September 6 – 16, 2015
I love Leh. It’s a beautiful city, not just because of its Tibetan architecture and ancient monasteries, but because of its friendly people, characterful streets, and setting amidst one of the most majestic natural features on earth: the Himalayan mountains.
The first sight of the massive Himalayan snowfields and rugged peaks caused quite a stir on the flight from Delhi to Leh. The range was awesomely impressive as we crossed it, the shear enormity of the whites, blues, and greys just mesmerising. And the size, the size was just staggering – there is a lot of rock in an 8000m peak.
We arrived in Leh on a beautiful morning – a smattering of cloud casting a dappling of beautiful blue shadows on the a arid hillsides. Gerwyn and I had booked accommodation just at out town, at the Shaolin Guest House. Driving up the winding, poplar-lined roads to the guest house, I was stuck at how Leh is the polar opposite to Delhi. Cool, clean, and quite, Leh was a welcomed change from the frantically desperate chaos of Delhi. The Shaolin Guest House has a clean, quietly babbling stream running next to it and is surrounded by beautifully appointed flower and vegetable gardens. It is an absolute delight to be here, to rest, and to enjoy.
Leh, as a city, is full of character and I particularly enjoy the antique shops. Generally long, narrow, darkened by the product displayed on shelves in the small front window, and illuminated by the orange glow of a single, naked incandescent bulb, the shops have a musty smell, vaguely shrouded in the smokey perfume of incense. Some of the older shops have exceptionally low studs, the ancient door frames and hand-hewn rafters posing head-hazards as you traverse the creaking, well-worn floorboards. In keeping with the age of these buildings, everything is invariably covered in a fine layer of dust, a result of the incredibly arid climate.
Dominating the skyline on a rugged granite ridge above the city is the large royal palace. The huge structure, well proportioned with sweeping trapezoidal lines, soaring above the town, was built in the 17th century. Buildings like this fascinate me, the skill and man-power needed to construct them is just staggering; the millions of bricks cast or individually hand-hewn from granite, carried up the cliffs, laid with precision, and all without modern machinery. It is incredible.
One of the day-trips so far has been the trip up to Khadungla Pass (5359m), the highest motorable pass in the world and my first excursion into the Himalaya. The road up to the Pass was definitely one of the reasons I enjoyed this trip. Travelling was pretty rough, the road covered in large amounts of debris – fine granite sand and small rocks, the result of a flood last August – and our little, 2WD Suzuki taxi van bumped along, struggling with the terrain and altitude. The road also seemed to be built in the most impossible location, traversing massive, near vertical, crumbling granite faces, topped with towering needle-sharp spires. Hairpin corner after hairpin corner, we bounced, lurched, and crept up these massive faces. The road grew more rough, the rocks larger, and potholed – verging on a 4×4 track, by NZ standards – and I was astounded at driver’s ability to get us up the hill.
Reaching the top of the pass, I was stunned, again, by the immensity of the Himalaya – the other reason I so enjoyed the trip. Looking south, past Leh and beyond the Indus Valley, the Stok Range rises 3000m above valley floor, sitting poised like a cresting wave of rock and ice ready to crash down on the valley below. Turning north-west, I could see the massive snow peaks of 7000 and 8000m in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir way in the distance. Again, the vastness of these natural edifices, the sheer enormity of their snowy faces was just staggering. I just loved it.
However, my first few days in Leh were tarnished by one thing: food poisoning. I was so frustrated! On my first day, I had a chicken curry for lunch – the culprit, I believe. Unfortunately, the food poisoning knocked me down for a few days, leaving me feeling drained and tired. During this time, my Steripen Adventurer was invaluable, enabling me to sterilise the water straight out of the tap in my room, keeping me hydrated. I was particularly grateful for this.
There were a few knock-on effects from the food poisoning. I got food poisoning last year and it triggered a minor relapse of the MS, knocking me out of months. Not wanting to jeopardise the rest of the trip through ill-health, I needed to take it easy for a while, which meant an adjustment to our original plans. I decided stay in Leh and climb Stok Kangri later in the month, after a slow build up in acclimatisation. Gerwyn, eager to head south to Manali and cross the Hampta Pass, decided to go on alone and to meet me back in Delhi.
Once I was feeling a bit better, I decided to begin my acclimatisation programme with a trip to Pangong Lake, which sits at 4349m. Pangong Lake, partially lying in India but mostly in Tibet, is about 150kms from Leh and is reached via the Changla Pass (5330m). I hired a motorbike for four days – Friday through Monday – giving me a good deal of flexibility as travelled through this sparsely-populated boarder region of India.
For me, the best part of the trip was travelling the road from Changla Pass to Lake Pangong. Coming down off the pass, there were large ice-fields that terminated on or just above the road: it was stunning. These ice fields then, in turn, supplied a stream that supported the bright green valley floor, a herds of yaks, and small lake called Tso Lstak. What made this scene particularly stunning was the context: the bone-dry mountains towering above the valley, standing in incredible contrast.
Not that the mountains themselves were without beauty. Without any vegetation, all variations in their geology and the spectrum of their colours were in plain view: the naked faces of massive mottled blocks of reddish-brown, zebra-stripes of light on dark and dark on light, and swirling earth-tones similar to the stormy cloud-bands of Jupiter, all bleeding into the watercoloured valleys of tumbling scree. The view was entirely astounding.
Arriving at Pangong late on Friday afternoon, I spent two nights at the lake, perched on a spit of land, away from all the people. Saturday was a beautiful day and I spent hours just sitting and watching. The lake changed colours throughout the day, starting as a deep royal blue, turning to a turquoise around the middle of the day, before returning to its former blue. The landscape also changed with the light: the colours of the hills becoming more or less striking and previously unnoticed features becoming obvious. It was mesmerising and I sat there, on the shore of the lake, reading and watching, watching, and reading.
Heading back towards the pass on Sunday morning, my goal was to reach an old workman’s campsite just above Lake Lstak, at 4900m. It is a beaut spot with terrific views of the valley – I spied it on my way down to Lake Pangong. Sleeping this high, I hoped that it would further my acclimatisation, preparing me for Stok Kangri and Nepal.
Half way through the trip to my campsite, I was a tad peckish and felt like a banana or three. Passing through the town of Tangtse, a policeman pointed me towards the town’s market, comprised of a library, a hairdressers, a couple of hotels, and a number of general stores. I felt like a minion asking for bananas, engaging in a kind of pantomime as I asked, “Ba-na-na?”. It seemed that no one spoke English, so it took a while to communicate what I was after. And then there was the moment where the store-owner got it and replied, “Ah! Ba-na-na!”, filling me with a minion-like joy at the very sound of the word, only to have it dashed when the store-owner gestured down the street toward another shop. I tried all the stores and none of them had bananas. I soldiered on to my campsite.
Sunday night was a bit cold and so on Monday morning I stayed in my sleeping bag, waiting for the sun to warm the tent. Finally able to exit the now delightfully warm Macpac Minaret tent, I was greeted with the most amazing view. Morning sunlight always makes things look magical, not least when you look up the valley, along a string of vast snowcapped peaks stretching as far as you can see, each separated by a ridge and run of scree, but all lying under that hazy-blue of the fresh morning shadow. The peaks, in neat succession, give a sense of endless repetition, as if the valley might continue forever, giving me this strong urge to explore. I love that feeling and I made a mental note to return here next time, another mission for a lifetime of adventure.
Perhaps it was just the cold engine, but leaving the campsite, climbing above 5000m, and moving over steep and rough terrain, my bike was struggling, threatening to stall even in first gear. It was a bit of a shaky start to the day! But we made it in the end, through the iced-over snowmelt streams, past the ice fields, and up to the top of Changla Pass.
I was feeling really great when I reached the Pass and had spotted a cairn a little way up one of the mountain sides. I decided to give it a go and climb up there, to enjoy the view and get away from all the cars and bikes at the teahouse. I was encouraged and pleasantly surprised at how easy it was, even while scrambling, and I felt no adverse effects from the altitude. Reaching the cairn at 5466m, I sat down and soaked in the beauty of the scene. I deeply value the opportunity to participate in scenes such as the one I found myself in. It makes me feel so alive. It does so much for the soul and is so uplifting. I can’t get enough of it. It was a fabulous trip to Lake Pangong and one I will remember.
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