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.

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