Saturday, 23 July 2011

Shanti Shanti, Donkeys and Bikes

In Leh, you either ride a donkey or a motorbike

Srinigar - Kashmir - Shanti, Shanti

The drive into Srinigar, the capital of Kashmir, was an interesting one, passing literally hundereds of army and police armed with rifles. Lucky for us Srinigar itself was far more "Shanti" (Peace). The city is based around many stunning alpine lakes, upon which people live and trade on the water. It is known as the Venice of the East.

Shikaras moored in Srinigar

We had little time in the region so we decided to do the tourist thing and jump on a shikara to enjoy the views for the evening. Shikara's are very quaint little wooden paddle boats, blinged out with Indian decor. This journey turned out to be predominantly a sales pitch about "water-trekking", but it seemed like a good deal, spending nights on the shikara, paddling round to the base of mountains by morning and then spending the day walking. The perfect way to travel after so much time becoming "diesel-faces"; (Diesel-face-dogs are a particular Indian sect of dogs who just love getting in the exhaust of big trucks chugging up mountain passes). The shikara captain also used
his only phrase "Shanti, Shanti" to describe water trekking. Guy decided that we should finally accept an Indian's sales-pitch, believing not everything one sells here is just a scam...

Village life on the lakes of Kashmir

So the next morning we left for a 4 day water trek. Life on the water was incredibly beautiful; watching 15ft spear fishermen at workwomen collecting lotus leaves and waterlillies to feed their livestock, kashmiri factories producing paper mache goods and children playing in the water. However, by the end of the first day we started to wonder why we were no closer to the mountains. An exceptional storm brewed on our first night on the boat, lightning and rain lashed down all night. So we were rocked about in our sleeping bags with no protection from the elements until morning. 

We awoke to another day of "Shanti, Shanti", "more Shanti coming on next lake" and being treated like Maharajahs...but still no closer to the mountains! Finally when we questioned our shikara captain about when
we would arrive at the mountains and he replied "mountains no Shanti". To this Guy exclaimed "We hate Shanti, we just want mountains"! Luckily, Emma developed the shits again and we used this as our get-out-of-shikara-free-card and rickshawed it back to Srinigar (which broke down).

Our favorite guest aboard HMS Shanti

Having escaped Shanti in the boat, we returned to find Pia and Ina with a Win in their mouths! And so we all decided to take the road to Leh the following day. The journey was long and bumpy, but so scenic and eventful. We passed through Drass, the second coldest inhabited place in the world which was positively hot that day.

Drass - The second coldest inhabited place in the world

We stopped half way in Shergol. The village is obviously vary rarely visited by westerners and we caused a stir on
arrival. We stayed with a very hospitable family, spent the evening playing games with all of the children from the village and were treated to a very sweet singing and dancing performance. It was hard to leave in the morning!

The lovely Ladakhi family at Shergol

We continued the journey and hitchhiked to Leh, passing even more stunning mountain dwellings strung with prayer flags. During this leg of the journey the lush green vegetation diminished and was replaced with
mysterious sandy, rocky moon-scape without a tree in sight - The spooky Zanskar mountain range.

Leh - Ladakh
Leh town and palace

The town of Leh situated in a dry valley high in the Himalayan mountains, scattered with gompas (buddhist temples) emitting an eerie drone built precariously on nearby crags and surrounded by snowcapped mountains. The Ladakhi people, in their traditional dress, are very welcoming. Ladakhi for hello, goodbye and thank you is "Juleh" and it has such a joyful ring in your ear. We spent two days eating Momo's (lovely Tibetan dumplings) and acclimatising to the 3500m altitude and preparing a trek. Ina wasn't feeling like walking in the hot, dusty landscape and decided not to join us. Pia and the two of us decided to embark on the popular Markha Valley trek.

Tibetan Prayer wheel in Leh - The snowy peak of Stok Kangri (6200M) is just visible

Markha Valley - Ladakh

The Lunar, dusty Markha Valley

The trek began from the village of Chilling, and presented a bewildering introduction: A trolley bridge across the raging Markha river. This is essentially a wooden crate hanging from an old steel cable with rollers. Emma has developed a new fear of bridges since the Gangotori/Rishikesh bridge experiences, so she almost had a little cry.

Trolley bridge woe

Walking for three days up the river valley, through beautiful isolated Ladakhi villages, we then made the climb to the high pass of 5200m at Nymaling on day 4 and returned to Leh on the 5th day. Only Guy suffered the final few hundred metres of altitude, but by the summit he was so excited as to run down the scree slopes of the other side, gaining valuable o2 with every leap! 

Pia, Emma & Guy at 5200M

The trek probably was our most happy time in India to date, stunning views, living amongst nature, no pollution, no shops, no tourists, just beautiful nights camping under the crisp starry skies. We achieved another personal record - climbing to our greatest altitude to date 5200m.

Hanka, a beautiful isolated Ladakhi village

One of many river crossings through the Markha

Chilly camping spot

On our return to Leh our bodies were tired and we were happy to just relax in our lovely guest house where Emma fell in love with the Ladakhi family. We spent around a week reading many books; Guy has finished the Harry Potter series now, and to continue the wizard fantasy, read The Hobbit and is half way through Lord of the Rings. Emma continued with her jewelery making spell, finding old Ladakhi stones and trinkets to use for her ever expanding collection. We also bade farewell to Pia and Ina, our wonderful travelling companions of two months. They had to return to Baden-Wuertemburg to live with the eichhoernchen's and Ina's Gros Brown Wurst.

July 6th - Guy's Birthday

Guys birthday hog

Guy had his most amazing birthday. He rented a Royal Enfield 350cc motorbike for 800 rupees and learned to ride it alone on the highest motorable road in the world. By lunch he reached Kardung La - around 5600m high! He was in no mood to stop for lunch, but the views across the Karakoram mountain range were stunning. So he headed back down the trecherous roads, through glacial streams and over trecherous rocky roads. He was supposed to have a permit as the road leads through the Nubra Valley and on to China/Tibet. But it was his birthday and there was no time to organise a permit so on the advice of Rob from the Black Widows Motorcycle Club, he just rode on by the permit check police station smiling! He arrived home aching but exhilarated - who else learns to ride on the worlds highest road? Well the "Widows" made him an honorary member in light of his spectacular motorcycling feat. 
Happy Birthday to me...

We visited the small town of Hemis for the biggest annual Buddhist festival of the year. The day was hot and thousands of Ladakhi people along with western tourists crammed into the small Hemis temple for the two day event of music and dance. After the first day of peering over shoulders, pushing and shoving we decided that the whole thing was just too much of a "lens-fest" (hundreds of giant camera lens that would make "mon papa" and Simon Templar mk II weak at the knees).

Hemis Festival

Inspired by the peace and happy nature of the Ladakhi people, Emma went on a 3 day silent meditation course at the Mahabodhi International centre. Not quite as hard core as a 15 day vipassana retreat, it was a really good introduction to Buddhism and meditation and not speaking! The teacher, Bhikkhu Sanghasena, was an inspiring man and his teachings were invaluable to every day life. Most of the experience is too personal to describe in a blog, but Emma returned to Leh smiling and happy!

Emma's donkey friend greets her on her return

Meanwhile Guy was on "the road to enlightenment". Yep - you guessed, on another Royal Enfield, this time on a mission to Tso Moriri lake, which also crosses the boarder to China. A little organisation and a permit this time were required for a three day adventure. Having set out with Kevin, an English chap I met the night before, we encountered all kinds of issues, rivers to cross, exhausts/gear shifters that fell off etc and finally Kevins Enfield was barely making it up the hills and he had to turn back after an entertaining lunch in an army camp. The Indian army were so excited about having guests - they cooked a great lunch for us, and provided chocolate and gatorade for the journey ahead. The mechanics also did what they could to fix Kevins bike to limp home to Leh. 

Worlds highest salt lake

So I went onwards, into the unknown lands inhabited by nomadic tribes and strange landscape. There was no roads in places, just sweeping high altitude grasslands where one felt so isolated and free. Upon reaching the tiny town of Korzok on the lake, he just bed down in a little cold tent and begun the journey next day in snow and rain. It was so cold that he decided to take the low road home, rather than the high cold pass, so thus begun a 10 hour ride back to Leh and warm sun.
Ominous storm front brewing behind Guys touring Enfield

We counted up the days we had spent in Leh on our fingers, and realised after we ran out of digits that we had been 26 days - almost one month! So we packed our bags, said our goodbyes to the family and embarked on the longest and hardest journey yet - The infamous Leh - Manali highway - the second highest road in the world after Kardung La.

Leh - Minali - Highway to Hell!

Rohtang Pass

Ok really it was the highway to heaven, stunning scenery amidst swirling clouds, and reaching green and pleasant lands of Minali (2500m). It was the highway that was hell - appalling roads, at least four landslide blockages, perilous cliffs with wrecked vehicles in the valley, several cliff-slipped dead cows and a mental driver who would not stop for barely a minute during the 20 hour journey. Combine that with a minibus load of vomiting Indians and we most certainly did not enjoy this journey, however, we believe that no journey will ever phase us again as we took on and succeeded on the Highway to Hell!

Emma enjoys a landslide break

Ladakhi Woman surveys the Rohtang Pass

The next leg of the journey: We have had confirmation from a school in Lukla, Nepal who are keen for us to help out soon. Thank you Laura for the link - Classroom in the clouds:

We will be speeding back through the North of India, briefly stopping at the Taj Mahal, Varanassi, and Darjeeling with plans to arrive in Kathmandu within 2 weeks (watch this space).

Bonus pics: As always - please see our Flickr page for more: Search for user: namasteindia2011

Old Box - India is a great land for reuse of "used" items - as proven by the Old Box shop man who had no more room in his shop even for himself!

Border Roads Organisation - one can always fill their alpine journey time laughing at these amusing signs - The best one that we missed with the camera was "Drinking Whiskey Driving Risky".

Emma's trekking blister toes