26 September, 2014

The Ladakh Diary : Khardung La - Nubra Valley , Natures Travesty Part 3/4

Fact is stranger than fiction and nothing can endorse this more than nature ... Unknown 

If we thought Chang La was high then Khardung La at 18400ft approx. was higher, in fact the highest motor able road on this planet. Fortunately the road to reach the valley was in a much better state than those at Zojilla or Chang la. Conditions though were not conducive along these mountains as each turn almost was a blind one; the tempo zigged while the road zagged. The body by then had acclimatized and we did not feel the shock or the strain of fighting a nameless enemy that we couldn't see like at Chang La. The photo ops continued on the way. This countryside was just as scenic as the one going on to Pangong. Today we had the doctor’s daughter Ritika and her pal Priyal along with us.

The local tour lynch-pin the man on the ground here in Ladakh for Mumbai Travelers and Trekmates India , Vishal was in our bus and his running commentary kept the information flow going on what we should expect ahead. The most interesting data nugget he shared was about Nubra. He said it was the largest town outside of Leh with about 250 houses and the valley was controlled by women ( well then , isn’t the world, what’s so surprising, well okay...at least my world is). They had laid out certain guidelines on tobacco and non-veg in Nubra valley and none would be available. This was an interesting tit-bit. Tobacco is not even sold on the way and if any vendor transgresses this dictate he is apparently fined pretty heavily. Second interesting bit was that no yellow licensed vehicles from outside of Leh are allowed on the road between Leh and Nubra so also Leh and Pangong, so my friends if you feel you would want to drive over in these parts, use your own vehicles and do not hire one from back home. Two reasons for this, one of course to protect local employment and second and more important one is that these roads being the way they are, you are way safer to have them navigated by a local.

This time the adventure bug hit the doctor and he chose to ride behind, to his ill-luck behind the most adventurous bikers of all here, Leelamohan. Adventurous is an understatement, our LM had a penchant for driving without a helmet as it interfered with his hairdo and he clicked selfies while riding the bike. On this tortuous road it looked like he was in a tearing hurry to be say hello to the lord personally; this was the rider chosen by Dr.Ashit. It was not without cause his daughter lost interest in the scenery around and kept nibbling on crackers with unseeing eyes…Priyal in her soft hesitant voice pointed out to her “Ritika, the crackers are finished, those are your fingers you are chewing, are they as good?”

Soon we passed the Nubra River, and we were 60 kms away from the most dreaded battleground on earth, the Siachen Glacier. In the distance Vishal pointed out to a road that led to it and another that lead directly to Pangong bypassing Leh, both he said are more fit for goats than human beings  let alone vehicles. Nubra town sure was bigger than most we had seen as a settlement. And here we were staying in another tent resort, but first for lunch. It was nearly 3.30 and the twisting roads had its impact on Mrs Patil who hurriedly said goodbye to everything in her stomach upchucking there on the grass itself where the bus was parked. Most people though arrived unscathed.

The Apple orchard which was one tent resort had apples and apricot trees abounding laden with fruit. We reached out and ate apricots fresh from the trees; the apples were a mite higher. Fruit from a tree is a novelty to us city dwellers and the taste of the juicy fresh flesh in our mouths was like manna. We were finishing up our lunch when the bikers arrived and the good doctor and LM had expressions that said it all. Cat had got the tongue of the doctor who otherwise belted it out nineteen to the dozen. He looked as if he had cheated death more than once on the way. Men get a peculiar look in their eyes having gone through such an experience. He had it in spades and we allowed him his space to find his own equilibrium. 

We were allotted a tent in the adjoining resort to Apple Orchard. I was glad to see huge sunflowers outside our tents and a bathroom which was bright and lit and a tent that had power for 24 hours. The blind batting of Pangong was not going to be an issue here. We had floodlights by that comparison  J . This was such a relief that I decided to test the turn of the pitch immediately. Virendra Sehwag could not have scored at the rate I did. Lighter now, I hit the ground with a jaunt in my step. I stepped out of the tent to inspect the place. It was rustic with apricot trees and a small badminton court marked out on the grass.

The buses would be ready for us in an hour to take us to the aberration of nature called the Nubra desert. Sounds funny doesn't it? Imagine we are 14000 feet above sea level, flowing along is the muddy Nubra river, we are surrounded by barren mountains topped with snow and what do we encounter…Sand Dunes and Bactrian (double humped) camels. I am sure the Sheikhs of Dubai would have got an inspiration to build their own ice rinks and aquariums in the desert after visiting this place. What man tries, nature already has “Been there & done that”. We had a great time in the desert, walking along the sand dunes watching the camels and the tourists and then the tourists on the camels…I was also curious whether I would see a camel on a tourist, but alas…that is a sight I did not come across. Trigger happy Prarthana was busy clicking away till her camera battery died on her, the dentists, the doctors and all perched precariously on the camels was an interesting sight however that’s an experience we gave a miss. The camels all said and done were small and not quite like the Arabic or Rajasthani camels, tall and rugged. These looked so sweet that had Gauri or I rested our posteriors on their backs, we just may have been the tourists that I mentioned who would have to carry the camels on our backs.

Their dining room even had a small collection of books for the guests. Dinner was with the bunch of boisterous bikers while watching pro-kabaddi on TV eating a local specialty which was more like Dal –Dhokli of Gujarat or Varan-fala or chhakulya from Maharashtra. Desert was an interesting sugared apricot in lemon syrup. Arvind Jadhav and his wife we knew from the bus but his two classmates we got introduced to here. Sunil Jawane had a school is one person Gauri and I got talking to. It had grown dark and there was a campfire now. As is the nature of campfires, the fire rises and the heat hits the group. Dheeraj Patil fished out his camera and clicked some of the best pictures I have seen on this trip. Instinctive understanding of a medium, oneness with the technology and infinite patience are the hallmarks of a superlative photographer and he was an artist with the camera. His two partners Sunil Shinde & Jeevan Chougale kept the prattle  going. Dumb charades were the order and all had a good time. Suraj Shinde the official team leader came out with a capital suggestion that created one of the most hilarious moments in the group. He had every member in a couple sing to her /his better half and hence the seniors were done away with first. When the freshly engaged Jeevanhad to sing a song to his fiancee, instinctively he sang “Bilanshi naagin nighaali, nagoba dulaaya laagla”and this brought the house down totally that his performance was recorded by his pals to be shown back at home.

A Genuine Find : The Tibetan Kitchen, Leh Market

The drive back to Leh was without incident again and we had a full evening free for us and the next day was rest. We had decided to skip the meal at the hotel as we wanted to try the local fare at Leh. We started to ask around. The five different people we asked around all told us the same name “The Tibetan Kitchen”. We went about finding it. It is situated right at the end of the main Leh market. Another curious thing that happened to us in Leh was, we were walking around and felt it was someplace in Maharashtra, quite a few tourists from other groups heard us talk in Marathi and started conversing with us , some were from Pune, Yet others from Mumbai, a few from other parts. A lot of other places we go to has Gujarati. Now the people from Gujarat are great travelers, we had quite a few in our group. This though was one place in India where the tourist from Maharashtra beat the Gujarati tourist in sheer numbers. Gauri reasoned it out to the passion of the tourists from our home state to be more adventurously inclined with trekking and climbing forts, all of which is available in plenty there. Sound it was the reasoning.

Gauri and I are foodies; we are not fussy but serious. Food when we are fine dining has to be authentic and done very well. For this we have a few simple litmus tests for restaurants in places unknown. First of course is our own sense of sight, it has to be clean, well lit and well laid out, offering enough privacy for each table ( hygiene is important). Second we check out the number of locals in the place. If the number equals that of tourists then we are satisfied that the place has merit, if there is waiting even better. The third we check for informed service staff on the items served in the menu. In his absence we order the cheapest local dish on the menu and assure ourselves. As we were shown to our table in the garden after waiting for a few minutes the smiling senior waiter came over and he recommended Vegetable Thukpa half portions for each, two plates of momos ( 6 pieces each, one veg and one chicken) and we had to try the house specialty, the river trout. We had a beer to start off the meal. As we sat in the cool evening, we realized how blissfully content we were and yes this was also the first peaceful time away from the group without any time line restriction. In Srinagar we had to be back before a certain time and half the fun of a meal is gone when you are watching a clock.

The beer arrived and as we sipped through and discussed about this and that serving dishes arrived for the momos. The momos by themselves were superbly done, nearly transparent pouches with enough filling to satisfy the bite. The accompanying sauces were soy , mustard and a vinegary hot dip which was absolutely delicious. With six momos inside us and the beer settling we were content. Then came the thukpa , which is basically a noodle soup with vegetables thrown in. The stock has to be just right here so should the quantity and proportion of the noodles and veggies, to make it a meal. This was simply superb. When a restaurant makes a great soup we know we are in safe hands. 

We now had expectations for the main course that was to come and the platter came in with a whole fish, pan fried sizzling on a bed of chopped salad veggies smelling divine. The fish itself was about a foot in length, fleshy and about three inches in width. The skin crackled crisp and the flesh inside was perfectly cooked and juicy, the light spicy marinade going superbly with the fresh water fish. Leisurely we went thru the whole thing, talk stopped as mouths got busy...it was the best meal we have had on the trip so far and we simply prolonged it.

Later we returned back to the hotel in the dark making a few sundry purchases in the market. We are not great shoppers but we had some in our group that we have observed were made for the market. Our busmate Vibhuti had a craving of having to shop and her glee at finding a market or stalls near any place we went too was a thing to see. Among the others, yes among the dentist girls we noticed Nausheen the girl who was our first companion, the one who slept was a champion. Shopping and creating time for quick raids into the market is a fine art and both Gauri and I realized that here was a master of the craft. She would bundle up three or four of her companion into one rickshaw or enthuse them enough to get to a market and they would land on the unsuspecting locals with the precision of Fokker Dive bombers used by the Germans in World War II. The squeals of delight as they returned victorious with bags full of their spoils of the raid was a sight that never failed to tug at our lips. It was pure pleasure watching their happiness. No, we never mentioned it or acted curious, we simply enjoyed watching them enjoying. The sight of happiness is a mood lifter and they kept us up and cheered. 

We truly at this point were totally unaware hence unprepared for the adventure awaiting us.    

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