Archive for category Kingdom of Ladakh

The Kingdom of Ladakh

Saturday 12th July. Two cars left Kargil very early – we know as our room overlooked the car park. The rest of us left just after 7. We followed a river for some way, in a lush valley. Then we climbed and the road seemed reasonable. DSC01756 DSC01757 There were sheep, goats and shepherds at the roadside and women carrying large sacks of dung – probably for fuel. At one stage we saw the slightly incongruous sight of a dog herding sheep across some snow whilst we had the aircon on. A police check point required passport, visa and vehicle details and our route (a relatively common requirement on our way up to Jammu & Kashmir though not since we had arrived in Leh). DSC01771 Then the road deteriorated and was probably the worst quality we had encountered – though still labelled as NH1. We were heading for a Pass and the track DSC01786 (to call it a road would be a misnomer) was very rough, unguarded steep sides, rocky, bumpy by turn sandy, always narrow with plenty of blind corners. Then we came to a junction (a signpost would make it too easy). Should we fork left and down or right and slightly up? Both looked so narrow that I decided it had to be a form f one way system. So as they drive on the left I headed left – Allison was not convinced and told me how difficult it would be to turn round – impossible actually. We continued, more from an act of faith on my part than anything logical. After a while we came up to a convoy of army vehicles, a jeep that soon vanished and two slow lorries DSC01797 carrying hay – and horses. They let us past, kindly keeping to the exposed left side. Below we saw a huge encampment, not military, as we had seen so often, but a pilgrimage centre. A car had stopped and we asked where we were and where we wanted to be. They said we were ok and Srinagar was 100km in the direction we were travelling.
From here onwards there was a serious military presence; there were groups of soldiers at the roadside, military vehicles and large groups doing training exercises – in addition to military bases along the route. We continued and the track became a road and tourist facilities sprang up – horse riding, rafting and restaurants – with people beckoning us in and looking most aggrieved when we drove on by. We stopped for a cup of tea and the hotel owner tried to persuade us to book his houseboat in Srinagar to stay in.
As we approached Srinagar, the traffic worsened, not helped (as usual) by parked lorries, roadworks, busses picking up passengers and cars and rickshaws seeking every opportunity to block the road by diving into every conceivable gap in the traffic – oh and plain clothes men collecting “road tolls on behalf of the local council”. Hmm where did all that money end up? Signposts were an unnecessary luxury so we relied on the sat nav with much trepidation after Paul and Mary Ellen’s experience at Manali where they went on a 2 hour detour. Having stopped twice to ask the police (who knew nothing about anything) we reached the Taj hotel – wrong Taj, this one had been shut for decades! Can’t blame the sat nav, I had asked for the Taj. We checked the name of the hotel and again set off into the unknown. After more meanderings we were told we had arrived – no! We were now at the side of the lake in “hotel alley”, having seen plenty of Srinagar’s famed houseboats in a most unappealing green slime that passed for a lake. We asked and were pointed at a hill about 3km away. Eventually we arrived after a grilling by security. We had to assume this was our hotel as there was not s ingle signpost or even a name at the gate. Possibly this paranoia is because it was the Taj in Mumbai which was attacked by fundamentalists a few years ago.
We hand the cars back on Monday and ours is undamaged. Do we dare take it into town, where the locals are particularly aggressive drivers, or do we have to take taxis?

Friday 11th July. We changed our plans; we had been scheduled to spend tonight some 50kms from Leh followed by a night in Kargil and one in Srinagar. As we had already seen many of the sights in the first 30kms west of Leh, we decided to go straight to Kargil and spend 2 nights in Srinagar.
Our first visit was to Likir Monastery but it was closed – the monks had gone go see the Dalai Lama. DSC01696 We carried on to Alchi, founded in the 11th century and, unusually, on the river’s edge, tucked away in the heart of the village. For the scholars and historians this monastery is important as it relates to a time when India and Kashmir were Buddhist. Half of the rally were arriving or leaving whilst we were there but our next visit in contrast was totally isolated. We followed a dead end road/track for 15kms to Mangyu Monastery and did not see any cars for the whole 30kms and only two people, one a hitch hiker who we picked up. The fact that the Monastery was closed when we got there was unfortunate. DSC01718 DSC01727
Rejoining the main road to Kargil, past more military camps and convoys, we stopped only at Lamayuru. This was again on a hilltop, just next to an area called Moonland – yellow and bleak. We reached Kargil at about 6pm and now the rally was in two halves, 5 cars in Kargil and 5 220 kms further east. We had not booked our early arrival and the hotel were very flexible in moving our reservation forward. However judging by the problems in parking our 5 cars plus the other residents’, I hate to think what would have happened if all 10 had arrived on the same day.

Thursday 10th July. DSC01662 We continued our “radiation” from Leh and went west. First stop was Spituk, an old monastery now almost directly in the take-off path from the airport (not very busy). The 11th century temple was quiet, as were all the places we went to today, perhaps because the Dalai Lama was holding an initiation ceremony at which 120,000 people were expected. We had tea in the canteen where Allison was given a barley/cheese/sugar dough by a monk. DSC01655 Next stop was Phyang where a new wing was being added to the old complex. DSC01657 We continued up the valley in an attempt to find an old fort – we saw something which might have been an outpost but no more. We did find a surprising amount of new building at the dead end of the road.
Returning to the main road we set off along what started out as a good road along the Zanskar river – a fast flowing tributary of the Indus and home to white water rafting. The road soon deteriorated as we were stopped in two places where diggers were moving rocks and boulders and didn’t leave a very smooth track when they finished. Thereafter the road was narrow and wound around rocky outcrops. DSC01675 We stopped before the road ended for tea and noodles (70p) at a tea house on a terrace overlooking the muddy, swirling water.
The final visit was to Basgo, where a number of temples and DSC01676 a pile of semi ruins are all that remain of a once mighty castle, which survived a three year siege in the 17th century. It seemed all locked up until, just as we were leaving, the caretaker emerged and showed us round 3 temples. DSC01683
We returned to Leh in company with an army convoy, past three military bases – the area is full of military, having China to the East and Pakistan, further away to the West

Wednesday 9th July. The morning was a visit to Chemdey Monastery. DSC01568

Chemdey - location, location!

Chemdey – location, location!

We were given instructions on the spelling to use for the GPS but it didn’t help as it was still not recognised. A police check point confirmed we were on the correct road and after two random right turns – a signpost to the left! As we drove through some trees, the monastery loomed up in front of us. The guide book said it was pleasant to park at the bottom and walk up; we found a shady spot, where were spotted by a girl from the nearest house. She came armed with a book (in English) and asked for one pen – then went away. DSC01574 We carried on up winding steps past flat roofed, whitewashed buildings. The monastery was busy with visitors (probably all Tibetans apart from us) yet quiet and peaceful. Shoes were left at various points though it was often difficult to know which the correct places were – sometimes steps to upper floors seemed to be with and sometimes without shoes. Before leaving we had “butter tea” in the café, where we sat or squatted on low, cushioned plinths, without any formality of the “territoriality” that afflicts tables and chairs.
Driving back to Leh we were reminded of the roadside “proverbs” enjoining us to drive carefully. These notices are common on Indian roads – “I am curvaceous – go slow”, “Better to be Mr Late than the late Mr”, “Chance takers are accident makers”, “Drive slow and live longer”, “Alert today, alive tomorrow”, “Trees grow, CO2 gone”, “Prepare and prevent; don’t repair and repent”, “Stop accidents before they stop you”, “peep, peep, don’t sleep”, “Safety on the road; safe tea at home” and “Its not rally, enjoy the valley” They must be joking!
In the afternoon we had a guided tour round Leh. Allison was pleased to be allowed into the Friday Mosque, a brightly decorated building, whilst many Friday Mosques are more plain. The tour took us round the Old Town and the Royal Palace – now being restored and housing only a modern art exhibition and, much more interestingly, an exhibition of Czech Castles – why? I have no idea. The royal family was deposed many years ago and the King now runs an upmarket hotel further down the valley. DSC01626 DSC01631 Later we were entertained by the Ladakh folk dance and song society, sipping beer in the cool air of the hotel garden.

Tuesday 8th July. Some concern overnight as our passports had not been returned to us after being required for a permit for today’s trip to Khardung-La, at 18500 feet the highest motorable pass in the world. DSC01112 Happily they arrived at the end of breakfast along with the permit. In terms of driving this was much easier than those we had done already. DSC01545 There was a long stretch of good tarmac and for the rough sections I had realised the significance of low ratio. This transformed the drive and we enjoyed a much more lively car. Traffic was light and our permit was not required as there was no-one there to do any checking. We had the rally photographer with us so a few stops for photo ops on the way. The top was chilly and snowy – as is to be expected and my sandals and shorts optimistic. We turned at the top and returned to the hotel for a late lunch and a lazy afternoon.
Monday 7th July. The first of four full days in Leh. Today was decidedly cultural. The Hemis Monastery,

Courtyard Hemis Monastery

Courtyard Hemis Monastery

DSC01507 some 45km south of here hosts a celebration of the birthday of the founder of Tantric Buddhism in Ladakh. Nowadays the audience is entirely of foreigners DSC01495 and we sat in the baking sun watching some listless dancing, dirgelike monastic chanting, drums, long horns and trumpets. Then to another monastery at Thiksey, DSC01526 perched on a rock – all monasteries seem to be perched on rocks. Timing was excellent as we arrived just as they closed for lunch – an excuse for tea in the café, except that they didn’t serve tea at lunchtime. It was an interesting visit with Buddhas of different sizes and styles, some in dark rooms and barely visible and others brightly illuminated. DSC01521 The view from the rock was of the Indus river, a landscape of barren hillsides and fertile strips along the river.
Back to the hotel for more tea and postcard writing – the era of the postcard is not dead yet! Going to the central post office was interesting. It had just one counter and as soon as she had finished serving the guy in front of us the assistant picked up her handbag and headed for the exit (it was just 5pm). This produced a protest that we were inside before closing time and wanted to buy some stamps. Reluctantly she returned to the desk and we got our stamps.

Saturday 5th and Sunday 6th.

Picture postcard landscape

Picture postcard landscape

Two days of hard driving; not that we travelled that far – about 400 kms but it took nearly 16 hours and required continuous concentration! For some the first problem was to leave Manali as the MapMyIndia GPS sent them on a 2 hour deviation which ended up going past the hotel they had recently left. For one crew the day started badly with an overtaking argument with a lorry en route to the first Pass – the Rohtang. This Pass had only recently re-opened after its winter closure DSC01224DSC01184 and was busy, the surface ok in parts but bad in others following landslips earlier in the week. The car was driveable but the length of the passenger side was scratched with missing trim and the rear door almost pulled off its hinges. DSC01270 DSC01294 We drove through snow, rivers, mud, gravel and everything else you might expect on a hillside – sheep, cattle, horses. The Rohtang is a taster at 13,051 ft. This was followed by Baralacha La at 16,043 ft. Baralacha certainly made an impression – this was altitude and we were wobbly and unsteady as we descended to a tea house for sweet milky tea. DSC01331 DSC01320 DSC01355

Our destination was the camp site in Sarchu – deluxe camping with en suite loo/washbasin and lights (whilst the generator was running). It was hot when we arrived but cooled as the sun set; shorts and sandals gave way to anorak, fleece, pullover, thick socks and walking boots. The evening meal was communal in a dimly lit tent, reminiscent of our time in Mongolia on the Peking to Paris. Next day we were one of the last to leave as we set out to Tahlang La, the second highest road in the world at 17,582 feet. The landscape was now more barren, the organiser says its like Tibet, to us it seemed like Mongolia with bare hillsides and narrow ribbons of green round the river. Shortly before our stop at Leh DSC01410 we visited the monastery at Stanka, on its rock in the middle of the valley floor. Arriving at the hotel DSC01610, we were told there was no booking for us – not a good start! We checked with some earlier arrivals who had rooms a nd were told by the desk clerk that all the rooms booked for that group were taken. Fortunately the local guide arrived and we were given rooms allotted to our group – it was all a “misunderstanding” but we didn’t ask what happened to the group whose rooms our rally had already taken……

Friday 4th July from Shimla to Manali. It was all of 270 kms and took 7 hours of hard driving! I was not the only driver to give a cheer when I reached the giddy heights of 4th gear. DSC01124 It was all narrow winding roads, through villages and countryside and full of traffic. One delay was caused by a flock of sheep crossing a narrow bridge, which was almost wide enough for two vehicles to pass. But once the sheep got there no-one dared to move so sheep have priority – right? The rain had stopped for most of the day but restarted in late afternoon – the effects of

No that was not the road

No that was not the road

the earlier downpours were still being felt. At this time we had left the main road to visit a 16th century wood and stone palace (now a hotel) and the water was pouring off the hillside onto the road.
Tomorrow we head for an overnight camp site at Sarchu (4290 metres) taking in the Rohtang Pass at 3978m where 50 cars were trapped by landslides earlier this week and the Baralacha La at 4890m. So not only altitude problems but Sarchu is likely to be freezing overnight.

Thursday 3rd into the hills at Shimla. DSC01123The idea was to drive for 15 miles to the start of the Kalka to Shimla railway and take the narrow guage line for 102 kms and 103 tunnels whilst the car hire company drove the cars up the twisty mountain roads. It didn’t quite work out like that. We were told the train would be an hour late so we decided to drive.
It was slow and twisty and overtaking a bit of a gamble but our car had more grunt than most of the others so we made reasonable progress aside from a lengthy stop to pay for the local state tax. We would have missed this and driven past but tour company guide had asked for a lift so probably felt he had to do the right thing; that took 15 minutes. Then we were stopped for even longer when a police roadside check decided we were a commercial vehicle and had to pay (another) local tax. They were then persuaded we were not so we carried on. As we climbed it got cooler and murkier. The Times of India that morning had reported that Shimla had experienced 95mm of rain on Tuesday and several vehicles had got trapped in a landslide over the Rotang Pass – Friday’s route.
Shimla was in cloud when we got there, thunder was rumbling somewhere near by and it rained shortly after we arrived – what a contrast to the heat of Delhi! Tomorrow we head further into the hills; we should get to nearly 5000 metres over the weekend and the conversation is about how to avoid altitude sickness. We may yet regret our complete lack of preparation………. Sorry no photos today

Now in Chandigarh, about 5 hours north of Delhi. Not all plain sailing and some frustrating problems. BA were late leaving Heathrow after they found that something was trapped in one of the doors then they had to dip the fuel tanks to make sure they had enough fuel. Not very comforting as one would hope they had some gadgets that would tell them this – and if the fuel guage doesn’t work what else doesn’t? Unanswered questions but we arrived and the short delay wasn’t a problem.

Our cars arrived at the hotel during the afternoon – 10 newish Toyota Fortuners. Ours had done about 83000 kms, all white. People worked for a long time on them and now both sides have a sticker showing a map from Delhi to Ladakh. The bonnet has a number, a picture of a stupa and ROARR emblassoned across it. Just slightly visible!

In Delhi we visited the Red Fort, not a relic of the British Raj but preceding them by several hundred years. DSC01019 Delhi was hot, about 35 degrees and humid. So our progress round the Fort was slow and we soon returned to our hotel.

Old friends arrived and we spent a happy(?) couple of hours whilst the hire car paperwork, complete with a photo of us and car, front and rear, was completed. I’ll leave you to work out whose front ant rear were required! That night we overslept and awoke at 8.40. The blessing of the cars was at 9.30 or was it 9.00? So we leapt out of bed to find it was 9.30. each car and the occupants were blessed, with the obligatory red paint. DSC01025 The car also had to drive over a lemon and coconut which noisily exploded as we drove over them.

Then, after packing up we set out, on our own as most of the rest were long gone. Allison decided she did not want to risk damaging the car in Delhi traffic so she navigated and
had a problem deciding whether to follow the gps or the notes. The result was that we went via the narrowest, most congested streets around with rickshaws hand carts, bikes, ox carts, anything but progress. We consoled ourselves thinking that our Roadhawk in-car camera would capture the scene. But yes you’ve guessed it malfunctioned and we ended up with just the last few hours of the journey, the earlier part having written over itself. So frustrating!

Eventually the road began to live up to its name – Grand Trunk Road – a dual carriageway with local colour. Driving seems to be permitted on both sides of the road and in whichever lane is free – you just watch out for others who want the same space at the same time. Reaching Chandigarh, our hotel was close to the Nek Chand Rock Garden. This is a 40 acre site and is a garden made entirely of solid and static objects (saves on grass cutting and week control). DSC01065DSC01045

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