Friday, July 18, 2008

Ladakh Trip: Day Seven. Khardung la, Nubra, Diskit, Alchi

Nosebleed! The thin air's finally caught up with me.
Early this morning we packed ourselves, wrapped up in furs and jackets, into a giant Sumo Grande (talk about redundant nomenclature) and headed out for Khardung La.
Somewhere near the police checkpost at North Pullu, I realized that half my upper lip is suspiciously warm. Yep. Nosebleed, at the best possible time - when I'm about to reach the world's highest motorable pass, set the personal record for being the highest yet. There's brief panic - but it's a formality. Give up? Now? You have got to be kidding. Maybe I'm being stupid, but it just might have been a scratch I gave myself in the morning. I wad up some tissues, plug it, and continue.

Our driver, Jigmit, and his Sumo Grande

Khardungla Frog
a rock in a coincidental shape, assisted by imaginative artistry

Himalayan Marmot

On our way up, we passed a colony of Himalayan Marmots. They're large, golden-furred rodents, gambolling around amongst the rocks, occasionally standing up on their hind legs and preening. For some reason, they reminded me very strongly of elderly Parsi gentlemen.

We also passed a group of cyclists heading for the top - man, some enthu these guys have. And quite a lot of white beards and wrinkles amongst them, too... we Indians ought to be ashamed of ourselves.
Close to the top, it snowed. Very little, but it did. Microscopic little flashes of cold melting on your skin... It was my first falling snow.

Until finally...
18,300 feet. Khardung La.
This is now officially the highest I've ever been while still standing on the ground.
It's a bare place, but has a surprisingly festive atmosphere. I guess something rubs off from so many people coming here and exulting, some of the joy and sense of achievement.

Sign Language - As, Le, and Ni - Tasting the thunder Ra - Peace! Y - I have the power! As - Go f*** yourself! Ro - Go f*** yourself while tasting the thunder!

t's been forty-five days... but this deserves a celebration, a breaking of the fast. Y agrees.

Feast your eyes - the world's highest toilet!

Khardung La may be a bitterly cold, desolate wasteland for most of the year, but during the summer months it grows quite a busy, excitable population. There's the army, obviously - the military truck convoys keep going back and forth - but there's also locals, taxis, tourists, cyclists, bikers... and apart from the Euros, one other group famous for it's wanderlust made it's presence felt. A monkey-cap-muffled argument in Bengali was in full swing as we arrived.
There's a medical tent for the people who can't take the thin air, a souvenir shop with t-shirts, mugs and cups, a temple, strings of prayer flags, the world's highest toilet, and a canteen doling out hot, sweet black tea called kahwa (a free cup for getting here, courtesy the Indian Army) which, as you stretch out your cramped limbs, shaking in the chill, is the most welcome drink I've ever had. (A close second is the cheap country liquor popular in Himachal called Suroor)

You would have though that at least here, at India's highest, most remote and most forbidding location, you'd got away from it all. Nope - Nm ran into 3 office colleagues, biking it Chandigarh-Manali-Leh-Kargil. Feasted on Maggi and tea.

The carriers have been named 'Ladakh Carriers' since they're attached, first time, only for this trip

Nubra Valley
As I progress deeper into remote Ladakh towards Nubra, my thoughts start to wander. This landscape... the eye can see, the mind struggles to understand... but the camera can't capture and the pictures can't convey what it was like. It's a view that - I know I keep repeating this - needs to be experienced, not seen.

A supply road cuts a dead-straight swath through the river bed. Although after a while, it takes a quick turn and continues to the destination. Did the 'dozer driver miscalculate, and after a while, stood up and saw the camp drifting steadily to his right? A muttered 'oh bh*****' and a quick twist to get back on track? The look on the engineering supervisor's face when he came out to inspect?

Nubra is a place - maybe the only place - where in a single snap you can see four landscapes - snow-capped mountain; green vegetation; bare rockscape and desert sand.

We picnic'ed on the banks of the stream, and then I tried riding a very irritated-looking bactrian camel. The ride is fine, if you get used to the lurching and just go with the movement instead of trying to balance, but once you get off - especialy if you haven't done this before - your thigh muscles start trembling uncontrollably, to the point you're lurching pretty drunkenly yourself.
Sat for a while, resting, and then headed on for Diskit.

Diskit Gompa is an ancient monastery, really, really old. Perched up on the mountainside above Diskit village, the monastery is practically the most vertical place I've seen; the entire structure climbs steeply up the slope through stairs, landings, ladders, and tiny courtyards.
The rocks on the roof - for ballast against the wind - are carved with prayers as well

One side of the monastery overlooked a gorge, easily a few hundred feet deep, with a stream roaring through it far below. The opposite wall of the gorge - barely fifty to a hundred feet away - had the standard lung-ta draped across it, and across the gorge to the monastery. It looks innocuous until you realize that to tie it, someone must have climbed down into the gorge, crossed the stream, and climbed all the way up again. Then left both his hands and balanced while tying the knots.
The stream is also the monastery's water supply - so the monks do that climb down via extremely dangerous-looking wooden ladders. Every day.

As dusk falls, we continue on, crossing the valley into our camp at Alchi. Some hot food, a long bull session into the night with the three bikers.
What does tourism do to a place like this? It's been sequestered from the other life, the one that we lead, for centuries. Will visitors destroy it? But can you ever really explore without changing the place in some way? The Knights' motto is - 'Take only pictures, leave only footprints.' But that's not allm is it? You also take memories - and leave them behind as well. The kids will watch you roar away on your bike, and think... I also want a bike like that... a jacket like that... and change begins. It's inevitable. The only way to preserve anything is to sanitize it, seal it off completely.
It'll be a poorer world, if that happens.

Time to sleep, now. It's been a long day.

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