19 June 2017

Nubra to Pangong Tso

One of the annoyances of travel in Ladakh is the uncertainty due to bad weather. But it can be a great opportunity to explore newer routes. So, when making a return journey from Nubra Valley back to Leh, we were informed that the Khardungla is closed, we decided to pitch in our luck and go to Pangong Tso through the mostly dirt track from Khalsar via Agyam, Shyok and Dubruk. The road, initially as good as one can find in Ladakh, runs just beside the Shyok river. Sometimes whirling to climb up the mountains abutting the narrow valley and at other times snaking along the river bed. Agyam advertises itself on many milestones prior to its arrival and one can be excused for thinking that it is a major town. It boasts of a narrow steel bridge decked with multiple tibetan prayer flags and a tea stall. Also, there is a bifurcating road that connects it to Shakti on the Leh Manali highway. Beyond Agyam, the road leaves all pretentions of being one, mostly a dirt track and later on just a desire path on the stones of the riverbed. For dozens of kilometres there is no sign of human activity. One just has the river and the bare brown intimidating mountains for company. Once in a while the mandatory BRO road signs appear with their peculiar mischievious humour. It is possibly one of the most desolate drives. An occasional biker appears with a SUV support vehicle. The biker veers dangerously on the slippery dust laden stones of the river bed. One just waits for Shyok to appear. It must be a big town, after all it gives its name to this major river. It turns out that Shyok is half a dozen houses, a few Chortens and a restaurant with a makeshift toilet. But it is kind of relieving to see some human presence in what is otherwise just a lonely drive. Beyond Shyok, the scenery changes, the mountains grow taller and somewhat less intimidating and one hits the military town of Dubrok & Tang tse. It boasts of a reasonably metalled road and curious road signs ... "Only the best of friends and the worst of enemies visit us" and more ominously "It is perhaps the only place where one can suffer heat stroke and frost bite simultaneously". It has a small bazaar where one can buy bottled water, biscuits and Maggi. The road to Pangong Tso from here moves in a narrow green valley where one can spot timid looking yaks, occasional herds of the critically endangered wild ass and sometimes a bus full of tourists. The first sight of Pangong Tso as a crystalline blue lake against the ochre brown mountians seems surreal. Soon one encounters the inimitable black headed gulls and numerous restaurants featuring photos of the Aamir Khan's bollywood blockbuster, 3 Idiots. We stop and have hot Maggi. Seems like redemption for the long drive. The altitude is much higher than Nubra and Leh, so it is better to catch one's breath before moving on.

18 June 2017

Hemis Monastery

Hemis is a little way off from the highway, near Leh. The long winding road up the monastery prepares you for the magnificent sights that one greets at what is the largest monastery in Ladakh. The ticket costs ₹50 and includes the visit to the museum of the Monastery. Photography, inside the monastery is predictably, prohibited. A short climb up the stairs carries one to the roughly rectangular courtyard that faces the main shrines. There are two main shrines, both massive, ancient and brilliantly decorated with tangkha and paintings. The budhha statue inside is nearly two storeys high and is truly an overwhelming spectacle to behold. A long series of prayer wheels are embedded on the left side of the outside wall of the main shrine. Just outside, on the left is a rather small entry to the museum. The small entry belies the huge collection inside. The small door ooens into a shop selling buddhist stuff. Deeper inside the main museum entrace is there. One has to deposit cameras and mobiles in a neat small locker. The entry leads into a massive staircase which moves into a subterranean huge vault like room. Here the precious, rare and ancient collections of various objects of the monastery are displayed. Old paintings, tanghas, reproduction of photographs, masks, statues, utensils, religious objects, decrees of the Namgyal kings of Ladakh, ancient wooden prayer wheels, weapons and what not is neatly displayed in here. Sketches of the Ladakhi dances by early English explorers and their descriptions are particularly interesting. One can easily spend the better part of the days here understanding the various forms of budhhas and other gurus of Tibetan Budhhism. The objects are remarkably well preserved. It reflects the massive collection and heritage of what is not just a monastery but an integral part of the Ladakhi culture and heritage. Once done, the courtyard outside greets one with vantage views all around. A little distance up hill, one can see a recently installed massive golden statue of Buddha. If one has to visit just one monastery in Ladakh, it has to be Hemis, in view of its size, heritage, antiquity and beauty.

15 June 2017

Being Leh'd

Leh, in summers, is a town seething with plane loads of package group tourists, bikers and trekkers. They are all planning to go somewhere else. Trekking to Stok Kangri, biking up the Khardungla, driving to Pangong Tso or perhaps even going back to Srinagar to catch a flight home. Few are here to see Leh itself. There's not much to see, a nine storey high Potala replica like Palace and a Shanti Stupa is all one can count on. Its more of a logistics base. Even if one is forced to stay on here, one goes to Hemis, Thiksey or Nimmu, all a short drive away. Or go shopping from the expensive Kashmiri or Tibetan shops.
But that doesnt mean it lacks character. The narrow streets of the main bazaar have seen much history here. The Leh Palace has had more than its fair share of intrigue and succession battles. The main iconic Leh Mosque stands tall like a gargantuan. Its atmospheric roads are filled with bikers of all sorts and bike shops display notices desperately seeking companions and co-riders to Zanskar or Tso Moriri.
Leh boasts of some the most authentic Tibetan cuisine outside of Lhasa.It also hosts a sporadic music fest, that may not be much, but is a beginning.The main street in market is cobbledstoned and is closed for traffic, making it one of the most pleasant strolls one can have with quaint antique stores, a massive bookshop and restaurants. Its roads are lined with neat freshly painted simple white houses (that are now incresingly doubling up as homestays). One can count more birds in its backyards and gardens than the Salim Ali lists.
Ofcourse, one cannot do a live post on Instagram, Periscope, Snapchat or Facebook here. That, it doesn't have a reliable internet connectivity is more of an advantage here, as it remains one of the few places which is beyond the ubiquitous dragnet of Whatsapp, Facebook and Instagram. And most of all, as one walks on the roads of Leh, one is invariably greeted with cheerful faces shouting Jullay! Certainly, Leh has more character that its weary tourists are ready to grant it!

Planning a trip to Ladakh: Dos & Dont's

I just made a trip to Ladakh and learnt a few lessons in planning a trip. The following is meant to be a concise summary. (Disclaimer: This is based on my own experience and is by no means to be taken as comprehensive or infallible!)

Before you leave

The only mobile phone network that will work in Ladakh is the BSNL (or MTNL) Post Paid plan. So if you wish to remain connected you might want to take a post paid plan of BSNL. 

The internet is very patchy at best in Ladakh and mostly non existent so it might be a good idea to inform your folks prior about your non - availability on social media and email.
High altitude sickness is a complex and ill understood disorder and is extremely likely at Leh and other areas particularly for people who are coming from sea level or relatively lesser heights (i.e. less than 2700 metres / 9000 ft). It is a good idea to talk to your doctor about taking any preventive medicines. Acetazolamide, Dexamethasone and Ibuprofen have been advocated, however these do have their own side effects, some of them as bad as having a high altitude illness. Also, if one is having a pre-existing illness, it would be a good idea to speak to your doctor.

The only sane way of arriving at Leh is by air, as the land routes from Srinagar and Manali are notorious for unanticipated closures. The security situation might also impact your travel plans. Having said that, the air route is also less predictable than other air routes thanks to the mercurial weather at Leh. It is not uncommon for the Leh flights to be diverted to Chandigarh, Srinagar or Delhi. So keep this in mind while booking flight tickets. Also check for weather predictions during your period of travel. September seems to be a safer bet than June.

The road routes are susceptible to unexpected closures, particularly the Khardungla and Changla Passes and will throw your travel to Nubra / Pangong Tso into disarray. You must talk to your tour operator about back plans and hotel reservations.

Ladakh is cold throughout the year and one would require lots of wollens / cold clothing. Be sure to add headgear and gloves. Layered clothing is more effective in keeping out cold than just a thick jacket.

During your travel

The first 24 hours after your arrival at Leh must be dedicated to complete rest and acclimatisation. A short walk at slow pace is advisable after about 8 - 12 hours of rest. One usually feels headache and inability to sleep. Take care to drink lots of fluids but avoid alcohol and smoking.
Do check the weather before embarking on the journey through Khardungla or Changla Passes. Its better to stay at your hotel in Leh than spend hours in a taxi stuck in a jam at one of the highest motorable roads in the world. Please be aware that the likelihood for acute mountain sickness is much higher at the Passes. It might be worthwhile to invest in a large oxygen cylinder and carry it in the taxi if one is traveling with senior citizens, children or others with pre-existing illness.

Ladakhis are wonderfully accommodating and friendly. However, be aware of the religious sensitivities and individual privacy while visiting monasteries, other religious places and private homes. It is customary to take off your shoes outside the main shrines (but one may keep the socks on, keeping in view the cold floor!). Photography is usually not allowed inside the monasteries. Always ask before shooting photographs particularly of women or children or of religious persons/ceremonies. Thiksey Monastery does allow photography inside some sections but it is better to ask and not to use flash or tripod.  Be aware that religious functions and prayer are almost continuously going on at the monasteries and make sure that your presence or activity does not interrupt them. Needless to say, maintain sanctity of the place as one would do at any other religious place.

Street dogs are a menace, like at any other place, but more so at Leh. Avoid feeding or contact.

Hand baggage is not allowed during travel from Leh airport. Do check with your airline if they would be giving any additional free checked - in baggage allowance. Ladies bag and a laptop bag/camera bag  is allowed to be carried as hand baggage but it would be better to check with your airline.

Ladakh has a strong military presence. Do not venture into restricted areas. Be careful while taking photographs as well. Photography of the Leh airport is not allowed. It is always better to ask

14 June 2017

Pangong Tso

Pangong Tso is salt water lake in the western Himalayas in Ladakh. At 14000 feet above mean sea level it is one of the highest lakes in the region. Seen from air, it looks like a thin sliver of blue among the ochre and white of the barren mountains of the Ladakh plateau. Its about 130 kilometres long but just about 5 - 6 kilometres at its widest. Its pristine blue colour among the brown and white surrounding areas makes it look surreal and heavenly.
Reaching Pangong Tso is almost as difficult as reaching heaven, though. Just about a seemingly trivial 140 kilometres from Leh, its actually an arduous  hour back rattling journey that takes one over the mighty Chang La pass. At a shade above 17000 feet, Chang La is not as high as the more famous Khardung La but its no less charming. The weather on top of the Chang La changes so frequently that it can be called mercurial. At the warmest time of the year one can expect about 10 feet of snow on either side of the thin one way road. Calling it a road is a bit of an exaggeration - it is majorly cratered and soon dissipates into a mud track. After every bout of fresh snow the mud turns into a squishy slime that tests the best of the drivers' skills. Needless to say passing the Chang La is an exhilarating experience. Beyond the Chang La, the meandering road is much tamer with a gentle climb down to 14000 feet. The last third of the road from the military cantonment of Tang Tse to Spangmik seems just out of a bollywood movie shot in the Swiss Alps. The road passes through a narrow valley cloistered on the side by a green meadows and then barren brown intimidating mountains on both sides. One can spot flocks of seemingly timid Yaks grazing and occasionally also spot the critically endangered Wild Ass. 
The first view of the lake is truly hypnotising - a turquoise blue against the ochre mountains capped by snow. The road follows the meandering shore of the lake till one reaches Spangmik which is a tent town of makeshift resorts. The frail canvas of the tents can do little to alleviate the bone chilling cold wind that blows at all times of the day and night. Electricity is rationed to just about 3 - 4 hours in the evening as it is generated entirely out of Diesel generators. But this long difficult journey and weather is more than enough price to pay for the sights of the lake early in the morning. The colours of the lake reflect the clear blue sky, the mountains, clouds and the snow capped peaks changing  from cobalt blue to malachite green and all the shades in between. Many migratory birds make a stop over at this lake and for Mumbaikar it is heartening to see the Black faced Gull in summer plumage. The same bird is seen in winters at the Mumbai shores.
The filming of the bollywood blockbuster 3 Idiots has added to the rapid pace of commercialization of the lake front, yet it still retains a natural charm that is unmatched. Infact, if asked to sum up the lake in one word, perhaps it would be Pristine!

13 June 2017

Ladakh The exhilarating: Khardungla and all

Everybody seems to know about it, but no on could confirm it. The Lama at Diskit Monastry told us, the tourist from Gujarat told us in Hunder, even the biker on the enviable Royal Enfield had heard about it. The mighty Khardungla Pass was closed. I accepted the news with extreme reluctance and agony. I was just hoping against hope that it must be just a rumour but our driver  quashed my hope by pointing out the ominous clouds over the snow capped peaks all around the picturesque Nubra Valley. It takes a bit of gullibility to expect one to believe that over ten feet of snow has fallen overnight on the Khardungla in early June! But then as the numerous road signs put by the venerable Border Roads Organisation (BRO): The experienced expect the unexpected! 
For all of its alleged inaccessibility, Ladakh has been at the cross roads of multiple civilisations and trade routes over much of the last two millenia. The current geopolitical situation just makes it look inaccessible and far. But it is barely an hour of flight from over the Western Himalayas takes you into Leh. Ladakh means the region of high mountain passes and surely it boasts of two of the three highest motorable roads in the world. This also makes it extremely susceptible to unpredictable closures. And I was stuck in the middle of one. I had to get back to Leh from Hunder, but the Khardongla had been closed due to heavy snowfall! 
Whenever one travels, the journey teaches you something. Ladakh teaches Fortitude, to take it on one's stride. The region is among the highest altitudes anywhere in the world. It has extreme cold climate and bizarre weather. To top it, history has not been kind to it with multiple wars and annexations by powers ranging from Mongols to Chinese to Tibetans to the Dogras. All this adversity has made the people of Ladakh one of the hardiest and most welcoming. Everyone greets you with a warm and heartening Jullay! And that is when one realises that the we landlubbers get so engrossed in the seemingly unsurmountable problems of immediacy that we forget to count the joys and blessings. 
So while I was wondering about where to head to and staring uncomprehendingly at my defunct smart phone (Outside phones do not work in the state of Jammu and Kashmir); my tour operator called on my driver's phone and told him to head directly to Pangong Tso, a good 160 kilometres and 6 hours gruelling drive along the river bed of the alluring Shyok river. The other option was to go back to Hunder and wait it out till the might Khardungla opens again. He told me that he would try to swing one room (actually a tent) at Pangong Tso. After an excruciating hour of waiting he again called back to say that something has been arranged! I felt literally on top of the world (actually I was above quite a bit of the world already!) because any way ahead is way forward. The journey to Pangong Tso is for post another day!

Breathtaking Ladakh

It just doesn't take a simple decision to go to Ladakh, it almost takes divine intervention. While there are several ways of reaching Ladakh, perhaps the only sane way of doing so is by air to Leh from Delhi. That said, its no simple task, as the flights are sold out months in advance. Even with a confirmed ticket, there is no guarantee that one would be able to make it on the day thanks to the notoriously ephemeral weather at Leh which can turn bad in a matter of minutes. So if you have indeed landed at Leh airport you certainly have passed some sort of test of good karma
The change is almost immediately apparent. The heavy bag that you had lunged at the check in counter at Delhi with some strength now seems impossible to nudge off the baggage belt. But help is at hand. People here realise that you are a landlubber already suffering from (hopefully) just a mild case of Acute Mountain Sickness. With a smile and a Jullay! one's luggage is loaded onto the taxi pronto!
The hotels here are more like homestays. You are advised to take rest, drink water and not to attempt anything gallantry at least for the next twenty four hours in a most didactic tone. Your queries regarding Tso Moriri or Nubra Valley are answered with a polite smile. This is when you bend down to untie your shoelaces and realise what a difficult feat to achieve that is! Truly breathtaking Ladakh is!

04 May 2017

Individuals as nations: Role of Social Media

There was a time when if one wanted to stage a coup de e'tat one usually captured the radio station and the TV station first. So in many ways the Radio Station and TV station epitomises (or used to) the most visible form of state power. But with the advent of social media and smart phones now every individual has his or her own TV station, newspaper, movies and all that which earlier was only available to a despot. Thanks to social media and smart phones, individuals are now taking on the roles and dimensions of nations. It is interesting to see that with these powers how individuals have started behaving like tin pot little countries. People are behaving like nations on social medial. But not like free, liberal thinking utopic democracies but more like totalitarian despotic regimes. And that should not be surprising, afterall one individual can only be totalitarian without being branded as schizophrenic. The posts on facebook, instagram and others are more like propaganda machinery. Exaggerating the good parts of one's life - pictures of gondola ride in venice and scuba diving in havelock. Dressed up selfies reminding one of touched up pictures of a handsome looking Stalin when everone knows how he looked. Twitter personas is slightly different. While they are used for propaganda of pet projects and concerns, they are also organs of diplomacy of this one person totalitarian regime . Retweets are used for positive diplomacy with other such tin pot nations. While trolling is used in the same vein as US condemns Iran or Syria. And just like the US uses different language and tones for Nicaragua or Russia, similarly our single person- nation regimes use different levels of emojis for political opponents, bosses, significant others and all and sundry. Mud slinging matches are enacted in full view of twitter followers (read other friendly and neutral regimes) much as nations indulge in filibuster at the United Nations. Live feeds are something different. While there are seeming parallels with propaganda on TV by Kim Jong Un, they are more like those TV celebs trying to garner TRPs. A singularly un-nation like activity but nevertheless promoting the totalitarian despot out to build a personality cult much like Robert Mugabe or Mao Zedong.
In many ways the hashtag wars, twitter trolling, hates, fake news, meme wars are really the dimensions of two or more states fighting a diplomatic war rather than two quibbling individuals. Or may be it is the other way round, the wars between nation states of yester years was more like quibbling individuals who had got state power? Any way you look at it the borders and definitions of nations and individuals seem to be blurring and coalescing. Over the millennia after multiple catastrophic wars, nations have made a semblance of a diplomatic protocol and mechanisms to avoid  full fledged war. This is the time that individuals too built mechanisms more robust than these to similar avoid social media confrontations.

23 April 2017

The life of Crows

The crows of Mumbai are everywhere. They are so ubiquitous that one barely notices them. The last time someone bothered to count them they were nearly half million in a city of nearly 2 million people. For an amateur bird watcher, it is the easiest bird to observe. And once one gets over the dislike of this raucous bird, it is quite an interesting bird to watch. Its forever purposeful, energetic, scheming and noisy. When it is not trying to steal fish from the fishmongers' overhead baskets, it is trying to pry open a dust bin or making menacing flights to the Mynahs on its territory. Crows seem to be holding some sort of congregational meeting too, which seems like a khap panchayat or may be a kangaroo court. The crow watchers will tell you that they are supremely intelligent and have a memory of people who have wronged them. They will attack the person even years later after the incident. They are also adept at using small sticks as tools particularly to pry open boxes. Crows in Mumbai show some of the most daring behaviour near the fisherfolk. Often one sees crows perched atop moving taxis, having fish baskets on top, trying to steal fish and often they are successful. They will pick fish from the baskets irrespective of the proximity of the fisherwoman and often peck at them. Once you start observing the crows, you will notice that there are two types of crows in Mumbai.  One, the House Crow (Corvus splendens), which has a grey neck. The other, the Jungle Crow, slightly bigger with a larger beak and completely black (Corvus macrorhynchos). The birdwatching books will tell you that the Jungle Crow is difficult to spot in urban areas is a bit shy. Nothing could be farther from the truth, at least in Mumbai.  The Jungle Crow here is as omnipresent as its smaller cousin and if not more than at least as daring. Its call is also a bit harsher.Though, it is  slightly lesser in numbers than the House Crow. There have been concerns on the apparently rising number of crows in Mumbai and its possible deleterious effect on the number of smaller and timid birds. While the crow is cacphonous, daring, ubiquitous and has obviously successfully coexisted with humans in this urban environment it still has to bother about the Koel (Eudynamys scolopaceous). The Koels are found near the Crows' nests and while the male sings its melodious song to distract the crows pair, the female koel snuggles into the nest, displaces an egg of the Crow and lays its own there! This interesting behaviour is called Brood parasitism. So while in popular perception one may think of the Crow as large raucous loud villain and the Koel as sweet melodious performer the truth is that the Crow is actually a victim. And much like the ordinary Mumbaikar, it carries on unabashed!