Fun things to know about Ladakh.

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Three months after I took a trip to Ladakh, I had a serious  case of nostalgia over the weekend. I have discovered that after any holiday, there are a few special things which stick around in my mind. The rest of the memories slowly, lazily, fade away leaving behind these interesting bits and pieces which turn into symbols of that holiday. Sort of, like watching the highlights of a cricket match and remembering only that exact ball and wicket that led to the win!

So also, in the case of our holiday to Ladakh, where well wishers fed us with stories about the difficult terrain and people dying because of the all too famous mountain sickness! When we actually reached, half scared half excited, it was an anticlimax. We found the place welcoming, beautiful, safe, chilly (which was welcome because it was blistering hot back home) and luckily, experienced very little ill health or wooziness!

Seven days disappeared before we knew it, and the land and its people embraced us so warmly that we felt a wee little bit Ladakhi at heart, by the time we returned. Though remote in a lot of ways and sans the most traditional (pun intended) forms of entertainment like malls, fast internet and cinemas, we happened to have most fun exploring Ladakh and learning her ways like….

Julley.

The ladakhi are known to be a very friendly race and the friendship starts with a “Julley”, which is a blanket term for  “Hi, Whats up?, How are you doing ?, How’s life ?” and anything else that falls into the category of a greeting. The meaning is circumstance based, rather than rigid. So simple, yet so beautiful. Importantly, easy for us toursists, who find it difficult to run our tongues around difficult, lispy tibetian words. Learn one word, and work miracles as a conversation starter! In a span of seven days, I said ‘Julley’ more times than I did ‘Namaste’ in the past year of my life! To the driver, our guide,the shopkeeper, the vendor on the road, my tour mates(till the novelty wore off) and to any stranger! No one found it strange and returned the greeting with grace and a warm smile!

This made me want to try harder to learn some more, and ended up with “Thuk che che”, which is thank you. Not much more! The people and the language make a nice contrast, as the language sounds harsh but the people look friendly!

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The unpredictable weather.

There is a saying in ladakhi which goes “Never trust a vendor’s promise, a girl’s mind and the ladakhi weather- all three change colors fast”. Though the feminist in me wants to snip off the “girl” part, I can mostly agree on the other two! Especially the weather! You never know what to wear when you tour Ladakh. I browsed through books and websites telling me what to carry, before I packed. Half of my luggage was filled with sweaters and caps of various sizes and shapes- one for little cold, one for moderate and one for really cold! Armed with this arsenal, I felt pretty confident that I could conquer the weather and its whimsies! Little did I know that the weather would beat me to it! What started off as a warm day suddenly turned very windy, and vice versa. Heck, just walking out from direct sunlight into the shade would lower the temperature by significant degrees! Well, to make the long story short, I landed up wearing atleast three layers of clothing and repeatedly peeling them off or putting them on – and looking a minimum of three sizes too big in all the photographs! I learnt the hard way that “layering” only looks good in fashion magazines and is not meant for mere mortals like us!

 

The funky Tees

Well, one of the most important assignments on any trip is the shopping for the extended family that we have left behind in the pursuit of satisfying our travel lust! Aargh,the apparent selfishness of this act makes me want to buy some more, to appease them and beg forgiveness!

T shirts with “My mom/brother/uncle…went to so and so place and only got me this t shirt” which were cute about a century ago, never much appealed to me. But Leh has something unique to offer in this respect. The market place is strewn with shops which actually embroider funky stuff on to t shirts of different sizes! Their savvies lie in the fact that they take orders by the day and deliver them the next, with the embroidery that you want! No prizes for guessing what I got for my entire family!

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Thanks Punegetaways for the click which I did not remember to take!

The jewellery.

Through the week, there was not one time that I saw people wearing anything made of gold. The traditional tibetian jewellery uses silver, wood, bronze and bark inlaid with semi precious stones, corals and beads. From roadside flea markets to shops which store the more valuable pieces, we saw some of the most exquisite craftmanship. Turquoise, which is found in the mountain ranges of Tibet- is one of the most common stone used- in the making of filigree ornaments, earrings, necklaces, and jewellery boxes with intricate inlay.

The experience of shopping in stores is also unique. Most traders are nostalgic Kashmiris, who have difficulty in adjusting their mindscape to the barrenness of Leh after growing up in the lush pastures of Kashmir. They work for six months of the tourist season and migrate back home for the winters.

Once the trader realizes that the buyer is serious, he offers hot kahwa and a chat, till the customer finishes deliberating. By the time you are through with the free kahwa, the hole in your pocket is threatening to grow to enormous proportions!

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The whole brouhaha about altitude sickness.

Exactly opposite to Voldemort and in equal proportion, is the scare about Mountain sickness. For the uninitiated,’ Acute mountain sickness’ is a syndrome caused by the thinning oxygen levels in the atmosphere when at high altitudes. The symptoms range anything from shortness of breath to no breath at all! It takes some amount of acclimatizing to withstand it.

Now, before we set foot into Ladakh, the travel company gave us so many pointers to start diuretics (as a preventive measure) that we started to wonder if the pharmaceutical company was working hand in glove with the travel one, to promote their product. Each one of us had atleast three strips of the drug!

Then came the pro travelers with horror stories of people dying on the trip.

Followed by the Leh airport authorities- who play the symptoms and warning signs of mountain sickness on a loop,religiously, on loudspeakers , in between flight announcements.

We almost developed psychological breathlessness, because we thought that we had live up to their expectations!

Jokes apart, yes, mountain sickness did exist. We got exhausted faster and found ourselves gasping for breath after climbing a single flight of stairs,but that was about it. Over two days, we managed to conquer most of it.

The trick is to drink a lot of water, pop in the diuretic and take as many toilet breaks as you want into basic but functional pit toilets, with your breath held and eyes closed ! A feat which you will no doubt learn over time! After all, necessity is the mother of invention.

Ladakh in many ways, is not the ideal luxury destination for a break. It is harsh, barren and basic. But when the holiday includes fresh mountain air (though scantily), clear skies with a gazillion stars and the company of amazing friends, the whole holiday becomes priceless.

These are my memories from Ladakh. Have you learnt anything fun there?

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Picture perfect- a photo blog of Ladakh.

It’s been over a month since I went to Ladakh, but its spell does not seem to show signs of abating anytime soon. The minute I get some time on my own, I end up closing my eyes and reliving its beauty.Dragging the memories out from the crevices of my brain and savouring it, repeatedly,like a cow chewing cud! Ladakh is a phenomenally photogenic place. Even the most basic camera can capture frames so amazing that you end with a false sense of pride as a photographer. Sharing with you, a few of my favorite sights.

  1. The view of the Sangam.
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The sangam of the Indus and Zanskar.

The sight of the River Indus converging with the River Zanskar is breathtaking. The Indus coming from China,a bright turquoise green ribbon, abruptly merges with the muddy brown of the Zanskar. Every sangam that I have seen has been replete with a temple, priests and is invariably polluted. What makes this sangam special, is that it is free of all trappings. Absolutely. There is nothing around save a small building which doubles up as a canteen and a ticket counter for rafting.

  1. Each and every view during the one hour rafting.

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Though most people sign up for the more exciting and adventurous wild water rafting, I totally recommend the slower variety. Just gliding over the Zanskar listening to the rhythmic splish splash of the oars, gazing at the huge mountains, maneuvering the sharp turns between the crevices of the mountains and experiencing the otherwise absolute silence is an unforgettable experience.

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Gliding away along the Zanskar

 

  1. Nubra valley.
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The dunes of Nubra.
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An ice cold and picturesque stream in the heart of the valley.

Descending from the Khardungla Pass, is a place akin to the mythical Shangri-La. You are suddenly witness to a valley which is breathtakingly beautiful and full of natural treasures as well as manmade ones! The grey sand dunes of Nubra are home to the Bactrian camels (or the double humped ones) which were a part of the famous Silk Route.

The accommodation at Nubra is given in luxury tents. Having never camped before, this makes for an interesting experience, though the tents were actually more luxurious than many hotels! What makes the stay great is the view that greets you at any time of the day or night. The view of the huge hundred foot Buddha atop the mountains or the view of a million stars in the inky black of the night, it seems as though you are caught in some wonderful dream which you do not ever want to wake up from.

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My first experience of camping.

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  1. The Diskit monastery.

The travel brochures often show a picture of the Diskit monastery covered in snow. What they do not show is the fact that the monastery is perched atop a huge cliff edge,which seems near impossible to climb up on.And appears quite forbidding. As though the monks meant for us mere mortals, to stay away from its hallowed portals. Home to thousands of monks,it also gives a view of the huge Future Buddha who can be seen in his full splendor right across from its windows. What a sight it must be to wake up to!

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Wonder how they even built this place!
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To get things in perspective,the tiny Budha on top is actually a hundred foot tall, and the tiny yellow you spot across, is the beginning of the Diskit monastery!
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Another view of Diskit

Already, tourism in Ladakh has increased exponentially over the years. Unfortunately, the concept of responsible tourism has not. Hope people visiting this pristine land realize the importance of leaving it exactly the way it is, for others to enjoy its beauty!

Have a beautiful weekend.

Describing the indescribable- Pangong Tso

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There are times in our life, when we are left searching for words to fill in a near adequate description. And failing. Pangong Tso, is one such experience. Whether to call it a lake or an experience is confusion enough. No adjective is adequate enough to describe the sight of it or the over whelming feeling that goes with it. Yet, let me try my best to tempt everyone to get rid of any inhibitions and get going on the next flight to Leh, before you get too old to combat the altitude sickness!

Not a journey meant for the queasy or soft bummed, a five hour drive on one of the scariest and weirdest roads lead you to Pangong Tso (by the way, ‘tso’ is lake in Ladakhi- and I really love the way it sounds, so Tso it is!). Weirdest because, the landscape changes from one extreme to the other within the span of a few kilometers.

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You just get used to seeing endless barren brown mountains, when with the sudden flick of nature’s fingers, you see really rocky ones (the kind that scare you of an avalanche). This is followed by snow capped peaks near the Changla pass, which is then replaced by dusty ones which blow sand storms. Suddenly, from nowhere are green closed valleys with boggy streams, which are home to handsome, sleek stallions –right in the middle of nowhere leading to nowhere! The valley then turns into a grey sandy desert followed by another green stretch filled with half mongoose half dog like creatures called marmots!Phew!

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Marmots!

 

 

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Boggy streams, with the horses far away!

 

The weather is equally quirky- as if playing with us! One moment you are huddled in sweaters with the windows of the car drawn up to the next, when you are fanning yourself hard with the sleeve of your sweater and then suddenly you are wishing fervently that you have not left your windcheater behind in the hotel!

The only solace all through the journey is provided by the driver stopping over at a small joint for some very much needed and equally yummy honey ginger tea near the Paagal Naala bridge( apparently called so, owing to the difficulty in assessing  the moods of the stream!).

Just when you are resigned to watching the whole spectrum of browns around you-BAM-you are zapped with a sudden sparkle of vibrant blue visible from between the mountains. A blue that is so dazzling that it blinds- the first sight of Pangong between the mountains.

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Pangong means “High Grassland Lake” in Tibetian. Situated between three lands, India, China and Tibet, we get only one third of the lake which then flows into Chinese territory. The line of Control runs somewhere in between the 134 kilometer long lake which is almost five kilometers at its broadest and situated about 14270 feet above sea level.

Seeing Pangong lake can turn an atheist into a staunch believer in God. I say this because, though most things appear to have a scientific backing, there are things which are so extra ordinary that they almost seem impossible.

Take for instance the fact that it is a SALT water lake! Apparently because there is no outlet for the water,  and so salt deposits have built up over the years.

Or the fact that though there are almost NO fish or aquatic creatures in the lake, there are hordes of Brahminy ducks, geese and sea gulls cackling around  looking extremely well fed and healthy! What do they even eat???

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Or the fact that the lake even got formed, because Ladakh gets almost no rain! So how did so much water happen to be?

And the best  lies in the changing colors of the lake which very much looks like the shade card of asian paints. Suddenly vibrant blue to suddenly green to turquoise and then a moody angry grey in a span of two hours –a visual feast.

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I can count atleast five shades of blue in this pic!

You suddenly realize that you are really miniscule in nature’s scheme of things, and begin to understand the vastness of the universe! Though there were a minimum of two hundred tourists around, there was such a sense of tranquility. The others seem so far away and no sound reaches you apart from the soft lapping of the crystal clear waters on the shore.

The only regret about the trip was that we could not stay back to see the sunrise or the sunset, which are supposed to be spectacular! And the fact that, at the beginning of the summer, the lake is still frozen enough that you can have dinner sitting on it (if you are willing to risk a frost bitten back side).

Nevertheless, Pangong Tso, seems as close to heaven as it gets…or probably is actually a small piece of heaven that God sent for us as a sample! Truly, the indescribable!

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A lesson in simplicity from the land of Julley-Leh.

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The first sight of the mountains from the plane-close enough to touch!

Nestled in the midst of a ring of mountains, belonging to the Kunlun region of the Greater Himalayas, is a land whose landscape and ethos are startling different from what we are.-Ladakh.Watching these people makes me feel a tad jealous- because they have mastered the art of living in the most barren and difficult of places without a complaint. Infact, with a smile and a julley(which is hello).

To say that the landscape is barren, would be an understatement. There are barely any trees or water bodies around. For around six months of the year, there is hardly anything to do, but bear the brunt of the weather. Children do not have school for almost four months, in lieu of the winter. Travel is tedious and fraught with the danger of avalanches and bad weather.

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But once you set foot into Leh, you are swept away by the magic that Ladakh is. I have always been a conformist –my idea of nature has been green, lush and abundant. Never in the wildest of my dreams had I imagined that I would include barren, rugged, and stark under the list marked beauty! But then, Ladakh does that to you.

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A place where monasteries dot craggy peaks, the sun shines blindingly bright and all you can see are mountains in varied hues of brown!

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Monasteries right on top of the mountains
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Higher than the monasteries are the living quarteres of the monks

Amidst all this, are the people who are so unassuming, simple and endearing. Going around, we found that there are no glamorous displays of wealth that we are so used to seeing around. All houses looked the same-boxed with wooden windows-basic and minimalistic.

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Most food is barley, cooked in different forms-as bread, stew and beer! Most people rely on tourism for their livelihood. There are no mobile networks for large stretches of land and hardly any hospitals around. But going by the happy pink cheeked faces, you would hardly guess that people lived in such hardship.

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We had the opportunity to visit a Ladakhi home for dinner. The hosts had kept their ancestral home intact-built of mud, stone and wood. The house was three storied, but mainly because of necessity. One floor for living, the one below for storing (you guessed right-barley) and the one above for praying! Apart from the rudimentary but sturdy apparatus for cooking, there was hardly any furniture around.

The only excess was seen in the prayer room which was filled with huge masks, head gear, cymbals and conches- as though the simplicity of their life was compensated for, by their extravagance in praying. Maybe because they have to live at the mercy of nature, they tend to invoke the Gods with as much vigour as possible.

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Apart from this world of difference, the basic concerns of the people seem the same. The lady of the house was taking in tourists to support her children’s education. Huddled in her living room, with hot cups of butter tea, we watched, as her daughter performed a traditional dance for us (albeit in her PJs).Her face glowed when we clapped and praised her child’s performance. She spoke about the long commute her children had to undertake to reach school, and how despite this, her daughter comes first in class.

Experiencing Ladakh does many things to you at a visceral level. You come back changed imperceptibly outside, rather deep inside. You learn to be comfortable with silence. You learn to accept life, as it is without frills and fancy. You learn to calm down. You lose the unnecessary sense of urgency cultivated with years of hurried living. Mostly, you learn a lesson in simplicity. That come what may, you can be happy with the bare minimum that life gives you, and the happy sound of Julley.

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