Saturday, July 30, 2011

Ladakh day 4: Monasteries and Palaces

3 July 2011

An important factor to consider in Ladakh trip is about acclimatization. Leh is at an altitude of about 10,000ft. With the weather being dry, people would suffer from high altitude sickness. This is especially true for people arriving on flight. Simple way to avoid this is to take rest for a day or two in Leh before proceeding to even higher altitudes. I have seen people ruining their trip by trying to rush to various spots before acclimatizing themselves to high altitude.

View from Thiksey Monastery

We had decided to spend the day by visiting nearby places. Our travel agent arrived at 10AM. He had arranged a Scorpio with a driver for our travel. Namgyal was our driver who would be our companion for next six days. We departed from guest house without much delay. Leh town looked calm and beautiful. The last year floods had hit Leh badly and traces were still visible at some places.

The green and the brown!!
Hemis Monastery (50km from Leh) was the first place of visit. It is the most famous and hyped Monastery in Ladakh. 
Prayer wheels at Hemis Monastery
The monasteries in Ladakh look nice from outside. But all of them look similar inside. I feel that my limited knowledge on Buddhism is to be blamed. Guides are hard to find which makes the visit just a ceremonial.

Thiksey monastery was the most attractive of all monasteries that we visited on that day. The lunch served in the restaurant opposite to the monastery was great!!

Stakna monastery as seen from the road.

A telephoto shot of Matho monastery.

We also visited Shey Palace which had a huge Buddha inside.

The King now stays at Stok Palace which is bit interior from the main road.

By 5PM, we were back in Leh. We had a round of discussion with travel agent about our next plans. The permits required to visit the places were ready. Satisfied, we set out to do some last minute purchasing of essential items in Leh. We would be returning back only after five days!!

Thiksey Monastery

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Ladakh day 3: On the high passes

2nd July 2011

We had a long day ahead. Everyone had woken up early and by 4AM we were all ready for the journey. The darkness had enveloped the town as bus departed from Keylong. I tried to sleep but excitement about Ladakh kept me awake!! I just peeped outside and we were going along Bhaga River. About 45 minutes of journey brought us to Jispa which is one of the main halting places on Manali-Leh highway. After Jispa was Darcha, a small settlement next to Bhaga River. The bus stopped for sometime here as foreigners required registering themselves at the check post.

Efforts are on to build a road from Darcha to Padum in Zanskar valley which directly connects to Leh near Nimmo. Along with Rohtang tunnel, this new construction would make Manali to Leh an all weather road. It would also put an end to the isolation of remote Zanskar valley.

After crossing Bhaga River at Darcha, it was a steep ascent to small settlement of Patseo. A little later at 6AM we were stopped at an army camp. The ascent to the first pass of the day Baralacha La was to start from here. After Rohtang, it is the next biggest hurdle on this journey. Army people would not let us proceed further till they get information about the status of the pass. Several Lorries had parked on the side all waiting for Army clearance.

The first rays of the sun had fallen on the majestic hills providing us an opportunity to put use our minimal photographic skills!! The clear weather was a promising sign of the day ahead. We were already in rain show region where monsoon clouds are stopped by mighty Himalayan Mountains. The Army did not make us wait for long and shortly later we were climbing towards Baralacha La. On the way, we passed through a small settlement with a strange name called Zingzing Bar. Near to the settlement was a small lake called Suraj Tal.

The road to Baralacha La was in a very good condition. With absolutely no traffic, the summit of the pass was reached without any incident. There was snow everywhere in Baralacha La. This was one of the best “pass” of the trip. We spent quite some time on top of the pass.

The next settlement after Baralacha La was KillingSarai and we stopped there for a tea break. The name of the place was strange and the reason was not known. After KillingSarai, the road mostly goes on the plains. We were nearing Sarchu which is a major resting point on this road. The place consists of many tents all along the road. Since it is at the middle of Manali-Leh road, many people prefer to stay here. But it is at an altitude of 14,000 ft which can cause AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). Jispa or Keylong would be better for acclimatization as they are at relatively lower altitudes. But Sarchu is a beautiful place!!

After Sarchu, we say good bye to Himachal Pradesh and enter Jammu and Kashmir. By now, the mountains are all brown in color devoid of any vegetation. We travel for about 20km along a stream and then the sudden climb of Gata loop starts. It is a series of 21 switchbacks that climbs about 1500 ft. As we climb higher, the plains that we left starts to reappear. Somewhere in the middle of these switchbacks was a “ghost point” where our bus slows down to allow conductor to keep a water bottle there!! It seems the ghost would consume all these water!!

A military convey passed which slowed our journey a lot. It took almost an hour to cover the Gata loops. There were also several shortcuts that bypass some switchbacks but need a 4X4 vehicle to drive on those roads. There was again a sudden change in scenery after climbing Gata loops. It was extremely barren and also monotonous. End of the Gata loops brought us to the top of Nakeela which is at an altitude of 15,547ft.

A short descent follows after Nakeela and then starts the climb to Lalchung La. As mentioned earlier, the monotonous barren land caused me boredom and I dozed off for a while. Upon waking up, I found that we were nearing the summit of Lalchung La (Altitude: 16,616 ft).

After Lalchung La, the road leads into a narrow valley with a small stream (Kangla Jal) flowing. The road was bad and weather was extremely hot. Thanks to light breakfast, I was feeling hungry. The next stop was at Pang which looked like eternity. I was sitting on the left side of the bus and the stream was flowing on the right side thus limiting any photography. All these made me restless and I desperately wanted to reach Pang. The ordeal ended at 1:30PM when we reached Pang.

Pang is also one of the halting places for people on this road. Being at an altitude of 15,200ft, it is not a safe place for acclimatization. It is best suited only for people planning to cover Manali-Leh stretch in 3 days or for people coming from Leh (as they are already acclimatized). But one advantage of Pang over Sarchu is the presence of the Army camp. They have medical facilities to treat AMS. Such facility is not available in Sarchu (As per my knowledge).

At Pang, four more people boarded our bus. The fuel tank of their vehicle was damaged and they could not continue further. The road after Pang climbs steeply to reach the Morey plains. The start of the plains is dramatic and appears from nowhere. The next 40km is a completely flat stretch of road. This is a good break for all drivers and passengers from the winding roads grueling winding roads crossed before.

But I must say that the excitement was short lived. Barring for the first few km, there is absolutely no road on this plain. Each one makes his own road thus creating a dust storm behind it. It was so bad that one point of time even driver could not see anything in front of the bus. At few places the bus struggled to pass through the dusty “roads”.

The dust, heat, the beating sun and high altitude all caused me sickness. Headache and uneasiness in stomach swept over me. My thinking ability was reduced confirming a light variant of AMS. I now desperately wanted to get out of this dusty plain. I looked around in the bus and most people were in the same state.

A few vehicles were also struck unable to come out of dusty sand. Things can be terrible if it rains.

After about an hour, we came out of Morey plain. The ascent to Tanglang La, the highest pass on this route had begun. It was a slow climb to the pass thanks to bad roads. The bus stopped on top of the pass for photography. Most of us were sick and returned to the bus as quickly as possible. The road on the other side of the pass was better but the descent was long. The uneasiness that gripped me from past few hours slowly started to recede with the altitude. Rumtze was the first village after crossing Tanglang La. The journey was now along Indus River. This was one of the stretches that were severally affected by last year’s flood. The road was washed out at several places and BRO was still in the process of rebuilding.

After Upshi, it is completely a flat road till Leh. The road was good resembling a highway. The landscape was greener and we were back in civilization!!

Tanglang La as seen from Rumtze

We reached Leh at 8PM and quickly checked in to a nice guest house on Changspa road. We were tired but equally excited on reaching Ladakh which was a dream for several years!!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Ladakh day 2: Struggle at Rohtang Pass

1st July 2011

The HPTDC bus promptly dropped us at Manali bus stand at 8:30AM. Our bus to Leh was at 11AM (Yes!! On the same day!!!!) And we had enough time to board it. The first task was to have breakfast. I suggested “Madras Cafe” which served some good South Indian dishes. I had liked this restaurant during my last visit to Manali six years ago. But the quality of food seemed to have come down these days. Anyway, this would be our last South Indian food in the travel!!

Our destination Leh is about 470 km from Manali. The road is normally opens from June to October every year. It passes through the high altitude passes of Rohtang, Baralacha, Nakeela, Lalchung La and Tanglang La. The journey normally takes two takes with a night halt either at Keylong, Jispa or Sarchu.

The route is:

Manali --> Kothi  --> Gulaba  --> Marhi  --> Rohtang Pass  --> Koksar  --> Tandi  --> Keylong  --> Jispa --> Darcha  --> Patseo --> Zingzing Bar --> Baralacha La --> Killing Sarai --> Sarchu --> Gata loops --> Nakeela --> Lalchung La --> Pang  --> Moore plains --> Tanglang La  --> Rumtze --> Upshi  --> Karu  --> Leh

Vehicles waiting for their turn at Rohtang Pass
 Tourists undertaking the journey on this route have few options:

Taxi: Hire an exclusive Taxi for self or group at Manali. You can stop anywhere you like and reach Leh in 2-3 days. Approximate cost: Rs 15,000/-

Cannon ball: Shared Taxi that leaves Manali at 2AM and reached Leh late night on the same day. 9-10 people are stuffed inside the taxi and have very limited stops. Not suited if you are planning to stop/ enjoy the beauty. But it is the cheapest option costing you about Rs 1,000/-. The front seats are bit expensive!!

Bus: HPTDC runs buses every alternate day. It takes two days to complete the journey with a night halt at Keylong. The cost is Rs 2,000/- which includes stay, dinner and breakfast at Keylong. There are also buses run by private operators but HPTDC seems to be the best.

Many people drive their own vehicle or hire bike at Manali.

Climbing Rohtang Pass
 Our journey:

Hiring a taxi was a costly affair for us as we were only three people. Cannon ball was ruled out as the whole idea of our trip was to enjoy the beauty of the nature. In Ladakh, it is the journey that is interesting rather than the destination. We found that HPTDC started their bus service from 1st July and we promptly booked it.

At Rohtang Pass

The bus started at 11AM. It was the first HPTDC bus travelling from Manali to Leh and we were welcomed with garlands!! A nice start to an exciting journey.

Scenery after Manali

Once the busy streets of Manali were left behind, it was greenery all around. The recent rains had covered all mountains with green. Our destination of the day was Keylong, 117km from Manali. Between them was the mighty Rohtang Pass. The road which opened a month ago had witnessed massive traffic jams in the recent weeks. All tourists coming to Manali wants to go to Rohtang pass to enjoy ice. The traffic situation went out of control this year and Government banned all non Himachal vehicles going to Rohtang pass. All this had happened a week ago.

To our luck, number of tourist vehicles was significantly less on that day. We passed through Kothi check post (22 km from Manali) where Police stop the non HP vehicles. As we climbed up, the scenery only got better. There were waterfalls everywhere. Few of them were originating from melting glaciers and few others from mountain springs. The journey was incident free and we reached Marhi (40 km from Manali) at 1PM. It was time for lunch. Marhi is at an altitude of 11200 ft and is the last point where we get some decent food before climbing down the Rohtang pass. Lot of tourists had stopped at Marhi and had taken ponies to reach ice point. Marhi is also the place where paragliding activities are held.

The road conditions dramatically changed after Marhi. The landslides all along the route resulted in slushy roads. Even a Xylo in front of struggled to pass through a bad stretch of road. People got out of the vehicle and pushed it. It started raining and visibility was greatly reduced. The worst affected were bikers who were struggling a lot to wade through the slush. At one hairpin bend, we had to stop for nearly 45 minutes to allow an army convoy of about 60-70 vehicles to pass.

The road condition worsened as we neared the pass. We were near Rani nallah, the most dangerous section of the pass. Landslides had occurred and the JCB’s were trying to clear the road. Added to the delay was a lorry in front of us that broke down. The JCB had to come and push the lorry to the side to allow vehicles to pass. A swift in front of us tried to cross this risky section. Its underbelly hits the rocks and it stops in the middle. People in the vehicle are scared and decide to return back to Manali. The bus slowly crosses Rani nallah and then the road becomes slightly better. We reach top of Rohtang Pass at 5:30PM. It took nearly 3.5 hours to cover the last 11 km.

The effect of vehicles and tourists are clearly visible at Rohtang. The ice has becomes black and the place looks like a garbage dump. We just stayed there for couple of minutes.

Traffic suddenly vanishes after Rohtang pass. The road continuously goes down with a series of switchbacks to reach to the level of Chandra River at Lahual. We reach a small village Koksar on the bank of Chandra River. The bus stops for sometime here for tea. All foreign tourists need to register themselves here.

The road after Koksar was along Chandra River. On the way, we saw the site of Rohtang tunnel. This 9km tunnel once completed (Planned 2015) would make Manali-Leh an all weather road. This is an important project for army as Ladakh gets cut off completely from land routes in winter.

Rohtang tunnel from Lahual side
The drive along Chandra River ends near Tandi where it joins Bhaga River from Baralacha La. Tandi has the only fuel pump on this route. The next one is after 351km!!

We finally reach Keylong at 9PM. Our stay was at decent tents at Chandrabhaga hotel. Without much delay, dinner was consumed and we quickly headed to the tents for sleep. The next day promised to be long!!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Ladakh day 1: Nothing “Spicy” about it

30 June 2011

“The fuel leak has been confirmed. This flight cannot take off. Please deplane. ”were the words of the captain. This was not the way I expected the trip to start!! The Spice Jet aircraft to New Delhi was all set to take off when we heard this announcement. To our luck, the leak was not detected while flying.

With no inputs from anyone from the airline, the carefully planned trip of Ladakh seemed to be in jeopardy. The trip to Ladakh was planned four months before. We had been busy in planning various routes, taking to several travel agents, reducing the cost (Ladakh trips are expensive!!) and booking tickets.

The airline buses took us to the exit gate which leads to the arrival hall. After few minutes, we were standing at the airline counter to get a new boarding pass. That was quickly received but it had no information about the flight schedule!! The airline staff simply had no idea to handle such situation. “Pass the security and wait at gate 3” was their answer. And we went through the security check again!!

There was no staff at the gate. We just sat down and starting discussing various options that we could consider in case if we miss our evening bus to Manali. The bus was at 6:30PM and still we had lot of buffer time. But with uncertainty over the flights, things could go wrong.

Few people fed up with waiting started making noises. Finally, airline staff was in action. People with no check in bags were put into another flight. We did not fall into that category.

There was another flight scheduled at 11:20AM and it was decided to put the remaining people in that flight. It took quite some time to get the seat numbers for all people and to start boarding. At the tarmac, our checks in bags were kept for identification. All this led to further delay.

We congratulated ourselves for starting the trip on a weekday. On weekends, flights are normally full making it difficult to accommodate in other planes.

A new drama unfolded inside the plane. The airline had very limited stock of food. Airhostesses were clueless on what needs to be done. With some struggle, they found some cup noodles and offered the same to hungry passengers. I never imagined that I would be eating cup noodles in flight!!

T1 terminal at New Delhi is a mess. It took a long time to get the check in baggage.

The HPTDC bus to Manali was to depart from Connaught place. Taking a taxi was not a good idea considering the traffic jams in New Delhi. Hence, we opted for Metro train.

But Murphy was in full action on that day. The Metro train seemed to go extremely slow. I had been on several metros but none of them went so slow. Even a road engine goes faster!! An announcement is heard “Due to some problem, there will be delay in Metro service!!” What a day!!

After some time, the train starts to go at respectable speed. Our stop was at Rajeev chowk, a major junction. People outside were trying to get into the train unmindful that there will be people getting down. Police were deployed to control the mad crowd. What a shame!!

We get out of station and hire an auto to cover the last km. And in the middle of the journey auto stops and does not start!! After several tries, it makes a sound and then gets into action. That was the final hiccup!!

We were just in time for the Manali bus!! Ladakh dreams were about to start!!!!
Pangong Tso in Ladakh

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Eiffel Tower, Paris

15 May 2011

The most imposing structure of Paris. We were there at 5PM on the first day. The queue to reach to the top was long and we decided to climb to the top on the next day. Also, we were very much tired by night journey and by the long walk in Louvre museum.

But we wanted to see the lighting of Eiffel tower in the night. The only problem was that it was summer and sun sets only at 10PM!! We just relaxed in the gardens next to the tower. The wait was agonizing for me because of cold and hunger. I badly needed a cup of tea but all that was available was coke and similar drinks.

Lot of people sell the replica of Eiffel tower and most of them are Indians. They are bit irritating as they keep bothering people to buy the items they have. Very much like here!! We were sitting there for several hours and did not see much people buying from them. How can they sustain with such business in an expensive city like Paris.

But the long wait till sunset was rewarding. I could take some decent snaps without a tripod.

After watching the lights, we rushed to the metro station. We cannot miss the last train!! And we had to change the trains at three stations in order to reach our hotel. Everything went smoothly.

Next day, we were back at Eiffel tower. The queue was considerably less and within 30 minutes we were at the ticket counter. Due to the crowd, entry to the top was stopped. We were given tickets only till the second stage of the tower.

The elevator took us to the 2nd stage within no time. And immediately we were standing in the queue for the top!! Within few minutes, we were enjoying the beautiful view of Paris from the top of Eiffel tower!!