Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Leh it on me

LEH: The road to Leh. It was some ride alright. Eighteen gruelling hours over a bone-rattling road. Trying to get any sleep after starting at two in the morning was impossible. There was also the worry of actually getting there: our driver kept needing an occasional prod to stay awake. And then there was the altitude sickness.

But back to the how and why we were making this trip into India's little Tibet. A combination of factors drove us north. Firstly there is the rain. The monsoon had finally caught up with us. After having only the odd shower once or twice a week for the entire time we had been travelling, now we were getting soaked all day everyday. In contrast, Ladakh is basically a desert.

And then there is the timing. The road to Ladakh heads over the highest passes in the world. They are only open during the summer and officially close by mid September. If we were going to head there it was either now or another year. We don't have as yet plans to come back another year.

Just getting to the staging post for this long journey took its own time. From our brief stay in Delhi we went to Chandigarh, using for the first time Indian Railway's express Chair Class – very European and a dramatic contrast to the overnight services we had used previously.

Completely planned and built in the 50s and 60s, Chandigarh is a city that is not just strange for India, but anywhere. The modernist Swiss architect Le Corbusier certainly had a thing for straight roads and space. Unfortunately the design makes it a hike to get anywhere interesting without hiring a bicycle rickshaw.

My biggest criticism (although who am to criticise – architect I am not) of the perfect grid layout was that unlike other cities with a similar design it does not have the people to fill the huge space allocated for it. I was impressed though by the way he used the Golden Ratio (1.6??), with the city's administrative area represented as the head of the body and the shopping/entertainment area around where the heart should be. Not so impressive is the unoriginality of the grid square naming – Sector 17, Sector 22 etc. Boring.

From the ordered straight lines of Chandigarh's streets we took another toy-train to the British Raj hill-station of Shimla along some of the windiest, loopiest tracks I have been on. At one stage looking out the window I could see four sets of rails we had just passed over below us. There is also a famous amount of tunnels built for this line, a total of 103 for its 96km length. Like the Darjeeling toy-train it was slow, but fortunately not as slow – completing the journey in a relaxed 5 hours.

The toy-train

Shimla itself was wet and cold but we managed a damp climb to pay our respects at the monkey temple overlooking the town. Unfortunately the temple is overrun with its namesakes, who can be very feral. For the climb we hired the necessary gear; a 1.2m long whacking stick to keep the rampant monkeys abay. Even though the monkeys kept out of reach, I couldn't let the hire sticks go to waste and gave some monkeys a scare. Much to Rob's distress this caused much ferocious hissing and scary teeth being bared.

Being wet, it was good to move on further north to our Ladakh staging post, the popular tourist town of Manali – although it was also wet here. By this stage we were over the rain and looking forward to the desert climate over the Himalayas. We spent minimal time in Manali, merely enough to make sure we were over the 10 hour trip from Shimla and ready for the massive trip before us.

And so to great ride we undertook. We could have done it in two days, with a night camping out on the way (which is probably the way we will do it on the way back) but due to timing factors we did it in one big day. It was cold and dark when the alarm went off at 1am, and it was another hour and half before our van eventually turned up.

We took our seats at the back and immediately realised no sleep would be possible due to the Indian techno pop CD our driver blasted at us. The awful lines - “I want to party baby .. where's the party at .. down the road somewhere .. or on the dance floor” - will be etched in my mind forever. Strangely I do want to buy the CD though – for the kitch factor of course.

The van was bitterly cold as before dawn we passed up and over the first pass of 3900m into the Lahaul valley. It was a cold and wet chai at 6 in the morning at a two-horse town before we kept going further up this valley, that strangely reminded me of Iceland: all green and steep sided and completely bare of trees.

It wasn't until we climbed up the next major pass - just under 5000m - a few hours later that we started to get into the dry rocky moonscape I was expecting. From here on in for the rest of the day we were above 4000m and passed through the harshest terrain I have ever seen. There were sand dunes and rock landscapes and a weird flat open Mongolian like (complete with nomad tents) valley that took an hour to drive through.

Sand buttrisses
Sand buttrisses complete the dramatic road

We stopped at various points for passport checks and food from hardy people who had set up parachute tents for the few months that this road is open. In a month's time the Army will come along and move them all down to their home villages at lower altitudes.

By the afternoon I was battling fatigue, a headache and the leaden feeling which comes from altitude sickness. Our driver was not faring much better and thankfully being located at the back of the van we couldn't see the fact that he was nodding off at the wheel. With hundreds of hair pin turns this of course was not good. The Irish guy sitting in the front passenger seat kept an eye out and a finger to prod him awake with. We made him take a nap at one of the parachute tent places.

It was with great relief and sense of achievement that we passed over the highest pass of the journey : the 5328m high Taglang La – the second highest pass in the world. There was even a little snow. (As an aside the highest road pass in the world at 5602m, Khardung La, sits behind Leh and tomorrow I take a ride up to it and then mountain bike down!) From the high of Taglang it was all downhill to Leh, which meant I could only start to feel to better.

We entered Ladakh and its blue skies and we have been here since and will be for some time longer. Leh was worth the painful journey to get here. The sun shines every day and there are ancient Buddhist monasteries to explore. The Ladakhis are the some of the warmest people I have met, and though this chilled out town is small it has all the comforts a weary traveller could want. It was a long ride through the rain and pain but we are now finally having a rest. Leh is yet another holiday from a long holiday.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

The thirty two hour train (plus some other bits)

DELHI: Thirty two hours rattling along the rails. It seems like a long time. But it passes and you wonder how it went so quickly. From the North East of India to the capital, Delhi, we sat, slept and sipped chai. We watched the Ganges plains roll by the window. Farmers working the paddy fields, school kids wandering to and from the old villages made of mud and brick, and monkeys being a nuisance at platforms.

Bicycle home
Farmer going home as the train goes by

To while away the time on this second-longest train trip of my life (the first being in Russia), we stared out of the window, and we read. Around the World in Eighty Days was an apt choice which I picked up cheap at a bookshop. Or there was daily newspaper, sold from the hawkers on platforms or wandering the carriages.

The endless wallahs walking up and down the aisle shouted about their newspapers in Hindi, Bengali or English, but more commonly they called out "chai" (tea) as they lugged a hot urn and paper cups along. Occasionally a shoe shine boy, a masseuse, a coconut seller or most curiously a mung bean concoction maker would pass through. In a land of a billion people everyone tries to find a niche - even the beggars who sweep the floor of the carriage and then return with a hand out stretched.

The reason for this long journey was simple: we are heading to some more mountains and Delhi is on the way. I say more mountains because the majority of the last 10 days have been spent in the Himalayas. Or more precisely, in Sikkim and Darjeeling.

Sikkim is the small piece of India that is sandwiched between Nepal and Bhutan and with Tibet looming over it. It is home to the highest mountain in India and the third highest in the world: Khangchendzonga. It is usually possible to see the peak from just about all angles of the small state, except during the monsoon. And we unfortunately are still in the monsoon.

So we spent 10 days staying at accommodation perched on the top of ridge lines with unobstructed views of a mountain 8598 metres tall, without seeing it in all its glory once. We did see some snowy, rocky ridgeline emerge through a gap in the clouds for a few minutes. I can only assume that this small window was displaying a small piece of the bigger glorious views of the mountain which we really only saw on a poster in a shop in Darjeeling.

It wasn't all bad though. We did get to be at a higher altitude, above the hot sticky plains and coast below. Darjeeling, being around 2100m high, was in fact quite cold, with night times getting down to the low teens - temperatures I havn't felt since winter in Melbourne last year.

Also the vistas which we did get to see were worth it. On our journey to and from Darjeeling we got to pass through the tea plantations the area is famous for. Jeeps were the usual mode of transport and it was easy to understand why as we travelled from Sikkim to Darjeeling. From the bottom of a valley we climbed steeply on a jolting, rough road with more hair pins than a hat shop. For most of its way the road was only wide enough between tea bushes to fit our jeep as we went up and around and up a lot more.

Sikkim was also a welcome relief from the almost crushing crowds of Calcutta. The Sikkimese could have passed for Tibetans and it was hard to believe we were still in India. They were some of the friendliest people we have come across. There was no pushing and shoving or the hassle in which you get in the big cities here. Just a friendly and relaxed attitude.

Sikkim had a lot of Bhuddist temples

But it was time to skate on and we have mostly by train. This included the famous Toy Train from Darjeeling. Carriages as long a large car and the engine the size of a small truck, it slowly railled us down following the exact course of a road with much swifter jeeps. Which came first the road or railway I am not sure but it was possibly the slowest train in the world. It took three hours to travel the 31km we journeyed. The rest of the way down was by jeep.

So after two days in Delhi (one rained out), we are off once more: heading north first to Chandigarh and then to another well known hill station: Shimla. We don't linger though as this time real Himalayan landscapes await as we jeep-ride some more over the highest roads in the world to the moonscape of Ladakh. The mountainous passes are only open for a few months each year, and luckily for us right now is the open season. It will probably be another rough ride there and back, but this is what travelling is about - seeing things you can't see back home.