Saturday, June 9, 2007

It's a beautiful Leh! (Rewritten)

Note: After typing this all out the first time, Blogger decided to eat my entry. I'm sure that there is some Buddhist message about patience I should have learned. But sadly, instead, I just threw a massive fit and Sarah had to deal wth me moping for the next couple hours. For that, I apologize to her. And, now that I've had a couple days to practice deep-breathing, I shall attempt to rewrite it. So, here goes nothing...

After five days in Srinagar, we were beginning to feel a little trapped. So, we were both elated to leave the houseboat behind and get on the road again. So, we boarded a bus to make a two day trip from Srinagar to Leh, approximately 450 km to the East, through the Western reaches of the Himalayas.

As our bus left Srinagar and began its climb into the mountains, we were pleased to find ourselves surrounded by an almost Bavarian landscape. Small villages in lush green valleys that rose to distant snow-covered peaks.

What the mountains looked like on our first day.

The first thing we noticed about the Himalayas and other mountain ranges in this region is that they are BIG. I mean, like, omigawd big. In my life I've seen a number of noteworthy mountain ranges (Washington's Cascades, the mountains of southwest Alaska, some of the Rockies, the French Alps, the Andes, etc), but none of them even begin to hold a candle to what we've seen here. These are the types of mountains that -if they were hollow- you could easily fit other mountain ranges inside and still have room to spare.

The second thing we noticed is that the "roads" in this region are... well.... unique. For the most part, they are all one lane, and you are sharing them with oncoming traffic which usually takes the form of brightly colored shipping or delivery trucks and other buses. This alone wouldn't be so bad, except that generally these roads are also perched high on top of sheer cliffs, with no guard rail. In addition, the roads generally aren't paved, but the Border Road Organization (or, humorously acronymed "BRO") is fond of putting up signs touting its own greatness or just providing road safety advice in a broken English that we've taken to calling "drunken Confucious" (for example: "Be Mr. Late, Not Late Mr." or "Drive with Safety, so you can have "safe tea" at home." ...These are some of the more coherent. As Sarah points out, the really confused ones are too confusing to even remember). Finally, rarely do the roads go straight from Point A to Point B; this is the land of switchbacks.

An average road in this region.

In addition, since the road travels along India's borders with Pakistan and China, there is a definite police and military presence. At about a half dozen different locations along our two day journey, the bus would stop at an army check point. All the tourist would unload (there were three other couples), and we'd have to show our passports before climbing back onto the bus. Meanwhile, the Indian's on our bus had to sit and wait, twiddling their thumbs.

Thus, travelling 450 km (about 280 mlies) takes two days.

At the end of our first day, we arrived in Kargil, a small, dusty, Muslim town which doesn't offer much except overpriced, shabby rooms and food to tourist who are trapped there. Our bus arrived at about 6pm, which gave us just enough time to find a room, eat dinner that go to sleep early... since the next morning we had to be back on the bus at 4am.

The second day of the trip, the mountains become increasing dry and deserted. And the culture shfted from Shiite Muslim dominated to Tibetan Buddhists. The number of mosques diminished and were replaced by Buddhist monestaries and temples (or Gompas).

Th mountains on the second day. It's worth clicking on and enlarging this photo to see the amazing monestary in the valley.

Arriving in Leh, we caught a bus to our hotel and checked in. At first, we were frustrated with our tour agency for booking us into somewhere so far from downtown (about a ten minute walk). But, we had to admit that the view was nice. In fact, its probably the best view we've had so far from a hotel room. Lets drool over it for a bit...

After checking in and cleaning up, we went and met Richardo and Silpie for dinner. Richardo and Silpie are a couple from Barcelona (he's actually Columbian and she's actually German) that were also on our bus. They were just beginning their own year long Round the World trip and were entertaining and easy to talk to. We all hit it off, and made plans to have dinner the next night; we also invited them to get in touch with us when their trip took them up the American West Coast.

The next morning, Sarah and I figured the first thing we needed to do was check out the Leh Palace. The nine storey palace sits atop the hill overlooking the town of Leh and is often called "Little Potala" because of its similarity to the famous Tibetan Palace. After getting lost a couple times making our way through "old town" we finally arrived at the Palace. Unfortunately, the insides are still being restored, so there isn't much to see except the fasincating prayer room, worn frescos and darkened hallways. The view of downtown was stunning though.

The moody prayer room that was watched over by a young, mute monk.

Sarah on a palace terrace overlooking the town.

Afterward, we continued our hike up the hill (you'll see a reoccuring trend as this entry goes on), to a gonpa on the top of the hill. The gonpa itself was closed, but a monk that was hanging around outside let us into one room where we could see a number of statues. Interestingly, the faces were covered on all the statues and would only be shown once a year. Afterward, we took a seat in some shade, enjoying the view, drinking some water and chatting with a pair of tourists who had also made the hike.

Me hiking up to the gonpa above the palace. Ifg you look closely, you can see the steep winding path behind me.

Then we made our way down another path and into another part of town. While the main part of town was a fairly crowded warren of streets, this outlying neighborhood was more rural. Sarah and I made our way down the country lanes to Sankar Gonpa, a monastery on the outskirts of town. The Sankar Gonpa is known for its depiction of one of the Buddhist Goddesses, with her 1,000 heads, 1,000 arms and 1,000 feet. Let's count them all...

The thing on her head that looks like a conical hat is actually 1,000 heads. While her 1,000 arms spread out behind her like a disk.

After that, we made our way back to the hotel to clean up and rest before going to catch a documentary at the local Women's Center. I know that Sarah wants to talk about this in more detail, so I'll leave it to her, but I will say that it provided us with a much better context for understanding Leh and the whole Ladakh region. After that, it was dinner with Richardo and Silpie again.

On our second day in town, we made our way to another Gonpa on top of a hill. This Gonpa was located directly in the center of town, which made it even more bizaare that it recieved no mention in our Lonely Planet. But, climing to the top of the small hill, it gave us a dramatic view of downtown and the palace.

The view from the Unknown Gonpa.

Tibetan Prayer Flags - its amazing how something that looks so trite hanging from a college students dorm wall can look so cool in the right context.

After that, we did a little window shopping in the downtown. Leh has a number of Tibetan craft markets, so we were able to spend a couple hours wandering through those and checking out the crafts spread out on their tables. In the end, Sarah picked up a Tibetan turquoise bracelet and a long-sleeved shirt (she was concerned that most of her shirts were too revealing by the Ladakh standards.

Then, at sunset, we climbed a final hill to the Shanti Stupa. Like the palace and gonpa, this stupa also rovided another stunning view of downtown... but this time it made us really work for it.... so many stairs.

The hike up to Shanti Stupa.

Sadly, the next day or two would be overshadowed by our arguments with the travel agency. Leh, which has been our favorite stop in India (and one of my favorites or the trip in total), became a bit of a Hotel California where "you can check-in, but you can never leave." For the next 36 hours, or so, I spent time of the phone arguing with our agents, who seemed incapable of securing us a ride to Manali. Personally, I would have been happy to spend the extra time in Leh, but we were never able to enjoy our additional time since we were essentally waiting for a cab the whole time (for example, Richardo and Silpie invited us to go check out some monestaries outside of town, but we passed on their offer, since we thought we were leaving).

Still, I try to not let that overshadow the great first couple days. Leh has definitely been one of the pleasant surprises of the trip. I mean, we still look pretty happy, don't we?

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