26 September, 2014

The Ladakh Diary : Unforgettable , Beautiful & Unpredictable Paradise - Part 1/4

# A picture is worth a thousand words goes the cliche, we clicked 2500+. Now even if we do ditch 90% of them, we are still  left with 250 and that would be like going through a quarter of a million words. So if I describe the experience in a few thousand words and a few photos to accompany the write up,  would it still be considered an effort in precis writing ? Go figure. 

Holiday Destinations

There are holiday destinations & holiday destinations and then there is the Kingdom of Ladakh. Nothing that anybody tells you beforehand about it can ever prepare you for the actual experience. Believe me, we had serious information overload.

I do have a penchant for making absurd comparisons. Let us for one moment imagine that all holiday destinations in India are women. How can one describe the popular destinations like say a Goa, Mahabaleshwar, Kulu-Manali, Munnar, Ooty etc? They are that young woman, absolutely pretty; having a cheerful grin who welcomes you with warmth makes you comfortable in her company. One that you enjoy so much that eventually you take her to mom and tell her she’s it, the long sought bahu, give your blessings. These are the brides.

Ladakh, on the other hand is the wild, beautiful, sultry lover, with a cool smile that instantly turns you on, whose bedroom eyes promise exciting times. With her one shivers in anticipation on when would she scratch or bite, knowing fully well that she definitely would, in whose embrace, the rest of the world is forgotten, blip....What about mom?
Well... Who’s Mom... What about her?  In the company of such a woman, you would find yourself swearing that yours was an immaculate conception or you were dropped by a stork & you never ever had a mom. Ladakh is that lover, Moms n lovers don’t jell ...naahhhh, nevaahhh. 

Most destinations are tame, this is anything but that.

The Kingdom of Ladakh is India’s connection with the roof of the world, Tibet. It is a landmass with many unique features those that can very well be counted among the natural wonders of the world. Divided into two districts Kargil and Leh, this kingdom has the harshest climatic conditions found in all of India. It has some of the highest motor able roads in the world, in fact the first three Khardung La (18380 ft), Tanglang La & Chang La (17668 ft) passes are right here.  For five winter months of the year the Drass sector in Kargil district reports temperatures in the range of -50deg C which is the second coldest inhabited area on mother earth. A mere 2 degrees C temperature saw our urban group from Mumbai, Pune, Nasik, Thane, Bhopal and Hyderabad being reduced to kulfi...and as the wind chill brought it further down we found ourselves huddling inside the most clothes ever worn by us at a single time in our lives.

The biting cold here gave purpose and meaning to even those T shirts and shirts which had been lying in the cupboards unworn for years...the very objective towards which some machine somewhere had spewed them out was being fulfilled here. Clothing is important, layered clothing is the norm. If I were to take a poll on which of the three Bollywood leading men (The Khan trio) could be popular here, Shahrukh and Aamir would win hands down. Salman in his films habitually makes a shirtless statement and going shirtless is the constituent of a horror story in Ladakh. 

Story? Is it a story? Is it an account? Is it a memoir? Could it be a film? What’s so special about a trip like this that has even me confounded for words? Read on Ye, all those who have entered here and cared to tolerate this babble so far. They called it a leisure tour but it turned out to be a rip roaring adventure, the kind we simply had not bargained for. 

Someday in March 2014, Somewhere near a tollnaka in Mumbai, Mulund (E) 

The missus , her esteemed highness, the right honourable Lady Gauri makes a proclamation, “We are going to Leh- Ladakh on 15th of August for 12 days and you have been booked too. Did you hear me?” I had not.

I was recovering from a river safari trip of 4 days to the Sunderban natural park, West Bengal. I had been there with a group of birdwatchers.  Yeah there is a species of homo-sapiens that prowl the earth with high tech equipment, binoculars, cameras, telephotos and sundry other stuff to watch birds of the feathered kind. Whatever happened to the more interesting sport of using your eyes on a more interesting bird type; one that wears pencil skirts, churidars, tight denims and sari’s? My tastes as you may have realized are more avuncular & discerning, my birds are not found flying around trees, friends. I was still floating in that hangover hence this announcement did not sink in properly.

“Re-arrange your work schedule and should you refuse then be assured - Your Bum Is TOAST”. It sank in and how. Wow, the intent seemed quite solid and the repercussions did not augur well for the adipose tissue resting in my denims, therefore I dutifully mustered delight on my face knowing nothing about what lay in store ahead.

After this, I promptly forgot about it in the interim six months until August arrived. On 1st Aug 2014, I was prodded again; we are now 15 days away from our holiday. Hurried essential shopping later, packing for a trip is a process that is taken very seriously. The lady is careful, precise and orderly while my style is well more brisk and quick. She neatly gathers her stuff around, decides what has to go in and where...mine is more like, find stuff, decide the take-along stuff, and then me stuffs the stuff. It is a personal conviction that even my style has merit, but alas, never found the lady quite amenable to it; in our together trips she subtly always manages to get her way. Thank heavens for that (Would never admit to her, but I guess she already knows it).

The 15th August found me seated in the morning flight, gobbling Upma with absolute relish. A very composed soul mate sat beside me looking outside the window as we flew into Srinagar. Until this point in the narrative we were the sole stars, the absolute lead pair of our film, not having met anyone from the tour organizers or participants so far.  

Srinagar 15th-16th August 2014

Walking outside the airport with our baggage we looked out for the placard of our tour operator ‘Trekmates India’ only to find one squiggly scrawl stating ‘Mumbai travellers with Trekmates India’ held on by a stern looking young man. Asking them and assuring ourselves that they were the ones we said, Okay...here we are. The stars (Us! what’s so surprising, my thought process always remains totally filmy) had finally reached the set. 

We were asked to wait and silently we did while the others were searched, assembled and sorted out to be carted to wherever we were to go. Then quite as suddenly, the quiet of the Kashmir valley was thoroughly shattered; the sound of multiple voices in various pitches, all speaking together, loudly and continuously reached our ears. The chattering decibels akin to that of a 100 hens laying 100 perfect eggs at one time. A large group of young women led by a middling aged fit gent had joined us. The organizers Nilesh & Nilesh (Thomson & Thompson, from Tintin, not quite but in purpose they reminded me of the twins from the comic strip) counted 15 while some said 16 and the debate continued as we were hustled into a SUV for the hotel.

Srinagar was under curfew. Why? No one knew either and on asking our driver pat came the reply “15th Aug hai na” accompanied by a sage nod as if that explained everything. Further he added it is quite normal here. In Mumbai we are used to the sight of an odd fat assed policeman with his belly sagging over his belt carrying a stick and chewing pan while here on every second street we passed fit army men toting rifles, even the cops here looked fit if not clean. We were asked to take a circuitous route to our hotel and after reaching there, were allotted rooms by a curly haired young man with a naughty smile. The itinerary had said one night halt and the next day sightseeing in Srinagar. After freshening up we were to assemble for chai and an introduction. As we floated down the stairs we discovered the entire hotel had been allotted to our two tour groups. The entire cast and crew of our movie had been assembled.

The Filmy Briefing  :-) 

The basement dining hall had chairs lined up and almost all occupied by a motley crew of ladies and ladies, I put on my spectacles to look closer and in between could see a spare sprinkling of my gender. Jeez what had I landed myself into was the question uppermost in my mind. The organizers took charge and to my utter dismay came out with the ultimate unoriginal ice-breaker “Introduce yourselves”. The cackling coop from the airport turned out to be Dentists from Nair Hospital celebrating their pass-out far away from home, chaperoned by their destination guardian, who was himself a medico and the father of one of them. Here is one garrulous dude with a pitch to match was the first impression I got from right across the room.

It was a mixed group about 12-16 were bikers whose bikes had not yet arrived hence the next day was a logistical halt coupled with the sights. One set of working women and a few mom’s and then us misfits who neither were here nor there belonging to no group. Thus a natural culling out of the herd was achieved for our transportation ahead, the bikers and pillions would naturally go on bikes, one TT ( Tempo Traveler-Mini Bus) to the working women, one TT to the dentists and one TT to the misfits. A few smart ones had got themselves into the SUV.

Thus our full length feature film was divided into two distinct plot lines: One for the TT & the SUV which we shall narrate in real time and one for the bikers which would come to you as a flashback. Then again the main narrative as under would come from one TT’s perspective as the storyteller scriptwriter was surreptitiously placed in T1. 

The organizers began impressively by taking a disciplined line of approach, warning all of the area we had chosen for this trip and what would happen should this line be broken. Had they been able to implement it in the days to come would have straight away nominated them for the highest civilian honors was the stray cheeky thought that flitted in and out. I looked at the lady besides who manages me quite effectively. Marriage grants one a wisdom that however hard a man tries he will never be able to manage a woman ever and here were these five naive men who entertained hopes of doing that with about forty. All the very best to this optimism, I said to myself not even sharing this thought with my better half at the risk of inviting a frosty glance if not actual peril.

Slowly we started mixing around getting to know each other tentatively at first over meals and then in the bus. We would be travel companions over the next 11 days.
After a sumptuous breakfast we sat in the bus to visit the first sight, the Shankaracharya temple of Shiva ( Jyeteshwara Temple ) atop a mountain called the Zabarwan about 1100ft from the ground , known by the Buddhists as Pas Pahar and to the Muslims as Takht –E-Suleiman (The Throne of Solomon) . Climbing the steps up to it , the breakfast was digested quicker than one could say Chole Bhature...It was pristine above. In the early morning with the clouds below us and the city below the clouds the sight made up for all the initial hardship of reaching there. A mammoth Shivling sat inside. The original structure is said to have been set up about 370 BC and built up gradually in subsequent years.

Srinagar has a host of Mughal Gardens very famous ones too...they too have a curious history behind them. Babar when he came into India in 1526 AD missed the gardens of his native Samarkand and hated this barren countryside of India with people who had no concept of fineness. He and his lineage, the Mughals built gardens in and around Delhi, Agra. Jahangir, the fourth Mughal Emperor loved the valley of Kashmir and he would visit here with his queen Noor Jehan. For her he built the Shalimar Gardens full of Chinar trees, water fountains and flora planted with exquisite care by skilled gardeners. Chashm-e-Shahi bagh and the Nishat bagh have also been built in the same Persian style, large lawns to lounge with colorful flowers and roses planted to create an ambience of comfort for the senses. Holidays and festivals have these gardens full of people enjoying their free time, an action not seen in mall infested metros of the rest of India. 

We slipped away to visit “Mughal Darbar” a culinary temple found in the middle of the Lal Chowk market area. This place is famous for its Wazwan but one has to be seriously circumspect while one is ordering it here. The portion sizes are not just huge they are mammoth, so if the waiter suggests half a plate be sure to ask him do they serve quarter plates? We thought we were being cute when we asked for half a Wazwan for the two of us. What came to our table was enough to feed not just us but also our four kittens and two cats for a week. The Wazwan is a multi course meal that consists of Traem or a tray of rice quartered by Seekh Kebabs, two pieces of Tabak Maaz ( Ribs browned in butter), Safed Kokur or Chicken Kebabs and an apology of Paneer ( not present in a traditional Wazwan ). This was accompanied by three pots of gravy one containing Rogan josh (minced balls of mutton the size of tennis balls, two of them per gravy), Rishta, Goshtaba and Aab gosht...we had foolishly ordered for Rotis too. This was clearly a case of absolute miscalculation on our part but we braved through all of it wanted to sample all in some proportion. Had this restaurant been in Mumbai we could have carried the food back home in a doggy bag and lived happily ever after. Alas, this was not Mumbai and we had to send most of it back uneaten. Not a bad meal but simply too much meat and too excess a quantity.

The Dal Lake shikara ride is nothing to write home about but we did the touristy thing simply for want of a better thing to do here. We got to know a cute pair of seniors from our bus, Mr & Mrs Patil ( an ex-cop and his lady, they were the parents of one of the films directors, Nilesh Patil). The best part was drinking quawwah while the ride is on, that is one drink we quite enjoyed wherever we had it. After this we retired back to our hotel in preparation for a long ride early the next day.

 The first leg of the journey had begun , and the fun was just waiting for us.         Contd in Part2/4 ..Click here

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