Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Leh, India 7/14 - 7/18

While eating dinner in Bangalore with the Google team, Quarup's coworkers kept insisting that he should take a few days off to visit the city Leh in the Himalayas. They told us that this was the best time of year to go because during much of the year it is covered in snow. After a couple hours of convincing and a few drinks, we were sold. We booked tickets online next morning.

We departed Friday evening for our long trip to Leh. Because the winds over the Himalayas become more unpredictable as the day progresses, flight only depart and arrive in Leh early in the morning. This meant we had to layover in Delhi for the evening and take a 6AM flight to Leh the following morning.
Our flight route to the Himalayas.
We found it interesting that the borders in India's northern region
become dashed.
Our first sight of the mighty Himalayas.

The city of Leh is in the Jammu and Kashmir region in the Himalayas, a disputed area between India, Pakistan, and China. Although there is prominent military presence, Leh itself is safe to visit and has not seen violence in recent years. Its beautiful mountains and Tibetan Buddhist culture draw many Indian and international travelers to this area during the summer.
See an even closer view of our interactive map

Our friend Manu Garg set up our accommodations at a very nice hotel (The Oriental Hotel and Guest House) owned by some of his good friends. The peaceful hotel is located at the edge of the city and had a stunning view from our room. The stunning view came at the painful price. It involved climbing four flights of stairs at 11,562 ft (3,524 m) above sea level! Quarup had to take breaks at each floor level to stop the pounding in his head. The thought of passing out did cross his mind.
Once we made it up to our room, we didn't want to leave.
Prayer flags and stupas from our bathroom window.

We were advised to spent much of the first day sleeping and relaxing to help our bodies acclimatize to the high altitude. Considering our flight arrived at 7AM, taking a nap was not disputed. Acclimatization typically takes a couple days before one's body can extract normal levels of oxygen from the thin air.

By the evening we had enough strength to explore the city by foot. We heard some people saying "juleh" (pronounced "joo-lay"), which is a friendly word in the local language that means hello, goodbye, how are you, thank you, or you're welcome.

We walked through the busy markets with many shops owned by Tibetan refugees that immigrated to India during Tibet's conflicts with communist China. As a result, Leh is largely shaped by Tibetan culture, which fortunately includes cool prayer flags, local crafts and awesome food.
The city center of Leh.
We're not big shoppers but we couldn't say no to these handwoven Tibetan wool socks.
Thukpa (a local Ladakhi soup). Quarup's favorite dish.
Momos (local steamed dumplings). Laure's favorite dish.

Next day, we hired a driver to take us to a three Buddhist monasteries; Lamayuru, Alchi, and Likir. These small communities built on high mountains are comprised of monks and nuns dedicated to preserving and teaching Buddhism. The drive to all three monasteries was long and the combination of unpaved road and unique scenery made napping difficult. With the exception of gardens in scattered towns, the landscape was mostly barren with calmness unlike any other place we had been. These mighty mountains were once the ocean floor and they still do not contain enough nutrients to sustain shrubbery. The sky was vivid blue due to the lack of atmosphere.
Driving up to Likir as the sun was setting.
View from Likir.
Finding inner peace.

The colorful prayer flags represent the natural elements and promote peace, compassion, strength, and wisdom. It is believed that the wind carries prayers and blessings from the flags to everyone around the world. Such is the all-embracing nature of Tibetan Buddhism.
Alchi prayer flag pathway. Our favorite monastery from the visit.
Laure's favorite path.
Rug's favorite too.

Tibetan Buddhists spin prayer wheels clockwise to accumulate wisdom and merit, and purify negativities.
Getting rid of any lingering bad karma.
Giant prayer wheel = the accumulation of a lot of wisdom?

On our next day, we hired a driver to take us to Khardung La Pass at 17,582 ft (5,359 m). The locals claim this is the highest motorable pass in the world; Wikipedia begs to differ. Either way, the views were amazing and it was the highest elevation either of us had ever been. At the top, we had a few cups of tea before Quarup mountain biked halfway down and got a flat tire.
Looking back down towards Leh, half way through our hour long drive up.
The best 20 cent tea in town.
No helmet! Laure's praying that Quarup makes it down in one piece.
Quarup owned the road. He caught up to a motorcycle group.
He's just behind the 6th motorcycle.

That evening, we climbed the steps of the hill next to our hotel to see Shanti Stupa, which holds relics of Buddha and is famous for its panoramic views. At the top we enjoyed tea and a beautiful sunset on the mountains.
Fresh ginger lemon tea, Quarup's favorite.

On our last day, we went white water rafting on the Zanskar River (level 3+), where we met other travelers from around the world. Our international raft included an Indian couple from Bangalore, two guys from Czech Republic, a girl from Montana, a girl from Canada, and our Nepalese raft leader. The air temperature was hot at about 35C but the water in the river coming from the Himalayas was really cold at 8C! Good thing they provided everyone with wetsuits for rafting and a warm lunch after.
Quarup was captured by another raft.

For our last night we had dinner at Chopsticks, a Lonely Planet recommended restaurant. The prices were fair, the food was excellent and the large tables with friendly atmosphere encouraged mingling with new people. We joined a table with travelers from the US and Australia. You would have never been able to guess from their modesty that they had just gotten back from a five week climbing/mountaineering expedition deep in the contested areas of Jammu and Kashmir. They had rented a couple of horses to carry all their gear and set out into the Himalayas without a guide.

On our last day we learned the Dalai Lama would be flying into Leh as we would be flying out. If only we had stayed an extra day, we could have seen him speak in person. Maybe we'll catch him on our next trip. Until then, juleh.
Last view of the Himalayas.


Here are some more photos of our trip.