A Travellerspoint blog

August 2012

Nubra Valley

Our most interesting excursion thus far has been to the Nubra Valley. The Nubra is quite remote, close to the area of the Siachen glacier,
an uninhabited place of rock and ice where Indian and Pakistani troops have faced off for many years. Most die from exposure or are buried by avalanche rather than actual gun fire. Why anyone cares is another question, but I suppose this is true for many war zones. We journeyed there, with Hitesh and Ruschi, an engaging young Indian couple we met at our guest house. Hitesh lived for many years in the States, and returned home to take care of the family business, now failing, after his father died. Ruschi is an educated working woman, and although they have been an item for several years, much to their parents chagrin, they have never married.


The trip took about four hours by jeep over what is called the highest motorable rode in the world, At 18,300 feet it must be close.


The narrow, but paved track led through endless vistas of moutains and rivers through the high and dry terrain that is Ladakh.



When we got to Hunder, our destination, there was much greenery as the valley is lush, located as it is, between the Indus and Zanskar rivers.

Approaching Nubra Vallley

At the edge of town, we sat on sand dunes in between small pools of water created by underground springs, and watched the mat knife light carve up the cliffs above. Nanette and Ruschi went for a camel ride, while Hitesh and I sat and watched the unfolding scene, toking on a joint now and then.

Nanette and Ruschi on Camels, Photo by Hitesh

We spent the night close by in a small guest house with a wonderful flower garden, and while the menu was limited, the apricots we picked off the trees were delicious.


The next day we drove on to the nearby town of Diskit to its famous monastery. It too, was perched on a cliff, right next to a large gorge and waterfall. We took the newly built road up to the base, and then climbed up the many steps to the the temples above. The monastery is really like a small town, complete with places of prayer, residences for the monks, mani walls, chortens, and prayer flags flying from everywhere.

Ruschi in front of Diskit Monastery, Photo by Hitesh

Hitesh on the Stairway to Nowhere

Monk and Kitchen at Diskit

It was one of the most spiritual places I have been. The enormity of the universe, its eternal emptiness, is a living presence here, and for me to feel that, not your most spiritually enlightened being, takes some doing.

Looking out at Vast Nubra Valley from Diiskit Monastery

The ride back took us through snow showers, grappel, sun and rain, not to mention the 40 truck Indian army convey that our driver managed to pass by, one truck at a time, by going right next to the edge of the cliff. We leaned the opposite way hoping that would keep us from sailing off into space. Several times we asked him to slow down, but to no avail. The closer we got to Leh, the heavier his foot became, anxious I suppose, for another fare.



Tomorrow we leave on our trek with Tashi. Nanette will come for eight days, as will Mari, the woman from Spain, and I will go on for a grand tour of 32 days, hopefully ending in Tashi's village, Nanette will return to Leh, eat more apricots from her very own roof top terrace, and paint. If all goes according to plan, we will rendezvous in Srinigar.

Posted by jonshapiro 07:31 Archived in India Comments (4)


With Tashi's help, we escaped from the madding crowd of beggars and touts and took a taxi to another part of the city where we stopped for dinner. It was a leisurely affair as we had a lot catching up to do. By the time we located and made our way to our hotel, which took nearly two hours given Delhi's traffic, it was close to midnight, and we decided that it was futile to check in for a few hours since our flight left at 5AM. Instead we continued on to the domestic airport, where we met an interesting and erudite Indian headhunter who was waiting for his own flight to Hyderabad. We spent most of the night chatting with him about Indian and American politics.

This was my second attempt at getting to Leh, but it was easy now with the daily flights. The first occurred more than ten years earlier, when I had started out with Tashi in Manali. Our plan was to hike over the main Himalaya range via a challenging glaciated route, continue on through the Zanskar Valley and end up in Leh. We never made it. The monsoons should have been over in late October, but even then the weather was screwy, and we had more or less continuous rain shortly after we started out, and then, when we got higher, it started to snow. We tried going a different way, but it still necessitated crossing a high pass of 17,000 feet and a day or two of glacial travel. We got to the height of the pass in the middle of a raging blizzard, and we had to down climb a steep section of several hundred feet to the glacier floor. On dry rock this wouldn't have presented a problem, but now it was slippery and the visibility was down to a few feet in the midst of the white-out. I was concerned that one of the porters, heavily laden, and walking only with sneakers might slip, or worse, that my friend David who I had more or less talked into accompanying me, would fall. If anything happened to him his wife, Patricia, would never forgive me. We had one rope between all of us, ten porters, David, myself, and Tashi, so if we had taken the time to rope everyone up for the descent, it would have taken hours, and by then the snow would have been much deeper. And if we all got down in one piece, the crevasses on the nearly flat glacier would have been snow covered and therefore invisible until someone stepped into one. Unroped, this would be a disaster. It was a heavy responsibility, and in the end, I decided we had to turn back after almost a week of trekking. After retracing our route, we got to a town along the one road in and out of Ladakh. It was then a mad rush to take the road trip from hell, but we were lucky to get out at all, as the road was being closed early because of the weather and constant landslides. It would stay closed for six months. I shouldn't complain too much as we made our way from Manali to Dharamsala, where we set out for another trek after a brief meeting with the Dalai Lama, but that's another story.

This time I was going to attempt a similar trek, but in reverse. I would start out in Ladakh, go through Zanskar , and then over the High Himalaya to Tashi's village on the other side. After ten years, I was eager to meet his wife and children and the rest of his extended family. Nanette was going to trek for the first eight days as well as a Spanish woman who had previously trekked with Tashi, and then I would continue on my own with the rest of the support team.

The flight over the mountains was impressive, but after no sleep and a day running around Agra, the altititude of 3500 meters, about 11,500 feet, knocked us out totally on the first day. We managed to find our way to the Shanti Guesthouse, which has proven to be a delightful place to stay. From our room we have a great view of the mountains and the highest gompa in Leh.


Leh Valley from Stupa behind Shanti Guesthouse

The environment here is, in a word, otherworldly. It is extremely dry, as Leh is essentially high desert, located on the Tibetan plateau. It is surrounded by 6000 meter mountains, most of which are also very dry, though several are topped by snow and glaciers, catching the storms that manage to make it over the Great Himalaya Range further to the south. Those moutains, which are even higher, create a rain shadow and block most of the monsoon moisture from making it this far. The light is constantly shifting and playing on the greys, greens and purples of the surrounding rocks. It is a photographers and painters dream.


Road to Leh at Sunset

We have spent several days getting acclimated and just wandering around the town, which has about 25,000 people. It is a mix of Ladakis, who are Tibetan Buddhists, a few Muslims who attend the mosque in the old town, Kashmiri and Indian shop owners, and a fair number of European trekkers and tourists, not to mention the ubiquitous Israelis who seem to be everywhere. The internet cafe has Hebrew letters pasted next to the English. There are lectures on Buddhism, massage emporiums, DVD movie theaters, great restaurants, etc. After being an isolated outpost for centuries, it is now quite cosmopolitan. The old town with its Tibetan Style houses made from clay,mud and stone, many of which are in various stages of decay, is quite charming, full of outdoor markets, Ladakhi women selling apricots and beans, tailor shops, momo restaurants, etc. Nanette just picked up her two shalwar kamizes after picking out the material and having it custom sewn by Kumar, Muslim tailer, for the sum of 500 rupees, about $12 US.


More used to the altititude, we have hiked up to the Leh Palace which vaguely resembles the Potala Palace in Lhasa, lovingly restored by the Indian Government,and then made our way high above to the monastery, or gompa, perched on the cliffs. From there we could see the entire verdant Leh valley, an oasis of green among the parched rocks, as well as to the snow peaks of the Ladakh Range and then over to Shanti Stupa, some 500 feet straight up from our guest house. We could hear chanting in the distance along with the faint call to prayer in the nearby mosque.

Distant View of Palace

Close up

Monk on Palace Steps

Our hotel is full of interesting people, some of whom have been here many times. We went out one day at dawn with a small German and Swiss group to the Thiksey monastery, about an hour a way, to hear the monks chanting and welcoming in the sun. They blew horns from the roof of the monastery that sounded and looked surprisingly like shofars. Perhaps the Israelis have had their influence here as well. So different than the Zen tradition, the monks chanted robustly, especially the 5 and 6 year old boys, while they slurped butter tea and the head monks passed out spending money There were plenty of tourists, but somehow the monks carried on as usual, more or less ignoring the gawking and picture snapping westerners observing the whole thing. The monastery was, like so many here, carved into the cliffs with a commading view of the valley.

Inside Monastery

On another day, we went with the same group to Fiyang, another monatery that was having a festival, though we didn't really know the occasion. The monks were dancing slowly to crashing cymbols and drums with big masks and costumes of different Tibetan dieties. Interesting, but the crush of tourists was so great that it was hard to see through the crowds. Looking off into the distant mountains, spinning the many prayer wheels, and gazing at the enormous Maitreya, was more than enough to keep us occupied.



Posted by jonshapiro 10:15 Archived in India Comments (5)

Be Careful What You Wish For: Crazy India

After five days of mandatory R and R in Bangkok waiting for our Indian visas, we headed to Delhi. It was not too tough a wait, what with the good and cheap food and beer, and a comfortable room back at our favorite digs, New Siam 2. Our flight over was an adventure unto itself. We took Sri Lanka Airlines because it was the cheapest. This required an overnight stay in Columbo at the airline's expense, since our India flight didn't leave until the next afternoon. What we didn't know was that there was a big summit meeting of the ASEAN countries and security was extremely tight with heavily armed soldiers on many streets. There were still occasional bombs going off in town due to the civil war, and the powers that be didn't want to take any chances. We were the only ones in the van which brought us to our hotel, through narrow streets and country lanes that had the feel of a war zone, especially in the middle of the night. It took well over an hour to get there and the Pegasus Reef Hotel was eeriely deserted.

Delhi was as noisy, chaotic, and polluted, as I remembered it from ten years earlier. Nanette, who was looking forward to getting away from the controlling authority of China, quickly discovered that India, with its teeming masses, seemingly endless supply of aggressive beggars and touts, and more or less constant noise and dirt, was anything but a panacea. I tried to warn her about this, but it is hard to imagine India, at least its cities, without actually experiencing it first hand. In a sense, India is everything that China is not. Loosely democratic, more or less anything and everything can and does happen here. Nobody seems to care what you do, whereas China is much more orderly and regulated. Of course, both share a huge population, rampant corruption, and place little value on an individual human life unless he/she happens to be rich or powerful. As a traveler, you don't usually feel that your life is at risk in India, unlike, for example, in parts of Central and South America where many people have guns and the banditos might kill you for a few bucks. In India, its your mind that's at risk. With all the colors, sounds and smells, the lack of personal space, the incessant harassment by "helpers" of all persuasions, Mother India wages a kind of psychological warfare that is relentless and often overwhelming. To preserve your sanity, you have to make yourself oblivious to much of her.

Taking the easy way out, or so we thought, we hired a driver to take us around to see a few of Delhi's sights, such as the Red Fort and Qutb Minar, but even this was not hassle free. We had to forcefully assert ourselves with the driver's handler to insist that we didn't want a guide as well as a driver, and this same handler tried to scam us into paying more than we needed to for our railroad tickets to Agra. In India even the handlers have handlers, and they all want a cut.

After a couple of days, we took the express train to Agra, which was also chaotic, albeit smaller than the capital. Our guest house was comfortable and restful, and the Sikh proprietor and his wife hospitable. Based on his advice, we hired a driver to take us around to the Taj, Agra Fort and other assorted buildings. Once again a guide showed up who expected to be paid, but this time we didn't have the energy to fight it. We should have, as he talked incessantly and at the end demanded a larger tip than we thought appropriate. The Taj is impressive as an architectual monument, but doesn't quite live up to all the hype, at least in my humble opinion.

Indian women taking pictures of the Taj

Nanette and our guide walking toward the Taj


Agra Fort

Baby Taj and ceiling detail

Indian women walking near Taj

Part of the deal when you have a driver and a guide is that they take you around to various cottage industries throughout the town. They get a commission of course if you buy something. You can resist, but it usually does little good.

"Madame, Sir, we just stopping here for a few minutes. Velly interesting. All handmade things you will see."

Some of the shops did indeed have beautiful things, inlaid marble tiles, leather work, and carpets. After an hour or two of negotiations with tea and snacks, attendants pulling down hundred of carpets, an 8 by 10 blue and red one with traditional design caught our eye. Like so many others before us, we eventually succumbed. It wasn't cheap, but we felt it was a bargain compared to what we would have to pay in the States, and better still the place seemed legit, and they agreed to mail it to us at home for the same price. When we returned six weeks later it was there, and is now at the center of our living room.

The following day we drove out of town to a walled and then abandoned, 500 year old Moghul village, Fatehpur Sikri. Built by Akbar the Great, the buildings and grounds are extensive and although much less well known than the TaJ, it is well worth spending a few hours here along with the nearby Jama Masjid. The heat, however, was intense and the harassment and attempted shakedowns for money continued. At times, this did not make for a relaxing visit.



Late in the daty we returned to Delhi via The Shatabdi Express. Having been asked by my dear wife to keep all "helpers" well away from us, I was somewhat aggressive when we arrived at the station and strange man went to take our bags.

"It's Tashi," he said, after I screamed at him to get away. When I didn't respond he said it again more emphatically. 'IT'S TASHI."

Then it dawned on me. Tashi was going to be our trekking guide in Leh. Now, I knew Tashi from the time I had trekked with him before, but that was 10 years ago, and so I didn't recognize him. Also I was not expecting that he would be here, having told him to meet us in Leh in another day or two. Somehow he had not only found out which train we were on, but also which car and which seats. Unbelievable. I hadn't given him the best of welcomes, but he understood.

Posted by jonshapiro 08:20 Archived in India Comments (2)

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