Monday, March 09, 2009

Lovely Leh

A Kochi-based family is enthralled by Ladakh, with its breathtaking vistas. But you have to get used to the low levels of oxygen

Photo: Panggong Lake

By Shevlin Sebastian

Reeni Tharakan, 48, and her relatives left at 6 a.m. for Panggong Lake, which is 134 kms from Leh. An hour later they stopped at a hotel but there was nothing to eat. As they traveled further along they began to experience hunger pangs. Suddenly, they saw a nomadic settlement.

The Kochi-based Reeni, in her broken Hindi, told a woman, standing in front of a tent, “Kissiko khane ko milega (Is there anybody to eat?)”. The lady, who knew Hindi and had a sense of humour, pointed at her husband. Reeni’s niece, Neethi, had to quickly step in and ask, in correct Hindi, for food.

“We had a thuppa -- a thick soup, with noodles and spinach,” says Neethi. “It was very tasty and quite filling.” Reeni’s nephew Siddharth opted for yak cheese.

The nomads lived in conical tents. Inside, there were signs of modernity: a stove and an Indane gas cylinder. “The blankets are made of yak wool and spread on the floor,” says Neethi. “That gives off a lot of warmth.”

The main occupation of these nomads is to sell cheese and butter in the market at Leh. “Most of them have weather-beaten faces, with pronounced wrinkles,” says Reeni. But they were tourist-savvy. When photographs were taken, the family expected to be paid. “So we gave Rs 100 for the pleasure of taking snaps,” says Siddharth.

At Panggong lake, the group was taken aback by the color of the water. “It is an unbelievable turquoise blue,” says Neethi. “I was awestruck.” One-fourth of the lake is in India while the rest is in Tibet. But there is no demarcation.

One day a shepherd spotted the periscope of a Chinese submarine from the top of a hill. He immediately informed the Army officers. “This caused a huge alarm and India beefed up its security,” says Reeni. “Apparently, the Chinese were tracking the defence systems in the neighbouring hills.”

There is an unusual aspect to the lake: the complete absence of marine life. “There is too much lime in the water for the fish to survive,” says Siddharth.

On the way back, the group revelled in the beauty of Ladakh. “The scenery is breathtaking,” says Neethi. “The high mountain ranges, the clear streams, the blue skies and the tankas, (the Buddhist prayer flags), flying in the breeze.”

Earlier, when they had arrived in Leh by air, they had been told to take it easy on the first day because of the lower levels of oxygen.

“Even when you are resting you are not supposed to talk loudly or make any sharp movements,” says Reeni. “Initially, we did not suffer from breathlessness. It comes on you very gradually. The first sign is a splitting headache.”

But a carefree Mansi, Neethi’s friend, went window-shopping in the local market and the next day when they went to the Hemis Monastery she ran up the steps. On the way back she vomited and collapsed.

She was rushed to the hospital where, because of these regular occurrences, there is a separate ward for tourists.

“In Leh people carry oxygen in small cans,” says Neethi. “It is like a soft drink. Everywhere you go people ask, ‘Do you want oxygen?’ And everywhere there is a meter where you can check your levels and find out whether you need to inhale the stuff or not.”

At the Hemis Monastery, which is the largest in Ladakh, they were taken aback by the unique construction.

“Just above the windows, where we would normally use beams, they have twigs piled one on top of the other, to a height of eight inches,” says Reeni. The walls are made of mud and so there is a cold effect inside. “When you are in the shade anywhere in Leh you feel chilled to the bone,” she says. “You just want to rush out into the sunlight.”

On another day they went to the Khardungla Pass, which is at an altitude of 18,380 ft. The temperature was minus five degrees. Two hours from Leh (11,430 feet), it has the highest motorable road in the world.

“There is a large military outpost there,” says Siddharth. “It is through the pass that essential supplies are taken to the soldiers based in the Siachen Glacier.”

The Army has a gifts store and has, predictably, called it the highest souvenir store in the world.

The group found it difficult to adjust to even lower levels of oxygen at Khardungla. “You have to concentrate very hard when you walk,” says Neethi. “First you put one leg forward and pause. Then you take the next step. It was at Khardungla that we understood how difficult it must have been for Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay to climb Mount Everest.”

Perhaps the one disappointment for the group was the Leh palace. Built by King Sengge Namgyal in the 17th century, it was abandoned in the 19th century.

“Inside, there was loose mud,” says Neethi. “It looked like cow dung. It is not even painted. There is nothing inside it to be called a palace.”

The royal palace did not bring a smile to their faces but the numerous road signs, put up by the Army’s Border Roads Organisation did: ‘If you are married, divorce speed’; ‘Darling I like you but not so fast’, ‘This is highway, not runway’, and ‘Lower your gear, curve is near.’

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

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