Published: April 21st 2011April 7th 2011
Groan... waking up from a delirium of weird dreams at one in the morning. I suspect yesterday's cacophony of new impressions and a slight overheating of the brain had something to do with it. At 2.30 we pack our gear and head out to the lobby where a car awaits to take us to the airport. The flight to Leh is scheduled at 4.50 am and we are dropped off at Indira Gandhi Int'l again. To enter the building you have to pass manned checkposts at the doors where armed soldiers inspect passports and tickets. They do take their time in a sort of self-important fashion, playing with reading out or names aloud, tasting the weird syllables, juggling them around. I feel so much safer from terrorism already.
Eventually we are let inside the terminal and say goodbye to the driver and chaperone and go stand in line for the early Kingfisher flight to Leh. It should be smooth sailings from now on I figure. Seems I have another sharp learning curve ahead. As more and more travellers arrive the line slowly begins to deteriorate into a jumble of anxious would be-passengers with shuffling feet, each trying to jostle for
a better position in what has now become a random crowd of people, squatting mothers and kids, and little men with huge trolleys full of sacks with rice and other produce. Finally an airline staffer decides to break up the anarchy and walks around pointing fingers and telling in no uncertain words the trolley guys to go away, sort of splitting the Red Sea as he moves into the crowd. We see our chance to consolidate our place in line and make it to the desk. The clerk issues our boarding passes without further delay and mentions, just like as an aside, that there is "chance of cancellation" with no further instructions.
It is not really surprising. Leh airport sits at around 3 500 meters and is dependant on good weather. The winter season is just coming to an end so at this time anything is to be expected. These days though, several airlines ply the Delhi-Leh route, so the hassles for the traveller have diminished somewhat. We did have some initial headache over how many days of safety margin to allow for the return flight to Delhi, as always a compromise between maximizing days spent at the destination
and a chance to become stranded at a domestic airport seeing your flight home pass above at 36 000 feet. In the end we chose the bold version, maximum days at destination, simply because there were too many things to see and do in Ladakh, and the agent didn't think it inappropriate either.
After having cleared the thorough security screenings we were through to the gate, and fortunately the weather decided to remain good enough not to spoil our flight and the jet departed without delay. Onboard we fell into an uneasy sleep and I found that that the weird dreams continued. I would wake up from a dream that the man in the seat next to me leaned over to speak to me, but when I came around I saw he was busy reading his newspaper. Another time I woke up from an imagined conversation with the flight attendant but there was no one standing there, and so on. Either I was sleepwalking or delirious.
Ever which way, suddenly the sun rises from the horizon and illuminates the white-grey blur outside the window and I am short of breath with what I see. We are flying over
Namgyal Tsemo goemba in the distant mist
Goemba = monastery, you better get used to the word right now. Goemba, Gompa, Goempa, Gonpa, the word has as many variations as Muammar al-Gadaffi...
seemingly endless snow covered mountains, so white and pure that there is not a single piece of dark rock outcrop to be seen. In any direction I look, I see nothing but mountains, pale white mountains, pyramidal shapes with the smoothest toppings of snow and ice. I wake up Kay and we just continue to stare. A quick look at the inflight monitor which logs the journey for all passengers to see displays an enitrely white screen with our little plane smack dab in the middle. It is a curious sight, but outside the window it all makes sense.
The sky is clear and blue now. Though at first not readily apparent, there is a cloud layer beneath the mountain tops. This entire world of mountains exists at a height of ca 5 km and above. Once we hit that altitude on descent the plane disappears into grey sheets of clouds and we emerge into a dim world beneath the clouds, in a 1 500 meter layer of foggy morning lights, then down there at the bottom at 3 500 meters altitude sits the ground.
Leh airport is pretty much a military airfield with liited civilian use. It
has a single runway in a slight slope. Though the tarmac is a bit rugged the uphill landing was very smooth and before long we are standing outside the aircraft chilling in our winter jackets waiting for a bus ride to the terminal building. Photography is strictly prohibited. Kay is one of the few lucky souls to sport sockless shoes. But there are some local kids wearing even less clothes than she does, their little legs shaking in the morning cold. Actually there had been some confusion just as to how
cold and miserable the weather might be this season. I had browsed around the web looking at Leh weather forecasts for weeks and they all are of different opinion, to put it mildly. Some reported daily temperatures of plus 10-25 centigrade while others claimed the mercury crept from 0 down to minus 25 centigrade. The truth landed somewhere in between, reaching around zero in the chilly nights while climbing to above 15 in daytime. The high altitude reinforces the effect of the sun making the clear and sunny days very pleasant, sunblock and shades are highly recommended.
Inside the terminal there was a slight chaos. People were crowding
Sporting a kabney
The scarf is a traditional garment usually given to reverred personae on in this case, to tourists at arrival.
the two converyor belts, anxious to retrieve their bags and sacks of produce. In summertime you can reach Leh via the highways to Srinagar in the west and Manali in the south, but in the winter season the high mountain passes on these roads are completely blocked by snow. The Border Roads Organization has a tough job keeping roads open, but in winter it proves a bit much for them. The Manali pass is expected to open sometime in early May this year. This meant a certain shortage on some fresh produce such as vegetables. While we were elbowing with the crowd a little Himalayan looking woman walked up to me with a foreigner registration form and asked us to fill them out. it appeared we were the only two foreigners on this flight. After completing this little formality the bags arrived and we walked outside to be greeted by a representative of the local travel agency, a Mr. Konchok Sharab, a gentle guy with a bit of Mongol look and a winning white smile, who swiftly drove us through the largely sleeping city to our hotel. And what a world of difference from that den in Delhi it proved
to be. Everyone we met or dealt with here were polite and pleasant people, with an atmosphere of genuine friendliness abound. After a welcoming tea we went to the room to lie down and rest and assist the high altitude acclimatization process.
The room was bright and welcoming but really cold. We had portable gas heater to offer some needed heat but as we were soon to learn, leaving it on while sleeping proved to be a bad idea, as it eats the oxygene out of the room. Hot water was temporarily absent, due to ice in the piping but was promised to come on shortly. We dozed off until lunch with momentary breaks to just walk out on the little balcony to "ooh" and "aah" about the scenery. Leh lies on a gentle slope at around 3 500 meters in a cradle of mountains, squeezed in between the Himalayan and the Karakorum mountain ranges, with high peaks so plentyful that the locals do not bother to name them all. Our immediate neighbourhood consisted of more hotels and guest houses, many of them closed for the season or still under construction. Street dogs and cows milled about outside and
occasionally let out "oohs" and "aahs" of their own. A gentle and hardly noticeable snowfall continued to fall during the morning hours, the one possible stopping factor for our flight had decided not to trouble its citizens on that particular day.
As lunchtime came the staff had set a single table in the restaurant for us. It turned out we were, apart from another Indian family who preferred to eat in their room, the only guests at the hotel. Supplies were a bit limited due to the frozen mountain roads but the staff had whipped up some nice simple vegetarian dishes for us; mixed vegetables, potatoes, daal, rice and chapati bread.
The snowfall had now stopped and the clouds began to clear during the afternoon. The sky revealed itself in a mesmerizing deep blue that invoked a certain peace within my mind. We walked around the immediate area a bit and sucking it in then proceeded to go rest again. We repeated this routine at dinner time when it was once again time for us to break the silence in the big dining room. At this point we both felt a bit light headed and dizzy, and Kay
Hanging in there...
We were starting to feel the effects of the altitude, weird dreams, dizzyness and at times a slight breathlessness. Did I mention it is cold indoors?
had only a slight appetite (something she was to remember bitterly, as the garlic potatoes served that one night were delicious). We only poked our noses outside shortly before heading back for an early night. We wanted to give our bodies as much assistance in adjusting as possible, as the coming days all had busy schedules. Back in the room we drifted into uneasy sleep again.
There are more photos below