Monthly Archives: June 2010


We flew on the morning of June 1 to Leh, the main city of Ladakh, an enclave of Tibetan Buddhist culture separated by high mountains from the rest of India. Governed as part of the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh is safe and largely autonomous except for the large Indian military presence.

Leh stands at 3700 meters altitude in the Indus river valley, which cuts a wide swath across the mountains on its way from Tibet's Mount Kailas to the plains of Pakistan. On either side are mountain ranges with peaks around 6000 meters, not as high as the Karakoram to the north but still a wonderful frame to this high desert valley. The only roads into the valley cross several high Himalayan passes and are closed eight months off the year.

Ladakh has a very active Tibetan Buddhist culture, in a sense the only undisturbed one in the world. Monasteries are everywhere, often built on hills. The Drukpa Kargyu lineage of the Kagyu school is dominant in Ladadk. The Dalai Lama visits at least once a year from nearby Dharmasala.

Leh is a travelers' hangout, though less so than similar towns in Nepal. The main bazaar still serves the locals and the former king's palace overlooks the scene.

We spent our first four days acclimatizing, catching up on email, and interviewing trekking agencies. We prefer not to put our money and safety into people's hands until we can look them in the eye. We found several operators we liked and all seemed able to organize our treks at a very cheap price. But ultimately we decided to go with the most established and expensive operator, because we liked the guide and knew he would come through on our itinerary, which left no margin for error catching our flights home. More on that later.

With that settled, we took three two-day road trips, which I will describe in separate postings immediately below this one.

The last night before our trek, I had intended to do some important work on the internet, including finishing our Nepal blog postings. Unfortunately, this happened to be one of the many days when Leh's internet service was not working. Served by only two government-run ISPs, Leh's connection to the Flat World is cut almost as frequently as its electricity, which is off roughly 12 hours per day. Telephones are also difficult, with cell phone roaming blocked for security reasons throughout Jammu and Kashmir following the Mumbai bombings. After a lot of trying, I was able to get pay-phone calls through to my parents and my brother, who has kindly again handled our most important business.

Ladakh road trip 1 – Nubra Valley

To the north of Leh lies another large valley called Nubra, where an Indus tributary drains the Karakoram and other high mountains. Lying close to the disputed borders with China and Pakistan, this area can only be visited with a special permit, which is easy to obtain through agents in Leh. Only the Indian military can go right to the Line of Control, however, which in this area crosses the 6300-meter (21,000 foot) Siachen glacier. Why India and Pakistan would want to fight wars over this alpine wasteland is anyone's guess.

The roads throughout Ladakh and other Himalayan regions are built and maintained by the military-funded Border Roads Organization (BRO), which is famous for its concrete signposts every few hundred meters. These English messages vary from pride (“God created Ladakh, we connect it to the world”) to road safety (“After whiskey driving risky”) to bizarre (“Peep peep don't sleep”). But we took comfort in the thought that Big BRO was watching.

The road crosses what BRO claims is the “highest motorable road in the world” at 5600 meters (18,380 feet). Actually, my GPS read somewhat lower and some sources now seem to be admitting it's only the second highest road.

But it was definitely the world's highest traffic jam. With the one-lane road still snow-covered from the winter and an added dusting from the night before, the police were only allowing traffic in convoys. So although we started at 7am, we were blocked until they opened the road at 10. At that point, several hundred trucks, buses and cars started up the hill, horns blaring in attempts to pass on every wide spot in the road. Of course, several cars stalled from the high altitude and had to be pushed off to the side. Worse, scores of Indian tourists were making one-way trips to the summit to take pictures of the signs and to discover snow is cold. As a result, numerous cars were trying to make U-turns in the worst icy conditions at the pass. To round things out, a couple of buses were defying the one-way traffic climbing the icy road from the other side. The Indian army looked on in amusement and did nothing to sort out the mess, which might have been fatal to travelers less acclimatized than ourselves. In all, it took us seven hours to cross the pass from the time we started in Leh.

The Nubra valley was well worth it, though. Although the marginal weather obscured the most spectacular views of the Karakoram mountains, here higher than the Himalaya, the valleys had plenty of sights lower down.

Our favorite was the monastery of Disket, the largest town in the valley. Built on a hill, the monastery is visually spectacular and gives fines views from the top. Inside, we were able to visit two fine chapels. The lower one, called the Gongkang, was like a storage room for the statues of the ten fierce protective deities that are the dark side off Tibetan Buddhism. Strong and mean enough to fight and kill evil spirits, these gods are treated with great respect. Their faces are so fierce that they must be keep covered for all but one festival day each year. Ladakhi monasteries seem to be particularly interested in this practice, almost always having a separate protectors' chapel uniquely painted red.

Nubra is on one of the branches of the Silk Road over the Karakoram Pass from China, now closed. It contains some areas of sand dunes and a population of Bactrian camels brought before the era of national borders. We skipped the tourist rides, since we'll no doubt have another chance in Central Asia.

Ladakh road trip 2 – Pangong Lake

Wanting to have as much fun in high-altitude traffic as possible, we next hired a taxi to visit a different border area on the north side of the Ladakh Range. This destination was Pangong Lake, a 160-kilometer-long saline lake crossing into western Tibet.

Fortunately, this area was sparsely populated and traffic was minimal. The 5400-meter Chang La pass was also easy, one of the reasons British players in the Great Game feared Russian invasions by this route.

The land in this area was remarkable: barren mountains, rocky outcroppings and sand dunes. Wild horses roamed the valleys. At the lake we could see hints of the changing light blue colors that are reputedly amazing on sunny days. The weather, however was not cooperating, with overcast clouds all evening.

Hotels being scarce and fully booked, we stayed in the home of an elderly Tibetan refugee and his Ladakhi wife. He made a delicious meal for us, which we ate in his traditional kitchen.

The next morning it was snowing lightly. We quickly packed and ate breakfast to get over the pass before it got worse. The police checkpost was turning back cars from the pass, but they let us through when our driver showed he had tire chains. With few vehicles on the road, our pass crossing was snowy but uneventful.

Back on the Leh side, we visited several monasteries and ruined palaces that we had not been able to go to before.

Ladakh road trip 3 – Lamayuru festival

Our third road trip was to an area where we will return to start the second part of our trek. But we will be rushing then to get on the trail and we learned that there was a monastic festival earlier in the month, so we resolved to visit Lamayuru on a separate trip.

Along the road, many people were dressed in local clothing to pay their respect to a lama who was passing to his monastery. At one place, a woman was crossing the raging Indus river in a basket trolley. Local clothing is colorful, with women typically wearing a square-topped felt hat. Some women wear a heavy headdress covered with turquoise stones.

The setting of the Lamayuru monastery is striking. It lies in a high valley surrounded by the craggy peaks of the Zanskar Range. Some nearby eroded slopes are understandably called “moonland” by locals.

The two-day festival was in full swing when we arrived. Local sources had told us the dates were June 10-11, and we figured we'd arrive in the middle of the first day. The Tibetan calendar, however, is subject to reinterpretation based on lunar observations, and the monks had moved everything a day earlier at the last minute.

Fortunately, we were able to see the most interesting dances of the final afternoon. Much like the Tiji Festival in Lo Manthang, which we described at length earlier, these circle dances revolved around a ceremonial exorcism and killing of evil spirits in an effigy, this time made from tsampa (barley meal). I have needed to carefully select camera angles of the anatomically correct effigy to preserve the G rating of this blog. The locals seemed to find all this very amusing.

In the climactic dances, eight monks used a series of ceremonial weapons to neutralize and finally kill the demon. Finally, the lead dancer cut the effigy to bits with his sword. Jesters, a comic-relief fixture of Tibetan monk dances, then threw the bits of the demon into the crowd, delighting the kids much like at a baseball game. The monks then made their exit and returned their masks to the monastery, where they will hang until the next year.

An advantage of missing the first day was that we were free to leave early the next morning and visit other monasteries on the way back to Leh. Several, like Rizong and Likir, had striking hillside settings.

But our favorite was the ancient monastery at Alchi. Built in the 11th century by Kashmiri artisans on a secluded bend of the Indus, this monastery was different from any Tibetan Buddhist chapels we had ever seen. A tall, pagoda-like chapel housed three giant statues. Every bit of wall space and even the statues' clothing was covered by ancient paintings.

A Jaipur weekend

I have already told about the Delhi visa chase, which required our physical presence in the heat of the plains on a Friday and a Monday. Since we had already seen most of the sights of Delhi on an earlier trip in 2003, we resolved to take a weekend trip on the train (planes might have required passports for identification).

Since we were in tourist mode, we decided on Jaipur, the capital of Rajisthan. Built in the early 18th century by maharaja Jai Singh II, the pink-walled city is one of the largest and best-preserved of the Moghul era. At its center are a set of palaces, including a much-photographed women's palace where members of the maharaja's family could look out on the city from behind a safe screen of lace-like stone.

My personal favorite was the royal observatory of Jai Singh II, much larger and better preserved than the similar one he built in Delhi. Most of the instruments were large and very accurate sundials, reading the time on a semi-circular scale wrapping around the huge stone gnomon. Others allowed accurate measurement of stars' declination and right ascension (angles). Marcia waited under a tree while I deciphered all of this in the 43-degree C (109 F) midday heat.

Late Saturday afternoon, I went to the train station to see if I could track down a small box of medicine I had left on the train down. In typical Indian bureaucratic style, I was sent to six different windows and moldy offices until I determined that the Railway Police was the only thing close to a lost and found desk. They had me file a handwritten report, stamped in duplicate and entered in a dusty book. I don't expect to ever see my box again, although Indian bureaucracy sometimes surprises in strange and wonderful ways.

We devoted Sunday to a visit to the large and well-preserved Amber Fort ten kilometers north of town. Once the maharaja's capital until his city outgrew it, the fort is now crawling with tourists, elephants, and security guards looking to give tours of the king's latrines for a small tip. Despite the hordes, it was still worth visiting in the cool of the morning.

We were thankfully able to upgrade to an air-conditioned car on the train back to Delhi.

English restaurant menus

We really appreciate the work restaurant owners put into making English menus. It can't be easy, especially when some owners barely read and write their own language, let alone English. But sometimes the results can be amusing.

In Leh, we ate at a pretty good restaurant that had a page titled “Fried Snakes.” The waiter was quite amused when we told him that snakes are a delicacy in southern China. It took us ten minutes to realize they meant “snacks.”

But nothing could touch the very fancy Delhi restaurant that served the above dish. Thinking the French word “aubergine” was more classy than the English “eggplant,” they wrote something even their spell-checker wouldn't touch: “stuffed aborigine.”

Marcia reports it was delicious.

The Delhi visa chase

Our reason for spending a few days in Delhi's heat was to obtain visas to several of the Central Asia countries we plan to visit in the fall.

The 'Stans don't make it easy for Americans to visit. In some cases, rules dating back to the Cold War require Americans to get a Letter of Invitation (LOI) before a visa will be granted. Even when that is not required, normal processing takes several weeks for each country and rush fees are very high. And with five little countries each with their own rules, it is complicated and expensive.

Since we will only be in the US for about 10 days and Canada another 4 weeks this summer, we decided to get as many visas as possible while we traveled. While we were in Kunming, I made a lot of calls and mapped out a strategy to get this done as cleanly as possible.

I may have already mentioned that we sent our passports to New York during our trek in Nepal. This was to obtain the two most bureaucratic of the visas: Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Those are best issued in the US, since those embassies just require time and not the separate LOI that would be needed elsewhere. I found a great company in New York called Cinderella Travel that has a good relationship with both of these consulates, and I made arrangements to ship our passports back and forth in the four weeks we'd be on the trail when our trekking permits would prove our identity.

It was a good thing that this agency was experienced, because they were able to call in some favors and get the visas issued quickly when the Nepali general strike delayed our outgoing shipment by more than a week. We had a few nervous moments but received our passports and visas back three days early.

Kazahkstan and Kyrgyzstan are relatively easy, the latter even issuing visas on arrival at the airport. But to maximize flexibility and to avoid late surprises, we wanted also to get those stamps in advance. Although it's possible to get these in the US, those embassies are slow and expensive. But I discovered that their embassies in Delhi would issue visas to Americans in one business day. So we scheduled ourselves to be in Delhi on a Friday and the following Monday, with a weekend of fun in Jaipur in between.

We hired a car and driver to do all our running around in air-conditioned safety. First we had to go to the Royal Bank of Scotland to deposit the visa fees, since the embassies don't take cash or credit cards. Then we ran to one embassy after another, fortunately all in the same part of town. Kazahkstan made us wait in the heat on the street for almost two hours because they were having “a meeting with the bank.” It was a hassle and not something I would do again, but in the end we got our visas.

That leaves Turkmenistan. The North Korea of Central Asia, Turkmenistan has rules that would have made the Soviet Union proud. Tourist visas require an organized tour where you pay for a plainclothes policeman to spy on you. Itineraries are fixed and unchangeable.

Their only exception is a 3-5 day transit visa, but they grant those only if you arrive from one country and leave from another. I had figured out a way to do this by entering from a relatively safe part of Afghanistan and leaving through Uzbekistan, and I had spoken with a helpful woman at their Delhi embassy who assured me this would work if we gave them enough processing time. But on a final call to confirm their address and paperwork requirements, the ill-tempered consul told me he would not help me because I should be applying in either Washington or Kabul. I already knew the Washington embassy would refuse and I am not traveling to Kabul right now.

So if we go to Turkmenistan it will be on a tourist visa, and we will have to pay for our own private spy. But at least we won't have to go to Afghanistan, which is probably a good thing.

Short update from Ladakh

It will be a few more days before I can post detailed news and pictures of our month in Nepal. Meanwhile, I will give you a quick update on our progress and plans.

We spent a few days in the heat of the plains of Northern India, mostly in Delhi collecting visas for our trip this fall. We were able to spend a weekend in Jaipur, the capital of Rajistan and justifiably one of the tourist highlights of India.

On Tuesday, June 1, we flew to Leh, the regional capital of Ladakh, a Tibetan Buddhist area in northern India. Although it is admistratively in the troubled Jammu and Kashmir area, Ladakh is insulated by high mountains and very peaceful. We will be spending the rest of our spring trip in Ladakh and surrounding areas.

We have now arranged to begin trekking on June 12 and to be pretty much continually on the trail until we fly back to San Francisco on July 12. Our path will take us across several mountain ranges including the Indian Himalaya, and we will end up at a hill town called Manali. From there we can fly or take ground transportation back to Delhi, where we will catch our flight back to the States.

Between now and the 12th, we will be visiting various outlying areas in jeep trips and taxis, including one monastery that is having a festival. This will allow us to finish acclimatizing to the high altitude: even Leh is at 3500 meters (12,000 feet), about the same as Lhasa.

Thank you for your patience waiting for the Nepal pages. They will be worth the wait!