Thursday, 28 May 2015

Lets start at the very beginning.......First day in Leh


        Acclimatisation was  the buzzword when   we announced   our  plans to travel  to Leh and the rest of Ladakh. The oxygen levels at 10000 ft are much lower than in the plains  and we were forewarned of breathlessness, headaches and in case we over exerted ourselves on the first day even   damage to our very limited stock of grey cells! So when the Air India flight landed  at about 8.30 in the morning we were whisked away to the excellently located Indus cottage and  the first thing was the medical by the good doctor. Once we were declared fit and fine, given a list of dos and don’ts  and medicines to gulp down  before breakfast and dinner to avoid HA aka high altitude sickness and told to beware of any headaches or sleepiness  we looked around to the place of mystique , of Buddhists , of army posts ,of prayers wheels and Gonpas and huge  intimidating mountains encircling us.
           The first day  advisably is to be taken at a leisurely place to give the body time to adjust to the decreased oxygen levels. So we  set out to sit beside the gurgling clear waters of the Indus River.The eponymous  Officers mess where we stayed  was right on the banks of Indus and we enjoyed the absolutely beautiful view of the mountains in the distance and the not so very wide river meandering around the curves and passing us by on its onward journey to Pakistan. We dared to dip our hands in the water and were punished for our impunity by a chill that almost froze them. Even in mid May the water is still cold coming as it is from way high up somewhere in China and fed by glaciers. The pilot had announced a temperature of 13 deg centigrade but the wind made it colder.
     The mountains surrounding Leh are not the green ones that one sees in the Himalayas. They are barren and rocky and from a distance a very foreboding brown .But more about them when we see them up close. The valley has few trees ,apricots and apples ,some poplars but not much more .The army is a major presence here and our first stop was  the Hall of Fame both as a mark of respect to the indomitable spirit of our soldiers and to be acquainted with Ladakh ,the land ,the people ,the culture,flora and fauna and also with work and the sacrifices of our armed forces. A model of the map of Ladakh gives us a fair idea of the geography with the mountain ranges, the river systems  , the borders with China and Pakistan  and the passes marked very creatively .
Inside The Shanti Stupa 
Equipped with this knowledge , we felt we knew Ladakh …”the land of passes” a bit better . Our next stop was the Shanti Stupa , a stupa built by the Japanese. As we stood at the railings of the imposing  structure we had a  lovely birds’ eye  view of the city of Leh below.  Photographs done we came down and made our way back to have some lunch and “to take it easy” on the first day . Evening  was spent in the Main market , the “Connaught place” equivalent of Leh and the Tibetan market down the slope selling mostly Made in China stuff . Pashmina, Kashmir embroidered jackets and trinkets were aplenty .
Leh from atop the Shanti Stupa 
   The next day we woke  without a headache and any visible signs of restlessness or fatigue except for the cold .So we were all geared for exploring Leh and then some more. Our first stop was driving along the Indus  to the Alchi monastery , established sometime in 1020 AD by the Rinpoche Zangpo.
Prayer wheel at Alchi
It is part of the bigger Likir monastery headed by the Dalai Lama’s brother. A fee of 20 Rs per head and the treasures of the monastery were opened to us.The Sumtsek temple with imposing statues of the Avalokeetesvara Buddha,the Maitreya Buddha or the future Buddha  and Manjushree , the Buddha of knowledge is the most important ones . The more than 1000 year old wooden temple had hand  paintings of Buddha avatars and miniature Buddha on the wall and a quaint wooden ladder leading to the first floor which is closed now. The structure looked fragile ,not surprising, considering that Alchi is the oldest monastery in Ladakh. There were three other smaller temples to each of these Buddhas with mandalas and Bodhisatvas painted on the walls.The lama in charge of Alchi is deputed from Likir and in his gentle way took us around this ancient place of Buddhist learning.
If the monastery took us back centuries , the next stop took us forward to the wonders of science and engineering.   We were headed towards Alchi dam or the Nimmo Bazgo Hydel Project
A view of the dam
the highest hydro-electric power station in the world .Highest is a common  adjective here given the place’s elevation. Enroute we had passed the highest filling station of Indane , not to forget the highest airfield,the highest HP Petrol pump etc etc . The construction of this hydro station and its operation is a remarkable engineering feat since the river freezes in winters ,temperatures drop to something like -30deg c ,the landslides and the Indus water treaty with Pakistan. The Chief Engineer’s tales of how the  Zanskaar river was blocked by a part of a mountain , which toppled in a  landslide and stopped  its flow and then as the summer came and waters melted it caved in to let out a rush of water which submerged some villages and would certainly have submerged the power station if not for their engineering foresight not to forget the havoc further downstream , were riveting. Sadly the full   potential of this generation is not being used fully for lack of transmission facilities. But the   city of Leh and surrounding villages , the Army and Air Force now have electricity 24×7 . I had never seen a hydro project at such close quarters .
The Magnetic Hill
   A destination very famous is the magnetic hill and our driver took the vehicle to a spot and left the gear in neutral.  The car rolled back despite the upslope of the road. Some say it is an optical illusion and that there is not an upslope there. Be as it may , the words “MAGNETIC HILL “ is painted on a hill near the road and there is certainly  an attraction in the place(pun intended) .The magnetic power of the road tested we move on to the view the confluence of Zanskaar and Indus. The clear waters of the Indus and the muddy of the Zanskaar form a distinct line at their meeting point from where the river continues on its downstream journey as Indus. There is some river rafting here , but the snow had just started to melt so there wasn’t enough water for a good rafting experience. Of course an operator did try to tempt us with an offer of Rs 600 per person , but we did not take him because of the shallow waters and the strong winds. It was two pm by now and there was a strong wind blowing .  A tourist centre is now being built at the confluence with some facilities.
The Sangam of Zanskaar and Indus 
There is a fair amount of greenery along this road and we stop to admire a lovely view of the Valley . On our way back  we stop 25 kms before Leh at Gurudwara Patthar Sahib .The Gurudwara is managed by the Army and we were fortunate to have prasad at the langar there . The Gurudwara has a rock inside said to be thrown at Guru Nanak by a demon when the Guru was meditating here .The rock turned to wax .The rock is kept in the Gurudwara . We were advised to visit a hill across the road from where the demon threw the stone.Its a long climb of some 300 steps and we gave it a skip for fear of exhaustion.But the view ,they say, of the Valley and the surroundings from there is  incredible.

The Indus in the evening 
This was enough for the second day and it was time to relax , so as not to over exert ourselves . Next day was going to be hectic ,interesting and very exceptional .
The Shanti Stupa

Roadside stalls but most stuff is from Delhi

The Main Bazaar .Beautification is on 

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