Touchdown Leh – Say Juley to mini-Tibet! Days 4 & 5 of our Himalayan road trip, Leh and Around

This is Part 4 of a multi-post series covering our trip this summer to Ladakh, a remote region high up in the Indian Himalayas. You can read Part 1 here, Part 2 here and Part 3 here.

Day 4, 28th July – Tso Moriri (15000 ft) to Leh (11,500 ft)

You know that point in a road trip where you feel like you’ve been doing this forever and you just want to be stationary for a day?

That point came to me on Day 4, after 750 km and more than 30 hours on the road over the past 3 days. Luckily for me, the toughest part of the road was behind us. We were descending (yay) on Day 4, as Leh was some 4000 ft below Tso Moriri. (In case you’re wondering why I was so thrilled about descending, read this.)

Too tired to even take pictures - Tso Moriri
Too unwell to even take pictures – Tso Moriri

My ‘acclimatization’ to the high altitudes of Ladakh finally happened by lunch on Day 4. Lunch was at a shack next to the Chumathang hot springs. Chumathang (pronounced Choo-mah-thaa-ng) is about 2 hours from Tso Moriri and famous for its sulphur hot springs which have medicinal benefits – we didn’t bathe in them, and they didn’t look particularly spectacular to us. I’d give this stop a miss unless it’s for the food /drinks. Lunch itself was the omnipresent instant Maggi noodles and fried rice made with old-ish vegetables. (Since Chumathang is off any major transport route, it only gets fresh vegetable supplies about once a week, and is almost completely cut off in the long, harsh winters – the locals rely heavily on dehydrated, instant food to get them through these months.)

We got to Leh (the capital city of Ladakh) in the early hours of the evening. This was also a bit of a homecoming for our drivers, who lived in the Tibetan refugee settlements with their families just outside town (yes, they’re still officially ‘refugees’ though they were all born in India 30 – 40 years back; their parents came fled to India from Tibet with the Dalai Lama in the late ’50s – a peace-loving people caught in a controversial and long, hopeless struggle against the Chinese government). We saw a number of billboards and posters for the ‘Kalachakra’ ceremony all along the way – a major event for Buddhists, which is presided over by the Dalai Lama and was attended by 150,000 pilgrims this year – that’s as large as Leh’s entire population! Buddhists are also the largest community in Leh’s population, with Muslims making up the second largest group – both have been co-existing peacefully for centuries barring a few tense years. A lot of people are Tibetan refugees or the children of Tibetan refugees. Maybe it’s the Buddhist influence, but the people we came across in Ladakh (including our drivers) were some of the most gentle and helpful souls I’ve ever met. Julay is ‘Hello’ in the local language, Ladakhi, by the way.

Leh is a small and walkable town but its streets tend to be clogged with tourists on rented motorcycles all day during the summer. We were staying at the Mantra Cottages in Leh – a ten-minute walk from the main drag where all the restaurants are located and just 200 – 300 metres from the stairs up to the Shanti Stupa. If you plan to stay at Mantra Cottages, I’d advise you to stay away from the ‘cottages’, which are rather old and worn, and opt for a room in the main, new building – they cost a little lesser and look much better.

Our first evening was spent walking around town and dinner was at ‘Wonderland‘ restaurant – extremely popular with a outdoor seating area on the terrace and very, very average food – which we found was the case with most restaurants in Leh. We did find an exception in Jeevan Cafe that has a cozy cafe with a bookshop on the ground floor and an open-air restaurant above it. The menu is limited and the food all vegetarian, but it was the best among the 4 – 5 recommended places (Gesmo, Wonderland, Pumpernickel German bakery, La Piazzetta and Jeevan itself) we ate at in Leh.

Leh Tip – You may want to carry a flashlight if you’re stepping out for the evening in Leh. There aren’t too many ‘streetlights’ in town and there are frequent power cuts – it can be pretty dark while walking back to your hotel after dinner – although, the millions of stars and the Milky Way will keep you company on a clear night. *sigh* – to look up at that sky every night would fill me with child-like wonder that I can’t put into words; I’ve never been in another ‘city’ with a sky so clear – of course, Leh’s high altitude helps.

Day 5, 29th July – Rafting on the Zanskar

Day 5 was supposed to be travel-free, but what’s a road trip without at least a couple of hours on the road every day? 🙂

Our rafting trip had been booked by Tenzin, the owner of Mantra Cottages. There were about 3 – 4 operators at the start point who were offering fairly identical experiences – you can book one through your B&B or through one of the many tour agencies in Leh town. We started at 9 AM and drove a couple of hours along the Indus river (in a mini-bus arranged by the rafting company) to the start point of our rafting route – a place called ‘Chilling’ – quite apt, given that the water temperature is about 5°C. The highlight of the drive from Leh to Chilling was getting to see the side of a mountain blasted to make way for a road – it is LOUD.

We were given wetsuits, watershoes, helmets and paddles as our rafting gear – I wasn’t too happy with the wetsuits and watershoes as they were given to us soaking wet, were the wrong sizes and were old and very-well worn (ugh, don’t even try to focus on hygiene here). There was a half-hour orientation and demo before we got into our rafts and then, we were finally off! I’ve done river rafting before and on scarier rapids (this was grades 2 – 3) but this was still exciting, given that the water here was freeeezing and we saw more than a couple of other rafts overturn right in front of us; also, the mountains lining the river on each side were quite a sight. On an impulse, I even jumped into the river during one of the calm stretches, only to feel my muscles stiffen with the icy cold water and crying out for the guide to help me back into the raft in less than a minute (yeah, not proud of that!). The 28-km from Chilling to Nimu (the end point) took us about 3 hours under the supervision of a very strict rafting instructor, who kept yelling at us to go ‘forward, forward, forward!‘ and ‘faster, faster, faster!‘ – he was a nice, middle-aged man really, just a little short of patience with some people on our raft – I’m happy I wasn’t one of them! Nimu, by the way, is the convergence point of the Indus and Zanskar rivers – the Zanskar, which we rafted on is quite muddy, the Indus water looks a little clearer in comparison.

The meeting point of the two rivers, Zanskar from the top and Indus from the left  Photo by Payal Vora from Bay Area (A tale of two rivers) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The meeting point of the two rivers, Zanskar from the top and Indus from the left
Photo by Payal Vora from Bay Area (A tale of two rivers) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Once you get off the rafts at Nimu, the rafting company whisks you off in a mini-bus to the lunch spot 15 minutes away with changing tents. A word of warning about this – if you’ve gotten soaked (which you would have, in all likelihood), you will FREEZE during those 15 – 30 minutes till you get the chance to wring that wetsuit off yourself and put on some dry clothes. The men usually change in the open at the lunch spot but the women form a line for the changing tent – and some of them change at their own leisurely pace – as soon as you get off at the lunch place, make a run for the changing tent so that you’re the first in line – or be prepared for your teeth to chatter and your body to shiver and shake while you wait for your turn. 🙂

The rest of the day was relaxed and uneventful as we drove back to Leh and spent the evening browsing the local markets for souvenirs (stone jewelry, mini-prayer wheels, brass decorations for the home are all good options – so are the organic apricot and seabuckthorn jams).

More adventures coming up, as we make our way to the Nubra Valley with its sand-dunes and the picture-perfect Pangong Lake.

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