Doing the Tourist Thing in Kathmandu

Our impressions of Kathmandu were slightly marred by its tourist ghetto: Thamel. Thamel is the centre of tourist activitiy, with hundreds of guest houses, German bakeries, internet cafes, rickshaw drivers, travel agents...The darker side of Thamel is a world of glue sniffing pre-teens, poverty and tourists spending more money in a week then many Nepalis earn in a year. Despite my extreme dislike of the neighborhoud, our hotel owners were extremely friendly and our room good value (especially if it weren't for the identical rock set that we heard from the nextdoor bar's Nepali cover band every night for 10 days). Every morning and evening we were greeted by two smiling young brothers sewing away at their machines, they embroidered t-shirts and the eldest at 22 years old had been doing so for 13 years. Even earlier in the morning the mother and son team of tea sellers started up their makeshift shop: a small cooking stove and a tea kettle. While his mother brewed a new batch, the small boy would run tea to store vendors through the neighborhood while collecting the empty glasses. Back at his stand he would clean the dirty glasses and start up with a new round. Each cup sells for about 6 rupees, that's 10 cents, and the pair wake up first and go to bed last. Our friend Megan, working in Kathmandu for the summer, was staying right in the heart of Thamel, at its biggest and most well known guest house. It was the centre of comings and goings of "important" people, including the Everest climbing team with oldest ever summiter (71 years old and didn't look it). Our evening routine in Thamel consisted of the three of us eating together at a restaurant that Megan had found, with the cheapest momo (dumpling) prices around. So we ate alot of momos then we hit the German bakeries for their late hour 50% off prices. During the week, while Megan worked hard all day, Yann and I hit Kathmandu's greatest hits:

A large Hindu temple complex on the banks of the Baghmati River, this is where Kathmandu-ites come to cremate their dead. Non Hindus aren't allowed in the temples, but they can cross the river and watch the cremations from the stairs on the opposite river bank. We searched for shade and found it in a row of white hollowed-out stupas, although most were already occupied by sleeping saddhus. One low key cremation ceremony was taking place and we sat and watched. Bodnath:
From Pashupatinath you can walk to the largest Buddhist stupa in the world, Bodnath. Tibetan buddhists have combined exercise and prayer in a lovely way. The more times you walk around the stupa, the more "prayer credit" you get. Throngs of faithful power walk around the stupa and you can't help but join in and get swept around yourself. Swayambunath:
This multi denominational shrine sits on top of a hillock with a spectacular view onto Kathmandu. Of course, at the height of the dry season, the haze prevented us from seeing much. Buddhist and Hindu faithfuls as well as lots of souvenir hawkers hang around the stupa conducting their various business. Butter lamps alters line the stairways up to the stupa and hundreds of monkeys too. Yann and I are becoming accustomed to Asia's temple monkeys, although I still don't trust them. Patan's Durbar Square:
Patan is a suburb of Kathmandu, and its town centre is quiet and beautifully preserved. The Durbar Square (meaning Royal Square) is packed with beautiful Newari buildings and temples. We visited on a week day and the square was mainly filled with elderly men in their pink and white Newari caps making their prayer rounds from shrine to shrine.
Kathmandu's Durbar Square:
On our first weekend in Nepal we strolled over to Kathmandu's Durbar Square, within walking distance from Thamel. The multi-storied Newari buildings and temples were filled with locals relaxing away from the sun. The main thing to do in the square is to walk around watching the locals haggle for merchandise and taking in the unique architecture. We even stumbled into the Kumari temple and got a glimpse of the Kumari Devi. She is Kathmandu's living goddess, who makes a brief appearance from her balcony in the temple every day. The living goddess is chosen after satisfying over 50 strict criteria ranging from eye colour to absense of moles. She then undergoes a series of tests to confirm her goddess stature. When she hits puberty, she returns to mere mortal status and a search begins for the new Kumari. Its hard for non-believers to see anything in Kumari other than a very made-up and costumed little girl. Just like it is hard to see Thamel as anything other than a very made-up and costumed piece of Nepal.

Leaving Leh

We spent 23 days in Ladakh, with 12 nights in Leh, the biggest town in Ladakh, with just under 30,000 inhabitants. We spent more nights in Leh than we'd spent in one place since we began our trip almost 8 months ago. When we came back from an excursion, I was excited to get back to our familiar guest house, have a tea and Ladakhi flat bread for breakfast, lunch with Yann and Jochen and relax the time in between meals.

Our arrival in Leh coincided with a visit by Ladakh's head lama who was giving a series of talks at the monastery just down the street from our guest house. His talks attracted crowds of pilgrims who sat outside listening to his microphone enhanced speeches while drinking butter tea and spinning their prayer wheels. I lasted less than an hour at the prayer session, there's only so much monotone Ladakhi chanting one can stand. Many of the pilgrims were taking naps or socializing so I didn't feel too bad about my short visit. Leh is surrounded by a dry barren landscape, and it's character is defined by the massive, crumbling Leh Palace and Monastery overlooking the town. Yann and Jochen made me climb up to them. Adding to the feeling that you're stuck in a time warp are the traditional Ladakhi clothes, sported by most of the older Leh residents. The men's wear is a bathrobe like maroon coat, tied around the waist with a rope. The woman wear a full length brown or maroon wool dress with lots of turquoise and coral jewelry, their hair grown long and worn in two braids. To complete their outfits they wear felt slipper like shoes with turned up pointed toes and are usually holding prayer beads. Younger Ladakhis are encouraged to wear traditional clothes, but the big city Leh kids mostly wear jeans and a t-shirt. There is also a sizeable Muslim population in Leh, who add a kufi (muslim skull cap) and a long beard to the Ladakhi ensemble. The number of tourists in Leh increased every day, with more and more restaurants and travel agencies opening up for the season. It was actually a much more interesting place without tourists. In the busy season Indian and Kashmiri store owners make the journey to Leh to open up their seasonal shops. When we first arrived the only shops and restaurants doing business were Ladakhi, it felt more like every day Leh life, the life that is lived 8 months of the year. Apparently, during peak season every single pack-horse in Ladakh is rented out to trekking porters and the price at our guest house rises to 3 or 4 times what we were paying.

To help me get over my fear of flying we left on the inaugural flight from Leh(completely surrounded by large mountains) on a budget Indian airline. To our pleasant surprise we arrived safely in Delhi an hour after departure. We had weren't able to get a place on the train towards the Nepalese border until the next day. Jochen and I bullied Yann into letting us go to McDonald's for our last dinner together. McDonald's in India is terrible value and doesn't really taste that good, but the desire for familiarity had really gotten to me.

The next day we began our exhausting journey to Kathmandu, starting with a night train to the city of Gorakhpur, sitting right in the middle of the blistering hot Indian plains. We arrived there before lunch and managed to get on a bus heading to the border town of Sonauli, about 3-4 hours of sweaty, crowded bus riding away. The Indo-Nepali border is completely open, Indians and Nepalis crossing back and forth without hassle. We walked right by customs and could have entered Nepal without anyone uttering a word to us. Once on the Nepali side, applying for our visas, another couple of tourists sat down and started filling out forms, thinking they were still in India. It took about 5 minutes to process our visa applications and stamp us into Nepal, easiest border crossing yet. We now had to travel through our second night in a row, by bus to Kathmandu. We had a few hours of waiting in the oppressive heat of the Nepali Terai (Nepal's version of the Indian plains). We haven't yet been to an appealing border town and here was no exception. Sitting outside the bus ticket office, we noticed a young man lying on the ground nearby, he looked incredibly sickly. He was covered with flies, dirty and emaciated, he was breathing, but it seemed that he was doing so with great difficulty. We finally asked the men at the bus ticket office if an ambulance needed to be called, or if something could be done but things aren't so simple here. Nobody would call an ambulance, we are assuming because they aren't free. We would wait until the man died because then "the police will come and get the body, he's almost dead anyways". According to the locals, the dying man/boy was a drug addict, who they had previously attempted to help, his arms and body appeared to be covered in needle marks. In a place where people are barely scraping by themselves, locals viewed giving him money as a waste, at least, that's how they defended their inaction. He died a few minutes later, although no one would confirm it, and after some hesitation I built up the courage to check him for a pulse, there was none. Then someone called the police and we got on the bus to Kathmandu.

Burping and Biking down Khardung La

Being one of the most skilled downhill road cyclists (as exhibited in Lachute, Quebec, see photo below), Emilie was keen on the possibility of cycling down the highest motorable pass in the world and redeeming herself. After some debate about safety we decided to rent mountain bikes and tackle the descent down Khardong La. The day started at early in the morning when we went to inspect the bicycles, which we had promised would be "top quality international brands". It took a few minutes for us to each select a bicycle that we thought would make it through the 40km ride. It took some convincing to get the owner to repair various problems. The bicycles were decent but they obviously hadn't been maintained, probably not having been touched since last season.

As part of our budget deal, we got a ride up to the top of Khardong La in the most beat up pick-up truck in Leh. Emilie rode in the front of the pickup to entertain the driver while Jochen and I were crammed outside in the back with the three bikes. It was a miracle that the truck actually made it up the pass, on steeper parts we frequently stalled. Showing off the local driving skills was a truck perched perilously on the edge of the road being pulled out by a tow truck, Yann and Jochen contributed in some sorts to the rescue. As the three hour drive progressed, I started to burp, alot. What made the burping special was that they filled my mouth and the air with a potent smell of rotten eggs, totally delicious!!!
On the last bit of the climb, Jochen and I where started to feel the fact that we were now over 5000m, we hadn't really factored the cold weather into our plans. Arrived at the top we quickly unloaded the bikes took a few pictures and ran into the tea hut. The wind was blowing strongly making the near 0 degree temperature even more numbing. Emilie had bought a pair of gloves earlier which I thought would be a frivolous buy, but now it was clear that without gloves the ride down was going to be extra painful. Emilie purchased a new pair of gloves from the slightly over-priced Khardong La gift shop (amazingly and luckily you buy wool gloves there to go along with your Khardong La commemorative coffee mug) so that I wouldn't lose my fingers. We drank tea in a vain attempt at warming up with the Indian tourists. The first 500m descent (in altitude) was too cold for comfort and to make matters worse the suspension and the brakes of our bicycles were stiff (Emilie hardly had the strength to squeeze the breaks). Meanwhile adding to the fun, my burps where getting more frequent and nastier in smell and I was quickly becoming increasingly weak. It's important to note that eggs had not been part of our diet for many days. We continued our descent stopped for lunch at the military check point for some tea and Maggi noodles (Indian instant noodles). Up to this point, we had followed the road down the pass. We decided that continuing off road would be fun, despite the fact that it was the first time Emilie had ever sat on a mountain bike. This might in fact have been fun if it weren't for my deteriorating strength the steep trail littered with 10cm radius loose rocks. Emilie was good for her first time since it was a technical terrain for an introduction to mountain biking. After a while, it was clear that I couldn't continue on the rocky trail and would have to get back on the road. Of course we were now 100m straight down from the highway. Emilie and I began lugging our heavy bikes up the sheer mountain face, at an excruciatingly slow pace. Benevolent Jochen would continue on the cross-country trail but not before carrying my bike all the way up to the road then hiking back down to meet Emilie (who had almost made it halfway) and carrying hers the rest of the way up. Once back on the nicely paved road Yann and Emilie were able to easily finish the descent, meeting up with Jochen at the bottom and racing through the narrow country roads leading to Leh. In town, Doctor Jochen concluded that Yann must have giardia (a stomach parasite which he had just recently gotten over himself) and Nurse Emilie headed to the pharmacy to by some prescription drugs over the counter. After only one dose of medication Yann's burps disappeared, and within a few days he was back to his usual form and Emilie had made it down the mountain in one piece so we were all happy.

Welcome to Nomads Land

Tso Moriri Lake is a high altitude lake in south eastern Ladakh, in a nomadic territory straddling Tibet called Changthang. The nomads in Changthang are called Changs and on the Tibetan side they are called Khampas. Khampas are known for being fierce and strong (often referred to as cowboys), but our Tibetan guide told us that the Changs had lost some of that toughness by moving over to India. They live on Tibet in much greater numbers which has helped them to better conserve their traditional customs. Due to the fact that there are virtually no permanent settlements in the area, the public buses run only three times a month, on the 10th, 20th and 30th. We toiled with the idea of travelling by local bus, but they make the return trip to Leh the next morning and we wanted more time to see the area. We also wanted to make sure we didn't get stranded there. Jochen recruited two other travellers (unfortunately not the two hot, single Swedish women he was hoping for), and we pooled together to hire a jeep for the three day trip. Soon after the trip began, I knew I wouldn't regret having splurged (relatively) for the jeep ride, the highway to the lake is spectacular, we barely came across any other traffic during the entire 8 hour drive. Our Tibetan jeep driver seemed keen on stopping at the small village of Sumdho along the way, we realised when we got there that it was a Tibetan village and he was happy to get there and talk to all his friends. By amazing chance we arrived the one day of the year where the village celebrates a monastery festival. It is the culmination of weeks of prayers by visiting monks, who spend up to two weeks reading through the prayer books kept in the small Sumdho Monastery. When they are finished they parade around the town with other villagers each carrying prayer books. We spotted the procession up in the mountains when we pulled into the village. This gave us time to join the other villagers and visiting nomads waiting to be blessed by the procession. The blessing is given by placing by touching the forehead with the prayerbook. My first blessing was a real whack in the head by a very young boy carrying the heavy prayer book, I didn't know if I would be able to last through the whole procession. The cutest scene was the absolutely tiny uniformed children patiently waiting for their blessings (I noticed they were each rewarded with a candy for their hard work). About 10km from Tso-Moriri the highway completely stops and we drove through the wilderness until pulling up at the lake and its only permanent settlement Korzok Village. We knew that there were ten village homes that had begun putting up visitors in their homes as part of a way of bringing more money to the villagers, who receive many visitors during the peak season but don't really reap any of the benefits of tourism themselves. We stayed in a home right beside the Korzok Monastery, each home has only one designated room for tourists so Yann and I got what appeared to be the meat drying chamber (but at reduced price, oh yeah!). We had brought all our own food, as we had been warned that early in the season there might not be much around, Yann and I seemed to have two garbage bags full of dried yak meat at our disposition however. The Ladakhi kitchen is apparently the pride of the home, this one was no exception with a full collection of brass cookware and what I would guess was more dishes than were people in Korzok. The village of Korzok sits at over 4600m, so we spent our first evening in town mostly preparing dinner and going to bed early. The next day we spent trekking around the lake. Our two recruits ducked out early, probably affected by the altitude, as they had only arrived recently in Leh and had never been so high. Jochen, Yann and I continued the walk with me having to tame their ambitions of "reaching the snow peaks" and being back to Korzok in time for lunch. After a few hours of walking and some disagreement about the route we should follow, I took off along the shore line and the two boys wanted climbed higher up the banks of the lake. After a while Yann and I rejoined paths but Jochen had parted ways with Yann on the search for snow. Yann and I now took almost three hours to walk back to Korzok village, taking in what I think is the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen. As the day went on the lake turned from clear, to dark blue, to turquoise, and there wasn't another soul in sight save for a few shepherds and their pashminas. When we got back to the village we had lunch waiting for us, cooked by our friends who had now been waiting about 7 hours for our return. We expected Jochen to be waiting for us as well but he hadn't arrived yet. By five o'clock with no sign of Jochen both Yann and I began to worry. I had been carrying all the water and his jacket, so he was out in his t-shirt climbing to snowy peaks with no water. Yann and I were fairly exhausted from our eight hours of trekking and the hope of finding an injured Jochen in the barren rocky scenery would be quasi-impossible (I had earlier mistaken a pashmina goat for Yann). Getting impatient, Yann left our homestay to see if he could spot Jochen in the distance. I joined Yann a few minutes later and we spotted Jochen in the distance weaving through prayer flags in the mountains above the village. When he finally arrived back he was completely exhausted after more than ten hours of trekking and having to rely on snow for rehydration (I guess he made it to the snow peaks). We shared another communal meal and went to bed completely drained of energy, but not before having a peak at the clearest, starriest sky we'd ever seen.

We took a different road back to Leh, on roads/dirt tracks through nomadic territory. White tents peppered the scenery and our driver stopped to talk to some of the horsebacked nomads who seemed to know him well. We made another stop in Sumdho, this time we visited the small school. Much to our surprise and delight we were treated to a concert, each of the four grades singing an English song for us and the whole school singing a Tibetan song for us. I don't think I have ever seen anything as cute as the Old McDonald's rendition complete with animal re-enactments. The school is part of a larger network of schools designated for newly arrived Tibetan refugees. After grade four, any student in Sumdho that wants to continue with school will have to board in Leh where there is a much larger Tibetan community. Our last stop was Tso Kar, a brakish lake that was once the centre of a battle between two nomadic groups who wanted control of salt harvesting. Tso Kar Village was a ghost town, with most of its inhabitants only living there for the cold winter months and returning to their nomadic ways for the warm season. There is something unbelievably special about the few remaining nomads in the region, hopefully all us tourists won't ruin the beauty of the scenery and the culture of the Chang.

Monasteries and Sandstorms in the Nubra Valley

After relaxing in Leh, our new homebase, where we enjoyed the off season prices of a lovely hotel, complete with clean white fluffy duvets, we planned our next journey in Ladakh. We decided to travel to the Nubra Valley, with one of the main draws being that we could do it by local transportation, not having to travel by expensive chartered jeeps. The old small catch is a travel permit required due to the military sensitivity in the area, it costs about a dollar a day and is supposed to be issued to groups of 4 or more. Our permit had the names of some Korean travellers on it, we were told, if asked, to tell officials that they were travelling by jeep. The route to the Nubra Valley crosses the highest motorable pass in the world, Khardong La at almost 5700m in altitude at its highest point. Since we were still early in the season was open to traffic every day in only one direction. We left on a huge rickety bus early in the morning and it took nearly 10 hours for us to get over the pass and to the small town of Hunder, despite the total travel distance being about 100km. Hunder is as far as you can get with your permit, a few meters along the highway is a large sign reminding foreigners not to go any further. Our afternoon in Hunder was a frustrating experience of searching for a guest house in a town that didn't seem to interested in having any guests. We were still early in the season it appeared, most guest houses hadn't opened yet, and those that were, offered us peak season prices. We finally found a guest house on the outskirts of town that was reasonably priced, but was also the local watering hole. Hunder had come as highly recommended over the neighbouring town due to its peace and quiet, but it was just a little bit too much peace and quiet for us.

Deskit is the biggest town in Nubra (and it's not very big), and sits only 7km away from Hunder. People flock to Deskit and Hunder mainly because they are separated by a small desert complete with sand dunes, if you're lucky you can even spot a wild bactrian (two humped) camel, remnants from the towns position on the silk road. Trade was still booming only one generation ago, but the Kashmir conflict has effectively shut it down, today you're more likely to see a bactrian camel carrying a whole family of Indian tourists. We decided to walk to Deskit through the dunes, which seemed like a great idea until we got hit by a sandstorm about 20 minutes into the walk. It lasted only a few minutes but long enough to get sand in everything. After the sand storm, our intrepid guide Jochen, decided he would lead us through the most difficult terrain, since staying next to the river or the highway was too boring. This excursion terminated with us knee deep in mud, but we felt more hardcore, like we had actually done some trekking, even though the highway was still in view if you looked closely (which we didn't, to keep up the illusion). Deskit was way more of a "tourist hub" then Hunder, there were at least two open guest houses! We spent two days in Deskit, with one whole day mainly dedicated to playing cards in our guest house. We were told by a teenage monk that the morning prayers were at 6 a.m. so we had a very early morning as the walk up to the monastery took almost an hour. When we arrived, bright and early, we surprised to find that there wasn't the usual pre-prayer bustle. In fact, not a single soul seemed to be awake. We were rescued by the groundskeeper, an older monk, who pulled out a mattress that we could sit on, served us biscuits and hot tea and even got out his binoculaurs. This helped the time pass as we discovered we had an hour before the prayers actually started.
The Deskit Monastery isn't quite as polished as the Thiksey Monastery when it comes to their morning prayers. They wouldn't receive nearly the amount of visitors that Thiksey does, seeing as Thiksey is only a few minutes drive from Leh. This made the ceremony even more entertaining. There were no novice monks there, but the old guys seemed to have reached the point in their monk careers where they couldn't be too bothered with rigidity. Their eating breaks were noticeably longer than those in Thiksey and many times monks would break into full conversation as the prayer leader ploughed diligently through the recitations. We were greeted warmly and affectionately by the small group of monks living in the monastery and were happy to have made the morning trip. Morning prayers were becoming my favourite activity despite the ridiculously early hours. From Deskit we caught a local bus to the town of Panamik, India's northern most town accesible to tourists. Panamik is nothing more than a few homes, a couple of small military buildings and its hotsprings. Not much has been done to make the hotsprings a tourist destination, although all the travel brochures claim that Panamik is a must for the "famous hotsprings". The hotsprings are surrounded by thick cement walls and two cabins have been built for bathing but not really cleaned or taken care of. The water is scalding hot and is used all year round by locals for bathing, which is nice in a place where winters are frigid and hot water is a luxury even in big city Leh's hotels. My main activities in Panamik were sleeping and eating while the boys explored the area. We all dipped into the hotsprings though. Our last stop in Nubra was the small town of Sumur. We were on day five of our travels in the region when we arrived, and we knew the next bus out of Nubra was the next day. Our inner-line permit was only valid for one week, and since buses run on alternate days, we knew it was our only chance of leaving Nubra without a permit violation. The workers at our Sumur guest house assured us that there was a bus the next morning, so we spent the day exploring town and visiting the local monastery. It happened to be the monastic school's final day of exams and the spirits were high. Upon arrival we became surrounded by a crowd of teenage monks eager to hear their English teacher (also a monk) practise his skills on us. When we got back to town after the monastery visit, it was lunch time and we searched for a local restaurant. We were greeted by the English teacher, who had obviously taken a shorter route than us, hanging out from a second story window calling at us to come have tea with him, we obliged. He ended up paying for our teas and lunch despite, once again, our strong objections. We also got the reliable information that there was definetely no bus leaving Sumur the next morning and that the only way back to Leh was from Deskit. We quickly gathered our things from the guest house and waited in the Sumur main square for the last local bus, along with dozens of other villagers. We had to push our way through the crowds to get spots on the bus, actually on the roof. The ride was great until we started climbing through the mountain roads, then it just got scary. We managed to track down the bus driver for the Leh bound bus who remembered us from our ride from Leh six days earlier, he confirmed his departure location and time for us (he was now about the only person we would have trusted with this information). We arrived back in Leh with a full day left on our permit.

Ladakhi Hospitality in the Leh Valley

We hadn't had a drink of water since Kargil. On the first day of our bus ride to Leh we had run out of water, when we arrived in Kargil no stores stocked liquids, Yann and Jochen searched the entire town and came up with one overpriced carton of apple juice that we split among four people. For the second day of our we desperately asked for water or any form of non-tea beverage, but were informed that most shops hadn't had such imports for over six months. Leh was no exception with no shops stocking any drinks, by the time we checked into our hotel I was suffering from the two day bus ride, a full day without water and the 3500m altitude. Jochen was in additional pain, suffering most likely from the tap water he drank in Kargil or the mysterious goat meatballs we ate for dinner (I could only manage to bring myself to eat half of one).

My first task in Leh was to convince Yann to book a flight to Delhi, as much as I enjoyed the scenery on the Srinagar-Leh highway I couldn't bear the thought of doing the ride again. There is a second route out of Leh, that doesn't pass through Kashmir, but its opening in the upcoming month didn't look very promising. Rather than risk not getting a cheap air ticket, we purchased the cheapest one we could get our hands on, the inaugural flight out of Leh with budget Indian airline Air Deccan. I wondered if this would be any safer than the bus ride, but it would certainly be shorter, at one hour instead of 3 days.

After a few days of recovery, we set off on our first trip in Ladakh. We rented tents and sleeping bags and headed about 50km down the Leh Valley to the large Hemis Monastery. We boarded the local bus, one of the most packed buses we've ever been on, and arrived in Hemis at dusk after over 3 hours on the road. When we pulled up to the monastery, the only people left on the bus were some monks and the bus was greeted by a small army of young novice monks that came pouring out of the nearby hills and forest to greet their seniors and see what goodies they had brought from the big city. We were inspected curiously, then ignored. In the peak season Hemis attracts hundreds of visitors a day, mainly on the monastery tours running out of Leh, so a foreign face wouldn't be of much interest to the monks. There are no hotels or guest houses in the small town of Hemis, but we knew there was a campsite on the grounds of the monastery which is why we had made the trip so late in the day. The campsite was surrounded by large stone walls and the only gate was padlocked, we were told the man in charge might arrive from Leh in the evening. We sat with our tents and bags and waited for his arrival. During this time, it became darker and colder and the only person who seemed willing or interested in talking to us was a young carpenter, who thought we were crazy to be camping in the "freezing cold" and begged us to stay in his room. We compromised and agreed to come have dinner in his room. We gave up waiting for the campsite manager and pitched out tents right outside the monastery on the only flat ground we could find, we got what seemed like consent from one of the older monks. We were grateful for the young carpenters' hospitality. He was 22 and had moved to the monastery for work, from Punjab. He spoke no Ladakhi (and virtually no English) and he seemed desperate for some human interaction. He lived in a small room on the ground floor of the monastery, with a pile of blankets and a small cooking stove, the monks had afforded him what seemed to be one of the coldest locations in the entire monastery. We cooked instant noodles and he made us tea, eager to share his meager supplies with us. He wouldn't share dinner with us, but he accepted a chocolate bar and some dried apricots. We slept well, actually Yann slept well. I convinced myself I was dying from Acute Mountain Sickness and Jochen convinced himself that he was going to be eaten by bears (have I met a fellow hypochondriac?). Despite the warnings of unbearable cold, we were quite cozy in our tents and sleeping bags, minus the fact that the smell of my sleeping bag indicated that it probably hadn't been washed for a few seasons. We had breakfast with our carpenter friend who again made us tea while we ate toast and jam. We had about a 25km walk to Thiksey, the next monastery on our tour. After about 10km of lugging our bags, which despite our light packing were made heavy by our rented camping equipment, Jochen suggested we hitch a ride. Yann put up some resistance, but we started flagging down cars as they passed. Most vehicles were army trucks who didn't seem keen on stopping for us. We finally managed to flag down a clown car sized vehicle in which we squeezed our three bags and our three bodies. Our reception in Thiksey was rather warmer than that of Hemis. After being told there were no official campsites, we found a local woman who was willing to let us camp out in her front yard. Her three young children were amused by our presence and their young woman helped us clear a patch of ground and even spread out blankets for us to place our tents on (despite our objections). Our new campground was right at the base of the huge Thiksey Monastery and in the evening our young host served us tea in fancy cups and saucers right to the door of our tents. We woke up before 6a.m. the next morning to climb up to the top of the monastery and arrive in time for morning puja (prayers). We even arrived early enough to climb on to the roof and watch the call for prayers. Upon entering the prayer hall each monk must make three prostrations, consisting of holding your hands together over your head, your mouth, and your heart, then lying down on your stomach with your arms completely outstretched. The young monks do this at extremely high speed and with extreme sloppiness. The senior monks meticulously complete the ritual before taking their seats. The young novices pay little attention during prayers, mainly fidgeting and whispering to each other, the older monks make up for it in their complete seriousness. The morning prayer session appears to be a mix between praying and eating, with the monks taking pauses in their prayers to slurp up their breakfasts at high speed. The morning meal consists of tsampa (barley flour) mixed with butter tea. The minute the prayers break, designated novice monks grab the tea pots or buckets of flour and run down the aisles of the prayer hall serving the other monks. All you can hear in the room is the sound of the tiny footsteps madly running up and down the wood floors and the slurping of the tsampa and butter tea. When all the monks have been served, the visiting tourists are even served butter tea. During he two hour puja there were at least four eating breaks. When puja ends, the young monks pour out of the prayer hall at full speed whereas most older monks remain for more prayer or socializing. We were received with warmth and attention by the monks and the local family who let us camp in their yard. When we left our campsite, our hosts refused payment other than a few chocolate bars and our half- empty jar of apricot jam. From Thiksey, we walked to Shey Palace, the abandoned palace of the Ladakhi royal family, then we hitched a ride back to Ley. We sat in the back of a pick-up and our drivers, not surprisingly refused payment and dropped us off right at our hotel. So our first excursion was pretty successful, but not so much due to our brilliant planning but the Ladakhi hospitality.

Two Days on the Srinagar-Leh Highway

We left Srinagar bus station early in the morning, on one of two buses making the first journey of the season to Leh. The first part of the ride is through the green Kashmir Valley. The scenery is beautiful, minus the army bases. The bus moved quickly as the road is in good condition, we pulled over a few times for huge army convoys racing down the highway as if there was actually a war going on. Within a few hours we had already reached Sonamarg where the army coordinates vehicular traffic over Zoji La, the pass that separates Kashmir from Ladakh and that is only wide enough for one vehicle at a time. Apparently the army wasn't aware that government buses had been given the approval for travel. We waited for hours on the side of the road without any briefing from our bus driver who was busily drinking tea, unconcerned with the fact that if we waited any longer we would be crossing the pass in the dark. This prompted a rallying of the English speaking foreigners, led by an absolutely nutty German woman. We actually managed to get a meeting with the General of the army camp, who granted us permission to begin our trip over the pass. In reality I don't believe the meeting did anything, we had been waiting almost 3 hours and eventually they had to let us through (although the soldiers were telling the German lady we might be stuck there for 2 days, most probably to watch her lose it, which was a pretty unbelievable sight).

For the first few kilometers of the pass I didn't understand what all the fuss was about, but the road quickly became narrow and uneven. At some points we traveled with huge walls of snow on either side of us, the army had simply cut out chunks of snow about the size of an army truck. I felt much safer between two snow walls than I did without anything separating our huge rickety bus from the gorge only feet away. Our driver crossed the path slowly and carefully but there were some true 'hold your breath moments'. As we cleared the path we came face to face with an oncoming army convoy, which, had we met only a few kilometers earlier would have caused a great lot of difficulty, most probably involving driving down a large section of the road in reverse. Tourists in the other buses praised the 'coordination' of the army, assuming that there were walkie-talkies or radios in our bus (as we were the head of the tourist convoy), but we assured them that our safe passage was completely random. Passing so close to the line of control we stopped no less than seven times to register our passports at army checkpoints. As we waited in line at one checkpoint, in the small town of Matayan we were greeted by a crowd of young children eager to see the first busload of tourists passing through their town, even if only to register at the army checkpoint. They poured out of their homes across the field when the spotted Yann taking photos. The checkpoint officials proudly exclaimed that they were inhabitants of the second coldest inhabited place on Earth (second only to some place Siberia). That might have explained the happiness on the locals' faces, as our arrival must officially announce the end of their long, harsh winter. The whole day's drive was worth it for the fifteen minutes we stopped in Matayan. The last hour of our day was spent driving down the highway in the complete darkness, heading for our final destination town of Kargil. Once we arrived in Kargil we all shuffled into budget hotels near the bus station, Yann and I shared a single dorm bed in a packed hotel. Our departure the next morning was scheduled for 5:30 but we awoke even earlier to the sound of Islamic chants. Kargil is a Shiite Muslim town and we had our morning tea under the watchful gaze of Iran's Shah Ayatollah Khomeini from the restaurant's giant poster. Our bus got delayed as we scoured the city for the lost passport of one of the foreigners on our bus, which we were quite certain had been stolen (and weren't too refrained about expressing this belief). Our drivers kept threatening to leave, but the foreigners, who made up about one quarter of the buses passengers managed to stall until the foreigner found his passport in his breast pocket. The second day's ride was just as long as the first, but the road was less scary. Kargil was the last major Muslim town we passed as we entered into Buddhist Ladakh. Almost all greenery disappeared and the scenery became desert-like. We arrived in Leh in the late afternoon and the spectacular entrance was marred by the giant army base spread out right in front of what would have been one of the valleys most spectacular monasteries. We had apparently arrived before any of the supplies had, most restaurants and shops hadn't yet opened for the season. The word however was out! The first buses had arrived from Srinagar, and that meant that very soon the Coke and Pepsi products and maybe even Lays potato chips would start arriving in the city, things that are apparently much more exciting when you have been deprived of them for 8 months.