Monday, October 20, 2008

Laid low

Back in Leh we can refuel on good Indian and Tibetan food and fill any cracks with cake. The days are definitely colder now and we both have heavy colds. If the sun is not out it's not so pleasant. The town is preparing for winter. The trekking agencies are closing, people heading to Goa (where else?) for work. It dawns on me that for the last week I've only removed my hat to shower. Our second trek stalls on the first day. There are inauspicious signs from the start. Snow-filled clouds and sharp winds are putting us off. It is Gayle's turn to slip on a river crossing - soaked from her boots to her waist. Finally we turn around. It's just too cold and we can't face 15 hours at a time in our tent. And as I keep reminding Gayle, my sleeping bag just doesn't have all the feathers it used to. The lure of Leh and its creature comforts draws us back. One afternoon a monstrous noise accompanied by drumming alerts us to a wedding. There's a huge marquee set up in a yard filled with locals, many in traditional clothes, sipping tea, adding money to a pile in a suitcase (receipt issued), and sitting in apparent oblivion to the squealing cacophony of the house band, which consists of three drummers and two men playing snake-charmers pipes. Judging by the sound, they are obviously all sober. On Friday afternoon we spot a team of polo players riding through town, so we follow them to the polo ground - a rectangle of flat sand with some concrete stands to sit and watch. There's a crowd of disinterested and bored men, a few women wrapped up against the cold. A band, possibly the same one as the wedding of the day before, breaks out into a jaunty riff now and again, for no apparent reason. An announcer commentates on all the action over the tannoy, sometimes breaking into English, but totally incomprehensible nonetheless. The polo players seem to be riding very small ponies, and the teams are obviously mismatched - one side looking very smart and fully-equipped, the others like they've just been plucked out of the crowd. It is indeed a one-sided affair - the snooties thrash the scruffs and the crowd only cheer once, with irony, when the scruffs finally get a goal.
We visit a couple more gompas, one at the village of Spituk, down by the banks of the Indus. The men are ploughing their fields with dzo, a crossbreed of cow and yak. As they pace back and forth across the earth their voices ring out in song. We seem to be lost in time, witness to an ancient autumnal ritual. By the river there are three men digging a trench. Well, one man is digging, as they only have one spade between them, but a second is helping by tugging on a rope ingeniously attached to the spade. The third is sat on his haunches watching. The next day we return to the polo ground in the expectation of seeing an exhibition of folkloric dancing, so I am delighted instead to find a football match about to begin. Spituk United are playing a cup match. The crowd are once again hardly enlivened by the spectacle, but there seems to be some support for the local team, who run out 3 - nil winners after a dodgy start. No-one shows any problem with playing at 3500 metres above sea-level. I get out of breath climbing up onto the stands.
We know it's time to leave when the laundry freezes on the balcony overnight and our favourite restaurant is talking about closing up and going to guess where. Yep, Goa.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Getting high

Feeling acclimatised we venture off for a five-day trek, morale boosted by a rucksack full of Cadbury's Dairy Milk and a huge block of Dutch Gouda (made by a real Dutchman in Srinagar). We begin at the inevitable gompa, in Lamayuru, and trek over three passes to reach the Zanskar river. Once we leave the newly-built roads, we get a taste of traditional Ladakhi village life. The flat-roofed houses are topped with bundles of recently-harvested hay. The locals sing as they winnow their barley, tossing the stalks into the air with pitchforks. The grains are toasted and then ground into flour and often eaten simply mixed with water. We camp the first night beside a tiny watermill, fed by a channel run off the river. The next day I put my feet twice into the same river at crossings - probably the result of too many chicken masalas in Leh.
The walking isn't so strenuous until we reach the big passes. We find ourselves walking the same stages as a young Belgian couple, Ellen and Pieter, and a German group with ponies, cooks, and guides. Thankfully we can camp well apart. The early days of sunshine give way to mixed weather, including light snow a couple of nights, and it's fre
ezing at night. Pieter and Ellen show us how to make a campfire - our first - and we burn about half a ton of dead wood for the luxury of continuous pots of hot tea. The fresh snow on the mountain tops make the views from the high passes rather special. It's a great feeling to be sat up high after an hour of huffing and puffing uphill and get these huge panoramic vistas. We are enjoying it so much that we plan another trek before we finish the first.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Gompa madness

Leh was the capital of the Buddhist kingdom of Ladakh before it was annexed by Kashmiri kings in the 1840's. The region is littered with ruined forts and gompas (monasteries), some over 1,000 years old and the people remain predominantly Buddhist. Leh itself is a quiet little town - at least it is now at the end of the season. As we walk around there are plenty of shops, restaurants and hotels that have already closed for the year. Winding lanes take us away from the centre and past dry-stone walls, traditional houses and dry fields already harvested. The leaves on the plane and willow trees are golden, starting to fall, and the huge sky is a vivid blue. It's warm in the sunshine and a bit nippy in the evenings - perfect for us.
The town sits at 3500 metres so we are feeling the altitude a bit and spend a few days visiting gompas and old palaces in the Indus valley. It's not long before we're in a stupa stupour. The monasteries are invariably perched defensively on a hill with long flights of stairs winding between the monks' houses before you finally reach the temple at the top. We are rewarded with good views but sometimes locked doors too!
There are plenty of monks and quite a few nuns on the streets of Leh. Maroon robes are offset with bright orange tank tops, red woollen beanies, matching fleeces, and occasionally wrap-around sunglasses or fake red Crocs. At the gompas themselves there seems to be little activity outside of prayer times. Young novices mucking about. An old monk repeating his mantra and clicking his rosary. Some local villagers doing repairs. Sleeping dogs. The silence would drive me nuts.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

It isn't a rally

We leave James hard at work and take a nightbus to Manali, another touristy town, set in a wide green and forrested valley. The area is famous for marijuana and stoned Israelis but the peak season is over, the local cafes with Bob Marley or Bob Dylan murals are closing up, the shops selling the usual hippy clothes and their staff are following the tourists to Goa. We are still waiting to see if the roads north will be cleared of snow and wander around visiting the local Buddhist and Hindu temples, meeting Indian tourists doing the same thing. Manali, like some other towns, has banned the use of polythene bags, so all the shops use paper bags. There are also press adverts informing everyone of the ban on public smoking that comes into force in India at the beginning of October. The times, as one Bob says, they are a-changing.
The road to Leh is re-opened and we take an empty minibus on the 17-hour journey across the Himalaya to Ladakh. We set off at 2am and cross the first high pass in the dark. The road is a crumbling mess and it's impossible to doze. We rattle past the ghosts of Tata trucks parked up along the roadside and chase jeeps taking the same route. After a couple of 'tea and pee' stops we start the climb to the second pass at 4950 metres. We are soon zig-zagging up a road walled with fresh snow. The sun has risen and the surrounding whiteness is dazzling. Descending the other side, the landscape has become barren mountain scenery - a wild desolate place with snowy peaks, shallow winding rivers and endless shades of brown. There are roadwork teams of southern Indians labouring to improve the worn-out road - members of the Border Roads Organisation. Their road safety signs keep us entertained:
after drinking whisky driving is risky
driving faster causes disaster

More hairpin bends as we ascend to 5060 metres before leaving the tarmac and crossing a sandy plateau. There are occasional herds of sheep and the tents of nomads but it's imossible to imagine how either survive in this high-altitude wilderness. We bounce and buck over a fractured road and crawl up to the final pass at 5300 metres just as the sun is starting to dip. In twilight we wind down into a gorge of vivid red rock before finally emerging into the Indus valley. The road follows the river to Leh and we are entreated by further signs:
it isn't a rally enjoy the valley
safety on the road means safe tea at home

Our driver drops us off, looking none the worse for wear after a gruelling drive and we are welcomed with a hot flask of safe tea at our guesthouse.