We woke to a day of glorious sunshine. After a relaxing morning and lunch, we strolled into Leh to see what was going on. Answer: absolutely nothing. The shops, cafes, stalls, markets were all closed and there were very few people about. The taxi strike had apparently shut down the entire town – but the sunshine seemed to be promising to last all day … perhaps even into the late afternoon … perhaps this was the day for that photo … All we had to do was to get ourselves up to Shanti Stupa later on. There were two choices: a long walk following the road round the mountain-side; or steps, starting a little way down the hill from our hotel. We opted for the steps.
We allowed ourselves plenty of time to get to the Stupa before sundown – stamina is not my strong point and there are 641 steps up to the viewing platform. That’s right: six hundred and forty-one steps. Tony counted them.
We set off slowly. I huffed. I puffed. I sat down on the steps several times for a breather – and was gratified to note that I wasn’t the only one doing so. I’d look across the valley to check on the progress of the sun and shadow over the face of the mountain and gompa; I’d look up at the stupa to will myself up those steps, will myself closer to the top. Half way and then the point of no return … Just a few more loops of the steps to do … Just a little bit further …
I staggered over the six hundred and forty-first step and straight into the arms of a group of Indian tourists who wanted their photo taken with me.
We linked arms; we posed; we smiled … I tore myself away from my new best friends. Then, viewpoint selected, camera positioned on beanbag, sun still shining, I pressed the shutter.
Going back down those steps was a doddle.
As for the group coming to take over our rooms? Our luck was in: theirs was not. They were delayed by landslides that closed the main Srinagar to Leh road for days.
Our hotel – the Leh-Chen – was mildly chaotic in the tradition of many Indian hotels. Smiles and enthusiasm were a given. So were power-cuts. Hot water was sometimes available – but even when it was available, you had to wait ages for it to run through (and that comes hard for someone brought up on an island where every teaspoonful of water mattered since the supply was dependent on rainfall). Nor could you be sure that hot water would come out of the tap marked H – which might or might not be on the left, the usual ‘hot’ side. (You could check with the ebullient hotel manager: he knew off pat which room had the taps correctly labelled and the right way round and which did not.) Shower heads might or might not deliver water in anything like a meaningful spray – or in any meaningful direction. But we were comfortable enough – and the hotel became almost a home from home as we usually returned to the same room after each of our side trips.
The following morning we headed north. A stream of vehicles – mostly white contract carriages, unleashed after the previous day’s strike, but also a few private cars, motorbikes (Royal Enfield, of course) and brightly decorated trucks – set off up the rutted, puddled, muddy, rocky switchback road to Khardung La. The road was narrow: on one side, gravity-defying chunky boulders and jumbles of shattered rocks looked ready to cascade down the slope at any moment, at the slightest nudge; on the other side was a steep drop. Unfenced, of course. Passing anything coming in the opposite direction or – look away now – overtaking was not for the faint-hearted. Behind us, Shanti Stupa, Tsemo Gompa and the surrounds of Leh gradually became tinier and tinier, insignificant in the mountain landscape.
A sign at Khardung La claims it is ‘the highest motorable road in world’ – but just because there’s a sign, that doesn’t necessarily make it true. The Border Roads Organisation claims the summit of the pass is 5602 metres: more accurate GPS measurements put it at 5359 metres. No doubt about it though – it is very high and you are advised that staying up there for longer than 20 -25 minutes could be injurious to your health because of the thinness of the air. But people were in party mood: they laughed and joked, had their photos taken in front of the tangled festoons of prayer flags and the (incorrect) sign, played in the snow, queued for the loos. For many of them it was a trip just to the pass – and they went back down the same way they had come.
We started down the other side and were surprised to meet three cyclists strenuously pedalling up to the top. (Nutters!) The road widened – slightly, and in places – and the road surface improved – slightly, and in places; we even passed a team of road-menders: (wo)man versus mountain. A team of five women equipped with shovels were filling in the worst of the holes. They hacked soil from the stony mud banks at the side of the road, loaded it into a length of cloth which two of the women then swung, emptying it into the hole. There was a wheel-barrow – but this was evidently a technological advance too far.We drove through subtly changing mountain scenery: cracked and fissured rocks in shades of brown and deeper brown; tentacles of lighter colours reaching down the sides of jagged peaks; sandy slopes pocked with stones and boulders; small bushes of dark green, dots against the background browns; bright green valleys; and little unexpected explosions of bright pink – rose bushes. We looked down at rickety swinging footbridges over fast flowing rivers; we looked down over the broad, brown Shyok River far below us, so slow moving as to seem a dry riverbed. We passed army barracks and went through small villages.
Our travels along all the roads of Ladakh were enlivened by the messages on the signs from the Border Roads Organisation.
Some were mildly finger-wagging:
AFTER WHISKY DRIVING RISKY
DRIVE ON HORSE POWER NOT ON RUM POWER
SPEED THRILLS BUT KILLS
Some gently flirtatious:
DARLING I LIKE YOU BUT NOT SO FAST
BE GENTLE ON MY CURVES
Some downright sexist:
DON’T GOSSIP, LET HIM DRIVE
And some almost inspirational:
LIVE FOR YOUR TODAY, DRIVE FOR YOUR TOMORROW
The last section of the road into the Shyok valley before Diskit was particularly narrow, winding – and scary: on the one side, a hard unforgiving rock face; on the other, a steep drop to the dark valley floor, the old river bed. The road was barely wide enough for two vehicles to negotiate their way slowly past each other – at strategic points – and there suddenly seemed to be many more trucks on the move. I was relieved when we finally arrived in the village of Hunder and reached our hotel set in its quiet gardens.
Nubra is relatively a lot lower than the rest of Ladakh. Note the word ‘relatively’: it is mostly between 2000 – 3000 metres, so not that low really. The days were much warmer. We set off very early the next morning to visit Diskit gompa, which, like so many Ladakhi monasteries, sits perched halfway up a mountain crag. The monastery is spread over several levels (but what’s a few flights of steps after the 641 up to Shanti Stupa?) and from it we looked out over a valley patched with colour: green fields, yellow fields of mustard, spiky bushes of purple salvia in counterpoint – and down at a huge statue of the maitreya Buddha. This statue is the by far largest in Ladakh and was inaugurated by the Dalai Lama in 2010.
There is a small stretch of sand dunes between Diskit and Hunder that we went to in the early evening. The Sahara it ain’t; nor can it compare with the apricot magnificence of Sossusvlei. It’s just a small area of rippled crescents in grey monochrome tones. Bollywood had set up shop and were busy filming in one part – and we could see camels further over towards the river. These were Bactrian camels whose ancestors had plied the old trade routes until cross-border difficulties put paid to that. The camels were left to wander semi-wild – until someone had the bright idea of making money out of them and harnessing them for camel rides. (No, we didn’t.)
The following day we stopped to photograph a small herd of camels browsing on sea buckthorn bushes at the side of the road. We were on our way to the village of Sumur in the Nubra valley to visit Samlantang gompa; it dates from the 19th century and looks very modern compared with the other monasteries we had been to – but we were assured that it was the ‘old’ one. (There is apparently an even newer one.) Inside was welcome coolness and the usual vibrant colour. We also visited the old palace – a tumbledown shell of a building overlooking a hillside of semi-ruined stupas. The palace is not deserted despite being in a state of extreme – possibly even dangerous – dilapidation. Our guide told us a reclusive monk lives there; the only signs of habitation that we could see were a dustpan and brush and a neatly swept doorway.
Our route back to the hotel was, of course, along that narrow mountain road: not ideal in the gathering dusk but to distract us there were views over the interlacing strands of the Shyok River, gleaming blackly at the base of the receding mountains as we watched the sun setting over Pakistan.
We were to have returned to Leh via a different route – over the Wari La – but a bridge was down and a section of road was missing, so we had to go back the way we had come. The journey was largely uneventful – bar getting trapped behind some loos on the move, a minor traffic jam involving goats and a car (not one of ours) getting stuck on the last bit of the climb up to Khardung La. Our drivers came to its rescue – with a concerted push, adding stones to provide more traction.
We had left Hunder at an ungodly hour and arrived back in Leh in the late morning. Pam went up to Room 302 – the room she’d had throughout the trip – and on the hooks below the towel rail she found the 3 pairs of pants that she had washed and hung there to dry 3 days before and which she’d forgotten to take with her to Nubra. Home from home indeed!
After lunch, we wandered down into the town for a bit of last minute shopping and a final coffee and hot chocolate at Yama Coffee House. As we walked back up the hill to the hotel, the afternoon sun was disappearing behind a bank of clouds … but I already had my picture.
More pictures can be seen at https://www.flickr.com/photos/52323463@N06/albums/72157656708684896