Ladakh and Zanskar – the last frontier

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With more than 25 years in the field of Adventure Travel.

I am now using my knowledge and expertise to periodically bring to you a pick of the best adventure trips being offered in our country. Some of which I do also join.

Please note that any trip I recommend is :

1.Most likely one I have personally done before or would definitely do.

2.Run by complete professionals who take care of not only the fun and enjoyment, but have a standard and safety record of the highest.

3.Is a trip that will give you the best the area chosen has to offer, with people who are some of the best to explore it with.

So here is a magical trip that I highly recommend. Read on and join us.

Zanskar Update

“There is nothing whatever to do. That is Leh’s charm…nothing to do but to slow down, relax, laze, to become one vast transparent eye” Andrew Harvey A Journey in Ladakh

A Zanskar – Ladakh expedition adventure. Its one of the best ways to visit Ladakh. It is certainly not a strenuous trip, and besides being the only way to visit the canyon of the Zanskar, it has great hiking options nearly every day on the trip.
We have two departures, so do decide soon on which departure you would like to be on, and revert soonest so we can block space for you.If you are a large group we would suggest take the second dates.

Aquaterra Adventures, a leading adventure operator, are pioneers in adventure travel throughout the Indian Himalaya, offering the widest range of adventure travel products, from soft adventure trips to challenging expedition travel. They lay tremendous emphasis on safety, meticulous planning and top-notch guides and equipment. Add to that efficient staff, guides current in First Aid and CPR certification, excellent camp cuisine and an eco-friendly approach to travel.

LADAKH – An Introduction

Ladakh lies in the eastern half of the state of Jammu & Kashmir in the far north of India. It shares its much disputed north western border with Pakistan, while to the north lies the Chinese province of Sinkiang, and to the east, Chinese occupied Tibet. It covers an area of approximately 60,000 sq. kms.And ranges from 2600 metres to 7670 metres in elevation, making it the largest and highest district in India. Ladakh is sandwiched between two mountain systems – the Karakorams to the north and the Himalayas in the south. Ladakh can basically be divided into five geographical regions – Central Ladakh(the heartland of the Indus valley), Nubra(lying to the north of the Ladakh range), Rupshu (a dry, high altitude plateau lying in the south-east of Ladakh, Zanskar(one of the highest inhabited regions in the world) and western Ladakh or Lower Ladakh (around Kargil).

Ladakh really is a “Little Tibet”. Although Tibet is politically part of China today, Ladakh, like parts of Nepal, is situated on the Tibetan plateau.Ladakh has many Tibetan refugees who fled Tibet with the invasion from China.The daunting height of the Himalaya adds to its isolation, even today the main road routes to Ladakh remain closed for more than six months of each year. Until 1979, there were no regular civilian flights into Ladakh so from October to June the region was completely cut off.

Today, it is full of amazing sights – strange gompas perched on soaring hilltops, dwarfed by snow capped mountains, the barren shattered looking landscapes splashed with small, brilliant patches of green and ancient palaces clinging to sheer rock walls. But most of all it is notable for its delightful people – friendly as only Tibetans can be and immensely colorful.

Our Journey to Zanskar

We will pass the airport and Spituk gompa on our way, travelling west of Leh towards Kargil. After the army camps, the road rises upto a plateau and passes the diversion to Phiyang gompa. After 36 kms of leaving Leh, we reach Nimu, the confluence of the Zanskar with the Lion river, the Indus.

The next 60 kms are a culture vulture’s dream. 06 kms after Nimu we pass the temples and derelict fort at Basgo.Another 10 kms, we reach the painted caves at Saspol. The historic gompa of Alchi is only a 4 km diversion from here.

26 kms further down the road we reach Khalsi where the road crosses the Indus river and slowly winds its way 27 kms upto the beautiful gompa at Lamayuru. On the left, just before reaching the village, there are great views of the ‘moonlands’. We continue climbing for 15 kms upto the highest pass on the route, the Fatu La (13,450ft). After 36 more kms we cross another pass, the Namika La (12,210ft) and then the road descends 15 kms to the village of Mulbekh. Just before the village, there is an ancient 9 metre sculpture of Maitreya, or future Buddha carved into the rock. From Mulbekh, the Wakha river leads upto the cliff face gompa of Gyal.

41 kms further is the town of Kargil which marks the transition to a predominantly Muslim area from where one can either continue west to Kashmir or take the rough road south up the Suru valley into Zanskar, which is our destination.

From Kargil, the road runs south upto the Suru valley for 67 kms upto Panikhar. The Balti settlements along this valley are surrounded by lush fields growing a wide variety of crops and fruits ; the villages may seem rather untidy and in a state of disrepair. As we gain height the mighty snow capped peaks of Nun (23,410ft) and Kun (23,220 ft) begin to dominate the view.

The road swings to the east for 63 kms, past the last Muslim settlement of Parkachik, to the Buddhist Gelukpa monastery of Rangdum, sitting astride a small hill in the middle of a wide plain.

The Pensi La (14,440 ft), which is the entrance to Zanskar is only 20 kms from here. The road descends to the Stod or Doda river which it now follows past the well cared for Zanskari villages to Padum (90 kms), the capital of Zanskar. A little more than a large village, it has a surprisingly large Muslim population, mainly Baltis from the Kargil area, who have settled here since the mid 17th century.


THE LADAKH – ZANSKAR EXPEDITION

Aug 7-18 and Aug 21-Sep 01, 2010

Trip Overview

Our trip begins in Leh with an early morning scenic flight. On a clear day, you could see as far as K2. We land in very barren landscape as the plane nearly skims the sides of Spituk gompa on one of the most difficult landings in the world.

Be prepared to be frisked a lot on this flight – this is a high security flight. Keep a pen and your passports handy – visitor’s registration needed when we land at the airport.

Leh, where the altitude of 11,500 feet makes you lightheaded and the simplest chore — climbing a few stairs or struggling with a tight sleeping bag could leave you short of breath. Many people may need up to 24 hours to acclimatize. Headaches and breathlessness usually can be controlled with rest and very light exercise, if any.

A three-day ride to the put-in point on the Stod River traverses mile after mile of empty valleys, past millennia-old glaciers and up dizzying mountain passes 14,000 feet high.

The Zanskar river trip is graded as being medium difficult, over its 110-mile, six-day white-water rafting expedition. Its scenic beauty and landscape is such that you’d be thrilled to have signed up for this yearly feature.

The Zanskar is one of India’s most remote, most isolated and little-traversed rivers.

More than half our journey will pass through an otherwise inaccessible gorge, where each bend in the river brings yet another astounding array of color and shape.

Water temperatures will vary between 9-11 degrees Celsius.You will be outfitted with wetsuits, booties, gloves, and splash jackets under your lifejackets.The sun is extremely fierce, and large amounts of protective layering, caps, sunshades and sun block are needed.

A day on the road will typically begin by 6 am for long 8-9 hour drives with lunch enroute and we will reach Kargil on the first day to have our last shower for nine days.The next two days are over a mainly un-tarred road to the plains of Rangdum and onwards to the put-in at Remala, on the Stod river which meets the Tsarap Chu river downriver of Padum, to form the Zanskar river.

At Remala, we say goodbye to our duffel bags and transfer all that we need for the next six nights into large dry bags, to be shared by 2 persons.Pack carefully.We will carry these on rafts till our take out at Nimu.

Our trip starts with a safety briefing by your guides – rafts used may be oar / paddle assist or only paddle rafts. The first two days on the river are easy and on the third day, we enter the gorge of the Zanskar, where sheer walls rise 2500-3000 feet above the river.

We are on the river for a total of six rafting days plus one day dedicated to a hike into a Zanskar village.A river day begins with breakfast at 7 am by which time; you are expected to vacate your tent so packing can begin. You may help with setting up and packing up of tents. We aim to usually be on river by 9am and reach our camp for the day by 2-3pm, if not earlier. Lunch is usually had on river, and cocktail hour is at sundown each evening. Please remember to carry ample quantities of your favorite poison – there will be no local produce to bank on !

You will sleep inside 4 season tents, which can withstand extreme weather conditions.Karri mats are provided for you to sleep on and are placed under your sleeping bag.If you own a thermorest, please bring it along. Toilets are the great outdoors for most – we also carry toilet tents to use for ladies and whoever may care to give up the joy of having a nicer view.

Our crew of guides will also be supplemented by a cooking crew, which would prepare the days meals for the 8 days that we are camping out.Menus vary from Indian fare to Chinese, pasta, cold cuts, sandwiches, eggs etc.. You will be surprised by the variety.We provide you safe drinking water throughout the expedition – we use only the best – KATADYN EXPEDITION water filtration system, which is used by most wilderness expeditions, including those going to Mt. Everest.

The entire crew moves together in a totally self-contained manner like a tight knit unit. All food, water and shelter, is carried on rafts and a cataraft.Which is why we need to use discretion while packing – see the packing list.

We carry a pretty comprehensive first aid kit on the trip but it will help for you all to carry some easy to access medicine on the trip, for headaches, diarrhea, constipation, and some re-hydration powders like Electral etc. It’s also a good idea to have a roll of toilet paper accessible should you need to go.

Activity Level

Our expedition trips are designed for energetic and flexible people who have the spirit of adventure and a positive attitude.Previous experience in the outdoors and camping helps, though is not a must. These trips are participatory in nature, and everyone is expected to pitch in,set up and break down their own tent, clean their own dishes and help with loading and unloading the rafts.

Altitude considerations :

Travel to any part ofLadakh deserves a little more respect than many other high altitude destinations because the whole region lies over 2600 meters (8500 ft). People in good health should not get alarmed by this but if you have a medical condition such as high blood pressure, heart or lung disease, you must take the advise of a doctor who has experience with the effects of altitude. We do not take heart or lung patients, or pregnant mothers on this expedition.

Any kind of exercise which gets you fitter before this trip is advisable, as it will enable you to enjoy the region more, even though all hikes are optional andthe rafting not of a very strenuous nature.

Headache, Nausea & Dizziness, Loss of appetite, Fatigue, Shortness of breath, Disturbed sleep, General feeling of malaise are fairly common symptoms on arrival by air into Leh. These can also be tackled by complete rest on Day 1, sleeping well and drinking lots of fluids (atleast 4-6 litres of the non-alcoholic kind!) and not smoking too much. On all our Ladakh trips till date, nearly all have acclimatised very well and we have had only one instance of a person being in hospital on the first night, on oxygen after which she seemed to have extra bundle of energy throughout the trip.

Services provided

In remote regions, we often use local suppliers who provide services that may include vehicles for transportation, equipment, logistical support, hotels, guest houses etc. We do not own or operate these independent services or suppliers. We work with them as they share our commitment to service and quality.

Note: Flights to Leh and back are extremely difficult to book during the season. We normally have an airline block which expires 45 days before the trip date. Should you wish to extend your stay in Leh, please put in a request at the time of booking.

Cost per person: Rs. 59,000 plus airfare Delhi-Leh-Delhi Rs. 21,500/person

Total cost per person including return airfare and 2.575% service tax:

Rs. 82,573/-

Whats Included: all travel from Delhi and back to Delhi by road/ rail / air as applicable (by air and non ac car / jeep / coach), all arrangements for staying and camping while on the trip, accommodation on twin share basis in tents / rest houses / hotels, all meals including those at Leh / Kargil hotels, professional guide fee,all rafting, kayaking and safety equipment with India’s most experienced guiding team, expert leadership, camp staff, cook etc.

Whats not :airport transfers in Delhi, any stay and meals in Delhi, bottled water / alcoholic beverages at Leh / Kargil hotels, restaurant meals outside Leh/Kargil hotels, sleeping bag, items of personal clothing,expenses of a personal nature like laundry, phone calls, alcohol, cigarettes, basic medical and evacuation insurance;any costs arisingoutof unforeseen circumstances suchasbadweather, landslides,roadconditions and any other circumstancesbeyondour control.

Rates quoted are on twin share. If you prefer single accommodation, the single supplement is Rs. 7500. If you are traveling alone and wish to share accommodation, we will try our best to find you a roommate. If that is not possible, you will need to pay a “forced” single supplement of Rs. 3750.

Booking conditions: All bookings are subject to availability of space . We book space on a 100% advance.

 

The Next Step

Ready to go? Email me at pavanemann@gmail.com and I will forward the booking form and payment details to you.

IMPORTANT NOTE: AQUATERRA ADVENTURES (I) PVT. LTD.‚ reserves the right to change, alter or cancel a trip due to any reason or extraordinary circumstance like dangerous water levels, landslides, bad weather etc..This right will be exercised in the best interest of your safety, and for the well being of an individual or group of individuals.

What to expect :

Temperatures : temperatures on the trip will vary from a maximum of 24 degrees to minimum 10 degrees Celsius. Its best to be prepared for lower temperatures due to wind chill or the weather turning bad.The days are hot and the nights refreshingly cool.

What to carry : Keep it light – although what you carry with you is a very personal decision. Some of our guests love to travel as light as possible while others are only happy when they have countless bits of equipment for every possible occurrence, most of which will never be used.The list below covers all essentials that you must carry.

A day pack is great to carry things that you will need throughout the day, such as your camera, water bottle, packed lunch, waterproofs, a fleece or a jumper.

Good footwear is very important – most trails in Ladakh are pretty rough and steep so a good pair of shoes is important. Sandals work well on the raft (even though you have wetsuit booties as an option) and also for visiting monasteries (where footwear needs to be taken on and off, frequently). Socks, both for walking and a pair of warm ones for keeping feet warm inside the tent at night, is a good bet.

Clothes: A good base layer which could be a thermal top (polypropylene), with a T-shirt on top will keep you warm and dry. Mid layers provide insulation so anything that is warm will do e.g. a medium thickness woolen jumper or a mid-weight fleece top, along with another lightweight fleece top will suffice. If you really feel the cold, substitute the thinner layer with a down jacket. The outer layer is the final layer between you and the elements and must be capable of keeping out the wind, rain and snow. Any good waterproof, windproof jacket would do the job. Leg wear in the form of thermal long johns are invaluable. Cotton trousers or long skirts (long skirts for ladies also double as a `port-a-loo’) worn over this layer can keep you very comfortable. A good sun hat is very essential. Sunglasses which offer 100% UV protection are necessary to combat strong daylight.

A good quality sleeping bag ensures a good nights sleep after a long day outdoors. Do not compromise on your sleeping bag – err on the side of carrying a warmer bag, than carrying a light one which may give you many sleepless nights.

Carry any personal medication that you may need, or let us know should you be suffering from any particular ailment.

How to carry: Its best to carry your belongings in a large, tough duffel bag or a big rucksack.A bum / waist bag is handy to have your camera, film rolls, flashlights (handy when visiting monasteries) and a guidebook, when you are sightseeing.Pack similar things such as clothes, washing things, camping equipment etc. in separate stuff sacks or polythene bags so they are easier to pull out and add to the waterproofing in your bag.

CHECKLIST FOR ESSENTIAL PERSONAL ITEMS:

01. Warm Sleeping Bag (till 0’C or below at least)

02. Woollens/thermal underwear

03. Wind/rain proof jacket

04. Hiking/trekking shoes ; spare sandals

05. Woollen socks

06. Water Bottle

07. Flash Light and spare batteries – important

08. Sun Shade/Hat with Brim/woolen hat/gloves

09. Sunglasses and eyeglass retainers

10. Sunscreen/Sun block

11. Vaseline/Lip Salve

12. Insect Repellent

13. Personal Toiletries – towels/soap etc.

14. Rucsac/duffel bag to carry your baggage

15. Karimat / Thermarest (optional)

16. Small daypack to carry camera, packed lunch, water bottle and wind/rain jacket on a walk.

17. Long trousers / long shirts / Tshirts etc.

18. Good pair of shorts, one quick dry to be worn over wetsuit

19. Swim suit for ladies – a bikini top and bottom is great for wearing under the wetsuit

20. Alcohol / cigarettes – not available on trip

We provide wetsuits, wet boots, wet gloves and all rafting gear. You live in 4 season tents to withstand weather extremes, if any on the trip.Other items of personal nature need to be added by you especially personal medication, if any. Temperatures are going to vary between 25-30 degrees Celsius to 5-10 degrees at night. Long pants and long shirts are handy because of the strong sun and lots of sun tan lotion.

GEAR LINKS

1. NRS – Kayaking Gear, Rafting Supplies and Boating Equipment

 

2. www.keenfootwear.com/

 

3.www.chacosan.com/

Thermal wear : www.patagonia.com ; www.hellyhansen.com ; www.rei.com ; www.mec.ca

 

Thermarest : www.thermarest.com

 

Retainers : www.chums.com

ALTITUDE MEDICATION:

Ginko biloba: Limited studies have been performed, but the results look very promising for prophylaxis of AMS ( 120 mg po BID starting 5 days before ascent, and continuing at altitude.

Diamox (acetazolamide) is of some value in the prevention of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS).

Diamox, a drug often used in the treatment of the eye condition glaucoma, is also useful in the prevention of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). AMS occurs commonly during visits to 3000-4500m and may cause a severe headache, exhaustion and general feelings of illness.

Diamox reduces the headache of AMS and helps the body acclimatise to the lack of oxygen – it also probably reduces the incidence of the complications of AMS. Whether or not one takes Diamox is obviously a matter of personal choice – travel to high altitudes is quite possible without it. Though the drug is not recommended as a routine treatment, though there is variation of opinion about this many people choose to use it if travelling quickly to altitude (eg. if flying into Lhasa, or Leh in our case).

How to take Diamox: If you decide to use the drug, suggested dose is Diamox 125mg (half of one tablet) to be taken twice daily – take the drug for three days before staying at 3500m and thereafter for two or three days until you feel acclimatised, for about five days in all. NOT FOR THOSE ALLERGIC TO SULPHA DRUGS

Side Effects: Like all drugs, Diamox may have unwanted side effects. Tingling of the fingers, face and feet is the commonest, but this is not a reason for stopping the drug unless the symptoms are intolerable. Dizziness, vomiting, drowsiness, confusion, rashes and more serious allergic reactions have all been reported but are unusual. In exceptional cases, the drug has caused more serious problems with blood formation and/or the kidneys. Those who are allergic to the sulphonamide antibiotics may also be allergic to Diamox. More commonly, the drug makes many people (including me!) feel a little “off colour”; carbonated drinks and beer also taste strange when you are taking Diamox.

*COPYRIGHT UIAA MOUNTAIN MEDICINE CENTRE*

Reading List :

a)Ladakh : Crossroads of High Asia by Janet Rizvi

b)Zanskar : The Hidden kingdon by Michel Peissel

c)Leh & Trekking in Ladakh by Charlie Loram

d)The Cultural heritage of Ladakh by David Snellgrove & Tadeusz Skorupski


I.LEH – PLACES THAT YOU COULD VISIT

1.THE BAZAR

The town has a wide main bazar street (c1840’s) wide enough to accommodate caravans, with 2 old gates at each end. Leh developed as a trading post and market, attracting a wide variety of merchants – from Yarkhand, Kashgar, Kashmir, Tibet and north India. Tea, salt, household articles, wool and semi-precious stones were all transacted in the market. Buddhism travelled along the Silk Road and the Kashmir and Ladakh feeder. It is an interesting town to walk around. The bazar is colourful and gives an insight in to Ladakhi life. The Old Village, with its maze of narrow lane sits on the hillside below the Palace. A flashlight is recommended especially if you are visiting the gompas.

2.LEH PALACE (20-30min)

The Palace stands majestically overlooking the town which allowed the king to survey his subjects at all times. (Follow signs for the palace from next to the mosque; it is clearly visible from every house in Leh.) Today it stands empty, as it has since the mid-nineteenth century when the royal family moved to Stok Palace after they were besieged by Kashmiri forces. It was built by King Sengge Namgyal in the seventeenth century in the same style as the Potala Palace of Lhasa. Although not on quite the same scale, it still stands nine storeys high. The upper floors were used by royalty, while the store rooms and stables took up the lower floors, hence the larger windows on the top.

There is very little to see in the Palace today as the whole building is in a poor state of repair (be careful of the holes in the floor). Inside, it is like the Potala with numerous rooms, steps and narrow passages lined with old thangkas, paintings, arms and constitutes a museum. The central prayer room, usually locked but opened on request, is unused but has numerous religious texts lining the walls. Currently it is being restored by the Archaeological Survey of India – possible to watch work in progress. (Check up with the Hotel before you leave as to what time it is open for visitors).

From the top there are good views across Leh and it’s a fascinating walk through the alleys of the old town to get there. The old town is full of traditional architecture and many households have retained some of their rural values, keeping livestock in their backyards and drying fodder on the roofs. The alternative way up is take the gentle track that begins above the polo ground. From the roof of the palace are magnificent views of the Zanskar Range.

High above the Palace is the older and even more ruined Palace/Fort and the remains of the Temple of the Guardian of the Deities. The temple houses a large golden Buddha, many painted scrolls, murals and old manuscripts. The Soma Gompa (1957) (new monastery) in the Old Village was erected to commemorate the 2500th anniversary of the birth of Buddha.

3.SHANTI STUPA

Visible from most of the town, this new stupa was officially opened in 1985. The peace pagoda is part of the legacy of the Japanese Fuji Guruji who, as part of his mission to promote world peace through Buddhism, built pagodas and temples all over the world. It stands above Chanspa overlooking Leh and and the Indus Valley. It’s possible to take a taxi all the way to the top but a good test of your acclimatisation is to walk up the 542 steps. The stupa may be a bit garish but the views are spectacular.

4.CENTRE FOR ECOLOGICAL DEVELOPMENT & WOMENS ALLIANCE

When you first arrive in Leh and the altitude is making you feel lethargic, go up to the Ecolology Centre one afternoon to watch the excellent one-hour video, Ancient Futures. It’s shown every afternoon at 3:00pm and is free, but be there by 2:30pm to get a good seat. The film provides a valuable insight into the culture of Ladakh and the problems that the region faces today as it struggles to come to terms with recent changes. The centre also has an excellent library, a shop selling locally produced handicrafts and demonstrations of various appropriate technologies such as solar ovens.

II.MONASTERIES AND OTHER PLACES OF INTEREST AROUND LEH

Please carry a flashlight if you are visiting the monasteries – its best to go in sandals or footwear, which is easily removable as you will need to take your footwear off frequently)

1.SHEY (25min; 15km)

Located on the east bank of the river Indus, Shey until the 16th centurty was the royal residence, located at an important vantage point in the Indus Valley. Kings of Leh were supposed to be born in the monastery. Shey, along with Thikse, is also regarded as an auspicious place for cremation. The palace sits on a strategic position on a spur jutting out into the Indus Valley. Much of the palace and the fort high above it, has fallen into disrepair though the soot covered wall paintings in the palace have now been restored. The palace gompa has a 12m-high blue haired Maitreya Buddha which is attended by Drukpa monks from Hemis. It is made of copper and brass but splendidly gilded and studded with precious gem stones. The Buddha statue is believed to be sculpted by Nepalese craftsmen. It is said that after its completion they settled in the area of Chilling and started the now famous metal working industry there. There are extensive grounds to the east with a large number of chortens in which cremated ashes of the devout was buried. A newer temple houses another giant Buddha statue. There are several rock carvings; particularly noteworthy is that of five dhyani Buddhas at the bottom of the hill.

2.TIKSE/THIKSE(30min;17km)

Situated south of Leh on a crag overlooking the flood plain on the east bank of the Indus, it is one of the most imposing monasteries in Ladakh and was part of the original Gelugpa order in the 15th century. The 12-storey red monastery with typical tapering walls has 10 temples, a nunnery and 60 Lamas in residence whose houses cling to the hillside below. The complex contains numerous stupas, statues, thangkas, wall paintings, swords and a large pillar engraved with the Master’s teachings. The temple on the right of the courtyard houses a 15 metre statue of the Maitreya, or future Buddha which was finished in 1981, while at the back of the Dukhang there is a more than a 500 year old Buddha.

3.HEMIS (1hr 20min ; 45km)

South of Leh on the west bank of Indus, the Monastery built on a green hillside surrounded by spectacular mountain scenery, is hidden in a gorge south-west of Karu. As you drive up to it you pass two enormous mani walls. It is the biggest and wealthiest in Ladakh and is a ‘must’ for visitors. However it is not the most beautiful and much of the gompa looks run down and in need of restoration.The gompa was

founded in the 17th century and is sometimes called Chang Chub Sang Ling, ‘the solitary place of the compassionate ones’. It belongs to the Kagyupa sect. Try to see

the impressive image of Guru Padmasambhava which is in a temple behind the Dukhang (the temple on the right). This huge statue is 12 metres high and was completed in 1984. On the north side are 2 assembly halls approached by a flight of steep steps.The lakhang (chapel) has a 12th century Kashmiri bronze Buddha and silver chortens, an important library of Tibetan style books and an impressive collection of thangkas, the largest of which is displayed every 12 years (last displayed 1992). There are various places where you can eat in the village and also a campground.

4.LAMAYURU (4hrs; 124km.)

The gompa at Lamayuru is one of the most immediately striking in Ladakh. Its position on top of a beautifully eroded crag, complete with rock pinnacles and caves, gives it an almost fairy tale quality as it stands over the small village below. There is a local legend that the whole valley was under a deep lake until the holy man, Nimagou, prayed for a monastery to be founded here. With that, the lake drained away. The site of the monastery is probably the oldest in Ladakh with the first temple, like so many others, being built at the time of Rinchen Zangpo. The monastery is officially called Yung-dung Tharpa Ling, or ‘place of freedom’, after it was declared a holy site in the 16th century. It now belongs to the Kagyupa sect.

5.KARSHA (9 kms from Padum)

The monastery is situated on a steep mountain overlooking the Padum valley. It was foundedby a translator from Zanskar, Fagspa Sherab and later by Dorjay Sherab and Sherab Zangpo of Stod.It is the largest Gelugpa monastery in Zanskar, with around 90 monks in residence.

6.ALCHI (3hr;70km.)

The Choskar, or religious enclave, is regarded as one of the most important Buddhist centres in Ladakh and a jewel of monastic skill. Built in the 11th century, it is a treasure trove of early Buddhist art in the Kashmiri tradition, a style quite different from the Tibetan art found in Ladakh’s other monasteries. Also unlike other gompas, it is hidden down by the river rather than in the more usual elevated position. It was constructed under the supervision of Kaldan Shesrab, a follower of Rinchen Zangpo, the man responsible for reviving an interest in Buddhism at that time. Alchi is one of the few remaining examples of that era. The monks (Gelukpa order) of the Likir monastery look after this monastery. There are 5 shrines in the Choskor complex which has some splendid wall paintings and wooden figures; note the painted wooden ceiling of the gate. The village and gompa are reached by

crossing the Indus just beyond Saspol and doubling back on yourself for about 2km.

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An Unexpected Egypt.

The sands of Arabia flowed below the wings of the aircraft depicting all the romance and expanse that they are assigned.

Rugged, rock outcroppings rising from the silk of flowing sand dunes. Little settlements with the desert crouching all around, ready to reclaim the intrusion with one deep breath.

The enchantment started there, out of the airplane window, effectively blocking out the infernal noise of some hundred teenagers from the Dubai American Academy unfortunately travelling on the same flight.

It continued with my first sight of the pyramids. These immense structures, sentinels of such a long ago civilization, that fascinates till today. A civilization of such knowledge, art, skill and learning. If one were to only look at the Sphinx alone, it would tell the story of what intricacy, art, exactitude and ability lived in those ancient people. Even with the ages of weathering, that face and it’s features are compelling and powerful. It is a place to sit and breathe in the whole. The aura and energy of the stones needs to be felt and absorbed. Come back to take photographs another time. This time just sit and stare and feel.

Block out the touts and the buses, see the camels, horses and pony carts and transport yourself to another time and the beauty of these monuments in their prime, of white robed men and women – with gold ornaments, etched in blue enamel. Regal processions and long floats on the green waters of the Nile.

I haven’t even got to that stupendous river. Like a ribbon of green through the golden desert. That says it, who is to describe what that aerial sight was? Only the imagination. I still have not experienced the reality of it, just crossed a bridge and noted that it is not a river hemmed in by buildings, houses and filth. Atleast, what I have seen of it so far.

This is my first day and other than the obvious tourist destruction so evident all over the east, it has been one of enchantment.

We rested and ate at the quaintest little garden restaurant/resort along side a dirty canal in the Giza area. It is the most tackily charming little spot – and I can recommend it as a great lunch, tea, dinner, cool off, rest spot – Alzeb.

Now my day is ending at the Cataract Hotel, one semi luxury – large resort, that has clean rooms and seemingly nice restaurants. Will sample tomorrow.

It gave a good breakfast and has a lovely pool, otherwise I am sure there are infinitely nicer places to stay in Cairo.

We got an extra day in Cairo due to some off road permissions. The pyramids at Sakkara was something that was just knocked off a list of things to see.

The Museum was breathtaking and too large to absorb all at once, so we honed in on the Tutankhamen rooms and were they brilliant. Looking at that beautiful golden face, it is hard to firstly believe you are actually seeing the real thing and not a magazine picture. Then the mind boggles at just the creation of it. What a masterpiece (amongst many others) of workmanship created so many years ago and still so beautifully preserved. It has to be seen, no words can describe the awe and sense of the whole find and the history that was uncovered with the amazing treasures.

The Khan al Khalili market is a cocktail of Chandni Chowk mixed with Janpath and stirred with Sarojini Nagar. The coffee houses in the square are loud and solicitious. The buildings of the mosque and the academy around it are quite beautiful. I am sure the market holds some fascination – to me it was too loud, too pushy, and ridiculously avaricious. Well done without, though I guess one needs to experience it once, to know that you really never need go back again.

This trip was meant to be an off road, driving trip through the western desert, but due to some hitch in permissions we are doing a completely different trip, and the unknown adventure begins.

We are still driving, but now to the Oasis of Siwa, also in the middle of the desert, miles away from anywhere, on the western border of Egypt. It was the place where the Oracle of Amon resided. The oracle that Alexander the Great came to consult. There begins the romance of it all again.

Today has been a spectacular drive, down the Nile bypassing Alexandria and swinging left along the coast towards El Alamein. What a sight it is to see the Desert meet the azure blue Mediterranean!!

El Alamein brought back every commando comic ever read, and a lot of history learnt. The World War II Museum is rather well done and you get a chance to see what that desert war must really have been.Wrecked spitfires and blown up troop carriers reminiscent of what an ordeal it really was –instead of the romanticized concept in ones head. Miles of sandy beach and this ridiculously blue Mediterranean was so enticing, we had to stop and have a swim.

Finally reached the Oasis of Siwa well after dark, driving some 800 kms through completely trackless desert. Wild camel herds were all we saw.


Imagine yourself riding for miles through the desert on a thirsty camel, (obviously you are fried and thirsty yourself.) Come over a rise in the ground and look out across this great depression in the desert, filled with a sea of palm trees and a sea of water. Because that is exactly what it is. A fault in the earth’s crust an area well below sea level, creating a salt water lake and a fresh water one.

It is like a dream, a mirage, waving palms and rippling water surrounded by craggy rock outcrops towards the west and north, dunes of golden sand on the south and east.                                       

Adobe (mud brick houses), there is absolutely no rainfall, so there are actually mud brick buildings. I know my grandmother told me that they had a three story mud built house in their village in Pakistan and I would always imagine it crumbling. Here there are the ruins of a five story fortress which has obviously stood for centuries.

It is wonderful how all the new hotels have kept to the traditional building method, so the aura and ethos of the oasis is totally maintained. The three large hills that protrude out of the centre of this area are catacombed with old burial chambers of pharoanic beings of the 26th Dynasty who created the necropolis. Lit up at night they look supernaturally eerie from a distance. Quite fascinating on actually exploring, there are some remarkably well preserved frescoes.

The ruins of the temple of Amon with some inscriptions dating from the 4th century BC, lie within the ruins of Aghurmi. The old fortress. This is the Oracle that Alexander the great came to consult before his campaign of conquest in Persia. He reached the oasis, supposedly by following birds across the desert. The oracle, Alexander’s court historians alleged, confirmed him as both a divine personage and the legitimate Pharoah of Egypt.

It was a powerful space, whether by virtue of my interest or not, I can not say. A small room, with a few inscriptions on the wall (all that is left), open to the sky, but I think it was the history in those stones and just the fact that he came here and an oracle spoke!!!

We have the advantage of a superb guide, a professor of Egyptology from Israel who does insist on speaking Hebrew but deigns to translate every so often. I am accompanied on this trip by a group of very interesting people from Israel, thus the Hebrew speaking professor.

Once we had climbed around the catacombs and seen the amazing views across the oasis from the top of the hills, we drove through the waving palms on a little dirt road  which bought us to Cleopatras pool.

 Situated at a crossroad amidst the palms. An ancient fresh  water spring fills the pool that seems to serve as the  swimming hole for all the people that pass by. There is a  very pleasant little chai dhaba where we sat and watched the  business of the oasis wander past. A little boy riding a tiny  donkey cart laden with grass, stops his cart in the shade,  takes off his djellaba and dives into the pool in his pajamas.  Cools off, puts his djellaba back on and goes on his way.  They all seem to do that as did some of our group.

The people of this oasis are closer to the Berber tribes of Libya and they all wear the white djeballa and the houndstooth checked keffiyes which you don’t really see elsewhere. Donkey carts are the preferred modes of transport and even constitute the Siwa Taxi service, all festooned and decorated.

In the evening we hired bicycles from the market, wonderfully rickety, but serviceable and rode out along a little track into the lake to Fatnas Island, which became a palm-fringed peninsula located on the edge of a saltwater lake.

The lake is akin to the Dead Sea. We could actually float sitting up in the water, sipping a beer and watching the sunset and the moon brighten simultaneously across this vaste expanse of water in the middle of the desert. It was surreal, the most amazing experience. There was a fresh water tank to dive into once you got out of the oasis to wash off the encrusted salt – all crystallized on your body. Then we cycled back to the market in the bright moonlight.

Our hotel is the Siwa Garden resort with truly lovely gardens surrounding a fresh mineral spring swimming pool. The architecture is the same mud huts that I mentioned earlier and it is a beautiful spot, very well run.

On the drive back to Cairo, a stop at Alexandria is well worth it, the new library is remarkable and may well go down in history as a worthy descendant of it’s famous predecessor.

I went to Egypt to do something quite different and came away totally enchanted with what I did do.

The Nile and all the regular Egyptian destinations will happen some day, out of the way Siwa was like a gift that fell into my lap. A little place of wonder far out in the nowhere land of sand.

SPITI: of magic mountains.

Rudyard Kiplings’ description of Spiti in his book ‘Kim’ is as magical as the place itself,

“ At last they entered a world within a world. A valley of leagues where the high hills were fashioned of the mere rubble and refuse from the knees of the mountains. Surely the Gods live here.”

Isolated in it’s remote fastness of trans Himalayan mountains, the Spiti valley is a forgotten wonderland of cold mountain desert. Sheer cliffs weathered by  wind and erosion into the most fantastic pinnacles and battlements,  abut on the silvery snake of the Spiti river which meanders in the upper reaches across a wide valley and constricts to a torrent lower down. Amazingly preserved Buddhist monastries are precariously perched on pillars of rock and sand, or nestled into sheer cliffs. They have been completely untouched by the outside world till just a few years ago and still preserve some of the oldest artifacts and forms of Buddhism.  Amongst all this vastness of space and mud mountains suddenly the mind is bewitched with  an oasis of green around a tiny village. The people, not being used to outsiders are rather shy, but warmly hospitable. They live an incredibly harsh life. They have one growing season and that crop of ‘Satu’, peas, potatoes has to last them the whole year. The mainstay of their lives are the yaks – these multipurpose animals are the beasts of burden, transport, meat supply, milk providers and their skins are used for clothing and blankets. They are extremely ornery animals and riding them is an adventure all it’s own. For one,  sitting astride a yak is a little like doing a gymnastic split. They don’t take kindly to manouvering either, their minds are quite firm on what direction they will take and you just ride along willy nilly hanging on for dear life.

The first time I visited Spiti, we trekked across the Pin – Parvati pass from the Kullu valley. I do not suggest that this is the best way to get there, however it is the grandest of all treks and descending into the Pin valley is an experience, awesomely sublime!

*The year was 1991 and the end of June when my intrepid aunt Prem, her daughter – my cousin Pia and I decided we were going to attempt the Pin-Parvati trek.

End June is still rather early for high altitude treks as was brought home to us by the many well wishers in Manali who tried to dissuade us.

‘It’s a very high pass, there will be a lot of snow.’

‘You could loose your way, it’s a three way pass.’

‘Chances of avalanches and cravasses is highest now.’

None of this deterred us, what almost turned us back was the tedium of dealing with the ‘babbudom’  involved in getting permits to go into Spiti.

Those days even Indians needed to get a special permit, Spiti forms a part of our border with Tibet/China.

It took us two days of persuasion and dissuasion, ‘All women alone!?’

We finally got the permits. Also a local guide, who knew how to get to the pass, but not beyond.

Gear was sorted, supplies packed and we finally set off.

The first leg of the trip is up the Parvati river valley. She is a young, beautiful, powerful river descending through a steep sided, deep valley. The motor road only went a little way up the valley to the little town of Manikaran.

(Now it goes all the way to Pulga.)

The track left the river and wound up through thick oak and rhododendron forest, a long day’s hike brought us to Pulga, the last village in the valley.

Those moments after you set up camp, sit with a hot cup of tea and just soak in the amazing vistas are indescribable. The terraced village fields, bursts of fiery red rhodendron flowers amidst the green depth of the forest. Shimmering waterfalls from the melting heights and those soaring mountains all around. I have only ever found one word for it – magic!!

The next few days we climbed higher, camping one night in a meadow by a hot spring. Lying in that pool of boiling water, surrounded by the singing of the wind in the cedars and watching the colours of the sunset on the snows and the clouds.

This would be my description of ultimate, sublime luxury.

2)

There is a definite energy in that valley.  Parvati is the Mother Goddess, the daughter of the Himalayas and the source of power. She watched over us.

The monsoon was building up and we were worried that it would catch us before we got to the pass and climbed into the rain shadow. But those thunderheads stayed behind us all the way, shadowing the valley behind while we continued in sun shine and fair weather.

(I’ve walked in the UK and have a great respect for those intrepid people who hike up and down those moors and the highlands of Scotland not knowing when a sunny day will turn into a week long downpour.)

For myself, I intensely dislike looking down at my feet while water drips off my hat and the vistas are left to one’s imagination. Wet tents and sleeping bags are not to be borne!!!

Two uncanny incidents occurred during our walk up to the source of the Parvati, the Mantalai lake.

Three days into our trek, we had left all sign of human habitation and were above the tree line. We camped in a meadow that was like a Japanese garden. Artistically placed rocks, stunted juniper bushes and scatterings off buttercups and blue Himalayan poppies. Through it all burbled an enchanting little stream.

Into our little camp came a saffron clad ‘pundit’ and his boy ‘chela’.

Now for all the sunshine, once the sun went down, the temperatures dropped drastically. We were above 4000 m, there was a wind chill factor. We were huddled in down jackets around our little camp stove. (No wood here to make a fire.) Then in walked these two barely clad people carrying nothing more than a cloth bundle.

Obviously we asked them to share our meal.

In conversation we learnt that they too were heading to the Mantalai lake. They were traveling from South India to perform a special ceremony at the lake.  It was then we discovered that the lake was one of the centres of great Tantric energy .

The mysticism of Tantra is so little understood. All that a lay person knows about is the amazing power and obviously, as all power, it may be wielded for both good and the opposite.

Most stories recounted are scary, of black magic and sacrifice. Thankfully we never have had the likes of the Inquisition, else more than half our priests would have been burnt at the stake!

However, this strange meeting was spooky. The ‘pundit’ looked and spoke like a kind learned man. But uncanny was the response we got when we asked how he was planning to travel the rest of the distance with no food or supplies. So far it was imaginable, there had been villages and people who would have sheltered and fed them.

‘What would you have done tonight if you hadn’t met us?’ we asked.

He looked quizzical, ‘But you are here.’ Was all he said.

4.

We climbed further up the valley, the river was narrow and a broiling, leaping froth over huge boulders and then the valley opened up into the debris of glacial moraine, rubble, scree, boulders, still interspersed with amazing flowers and little meadows of tough, scrubby grass.

The next two days, the priest and his companion appeared every evening when we set camp. We shared our food, they would stay and talk for a while and move away to sleep.

About their lack of cover or bedding. He said all senses were controlled by the mind.

‘There is no cold, heat or discomfort unless you feel it.’

It was an amazing person that we had the good fortune to encounter, that we were too spooked to actually enter into that experience fully is a pity.

We were spooked. As I mentioned, the hearsay about Tantrics is scary.

‘Would we be possessed, sacrificed, turned to stone?’ Actual thoughts.

So our conversations with him stayed to surface things. Not even asking what kind of ceremony or prayer he was going to perform at the lake. I don’t think he would have told us, but honestly, we were too scared to venture there.

He figured our guide had only ever been to the lake and not over the pass and he said a strange thing. ‘Your other guide will meet you there.’

I say ‘said’ because that’s what we realized later. At the time we thought it was a question.

It’s true that our guide had never been across the pass, but an old uncle of his had, and with that basic knowledge, our map and compass we were going for it.

The last night that the pundit was with us, we were camped about two days short of the lake at a spot called Pandu Pul. (The bridge of the Pandavas.)

There is a large boulder in the centre of the river here and a series of  smaller ones leading to and from it creating a bridge. So essentially you use the smaller boulders as kind of stepping stones, then do a little bouldering on the mammoth in the middle and hop,skip and jump across to the other side. A little slip would mean being churned into some frothing raging white water.

(The bridge was said to have been built by the Pandavas during their exile, so their wife could cross the river. This is part of the story of the Mahabharath and If anyone wants a little more about that, wikipedia is a good place to go.)

We thought we’d tackle it better in the morning after a rest.  It had been a short walking day. We were camped in a pretty little meadow by a Gaddis (shepherds) rock shelter.

The Gaddis are nomadic herdsmen that bring their flocks up to these pastures in the summer. It was early for them yet, but their shelter did just that, sheltered us from the incessant wind that blows in these areas from mid day to dusk.

While we were setting up camp, we heard a hail and saw a man in homespun shepherd clothes come bounding down the hill behind us. Rather surprising. There were no flocks and he seemed alone. Also he was a very large man, unusual for the area.

Well he came leaping down the hillside and there was this tall, red bearded, white man, incongruous in the pajamas and woolen coat of a shepherd.

‘Hello,’ he says,’I’m John and am I glad to have caught up with you.’

I can’t even begin to tell you how astounding this was. We just gawped.

5.

So, in that lone spot we were becoming a crowd. Luckily he carried his own food. Our rations were certainly being stretched and we still had at least another ten days of hard travel before we possibly hit a replenishment point.

John was funny and strange. Seems he’d been traveling in the mountains for some years. He came from America every summer and wandered the Himalayas.

What he did back home we never quite found out.

But here he was, a big American in ‘Gaddi’ garb, red beard and ponytail, pyjamas, homespun wool coat and well worn mountain boots. Shy, very proper manners, had barely ever spoken with an Indian woman because he believed it was taboo. Well, in the remote places he’d been wandering he was half way right. Certainly not taboo, but definitely not done, even had the opportunity arisen.

We are a hospitable people, and within that concept of hospitality it is polite to enquire after a person, their family, what they do. It is not just rude curiosity, it is to welcome and absorb.

Unlike the Pundit, John was a curiosity we definitely needed to question.

So where, what, how, why, does this man fall off a mountain in the middle of no where, searching for us?

He heard about us at the permit office in Kullu where he’d been trying to get a permit for Spiti. Hadn’t got it, but thought he could accompany us to the pass at least.

Well that explained trying to catch up with us. Nobody would attempt that pass alone.

He just seemed to be the ultimate explorer. Travelled only in the mountains, kept a badly lettered journal.

‘Do you go back and publish your stories?’

‘No, I do not want other people to discover these pristine spots that I have seen.’

Ok, so this seemed to be self discovery and knowledge, just for himself.

Well who questions that?

What he did have was an excellent contour map of the area. Something that we did not, because the Survey of India does not issue anything but very rudimentary maps of areas on the Indian border that are called, ‘Inner Line Areas.’

Bit of an anomaly that you could get them elsewhere in the world.

However, here was our guide, or at least his map gave us a chance to find the right route across. We had been quite willing to follow the compass and a general direction. It would have got us down the other side willy nilly, whether into Spiti, the district of Kinnaur or back on this side into the next valley was any body’s guess.

The Pin Parvati is a cross roads pass, currently heavily snowed under, chances of our distinguishing land marks were rather slim.

So, that all seeing pundit already knew this? We had courage enough to ask if John was whom he had meant when he said our other guide.

Another enigmatic response. ‘It is as it is.’

6.

The distance from Pandu Pul to the Mantalai lake is a days hard walking. No regular path or trail, it’s just a lot of boulder hopping finding the easiest route over the glacial moraine. Hard on the legs and blistering to the feet, so when we found a tiny meadow beside a mammoth rock about mid afternoon, we decided not to beat any records and give ourselves another day to get there.

There was a large cave under the monolithic rock. Obviously used as a shepherd shelter. It provided a much needed break from the ever present keening wind.

The river was broken into silver ribbons spread across the morraine, the high peaks of the range were up ahead glittering white.

The pundit had gone on so we didn’t have his company. It was a lazy sun baking afternoon sheltered behind the ‘cave rock’. We had rather necessary, freezing water, baths. Chalked out the route on that wonderful map. Re distributed the weight in our packs and generally got geared for what was going to be rather a challenge.

Our attempt to cross the Great Himalayan Range over the 5320 m high Pin Parvati Pass.

Unlike other passes in this range of mountains, which are traditional shepherd routes, the Pin Parvati is not used by shepherds. The meadows around the lake are as far as they bring their flocks.

This pass was discovered or rather first documented by Sir Louis Dane in 1884 as a possible entry from the Kullu to Spiti valleys. However it has never been a regular route for any travellers. Offering neither an easy approach or a quick crossing.

One of the reasons for the Spiti valley having remained so isolated and untouched has been it’s inaccessibility.

Ringed by high mountains to the north, east and west, the passes that do allow access are all over 5000 mt. To the south where the Spiti river flows and joins the Sutlej is the stupendous, perpendicular walled Sutlej Gorge.

We got to the lake in a hop skip and jump the next morning. It lies like a little jewel in the hollow of towering mountains. The priest was already at prayer on a little peninsula of land that pushed into the lake.

We kept the width of the lake between us and set camp on the near side, to not disturb as much as to get as far away as possible from any effects.

The snows had only cleared off little patches of spongy, damp meadow  immediately around the lake.

That small patch of water in the midst of the mountains turned every colour of the rainbow and then some more through the day. From a mirror reflecting an upside down world in the morning through, aqua, turqoise, teal and emerald into blushing pink, lilac, mauve, indigo blending into ash and sparkling silver in the moonlight.

It is not easy to describe that place or the sensations it evoked. There was a timelessness, a hush, a serenity. A sense of eternity, immensity and evanescence, all encompassed in the one.  The expanse of the soul and the mote that is you.

The great mountains, draped white in the hollows, with jagged pinnacles piercing a blinding blue sky.

The stillness of the pundit in his saffron robes across the smooth calm waters of the lake.

The burble of the tiny stream leading out of the lake, the incongruity of this trickle of water turning into the gushing, springing river we had followed up.

The trill of a lark and the call of the lammergeier as it wheeled lazily in that expanse.

Just thinking of it carries me away, I just hope I’ve managed to get it across even half way.

7.

We scouted out our direction for the start of the climb but stayed at the lake that night. Prayed for a clear cold night so we’d have a firm walking surface the next morning.

(This is a story in continuation….. that I will get back to)