Monday, August 01, 2011

Cold Comfort

Soft adventure in Ladakh may be harder than it sounds

Outlook Traveler - Aug. 1, 2011

From the high ridge overlooking Khaltse, a tiny village some 100 kilometres from Leh along the road to Kargil, I stopped in the shadow of a towering boulder to gaze down on the peaceful Lamayuru monastery, set amid the sweeping, khaki-coloured rocks known as ‘the moonland’. Panting in the thin air, with sweat dripping down my back despite Ladakh’s dry climate, I let all thoughts of Delhi and deadlines drift away, listening to nothing but the sound of the wind. This is what I’m here for, I thought. Solitude. Silence. Peace. All of which are growing ever harder to find, even in the remote fastness of Ladakh.

On a last-minute, five-day blitztour, this day hike from Khaltse to Wanla was the closest I’d come to the big empty desert, and I felt my chest swell with desire for more. I’d hoped to tap the new market for so-called ‘soft adventure’ to knock the carbon monoxide out of my lungs and wipe the monsoon grease off my skin. But I’d had to scale back my plans when I landed in Leh, and the thin air reminded me that those lungs I was so keen to overhaul had aged ten years since my first visit. It would take at least two days for my body to adjust to the height, warned Milind Bhide, the 45-year-old owner of Countryside Adventure Holidays, who’d come from Mumbai to shepherd me through the trip. No matter how fit you think you are, 3,500 metres in altitude will kick your ass—even on a supposed ‘comfort trek’.

“Altitude-wise, all the treks in Ladakh are moderate to tough,” Milind told me on my first day in Leh. You don’t need to be an elite marathoner to survive a walk in the mountains, of course. But working out in the gym for 45 minutes three or four times a week was no preparation at all for four hours of hiking to 4,000 metres or more—the minimum standard set for most comfort treks. Without time to acclimatise, it would be better for me to travel by jeep. However, Milind assured me that we could still map out an itinerary that would get us off the well-worn path and incorporate a little adventure.

That was welcome news.

Since I first came here in 2002, the number of travellers visiting Ladakh has grown dramatically—from around 10,000 to some 80,000 tourists a year—and I noted the signs of the boom everywhere. Leh’s bustling market, once the sole purview of Israeli hippies and gap-year backpackers, now teemed with Indian travellers on package tours. Checklist sites like the Shey Palace and Thiksey monastery, which I first visited virtually alone ten years ago, were now surrounded by Sumos and Safaris and crawling with camera-toting tourists. Don’t get me wrong. Ladakh is still amazing. But the message is clear. Go now, before the Leh Bazaar gets any closer to the Shimla mall, and be prepared for long drives and a little sweat if you want to find your own piece of emptiness.

On our first ‘real’ day of travelling, for instance—not counting a day spent acclimatising in Leh—photographer Parth Sanyal and I woke at 5am to make the long drive up to the region’s second highest pass, on the road to Manali, before the light became too harsh for the camera. And by the time we returned—visiting the monasteries at Hemis, Stukla and Thiksey on the way back to the small village of Sabu, a few kilometres from Leh—it was nearly eight o’clock. The next day we were up at six for a day hike from Sabu to Leh and then a six-hour road journey over the world’s highest motorable pass at Khardung La and down into the Nubra Valley to see the sweeping sand dunes and two-humped Bactrian camels before sunset. And again the next morning we were up at dawn for the drive back to Khardung La, cycling down the winding road to Leh, and another five hours by jeep to the trekking hub of Temisgam.
To make sure we avoided the tourist conveyor belt, Milind had thoughtfully arranged for us to stay in quaint, tranquil surroundings each night. In Sabu, for instance, we stayed in the same cosy tents enjoyed by Aamir Khan and the prime minister’s daughter (on separate occasions!) at the lovely Ladakh Sarai. Similarly, in Nubra, we slept between a bubbling brook and a vegetable garden at the Organic Retreat, while in Temisgam we enjoyed some of the best vegetarian food I have ever eaten, at the Namra Hotel—a little Tibetan-style gem built to match the monastery on the hill above.

Meanwhile, the long journeys were as exhilarating as they were exhausting. Ladakh’s forbidding landscape is not for everyone—after four or five beers, a Slovenian friend cursed it as nothing but brown, brown, brown—but for me this is only the difference between what eighteenth-century climbers like John Dennis and Joseph Addison described as the beautiful and the sublime. The stark contrast of khaki and copper rocks jutting into the brilliant, cloudless sky sings like the call to adventure. Anything but monotonous, in a certain slant of light the rocks take on infinite patterns: the branches of a tree seeming to grow up the side of the mountain, the stretched faces of the moai statues of Easter Island, the spires of a thousand cathedrals. And there is a primal, muscular majesty—something more than the inviting beauty of a pretty meadow—in the narrow palette of slate, khaki, copper, black and gold.

Amid this bleak landscape, the tiny villages, each with its own monastery, are teardrops of green nestled in the stone. On our first long drive, we stopped at a solitary farmhouse beside the Manali-Leh highway, where mustard was flowering yellow in the fields, and watched a young Ladakhi woman working in the field with a baby strapped to her back. I am not a religious person. But with the silver-leaved poplar trees swinging in the wind, and a mountain stream tumbling down the rocks, it was easy to fantasise a life for myself here of tranquil self-reflection (however out of character).

I ordinarily have no time for cathedrals, temples and mosques. But in Ladakh I had no complaints about visiting two or three monasteries a day—from the bustling throng of Hemis, where a special prayer ceremony had drawn hundreds of locals in yak-wool robes and turquoise jewellery, to the white wedding cake of Thiksey, reminiscent of Lhasa’s Potala Palace in design. Perhaps it’s the contrast between these silent, idyllic refuges and the bleak proof of the earth’s tremendous power that surrounds them; nowhere is the upheaval from the crash of continents more plainly seen.

At no time was the evidence of this power more dramatic than on my first brief day hike from Sabu to Leh. From the small stupa overlooking the village, we followed the destructive path of the floodwaters from last year’s cloudburst into the mountains, where the torrent had carved a deep ravine, sending great boulders spinning down into Sabu, washing out a bridge and destroying the homes of several families. The flash flood had left behind a dry riverbed as flat and smooth as a highway, but even here the altitude starved my lungs of air and Parth—a two-pack-a-day smoker who prefers paranthas to press-ups—turned back before we’d even started uphill.

He didn’t know what he’d be missing. Although we were only a short distance from Leh, after a few minutes of huffing and puffing, Milind and I might as well have been hundreds of miles from the nearest plug point. As we walked, my body seemed to adjust to the altitude a little more with each step, so that when we crested the last jagged ridge and looked down on the Leh Palace and the dotted green of guesthouse kitchen gardens, I felt ready for four hours and 4,000 metres.

Sadly, that was not to be. A five-day trip to Ladakh requires tough choices, and well-rested Parth and I had many hours ahead of us.

Dropping Milind at his office in Leh, we barrelled on for Khardung La, where I put some of my newfound energy to work scrambling up the rocks above the tiny monastery for a better view of the glacier, using the prayer flags as guy-wires. And then we plunged down into the Nubra Valley, where the terrain changed abruptly from jagged, slate-coloured rock to sweeping sand dunes and blue-green seabuckthorn bushes along the Shyok river. A few miles outside Diskit, the tiny village that is the centre of activity in the valley, the river swelled to a wide, shallow lake in a broad alpine meadow. A pony herd was grazing in the wet, marshy grass, and the still, clear water reflected the snowcapped peaks in the distance like a mirror.

With the sun setting, we roared through Diskit to Hunder, where we joined the horde of Indian and foreign tourists queuing up for rides on the region’s famous Bactrian camels (now critically endangered in the wild). Though I would probably give the camel rides a pass next time, after a day in the mountains, alone on the winding road, the commonplace hilarity of tourists being tourists was unexpectedly welcome. A busload of Ladakhi kids—in the valley for a school camping trip—sat patiently on the sand, laughing when a shaggy camel pissed a steaming protest against the working conditions on an American girl’s sandals, and smiling at a Punjabi woman’s startled screams when her camel lurched see-saw fashion to its feet. Finally, when everybody else had sloped off to their guesthouses, the camel pullers announced that it was time for the school kids to ride, and the 150-bucks-for-ten-minutes tourist trap was instantly transformed by their unfiltered enthusiasm.

From that point on, the trip just kept getting better.

The next day, Milind met us at Khardung La with a pickup truckload of mountain bikes, so that we could cycle down the winding road from the pass into Leh, a trip of about forty kilometres. Parth remained steadfast in his no exercise policy, this time on professional grounds (he had to take our snaps). But Milind had been selling the ‘ride up, cycle down’ package for some time without having tried it himself and one of his friends, Kim, was in town from Manali, so he’d decided to give it a whirl.

Unlike trekking, which requires youth or fitness, no matter how easy the route, I soon discovered that the only requirement for downhill cycling is a bit of nerve. The first few kilometres down are rutted with potholes, so you have to keep an eye on your speed to avoid taking a tumble, but the only muscles you need are the ones that squeeze the handbrakes. Really. If I’d wanted to, I could have made it all the way to Leh without cranking the pedals once, but around halfway to the checkpoint at South Pullu, when the road turned to pristine blacktop, I couldn’t resist amping it up a bit. In no time, I was clocking sixty kilometres an hour, my full concentration focused on squeezing those brakes in time to lean into the next hairpin. I don’t think you could find a speed freak anywhere who’d object to this sort of soft adventure.

The highlight of the journey, though, was still to come. After forging on toward Kargil, past where the Indus meets the Zanskar river, we spent the night in the lovely, remote town of Temisgam and set off for Lamayuru at first light. Though we didn’t have to sweat to get there, this area was devoid of tourists, apart from a handful of foreigners making the five-day trek from Khaltse to Chilling, because all the Indian groups follow the Three Idiots route to Pangong lake, in the opposite direction. We wound up the jalebi road to Lamayuru without seeing a soul. In the distance, the monastery looked like a vision set amid a fantasy landscape—waves of white sand that look like cake frosting turned with a knife. No one else was visiting the monastery, either, and only when Milind and I took our first rest break on our short hike from Khaltse to Wanla did we run across any other tourists: a father and son from Britain trekking behind two heavily laden donkeys.

It wasn’t exactly an expedition, I reflected as I looked down on the moonland below. But unlike most adventures—chiefly enjoyed in retrospect, according to the ever so wise Bilbo Baggins—I found myself wishing it could go on just one more day.