keep you posted on developments!