Amazing Ladakh

5 10 2012

My flight from Mumbai to Leh was at 6 AM so I had the glorious idea to safe the money for staying at the hotel and drive to the airport the evening before… this time, I assured, the taxi would cost me around 8, not 50 Euros 🙂 arriving at the airport, I was forced to stay outside for another 2 hours for no obvious reasons, but after that it was fine. Sometimes (or better often) one should not ask for reasons or even some kind of sense over here 🙂 I spent the night with watching TV shows on my laptop to kill the time, beause unfortunately sleeping was not possible on the seats although it was relatively quite.

Sunrise over Mumbai

Sunrise over Mumbai

After the take-off I saw my first beautiful sunrise over India and shortly after that I doze of. On our stop in Delhi I didn’t had to get off the plane as it would go onwards to Leh. To fly over the Ladakh region and the descent to Leh was the most spectecular I’ve ever seen out of a plane. Amazing landscapes with huge montains, most of them topped with snow (snow line must be around 6000m there) everything else was just bare rocks and sand and looked like a scenery on the moon. Eventually, green oasis came into sight, following rivers that emerge between the mountains and reached into wide valleys and plateaus.

Approaching Leh

Approaching Leh

Leh itself is a little town that seemed quite busy and touristy to me. Maybe because I expected a little sleepy village in the middle of nowhere. It definitaly was in the middle of nowhere 🙂 I found a guest house with a nice garden an (at least advertised) 24h WiFi. For Indian standadards it seemed clean. This don’t count for western standard 🙂 but one will get used to it very soon and soon see the difference between old/worn and real dirt. In my room I had to face my first Indian challange: a squatter toilet 😉

The family that runs the guest house was really friendly. The grand father asked my whether I arraived today by plane and when I confirmed, he sent me to my room to have a rest 🙂 this is important to acclimatize to the height and to avoid mountain sickness. It was a welcoming advice because I had only dozed a bit on the flight. Normally, one should take it easy at least for 2-4 days, but on the next morning I felt really good so I went to explore the area. First destinations were the main bazaar of Leh, which is packed with souvenir and textile shops, selling primarily tibetian junk and shawls, curtains, bed sheets … everything from simple wool over Yak wool to silk and Paschmina wool. On my way to Leh Palace I met a guy from UK that tried to carry his bike up the hill, but after 200m he surrendered and kindly accepted my little lock. It was obvious, that it won’t stop anybody from stelaing it, but it was better than nothing 🙂

Leh Palace and Leh Fort are on top of a hill in Leh. The climb is steep but you will be rewarded with amazing views. Due to the height and the thin air, one will feel every single step and be exhausted every few meters. But I guess you haven’t been to Leh, I you don’t visit these both landmarks.

Panorama of Leh from Leh Fort

Panorama of Leh from Leh Fort

My aim was to do at least a 4-days trek in the region, so I had to be fast with organizing a tour because I only had 7 days in Leh. in mid-Septermber it is already low season, so I wasn’t able to find any trekking companions, at least not for the intended length and route. Finally I decided to do it on my own with only a guide. The tour began on September 19th and was from Spituk, some 30 minutes drive away from Leh, to Chilling. I don’t wanted to carry a sleeping back and tent, so I decided to go for home stays, which means, that I would be staying at the homes of locals from the villages where we would stay over night.

The morning the trek started, I met my guide, a 23 years old student from Leh named Lotus. It took us a while to get warm with each other, but in the end he turned out to be a funny guy and we talked a lot about our lives. The first little shock came, when the mini van dropped us at some point of the road on a wide plateau in the middle of nowhere. In sight were only the road, the mountains and between that only rocks and sand. A really surreal landscape. And now it was time to walk. Soon we reached the Indus river and were headed to path between the mountains. Always, it was green as soon as there was a river or some little stream. The landscape seemed bare, monotonous, and dusty at first sight, but it soon seemed to change every few meters.

The goal of the first day was a village called Yurutse. After we reached it, I had to redefine my understanding of the term village: over here, if there is at least one house, it’s a village. Yurutse has two houses and therefor could count as metropolis 🙂 I stayed in a house with one woman in her 50th and two men that could have been anything from 70 until 300 years old. The woman was really caring and friendly while the older men where busy with murmuring and praying (may be equivalent). None of them could speak a word English and so a downside of my guide Lotus came to light: he rarely translated anything of what the loacals were saying and even if I explicitly asked him to translate a discussion between several locals, he normally just answered „some old story“, which might be true but doesn’t help me to get to know and in touch with the people. I heard of other travellers having more luck with their guide.
After the shock with the squatter toilet of the guest house in Leh, I was only a little bit worried to see, that there is something even  more simple serving as toilet in a house: a hole in the ground in a room of the first floor 🙂 along with sand and a spade. Fortunately I brought my own toilet paper… one of the most useful items to have in India!
In the evening, we sat alltogether in the main room of the house, which served as living room, kitchen, sleeping room, and whatever there is exept the toilet. The woman cooked soup and prepared some bread rolls, which were steamed before eating. At 8 PM I excused myself to bed. Boredom can be exhausting… especially if a lot of talking happens around you and you don’t understand a single word.

Living room of home stay in Yurutse

Living room of home stay in Yurutse

On the second day we started early at around 7.30 AM and walked (or climbed) through wide areas and narrow paths, green patches, dessert-like areas and sometimes even small forrests. The next village only contained a single house, but it was bigger that the two ones of Yurutse and seemed livelier. It had also a rooftop terrace with splendid views of the Stok-Kangri, one of the easiest mountain over 6000m to climb. To kill time, I tried to climb the hill behind the home stay, I read a lot and in the evening there was the same procedure as before, this time with more people. We had dinner, the others were chatting („Some old stories“), but before going to bed, I managed to taste half a glass of local Ladakhi beer… something that reminds me a bit of Cider but still has an undefinable taste. The locals drink it with a lot of flour and as soon as you have a sip, somebody will refill your glass. With food it is mostly the same in home stays… You simply can’t eat as much as they want you to 🙂 and it takes many excuses to not get even more.

The highest point of the trek had to be passed on the third day. Again, we started early, right after breakfast. This time I wasn’t really sucessful in denying refills. Right after starting the hiking, I felt really weak and I was exhausted every few meters… that’s the right mood to cross a pass of over 4900m height! I was fully reliefed and exhausted when we reached the top after the first 3 hours of hiking… but after a rest of 5 minutes I felt good enough to climb the hill at one side of the pass to take a beautiful panorama picture 🙂 The way down is always easier, but it took us another 4 hours to reach the last home stay. There, the new houses even had a bathroom. Unfortunately without water 🙂 At the second home stay, we had a little stream outside the house that represented the shower, here it was a big river. Again, bitterly cold. At the evening a buddhist monk came to the guest house to stay over night. And of course, he had to do a prayer ceremony. Eventhough it is very interesting, it also can be very annoying, having a monk burning some herbs, shouting, and ringing bells randomly inside the house 🙂

The highligh of the next day was rafting on the Zandang river. I wasn’t sure how to feel about it. On the one hand, it would be my first rafting, so I was pretty much excited. On the other hand, it still was this bitterly cold mountain river of not more then 6°C. On the way to the starting point, we had another highlight: crossing the river in a little box that hung on a rope spanned over the river. We met another couple from Germany and their guide, so there were 5 of us crossing that river in the little box. On the last round, when the other guide and the German guy were crossing the river, the rope, that is used to pull yourself to the other side, broke… so I guess, the ones arriving after us might have had a little problem 🙂

Who is stupid enough to go rafting at 5 degrees water temperature?

Who is stupid enough to go rafting at 5 degrees water temperature?

The rafting itself was okay. We were two and later 3 boats with approx. 8 people per boat. The level should be a 3+ but due to little water in the river, I guess it was less than that…

Back in the guest house I started to check the agencies for the next experience. I met a German/Japanese guy (Kai) in the guest house having similar plans. The easiest to organize would be mountainbiking down from the Khardung pass, one of the world highest motorable passes. A jeep is carrying the bikes and bikers up to the pass station and then you can speed down the road again… sounds awesome. It turned out, that even the way up in the jeep is very adventurous. Motorable actually doesn’t necessarily involve good streets… or something you would call at least a street 🙂 So all of us were very cautious on the highest parts of the „road“. It really was amazing with excellent views, a lot of adrenalin, and effortless cycling. After the road was reckognizable as road, the brakes weren’t used very often until I reached the starting point again. I would recommend this tour to everyone that likes biking at least a bit…

Mountainbiking Leh

Speeding down from Khardung La (5600m) to Leh (3500m)

Still, there were many places toeither to Pangong Lake or the Nubra Valley. I never heard a bad word about one of the location from other travellers. In fact, they were raving about these areas, so I decided to visit at least one of it. It isn’t too easy to organize a tour at the end of the season in Leh. First of all, many tourists seem to be in a hurry. They mostly went for 1-day tours, which means they will have approx. 2 hours at the possibly most exiting places in the world… I wasn’t… I had just extended my stay by changing my plans of going to Varanassi and rebooking my flight from Leh back to Delhi for 6 days later. It was a very reasonable price/fee in comparison to change flights in Europe, even with low-cost carriers. Kai and me checked almost all of Leh’s agencies, just to come up with one or two options, which were canceled just the evening before, due to sickness of other fellow travellers. And sharing the jeep with just 1 or two other people is too expensive. So we started another round of agency hopping and finally found another promising tour to Pangong Lake for the next day. It was with 3 other travellers, so it would be affordable, even if one got sick again… and so it happend: the guy from my guest house got an urgent call from the loo over night and was still busy taking to it in the morning so unfortunately he couldn’t join 😦

So I went with one weird Dutch (he always said Holland) guy, a girl from France and another girl from Israel. Driving through the mountains was awesome again. The landscape often changed from rough and steep abysses, to moon-like scenery and back to wide green plains with lovely rivers. We had to pass the Chang pass which seems to have the highest 90’s revival party in the world… At the local shop from a little car radio attached to a car battery, Take That and others were causing headache… I’m certainly sure that this had nothing to do with the heigth 🙂

Pangong Lake

„Interesting nothing“ of Pangong Lake

When we approached the Pangong Lake, I realized, that I had something totally different in mind, when I thought about how it might be… I thought of some nice villages along with trees, old ladies weaving socks and shawls from Yak wool, a few shops… but there was almost nothing! Sand, dust, rocks, more sand… and a beautiful lake shimmering in multiple variations of blue and green. And occasionally some old lady weaving something from Yak wool 🙂 Especially in the low season this is a very calm, sleepy place. There are some hints, how it must be in high season… a tent village with restaurants and souvenir shops, a bunch of toilets standing on a field (I guess/hope there will be a tent in high season)…

Only the guest houses of the families that are staying over the winter at Pangong Lake were still open and this weren’t many. We chose one that somebodz recommended to me back in Leh and it was a really good choice. At night, we had a lovely dinner with the family and we could even watch the process of making butter and cheese. In the morning I was able to try traditional Ladakhi cloths.


Making Of: Cheese!

Traditional Ladakhi outfit

Traditional Ladakhi outfit

Lucky me, the Dutch guy and the Israelian woman wanted to go to Nubra Valley as well. The agenciy found two other Indians to join us, so we went right the next morning after we came back from Pangong Lake. We had to cross the Khardung pass again. On the other side was a thrilling canyon  range which I would have liked to explore… but a lot of driving was the plan for this day. After the first 3-4 hours of driving we finally saw the Nubra Valley.

Nubra Valley

First view of Nubra Valley

The first view is simply breathtaking. Between two really high mountain ranges is an almost endless plain with different distinct landscapes one could see from above. There was a river, shining almost as bright and colorful as the Pangong Lake. Near to the river and the streams coming from the mountains there were expansive greens with some small trees and even high cottonwood trees. On a hight of over 3000m! Then there were the usual rocks and dust. And, suprisingly, some sand dunes…

The farthest we got into the Nubra Valley were the „hot springs“at Panamik village. This was the only disappointing thing: you are driving through a beautiful landscape which holds enough to spend several days and your tour will stop after 6 hours of driving at this (sorry to say) shithole of tourist trap. If you can avoid going there do so… it is way better to explore a dark rock some 10km before Panamik. I’m sure it will be more fun to climb it ant the view must be awesome!! I’m still a bit angry we hadn’t the chance because we didn’t know what to expect in Panamik.

After Panamik we drove to some monastery which was nice but also not very special. Still we had two hours of driving to reach our final destination for the day: Hunder village, on the other side of the river and into another side arm of the valley. Hunder seems to be the place to stay over night. A lot of guest houses, camping sites and other accomodation. But it seemed still a natural, sleepy town, especially in low season. Our guide drove us to a nice little guest hose, owned by a very welcoming and nice family, with rooms at reasonable prices (Honcho guest house). The group of us started immediately to explore the area because it was about to get dark and we definitely wanted to see the river. On our way, we stumbled into a house of a local family. We had another very warm welcome, with children running around us and the oldest daughter, chatting with us in suprisingly good English. Although we came totally unexpected, we all had a cup of butter tean in our hands after just 3 minutes. I read about butter tea before and was expecting something really weird. It was weird, because it was made from milk tea, butter and salt, but tasted not as horrible as expected. Afer a few minutes, we all agreed to send back a letter with the photos we had taken of the family, we left for another attempt to find the river… without success… When it was getting dark, we headed back to the guest house, had dinner, and watched the cricket game India vs. Australia with our hosts later. I left after only one hour when one Australian player destroyed all chances of victory for India 🙂 The next day we were able to ride camels that live in this valley. I chose to take some pictures of the sand dunes instead 🙂


Panorama of Nubra’s sand dunes



One response

24 07 2014

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