How I got Leh’d.

As another adventurous Parsi year was coming to an end, I checked off item number 52 on my annual bucket list- To get high in the Himalayas.

It’s scary to mention the number of activities that need checking off, since after each one is accomplished, there is a big hole in the bucket. And Henry and Liza still can’t seem to figure out how to fix it.

Nonetheless, I yet again embarked to vacation with family and its prized extensions. I wonder why everyone travelling to this region says, ‘I’m going to Leh-Ladakh’. It’s equivalent to saying ‘I went to Monte Carlo-Monaco’ for the elite 5 people who read this article. To get the geography straight Ladakh comprises of two districts – Kargil (which is already etched into history for obvious reasons) and Leh (which shall be so by the time you finish reading this).

They say the best part of travel is the journey and not the destination. This is not true for Leh. In our case, the expedition began once we reached our destination. Jet Airways sauntered through barren brown mountain peaks and gracefully earthed itself in the midst of the majestic Himalayas to our left and the splendid Karakoram to our right. This made the Leh airport look just a little bigger than my 250 square foot apartment in Vellore.

Seven of us nestled ourselves in two SUV’s amidst the smiling faces of two pony-tailed drivers and the rosy cheeks of a pot bellied guide who had come to receive us. A 10 minute drive through rustic beauty took us to Hotel Omasila-a quaint resort whose green lawns and prismatic flowers speckled the naked Stok mountain range in its back ground.

The first day was reserved for acclimatization. This is usually required unless one drives down the scenic Manali or Srinagar roads over 2 days which gradually takes you to a height of 11,500 feet at which Leh is situated. The symptoms of altitude sickness are similar to the side effects of the medicines you take to prevent it. So both ways you’re tingling away somewhere; light-headed and heavy hearted. Being breathless in Leh – fortunately or unfortunately has no sexual connotation to it. A peaceful walk in the market place after sipping on some Ginger tea and honey does it for most people to adapt to the environment.

Leh is like Goa in the mountains. It’s a small town, with intersecting lanes lined with absorbing shops and rooftop restaurants all of which are filled with hippie tourists from all parts of the world. The stores usually sell handicrafts and paintings, which one can’t tell if they are from Nepal, Bhutan Tibet, India; or as it is in the rest of the world – made in China. Every boutique owner claims his breed of Pashmina to be the purest, the price of which depends on which part of the mountain goats’ body the wool was sheared from. If you own one, I leave it to your imagination as to which part of the goats’ anatomy you’re draping around your neck!

A generation of Sardarjis own the famous chain of the German Bakery, which musters up delicious apple crumble, cheesecake, walnut pastries and doughnuts using recipes taught to the Sikhs by the Europeans. Then there are stores selling home-made apricot lip balm which one needs by the kilo. My lips were cracking as if they were celebrating their own self-proclaimed Diwali in July. The rest of the landscape is dominated by the city palace, a fort and the Shanti Stupa; all of which are sufficiently spectacular from the distance.

The next day we took off for the monasteries. The Hemis and Thiksey monasteries are within 50 kms of Leh; snugly abutting the Indus on its way. Both of them were built around the 15th century, perched on hilltops like white cigarette boxes with holes in them – an unusual description for a holy place. In their confines were monks of all ages always guarding us to be a little more silent than we could be at the peak of our wonder. With their clean shaven heads and their off-shoulder maroon robes they prayed on colourful carpets on which sandalwood incense infused itself to mystify the environment. They too had their little moment when our American friend snapped up some memorable photos with them.

Leh to Lamayaru is another 125 km day trip. On the way you pass the Magnetic Hill that defies gravity. We put our cars in neutral and they went up against the slope, so did the Bisleri water we emptied on the road. It’s a thrilling and mysterious experience. Nature comes up with funny ways of attracting you to it.

The drive was yet again a breath-taking one betwixt mountains that this time looked liked cold coffee with scoops of vanilla ice-cream on top. The spectacle is also known as Moonland; for its resemblance to the craters on it and the way light falls on it at different times of the year. Bikers on Royal Enfield’s rented at a thousand rupees a day zoomed past us as they fulfilled their testosterone-laden adventures. At the Monastery we set the good luck drums rolling clockwise and happy spirits hovered around us for the rest of the trip.

Just when you thought the views couldn’t get any better, the next day we drove up to the highest motor- able road in the world. At 18,380 feet the Khardung-la pass greets you with grandiosity and leaves you breathless. Literally. The dark green military tanks added character to the light brown hillocks in the background. We gobbled up Maggi noodles in stainless steel bowls and sipped on black tea to warm our insides at the world’s highest cafeteria. Then we picked up some memorabilia at the words highest souvenir shop and took a leak in the world’s highest toilet. Then I cycled down this serpentine bumpy road back to Leh while my mother and wife prayed nervously in the car behind me. At the end of the rugged and jerky ride there was a tacky yellow and black signboard, which said ‘thank you for being gentle on my curves’. It made everything seem worthwhile.

The Pangong Lake was made famous by the 3 Idiots. Not the people who discovered it but the movie. After yet another 150 km long journey which took almost half a day in this terrain we landed in the midst of celestial exquisiteness. It’s a 130 km lake with three-fourths of it in China. You’ll end up squinting if you try to catch up with this expanse of blue and every amalgamation of its shade you can imagine. After which you will begin to look like you’re Chinese.

We took out our little paint boxes and sketched the pristine skyline turning the moment into a memory.  We walked along its shore photographing little mounds of prayer stones everyone had pitched. The mounds represent offerings made to the spirits of a place. You can’t be at such an ethereal abode and not make a wish. We slept in little tents after eating army food and woke up at 4 am to see the sun kiss the black peaks as they changed colour over the next few hours, turning blond with highlights over them. The entire racial profile of America I saw in one sunrise in India.

No adventure to this part of the world is complete without rafting. Contrary to the more popular white water rafting this was a blackish-brown water excursion with all the minerals within it keeping our raft afloat. We braved past a couple of rapids doing the complete opposite of what our instructor was shouting out at us for our safety. We dived into the Zanskar and froze in time until we floated upto where it met with the Indus- an emotional Indo-Pak union in Kashmir.

Finally, at the end of one week we were back on the plane looking at our flight attendant showing us safety instructions as if he was on Broadway. We decided to keep the other places in Ladakh for our next visit there cause who wants to get Leh’d only once! Happy New Year!