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  • Leh to Srinagar

    Posted on September 24th, 2009 Sheila Yair 14 comments

    lehsrinagar1The distance between Leh and Srinagar is 475 kilometers but it takes us about a week to cover it. No one can accuse us of traveling too fast. We leave Leh with mixed feelings. We are glad to be moving again. Almost everybody we met here is long gone and our poor backpacks have been neglected for 3 weeks collecting dust. But it is sad to say goodbye to our friends at the women’s alliance and the computer institute.

    I will divide the story to 3 parts based on the three places we stopped at.

    Our first destination Alchi, is the oldest temple in Ladakh. The site was holy even to the bon, the religion that antedated Buddhism in the area. We have dedicated most of our time to mountains and valleys, a little history can’t hurt us. Alchi is a small village 70km west of Leh, we are thrilled to spend some time in the more remote Ladakhi countryside. Not so, Alchi unfortunately turns out to be a bit of a tourist trap. They are far too accustomed to heaps and jeeps of tourists coming from Leh. Most of them on organized tours thus the prices jump up. There are only four places to stay and they all charge the same price, 3 times more than Leh. None are fancy, and one of the places despite offering only tents still charges like the rest. We bargain with one of them for a price that matches its shabbiness. The next day we head to the temple. There are 4 temples each from a different period. All of them covered with beautiful elaborate paintings of Buddhist symbols, gods and demons. In one of the temples there is a group with a very knowledgeable guide. He is explaining the symbolism and meaning of the paintings and the history of the temples. Apparently nothing is arbitrary and every shape, color, creature and number means something. I follow the group to the next temple for some more insight. I am guessing they are here for a short time, going in their jeep from temple to temple fascinated by the intricacy of Buddhist culture and amazed by the richness of Ladakhi history. It is a very different India from our India of mountains and rivers and rough hikes. But here in a temple for a brief moment the two Indias meet.

    After the temple we have a no frills touristy priced lunch and head off to the main road. We are off to Lamayuru. The bus passes around 6pm but it is only 3 so we decide to hitch hike. In India hitching can be a little tricky, you never know if they are going to charge you or not. Sometimes the driver will charge you, which is fine, but if you don’t ask how much you might get an awkward surprise. A couple times at the end of a ride we were asked for ridiculous amounts of money, $20 for something that cost $2 on a bus. In the rupee world that is quite exaggerated. So we always go through the awkward moment of asking how much, right as the vehicle stops, even to nice people who never meant to charge. We are pretty lucky this day and after 15 minutes a truck stops. It is going to Srinagar and can drop us in Lamayuru.

    lehsrinagar2Lamayuru is a small village on the edge of Ladakh. Technically Kargil is the last place in Ladakh but culturally Lamayuru is the next to last Buddhist village and geographically only 15km from the pass out of the Indus valley. The truck ride is very bumpy but we are sitting in the open back and can see the whole view with no roof hindering the scenery. After about an hour and a half the truck stops. The driver signals to me to come down with him and bring our passports. It is one of the checkpoints. The driver enters first and I follow. Once I am in the shouts start. The driver is fighting with one of the officers. I cant understand a word but feel it has to do with us. The yelling intensifies and eventually the driver is pushed out of the station. At that point I am pulled aside to another room. I am constantly wondering if this is just an act to squeeze some tourist money out of me and am just waiting for the officer to name his price. But he only asks for the passport numbers, names, addresses etc. he tells me that hitchhiking is illegal and that we have to take a taxi from here. I tell him we will just wait for a bus. He says no bus passes here. When I mention the exact Leh to Lamayuru 4pm bus that goes through here he says oh yes but the taxi is better, bus always full, late etc. it seems I am off the hook he only wanted commission for the taxi. Outside the driver is still fighting with the officers. He has now brought two more drivers who are driving with him. The driver calls me out and with hand singles asks me to explain to the officer. I try to mediate in his favor but to no avail. It is starting to look like a very bad episode of Cops with no subtitles. One of the friends says they got a 2000 rupee ($40) fine and they want us to pay it. He says we can pay the fine and get back on the truck. I guess in India once the fine is paid you can continue with the crime. There are no ATMs till Srinagar and I do not want to be stranded without money, plus I am still not convinced this is not all an act. We give them 500 rupees. After some arguing they realize they wont get more, they get on their trucks and angrily depart leaving us with dust and some curse words in Kashmiri. Two seconds later a truck stops and asks us where do we want to go. Right in front of the officers. Technically there is a law that trucks can’t stop for tourists but I think it is enforced only before big police picnics or poker nights.

    The police taxi of course is way over priced so we start walking to get away from the station. After we are out of sight we try hitching again. This time only cars. After about half an hour Sheila’s volunteering proves very beneficial. Some of the volunteers from the women’s alliance rented a car and are on their way to Delhi through Lamayuru and Kashmir. They take us to Lamayuru with no further incidents. We treat them all to dinner that night.

    We walk up to the monetary at 6am to see the puja (religious ceremony of prayer), but there are no monks awake. So we walk around and see a beautiful sun rise on the Lamayuru hills. The volunteers continue on their way as we stay behind. Our amale (literally mother in Ladakhi but also a term of endearment for any women) tells us about her hard work in the fields we ask to join her for the day. Figuring we will only stay for half an hour she agrees. We are taken to the alfalfa fields where Sheila ties stacks of alfalfa with the women and I cut it with a group of migrant workers from Bihar, one of the poorest states in India. It is very refreshing to see a women in charge giving orders to men but also a little sad to see the situation of the lower and poor casts in India. All work is purely manual all we have are circles to cut the weed and not the sharpest ones at that. The alfalfa has to be cut very low to get as much plant as possible for that long cold Ladakhi winter. Unfortunately my squat is, pardon the pun, not worth squat. Westerners don’t know how to squat. Sadly, I was born right on the border between squatters and non squatters, the squat frontier. To the west, the Israelis can’t squat and to the east the Arabs can squat effortlessly for days. Had I been born just a few kilometers to the right I could have squatted like nobody’s business. So while the Biharis squat away I have to alternate between squatting, until my legs hurt and standing up bending until my lower back can’t take it no more. We work till sundown and get about a third of the field done.

    Alfalfa is a nice smooth weed but unfortunately there were some thistles and bamboo-esque plants with leaves like knives in the field. But despite my left hand being filled with thorns and cuts I feel very good. After a nice shower as I stretch on the couch in our room, my muscles ache from being over-used and my hands swollen from hard labor I feel true life running through my body. I have seen many of these fields from bus windows, with people cutting barley, wheat, alfalfa. After today I will never look at these fields the same way.

    As thanks for our labor, our amale says she will cook us Ladakhi food. She says a name we never heard before. One of Ladakh’s staple foods is the noodle and one of the most common ways of eating it is in a hearty vegetable soup. Although always the same soup they are quite particular, and regard and name each soup as a totally different dish based on the shape of the noodle. I guess when you make the noodles by hand, which most Ladakhis do, it merits its own name. But to me the eater they are all vegetable soup with noodles. I call them all Tukpa which is the only name I remember. Just for the record Tukpa is the one with spaghetti noodles. That night we have the soup with the bowtie noodles. The nights are getting nippy in Ladakh so a good warm soup hits the spot, whatever the noodle is. We are joined by two sisters that arrived at the guest house today. They have traveled by land from England. In china they decided to buy bikes and have been cycling ever since. We saw them heading to Ladakh from our bus, as we were also heading there. We heard about them in Leh. And now we meet them as we all are on our way out of Ladakh. They tell us some fascinating stories about Iran, Pakistan and the other “stan” countries. We decide to stay one more day.

    In the morning we go up to Khar, a high mountain on the other side of the valley. It has a nice plato right before the peak from where we enjoy the views of Lamayuru and the valley spread out below us. We come down in time for a quick lunch and then back to the alfalfa fields. They all seem pretty surprised but happy to see us. Again we work till sun down leaving two more days of work. I later learn that the Baharis will get 4000 rupees ($80) for the field. They start at 2pm every day because their real job us working on the roads. This they are doing for extra money. So $80 divided by 10 people over 4 days of 5 hours each comes out to 40 cents an hour. There is a great gap between the western word and the developing world.

    The next morning we bid farewell from the guest house family and are off to catch the bus. It is sad to leave Ladakh but we do so on the best of notes and we had a great rural experience.

    lehsrinagar3Kargil is one of the only shia dominated places in India. It really belongs to Baltistan which lies to the north, but was taken in the Indo-Pakistan war of 1948. It is very religious but suppose to have an interesting bazaar. We are traveling in a totally different region we note this immediately upon boarding the bus. There are pictures of Mecca, Arabic writing (Urdu uses Arabic script as its letters) and even a picture of the Ayatollah. We have come from Hindu land through Buddha land and are now traveling through Allah land, no I didn’t say lala land but it does get a little crazy at times. You barely see any women. Sheila, although well covered bearing little skin, gets a lot of stares especially when she takes out a deck of cards to play solitaire. Cards are looked down upon as they are associated with gambling. There also is an abundance of mosques. In the Middle East you will see one mosque per village two or three if it is a very big village. But here there is a mosque every other building and they are all in a competition for the loudest one. There is a cacophony of prayers the whole day long. We reach Kargil at 4pm. We intend to spend one night and head out to Srinagar the next morning. But Kargil has some serious transportation issues. Although the road by the river is clogged with busses, it took us about 20 minutes just to get into town, no one knows where any bus is. Even the bus drivers, who are usually very helpful, here in Kargil know only about their route. Most of the replies we get are “no bus”. But we do get a 2:30am, a 3am, a 4am and a 4:30am reply w different departure points for each case. I realize we need 10 people strategically places across the town asking every bus they see for 24 hours to get a bus time and departure location. Frustrated we decide to continue the search in the morning. Neither one of us wants to wakeup at 2 in the morning and start hunting for a bus.

    In the morning the suspense movie about two tourists looking for a bus in Kargil continues. We head to the tourist info center, where a very sleepy guy tells us he heard something about a bus in the morning but only the RTC (road transportation committee) will know. So we go to the RTC and get the comforting “no bus” replay to every question we ask. Bus to Kargil? no bus, but we see all these buses here, no bus, so all the locals just take a taxi everywhere? no bus.

    We realize we might have to give in and take a taxi jeep. A few of the “no bus” replays we got had a “only taxi” attached to them. Any taxi driver would be more than glad to take two tourists the 10 hour drive to Srinagar, at any time. But that would be a big waste of gas and cost an arm and a leg. Some taxi drivers tell us there is a shared taxi that leaves early in the morning but it won’t go until it is full, around 10 people sometimes even 11. Of course they always mention that a private taxi is better. We don’t know what to do, we only know we really want to get out of Kargil. We decide to go to the Suru Valley south of town. While at the tourist information center we saw some really nice photos of the valley in the brochures. So we start inquiring about how to get there. Same frustration, no one knows a thing. Why do I get this feeling like I am a fly in a spiders web? Are we ever getting out of this place? “You can checkout any time you want but you can never leave…”

    By stroke of luck someone directs us to the bridge where 3 shared taxis are feeling up preparing to leave for Suru. We jump on one of them. Two flies about to escape the Kargil web.

    Suru valley is stunning, small villages surrounded by bright yellow green wheat fields in the midst of high mountains on both sides. It seems much more laid back than Kargil. Kargil has a very religious feel to it with people never talking to you and all those posters of the Ayatollah and Ahmadinejad, we even saw a few of Nasrallah. I didn’t know which was worst, to tell people I am from the US or from Israel. So I became Jair from Peru. But here in Suru Valley we get many waves and glances they are mostly farmers too occupied with the harvest and very surprised to see tourists. We arrive in Panikhar and set ourselves in the government run “tourist bungalow”. In order to encourage tourism the Jammu Kashmir government runs hostels around the state. They are usually very nice rooms at very reasonable prices and always called tourist bungalow. The caretaker offers to make us dinner. We have very tasty rice with lentils and cooked greens all this with a local cheese spread called makhan. That night I teach Sheila poker. We play a few rounds and she takes a liking to it. But she is a little careless and after a few bad hands I have won all her fruit. But never underestimate the power of beginners luck. She insists on playing one more round. Since she is fruitless she takes out the money belt. The big leagues. I have a fairly good hand so we both keep raising the bid. She wins all the money. So we are in the middle of nowhere, I have no money and Sheila has no fruit. We are far from any ATM or any fruit stand. Since the fruit is nice and ripe and she has already eaten some of the lost ones I trade half of them for half of the money. A little expensive but it is all about supply and demand even here, maybe especially here, in the middle of nowhere.

    lehsrinagar4The next morning we wake up to see it has snowed at night. All the mountains around us are covered in a pure white coat. Albeit the snow, heavy clouds and rain we decide to walk up to Parkachik Pass. The guide book says you have spectacular vies of the Nun-Kun mountain range. It drizzles most of the way up only stopping at the very top where rain gives way to snow. Throughout the valley the mountains are black with green at the bottom and stripes of white snow and red on the top. As we approach the top we see the red stripes are gorgeous pink flowers with red leaves. We reach the top. The spectacular Nun-Kun range is in front of us in all its glory. The peaks, some towering over 7000 meters, with their hanging glaciers, snow and ice. Unfortunately there is a kilometer of cloud between us and the mountain so we can only imagine the view in front of us based on the glimpse we got the day before. Nevertheless it was a beautiful hike and we decide to stay one more night.

    The next day of course not a cloud in the sky so we start walking towards Sanku. We go through the villages getting many curious looks and waves. Everybody is out cutting the wheat. The Nun-Kun range is fully visible and seems bigger and bigger as we distance ourselves. We stop for lunch right before the valley curves, one last look at the range in all its mighty. At one point of our walk a tractor stops and tells us it is going to Sanku. We get on for the remaining kilometers. A tractor is a very good way to travel. It is very high so you see everything and moves very slow so you don’t miss much. The three guys speak very little English but we manage to talk a little. They have a grain separator hooked to the back of the tractor and tell me they are making the rounds going from farm to farm separating the wheat. One of the guys tells me they will go all the way up to Leh doing so. It takes about 12 hours by bus I cant even imagine how long by tractor.

    We do not want to face the aggravation of Kargil and decide to extend our peaceful stay in the valley. We head to the tourist bungalow and get one of the nicest rooms we have stayed in. a very big room fully furnished with a nice sun room to enjoy our evening cocktail. The cocktail is basically just the splash of water with no cocktail since there is no alcohol in Allah land. But the ambiance and location are great. We find out there are 3 daily buses between Kargil and Sanku. I knew these buses clogging Kargil go somewhere. We decide to take the 3pm one in order to get one more little hike in. we walk along the road to Umba. On the way back an old couple invites us for tea. We go in to their living room, it is very Middle Eastern. There is one couch and oriental carpets covering the floor with pillows against the walls. We are sited on the couch which seems to be used only for special occasions. The couple speaks no English so we barely manage to communicate about Islam, Mecca, hajj and the beauty of the valley. We take a picture of them and promise to send it to them along with a photo of el aktza mosque in Jerusalem. Waititng for the bus we enter a tea stall. Not that we want any more tea, it just seems the thing to do here if you want to pass time. There are many young guys and some more enter as they see us. They all speak pretty good English and tell us all about life in Suru along with many questions about the US.

    Unwillingly we board the bus to Kargil. We meet some students from Srinagar university who tell us the bus leaves at 4am from Khomeini circle (the Ayatollah is very big in these parts). We get up at 3am and are at the circle by 3:30. There are some people, good sign. After half an hour two buses arrive. As we board we find out the buses are sold out and we had to buy a ticket in advance. How did everybody know this? We have spent days just figuring out where the bus leaves from. Trying to get past the “no bus” replays. The driver points to the ally where the tickets can be bought and says it will open at 8am. The mystery is almost solved. At 8am sharp I start looking for the place. It turns out to be a tiny metal kiosk that sells tickets to all the local destinations. We even passed it a couple times on our searches. I buy tickets for the next morning. We spend an uneventful day in Kargil.

    The next morning we board the bus like Kargil experts, knowing the time and place with ticket at hand. We are off to Srinagar. We are traveling with the rough guide for India, which has proven to be for very soft travelers. It always recommends the very touristy places to eat and stay hardly ever mentioning anything local and authentic. Because of the problems in Kashmir it totally disregards Kashmir and Jammu, no information, it is not even on any of the maps in the book. Erased out of existence. So after Kargil our soft guide starts serving us as a great paperweight, a door stopper, and just a general space taker. We see the Bollywood version of E.T. on the bus. He is blue and often breaks in to song and dance with his earthly friends. But he also misses home and they finally call his friends to come and take him back. As the movie ends we are very close to Srinagar. We are a little sad as we are defiantly out of the mountains now. The horizon stretches as far as the eye can see and it is very warm. There is something about being in the mountains, a special feeling you get. We have been in the mountains for 3 month.

    At 4pm we arrive in Srinagar, finishing this long and eventful journey.

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