Ladakh, part II

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August 15th 2004
Published: September 3rd 2005
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I took an early bus to the Nubra Valley the next day. This road is probably one of the highest roads on earth (the very highest according to the Indian authorities) as you make your way up towards the Khardung La (at a height of 5,600 meters above sea level; over 17,000 feet). I can't honestly proof them correct or incorrect, but suffice to say it was an awsome experience. There were lots of twists and turns as to be expected in a mountain road. There were several nerve raking moments when the bus could have just as easily gone off the side of the road and down a deep cliff. As we went up there were to stops at two different military checkpoints that scrutinized the photocopied permits each of the foreigners on board had. Its funny cause I could have swear they were just fake ones issued by the tour company back at Leh. Nevertheless, they did their jobs and so eventually we reached the top, which was covered to snow as it was to be expected. The ride down was easier on your nerves as it went thru a plesent valley and gorge below. It was still a desert scenery, but something of it made it different. There were more patches of green from the fertile region below in the rivers. The desert was also more pronounced and with a more orderly geologic order. There is something unique of Ladakh as every mountain seems to just pop up from below at differeng angles clearly seen on the exposed geologic layers. The Nubra Valley on the other hand was older and so lacked the caotic feel of the rest of Ladakh.

As we reached the valley below, the bus stopped at what appeared to be an impromptu checkpoint. It had a faul feel to it as it hadn't been orderly made as in the other posts. The officer began demanding an entrance fee... some sort of national park fee. The permits, we were told, where the only fee into and out of the valley. A few of the other tourists on the bus, myself included, demanded a receipt and after several minutes of protest were allowed passage without paying a nickle. We were not on the bus for more then ten minutes when a military envoy was blocking the road below just outside the town of Khalsaar. Apparently one of their trucks got a flat tired. Instead of parking on the side of the road to allow traffic thru they parked diagonally in a way no vehicle on Earth could pass thru. Argh! Damn show of power of this military bastards. There was nothing we can do, but step out and walk around to unwind.

I'm not sure what I was expecting from the Nubra Valley. Perhaps I had the notion of a small valley, but what awaited was a long valley filled with towering peaks and a fertile river area below. The town of Deskit is the largest in the region and that is precisely where the bus dropped us that afternoon. I had no plans on staying on this large town. God, please take me to the small town I thought. The guidebook mentioned Sumur, a nice town on the other end of the Valley, located across the river and into a side valley of sorts. After several inquiries, I found the bus station, but the bus out to Sumur wasn't leaving for a few hours so I went into a momo restaurant for lunch. I left the restaurant 30 minutes before the bus was set to leave, but by that time I had waited too long for when I hopped into the bus it was practically full. I lucked out and found a kind sould that scood over a bit and allowed me to sit on the back row next to him and about ten others 😊. Sumur was exactly what I was looking for. It was a quiet small sleepy town, whose sole purpose in life was to house the many farmers of the sorounding fields. Today there are a half a dozen homestays and a few hotels that have opened their doors to tourists. The village hasn't lost its charm as you can still see the many fields sorounding the place. As a rule of thumb, the farther you walk from the paved road the livlier the homestay would be. I practically stayed on the last one of the road, at Largyal Guest House, a place my friend Aline had recommended. The hosts where fantastic and they cooked up some of the best Ladakhi food I have ever tasted.

The next day, I followed the advice of the hosts and did a day walk across village and sorounding area. I remember crossing vast green barley fields, roads filled with juicy apricot trees waiting for a hand to pick them, and of course many cows, goats, and sheep. There were several interesting stuppas on the way replete with old Buddhist paintings inside. I came across a bridge that allowed one to cross the freezing glacial river that carved down to the valley below. Ahead of the bridge lays the beautiful modern Samstangling Gompa. It is located on a gorgeous setting overlooking the valley. The tall main building with yellow and gold wooden carvings stands tall facing the other side. The temple inside was huge. The entrance foyer has interesting murals. Of particular interest to me where a set of skeletons above the main entrance, which have and eirie resemblence to the skeletons seen in southern Mexico during the "Dia de los Muertos" celebration. Inside the Gompa, there were several more murals, buddha statues, thongkas, drums, and the traditional rows of benches for the monks to sit and meditate. After that lovely visit, I went back to the river to relax and take in the site of the valley below. There were tall mountains all around in a mix of yellowish greyish-white colors given off by the desert sand/dirt that crossed the region. Some of the distant ones had snowy tops on them, a clear sign of their enourmous height. Below in the valley you can see the mighty river plowing its way through. The land next to it is covered with green fields and trees that take advantage from the fertile conditions providing a much needed oasis from the desert. I headed back to the Guest House to relax and have some lunch. I met a group of French Canadians- an older lady with her son and nephew- as well as an Israeli couple. I wished I had stayed longer here, but the limited timeframe of my permit meant I had to move on to Panamik, a village further down this side valley.

Panamic was not as beautiful as Sumur. In fact, I would recommend anyone going here to just base yourself off Sumur and tackle Panamic as a day trip. Nevertheless there is still stuff to do around this town. I took it easily though trying to relax as much as I could. I walked around the narrow allaways around town and through its many fields. The houses on the village where traditional Tibetan looking houses with the white paint and woden framed windows. The roof where packed with barley drying out for the winter. The main attraction though is the thermal baths near town. I walked and walked, but could never find them. I could have swear that they were probably laughing at me, hiding right in front of my nose. As it was getting late, I went down to the main road to grab a bus back to Deskit. I met Johanas (Austrian) and Lawrence (American living in Switzerland). We shared a dorm room in Deskit that night. I remembered it clearly for we had a big political discussion as it usually the case when there is an American on hand... always ends up this route...hehehe... I guess I have Bush to thank for that 😊

I said my goodbyes to them the next morning as they were headed back to Leh. I was tempted to follow them as they were planning a kewl trek over to one of the high altitude lakes in the region. Alas, I had my own destiny to carve so I left them on the bus station and made my way to the Deskit Gompa. Perched high on the side of a mountain, the Gompa has a demanding view of the town bellow, the sorounding fields, the river, and further afield to the gorgeous Nubra Valley. It's a hard walk up to the Gompa thru the thin air of this altitude, but the reward that awaits you makes it worthwhile. You just have to leave it to the monks to build it in this very spot, which offers the best undisputed views of the Valley. I visited three temples on the Gompa. The first had stautes of the Guardian dieties, including the many ritualistic masks used during the festival season, and various colorful thangkas. The second temple had a large Budha statue. This was the main prayer hall. Inside where four monks who where patiently making an elaborate Mandala. It's not easy describing a Mandala. Its an elaborate religious design made off paint dust. So much work takes into the making that it's hard to believe the fate it has. The monks told me it took them three days to make it using paint dust. Each of the four of them was using two conical funnel that worked as tools to filter the dust paint. One was filled with the dust paint, while the other was used to shake the first to let paint out. They also had a knife to refine the final design. There would be seven pujas, seven days, in its honor. It is hard to believe that in a few days, during the final puja, the mandala will be destroyed. Harder yet when you realize they make four of them each year on different times of the year. In a way its a symbolic representation of the cycle of life, reincarnation, and rebirth believed by all buddhists. Interesting idea I tell you. It is not too far off from the idea by Christians that from dust we come and as dust we will end up. In any case, I left the four monks to finish their business and made my way to the third temple. This temple was the library as it had several old texts, several small buddha statues, and thangkas. The monk who opened the doors to the first and third temple was kind enough to invite me to a cup of delicious tea, not Tibetan butter tea as I had hopped, but nice nonetheless. We didn't know each others language, but expressions tell a million things. We both laughed as we enjoyed the view below. In front of us was an unobstructive Tibetan Prayer flag standing tall over the valley floor. It accentuated and complemented the beautiful view below.

I had a few days left in the Valley before my time was out so I took a bus that afternoon to Hundor. The book described it as an idealic place where most backpackers end up. Popularity has played a tow on this town as the guesthouse personal are not only rude, but flat out nasty. There were no rooms available, save on one overpriced cramped guesthouse with no views and no style. I told the fellow backpackers looking at another room in the place that I rather stay at the charmful rooms in Deskit then in this hell hole. They agreed, but were still contemplating staying there. I parted away to follow their advice on walking back to Deskit, never thinking I would ever see them again.

It was still early so I made my way up hill to check out the town's Gompa, which lays below the main road overlooking the town. The Chamba statue inside is over 3 meters high. Of particular interest to me was the Lukishan Statue, which stands a bit over 2 meters tall. It has four heads, one on top of the other, in a fashion that reminds me to the ornate masks found in Palenque, a Mayan ruin in Chiapas, Mexico. Yet another link between these Tibetan temples and the meso-american cultures. Perhaps their just simple coincidence, but you still have to wonder on how to cultures on the opposite side of the globe came up with similar designs for deities and the like. I remembered now reading an article about how the Dalhi Lama once hinted on his believe that Tibetans could be reincarnated Mayans. Hmm... I regrouped my thoughts back to reality and walked uphill to check out several smaller temples atop. To the right of me was a bridge with a sign warning foreigners not to pass thru as this is the end of the road allowed on our permits. The military guards wouldn't even let me take a pic, but unbeknown to them I took one anyway 😊.

I walked back down to town and proceeded to get lost in the many alleyways that passed through fields and houses. I reached a dead end and a kind man gave me directions to follow the road back and a side road that led to the path to Deskit. I walked until I reached an unpassable river. I went upriver hoping to reach a bridge, but stopped before it at the Hunde Hikers Hut. It was all too weird I thought. Ahead of me were the two fellow backpackers I met back in the hotel dump in Hunder. They were seeting in lounge chairs under a big umbrella set up in a little island in the river. It was a beautiful scene I tell you! One of the best places i've ever had tea in my life. It was so nice that I decided to spend the night in here as well. The two guys introduce themselves as Segi, from Spain, and Kristof (though he usually goes by the english spelling of Christopher), from Belgium. They were good company as we chat for the rest of the afternoon taking in the 360 degree views of the valley. The grassfields around the river allowed for such a nice view. The sunset was magical as the mountain peaks reflected in the calm waters of the rivers. Segi went off on his talk about his adventured in Nepal. I had just about given up on Nepal as I feered it would be offlimits for travelers given the present political turbulence in the country. As luck would have it though, Kristoph was headed that way and so we decided right there that we could team up in a months time to go do the Annapurna trek together. He would head down to Kashmir and Rajasthan, while I would do a bit of North-Central India.

We walked back to Deskit the following day. The walk took us through green fields. The fields gave way to a vast desert with many sand dunes. Across the horizon, we spotted a guy on a camel coming toward us. It wasn't a one-hump camel as the one I rode in Rajasthan. Oh no, this was a pure bread double-hump Bretrian camel. It's one of the remenants of the old Silk Road that used to ply through this very route. The guy offer us a ride for a price, but we declined the offer. We continued walking across the desert and back into the fields. Eventually, we reached an impassable fence. The only clear way across it was through a river that cut through it. It was either that or backtrack the way we came from. We were not about to give up so we removed our shoes and socks and jumped into the river on our way back to town. We didn't know what to expect up river. The high vegetation was obstructing the view ahead, but we never imagine where we ended up. As we reached a vast grass clearing, we came across a hippy campsite. A guy from the group approached us and motioned us toward a bus, where they had set up the main communal area. There were a dozen of hippies lieing around smoking weed and spending their days doing pretty much nothing. Two French guys had driven the Mercedes bus all the way from France across Europe, Turkey, Pakistan, and now India. Crazy mo-fos I tell ya 😊. The rest of the hippies were driving around the typical motorcycles, bought in India. There was a Japanese couple, a crazy Italian who had recently spent 2 months in Afganistan (including 1 week in jail), two Israeli girls, and the South African who welcomed us into the group. We were not into this scene at all, but we did accept the normal tea they offered us as well as the much needed rest below their tarp. It was as though we had steppen into the past, an old echo of the 1960's and 1970's.

We said our goodbyes to the hippies as we continued on to Diskit. Their was a nice unsealed road all the way to town. We were starving by then so Segi and Kristof suggested this tasty Tibetan restaurant in town. The mutton momo soup and fried rice was delicious! After lunch, we checked into a nice guest house in town. Let me tell you, at first glance Diskit is a dump, but after a few days it grows into you. It is conveniently placed as a mid-point between all the interesting stuff in the Nubra Valley. It is 2 hours from Hunder and a few hours from Sumor (the other place worth staying overnight). It was towards the middle of the afternoon when I suggested we walked up to the Gompa. I was interested to see the progress on the Mandala. By the time we reached it, the monks had finished their work and had already covered it in glass. On the way down the Gompa, we took another path that led down to a waterfall below. It lay inside a deep narrow canyon that one can go exploring on their own. The water came down pounding and so the noice it made was really loud.

I woke up early the next morning to catch a bus back to Leh. Before I left though, I had the best omelete I have ever had in my life. It was home-made by the kind lady of the Korokorum Guest House. The combination of vegetables and masala made it just right for your palette. It turned out I was a bit early. I had expected the bus to be there before 7, but it wasn't until past 9 that I managed to get on the bus. There was only standing room. Since it's 6 hours at least to Leh I wasn't looking forward to the journey. Luckily, the bus stopped at the next town to wait for the roads to open up to pass. At that time, those who where standing spotted another empty bus. We all joined in unison and demanded our money back. After some haggling, we got a fair return of the portion we hadn't used on the journey and so each of us took a seat on the empty bus 😊. It was a private bus, not one of those gov't JKRTC buses. The bus ride was fantastic. I got to take in the difference between the Nubra Valley and the rest of Ladakh i've seen. The Nubra Valley is made out of a greyish-white desert rock, whereas Ladakh is more of a irtish-yellowish-redish-brown sandstone desert. I didn't want to stop at Leh this time though. I had my eyes set on a village further down the Leh to Manali road and so changed bused to go to the village of Thikse. I arrived late in the day when everything was dark. Nevertheless, I found a descent guest house. I left my stuff and walked to the restaurant further down the road. I was joined by Claudia, a German girl. We had a nice conversation about Ladakh, South America, and travelling in general. Funny how you just bump into such lovely people all the time.

I had another early start the following morning as I climbed up the Thikse Gompa to witness the morning puja. The even was totally uninspiring as there were only a half-dozen monks present. In fact, the tourist far outnumbered them (at least 5 to 1). I didn't stayed on the main hall for the duration of the puja. Instead, I wondered around the complex entering all the small temples and seeing several one-man pujas in honor of the particular deity inside that temple. These were far more interesting and rewarding then the puja at the main hall. I still remember it as if it where yesturday. I was still half asleep as I entered inside the Temple of the Guardian of the Dieties. This gullish deities are depicted in gruesome statues all over Ladakh. The monk doing the puja put me more at eaze as I sat down and enjoyed the prayer. I walked into another temple with a small Buddha as well as a monk performing another puja. Then there was the monk perfomring the one-man puja inside the Library or Temple or Hall full of old Tibetan texts and scripts. Before I left the gompa, I walked to see the old historic 5 meter tall statue of the Buddha standing tall inside a room, no doubt build to protect it from the elements. Next to it lies another temple with tiny buddha statues.

The day wasn't over for me as I walked down to the main road to grab a bus to Shey Gompa, which at one time was the royal palace of the Ladaki kings. It was replaced by the newer palace at Stock. I was in luck as there was a special puja going on inside being precided by half a dozen monks from Hemis Gompa. They all sat at the center of the empty room. Empty, except for the many old texts, bronze statues, and 1 religious tzampa offering (this is a tibetan style bread made by boiled water mixed with barley). The large room made for excellent acustic so it was a pleasure to sit down and listen to them chant their prayers and play their religious tunes with old antique musical intruments. At times, they also done on traditional hats that made the event even more special. I was the only one that stayed there long as the few tourist to this place just stayed for a few minutes at most. There were some locals that came in to do their own prayers as well. These locals would kneel down and then with their hands will pull their whole body forward until all of their body was touching the floor. Their hands would in turn be in the prayer position. The women wore dark black traditional clothes with hardly a color showing off. The all day puja had occasional brakes for the monks to rest. I took the opportunity of making a discreet exit on one such brake. I went upstairs to see the 5 meter statue of the Buddha. I could see this very same statue from the room below where the monks were doing the puja. The walls of the room above was covered with old paintings from several centuries past. There is a path right outside that leads further up the hill across several walls from the old palace. There are also several stuppas on top, which is a common thing in Tibetan Buddhism sites.

I took a bus back to Leh that afternoon. After settling in at the Tak Guest House, I went for a walk around town. I walked and walked until I reached the Shanti Stuppa at the other end of town. It is located on top of a hill. You reach it via a steep 500 step staircase that will surely leave you breathless as the altitude is well above 3,700 meters above sea level on the top. The Shanti Stuppa is one of the many world-peace Pagodas built by the Japanese around the world. The view from above is oustanding. Before me was the town of Leh, the green bottoms of the valley around it, the vast desert next to it, and then the towering snowy peaks from afar. On a good day you can probably see for well over 100 kms. I stepped into the small Japanese temple next door and enjoyed one of the most rewarding pujas i've ever been part of. There was a Japanese monk preciding over the prayer. He was an excellent teacher as he explained every step of the puja. It start by a prayer in which one holds your hands in a prayer/namaste position (both your palms touching each other). You raise them to your head, next your mouth, and finally your heart. You then kneel down and let your upper buddy touch the floor while your hands are still in a prayer position. You then repeat this two more times, for a total of three times. This is the way to pay respect to the Buddha whenever you enter a temple or any religious place. Once that was done, we sat cross legged and with our hands in the meditation pose (one hand on top of the other with the thumps touching each other). The puja chanting and prayer and drums lasted for an hour. He then gave us an excellent free lesson on Buddhism, meditation, and even yoga. He ended the evening with a Q & A session. Let me tell you, if you are ever in Ladakh, this is a must see!

I had a few days before the bus out of Ladakh and down to Manali so I decided to do a day trip out of today. I took a bus to Hemis Gompa. I still remember asking half a dozen locals when the next bus was leaving and every single one of them gave a different answer. Daniel, a guy from Venezuela, was also trying to take the bus. I remembered asking about it the other day and was 100% sure there was a bus leaving any minute. I asked around and eventually found the right one. Hemis Gompa is 3,600 meters above sea level. Perched on the side of a valley, it is one of the most famous Tibetan Gompas in Ladakh, and perhaps the world. As you enter the big squared complex, you see the tall vast wall where every 12 years a special giant Thangka is unveiled. You are allowed to see three temples in the site. The first one had an amphitheater of sorts that made it feel as though you were in an Elizabethan Theater of sorts where one of Shakespears plays was just about to start. The three levels of the main hall were covered with Thangkas. It was here where the main pujas are held and as in Shey I managed to see part of the day long special Puja going on all thru this week. The second temple had a 5 meter statue of the Buddha. The third temple was very interesting as it had old Buddhist bronze statues and shortens made in Kashmiri way before the wave of Muslim that took over that region. There was yet another puja going on in this temple. As I did a prayer to the Buddha, a monk approached me and offered me a blessing followed by a little bit of orange liquid that he pured on my hands. He motioned me to drink it. I'm sure it was for good health and long life. We around the courtyard and proceeded to get lost around the many alleyways of the gompa. Some of them led to stairs where one could go all the way to the roof. The views from up there were spectacular.

A few weeks ago a fellow traveler had recommended me to walk up the valley above the Hemis Gompa to check out the small Gotzeng Gompa. Even though Daniel wasn't quite yet acclimatized to the high altitude (he had arrived a few days ago), we proceeded up through the easy to follow path. It was an easy walk for me. The highlight of the walk was the small baby donkey we saw halfway up there. I sat next to it as Daniel took a picture of it. Let me tell you, it looked more like a stuff animal then a donkey. I could have easily carried it on my arms and cradle it like a baby. We left it on its own to find its mom and continued our way up the mountain. After 3 kms, we reached the gompa. It consists of 2 temples. The first one had a buddha statue and was presently packed with half a dozen monks doing a puja. The second temple was built inside a cave that marks the spot where a famous lama once prayed and thus declared a great Gompa should be built near the site. The result of course is the ever famous, Hemis Gompa. One of the monks offered us some tea as we sat next to a group of Germans. They were on a packaged tour with hired jeeps and a German guide (brought straight from Germany). Daniel and I bid them a farewell as we walked down the mountain back to Hemis. We stopped at the monk school next to Hemis Gompa. Even though it was raining, yes raining in the desert, some monks where just sitting outside on the ground. We ask a monk, the teacher, why was that and all he answered was that they had never seen rain before. Deep inside I knew better, they were probably beeing punished for something or other. We were fortunate enough to ran across the Germans again as they offered us a ride back to Leh. On the way back we stopped on Shey Gompa, but it wasn't as magical as yesturday as there was no special puja going on today.

The toll of the last few days catched up on me as I overslept the next day and thus missed the bus to Stock. To make matters worse, I locked myself out of my room that morning... argh! In case you were wondering, there is no such thing as a blacksmith in Leh 😊. The guesthouse owner gave me several tools, including a broken saw. After an hour of hard work and after cutting myself half a dozen times, I managed to saw through the steel lock of mine. Boy was it tough to brake through! I was glad I was in the room. But now what, I wasn't going to waste the day. Oh no, I decided to walk around town. I started things off at Dzomsa, the local purified water refill station. They not only sell cheap water, but also sell the best lassies in Ladakh! I had an apricot lassi as I sat on the street watching the tourist and locals walk by. This store also sells excellent apricot and wild berry juices. I had lunch at the delicious Wok Tibetan Restaurant, my favorite eating joint during my stay in Leh. It is located on the Main Bazar road, a few minutes walk from Dzomsa. It serves the best Ladakhi and Tibetan food in town! After lunch, I went back to the guest house, where I met Denis, an older French Canadian gal staying at there as well. We started chatting and before you know it we were out the door and walking around town together. She was starving so we headed back to Dzomsa, and proceeded to walk across the street to one of the bakeries in town. We shared two delicious pies together, a really tasty chocolate one and an average apple crumble. Even before the pies had arrived though I had managed to make a full of myself as I sat in one of the fragile plastic shairs in the restaurant and ended up falling straight to the ground, braking the poor shair in the process.
The top of Khardung La ,  Road to Nubra ValleyThe top of Khardung La ,  Road to Nubra ValleyThe top of Khardung La , Road to Nubra Valley

The Antenna in the center is located at the highest point of the road that goes across the Khardung La Pass.
Hahaha! It was a funny scene, even though I was the one on the ground. Once we had a full stomage, we went back to walk around the old town. Eventually, we reached the Polo Ground, were luck was on our side and we got to see a game in action. The locals were wearing their best polo attire and riding a horse where showing a the great sportmanship of the game. Back home this game is reserved for the ultra-rich, but here everyone with a horse, a polo stick, and the necessary skills can join in on the fun. Incidently, this is the highest Polo ground in the world at about 3,500 meters above sea level. The game was an enduring one that only finished when one of the teams put in a goal. I met Segi and Kristof that evening at Dzomsa for dinner and beers. We went over the plans we had formulated on the Nubra Valley and so set a day to meet in Delhi in about a months time.

Having broken my flashlight the night before, I woke up really early on the morning to catch the bus to Manali. It was still quite dark as there is no electricity in Leh at night. I had nothing but a little candle to offer light on the way to the main bazar road, where I was to catch the bus. It really gave an erie medieval feel to the place as I walk down the empty alleys in old Ladakh. Perhaps my flashlight dieing on me the night before had been a sign of things to come... I made it to the bus. I began talking to the foreigners waiting outside and it was here that we found out we were all told a different story on the bus. Each of us where told a different night stop on the way to Manali. Clearly, even the driver didn't knew where we will end up that night! I didn't gave it much thought as I hopped inside the bus. I sat next to the lovely Nicole from England. We would become friends on the journey down to Manali. We chatted about travel in India and how slow the damn buses/trains are every time. She mentioned how she was once hold up for about 10 hours as her train got a new engine since the first one broke down. I remember her words clearly even today. Things just work like that in India you see. You cannot have set schedule to go from one place to the next. Oh, you will get from A to B, but it will probably take a longer time then originally planned she said. Let me tell you, that girl had ESP or something as the trip ahead would turn out to be a horrible, blessed, journey.

The day was fast approaching as we witness a spectacular sunrise on the way out of Leh. There had been rain and snow the last few nights and the peaks showed a larger cover of white snow on top. We crossed several villages sorounded by several fields before Taglang La, the first high pass. Taglang La, the second highest pass in Ladakh, is a wopping 5, 370 meters above sea level. The bus made it to the top in to trouble passing past the snow line in the process. It was a beautiful white all along the top packed with fresh new snow from the night before. We were soon engulfed by high peaks that were all around us as we made it down into the next valley. This velley is the begining of the famous Moray Plains. The beautiful redish mountains are accentuated by the desert sand below and the small river that carves right thru the valley. The Moray fields are vast and desolate. There are green spots of vegetation living off the water from the river, but nothing substantial. Thus, there are no towns or villages at this high altitude. The bus continued on as it made it safely to the Military checkpoint of Pang, located 4,630 meters above sea level. Across the military camp, you could see several impromptu tents build by locals to cater specifically for the tourist traffic that crosses thru here in the short high tourist season during the summer. I remember thinking who the hell will think of sleeping up this high in the first place? I mean, we are in the middle of fucking nowhere! Alas, the stop allow us a quick toilet brake and a chance to stock up on supplies.

We all hopped back on the bus as soon as we heard the driver slam on the horn. We were all fine for the first few kilometers until the bus gave up on us. I could still remember the ugly sound of the engine made as it made a desperate attempt to climb the second pass, the Lachalung La (5,065 m.a.s.l.). The driver made the wise choice of stopping and turning around. It was no easy task as there was bearly room for the task, but as there was no other choice we had to hold on to our hearts as we began seeing the deep cliff over our windows. No, we didn't go down the cliff, but for a split second we all thought we would. The bus returned to Pang, where they desperately tried to fix it for the next few hours. As usuall, we were all kept on the dark on the progress. We all knew it was a bad sign when the few locals on board all grabbed rides from passing trucks. They hadn't paid for their fare yet, so had nothing to lose. We had paid close to $20 USD, a fortune in India. The final verdict came soon after as the driver said it was not fixable. They would have to go back to Leh, bring back a new engine or parts to fix the damn bus. As much as we protest about it, we didn't get all our money back. We ended up only with $10 USD, which is nothing as we hadn't yet covered even 1/4th of the way to Manali. So, we were faced with two choices: hitch a lift on a truck for about $10 USD each or hire a jeep for about $22 USD each. Fuck it! I had already had my share of truck rides and knew it would be a slow agonising ride down to Manali. I joined six fellow tourists on a mission to find a jeep that could take us to Manali. So there we were, the unlucky seven, on a mission: Nicole from England, the excentric new age Marco and Mikaela from Germany, Isabela and Margo from France, an older quiet man from Japan, and me. We stopped one of the drivers coming up from Manali and pleaded to him to pick us up as soon as he was done dropping his current load of turists in Leh. Of course, this drivers come straight from Manali with no rest on what is pretty well a 17 hour ride. We knew he had to sleep the night and so at best it meant we won't be heading down until the following morning as it was already getting late in the afternoon today.

Life at Pang was calm, quiet, and relaxed. Traffic sped up and down the road as life revolved around camp. The camp is situated in a beautiful spot in a valley with a river cutting right through it. I was facinated by the high redish-brown peaks all around us. In a way, we couldn't have asked for a better place to get stranded. We had food and accomodation provided by the enterpreneurial locals, we had a great view, and we had good company as well. The toilets where the best. Oh yes, by this time we had found them. They were atop two hills (one hill if you were really really lazy and didn't mind half of the camp looking at you) and were right in the open of the wilderness with a 360 degree view of the high mountain peaks and the desert all around. Plus, it came with a free airconditioning as the cool breeze always clashed against your warm skin 😊. The camp below consisted of about a dozen tents, but we manage to bargain with a lady to let us stay for next to nothing in exchange of eating lunch, dinner, and breakfest at her place. Our camp thus consisted of two tents: one was the one used to cook food and the other was the one where we slept. It was run by a local ladakhi lady who had left her husband tending the fields as she made some extra money during the tourist season. It was her lucky night for later that night another fellow tourist arrived, a crazy German who had arrive on his push-bike all the way from Shimla! He had taken a couple of weeks of course, but still at this altitude it was quite an ordeal as the oxygen was thin and the weather was cold. He came prepared though and was already planning on camping on the other end of the Moray plains the next day. That evening turned out to be beautiful with a cold crisp wind and a vast clear sky. The brightness of the sky reflected on the desert mountains below in a way I had never see before. It was magical! We all stepped into the sleeping area eventually and before going to sleep we each offered a piece of warm clothing to Nicole, who was the onlyone without a sleeping bag that night. As it turned out, she was the warmest of the lot with two blankets plus a loadfull of warm clothes on her! I didn't slept well myself as the air was thin on this height and so I woke up often grasping for air.

The night came to pass and we woke up to find the driver had arrived and was sleeping now. We let him sleep for a few more hours as we knew he really needed the rest. We all said our goodbye to Mr. T, the crazy German on the bike, and wished him good luck in his endevour. Once on board the jeep, it was easy going down to Manali. We went up to the Lachalung La Pass, at over 5,000 meters above sea level, thru an impressive gorge with rock formations surfacing out of the sand dunes. We made it safely to Sarchu, one of the camps (probably the one we should have slept in yesturday) where we stopped for a quick toilet stop. The camp is situated on a vast valley, nothing like the charming narrow valley at Pang. We continued up to the Baralacha La Pass (4,880 meters above sea level). This is the border between the high desert above and the vast green landscape below. Once on top, you begin to see the end of the desert as green becons everywhere. We came across this valley that is cut by a beautiful glacial river worthy of a few pic shots. We soon reached the next camp at Darcha, which is better equiped with several restaurants and places to sleep. Incidently, there were no toilets in this place, even though it was the best camp of the three we had crossed. The location was next to the river and the green was blinding after 3 weeks in the desert of Ladakh. We kept on going past a very bumpy road being fixed by several workers from Southern India. I can still remember their black face all messy from the black smoke of the burned asphalt being placed on the roadThe scenery was stunning as vegetation unfolded in front of our eyes in the form of pine trees, grass, and rich agricultural fields. We went right through Keylong, the first big town since the villages outside Leh. Other villages began to unfold soon after as the climate down here allowed for a larger population. We stopped on a few of them to rest and to use the facilities. Soon after we were going up once again to takle the last pass en route to Manali, the Rohtang Pass, which lays at 3,985 meters above sea level. The green scenery continued all the way up. At the top, we were engulfed by a never-ending downpour of rain that made the road slippery and dangerous. I remember today how the road acted as a river at times and the water carved its way down the mountain. This road is famouse for the many land slides that destroy this road periodically. We asked the driver if the road would be open and he smiled and said maybe. Just a few weeks ago the Japanese on board had to walk for 2 hours since the road was all but impassable by a landslide that had not only taken the road with it, but also the lives of several Indians on board a supply truck. The driver was quick to point out not only the spot of this landslide, but also the very same bridge that had collapsed earlier this year. Had to keep thinking positive thoughts now, so I glansed out the window. It was a shame we couldn't see more of the spectacular landscape as the dense rain came thundering with a deep dense fog. We finally reached Manali that night. What a ride! Manali is a typical Indian town up in the hills. Although I never crossed a national border, it felt as though I had stepped out of another country and back into India, civilization (if you can call it that) at last. We walked down the main road of town as we all said our goodbyes to each other. I shared a room with Nicole on this modest hotel in the new part of town. Neither of us wanted to walk to the more sharming Old Town. We had enough of old towns...hehehe.

So, that's the end of Ladakh folks. The end of my days of stumbling upon Gompa after Gompa living in a world that Tibet hasn't seen since the Chinese took over their homeland. Although it is not Tibet, it is as close as anyone will ever get to see the real Tibet as it used to be in the good old days. Time changes, but at times it felt it had stood still in Ladakh.


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