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Published: July 30th 2013
Leh – The Capital of the ex-Buddhist Kingdom of Ladakh
We actually set off half an hour early by Air India to Leh, and, it’s a lovely flight over snow covered and jagged peaks of the Himalaya – quite spectacular.
As we are about to land we fly over a monastery that looks like a mini Potala Palace (in Tibet) and arrive at the very small airport where there seems to be an army presence equally as heavy as Srinagar – no idea why. After the customary filling of forms as a foreigner (we are never sure what this is for or if it adds any value?) we get our stuff and are met by Punso the driver in his Scorpio Jeep from Overland Escapes who are managing the trek for us on behalf of The Responsible Travellers (our friends Siling & Tina) in Kathmandu. The whole deal costs us $1035 each but at 52 INR agreed exchange rate this is pretty good as the Rs is now up to circa 93 to the £ or about 60 + to the $.
The airport is only 3 kms from the centre of Leh. Our first impression
is that Leh – whilst surrounded by arid mountains is actually in a lush green valley through which the Indus flows. It’s small and seems more like a collection of very small villages that are somehow attached to become a small town. The outskirts are all army camps and personnel though not as oppressive as in Srinagar. Life seems to run calmly and smoothly here and the army are more a front line border police than one to keep the city under control as in Srinagar. The locals though seem very relaxed and friendly – a great feeling after Srinagar. Juley (pronounced Joo lay) is the most commonly used word here – it means all things to all people – good morning, hello, thanks, goodbye, have a good day etc, and is always given with a big smile.
We are taken to Padma Hotel which is near the centre and was recommended by our friends who use it a lot for their treks. It’s quite lovely but for the Rs 2500 we feel is a bit over priced for what it offers. The rooms are good with TV, however whilst they have an organic vegetable garden out in front
the Roof Top Restaurant menu is very limited. Also whilst breakfast is included – it’s pretty basic. There are however, 2 good points here – they have water refills for bottles at Rs 8 per litre and the views of Leh Palace (lit up at night sometime) & Tsermo Gompa above on the hill are both visible from here and look spectacular. It makes us wonder why it has taken so long to get here.
We have some tea and wander into town to meet Tundup Dorjey the owner of Overland Escapes to agree our programme and make some payment to him for the trek. There are (despite LPs concerns) plenty of ATMs with the J & K bank, Axis, HDFC & Punjab National bank being the most popular. We get some cash out from PNB ATM to pay Tundup. Tundup seems really nice and after answers to various questions we have it’s into town and lunch. We decide to lunch at Norlakh on veg momos & Pingh (all Tibetan food) washed down with black tea. It’s lovely and quite reasonable.
The centre of Leh is really lovely and the folk are so friendly and accommodating about pictures
we are knocked out by it all. There are a lot of foreigners here and we can understand why – Leh is like Goa was in the 60’s – really chilled out and it looks like many have decided to stay on here.
The centre of Leh has a lovely Jama Masjid, the Muslim community here are a mix of Sunni and Shia and we understand that of late there has been some tension between them. They each have a Mosque at either side of the main street. Nearby is the main Buddhist temple, there is a large Tibetan community here and the Dalai Lama has a house about 3kms outside town. Other communities include Sikhs and we are told many from China, Afghanistan & Pakistan as well.
Ladakh was culturally “Tibetanised” in the 9th
Century. It is now ‘semi-autonomous’ and a sub district of J & K. It does not look like anywhere else in India – and it’s sometimes hard to believe that one is in India when you meet the people, see their faces, observe the culture, the buildings and most of all the landscape with spectacular jiggered, arid mountains, valleys with oasis of green
and small villages, many mani walls, stupas, colourful fluttering prayer flags and fabulous Monasteries and ruined forts.
The Old Town starts by the Jama Masjid and you enter a world long gone of very small properties that are largely business premises but as one goes up the hillside it’s more residential - all under the shadow of Leh Palace. The main streets have many Tibetan Markets and handicraft shops with lovely Tibetan jewellery and ornaments, and there are street prayer flags that add colour and a sense of Tibet. The side-walks of the main street become a local vegetable market during the day. After touring the central area and taking loads of pictures of people and the area we make our way back via a place called Open Hands for coffee. It’s a lovely café and seems to specialise in helping various voluntary organisations sell their stuff at Fair Trade prices. C goes a bit mad here – there are gifts for her, Little B (Louise’s unborn) and her friend.
At night after a beer at the Roof Top cafe at the hotel (INR 150 + 10% - quite ridiculous but we are being lazy - the Wine
shop sells cold Kingfisher for Rs 85! but we’d have to walk for it) we venture out for dinner and decide on Lamayuru Restaurant where we have a great vegetable pizza with brinjal & olives plus some chicken tikka – a perfect combo and really inexpensive. We go back there a few times for pure Indian food and then some Momo which is really good.
One thing you notice is the plethora of Royal Enfield Bullets motor bikes everywhere. Leh is the end point for some major bike treks/trips in India. One of the main bike trips being the Leh to Manali run or the ride across the world’s highest navigable pass – the Khardung La at 18,000 + feet above sea level (2 hours from here). There are many bike hire places and organised bike trips. Many Indians seem keen on this type of break/holiday.
Next day it’s the start of our 2 day acclimatisation programme. The key issue in Leh is the altitude (11,600 ft) & the need for acclimatisation before we go trekking as some of the passes and camps are much higher so altitude sickness for the uninitiated is a real risk. We are
met by Lobsang – a Monk who doubles as a guide to all the Monastery tours in town for Tundup. We feel it’s awesome to have a monk as a guide and he’s quite gentle and considerate and knowledgeable – also he seems to get into places that others can’t. He also adds a certain something to our photographs in various places which is great.
Our first stop is The Hall of Fame – a small Museum which displays information about the area – animals, flora and fauna – and more about the work of the Army in the area including tales of heroism and bravery in wars against Pakistan and China (the two closest and not always friendliest of neighbours). The terrain they have to operate in is pretty stark, high and very cold. The most impressive item is a scaled model of the areas mountain ranges and the control lines/borders with China and Pakistan – which brings home the real issues of protecting the country from hostile foe.
Next it’s to Spituk Monastery – the little Potala Palace like building we had seen from the air on arrival. It’s literally beside the airport perimeter fence on
a hill. It’s a multiple tiered Monastery with mud-brick (staple in the region) built buildings. The views from here of Leh valley -where the Indus River runs - is very lush green and a complete contrast to the dry arid hills and mountains surrounding Leh. Above the Monastery is a small Palden Lama temple hiding veiled deities in smoked blackened rooms.
We then visit the stately 3 storey Stok Palace which is where the previous royal family now reside – the family name is Namgyal meaning Victorious. Their heritage goes back to 975AD (39 generations). It’s a traditional Ladakhi building which houses a small Museum of memorabilia from a bygone age. The main courtyard is small and has rooms off it – some we think might be let as a Guest House. The place also has a nice cafeteria with the tables and chairs outside on one of the rampart walls giving lovely views of the village and the surrounding countryside to Leh. Oddly enough there is a heavily fortified building next door which we learn is the new TV centre for Leh and was constructed only recently.
Next we are off to Thiksey Gompa – one of
Ladakh’s biggest and most recognisable monasteries. It’s a Potala Palace like layered Tibetan-style building on a hill which is a complete village in its own right. The main gompa has a prayer room with a 14m Buddha which is pretty spectacular. The Gompa is very picturesque and the views from the top of the surrounding area are fantastic.
Next it’s Shey Palace, once one of Ladakh’s capital cities (now a small village with ruins). Unfortunately it’s now raining and getting heavier so we decide to enjoy the view from afar and move on back to Leh. At the bottom is a large Rock with Buddha carvings of note. We would not have noticed it had they not been pointed out to us. They date from centuries ago.
We are up early the next day for the drive to Khardung La (the highest navigable road pass in the world it claims) 18,380 ft above sea level. The drive up there takes about 2 to 2 ½ hours depending how many photo stops you want along the way. Just out of Leh is the lovely village of Gompa which looks like one in the way the houses are laid out.
As one ascends further, the view back on Leh is spectacular – it looks like a green oasis in the middle of the barren mountain landscape. On the way up we see a variety of local animals viz; Marmot, Yak (Dzo – a cross between a Yak and a Cow), donkeys (which seem to be in plentiful supply in Ladakh), and ordinary cows.
There are many young men working as labourers here doing very basic construction work including breaking stones by the roadside and living in pretty basic tents by the Highway. We are informed that these are Bihari workers as the pay & opportunities here are better here than in their state of Bihar (which is considered the poorest state in India). The lives these guys have to live miles away from home are pretty tough. It seems that the army’s road building and maintaining services keep them in some sort of decent employment – at a price to their personal, social and family life.
Half way up the road which winds its way along we see a large rock painted as a multi-coloured Frog which is bright and larger than life. Creative idea & it makes
for a few good pictures.
As we get higher, the valley present an awesome sight with snow covered peaks – on the road to the pass and beyond which is the Nubra Valley – a 2 day trip from Leh – which is famous for its fertile land and is referred to as the valley of flowers. The road is full of Jeeps (packed to the rafters as usual with Indian tourists) going to Nubra or Bikers/Groups of Bikers in convoy travelling the same way. For some bikers just getting to the Pass is the big draw.
The Pass is strewn with Prayer Flags making the scene colourful, however, there’s frozen snow around and it’s a lot colder (we had to put our raincoats on for some protection – not enough so be warned). There is a decent canteen by the roadside which does a roaring trade in ok black tea & snacks as the only game in town! Indian enterprise at its best. The Toilets though are a bloody disgrace and one has to feel really sorry for the women who have very little option but to get icicles on their bums or go into the boxes
and stand in shit! The least the authorities could do is pay someone to keep the place clean and charge for the use. There are many organisations who manage toilets in India – an improvement & achievement that we have noted in all our years of travelling here and they need to get in here.
The place is far from peaceful however, thanks to the Hindu temple playing a record ridiculously loudly repeatedly shouting out of tune “Jai Mata Ki”, competing with lessons from the Dalai Lama being broadcast from the Buddhist section across the way. What a farce! This could only happen in India? Right?!
Having survived the noise more than the 18,380 feet altitude we drive back to Leh (which takes about 1 ½ hours – less stops going down) and warmth! We detour to the Shanti Peace Pagoda (an imposing Japanese Stupa overlooking Leh). The views from here of the valley are spectacular – well worth the trip by road or the 150 steps from town.
We lunch at the Padma Hotel – mixed fruit & cheese & tomato sandwich toasted which was delicious and just what the doctor ordered, then after about an
hour we meet Lobsang again for the afternoon acclimatisation walk up to Leh Palace, through the old city – and a visit to Tsermo Gompa (including the Kings Palace) higher up.
Leh Palace has largely been restored reasonably well in traditional style. The main halls are now museums and show large photographs of Leh, Alchi, Lamayuru, and the surrounding areas in black and white pictures which are impressive. There are still sections with the original wood work and decoration in and you can see how beautiful they would have been.
As we climb slowly higher to Tsermo Gompa the views of Leh & the surrounding mountain ranges gets more spectacular. The Gompa itself has a main chamber with a larger than life Buddha in it. We then walk up narrow walkways onto an even narrower structure that is made of wood and hugs the outside of one of the tall buildings of the Gompa, strewn with prayer flags and is a challenge to get around – not one for those with a fear of heights as the drop down is pretty long and a sure fire admission to the afterlife – but what a place to enter from
We walk down the back way which has a stepped pathway built for a safer trip to the Gompa. On the way we pass a small hamlet and loads of stupas before hitting the main road into Leh.
So it’s goodbye to Lobsang as well – it’s been interesting having a monk for a guide and a useful cheap model for pictures at Monasteries etc. Thanks Lobsang – it was fun. His English wasn’t always good but as he knew M spoke Hindi he would tell M the story and then M would interpret for C (for free at that & no tip!! says M). Ladakh – The Markha Valley Trek
We were told to be ready for 9 am but a knock on the door at 7 am suggests that we should have been ready as the trek crew are here and we are not even up! Great communication Tundup. We rush to get ready, have our breakfast, refill the water bottles and rush off at about 8.15 am leaving one bag with stuff we won’t need at the Hotel.
We are taken by Jeep full of gear for 10 days with our
3 crew – Guide Tensing, Cook Urup and Helper Jigmey to Zingchen about an hour’s drive away – some of it over dirt track and the bed of a dried up river. Here we are met by the Horseman Jigmet, with 4 horses and a donkey to carry all the gear and rations for the trek. The driver leaves, the horses are laden with goodies and off we go.
We set a steady pace walking on the side and the bed of the river till we stop and have to change to our sandals as we have to cross the cold river as there are no stepping stones or bridge and the river is pretty deep here. It’s a refreshing feeling and after crossing we get our boots back on and continue. Here we bump into a group of US students from NY on their first trek (they are doing a shorter 4 days 3 night circuit) on their second day and some look pretty worse for wear already.
Along the way we see many snowcocks (they look like pale pheasants or guinea fowl) and wild mountain goats on some very steep cliffs. This is a snow leopard
area but despite scanning for them we don’t get to see any – though it would have been a miracle if we had we suspect; they’re pretty elusive. The terrain is very rugged and rocky with only shrubs alongside the river including willows, dog rose and desert bamboo (looks like pampas grass). We soon (after 2 hours) come to our first campsite at Rumbak (3800m) and it’s only about midday.
The crew set up the cooking tent (which also operates as their bunk room for the nights) and our 2 person tent in a field owned by the local village. It has a traditional “long drop toilet” where the leftovers are recycled as manure each year by the village. A couple of the campsites had toilets with no doors (so one of us had to be on guard duty) and our last site has the open air as the facility!
After a short nap in the hot tent we take a short walk to the local village. When we say village – in Ladakh we mean a settlement of anything from 1 or 2 homes to perhaps 8 or 10 max. They are all miles from each other
and largely survive on agriculture and some have campsites or Homestays (local B & B for circa Rs 850 for bed, breakfast, packed lunch & dinner). For such a hostile environment – snow covered for 8 months and roasting hot and dry in summer, it’s amazing how successful the local communities are at growing fruit and veg. Rivers and snow melt are tracked along irrigation channels – which run alongside fields of barley and veg patches – sometimes uphill. Ingenious! And it’s rare to see a plot of garden that isn’t being cultivated.
Dinner is a feast – and we console ourselves at how little we can eat of what is prepared knowing that the “boys” will polish it off. Popcorn, soup, mutton stew, paneer, aubergine, dhal, rice, tuna salad and finally tinned fruit! Urup (who’s from Hemis) apparently went to Goa for a couple of seasons to train as a cook and it’s amazing what he knocks up in a tent with a two burner stove. A couple of nights we get pizza and chips – with sides of Chow Mein just in case!! He does fab veg momo’s, (we decided it was wiser after our Bhutan experience
of rancid meat to ask for a veggie menu after the first night), pasta salad, stir fries, and caps it all off with two nutella coated cakes – C’s in heaven!!
Breakfasts are equally good – pancakes, poori’s, omelettes, cereals, porridge, toast. And bucket loads of black tea served with biscuits.
The next day is another shortish walk along the valley, passing a small village – Yurutse which has only one, though pretty grand house, which is being renovated. The colour of the mountains changes and in places there are rich seams of purple, green and red. We get to the lower Ganda La Base Camp and as it’s only taken us 2.5 hours we decide to keep going to the higher campsite at 4400m. The altitude makes the uphill walk tougher – and it’s hot. But at least it will mean a shorter hike up to the Ganda La Pass (4800m) tomorrow.
At first we’re the only campers at the site but later in the afternoon we are joined by a French guy Gilduin and his daughter Francesca (from Boston). They started that morning from Zingchen and so have climbed 1000m in one day – not
recommended and Francesca is really suffering with the altitude. Even though we’ve done it in 2 stages C gets a neck ache and nose bleeds.
F&G are good company – he is currently living and working in Delhi and she is a theatre and music student in Boston – though her heart is really in music; she is recording her 2nd
album. We end up most days at the same sites and have a natter before dinner.
The horses are released each evening to find higher pastures to graze. There are also yaks and dzo’s at this site and all the animals have bells around their necks so the herders can find them easily. At 2-00 in the morning we are awoken to the sound of tubular bells!! The animals have come back to camp.
day is tough but rewarding. It takes 90 minutes of slow slog uphill to the pass – with lots of stops to admire the views and get our breath back while watching marmots, snowcocks and a variety of other Himalayan birds. At the top are lots of prayer flags and great views both sides of the mountains to the Zanskar
and Stok ranges in their entire colour and snow-capped peaks in the distance. We think about F and how she’d cope. We find out later she had to be carried across the pass! Though by the time we see her at Skui (3500m) in the evening she’s much better.
The downside of the pass is long, though the mountains along the way are a geologist’s delight; varying rock formations with cuts and pinnacles, and an array of colours. In places it looks like the entrance to the hidden city of Petra in Jordan, and at other times the colours are like those we saw when we drove across Chile into Argentina. First we arrive at Shingo village for a tea stop – this is a pretty village with some lovely traditional houses alongside the river, and then another 3 hours along the valley to Skui – a small village with several tea rooms, an eco-centre, some Chortens, prayer wheel and a Monastery (not open unfortunately). Our camp site is right in the centre – only big enough for our tent and the mess tent and has lovely shade from the trees. Having walked all day without a hint of
shade this is a real delight.
We head back into the village for a mooch around and get chatting to a French guy working for a NGO in the area installing power and water filtration systems. He’s been working there for 8 years. He tells us that the owner of the tea room – an elderly man who makes brass and copper ware to sell, is one of the last descendants of specialist trades folk from Patan (Nepal) who came to the area in the 17th
Century to repair the Buddha in the temple at Shey Palace!
The downside of the day is that we both get injuries. M has a huge blister on his toe which really causes him grief (we hadn’t worn our boots much in the last 6 months so probably not surprising) and C somehow manages to bruise both big toes when she trips up (not concentrating!!) – Both nails go black and one has a huge blood blister behind which will eventually have to be lanced. These conspire eventually to cause us to shorten our trek.
The next day to the entry of the Markha Valley is the longest (in part due
to painful feet) – though quite easy walking along the valley or over the dry riverbed, and thankfully with shade in the morning and cloud cover in the afternoon so not too hot. There are a few villages and Tea shops along the way – some called parachute café’s established by a Ladakhi womens group. Very enterprising. There are also quite a few homestays either in operation or being built. It seems that in 10 years’ time this area could be as developed for trekking as parts of Nepal.
After a lunch break at Sara and a chilly but refreshing river crossing just outside Markha, we get to the camp site in the grounds of the local school. At the suggestion of Urup we soak our feet in hot salt water while we enjoy tea. M’s foot is a mess and Urup suggests he should take a horse tomorrow as despite all the packing C wraps around the blister it’s getting worse not better.
So the following morning after a good breakfast, M mounts up (assisted by 3 of the crew – definitely not a natural horseman!) and is led along by Urup, while C walks (in sandals)
with Tensing – catching up every so often but mainly seeing the back of M holding on tightly while the horse climbs or goes down. The walk through the village of Markha, with its fort and monastery gives good views and then we follow the river bed, including one crossing through quite deep water which almost sees C fall over. Running along the side of the valley about 20 feet up is a path cut into the rock face – apparently cut to give access to the area when the river flooded in 2006, and high above the path is Umlung Monastery – perched on the cliff top. These monks certainly like to make it hard for their devotees to get to them!!
After a lunch stop and picnic we climb up an incredibly steep and narrow gorge topped by a fort and chortens. Apparently M missed all this – hanging on for dear life! Then the track meanders and “undulates” (a word often used by Siling to describe repeated ascents and descents!) through a village and lovely fields of barley and mustard, bordered by aquilegia, with the huge, snow-capped Kang Yatse ahead.
Finally, with sore feet and
painful hips (damn – looks like the hip problem from last year is recurring for C) she arrives about 30 minutes after M at Thuchungste (3900) an attractive site alongside a fast flowing river which has some very enticing pools. So despite the fact that the water is freezing, in we go! Clothes and all for a good wash and freshen up. Awesome!
Next day M goes on horse again and C takes a slowish walk with Tensing, climbing most of the way to the site at Nimaling (4600m). There are some amazing pinnacle formations as we climb and again the changing colours of the mountains in the distance. Then gradually the climb lessens and we get to nice alpine meadows with dzo and yaks grazing, cute mountain rats scurrying between burrows in the ground, donkeys and asses (and some very cute baby ones), sheep grazing and some calf’s who have fun chasing the local dog!
The site is flanked by screed covered slopes along which blue mountain sheep can just be picked out and lammergeyers – huge Himalayan eagles – soar overhead. In the middle is a huge tea tent shaped like a yurt, which makes the
place look like images of Mongolia.
The walk is only 3 hours – even with a stop for cake – and in the afternoon we should be heading up to Kang Yatse base camp and the edge of the glacier. Not going to happen! Instead C lances her toe (hope you weren’t eating when you read that!) and rests her somewhat painful hips, while M determines he will walk tomorrow (the big one over the Kongmaru La Pass – 5100m); he came for a trek not a horse ride he claims! However, we agree with the “boys” that we should cut the trek short. We can do the pass tomorrow and then the following day walk a couple of hours to the road where we can get picked up. We’ll have done the Markha Valley trek – though not the extended version Siling had recommended but with dodgy feet and hips it seems like a good decision and we can have an extra couple of days in and around Leh. At least, we can do this if we can get a phone signal to contact Tundup so he can arrange a pick up and a hotel for the extra
nights. As the local satellite phone isn’t working, Tensing is pinning his hopes on getting a signal from the top of the pass.
Unfortunately, the altitude is taking its toll on Francesca again, and its touch and go whether they stay here or go back down. As all the horses have been released they decide to stay but she will go over the pass tomorrow on horseback to get her over and down the other side quicker.
Once the sun goes down it’s cold at this altitude and so we eat in the mess tent warmed by the gas stove burners and then snuggle up for the night.
The climb up to the pass in the morning is hard work. Once the sun comes through its hot and the path that looked quite gentle from afar is not! But steady does it and we finally make it to the prayer flag covered top with amazing views in all directions; Zanskar, Stok and Ladakh ranges and the peak of Kang Yatse. And the phones work! Tundup is happy to arrange things for an earlier end to our trek and so we start the long, steep descent to Chu
Skyurmo. And boy is it long and steep and undulating and hard work!! Even the distractions of the geology, many river crossings and some beautiful flowers didn’t help. Urup does us proud for supper (as usual) topped off with a cake decorated with mountains and the message “Happy Trek Juley”, so we look forward to a short walk tomorrow and a shower in Leh.
Next day we say our final farewells to F&G – she made the pass and walked down the other side and is now again feeling much better. We may see them in Leh but if not hopefully we’ll see F in the US next year.
This time it’s C that is manhandled onto the horse and accompanied by Urup. Her hips are not happy so rather than push it she has a day in the saddle (and gets a great bruise on the rear from it despite her efforts!). M goes on ahead and makes good time despite his feet and the many river crossings (Tensing forgot to tell him he’d need his sandals so its lots of skipping across stepping stones apparently). The trail cuts across the valley hillside following the river until
we get to the edge of the village of Shang Sumdo with again fields of barley and mustard. C can tell when we’re getting nearby as the horse neighs excitedly at the smell and sounds of other horses.
And so, we say our thanks and farewell to Jigmet and the horses/donkey and get into the truck to take us back to Leh. We’ve completed the Markha Valley trek, an ambition for some years to trek in Ladakh fulfilled.
As we are finishing 3 days earlier and at a point which is near the Hemis Monastery (famous for its Tse - Chu – traditional Tibetan/Buddhist dance ceremony - in June/July each year) we ask to visit it on the way back to Leh. This is agreed and we get there near mid-day. The Hemis Gompa (since 1672) is the spiritual centre of Ladakh’s Drukpa Buddhists. Rs 100 per person entry – all funds to the Monastery for its upkeep – so no complaints there. The village surrounding and the landscape coming to it is more spectacular than the Gompa itself which is being part renovated. The place is pretty traditional in its architecture and setting apart from a large
Buddha figure on a hill nearby. There is a lovely Museum (well worth the visit) – no pictures though. About an hour later we are off to Leh about ½ hour away.
It’s the Dalai Lama’s Birthday & the Tibetan area on the way into the city is thronging with people all done up in traditional Tibetan gear (very colourful) to celebrate the event at his abode a few miles out of town. Unfortunately we are too tired to go there having just returned from the Trek – good photo opportunities missed no doubt!!
Tundup has booked us into Raku Guesthouse for the extra nights. It’s a lovely family run place – more like a homestay – and much cheaper at only INR 1400 per night. No tv in room but it does have wifi and a lovely garden with views of the mountains.
It’s off to the Wine Shop to get some Kingfishers to make up for lost time. It’s been a long and hard trek! We just enjoy being back in Leh and leave our last minute shopping for tomorrow. As we are walking to our Guesthouse M spots Mark Owen from ‘Take That’ on
a motorbike in the lane. Email to the kids!!
Then the unexpected! We head into the market for some shopping and find that all the shops are either shut or shutting down – this is 11 am on Sunday – so we think its Sunday closing. However when we see the Cafes & Restaurants closing with a lot of police around we reckon that something is not right. Some fuckwit idiots decided to set off a number of small incendiary devices in Bodh Gaya above all places – the holy of holies for the Buddhist! After the shock (thankfully no one is killed – 2 monks injured though), all the shops in Leh decide to close as a mark of respect & solidarity. All the Tibet markets (and they have quite a few in Leh) are closed for the day so no shopping/business possibilities for us. We decide to eat in at the Raku as all the eateries are closed as well. Rumours abound about how long the place will be closed (1 afternoon to 3 days are the rumours). The food (all vegetarian) at Raku is brilliant (Rs400 for 2). So much so we eat there again the
following night even though by then the shops are open and things slowly getting back to normal.
In fact the town stays closed for 2 days – the next day there is a peace march in the morning, but then at around 4pm the shops and restaurants start reopening and the town stutters back to life and normality. We have to forego our planned day trip to Lamayuru, Likir and Alchi (a long day but doable) as all the towns and Monasteries are closed – so a visit to these lovely & historic places would be futile.
We try to use the time to catch up with emails but unfortunately the 2 days are also plagued with power cuts which wipe out the wifi. Local folks seem to take all this in their stride – way more patience than we have!! It’s also women’s final day at Wimbeldon & 2 surprise finalists with the Frenchwoman, Bartoli winning in the end. Its Andy Murray vs Djokovic in the men’s the next day and amazingly Murray wins – though we only find out a day later thanks to the internet problems.
We do have an interesting array of co
guests here – a Swiss couple, a US teacher from New Orleans, and Indian guy who’s mad on treks who hails from Bangalore but is about to do a Doctorate in Atomic Physics and a couple of Indian guys from Mumbai who now live and work in San Francisco. We all eat in one night and have a great long discussion about India – from politics to celebrity, education to the Monsoon. Rum stuff but fun.
Our final day in Leh is spent exploring all the Tibetan market stalls buying last minute gifts and we get a few smallish gifts for the girls. Whilst the gifts and crafts look great here we are not sure they will travel well to the UK – also we have no home to put them in.
For our last meal we head back to Summer Harvest however other than the Momos which were brilliant, the rest of the food we ordered was pretty oily and disappointing for us. Oh well – no worries, we still have Delhi to come.
And so we come to the end of our trip to Ladakh. Leh is such an awesome place we will definitely return
– we quite fancy the prospect of a road trip from Leh to Manali on an Enfield Bullet.
Juley Leh! Delhi
We get up at 4 am as we have to catch the 7 am flight to Delhi – so check in is at 5 am! Tundup sends the taxi at 4.40 am, so after a quick tea we are off. The security arrangements are tight but not a chaotic as Srinagar. The flight back to Delhi for our last 2 days takes 1 hour 10 mins with Go Air – our first trip with them and it’s pretty smooth and ok. Delhi is hot and humid. We arrive at a satellite port of the IGA and we are surprised when the pre-paid Taxi box run by the Delhi Police only want Rs 305 for the drop to Karol Bagh – the cheapest we have had to pay.
Namaskar India awaits and we settle in pretty soon on one of the ground floor rooms this time. With Air Con and fan who cares. We decide to go to the Punjab Sweet House to have Kulfi & Rabri for brunch – simply awesome. Then it’s shopping for
last minute stuff in Connaught Place (but it doesn’t open till 11 am so we have to kill some time). We are pretty lucky and get all the stuff we are looking for and go off to meet Umank a young guy we met in The Andamans – his father owns a restaurant there we frequented.
After a coffee and chat at Costa Coffee in Janpath we go to Reliance to pick up our last bag so we can pack. We are made welcome as ever, Shankar is brilliant as usual. Tony is busy as the Boss is in the office and says that he’s not sure if he can make dinner – also Parul his wife has had to fly off to Mumbai for a business meeting.
No worries – we go off to pack and go to the Punjab Sweet Corner for dinner which is ok but very oily. However after more Kulfi & Rabri we are off to bed as it’s an early start to get to The Imperial for our treat for the end of this big trip.
We get a Taxi to the Imperial from Karol Bagh (they all wanted 300 to
400 Rs but M negotiates 250 from a passing taxi). Getting into the Imperial is a bit special. We book in but the upgraded Heritage room is not ready so we enjoy the free papers in the lounge, and the air con till we decide to go to Connaught place to do some last minute shopping. M decides to treat himself to a T shirt from USPA (almost a copy of Ralph Lauren but only Rs 1300 – a bargain.) Unfortunately Khan Cha Chas where we want to go for an early lunch doesn’t open till 12 noon! A bummer – so we have to try and waste some time going in and out of air con shops to the humidity outside. Lunch is an awesome mix of Kebabs – fish, chicken & mutton – we shall miss Khan Cha Chas!
Back at The Imperial and in our huge room with an enormous bathroom – all very retro, colonial and very comfortable we rest then go for the freebys – the swimming pool, jacuzzi, the steam room and sauna – the last 3 in a Spa complex built underground . It all feels a bit decadent and special –
a good way to finish our many months in India. For high tea we decide to get some lovely pastries/cakes from the Patisserie and enjoy it with the Twinings tea in the room.
For our last dinner we go to the United Coffee House (an institution where M has been coming since he was young – it’s a lot pricier now though). The food is beautiful – mixed kebabs, lamb chops and mutton biriyani, all with their special salads and chutneys - a fabulous way to end our trip.
Unfortunately on the way back to the Hotel, M has a slight mishap and cuts his toe on a column (not drunk we would add!!), but its blood all over his right foot. No worries, back at the hotel we clean up and go to the Bar (very posh and so colonial & expensive) for a night cap – our last extravagance! Or so we think. That delight is left for the buffet breakfast included in our deal (not normally for the price we paid). The buffet is a smorgasbord of food for almost any pallet and the surroundings are so colonial and stylish! Well done The Imperial. We
enjoy a lot of fresh fruit, lassi, Idli, toast & jam with coffee. That should keep us going till we get home.
It’s a Rs 600 taxi ride to the airport (price for staying at the 5 star place we guess). The Hotel had offered us a pick up from the airport for Rs3500 before we arrived – but we passed on this – even in a Rolls or Bentley we didn’t feel this represented good value. The taxi guy is the most quiet (he doesn’t use the horn once) and road conscious driver we have encountered in India – he keeps to the right lanes all the time – so a relaxing ride.
We check in early with Jet Airways for our flight to London as we want to buy some stuff duty free – booze and after shave etc. After the shopping we spend time in the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. Good location, great seats and drinks really good.
The flight back is ok – not one of Jet airways best – the food is pretty poor and the entertainment is not much to write home about. Finally the seats seemed a bit hard
& not too comfortable for a 9 hour flight! Anyway we are about to land ½ hour in advance of our scheduled time when the Captain comes on to say that due to an incident on the ground, Heathrow is closed. Damn! Hope we don’t get diverted to Gatwick – getting to Sarah’s (where we are going to stay for the night before catching up with Louise to surprise her on her birthday next morning) will be a drag & take ages. We notice the flight monitor shows that we are circling in the air. After about 20 mins – Captain again – good news the airport is now open – phew!
We land and get our luggage and try and get away but connecting with Sarah on the mobile is proving frustratingly difficult – the mobile connection does not work in the airport – bollocks. We miss a couple of tube trains and wait for a further 10 mins for the next one. Anyway we get the Piccadilly Line all the way to Manor House – where Sarah lives. Finally we are there……………………………and its catch up time with Sarah & dinner with wine which she has cooked for
us. Awesome! Thanks daughter. xx So we are now in London …………. the End! (Part 1)………….. Or is it?!!!!!!
Ps. The birthday surprise for Lou was lovely. We joined her at a picnic in the park – sneaking up behind her. She literally jumped sideways when she saw her Dad. Big hugs, lots of tears and a fabulous day. She looks amazing.
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