‘Juley’ means a lot in colloquial Ladakhi: ‘Hello!’, ‘Hi!’, ‘How are you?’ and much more. Everything from checking into a hotel room to going for a mountaineering expedition is as simple as ‘Juley’ there in Ladakh. It’s something more than a goodwill gesture. So, ‘Juley’ for you too!
My journey towards Ladakh or ‘Little Tibet’ started on July 7th evening. Since there was no direct train to Ladakh, I had to travel to New Delhi first. It was a 34 hour journey and I reached there on July 9th morning. I stayed at my sister’s (my uncle’s daughter) house. That day I went for a sports wear shopping at Connaught place with my best friends, Jim and Rijo. I had to leave to Manali on the same day evening. So everything was in a fast pace. I rushed to the Inter State Bus Terminal (ISBT) after having tea with my sister and her kids.
On July 10th morning, when I opened my eyes from sleep, the landscapes, altitude and climate had totally changed. I could see only snow capped mountains all around me. The Himachal Road Transport Cooperation (HRTC) bus I was travelling in was taking a loop through a mountain. After few moments, I started showing the first symptom of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS): dizziness. I braced myself to the seat and closed my eyes tightly. But I couldn’t escape from the vomiting sensation. Thankfully the bus operators were providing Air Sickness Bags (ASB) and I made a maximal use of them. One after another, I took the bags, puked into it and made a good collection of them under my seat. I’m proud in the fact that I was the person who used the maximum ASBs. I reached Manali on July 10thnoon.
That was the end of my ‘pre-planned’ travel. There are three types of transport to reach Leh, the capital of Ladakh district of Jammu and Kashmir from Manali: Truck, Mini Bus, and Shared Jeep. Otherwise I need to opt for flight directly from New Delhi. Though my Ammachi (‘mom’ in Malayalam) recommended, travelling by air was not in my agenda since my objective was to see the places, people and enjoy the thrill of travelling. I had no idea about how to get there in Leh until I met Vijay, the owner of Hotel Shivalik where I stayed in Manali. He booked a minibus for me. Within minutes, the ticket to Leh was in my hands. As simple as ‘Juley’!
From all the information I gathered from internet, I learnt that Manali-Leh route is more scenic yet more rugged than the Srinagar-Leh route and it is the preferred choice of adventure travelers and photography enthusiasts. That is the main reason I chose the former route. The distance of the Manali-Leh route is approximately 490 kilometers which involves crossing five high altitude passes. Usually tourists take 1-3 days to cover this distance. While doing so they get more time to enjoy the scenic natural splendors and indulge in photography. Since I didn’t have much time to waste, I opted for the 19-21 hour journey in minibus which is popularly known as ‘cannon ball run’.
At 0230 hours on July 11th I started my journey to Leh in a minibus with some Koreans and Israelis in it. Except the driver, I was the only Indian traveler. Paved roads were only for few kilometers and after that the bus travelled through disarrayed roads consists of mud, rocks with lot of humps and dips. So, sleeping was literally a luxury in the bus and managed I did.
When I got up from my sleep in the morning, the bus had already passed through the first high altitude pass, Rohtang La (13,050 ft and also known as heap of dead bodies!) and reached a place known as Kokhsar. I had tea and refreshments there and had a chit chat with the Israelis and Koreans. Koreans were teenage students and Israelis were professionals. I became more acquainted with Israelis than Koreans. The names of the Israelis were Jonan, Ronan and Konan. Were they siblings? No! “Are you guys born for same father?” I asked them jokingly and they all burst out into laughter. Two women were there with them and I forgot their names. One of the women was a journalist and when I said that I’m also specializing in journalism; we got more serious subjects into our chit chat. I also told them that I’m going to Ladakh just to participate in a marathon. All these information made both Israelis and Koreans interested in my talks.
Journey resumed. I passed through lot of beautiful places especially through scenic mountain valleys and river banks. I indulged mainly in photography. It was my past time activity during the travel. I was in high spirits and the world was new all around me. Everything was fine until I reached the second mountain pass, Baralacha La (16,500 ft) AMS started torturing me and I was slipped into the dizziness state again. I couldn’t talk and even smile. I started puking again. This time it was not in the ASBs but through the window of minibus. Koreans too started showing the AMS symptoms but Israelis were bit tough and went on with their talks and jokes.
Travelling with those both nationalities were like listening to a Hebrew radio on one side of my ear and a Korean radio on another. My poor Malayalam radio was helplessly searching for a frequency to broadcast. It was like a high altitude cultural exchange programme on wheels. I enjoyed it.
My condition became more severe after reaching Nakee La, (15,547 ft) I puked throughout that stretch and I became exhausted. That worst condition of mine urged me to ask Ronan to spare the front seat where he was sitting. He left his front seat for me with a smile and took the back seat where I was sitting. I’m really thankful to him for his kind help. I had my meals from the tents which were located on the way. Though I had been puking the food I was taking, I kept hydrating myself by having loads of water.
After crossing Lachulung La (16,616 ft) I had reached Pang. The road from Pang took me to the famous Moore Plains which is situated in a plateau. It’s hard to believe that this plain is situated at an altitude of 15,400 ft. The plain was really scenic too. The driver, who was a Ladakhi I guess, began to speed up the bus as the Moore Plains was flat and in good condition. But there were humps and also dips. However, he tackled it very smartly.
The journey through the Moore Plains reminded me of the Jeep Trekking me and Deepak, my college mate and best friend, did during our college days. He was a member of a Jeep Adventure club called Jeep Thrills and they have trekking events in the suburbs of Chennai during weekends. I was the usual companion of Deepak in most of his ‘Jeepy’ and ‘Biking’ adventures. I really cherished those memories and missed those joyful days.
After the fast paced journey through Moore Plains, I had reached the final mountain pass of our journey, Tanglang La (17582 ft). It is the second highest mountain pass in the world too. The bus stopped there for a while and I indulged in photography for some time. AMS started releasing its clutches from me. I was feeling really better. From that place the driver of the bus was replaced.
While descending from the Tanglang La, I was greeted with spectacular roads and natural sceneries. After descending I reached Upshi. The road from Upshi to Leh was good in condition. I was back in high spirits and started talking to the new driver in my broken Hindi. We really had a nice talk though I possess a very bad Hindi. The road leading to Leh reminded me of my homeland Kerala and I mentioned it to the driver too. I felt like as if I had finished an hours’ long roller-coaster ride. By 2030 hours on July 11th I reached Leh.
I bid adieu to Israelis and Koreans after getting down the bus and taking my luggage. Lot of touts approached me with accommodation lists. I ignored them and checked into a hotel near to the bus stand. I knew that Leh is one of the safest places in India but I don’t want to invite any trouble since I was alone in an unknown land. I heard that lots of affordable guest houses were available in a place called Changspa and I thought of shifting to that place next day.
Next day, on July 12th I shifted to Hotel Rockland located at Fort Road. The room I got was really spacious and so serene. I got a new friend called Mohammed Hussein, the hotel room boy. He was very friendly as most of the Ladakhis I found there. He used to bring my bed coffee in the morning and he also became my virtual guide.
First thing I did after getting settled in Hotel Rockland was to get a map of Leh town. I tried to get some newspapers but it was really hard to find them. Then I reported at Hotel Singge Palace where the Great Tibetan Marathon team was staying. For the first two days I didn’t venture much into any outdoor activities except for internet browsing and visiting the German Bakery. Internet browsing was really a luxury in this mountainous region. Net browsing charges were Rs. 90 per hour. I had read a lot about German Bakery before reaching Leh. I really liked the chocolate pan cake they make and it’s a peaceful place to unwind ourselves.
Most of the time I spent by reading The Warren Buffet Way by Robert.G. Hagstorm. There was no other past time activities I could find there. I didn’t take my Laptop, no network coverage for mobile phone and no other electronic equipments with me other than cameras. I enjoy reading that book. It was really informative and inspiring.
On the second day while having my favorite chocolate pan-cake at German bakery my eyes fell upon an advertisement glued to the wall. It was about a documentary screening happening in Women’s Alliance of Ladakh (WAL). I took down the address and went to WAL.
One of the most interesting features of Leh town is that we can simply walk to most of the places. There is no need for hiring a taxi or such. Bus services are only to nearby villages. I walked to the WAL and attended the documentary screening. The name of the documentary was ‘Economics of Happiness’ which describes the impact of globalization on local economy and trade. I also participated in the group discussion after the documentary screening. The discussion was really interactive and I had made my contributions to that discussion. It was a rare opportunity to talk to various nationals, express my opinions and ideas and also clarify my doubts regarding the globalization and development. All the people present there were very friendly and cheerful.
My visit to WAL, which was really set up by International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC) was a turning point. I got interested in their activities. Consequently I met Rahul a western educated Indian, one of the coordinators of ISEC’s Ladakh Project. I conveyed to him my interest in their activities and also requested him for an interview. He was ready for everything though his schedules were tight.
My intention was to get as much information from them about the all the ecology related issues as this year’s Public Relations (PR) campaign theme of our Communication batch is ecology related one. So, if I get the interview from him, I can publish it in our departmental newsletter too. Rahul agreed with me and introduced me to Alex, an American who is also a coordinator of ISEC. We had a really nice discussion and I took down notes from them.
Alex was very helpful like Rahul. He gave me lot of good documentaries on environmental issues and gave me an idea of doing a documentary screening during the PR Campaign. That was a great idea indeed. Then for few days I was like one of them, stayed in WAL from morning to evening, had food from WAL’s Local Food Café, browsed through the books in the library and interacted with most of the visitors of WAL.
Notable features of WAL were that they use only solar energy for all the energy needs, never uses plastic materials and also uses composting toilet to dispose human waste. It’s for the first time in my life I was coming across a composting toilet. I really admired their natural way of life. It also made me think how Western culture and Globalization have destructed lot of local economies and cultures.
From WAL’s Local Food Café, I had local foods such as Thukpa (vegetable soup), Mok-Mok and Chutagi. I got the real taste of Ladakh from there. Surprisingly most of the hotels I had visited didn’t have any Ladakhi menu. They serves you Israeli, German, Italian, Continental and Chinese foods but not Ladakhi. I went to Ladakh to taste Ladakhi and Tibetan food not German or Italian.
The unique characteristics I found in Ladakhis are that they are innocent and hardworking. They believe what they see or hear. They are not clever like most of us-urbanites. Don’t underestimate, they are very wise. They value their culture, traditions and relationships. When a Ladakhi starts talking, first he or she greets you with traditional ‘Juley’ and an innocent smile then only he or she starts talking. I really love smiling people.
But sadly, nowadays Westernization started creeping into their community. Badly hit are the Ladakhi youth. They are trying to emulate Westerners thinking that their local culture and lifestyle as inferior. Internet, TV, Mobile phones are all sabotaging that beautiful culture, economy and traditions. To my mind, if we are not content in our identity, culture, traditions and the place we took birth and making a living, there is no point in living at all. We are trying to become someone else. That’s a gradual death indeed. That’s ridiculous. In this juncture, the activities of ISEC and WAL in Ladakh are worth complimenting.
The places I had visited were Leh Palace, Tsemo Monastery, the Home for Helpless Donkeys, Ladakh Book Shop and Tibetan Refugee Market. Owing to my activities in WAL I didn’t get much time to roam around which I love most. I missed lot of important sites such as Shanti Stupa and rarely available ‘Chang’ the locally brewed barley beer.
Leh Palace is nothing other than a small palace ruined in most parts and it is under renovation now. I didn’t find any great crowd to see that architectural splendor which is built by just mud bricks! Most challenging part in visiting the Tsemo Monastery was that you need to climb up the small hill on which it is located. There is no stepping or loops to reach on top. So be careful when climbing. There is nothing to see other than some prayer halls and a Big Buddha statue. But after reaching on top you can get a great aerial view of Leh town and it’s a superb launch pad to shoot your camera. I climbed till top and got couple of great photos as a reward.
I found the Home for Helpless Donkeys after a walking struggle for 30 minutes. It’s a donkey sanctuary in real sense started by a South African called Joanne Lefson. I saw lot of ‘sweet’ donkeys there. I called them sweet because they are harmless and in turn we are doing harm to them. I talked to the care taker of the sanctuary, Sonam who was a retired soldier. “Why we Indians are not taking any initiatives like this? Most of the good and helpful enterprises here are started by foreigners. Are we sleeping?” I asked him in my broken Hindi. “Indians don’t have brains!” he commented. We, Indians have good brains but we are not using it. We are busy with trivial activities and don’t have time for innovation and initiatives. That’s my opinion. After taking some rest and making a small donation, I left the sanctuary bidding adieu to Sonam.
The only place which lured and got hold of me in Ladakh was the Ladakh Book Shop. I visited that Book Shop thrice. They have a wide range of books from Religion to Philosophy to Politics to Adventures. Endlessly I browsed through the books and on the third day of my visit I bought two books: Being Indian by Pavan K Varma and Jesus Lived in India by Hoger Kersten. I really admire that Book Shop.
You can find lot of Tibetan Refugee Markets in Leh. My advice is that if you are going to buy any gifts for your loved ones buy it from local markets. If you do so, the money will be circulated in the local economy and you are supporting the local people in real sense. If you buy, eat or stay in any expensive or ‘high class’ places the money will either go to New Delhi or other parts of the globe. This is the scenario I witnessed there in Ladakh.
I did most of my shopping in local markets. I bought a Tibetan bag for my brother and a wedding gift for Jim and Tina, my best friends whom are going to get married in coming October. I didn’t ‘buy’ anything for my Ammachi, the person whom I love most in this world. I ‘acquired’ something precious for her from my visit to Ladakh: the medal I got for the successful completion of the Great Tibetan Marathon. That is my gift to her.
After successfully completing the Great Tibetan Marathon on July 18th, I took rest on 19th. The minibus to Manali starts at 0200 hours on 20th. I told good bye and hugged Mohammed Hussein and Firoz Bhaiya, the owner of Hotel Rockland. “Inshallah” Firoz Bhaiya told me. The real problem in being an atheist is that when someone gives “Inshallah”, “God Bless You” or any other ‘Godly’ wishes, you can’t give anything back to them other than a wry smile.
The return journey was not as eventful as the onward journey. I was bit tired after the adventure marathon. I got a fresh lease of life only after reaching New Delhi on 22nd and meeting up with my sister and her kids Eviya and Appu. The same day afternoon me and Jim met and talked over couple of beers. It was such a joy to show to people who are close to me the GTM medal and certificate. Jim got inspired by my experiences too. I left to Chennai on 22nd night.
To conclude, I need to give a simple advice to some of my friends who are very eager to visit foreign countries. I appreciate their ambitions but it will be good to keep in mind that our country, one of the greatest in the world has mind blowing places to visit, explore and learn. First tour, explore and learn from our mother country before embarking on an expensive foreign tour. I’m giving out this advice only because I’m really feeling ashamed, when I see some foreigners comes here and explores something right under our nose which we had never noticed nor even tried to explore. Isn’t that humiliating?