Leh & Alchi Sunday 30 August- Saturday 5 September 2009
Leh was an interesting place with a great many Western tourists mostly European. We had arrived just in time for the tourism festival held at the end of the season before 15th September when the road in from Srinagar officially shuts -though if the weather is good you can still try it in private vehicles. At 3505 metres it is a bit chilly and there is a danger of AMS or acute mountain sickness. A couple of people staying at the guest house were affected but as we'd taken it slowly we were ok though we did experience a shortness of breath a few times.
Near to the sensitive borders of both Pakistan and China, Leh has a strong military presence and there are army camps everywhere. The tourism festival started on 1 September and we watched the parade from a roof top café - though I managed to miss most of it when I went to check emails as I was told that there was an hour to go and there wasn't!! …never mind! We wanted to see the polo match as this is a big local sport but it didn't tie in with our movements but we did see a man practicing so it was sort of like seeing a bit of one!
There are a lot of Tibetan refugees here as well as the native Ladakhi people and their cultures are similar. Whilst predominantly Buddhist there is also quite a few Muslims here and 2 Mosques in the town centre. Some of them are Kashmiri people, refugees from the troubles there.
Leh has a nice feel - like a country town in parts with yaks and cattle roaming the streets and lovely old traditional wooden houses. The streets had markets selling fresh vegetables everywhere - we certainly ate healthily here! The Goat's head store was enough to put you on the road to vegetarianism as well!
There were loads of Shoe men - mending polishing and generally refurbishing all manner of footwear! I got my riding boots re-soled and polished and he did a great job, though in the process he changed their colour from brown to black! Just as well I don't mind!!
Not far from where we stayed we saw the donkey sanctuary. Housing around 20 animals this centre was set up by a South African lady to look after sick or neglected donkeys. They had nice cozy stables to see out the worst of the winter and seemed very happy! As well as the funky painted signs in English and Ladakhi they even have their own website - donations and visitors always welcome - see http://www.donkeysaunctuary.in
Next we saw the Leh Palace a 17th century copy of a palace in Tibet. The view over Leh was very impressive but the palace was undergoing a heavy reconstruction program making it hard work to walk around! We also saw the Sankar Gompa - an impressive stupa overlooking the town built by the Japanese to commemorate world peace and officially opened by the Dalai Lama in 1985. It was a hard foot slog to the top so in view of the whole AMS issue we took the car!
Whilst enjoying this period of r & r we also went to the Hall of Fame Museum. This was quite funny - it was billed as a display on Ladakhi culture - but was very much army run. The Ladakhi exhibits were squashed into one small room and the vast majority was a display of the heroic pursuits of the Indian Army over the "nefarious foe" of Pakistan across the border. As I said before the soldiers were undoubtedly extremely brave but some of it (a picture of a grinning soldier holding a decapitated Pakistani soldier's head aloft) - was a bit much for me!!
We also did an overnight trip out to the small town of Alchi. When in Drass we'd met a German lady who told us she was working there restoring oil paintings in a monastery. It was that side of Leh and we decided to make it a stopping point. Again there was no sign so we missed the turning and were a long way past it by the time we realized this, but not to miss out we decided to back track and see it as an overnight trip. On the way we passed the magnetic gravity free area. Supposedly when you park in the designated spot you are in a gravity free zone and your car should roll up hill. I think we were too heavy - we tried and tried but nothing happened!!
Alchi itself is a lovely little village very unspoilt. We saw village life as it'd been going on for years - kids playing old ladies walking around the Buddhist prayer wheels yaks meandering everywhere and farmers getting in their crops. It was very picturesque.
We had a look round the 11th century Gompa or temple. This was founded by a gentleman who'd spent a lot of time in Kashmir and it has some Kashmiri influences.
As we'd heard it also has some of the best examples of Indo- Tibetan art anywhere in the world. There were a few temples with this art and some large Buddha statues and this was what the lady we met (and a large team of students mainly from Germany) had been working on. The foundation to restore this art was set up by a Swiss man and they were doing a great job which looked really fiddly. It was very much worth the visit, despite the hassle of getting a flat tyre on the way back!
As our visa is nearing its end and we have to drive to the Nepal border we feel we don't have enough time to see everything we'd like to here, but one thing we really wanted to do was to drive to Khardung La which at 5612 metres is the highest motorable road in the world. Or maybe not. We met some Belgians who said there is now apparently a higher one somewhere in South America they weren't sure where. Anywhere it's the highest so far for both of us- and the car!
The plan had been to pass through Khardung La and on to the Nubra valley where we wanted to have an explore and particularly see the special Bactrian 2 humped camels. This was not to be. We set off really early and the weather turned very snowy. We had seen the Dhandes' pictures at the summit - which admittedly were a month or 2 earlier- and expected a tiny bit of snow only. As we climbed it was snowing heavily.
We arrived at the pass to find nothing yet open. We parked the car and had our cereal breakfast though we had to get in the car to eat it as our hands went numb!! We then went to the army hut to register. This was a little haven of warmth. They were very welcoming and gave us guava juice chocolate (for the blood allegedly!) and a breakfast though we had eaten! They asked us to stay put for a while and strongly advised against travelling on, as they thought this bad weather would last for the next 3 or 4 days. As we didn't have the time to get stuck up there we sadly decided we weren't going to see the camels this trip! We got to play with the army dogs though which was fun!!
After waiting over an hour they allowed us to go back down along with an army guy who was going down on leave who cadged a lift. This was when it got tricky. There were a lot of cars heading up the pass and a great many motorbikes. A lot of them had got stuck as had a couple of trucks and it was terrifying seeing people slipping around often not very far from the edge and a sheer drop! We made it down but parts of it were a bit dicey. Disappointingly the shop up top was closed for the day so we didn't get to buy the t-shirt or the mug boasting that we'd driven the (2nd??) highest road in the world!! We'll have to do it again one day!
After this excitement we decided to buy chains for the car wheels as we had heard that the road to Manali for the next part of our trip which is the 2nd (or maybe third!!) highest road in the world was also very snowy with a lot of people getting stuck.
So the next day Friday 4 September we decided to spend the day getting this sorted out. This turned out to be very hard as unknown to most people until that morning there was a major strike in Ladakh. The strike was protesting against the suicide of a Buddhist monk in Kashmir in suspicious circumstances and it effectively closed EVERY business down, so we were still chainless on Saturday 5 September, when we set off on the next part of the drive towards Manali. We hoped that we'd be able to buy chains on the way if the conditions got really bad.
For better news on the car front we had in the meantime had a real bit of luck about the tyres. Everyone had assured us that we'd be able to buy our tyres in India but extensive research has shown this isn't so. Whilst Maxxis has an outlet in India they don't stock our size there so the tyres would have to come from Thailand. Trying to sort this out and buy some spare tyres has been an ongoing saga.
Amazingly out of the blue a little tyre shop in Leh had 2 suitable tyres - probably jettisoned by a foreign vehicle - for a fraction of the cost. Lucky! You wouldn't believe the hours in research phones calls and emails we'd put into trying to track them down - and there they were in Leh waiting for us!!!
So on Saturday 5 September we finally left Leh to drive on towards Manali. Hope the weather isn't too bad!