Friday, April 24, 2009

Leh, Ladakh (India) - Day 10 -14

When in India, we had shortlisted Hampi, Pondicherry and Leh(Ladakh) as possible places to visit. We finally zeroed in on Leh (a place I have long dreamed of visiting) because it was 'adventurous' enough to justify leaving our toddler with my parents for the 10 days that we would be away. At 3500m, it gave our lungs a workout and I am only too glad that we had the good sense to leave my son in Kerala.

Flying into Leh is spectacular - 20 minutes prior to landing all we saw were endless stretches snow capped Himalayas. Driving to the hotel, it almost felt like Iraq or Afganistan - swirls of dust thrown up by camoflauge military vehicles, army men walking the streets, and little shops with tin roofs. The town/market were without character or charm and there were surprisingly few restaurants serving anything authentically Ladakhi. Most of what we found was the typical Indian street fare (samosas, bhel) which caters to the army men who make the bulk of the customer base. Thick sweet Ladakhi tea (part tea, part condensed milk) can be found everywhere - and it almost feels like a regional pass-time, much like cafes elsewhere in the world.

Leh is beautifully desolate - a harsh desert spared only by the Indus river. As we drove along the Leh-Manali and the Leh-Srinagar highway, all I could think of was the sheer endless expanse of this land. Sometimes we saw no vehicle, no tree, no life for as far as the eye could see. We visited 4 monasteries in all and in T's words, we were 'Buddha'd out" by the end of it all.

Our plans to visit the highest motorable point in the world (Khardong-la) was canceled because of weather conditions. Instead. we made an impulse decision to drive to Rizong monastery - known locally for it's strict monastic practice. The road took us for through Likir Maidan, an seemingly endless orange colored desert flanked by mountains on either side. The last stretch of the road to Rizong was washed away in last year's summer floods, so we had to drive the SUV over rocks and streams till a huge fallen tree forced us to walk the rest of the distance. The last 35 minutes felt like the valley of death - steep and narrow slate cliffs devoid of any trees or shrubs. At one point during the trek we were joined by 2 young monks (10 & 14 respectively) who sprung through the terrain while we struggled to navigate it. Visitors are uncommon at Rizong which explained the welcoming party of young monks who had skipped class to see us.

I am sure Leh is beautiful year round, but I am glad I got to see pink lush apricot blossoms that dot the valley in spring. As everyone else has told me, Leh is best enjoyed driving around. If I ever come back here, it will be by car from Delhi via Manali.

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