Thursday, October 21, 2010

White is the color of clouds in Kashmir

I have never imagined myself to be a nature person.Mountains,rivers,trees..they’re the same all over. Big deal. I can watch them on Nat Geo.Or watch Raavan. But man made THAT bears testament to a great man’s love for mortar, bricks and stone. What could be more fascinating than that? Expectedly, my dream destinations have always included Greece,Italy,Peru and so on.. Leh was NEVER on the list.But then they decided to hold a certain music confluence there and put up some fab pictures on their site which promisingly looked like the Woodstock of India. Now I definitely don’t want to miss that. And crib for life. So Leh it was!

As the plane descended into the runway of Srinagar airport (we took the Srinagar-Nimu-Leh route) I sat watching the clouds outside, with my mouth open. They looked like the DreamWorks logo, minus the kid sitting atop. They looked like a pristine white cauliflower, the kind you never see in markets, they looked like scoops of vanilla ice cream, with baby scoops sprouting out from all over. And if you looked hard enough you could almost see the asuras and devas come charging out with their hordes of buffalos and err….well,as they say,the evil ones are always easier to remember. If only I could open the windows and touch the delectable cotton candy. Quite simply put, it is a body, mind and soul consuming experience.I’m exaggerating but it was definitely quite awe inspiring. After a point it feels like the clouds are talking to you and they’re saying ‘Dude, quit staring. It’s indecent’.

And so the journey began.

Day 1

After landing in Srinagar and a quickie lunch with a group that was yet to get comfortable with itself, we proceeded to Sonmarg/Mulbek. Quite a bit of confusion within the group as to where we were headed. Add to it hurting ears and churning stomachs - city dwellers can be a finicky lot.

Pity that we couldn’t stay longer in this beautiful city. All I could take back as a memory was a shot of the Nishaad and Shalimar Bagh from outside.But with the curfew on and not a single soul on the roads, barring our jeeps, there wasn’t much else to do but drive on. Funnily,when you read about curfews and blasts in Srinagar,sitting in Madras sipping filter coffee,the picture is quite different. I for one,imagine the India map and kind of draw a mental line from Madras to Srinagar. I don’t know how it helps visualizing the stone throwing there but I do it anyway. When you actually DO get to Srinagar,and see that a curfew amounts to just shutting down all the shops(at least from a tourist’s POV), you’re like hey this isn’t so bad. Or maybe we just saw the brighter side of it. Now news on Kashmir is not the same as anything else. I watch it as intently as I would a Rafa-Fedex match.

Fast forward several hours of frantic and relaxed photo clicking sessions, alternately – frantic when the driver would get irritated and not stop, relaxed when he’d oblige our tantrums and let us out for a few minutes, when we’d capture the same scenery from different angles.

As a side note,this place is a photographer’s delight. That includes ‘I don’t care much for photography’ types like me. Imagine my surprise when I found out that I had actually clicked 400+ photos over the course of the trip!

Click away click away and then the sun has set. Time to put all those gadgets back into their cases and just soak in the journey. And before you know it, there it is..The ZOZILA PASS. One might have as well named it the Godzilla pass. In all that darkness it was one of the scariest drives ever. Constant talks about death and wills and what not. And our magnanimous driver makes an offhand remark – If you make it through this pass alive, the rest of the journey is a cakewalk. That was really comforting Meer!...And then all of a sudden - dead-end.

A truck has toppled over the pass, a few feet ahead. Excellent. There couldn’t have been more excitement around. So Meer says we can either wait for a crane to come and pick up the truck, which could FYI hold us up till the morning,or retreat. But the second option wasn’t really an option with so many vehicles lined up behind. So we get out of the jeep and peer into the valley. And the sweetheart that he is,Meer tells us more stories about how a certain captain and his family fell off the valley and got themselves a memorial built in one of the most unlikely places in the world. But I like the idea. A memorial,up in the Himalayas is kinda cool. As we keep chatting,we see God in sight – The ‘J&K pick up toppled trucks from passes and save tourists’ department’s very own crane. So he did his job and left, God I mean. And we did ours – getting the hell on with the drive.

All said and done,Meer had a damn good sense of humor and was quite well informed about the local goings on. We got a first hand account of the political situation in the valley, what the people really wanted, how Kashmir had the potential to become one of the most prosperous states in the country and how it constantly had its dreams crushed ‘cause of all the goddamn politicians. We listened in silence as we sensed the wistfulness in his voice. But the driver cum tourist guide that he was, he quickly switched topics and told us we were driving through a zone that was actually 15 kms from the LOC and that in times of war, vehicles couldn’t have their lights on, lest the enemy spot us. Wow. Awe inspiring moment no.2..To think that a short ride from here might actually get me to Pakistan.

Chugging along in silence, the group weary of the journey and the enviable list of 5 songs that kept playing repeatedly on the car stereo, we finally reached Drass.Now Drass is a...I’m tempted to say ‘quaint little town’ but there’s nothing quaint about it. It’s a town that’s about twice as large as the street I live in.And had exactly three hotels.Where we dined and regrettably..*sigh*..stayed the night. But it is about 65 km from Kargil,which was our scheduled destination and had we continued to drive on, we’d have reached Kargil at an ungodly hour. So Meer’s enlightened suggestion was to rest there for the night and proceed the next day. So rest we did.

The hotel turned out to be a pleasant surprise. The surprise was that 4 of us managed to squeeze into one room and spend the night without killing each other. Jokes apart, the pleasure that lies in doing mundane things in a foreign country/city is a pleasure unparalleled. I woke up to a fantabulous view outside. If only I could brush my teeth everyday with a couple of mountains in the background :)..To actually possess the knowledge that I am standing so close to a place where thousands of soldiers have died for the country,is humbling, and being humbled by humans is a rare occurrence.. Kargil too was never on my list of top 100 places to see before I die. But sometimes life hands you some chocolates that you didn’t even know existed in the box. And they are surprisingly delicious. Having lived a completely sheltered life in Chennai, this is the closest I’ll ever be to breathing the air of martyrdom. Standing on the balcony of the Drass hotel,at 1 AM, with the sound of the local mullah chanting prayers and clean air in your face, knowing that this town has done much for the nation, you never want this moment to end and you feel small that YOU haven’t done much and you feel a lot of other things that are difficult to pen down.

Day 2

The day dawns, breakfast and onto the Drass memorial. Drass is supposedly the second coldest inhabited place in the world but in all the midnight confusion and morning weariness I forgot to take a pic near the signboard that said that! Incredibly touristy, but when you look at that album 10 years from now, it does help jog those grey cells doesn’t it?

So on we marched to the memorial and found the army band practicing Scottish bagpipes.Very un-Indian methinks but a pretty sight for sure! The museum was quite mundane barring a couple of posters mocking Indian warfare.

As we left the memorial, we found a bunch of kids that looked like they were right out of an Iranian movie! The innocence in their eyes is something that I don’t see anymore in city bred children. You asked them their names and they shyly answered, took the chocolate you gave them and ran away.

Lunched at Kargil, called our folks since they hadn’t heard from us in almost 18 hours, and onward to Mulbek.

There is a 9 foot high Maitreya Buddha in Mulbek.This trip was getting to be a big eye opener to how close Buddhism is to Hinduism. It is one thing to mug it up while studying for history exams and another to be there and experience it.The principles, the similarity in idol construction - If I hadn’t taken a good look I might have as well thought it was a Vishnu idol.Apparently,the Maitreya Buddha is the next avatar of the Buddha, somewhat like Kalki that all the Hindus are waiting for(the religious ones).Gautama the Buddha is just another avatar,not the founder of Buddhism as popularly believed.

Enough of ‘Spot the differences between Buddhism and Hinduism’ and out with the cameras again.

The mountains are so unbelievably beautiful that I cannot seem to stop gasping in amazement.I don’t think any of us did – The feeling of being engulfed by the gigantic Himalayas all over. The English vocabulary does not have a word for that.

And surprisingly, there is sunlight till 8 PM.Strange but true.With energies running low and stomachs growling,Meer took us to a quiet restaurant in Khalsi.Another town with no loos :( …Meer would laugh at us everytime we’d ask him for this luxury,he’d say ‘Bhaiya yahan sab khule mein karte hain’...with a smirk.We should have been more prepared for this.The cold, we came prepared.Peeing in the open – HELL NO!

The restaurant had some simple but awesome tasting dishes to cheer us up,accompanied by interesting conversation with the server. Jammu is the winter capital and Srinagar the Summer capital of the state,he said.The Indian government seems to have picked up a thing or two from Mohammed Bin Tughlaq.

Dinner done,we proceeded to the Nimu camp and reached by 11:45 PM.Realized we’d missed some free food but what the hell,we had the pleasure of his conversation :)..The most memorable moments of the journey were proving to be the conversations, time and again.(Second only to the mountains!)

There was a gorgeous bonfire lit up right next to the Indus river.Yes,the INDUS river!..Never had I imagined that one day I’d sit by the Indus and gaze it at by a bonfire light.But here I am,living a piece of history.

Day 3

Lazy morning and lip smacking masala omelettes. New friendships made over several mugs of coffee.Later on I realized this was probably the only vacation day in the entire itinerary stuffed trip.Day 3 was a slacker of a day – reached Leh by 3 ish,played with Angmo,the host’s adorable 2 yr old, lunched and napped a bit before we had to be up and ready to do more touristy stuff,aka visit the Shanti Stupa.

The monks inside were gonging away, oblivious to tourists flitting in and out.
Took pictures of colored frescoes, chipped frescoes,pics of the group,and pics of the Buddha in all his golden glory.Ended the visit with some much needed masala chai at the corner of the Stupa.Ran into an American couple who had been to Leh 20 yrs back and was astounded by how much it had developed over the years. These guys had been to Tiruvannamalai too! Wow. California to Tiruvannamalai.I wondered if I’d ever visit an obscure church in an Albanian town.

The evening was spent with the girls bonding over bags, Dylan T shirts, hats and head bands that would never be worn again. And lots of gossip of course. I have no idea what the men did. Today was also the day where some of the girls got lost and in typical male fashion went too far away from familiar territory before they realized they were lost. A quick call to Stanzin (our local guide) took us back to the comforts of our cottage.

Today was ALSO the day when we were supposed to be the most envied people known to friends and family.We were to watch the FIFA finals in Leh, something that I was pretty sure was a one in a 20 million chance. Weirdly enough, it was not as exciting as expected. It was freezing cold up there, I didn’t even want to know the temperature, there was NO FOOD and we had to shove down some Maggi as compensation. The Maggi was interesting though. They had put some green leafy thing in it which gave it a kinda exotic taste. I tried watching the first few minutes of the match,then realized I didn’t have my woolen gloves with me. Run to room. Fetch. Few minutes later I started coughing, realized I didn’t have mufflers to cover my ears. Run back to room.Fetch.The experience of battling the cold and having to constantly protect oneself, add to it the dogged tiredness, with every cell in my body crying out loud for sleep - the next time I ran to the room,I didn’t come back. The match can wait.

Day 4

Today’s schedule was to visit Nubra valley,via Khardung-la pass. This pass is at a height of 18,000 feet and is the highest motorable road in the world. On one hand, I was thrilled to see my first snow, but on the other I was quite disappointed with what it actually felt like.As silly as it may sound, I have always had a romantic notion of snow – Fed on Archie comics and hundreds of Hollywood movies,I thought it would be soft and feathery and taste like icecream..But when it actually fell on me and I held a chunk in my hand,it felt like the stuff back home in my freezer. Hmmmmph!

Reached Nubra valley around 2 ish,lunched, lazed around a bit and head out to a local archery competition happening right across the street.

Everyone got out their glitzy DSLRs to click away at the kids and the myriad of colors on the scarves that the women wore. Wish I could have tasted a bit of that Ladakhi Beer called Chang.The women were unabashedly passing glasses around.If gender equality is an unassuming affair anywhere in India, it is at a height of 12,000 feet in Ladakh.

Over to the Sand Dunes. I didn’t really enjoy this part much, though it looked like that place from Dil Se where Tu hi Re was shot. We just sat around looking at the camels passively. The trip was kind of getting to us – too much driving around and too little rest. No Book reading with a cup of tea yet :(

Cut to Dhiksit monastery. A monastery yet to be unveiled to the public, to be inaugurated by the Dalai Lama himself soon. A monk there lectured us on the differences between the Sakyamuni Buddha,Gautama and Maitreya. Real pleasant people these monks.If it wasn't for their robes,I'd have mistaken them for local villagers.

Back to the hotel, more girly gossip flipping through pics taken so far, sleep.

Day 5

Woke up at 6:30, bathed breakfasted and head back to Leh.This time I came down with a SERIOUS fever. I think my central nervous system got attacked or something. It was like being in a trance. I could vaguely sense people around going about doing their stuff. When I got to Leh,I could barely walk and it was all I could do to get to the bed and fall flat on it. Over the next few hours prescriptions were sent over sms by my doc uncle, medicines were bought by friends at the market and food got delivered to my room. Never have I missed my mom and grandmom more :(..They would tuck me in on occasions like these,spoonfeed me some hot mashed rasam saadam.Just the sensation of that mashed rice going down my throat would work much better than all the aspirins in the world.

But its amazing what a night’s sleep can do,despite the difficulty in breathing one faces in Leh.Girish and Krupa,thank you guys so much for taking care of me..:) I thought I’d die that night with all the body ache.

Day 6

With the trip entering its last phase,the majority of the group set out for Pyangong lake. This lake is supposed to be one of the highlights of Leh,and has recently had its 15 minutes of fame after ‘3 idiots’ was shot there. The otherwise unknown water body changes colors they say – Blue hues at dawn, Emerald green at dusk and so on – A photographer’s paradise. But some of us had had enough of this vacation which was starting to become a regimen of sorts and wanted to just bum around. So while ‘they’ ambitiously woke up at 5:30 to visit Pyangong, the rest of us had a late lunch by 2:30 and set out for the Leh Palace afterwards. The place felt like Harappa and Mohenjo Daro(from what I’ve seen in the NCERT history textbooks). Mostly mud ruins, hardly any elaborate artifacts.The Ladakhi kings were minimalists I guess.

After much trudging, we reached the top of the palace which had a so called café there. Chitchatted with a couple of men from Jaipur who had been on a road trip for the past 20 days - no plan as such,just stop for the night in whichever town/village they chanced to reach within decent hours. I need to do a trip of this kind soon. After downing some seabuck thorn tea(whatever that was) and a local biscuit we head back to our cottage.

That night everyone found some time to sit around a table and have some rum and coke. What transpires when a bunch of tourists get drunk is best kept to themselves :D

Day 7

Today was the last day of the trip..thanks to the confluence getting canceled,much to our disappointment.Unless you want to explore every nook and cranny of the town there really isn’t much to do here after a week’s stay.

Some folks set out to do rafting while the rest of us visited the Thikseh monastery and Stok palace. The drive to the monastery was peppered with structures that looked like little stupas. Well,isn’t everything a stupa here? You may ask..The answer is..’I guess’.. :).The climb to Thikseh was exhausting as hell. After an hour or so we reached the top, the journey intercepted by sightings of child monks.

All through the trip I have been wondering why these stupas/monasteries say we shouldn’t take pictures of the statues. This one explained why.Apparently it is because the gold plating can get damaged in the presence of bright light.

The Stok Palace again didn’t have much to offer.But I learnt quite a bit about the Ladakhi royalty.Everyone is a Namgyal in this town.Let me see if I can list all their names..The king is called Jigmed Namgyal..and the Queen much for my memory.

I bought a colorful ‘trunga’,a Buddhist charm sort of thing to ward off evil spirits,but it still sits in my drawer – I bet its warding off quite a few insects in my cupboard.

There were these scary looking Tibetan women who’d spring on you from every corner and it almost felt like I was in one of those Ripley’s believe it or not joints in amusement parks. But I was thrilled to find an ‘Avalokiteswara’ idol in the museum.Familiarity does excite you in strange ways.

A late lunch at Sunbeam cafe.If the Kashmir government would appreciate some feedback,they ought to improve the quality of food in Leh.Most cafes are exorbitantly priced without offering commensurate ambience or food. After shoving down a mediocre pasta, we head back to the market. After a week in the town we were yet to buy souvenirs.

Now I cannot finish this post without talking about the Tee shirt stitchers of Leh.They stitch and stitch like they’re on some mission. Like they had a spot waiting for them in heaven if they stitched till they dropped dead, lifting their heads up every few minutes to answer the same old questions that tourists ask. ‘Bhaiya, yeh,kitna ka hai?’..He mumbles an answer and goes back to his chore. “150 ke liye milega? “..He told me to go buy it in whichever shop sold it at that rate. Slap in the face(for moi).. But such is the life of a Leh tailor. And pretty much every other local. Come as you are. Take it or leave it. No carpe diem here. Blame it on the mountains, blame it on Buddhism. People here are content with little.

So I bought a Tee that said ‘Hard Yak café’ and another that said ‘This is how I got Leh-ed’. :D . Back to the cottage, more rum and coke, settled accounts with the guide and its time to bid adieu to the glorious mountain land that is Leh.

Strangely enough, I didn’t feel too sad leaving this place. Maybe because the geography here was so overwhelming that the human element couldn’t be experienced. Maybe it was the sickness, maybe its all for the best, though I hate that phrase. So escapist.

Let me try again – What If you came across someone who looked so perfect that you were too much in awe to try to get to know their flaws? What if you kept examining them like they were an inimitable work of art? What if all your consciousness was consumed by just looking at how perfect they were?That is exactly what Ladakh does to you. Go visit it if you're a connoisseur of beauty at its purest!

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