17-Aug-2008

Ladakh - Lamayaru, Alchi, Magnetic Hill..The End


Lamayaru is popularly called the Moonland. This is because of the fairly strange appearance of the rocks there. After three hours of travelling by the Indus, and eating fresh juicy apricots, we began to see the difference in the terrain. The rocks were yellowish and looked quite porous (see pic). Whether they resembled the surface of the moon, was a difficult thing to figure out given that none of us had had a chance to go there personally.

The monastery looked nice and again we wandered around blankly trying to make sense of the deities.

The sun got a little higher as we moved on to Alchi and reached just before lunchtime. Alchi’s monastery turned out to be a pleasant surprise. It is an excellent example of a Buddhist temple built under the Kashmiri influence. The people in various murals did not have slanting eyes but the full, popping-out Indian version. There was a small picture of the king and queen who had funded the construction. There was a lovely statue of the four Buddha Dhyanis, each facing a different direction and painted in a different colour. The murals, statues, architecture, all of them seemed considerably richer than that of any other monastery. We sat and just breathed in the air for a while.

Lunch involved eating well and watching a gang of five young, Punjabi couples who sat around a table and had nothing to say to each other. Eventually one of them played music from his mobile, filling up the silence at their table and breaking the harmony in others. We quickly got out of our stupor and pushed off to our next destination.

Magnetic Hill is a bit of a science project. For some strange reason, cars on that road can move uphill when the ignition is off. We reached the spot and watched with wonder as Stanzin switched off the engine, put the car on neutral and the car began to move uphill. There is a scientific explanation attached to this but I must say the whole uphill movement seemed pretty convincing.


The spots for the day had been done quite early and there was enough time to check out a local museum called Hall of Fame. It had been funded by the airforce and contained a lot of information on the Kargill war and the Siachen glacier. In addition, it also had a general overview of local culture, fauna and flora. Despite being a time filler for us, it turned out to be a very worthwhile visit. Especially for people like me who had clearly skipped out on a lot of history. Catching up on how India began to fight the world’s highest battle at Siachen was in equal parts fascinating and depressing.

Our last day had zoomed by and in no time we were having one last Ladakh meal at Pumpernickel. The next morning we would all be off to our respective homes. Most of which involved landing bang in the midst of civilisation, noise and pollution.

And would be left with memories of random things. Like the day Sandeep emerged into the bright sunlight from his tent in Tso Moriri to walk towards the washrooms. And announced to the world ‘Gosh, I never thought I would go to the loo someday with my sun glasses’

As usual, we had laughed ourselves silly. And would probably continue to do so for a few days to come.

14-Aug-2008

Ladakh - Hundar to Leh

Another early start for the day. We woke up, packed, drank our tea and paced around waiting for Stanzin to show up. Meanwhile, the guruji of the camp was awake. What is it about foreigners, especially women, who can get conned by any Indian guy in traditional clothes and with longish, graying hair? The previous evening, at dinner, we had noticed him sitting at a table with three wide-eyed women. I overhead some bits of the conversation. The stressed out Handyman had already begun to draw up his schedule for the morning. He checked with the guruji and the foreigners what time they would like their tea to be served. Guruji had assumed a wise smile and intoned ‘What do we know what time we would like the tea’. In a voice reserved to say things like ‘What time do we know when death approaches’. Surely, morning tea requires a little less pomp and more planning.

Waving bye to Nubra felt a little sad. I had really enjoyed everything – the walk, the monastery, the stay and the overall relaxed pace of that segment. The journey back did not take too long. Khardung La was a brief halt. Everyone tried walking up to a small temple there and felt completely out of breath.

We were well in time for lunch at Pumpernickel. Contrary to what we had been told earlier, Pumpernickel had existed and we had found out serendipitously. There was no electricity as we sat in the dim room, lit by small bulbs run on a generator. The menu, however, had me salivating. Between us, we ordered enough continental and Middle Eastern food to qualify as foreigners. Silence followed, as we dug into the Schnitzels and Shakshukas.

Sandeep had decided to watch a documentary on Ladakh at the Women’s Alliance Centre. I decided to go along. It turned out to be a dated one, made in the early 90s, urging Ladakhis to be mindful of losing their precious culture to the western influence. A viewpoint, that I have always found slightly unrealistic and biased. How do you convince a poor man wanting to move beyond butter tea that aspiring for a Mars bar will prove to be worthless in the long run?

We walked back to our guesthouse, debating on this topic and taking in the view in those parts of town. Evening brought more walking, as we explored some more streets. Dinner was to be at Pumpernickel again, but in a spirit of inquiry, I convinced everyone to try out the much recommended Ibex restaurant. A disasterous choice as it turned out. Oh well, one lives and learns.

13-Aug-2008

Ladakh - Nubra Valley (Diskit, Hundar)


We were supposed to begin the day with a 7 km trek through the desert. It turned out to be a 6 km walk on the village road, with one final sandy bit. We had been warned the ‘trek’ would take atleast a couple of hours. We finished it in slightly over an hour, without any breaks. Stanzin smiled sheepishly and told us that Indians normally took a long time to walk this stretch and stopped for breaks every ten minutes. The destination point had been the famous Bactrian camel ride near Hundar. We were very early and after running up and down the sand dunes for a while, finally decided to get the camel owners to get moving on the ride bit.

Bactrian camels, unlike normal camels, are double humped. I watched with wonder as they appeared into view. Unlike the lovely photographs I had seen before, their humps were kind of sagging over their backs. Besides, they all looked terribly tall. Mine looked terribly annoyed. After I got onto it, he was persuaded to stand up. Then he looked around and decided to sit down again. One more round of persuasion later, he stood up again. Each time, he decided to do his squats, I lurched, my heart lurched, the world around me lurched. Throughout the fifteen minute ride, I sat clutching the rug tied to the camel with my sweaty palms. Many photos later, we were done.

After checking out of the Olathang Hotel where we were staying and grabbing a bite, we decided to visit the Diskit monastery. Sachin and Sandeep, enthused by the morning walk, decided to walk it up. The rest of us, wisely refrained from exercising our limbs in a post lunch stupor and took the vehicle. At any rate, it was not long before the duo joined us at the monastery.

Diskit’s monastery is old and situated on a picturesque mountaintop. It has plenty of staircases leading to various hidden corners and locked doors. Also, being in the less frequented Nubra, it did not have quite as many visitors. We decided to park ourselves in one of those stairways that wrapped itself around the monastery. The view was stunning. The only sounds were that of a river flowing nearby and Sandeep trying various threads of conversation as the rest of us sat in silence.

After some general quiet and peace, it was time to move on to Hundar, our next stop. The guesthouse here was not so fancy. But it was by far the best in terms of a view. Our rooms were located in a lovely cottage with a lovelier porch. The porch faced the mountainside and we could see an old monastery perched somewhere in the middle. When we walked about town in the evening, we realized that this old monastery was not frequented often and had a narrow, long and steep walk up to it. We stuck to the relatively popular and comfortably accessible town monastery.

Aswath, (winner of the moniker ‘go-getter Nirvana seeker’), plopped down to meditate. Everyone tried it for a while. Boy! sitting on crossed legs with a straight back is quite torturous. Give me stretching my legs by walking any day and a while later I decided to give up on religion and begin exploring nature alongside the nearby river. Everyone joined and all of us chose our spots and did our own thing. As I sang corny old 90s Hindi songs to myself, confident that no one would hear me above the sound of the river, Sachin amused himself by singling out the sound of the river in different spots and Priyanthi simply lay on a rock and looked at the sky.

We walked back up and started chatting with the military guys there. They were guarding a bridge that had ‘no access beyond this point’ signs plastered clearly. This turned out to be the road to Siachen, one of the contentious border areas that India has with Pakistan. Postings to Siachen can be long and lonely and at that altitude, even eating becomes painful. The army chap smiled wryly when we told him we loved the mountains. ‘Try seeing them for one year continuously’ he commented, mocking my definitely urban soul.

Back at the guesthouse, the completely unused pack of cards was finally used, while we waited for 8.30 p.m. – our dinner slot. Given limited dining space and a limited kitchen, all of us had to pre-order the food and show up at the scheduled time. Except, our scheduled time got pushed as the single handyman running the show scurried about. Eventually, we were served. Priyanthi and I sat and cast quizzical glances at each other when we spied a Bengali couple, clearly on their honeymoon, being chaperoned by an elderly gentleman. The handyman, meanwhile, in an effort to be chatty with his customers, asked us if we were sisters. We both spontaneously replied ‘Yes’. The idea of trying to explain that we were friends, who looked similar, just seemed too tiring and unnecessary

12-Aug-2008

Ladakh - Nubra Valley, Khardung La


By the time we got to the grocery store, figured out that there was no electricity, searched out an internet café which would let us download songs from Sandeep’s mobile and then set out for Nubra, it was a bright and sunny ten a.m.

The road to Nubra goes past Khardung La, the world’s highest motorable road at 18000 + feet. It also seemed to be the sharpest ascent, since in a mere 35 kms, we had scaled 4000 feet from Leh. Stanzin drove the last bit very slowly and carefully, yet my heart was pumping really fast as I pointedly looked ahead, ignoring the sheer drop. There were cyclists pushing ahead with amazing amounts of energy. At that altitude, you had to be superfit to even attempt cycling.

We had already seen Taglang La and Chang La and could not wait to see what Khardung La looked like. The peaks around us were beginning to appear at our eye level, so were the distant clouds (that's a pic taken on the way).



Then we reached. We could have been on Chennai’s Marina Beach or Ooty’s Dodhabeta or Mumbai’s Gateway of India. The crowd was unbelievable. There was a buzz as everyone followed the routine of getting off, using the toilets and then positioning themselves in front of one of the many boards that proclaimed ‘Khardung La, the world’s highest motorable pass’ to take a snap. Aged aunties, who rightfully should have been pumped with oxygen given the difficult in breathing, waddled sprightly to the nearest signboard. And some of them were being given oxygen later. But photos at any cost seemed the motto.

Stanzin later explained that a lot of people made it a point to make a day trip to Khardung La from Leh. Hence it usually got crowded and touristy. Seeing no reason to stay for too long, we followed the routine and then continued to Nubra Valley.

The descent took long, over 100 kms of winding roads. We stopped for army convoys making their way over to Leh and stared in wonder at all the vehicles. Nubra finally appeared, in its beautiful valley glory. There was a green patch. Then there was a vast, flat mudland with a single tarred road running in the centre of it. We could have been in a James Bond movie, discovering a nuclear hideout for Russians. It was so deserted, desolate, yet humming with activity.

It was long past lunchtime, yet the fat, home-made chowmein that was presented to us as food had few takers. Stuffing what we could, we made our way to Panamik and watched the hot spring – a tiny bit of water gurgling from the bowels of the earth, fairly hot when it appeared and gradually cooling down. From there, it was to Samsthanaling Monastery at Sumoor. Just 150 years old, this was much quieter than any of the monasteries we had seen earlier.

It was my turn to sit at the back of the car. The day had been long and hot. The ride was getting bumpy. The music CD, after having regaled me with a medley of various favourite artists, had settled into Metallica. The speakers were right over my head and amplifying what I had already put down as noise. In a matter of minutes, I was cranky and snapped at anyone who ventured to talk to me. Yet all was forgotten when we got stuck in a ‘traffic jam’ (basically the guy operating the road roller for an ongoing road construction refusing to let anyone pass through till he finished one segment). We got out and jumped around in the nearby sand dunes, playing like little kids.


We reached Diskit when it was beginning to get dark. Everyone else went for a walk in the two streets forming the town. I stayed back and read my book. Dinner turned out to be really nice, especially after the sad lunch. I slept well, dreaming of sand dunes and Metallica.


10-Aug-2008

Ladakh - Pangong


I slowly began to pack my stuff. Priya was still finishing her morning routine. There was a knock at the door. I opened it, wondering if another round of tea was being sent up. There, bright eyed and bushy tailed, stood Sachin, Aswath and Sandeep. It was ten minutes to start time. My jaw dropped to the floor. With the smuggest smile I had seen the trio asked ‘you girls are not ready yet? Let us know when you are’. And triumphantly, they marched back to their rooms.

We had an unprecedented record of sorts.

The road from Tangste to Pangong is quite unassuming till you reach the river bed. With huge, round stones strewn all around, and water beginning to trickle in, I was surprised that any vehicle other than a four wheel drive could even attempt riding on them. We watched as various vehicles began to slowly trudge their way. Stanzin was leading from the front – now dislodging the rocks, next jumping on the vehicles to stop them from sinking to the ground, he was having a busy day. Eventually, our vehicle passed through too.

Pangong was another beauty. Not as brilliantly blue as Tso Moriri, it was still impressive in its sheer vastness. With a length of 140 kms, of which about two third lies in Tibet, the lake seemed like the sea. I had never seen such large lakes at any rate and could not stop oohing. Then all of us settled to do our own thing. Which in my case turned out to be an obsessive need to throw stones into the water in a manner where they skimmed the surface of the lake at several points before sinking. I got pretty good at the game before it was time to leave, even wondering if I would be given admission into the Shaolin Chambers.

We had a late breakfast at Tangste at a lovely riverside restaurant, listening to the water tumbling over rocks. The journey back to Leh was long but had a good stop at Changla, with free tea supplied by the army helped matters and we got the unique blessings of Changla baba (see pic).

It was evening when we reached. But boy, were we glad to see the hot showers!


The plan was to try to get some new music CDs. The guys decided that the first stop would be to check with internet cafes if they could cut us CDs from their stock. Priya and I used the time to shop and generally browse. Finally we realised that one of the grocery stores that had been playing Iron Maiden when we last shopped there would probably be happy to let us cut a CD from their collection. As the rest of us ordered dinner at the Dreamland restaurant, Priya and Sandeep sat and selected songs for a nice compilation. Unfortunately the store’s CD drive was not working. We would have to come back in the morning with my pen drive. Still, the music scene was looking up.

09-Aug-2008

Ladakh - Tangste

Tip for the day – carry mouthwash for days when it is too cold to rinse your mouth out with the tap water

I discovered just how cold the water can get at 5.15 in the morning when I made some attempts at brushing my teeth. The rest did not fare better. We were ready to be off by 6.30, as usual half an hour late.

We were taking the picturesque Leh-Manali road. In about an hour’s time, we reached Taglang La, the world’s second highest motorable road. Despite the cold breeze, all of us jumped out to take ‘I have been there’ pictures. Then we jumped right back in and continued. The scenery was beautiful, especially the trees which stood out after days of no greenery.

Stanzin decided to reload the diesel in the car and nonchalantly strolled to a store to pick up a can of the stuff. Then he casually lit a cigarette and got down to switching the diesel from one can to another. Priya and I gasped as the vision of all of us being blown into a huge red fireball loomed in front of our eyes. But nope, the man just grinned when we pointed out the idiocy of it. Our secret suspicion that he was some kind of a super hero in disguise began to grow.

After breakfast at Upshi, we turned into the road for Pangong. After several hours, we began to get the news that the road to Pangong had been flooded. By the time we reached Pangong’s nearest village, Tangtse the news had been confirmed. With no other options, we decided to check into a guest house in Tangste and fantasize about our tents in Pangong. Though secretly, I was happy to be in a warm room with an attached toilet again after two days of freezing in a tent.

Our guesthouse seemed to be quite large and had a beautiful picture of a well developed city in a terrain similar to Ladakh’s. Priya ventured that perhaps it was China’s vision for Leh. Which was a pretty reasonable one given how close we were to Tibet, the huge Indian army presence and how many areas seemed to be accessible only through permits. As it turned out, the picture was actually that of Lhasa. It was difficult to believe Lhasa was this large and commercial.

The evening’s entertainment involved walking up Tangste’s single street, noting the army depots and camps. Dinner was at the guesthouse, where we were served in traditional low Ladakhi tables and given chopsticks to eat with. I played with my food for a long time, swallowing tiny pieces of noodles and rice, finally discovering why all Chinese women looked so thin. There is no way anyone can have a full meal on those sticks.

We went to sleep, warning the boys that we really had to be on time the next day given that the road to Pangong would get flooded before 10 a.m.

07-Aug-2008

Ladakh - Tso Kar


We had a late start, only at 11. Around ten, I developed a splitting headache. Sachin had one too. High Altitude sickness was hitting the two of us. We staggered into the jeep and held our heads for pretty much half of the bumpy ride to Tso Kar. Luckily, drinking lots and lots of water and eating Diamox helped. We recovered in time for our driver, Stanzin, to pull up by a stream with two black necked cranes. An endangered species, it is usually hard to spot them.

Gingerly, we all began to walk silently, trying not to crunch up the rubble. After a while, only Sandeep and Aswath were continuing. The cranes did not fly away. Instead, they seemed to be playing a game too, moving in a manner that kept the distance between them and us constant. Eventually Sandeep and Aswath abandoned the quest and came back. We decided to have our packed lunch (another rip-off from Nomadic camp) and watch the birds. Stanzin finished off his lunch quickly and then grabbing our camera, decided to stalk them. Much more suited to the job than any of us, he nimbly bounced from one rock to another and kept at the job for a long time. Eventually he came back, gave his lopsided grin (which we would all grow to suspect and love) and informed us that he had not clicked the pics in zoom mode. So after all that time and effort, we had pictures of two black and white spots.

Tso Moriri is a great bio diversity hot spot. We could not see a single bird that looked normal (which by Mumbai definition would mean pigeons, crows and the occasional sparrows). We spotted various ducks, red starts and rose finches, not to mention the camera-shy burrowing creatures – the marmots. None of which I would have been able to name but for Aswath. Even without knowing the names, it was possible to admire them, beautiful as they were.

The journey to Tso Kar, did not take too long – around four hours and was in some strange way quite picturesque. However, the road was barely there. We seemed to be driving over plain ground for most part, giving Stanzin a chance to show off the vehicle’s ruggedness. Jolted, we arrive in Tso Kar.

‘Tso’ means lake. It was a bit of a surprise when we realised that Tso Kar did not have a lake. Infact our campsite was at what had been a lake bed once upon a time. The lake had long receded to other parts. Nevertheless, we did our mandatory strolling and clicking. Dinner was much more sumptuous, and less well priced. The tents were also warmer. All of us slept much better.

05-Aug-2008

Ladakh - Tso Moriri


This was the day when we would begin our tour of Leh’s prominent lakes. Our first stop was Tso Moriri. We began by stopping at Indus ghat, where there is a small structure on the banks of the Indus River. The drive was hot and a bit boring once we got used to the brown mountains, repeated ad infinitum. The music was none too good. I had grabbed a few assorted English CDs from my collection of ‘I don’t care if these CDs get damaged’. Madonna’s American Pie began the series and we wound our way past Pretty Woman and so on. Sandeep had earlier suggested that perhaps I should call the CDs ‘done to death’ in honour of the clichéd stuff. Pointing out that I was the only one who had got along any CDs did not help. Neither Sandeep nor Aswath understood Hindi music, so the Kishore Kumar and Lata Mangeskar were ignored. There was a suggestion that perhaps the duo should buy an I-Trip in Leh for my IPod. Sachin grinned and pointed out that the Leh man normally cannot afford an I-Trip and it would be unlikely we would find one. By the time we were done with the squabbling, Chumathang and lunch had arrived. Chumathang has hot springs to its credit, but since we were running late and would be seeing some in Panamik later on, we decided to push on.

I dozed the rest of the time till Priya exclaimed ‘wow, look at the lake the colour of copper sulphate’. The vivid colours in the region were exploring long forgotten words to describe colours. It was indeed beautiful and blue but not our destination, Tso Moriri about 260 kms from Leh. The road was deteriorating. We finally pulled into a campsite called ‘Nomadic Life Camps’ at five thirty. The camp was packed to the brim. We were given slightly worn tents right at the end.

We immediately set out for the lake, not wanting to lose daylight. The lake had looked a promising Cobalt blue as we had driven down. It became better as we walked closer. The mountains were glinting red in the last of the sunlight. The lake’s blue was richer than ever. The contrast was so mindblowing, it felt like a ten year old had painted a picture and pinned it to the sky. We sat mesmerized till it began to get dark. If only, we had made it slightly earlier..

Dinner was a rip-off with a big R. I had been warned that given how remote the area is, food is expensive in the campsite. We were infact carrying cup-o-noodles and theplas. But in the gradually creeping cold, no one was in a mood to eat anything but hot food. So we ate rice, dal, sabzi and French fries at 250 Rs a head. The mess boy chatted with us and told us that he was on leave from the army and would be going back to Siachen shortly for a three year posting. Tso Moriri was cold. We could not imagine how cold Siachen could get.

I donned two t shirts, a jacket, another jacket, two pants, two socks, a cap, my gloves and got under the two blankets. It still felt a bit cold. I slept in patches, listening to noises outside my tent. Priya had it worse, being able to distinguish the sounds of animals outside. And we found out the next day that the guys had it the worst of all since the outer plastic layer in their tent had ripped off. A draft had kept them up for most of the night.

04-Aug-2008

Ladakh - Hemis, Thikse, Shey and Stok


The plan was to leave at 8.30 after breakfast at 8 a.m. It was 8.45 before the guys could manage to get into the dining cum TV hall of our guesthouse. The Man Friday, Mohan, took everyone’s orders (choice was omelette and toast or toast). Our travel agent, Qayoom had arrived with a brand new Innova to give us a send-off. We munched on breakfast, drank our tea and finally ventured onto the roads at 9.30. Clearly, days which involved very early mornings would be bit of a challenge.

Abdul, the teenager who had accompanied us the previous day was also the guide for the day. At our first stop, Hemis, we realised that while Abdul was enthusiastic, he knew zilch about what lay inside the monastery. We walked around the partially dilapidated building and took snaps. It was at the Hemis museum that we got some insight into the way Tibetan Buddhism was organised. The monk in charge of the entry fee informed us that there are four primary orders of Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama heads the Geluspa sect. The Hemis monastery belonged to the Drukpa order, whose top gun was called Skatsang Raza. Founded in the 16th century, Hemis’s Skatsang Razas had been fairly active in seeking help of the local rulers and other sects to add to the monastery buildings.

The museum had been cobbled together with various exhibits that had been found in the monastery. There were rows upon rows of cooking utensils. One of them proclaimed ‘a twin pot – rare piece’, suggesting vaguely that the rest of the pieces would be found in your average kitchen. Then there was a lovely Thangka (art on cloth) depicting ‘Sidharth contesting to win his bird’. It was Sandeep who realised that Sidhartha was actually contesting for his bride – clearly a more important historical event than Buddha’s ornithogical/hunting interest.

After Hemis, we headed to Thikse. This was better maintained than Hemis. But we still had no clue how many avatars the Buddha had, or what was Guru Rinpoche’s role in the general scheme of things. Finally a monk in one of the rooms informed us that we were looking at a giant statue of the future Buddha – Maitreya.

The previous night’s excesses had upset Aswath’s gentle gastric systems and he decided to consult the in-house doc at Thikse, who turned out to be a practioner of traditional medicine. He took Aswath’s pulse and nodded his head gravely in the manner of Bollywood doctors announcing that the hero’s unwed sister was pregnant. He then prescribed a few pills. Despite our healthy sceptism of non-Western medicine, Aswath did get better.

The next stop was the old ruins of the Shey Palace. The Namgyal dynasty had ascended throne in the 16th century. Then around the 18th century they were deposed. The current generation of the erstwhile rulers, lived in the newer and more exciting Stok Palace. The guards at the Stok Palace opened various rooms containing royal jewellery. A group of Rajasthani men who were also visiting, immediately began to loudly proclaim that the jewellery in Rajasthan was much prettier and you had to come there to see what palaces looked like. Clearly, for some people, travel is a way of reaffirming that you already live in the best place in the world.

Stok Palace had a lovely café on one of the roofs. We ordered tea and muffins and sat down to enjoy the absolutely ravishing views.

Leh’s bright skies and brown mountains were really beginning to grow on us.

After the authentic repast of the past day, we decide to locate ‘Pumpernickel’ a much publicised German bakery. Leh is full of them. Unfortunately for us, after quite a search, we were told that Pumpernickel had shut down. Disappointed, we ate at Gesmo, which was not bad either.

03-Aug-2008

Ladakh - The journey begins


The flight to Leh was at 5 a.m. I had instructed everybody to aim for seats on the left side of the flight, to get the best Himalayan views. So I was quite thrilled when we did get the seats. Of course, at this point, I did not realise I would fall into a deep slumber, disturbed only by the pilot announcing that we would be landing shortly. I managed to catch a few clouds floating over the desert and the barren mountains. Part of the reason for this somnolence was the night spent trying to sleep in the glaring lights of Delhi’s departure lounge. Such an early flight meant I would have to disturb the friends I was staying with at 2 a.m. to let me out and find me a cab. Given that they are sleep deprived parents of new born twins, the easier option was to just join the rest of the gang for a night stay at the airport.

The rest of the gang comprised unknown faces. Sachin and Priya are long-term friends and travel companions who did not know each other. Priya’s cousins, Sandeep and Aswath were introduced over a 3.40 a.m. tea at the airport. None of us looked too wakeful and I think my insane chatter in an effort to stay awake marked me down as a severe case of verbal diarrhoea. Luckily, Sandeep took over that mantle after the first couple of days.

We had all been warned about High Altitude Sickness upon landing in Leh and had been sincerely popping in Diamox. Exhaustion, sleeplessness and probably the altitude caught up with us and we slept for pretty much most of the day. It was evening, before we decided to plunge headlong into acclimisation by walking up to Shanthi Stupa, a Japanese funded construction perched on the top of 510 steps.

Wheezing like old women, all of us slowly made our way to the top. There were many unscheduled stops, apparently to admire the scenery, but mostly to catch our breath. Priya and I caught up on all the minute gossip we had missed sharing over phone, and the guys overhead parts of it while feigning utter disregard for such ‘useless information’.

Leh is not an easy place. One would expect that any place at an altitude of 14000 feet in the Himalayas would be green and pretty. Instead, as the world’s coldest desert (I think Mongolia is the only other one), it is stark, barren and quite sudden in the way its parched slopes fall away to endless gorges. The thin atmosphere ensures that the sun shines bright in the day, nearly burning you on good days. The 6 inches of annual rainfall means hardly any moisture in the air to keep the peaches and cream complexion glowing. We all knew that despite our huge supply of lotions and chapsticks we would look like dried prunes at the end of the stay.

Luckily the sun was coming down by the time we descended from our Stupa, and we sauntered through some of the main streets of Leh before dinner at the (very subtly named) Himalayan Restaurant.

Sandeep and Aswath could barely contain their excitement at the authentic local food in our menu. Fifteen minutes later our table was swamped with momos, cheese kothays and thupkas. Which was just as well, because once we stepped out of Leh, our food options became severely limited to Chowmein, fried rice and dal-chawal. Clearly the locals did not eat the authentic local food in other parts of Ladakh.