Friday, September 18, 2009

Leh, Ladakh

A little bit of wiki-knowledge here, for those who have basic doubts...OMGWTF Leh and Ladakh? Ladakh is a region situated in the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir, it consists two districts Kargil and Leh, the latter being bigger and touristy than the former. Ladakh region, known as Little Tibet, borders with both Pakistan and China. It's known for it's mountainous landscape and it's unique culture not to be found anywhere else in India. This discourse is a general write up about Leh city, not too much of travelogue kinds.

If I had to describe Leh in keywords, those would be - Mountains, Blue skies, Army, Stupas, Buddhism, Monasteries, Tibet, Art markets, Gompas, Indus and Capricious climate. The city of Leh has only two terrestrial approaches: Manli-Leh highway and Leh-Srinagar highway, both of which are seasonal, they're closed during winter. Leh is served by Kushok Bakula Rimpochee airport (code: IXL), located in the Spituk village on the outskirts. It's both a military as well as a commercial airport. Jet airways, Kingfisher and Indian Airlines have flights from New Delhi. Leh is literally cut off from the rest of the world, if the weather Gods decide to be violent.

The climate of Leh is as capricious as the wind, the day can get sunny and hot and in next few hours, you can be shivering in cold. The city looks extremely beautiful when it's sunny due to clear blue skies and artistic cloud formations, takes a gloomy outlook when it's cold and cloud covered. The locals have the habit of predicting the weather looking at the mountain tops. Looking at the cloud cover on Khardungla a certain guy told us, "It's snowing there and roads can be slippery. Don't go today." But then his words may be true for just a period of time and you repent for not going when you see Khardungla side clearing within next couple of hours. Since the Leh city lies at a very high altitude (3500m), the clouds are relatively closer to the earth and they cast shadows on mountains which forms great texture for the photographs. Also beware of altitude sickness due to oxygen depletion, avoid unnecessary physical strains.

The life in Leh is extremely tough, especially in winters. Water could not be supplied in pipes due to ruthless sub-zero temperatures during winter, so you happen to see people with a queue of metal cans anxiously waiting for the water supply tankers which suck up water from Indus and supply to homes. I still remember a bent and broken Buddhist lady with her cans, asking me when we stopped for photographing Thiksey Gompa, if we saw the water tanker coming. And in winter I was told that, people have to hammer-and-chisel out chunks of ice and heat it to get water. Hibernation is the only occupation of the locals during winter.

It's not just the water, but at times, even food could be sparse. If the winter stock gets exhausted and the weather is bad, no supplies can reach Leh by no means. Sometimes the oil may get over and other sugar, it seems, once there was no salt in the entire city. No green vegetables could be found during winter, potatoes and meat are the main food for most part of the year.

Speaking of the food, the cuisine of Leh resembles that of Tibetian. Momos - steamed dumplings and Thukpa - noodle soup, are the prominent dishes. I just fell in love with Thukpas, the mutton one I had at Darcha and also the egg-vegetables noodle soup at the Tibetian restaurant. I highly recommend this good old Tibetian restaurant, just down the crowded ATM in downtown. It's run by a warm and friendly Tibetian couple. Must try at this place: Egg-vegetables thukpa, potatoes with garlic and vegetables, ginger-lemon tea. We were delighted to have something very different from the same sickening oily sholay kebab, tasteless baby corn manchurian, customized hunan chicken or loathing paneer chilly.

Leh city's public transportation is not something remarkable. Buses are infrequent and there are no affordable taxi system. You don't see the autorickshaws, which are so ubiquitous in the rest of India. Taxis are mostly hired for visiting distant places and hence they quote exorbitant prices for reaching places within the city. The downtown area is really small and could be easily explored by feet. The main market area has shops selling out artwork, pashminas, cashmere goods and other sundries. There are Buddisht ladies peddling fresh radishes, carrots, peas, apples and apricots for dirt cheap prices. One fact that I was impressed about the city was that nowhere you get plastic carrybags, it's banned in Leh. I hope someday they ban plastic bottles too. There are Tibetian markets selling mostly Buddhist artwork like resonating bowl, prayer wheels, statues of Buddha's incarnations, precious stones etc. Very close to main market is the taxi stand, where one could book taxis to Srinagar, Jammu or Manali.

Overlooking proudly over the downtown in the Leh palace atop a mountain, a gigantic palace modelled on it's Lhasa counterpart. Shanti Stupa, is definitely the most visited landmark in Leh city. It's a gleaming white Stupa designed by a Japenese architect, standing atop a mountain from which the panorama of the Leh city is breathtaking. The ambience around the Stupa is very tranquil and placid, which was very welcoming for me. The best photograph that could be composed from Shanti Stupa is a distant monastery in the mild yellow evening light wherein the backdrop would be auriferous mountains and blue skies.

Other places of interest around Leh are Shey Palace and Thiksey Gompa, both of which we didn't enter though. Both of them are located on Leh-Manali highway, Shey palace is located high up the mountain right along the highway while Thiksey is a little off the highway. Near Shey palace is the fish pond, where one could find lots of ducks basking on small grass isles. Thiksey Gompa is an extremely big monastery, we went all the way up to the entrance, took photographs and left. The best part of Leh is probably the monasteries, which are numerous and each of them is awe-inspiring.

To our luck, Ladakh International festival was on when we were there and one cold evening we happened to goto Sindhu Ghat on the outskirts of Leh. The audience were mainly Ladakhis and foreginers, it was cold and the winds made it worse. After a long introduction, the dance started. It was a traditional Ladakhi dance with colourful costume and local musicians drumming the hide and blowing the trumpets. We watched three different dances before we left. Photographing was difficult for I had f4 lenses and didn't have an external flash.

Most travellers use Leh as their base location for exploring Ladakh region. From Leh they rent out taxis, motorcycles or bicycles or even trek to nearby (not so nearby though) places like Lamayuru, PangongTso lake, Khardung La pass, Nubra Valley, Marismek La, Tso Moriri lake, Zanskar and a bunch of places. For those who love nature in it's very raw form, unexploited and untouched by humans to a great extent, Ladakh is the place to be.

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