Leh Lady Leh: The Girl’s Guide To Ladakh

Leh Lady Leh: The Girl’s Guide To Ladakh

A piece published on one the bestest gal pals there is, Maia Sethna’s superb blog Girl Panic:

After flying solo and moving to Delhi almost a year ago, I felt like I needed a change of scenery. I had never even set foot in Ladakh, but you don’t get much more of a dramatic scenery change than here. In fact, as soon you step of the plane at Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport (or Leh to you and me) there are two things you notice. One, the absence of that ‘open oven door’ sensation; the air is cool here, you can actually breathe. Two, that view. You might be mistaken for thinking you’d just touched down on the moon. It’s not named the ‘lunar landscape’ for nothing.

Once considered so remote that “only your best friend or worst enemy would visit you” there, or so the local adage goes, Ladakh is now a firm favourite on the tourist trail. With several daily flights from Delhi to Leh during season time, it has never been easier to reach: the perfect destination for a long weekend getaway out of the sweltering Delhi summer.

meg - ladakhShamless #selfie on a rare afternoon off

Upon arrival make sure to set your watches to “mountain time”. One adopts a different pace of life here: early to bed early to rise. My morning routine in Delhi generally involved dragging myself out of bed by 8.45, ready to leave the house by 9am (read 9.30). Now I am tucked up by 10, a good book my only bed partner, in order to be up at 5am before my sacred morning stroll. Yoga, shower, breakfast: check. I am generally ready to carpe the hell out of that diem by 7am.

But what to do? If you’re the kind of girl looking for poolside butler service then Ladakh is probably not your thing. But, if you’re on an odyssey for some adventure in your life then look no further: you have arrived. With more adrenaline fixes than a back-street physician’s medical bag, Ladakh is the destination for those craving a natural high. Or a literal high (it does sit at over 10,000 feet after all).

meg - ladakh 2Me and some of my new friends!

From white water rafting to off-roading; mountain biking to climbing Ladakh provides a colourful array of ways to attempt to kill oneself. Or give your parents a scare. A trekkers mecca you can cover the same rocky passes that many before have tried and failed to complete. Near death experiences avoided, you might want to thank god (or Buddha) you are still alive. And with more monasteries than you can shake a dorjey at (google it) Ladakh is the perfect place to discover your inner sanctuary.

For the believers or the just plane curious, a trip to the oracle at Saboo makes for an enlightening afternoon. No she won’t be able to tell you who you are going to marry or whether or not your boyfriend really cheated, but she might just be able to shed some light on some personal or family gripes. Or for all your homeopathic health needs, there is the Amchi at Thiksey monastery – probably the happiest man in Ladakh. Save for my co-worker Captain Sonam. You haven’t known joy until you’ve met Captain Sonam.

In short, there is no short-age of things to do in Ladakh, especially over the summer season. And if you are man, or should I say woman enough, to brave its winter season and sub-zero temperatures, then you may well be rewarded with a rare snow leopard sighting. All I know is that I have been here for over a month, have another three to go and I have not covered even half of my “To Do” list. So I am sure you Delhiites darlings can fill up a long weekend!

thiksey - 2
Room with a View: My new Home Sweet Home

 

Ladakh: The Low Down

Whilst I could write an exhaustive list of “Must Do’s” in Ladakh I will let you figure that out for yourself, but here are just a few of my favourites…

Monastery: Thiksey

Not the richest, not the oldest, but in my opinion the most beautiful (and home to the largest and most photographed statue of the Matreya Buddha in Ladakh). Wake up early for the morning prayers with the monks and several cups of butter tea if you can stomach it. Whilst you are there why not make a trip to the local herbal medicine man, the Amchi, who will tell you more about yourself than your childhood paediatrician. Every malady imaginable is prescribed with one of his foul smelling “Tibetan dirt balls” as I like to call them. Hold your nose, they taste as bad as they look.

Cycle route: Wari-La

You might want to leave it a couple of days before you exert yourself too heavily. Whether it’s your lack of physical prowess or those extra 3000 feet: the views will quite literally take your breath away. Look out for yaks, zos, marmots and a whole menagerie of wildlife not found around town.

Shop: Jigmet Couture

Whilst Ladakh is hardly a shopper’s paradise Jigmet Couture is the best place to pick up some tailor made souvenirs. The man behind the name is a real enigma. Using locally sourced textiles Jigmet offers Ladakhi fashion with a modern twist.

Place to eat: Nimmu House

Local new kid on the block with its French owner and French chef, Nimmu house provides a sophisticated alternative to momos and thukpa.

Sunset Spot: Victory Fort

Forget the crowds of Shanti Stupa, Victory Point is where those in the know go to witness the ending of another day. Watch as the afternoon shadow casts itself over the valley below like a blanket before bedtime. Romantic much?!

Drive: Towards Alchi

Traverse several different landscapes en-route to the (largest?) monastery in Ladakh. From the winding roads to open planes you will feel as though you have travelled a thousand miles in just a couple of hours. Finish up with a picnic lunch overlooking the the Alchi dam.

Book to read: “Servant of the Sahibs: A Book To Be Read Aloud” by Ghulam Rassul Galwan

This is one of those books that will stick in your mind. Francis Younghusband, friend, explorer and fellow player of The Great Game was not exaggerating when he wrote “There has never been another book remotely similar to Servant of the Sahibs”. As much a primary source as it is an adventure novel Rassul writes with such naked honesty readers (or listeners) are permitted a personal account of the caravan trails of Central Asia that no modern day historian could hope to create. An absolute must read when travelling to Ladakh!

Keeping It Cool in Coorg: The Scotland of India

Keeping It Cool in Coorg: The Scotland of India

This day could not get any worse, I mused mid-way through my ‘wild-wee’. I was meant to be lounging by the infinity pool in the mid-day heat of the Karnatakan sun; instead I was squatting in a field with a pair of bovine beauties giving me the eye. Our car had broken down, five hours into our six hour drive; or, as I am still convinced had run out of petrol.

825     Making friends on the road

In a Howard Beale moment of “I’m not going to take this anymore!” R and I had booked two tickets to GetMeTheHellOuttaHere, located some 1400 miles from the torturous Delhi summer. Less than 12 hours later we arrived in the ‘Garden City’ of India, Bangalore, before driving onwards to Coorg. Famed for its beautiful people and aromatic coffee (two of my favourite things) and its temperate climate it seemed like the perfect place to escape to. Until the break down. Long weekend slowly slipping away both the repair party and our emergency hotel pick up arrived at the same time. Naturally. We waved a quick goodbye to our new four-legged friends before the convoy set off for the Vivanta by Taj, Coorg.

844    Pool with a view

Now, I am not one of those people who never leaves the resort but at the Taj’s property in Coorg you just don’t feel you can. With a list of activities from nature walks, cycling and even pottery (yeah, I made an ashtray!) it really is a impossible to leave the beautiful surroundings. In fact that is what the property is all about – the views. Built into a hillcrest every area, from the reception, to the pool, to the lift(!) makes the most of its stunning vistas.

834    Reception with a view

841   Everything with a view   

And there is the spa. Not content with yoga by the poolside every morning we made more trips than necessary. Taj properties are known for their excellent JIVA spas and with an on sight Ayruvedic doctor and this for an entrance, the one at Coorg is certainly one of the best.

830    Hoping this is not the disabled entrance

In fact the only time we did leave the property was on our way to the airport to buy coffee, for which the area is famous. About 3 kilos worth, enough to satiate even a caffeine addict like my self’s habit. Unfortunately there were no beautiful men to be purchased. In fact, one almost unwinds too much after a weekend spent here, resulting in us (accidentally on purpose) missing our flight and spending an extra night. Now, if that is not testament to a property’s perfection then I don’t know what is.

It’s My Birthday: I’ll Get High If I Want To!

It’s My Birthday: I’ll Get High If I Want To!

Lying in bed with a pounding headache, unremitting nausea, unable to leave my room save for some medicinal strength coffee is pretty much how I spend most of my birthdays. Nothing out of the ordinary here. Except that this year my incapacitation was not alcohol induced, this year it was because I got high – 10,500 feet high to be exact.

thiksey  View of Thiksey monastery – and some local wildlife!

Waking up with altitude sickness isn’t everyone’s idea of a Happy Birthday, but as I lay in bed, feeling as rough as the local terrain, with that view of the Thiksey monastery, the “hangover” was totally worth it. A self-proclaimed vagabond and unashamed indophile what better job could I ask for than working for a nomadic camp, traversing some of India’s roads less travelled.

988   My new Home Sweet Home

Consequent to its remoteness “only your best friends or worst enemies will visit you in Ladakh” or so the local adage goes. There is merit in this – Ladakh is not everyone’s cup of chai (in fact its local butter variant is one of the more disgusting things I have tasted). With overland routes closed due to heavy snowfall, for the majority of the year it is only accessible by air and even then, flights operate at the mercy of the weather. Assuming you’ve arrived in one piece you then have the altitude sickness to contend with: 24 hours bed rest, one Diamox tablet and a helping of sobriety for good measure. Like I said, Ladakh is not for everyone.

But for those of us who like their mountains high and their rivers wide it is a veritable Himalayan heaven. “The Land of High Passes” really is a perfect destination for the seasoned road-tripper, mountain trekker, river rafter and spiritual learner. Not to mention an excellent escape from the merciless Indian summer.

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One of those seasoned travellers I was talking about…

2014 saw Ladakh set the scene for the 33rd annual Kalachakra festival. The largest Buddhist gathering in the world it was hosted by the Dalai Lama – during which we wished him a very happy 79th birthday! As I sat crossed legged amongst a sea of red and yellow clad monks, wishing His Holiness many happy returns, I could not help but give myself a mental pat on the back. Swapping Delhi for Ladakh, knowing that I was going to spend the summer here, was a gift money could not buy.

053

     Happy Birthday Your Holiness

Four months without a working phone (the Kashmiri government restricts use of all non-local prepaid simcards) and very limited access to internet sounds like your average city dwellers worst nightmare. Yet armed with a yoga mat, a stack of books almost myself in height, my DSLR camera and a new pair of walking shoes I cannot wait to see what the rest of summer brings.

Almora: Photoblog and Guide from an Amateur

Almora: Photoblog and Guide from an Amateur

Morning has brokenThe stunning views along the drive from Kathogodam to Almora – worth staying awake for! 

Chai StopBread PakhorasFollowed by the mandatory chai stop and my first bread pakhora? I think that’s what these are called? Anyway they’re bloody delicious and basically hot morsels or crispy, carby goodness! 

The Beautiful Blue HouseThe beautiful “Blue House”

Sunny YellowAnd our “Happy Yellow” room 😀

The Butterfly!The butterfly(!) that made my lap it’s home for half hour or so. The juxtaposition of my horrible acrylic nails only makes it more beautiful; whilst simultaneously ruining the photo.

Billionaire Boys ClubThe Billionaire Boy’s Club of Crank’s RIdge: These guys have seen it all – Dylan? Ginsberg? Just another hippy passing through..  

HeavenA mountain “meadow”. If I died and went to Heaven, this would suffice. 

BellsTemple BellsBells at the sanctuary of Kasar Devi temple – it even has a meditation room. A more spectacular temple is the famous Chitai Temple which makes the Kasar Devi’s collection of bells look poultry! The temple is in honour of Lord Shiva and newly married couples in particular make offerings here. It is about 10km from Almora and a fantastic walk! 

Putting out feet up!Putting our feet up and enjoying the view at Mohan’s, the social epicentre of Crank’s Ridge. Pity about the annoying telephone wires.. If not renting a house I would certainly recommend staying here. 

Last Supper

Rhododendron JuiceOur last supper (mercifully not another curry) accompanied by the fruity elixir and bibendum of the gods: rhododendron juice! Warning: will cause tooth decay. 

Other activities in Almora include hiking, biking (pedal and motor) and fishing to name a few  – basically anything outdoorsy. All can be booked at Mahon’s. There is also a lovely little shop called Panchachuli where fabrics and clothing, made by local women using traditional methods are sold. The factory and associated NGO are located further down the road, closer to Almora town.

I hope you are inspired to visit Almora and love it as much as I do!!

Almora: Less is Mora

Almora: Less is Mora

Whilst I sit here writing, a butterfly sits on me, apparently bewildered by the flowery pyjama shorts she is trying to feed from! But I am glad of the company; especially so beautiful. “The Himalayas have come to greet you!” E told us upon our arrival in Almora, greeting us herself with a big hug. Apparently they’d been hiding under a thick blanket of mist and fog for the last few weeks, and sure enough there they stood: white, proud and defiant – but not at all like a band of English Defence League supporters!

Three hours ago we had stumbled out of our carriage and onto the platform at Kathogodam, our expectant driver all smiles. Ascending the mountains we left the twinkling lights of the tiny toy town down below. The stark outline of a mountain rose into the sky like the gnarled spine of some dormant beast; behind which the “rosy fingered dawn” (as Homer so aptly puts it!)  was playfully creeping up on. We wound our way through towns and villages stretching, blinking, coughing – slowly waking up for the day. The air tasted different to Delhi, the sounds were different too; car horns and the calls of street vendors replaced by bird calls and crickets. Somewhere in the distance a cockerel crows: morning has broken.

The tiny toy town down below

After a delicious breakfast of home-made muesli and other such yummies we were off again on the so often spoken about and ominous “Walk”. I was looking forward to it and dreading it all at once. The guides are Himalayan boys; their mole hills are our mountains. We set off across ‘Cranks Ridge’ an area known for its lush vegetation and abundance of flora and fauna, seldom found in India. Butterflies flirtatiously waltzed between our feet, courting one another, as we struggled up the mountain path. Animals enjoy a good life here. The cows, cats, dogs and goats are some of the happiest and healthy looking I have seen in India. When we finally rested to take in the panoramic vistas they truly were (for want of a better word) ‘breath-taking’; nothing to do with my embarrassing levels of aerobic fitness.

A Pensive Cow on the Ridge

Back at ‘The Blue House’ we made preparations for an impromptu fire pit-smoking-drinking sesh that went on into the early hours. Laying on our backs, staring into the abyss of stars we spoke of time, space and other things that we didn’t understand. Inevitably, as one does when a subject so much larger than ourselves is broached, we were struck by that all too familiar realisation of how transient man is – and how tiny our little brains are! The day’s physical struggles became mental ones and we strained to understand miracles that had transpired millennia before the first human ever decided to question them. The slowest of shooting stars dawdled across the sky – a firefly! I had never seen one before and it was magical! Like a real life fairy bouncing through the all-encompassing night. Elated, thoughts darted through my mind as I drew up non-existent parallels between my company and the Dylan’s, Ginsberg’s, George Harrisons et al, who had also once made “Hippie Hill” their home. The ridge gained the prefix, “Crank’s”, after Timothy Leary famously streaked across it in the 1960’s.

Apparently, and I use this word very heavily, the ridge lies between a gap in the Van Allen Belt, a “radiation zone of high energy particles trapped by the earth’s magnetic field”. This positioning may allow the creative mind to harness its powers to their optimum. Oh, plus there’s also a mountain full of freely available maal right on one’s doorstep. But never the less, I enjoyed re-living their imagined experiences myself, all be it fictitious. I can’t claim to have successfully harnessed my creative mind and reinvented myself as some sort of literary genius, but there is something very special about Crank’s Ridge. Whether it’s gaps in magnetic fields, the superlative variety of flora and fauna or simply because it’s that little bit off the tourist trail (not that far off!) it is a place where one can both relax and exert body and mind to the greatest extent.

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Dharamsala: It Went With a Bang

Dharamsala: It Went With a Bang

“Car crash?” I enquired to our bus driver. “No, no: shooting” he replied nonchalantly. “Ohhhh, a shooting” I thought “naturally”. As we made our way through the multiplying clusters of inquisitive onlookers I had quite forgotten that but two nights ago I was 30,000 feet high somewhere over Central Asia. I imagined that on my first weekend as a fully fledged Delhi local I would be writing about well, Delhi; however my friend Natasha had other plans. After a quick “freshen up” stop at her apartment en-route from airport to bus station, I found myself heading north to the Himalayas for a back-to-basics weekend in Rakkar, Dharamsala.

As our aptly named ‘semi-sleeper’ bus began to ascend the mountains we were rudely roused from our sleeping tablet induced slumbers. Nothing to do with involuntary ‘head-banging on window routine’ incurred by the pot-hole ridden mountain passes. Groggily we rubbed our eyes. We were met by a valley still tucked away under its thick blanket of mist, just about to be thrown off before rising for the day. Oh, and Nasma our host and her driver.

The latter turned out to be a budding mountaineer and the following morning after a scripture worthy picnic under the “people tree” he took us to his favourite secluded spot. Our only accompaniment along the hike was a mummy cow and her calf, which in India is saying something! We marched to the beat of the slate miners across the other side of the valley, for which Dharamsala is famous for. But as we ascended the top of the hill their reassuring rhythm was drowned out by the roar of the river below, fat from the recent monsoon. This was eagle territory. As we scrambled from rock to rock, clutching cameras, rucksacks and water bottles, they glided majestically between the peaks, effortlessly making their way across the valley we had just taken hours to climb.

After another biblical feast we made our way back down, mirroring the ant-like donkey trail descending the opposite mountain. Mummy cow and her calf were back. Three young girls came running up to us: “Name? Country?” they asked excitedly, all anyone wants to know in India apparently. N, who used to work for the Jagori Rural Charitable Trust in the local village asked them why they were not in school. “But it’s Sunday?” the eldest replied, confused. So it was – clever one she was.

After a quick yoga session with ‘Yogi Nani’, N’s beautiful 75 year old mother, we were back on the ‘semi-sleeper’ and Delhi bound once more. Not before the ‘shoot out’ extended pit stop including several chais, much local gossip and a fainting. Oh and bunch of stoned Israelis singing their national anthem. Dharamsala: it’s been emotional.