Archive for March 2016

Day 14: Slowing things down in Leh

Time to slow down the things a bit. Time to take a breather.

Shey Monastery
With no fixed itinerary and no annoying travelling companions to look out for, solo travel gives you an opportunity to travel the way you want. That's exactly the reason why my #BombayToLeh trip lasted for 43 days. I traveled at my own pace, and a number of times I changed my plans during this trip. It happened once again on day 14. My earlier plan was to head to the Nubra Valley but since I had slept the night before, thanks in part to no electricity and partying with Israeli friends, I decided to skip Nubra Valley and stay back in Leh.

I woke up late at around 9 am and decided to do some more local sightseeeing after a nice leisurely breakfast. I bumped into an Israeli couple whom I had met the night before at the Zen Garden restaurant. We had breakfast together and I shared tips with them about travelling to Manali, Pangong, etc. 
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs

And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

The above excerpt is from a William Henry Davies' poem titled 'Leisure'; I had learnt it in school and these lines have stuck with me forever. What's mentioned in the above lins is the exact thing that I'd set out to do on the 14th day of my #BombayToLeh trip, more so than on any other day. To stand and stare. To notice squirrels and see the woods I pass.

After a nice breakfast I spent time taking a fool around the market. A while later, I headed to the Pumpernickel German Bakery for lunch. This one's a highly recommended place and I was looking forward to my meal. As it turns out, the food was fairly average. I'd give them a benefit of doubt and return back to give them another chance. 

Hey look, I'm a biker!

Something interesting happened while I was waiting for my meal at Pumpernickel. The morning peace was broken by annoyingly loud sounds of after-market air filters stuck to a single cylinder engine. A bunch of so-called 'bikers' stopped their bikes next to the tiny bakery, repeatedly opening-closing their throttle with the 'N' gear being engaged only to attract the attention of the crowd and to proclaim to the world, who doesn't give a shit about their existence, that 'they've arrived'. 

This particular breed of living creature wants to be called a biker. This species tries its best to copy the big burly American cross-country bikers in every sense of the way. From donning leather jackets in a country as hot as India to drinking beer during rides just to prove their machoism. The group, named after one of the biggest cafe chains in India, that arrived in front of me were no different. They were loud. They were obnoxious. And they wanted to be noticed. They had donned biker-esque giant moustaches, side burns and hair-dos just for the trip. To look like they're a product of Sturgis. Just because they had a bike and they rode to Ladakh, they thought it was mandatory put on an articifical tattoo sleeves which shouted 'Hey look, I'm a biker. Please look at me. Please?' 

I decided to finish my meal and leave the imposters to their shenanigans while I check out the Shey Monastery. 

Shey Monastery

The village of Shey is situated 15 km from Leh. And it's biggest attraction is the Shey Monastery. The Shey Palace was once the royal residence of the King of Ladakh and subsequently it got moved to the village of Stok where it remains till date. 

The monastery steps are some of the steppest steps you're ever likely to encounter. And even the fittest of us would run out of breath by the time we complete a single flight of stair. The main attraction of the Shey Palace/Monastery is the 39 ft tall Shakyamuni Buddha statue made out of copper. The monastery also features wall paintings from 18th(?) century. The paintings are in precarious condition and hence photography in the inner sanctum is strictly prohibited. 

Prayer wheels

Pro tip: Carry sunscreen
Besides this single room which houses the giant statue and the wall paintings, there isn't much to explore inside the monastery. Only other thing you can possibly look at is the 360-degree panoramic view of the valley. The monastery overlooks this lush green meadow which is almost a protected sanctury. The meadow also has the 'Holy Pond' which is home to some of the biggest salmon fishes you'll ever see. Since fishing (or any sort of hunting) is strictly prohibited, the pond and the surrounding areas have flourishing flora and fauna. In fact, the 10 ft tall fencing around the pond is only as far as one can go, if you're an outsider. Only a select few locals are allowed to step inside this protected habitat as caretakers. However, you are allowed to feed the fishes and ducks from outside the fence. 

Shakyamuni Buddha at Shey Monastery
It was late noon by the time I got done with Shey Monestary. Right opposite the entrance to the monestary is the Holy Fish Pond, which runs parallel to the road connecting Shey to Leh. The road is lined with tall trees providing shade to the tourist cars. I parked my bike under the shade and lay my 6 ft frame on the bike, taking a breather from tourist-spot hopping. I spent nearly and hour doing nothing except for looking at the fishes and ducks and hearing the melodious chirping of the birds. The cool breeze blowing from the pond only added to the sweetness of the moment. I spent almost an hour doing nothing. That's correct, I did absolutely nothing and I was truly content with it. Because in that one hour of nothing, I was with nature. Just listening to the birds, looking at the fishes fighting for bread crumbs, noticing the shape of the leaves as they swayed with the breeze and gauging the pitch of a duck's quack - simple things. William Henry Davies would've been proud of me.

Shey Monastery overlooks the Holy Fish Pond and lush meadows
The Holy Fish Pond
The rhythm of tranquility was broken by the sound of the screeching tyres. A jeep full of 4-5 young boys stopped next to me. The 'party people' asked me if I knew the way to the Rancho School. I had no clue what they meant. They tried once again and asked me differently, "Do you know where's the 3 Idiots school?" 
"No," I replied.

They speed away. Just then it hit me that the school featured in the movie '3 Idiots' is right around the corner - had read about it on forums before coming starting my Ladakh trip. I enquired with the next door general store and learnt that Druk White Lotus School aka Rancho's School aka 3 Idiots school was barely 1.5 km away. The time was 5.30 pm and by 6, the school's gates shut for visitors. I raced to the famous school and reached just in time for the last session of the day. The sessions explains the qualities which make this school such a special attraction. The school has employed a number of indigenous methods such as solar panels, positions of classrooms and hostels to keep the indoors warm during winter and cold during summers, rainwater harvesting, natural filteration systems, etc. After the 20 minute session, the school personeel takes you on a trip around the school showcasing more features about the school including the famous window underneath with Chatur was electrocuted in 3 Idiots. 

Druk White Lotus School
Saw this 'lion king' chilling in the Druk White Lotus School's campus. I tried petting him but he was shy, ran away

India can be quite amusing if you're not from here

I returned back to the hotel from Druk Lotus School. At the hotel, I caught up with two of my Israeli friends. We decided head out for drinks. After a couple of beers, we decided to order food. For one of the two, this was his fourth visit to India while the other guy was visiting India for the first time. The newbie wanted to try some Indian food and since I was with them, he decided to rely on my recommendation. The more experienced fellow wanted to eat his favourite comfort food - Pizza. 

The Pizza guy ate his food and wiped off his hands with a tissue paper. As we got done with our India food (roti & sabzi), I asked for a finger bowl. Both were truly amused. They had no clue what it was. Once I explained them the concept of finger bowl (curry sticks to the fingers and hence you need hot water and lime to cut the stickiness and wipe it off), they too wanted to try it. To the extent, even the guy who ate Pizza and didn't really need it (though he had been to India thrice before, he had never experienced this) asked for a finger bowl just to try it out. 

It's amazing how the simplest of things - the things which we take for a routine - can be totally fascinating for an outsider; may it be a simple finger bowl or homegrown beer.

Day 12 & 13: Visiting the glorious Pangong Tso Lake

One of the most beautiful places on earth - Pangong Tso Lake

I had gone to sleep with plans of heading out to Tso Moriri in the morning. But I woke up late, and by the time I left, it was already 10am. Too late to leave for Tso Moriri which is about 240 km from Leh. Change of plans: Ride to Pangong Tso which is only 160 km.

I had read about the gorgeous Pangong on forums, seen it in travel shows and desired for it in daydreams and night. 
The beauty of Pangong can't be summed up in words
I checked out from the hotel, dumped most of my luggage in the luggage room of the hotel, carried only few essentials with and started riding towards Pangong. I reached the Karu petrolpump (about 35-40 km from Leh), the only petrolpump I'd encounter till I return back. I had to ensure I have enough fuel with me to last the return journey (300+ km). While at the petrol pump, I saw a young couple on another bike, looking a bit harrowed. I asked them where they're going and they told me they're also off to Pangong lake. Turned out, they had just landed couple of days before in Leh. They hadn't done any research and had no clue about the harsh route, protective clothing or the fact that they need to carry extra fuel. Someone told them that Pangong is a great place to visit and they decided to rent a bike and ride to Pangong. We decided to ride together to the elusive lake; they got moral support riding with me since I was carrying all the tools and extra fuel and I got company of two sweet, friendly people. Though the husband knew how to ride two wheels, he had no experience of such long rides. Hence, we had to ride a bit slow but they somehow managed it. 
World's Third Highest Motorable Road
Since we started so late in the day, due to the high sun, the snow had started to melt and hence, enroute Changla, we encountered quite a few water crossings. But once we reached Changla top - the third highest pass in the world - all the hardships were forgotten. The weather was pleasant and sun was shining bright in the sky. The cafeteria at the top provides a relief from the outside cold. 

The tea's on the house! 

On the house hot tea! Thank you, Indian Army!
That's correct, the Indian army provides everyone with free piping hot tea. For everything else, you have to pay. As we sat outside surveying the view from the top and having a few bisuits, a cute four-legged friend walked by wagging his tail and making the cutest puppy face I had ever seen. We gave him a few bisuits and posed with him. We asked the armymen about him, they told us his name was "Shintu". If only I were travelling in a car at that time, I would've got him back with me for sure. 

Leaving a few biscuits and my heart with him, we headed down Changla towards the village of Lukung - starting point of Pangong. About 10 km outside of Lukung, we encountered this sign - 'First view of the world famous Pangong Lake'. There it was, a tiny blue speck behind the brown mountains. Soon we reached Lukung and 10 km further, it was Spangamik. My new friends had already booked a tent accomodation for themselves. I was more keen on getting myself a solid place instead of a flimsy tent. 

That blue dot, yes, that one WAS a part of my bucket list
Accommodation at Pangong

Pangong is completely cut-off from the rest of the civilization. No mobile networks work there, and unlike some other areas of Ladakh, you don't have any STD booths either (read about the most important phone call I made back home from an STD booth in Rumtse here). In fact, the accommodation booking system works in a very unique way. When you book an accommodation with a travel agent in Leh, you get a receipt for your payment which you need to show when you reach Spangamik (the village next to Pangong with the highest number of tents). The office in Leh can't contact the tent owners in Spangamik and hence no reservation takes place as such; your receipt is your reservation. In case there's a confusion, there is no way for you to call back the travel agent back in Leh and clear out the confusion. However, somehow, like everything else in India, this system works.

This sign greets you at the entrance of the Pangong Lake
There are hardly any permanent structures. The homestays, made out of brick/rock, are pretty basic and they mostly don't have an attached loo. I checked one such accommodation and realized that the loo, which was basically a hole in the ground, is 30 mt walk from the room. I, defenitely, was in no mood of freezing myself to death if I needed use the loo at 10 pm. After looking around for almost an hour I finally found Padma Guest House. The homestay is a solid structure made out of rock and cement. While there is no attached loo, the common loo was just 10 steps from my room at the end of the corridor. Well, I can live with that. And when it came to pricing, here's how it went. 

Miss Padma (owner/caretaker/chef of Padma Guest House): "There is a room with 3 beds. We give out each bed for Rs. 150. So I can give you one bed and if later on someone else arrives, he will have the second bed in the same room. But if you want the entire room, I can give all 3 beds for Rs. 350." 
Me: "Just take the damn money."

Padma Aunty of Padma Guest House. She's really sweet and I insist you stay there
The room was so small that there was hardly any space to stand next to the 3 beds. Surely I didn't want anyone else sleeping next to me. Done deal! So, I got a proper room to keep me warm during freezing nights at a fraction of the cost of the tents (usually, the tents cost anything upwards of Rs. 1500).

If possible, design your itinerary such that you visit Pangong on Full Moon

I returned to meet my couple friends. It was about 7 pm by then. The husband was exhausted after the journey since he wasn't used to riding such long distances, in such harsh conditions. He had gone to sleep by then. His wife and I decided to take a stroll around the lake and catch the sunset. After clicking a few photographs and surveying the area, we retired to our respective rooms. 

The moon overlooking the Pangong Lake
It was the night before the full moon and it's difficult to explain in words how beautiful the lake looked in that moonlight. The pictures don't do justice either. At 8-8.30 pm, I headed to the dining tent where I caught up with few other travellers. A couple of bikers, a solo lady traveller and I formed our group at one end of the dining table and exchanged travel stories for the rest of the evening. Padma Auntie's home-cooked food won't make it to any food blogs but at that moment, in that cold weather, away from the civilization, it was exactly what we wanted. 

Since it's so far away from the civilization, there's no electricity either. They keep their generators running only 1.5 hours a day between 8-9.30 pm. That's the time when you're supposed to have your dinner, charge your phones and get done with all your important work that requires electricity. At 9.30pm, post dinner, I retired to my room. 

Playing with fire
Between setting myself up on fire and buying fuel at 4 times the price, I'd take my chances with the second scenario. 
When you're at Pangong, you're 150 km away from the nearest petrol pump. Hence, over there, there's a higher chance of the fuel being stolen more than anything else. I keep my additional fuel in jars in my saddle bag. For safety, I had kept the saddle bag in my room. My room was a 10ft x 10ft rat hole with a single (sealed) window overlooking the lake. In short, once the door is shut, there's no ventilation, not that you'd need one in those frigid nights. As I lay down on the bed with a tiny candle lighting up the entire room, I looked at the ceiling made up of bamboo sticks. With the door tightly locked to keep myself warm, the entire room smelt of petrol. 

Alarm bells went up in my head!

Petrol vapours + bamboo ceiling + tiny space + candle light = boom!

No, thanks! Pangong Lake's Padma Guest House is not the place I'd like to kill myself at. There was an old wooden bed outside in the corridor. I chained my saddle bag with the bed and left it outside at a chance. Between setting myself up on fire and buying fuel at 4 times the price, I'd take my chances with the second scenario. 

It was about 10.15 pm. Looking at the yellow shimmering glow of the candle light falling on the bamboo ceiling, I finally drift asleep under the heavy woolen blankets.


Sunrise at Pangong
I had set an alarm for 5 am to catch the first ray of sun. After one of the most peaceful sleeps I've ever had, I woke up at 4.55. I checked on the saddle bag and it was still there. Sit of relief! I walked to the lake and witnessed one of the most beautiful sunrises ever. 

Prayer flags playing with the wind
Prayers flags fluttering in the wind, sunshine dancing on top of the blue water, and waves breaking in sequence - makes you want to thank the choreographer of this gorgeous art form. The crystal clear, see-through water would make you want to sit at the edge of the lake, dip your feet in the ice cold water and spend the entire day at this nature's executive lounge. 

Pangong Tso
But make no mistake, Ladakh's weather has multiple-personality disorder. As cold as it gets at night, equally hot it is during the day time. Post 8 am, the sun is in full bloom and you wouldn't want to stay out for too long for the fear of a heatstroke or exposure to UV radiation at high altitude. 

Post breakfast and after being totally bowled over by the beauty of the Pangong Lake, the couple and I started our ride back towards Leh. Just outside Lukung is an army base and a souvenir shop for those wanting to buy tees or coffee mugs as a memrobilias. I didn't buy any of it. For me, the photos and the memories were enough to romanticize the entire experience of visiting Pangong. 

Blackbird at Pangong
I had always wanted to visit that tiny strip of land which is covered by the lake on three sides and has been a part of dozens of photoshoots and movies. It is the same place where the climax of the movie 3 Idiots was shot and the site is now famously known as the '3 Idiots Point'. (P.S. I wanted to visit it for its beauty and not because of the Bollywood connect.) At the souvenir shop, I learnt that the 3 Idiots Point is 7 km away from Spangamik (where I had spent the night) which was in turn 13 km from the souvenir shop. We were getting late and it didn't make sense to make the 40 km return trip.

Even during my second trip to Pangong, I couldn't go to this spot due to bad weather and indecisive friends. But that's a story for another day.

On our way back to Leh, we again stopped at the Chang La top to meet Chintu but the furry fellow wasn't to be found. By evening, we reached Leh and decided to catch up for dinner. 

Adorable little Shintu
I went back to my hotel in Leh where I had kept the rest of my luggage in the store room during my two days' absence. The hotel manager was acting like an ass and wasn't too happy keeping my luggage and not having to charge for it. After much debate, he finally gave me a room. 

After a hot shower and a shave, I went to meet my friends. Just then I learnt that it was their first anniversary and they were in Leh to celebrate the same. I couldn't buy them dinner since we had dinner in their hotel room but I thought of getting a gift for them. After we parted, I went to a studio in the market and got a few large prints of their couples pictures which I had clicked at Chang La and Pangong Tso. I left it at their hotel's reception and asked the hotel manager to give it to them the next morning since it was late in the night.

New friends

But the night was not over yet. At least, not for me. I reached my hotel only to learn that there was no electricity. I was in the corridor waiting for the caretaker to arrange for a candle/torch for me. There were a bunch of foreigners in the next room. They saw me and asked if I were alone. "Yes, I am," I replied. "What will you do alone in this dark? Come join us. Join the party," they said.

There I was, in Leh, in drinking and laughing with eight Hebrew-speaking Israelis. They offered me drink and exchanged travel stories. Every few minutes they someone would say, [in Israeli accent] "Hey, speak in English. Our friend here won't understand what we're talking." Couple of minutes later, they would get back to Hebrew and I would have to ask someone what they're talking about. But someone how managed to communicate. The Hebrew-to-English translation lasted for about an hour till we got the electricity. 

Next morning, I was richer by more than half a dozen new friends in Leh; some of them are in touch with me even today.

Bucket list: Visit Pangong Tso lake on bike.
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