Sunday, August 15, 2010

Ladakh: Lamayuru

(Here's another overdue post)

"A"'s parents and brother had gone back to Bangalore and it was only the two of us left on this majestic mountain range. We spent a couple of days doing absolutely nothing in Leh except slowly inhaling the insufficient mountain oxygen and reading. On our third day, we decided to go towards the West, to Lamayuru.

Lamayuru is about 125 km from Leh, 8 hours by car. Legend has it that this place was once the bottom of a deep lake but a Buddhist scholar prayed and caused the lake to drain. He then built a monastery here which housed the oldest gompa in Ladakh. Sounds like a fairy tale, but it's not all untrue. This place does look as if a lake has vanished and left a bizarre moonscape of rock formations.

The legend carved in stone.

The vanished lake and moonscape of Lamayuru.

Trekking on the moonscape. It's just as you thought it'd be; the surface under our feet was like semi-solid sand cakes. I was so certain there was going to be a landslide or I would step into quicksand because occasionally, I'd come across a hole in the ground and when I'd peep into it, all I would see was darkness.

Moonscape up close. Looks like a dried-up mixture of powdered sand and mud.

Inside the Lamayuru monastery.

An elderly lady who was hanging out at the monastery busily spinning a prayer wheel.

Sunset at Lamayuru.

Blackbirds chilling out on the top of the ancient gompa.

"A" exploring the moonscape caves. Some of these caves are manmade and are homes to the locals.

A tiny door to a sturdy home.

Doors that lead to no where.

The many colors of the Himalaya.

The scary yet amazing view on our drive.

Apart from trekking, you could also do some stone-carving at the "shop" attached to the monastery's guesthouse. "A" had the great idea of carving our names in Tibetan, on a slab of stone, but that stone remains unfinished to this day and is now collecting dust somewhere in my closet. There were some curious young monks around.

There are not too many choices for accommodation. We stayed at the guesthouse run by the monastery that has basic amenities, hot water and pretty good food. We requested the room that's on the terrace and our view was simply amazing.

"A" doing the moonwalk in front of the moonscape.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Ladakh: Home stay in Ang

While the rest of India is rapidly developing, westernizing and modernizing, Ladakh has managed to preserved its traditional, eco-friendly, and almost ancient way of life. Unfortunately, change is coming quickly to this Himalayan utopia mainly due of tourism and global warming. Yes, I am equally guilty but I tried to do my part and left as little impact as possible.

"A" and I stayed at a home stay in a small village called Ang.

Ang village.

A Buddhist monk walking through the farms in Ang village.

We stayed with Tundup, who fortunately spoke Hindi so "A" (and occasionally I) connected well with him. Here is his traditional mud-brick house and farm. All vegetables and fruits grown here are done organically because that's the only way he knows how to.

A bee (check out its coat!) looking for nectar from this mustard plant at Tundup's farm.

This is the toilet in the house, situated on the 1st floor (or 2nd floor if you are in the USA). There's a hole on the ground in the middle of the room, and the rest of the room is covered in loose soil. Poop collected on the ground floor from the toilet hole is then put back into the farm as fertilizers. Cool, huh?

Tundup's wife was on her way to Nubra Valley (about 2 days away from Ang village) to listen to the Dalai Lama speak. His neighbor came over to help milk the cow, and I helped (or tried to). It wasn't as easy as it looks! Milk from this cow was used in our tea, to make dahi (curd) which was then made into paneer (cottage cheese) and then the paneer was dehydrated and added as an ingredient to thukpas.

In a traditional Ladakhi house, the kitchen is also the living room. This ancient-looking stove is not only used to cook thukpas and momos but also used to provide heat to the room during winter. Dried cow dung, twigs and sticks were used for fire.

Old drinking bowls passed down from Tundup's grandfather.

The only water source comes from the river. Here's a self-made aqueduct that Tundup build to provide water for his farm that also runs through his house for drinking and washing.

For dinner, Tundup picked some fresh vegetables from his farm.

The whole family was involved in the cooking process, including his little grandchild.

Delicious homemade thukpa. Click here for a Ladakhi homemade thukpa recipe.

This here is chang, a Ladakhi homemade alcohol made from barley. Considering how it was brewed at home, and having experienced some home-brewed alcohol myself, I was surprised by how smooth it went down. It has a subtle taste with a bit of a sour aftertaste. We had a choice of adding roasted barley powder into our chang, which I did (the glass on the right). According to Tundup, this concoction used to be fed to little children when they had stomach aches.

And for evening entertainment, play with the family baby. Here is "A" giving an iPhone introduction to Tenzen, Tundup's two year old granddaughter.

Our room is situated right above the lhas, which is a room where farm animals are kept. Electricity is only powered-on to the village between dusk to 11pm, so by 10:30pm, everyone crawled onto their mattresses and waited for the lights to go off.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Ladakh: Nubra Valley

Traveling from Leh to Nubra Valley has got to be one of the roughest road trips I've ever taken. Riding on the Toyota Innova that we hired for this trip felt like riding on a rickety train. Roads slips and slides for a couple of hours until you reach Nubra Valley. We want to see you drive through this, Top Gear!

Khardungla is en route to Nubra. At 18,380 ft above sea level, it is the highest motorable road in the world. We were told not to stay here for more than a few minutes or we might start feeling altitude sickness. We, of course, didn't listen. It's hard not to hangout since it's one of the few places in the world where you'd get birds view of the Himalaya. It was simply spectacular.

We met some people who drove all the way from Leh to here and turned back because the roads were flooded from melting mountaintop snow. Traveling in Ladakh is really based on luck.

The road to Hunder, Nubra Valley has the most amazing views but also the most dangerous - definitely not for the fainthearted.

Some didn't make it.

Nubra Valley
Nubra Valley.

San dunes, Nubra Valley
Rolling sand dunes of Hunder, Nubra Valley. This is as far as foreigners can travel and till this day, as close as I have gotten to Pakistan.

Bactrian camels left behind from Silk Route days.

Camel ride, Nubra Valley
These bactrian camels and the people who run the rides have a pretty good deal going. Every evening at 6 p.m., the camel walas (camel managers?) will feed the camels some atta (wheat dough) as a form of "payment" and then release them back into the forest. We noticed at exactly 6 p.m, the camels would start becoming antsy, which reminded me of office people who were ready to punch-out. The next morning, the camel walas will go into the forest and gather the camels again for "work".

Nubra Valley at almost sunset.

Hunder camp site, Nubra Valley
There are no hotels or resorts here, only campsites. We stayed in one that was run by a monastery. These camps were pitched next to this 300 year old palace that used to belong to the Nubra royalties.

Ancient paintings in the 300 yr old ruined palace, Hunder, Nubra Valley
Inside the 300 year old ruined palace. These paintings have not been restored.

Sand dunes, Hunder Nubra Valley
"A": This is the ultimate sandbox!
Warning: Do not play in the sand if you have electronics (cameras, iPhones, etc) in your pockets because you might destroy them.

Foreigners are only allowed to stay up to seven days. I don't need seven days but if I ever come to Nubra Valley again, I'll definitely plan for more than one.

Random Tips:
1 - Foreigners need an Inner Line Permit, which can only be obtained through a travel agent in Leh.
2 - There are no proper recycling facilities so take your trash (plastic bottles, wrappers, etc) with you when you leave.
3 - Pack appropriately - it's fairly warm down in the valley but the stop at Khardungla can be chilly.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Ladakh: Pangong Lake & Engagement

My condolences goes out to the family and friends of the recent tragedy in Leh, Nimoo and Choglamsar. Please email me if you would like to make a donation to help.

I’ve stopped using the phrase “the most beautiful place on earth” on my blog because there are just way too many beautiful places out there, but Ladakh is something else. Amazing, spectacular, majestic, unreal, heavenly, the list goes on. This place is like no where else I've been in the world and it has truly changed my life in more ways than one.

I'm still sorting out 3000 photos taken during this trip but here are some photos taken at Pangong (or Pangong Tso), which is a lake in the Himalayas situated at the height of 4,350 m (14,270 ft).

Pangong Tso. See those lines - they are roads without guardrails, very common in India but illegal in the US.

Scenic drive from Leh to Pangong.

Depending on the conditions of the road (most of the time, the conditions are scary) the drive from Leh to Pangong takes about 4.5 hours, via Chang La - the 3rd highest motorable road in the world.

A quick toilet and snow-throwing stop.

40% of the lake is in India and the rest lies in Tibet, now China. To date, this is the nearest I've ever been to China.

The water in the lake is salty and has very little aquatic life. It's strange how these seagulls managed to live up here.


Place where they shot a scene in the annoying Bollywood movie The Three Idiots.

Our camps next to the lake.

Sunrise at the camp.

Buddhist prayer flags. You'll see this almost in every household and hotels in Ladakh.

"A" testing out the water, which he found out was freezing cold!

Sunset at Pangong Lake.

Sunrise at Pangong Lake.

Place where "A" and I got engaged.

And place where I blew my nose from crying out of joy.

My new family.

As much as I’d like to share this trip, apart of me is selfishly wishing that this place would never become a tourist spot. Just promise me if and when you get here, be a responsible traveler and do stuff like avoid using plastic bottles (drink local water), save energy and minimize your impact on areas that you pass through.

Random Tips:
1 - Foreigners need an Inner Line Permit, which can only be obtained through a travel agent in Leh.
2 - The air up here is pretty thin. Most of us had a hard time sleeping because of the lack of oxygen and some of us developed a migraine and some other respiratory issues. Make sure you bring necessary medications and a few cans of oxygens.
3 - Trash left behind are burned. Take your trash (plastic bottles, wrappers, etc) with you when you leave.