Sunday, August 23, 2015

Ladakh Diaries - Day # 4

Since we had saw most of the things on the Leh - Uleytopko route the day before, I faced the prospect of being in my Leh hotel room by as early as noon. This was a problem, as I had just spent all that time acclitimising and I didn't want to be indoors so soon in the day. So over breakfast, I came up with this whacko idea: why don't I go river rafting?????

Even before I could finish my breakfast, I could feel the rush of adrenaline. But first, Alchi Monastery. This is- if I remember correctly- the oldest monastery in Ladakh and arguably one of the prettiest. It is the only monastery that is not situated on a hill top. The village is pretty and full of al-fresco restaurants. The main temple is a very run down building with paintings going back a thousand years. It's very delicately preserved. Alchi monastery is a must- see place in Ladakh and if you don't wish to stay in Uleytopko, you could also try and find a motel here in this village. Do spend a few hours, atleast at this place.

Next stop: river rafting. We drove a few kms ahead at the meeting point of Zanskar and Indus rivers. I was getting nervous. I don't know swimming and I had never done rafting before, so I had little idea of what to expect. But one step at a time. This is one of the most famous rafting spots in Ladakh. Rafting starts at about 10 am here. The best time to do rafting is first half of the day. By the time I reached, only two couples had come. We need a minimum five people atleast on a boat (excluding the  guide). One couple (the husband was an army man and so was stationed in Ladakh itself) backed out because the wife was scared and wasn't convinced. The other couple stayed put, though this wife too was scared. But they stayed put till the end and finally did rafting with me in my boat and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. We were also joined by a boisterous group of about 7-10 boys from Nashik, who kept the atmosphere lively by their constant jokes and chattering.

Once we enrolled, we were made to sign a declaration that we knew the risks (if any) we were taking. We were given body suits, helmets and life jackets. We were then taken in a car (in our own vehicles) to the starting point, 14 kms away, upstream. The Zanskar - Indus confluence was actually the end point of the rafting trip.  We were given safety instructions and very soon our rafting began.

There were about 7-8 rapids but the first two rapids and the last I think were the most ferocious. The guide was very good and apart from clear instructions, he guided us all very well. There were two boats in our group; I was in one of them obviously. For a moment in one of the rapids, we were caught in a whirlpool. Our boat was caught in a merry-go-round incessantly but our guide told us to just sit tight and do nothing. There isn't much to do when caught in a whirlpool, he says. Once the rapids were over and the water became calm, the guide gave us the ultimate shock: Now, jump in the water!!! I was like, are you mad? I don't know swimming. He reassured us and told us to just jump and hold the ropes that surround the boat. Our life jackets would also help. I hesitated and asked myself what should I do.

Well, I had never planned to do rafting before I went to ladakh, despite knowing of the possibility. But I did it, didn't I? I said to myself if I didn't jump in the water there and then, I would regret for the rest of my life. Especially, since the guide had said nothing would happen. So I did it. I caught the rope tightly and my guide nudged me in the water. At first, I was shocked. The water was icy cold and I could feel no support from the bottom. I felt like I was hanging for my life with that rope. But slowly, the more experienced guys and the guide on the boat encouraged me to stay calm and just start to float. I tell you, the experience was divine! I felt like I had conquered a big fear, though for those who do rafting or swimming regularly, this would be nothing. Still, for me, it was something very big. Then, the couple who were also first timers like me, also took the plunge. It was real fun.

Then, the guide pulled me up in the boat. And lo behold: I took the plunge again. Yes, yes second time. Man, this was awesome!!!

Before you know it, we reached the end point of our trip. This was an experience, I'll never forget. As I said in my previous post, God indeed has been very kind.

After the rafting, we made another surprise halt at the Gurudwara Shri Patthar Sahib, yet again. But this time we stopped by for their traditional lunch (langar). Since it was a Sunday and since we also had to have our lunch, we decided to eat the Gurudwara. The elaborate and lip-smacking vegetarian meal was prepared by the army people and they served us. It was very humbling experience of being served by the Indian army people. No wonder the Sunday langar (mass meal) I was told- and I could see- is a well attended one.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Ladakh diaries - Day #3

We hit the road on our third day. On the way to Uleytopko- a popular camping site on the banks of Indus river- we head past Magnetic Hill, Basgo Fort and Likir Monastery. Our first stop, though, is at Gurdwara Shri Patthar Sahib. This is a Sikh place of worship but a popular spot for all travellers passing by. The place is maintained by the Indian Army. The story goes that once upon a time Guru Nanak meditated here. One of his enemies threw a huge rock at him, but when the rock hit him, it made an impression of his posture on the rock. Nothing, of course, happened to Guru Nanak; he escaped un-hurt and the enemy got convinced by Guru Nanak's powers and became his disciple, thereafter. That rock- with Guru Nanak's impression- is still here at this Gurudwara.

The place of worship is very popular among tourists and army people alike. It is a revered and respected place; you could see the devotion. You could see rows and rows of plaques being engraved in the walls by various army people, army generals, and so on, thanking the Gurudwara for looking after them during their military postings in Kashmir, Kargil and such border areas.

After paying our respects to the Gurudwara, we continue and head past the Magnetic Hill. We didn't stop at Magnetic Hill because my guide tells me it's not as big as it is made out to be on the internet. Sure- he claims- there is some magnetic power in the area, but not enough to pull a car up without being driven, as many claim on the internet.  A few meters ahead is the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar rivers. The Indus river comes from Tibet and flows to Pakistan. The meeting point of both the rivers is visible as the colours of the two rivers are very different. The difference in colours is more pronounced in the month of September. This is also a popular river rafting point.

After a half hour's halt at magnificent Basgo Fort that is very delicately perched atop a hill, we stop by the Likir monastery. We were fortunate to go there when the prayers were on. The monasteries are very welcoming towards tourists so we sat there for a good half hour and shot videos of the prayer ceremonies. From elders to middle aged men to young kids, monks come in different age groups. It's a pleasant experience to attend a Buddhist prayer ceremony. Despite a large gathering of monks, chants, drums, conch shells, those long trumpets or Dungchen, there's a sense of calm that prevails upon us. About 45 minutes of prayers, listening to chants and paying our respects to a tall Buddha statue and admiring the house of the Dalai Lama (he has a house at most monasteries where he stays when he visits them, across Ladakh), we move on.

We arrive at our Ule Ethnic Camp at Alchi, Uleytopko. This is a lovely resort that offers tented accommodation, but with all modern facilities. It's an eco resort so usage of electricity is at its minimum. They use solar heaters for hot water. Food is organic and grown mostly in-house. Being in a Buddhist region- as is entire Ladakh- they serve only vegetarian fare. You do get non vegetarian in Ladakh, but many resorts in remote locations serve only vegetarian. But food is good and prepared with lots of love. The whole property is full of apple and apricot trees. And the location is so beautiful; the resort is in a valley surrounded by tall mountains. At the far end lies the edge of the valley where the Indus river flows in full force, below.

I drop my bags, have some light lunch, rest for an hour or two and head off to Lamayuru monastery; one of Ladakh's most breathtaking monasteries. Purely for its location. The drive up to Lamayuru- about 60 kms one way- is beautiful with moonscape landscape. The rock formations that you get to see on the way is amazing and I doubt you'll ever see anywhere else in India. The whole of Ladakhs mountain ranges is unique and gives you the impressions that the mountains come in various shades of blue, green, violet, pink, orange. But the landscape leading to Lamayuru is something else; something even more unique. The rock formations reminded me of Bryce Canyon of the US. We were fortunate that the new road was shut and the old road, instead, was open. The old road offers more panoramic views than the new road. Lots of hair pin bends, but thanks to God, I was good. God has been very generous. End of a very profitable day.

Ladakh diaries - Day #1 and 2


A very interesting and memorable trip starts off on a very boring note. The one thing we have to do after reaching Leh is to acclitimise to the high altitude. Since Leh town is situated at about 11,000 ft above sea level, the air is thin. And since most of us fly there directly from low levels, it's absolute;y necessary to spend day- preferably two like I did- by doing ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.

So my Day #1 went by just watching television and doing practically nothing else. I had forgotten my iPad, Kindle and headphones, so at the Mumbai airport I had to buy a new pair of headphones. That was my companion as well for the better part of the first two days at Leh.

On day#2, I went to Sanchi Stupa, a Buddhist monument perched high up on a hill that gives magnificent views of the Leh valley. That's the place to go if you want good sunset views at Leh. Photographers start lining up their cameras and tripods here, from 5:30 onwards. I found a good spot for my tripod and waited patiently. The magic in the sky starts at about 6:45 when the sun starts to go down slowly; the town becomes darker, skies become grey, snow-capped peaks starts to shine as the sun rays hit them and the sky's colour starts to change. At 7 pm, magic happens. Just about two peaks hidden behind the massive mountain ranges turn bring orange; while other peaks remain darkish brown. A few minutes later, the sky turns on its character. It's beautiful. All this happens in a matter of just few minutes, so you got to be alert. Meanwhile, the monument's lights get turned on and against the blue sky, a lit up Sanchi Stupa- at dusk- looks very photogenic.

The Grand Dragon hotel, Leh is a great hotel. Service is top notch and its location is also nice. Food is good, though I found their vegetarian better than their non vegetarian.

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