Sunday, September 28, 2008

On the Markha Valley Trail: The Proverbial Last Mile

Route: Jinghchen To Ganda La Base past Rumbak via Yurutse

“Gruelling” was the only way to describe day 2. Today we set off from Jingchen past Rumbak, Yurutse to the base of Ganda La (pass). From a height of roughly 3900 meters, we ascended to 4200 meters according to our guide. The guide book notes that the base camp is at a height of 4500 meters and for all our sakes, I hope that is in fact right. The actual pass is at a height of 4900 m – so still some way to go. All these numbers which were mere numbers have begun to take significance of their own.

Before leaving for Leh, the Markha Valley Trail (marked as moderate) seemed very simple. I kept looking for ways to extend the treks, include places to cover more and see all that we were supposed to see. Today – that has all changed. 8 hours as such is not hard, but add to that a group of first-time and moderate trekkers, and a steep incline – the picture looks very different. And shortness of breath, can be a real speed breaker.

If the saying “the last mile is also the toughest” ever held true, it was today (not sure if it is really a saying, but nevertheless). I remember the exact moment when we reached our end point or what we thought was our end point. Only to find that our horses had found this site unsuitable to their fancies and had decided to camp a few hundred meters ahead in the second campsite!! Every step after that is etched in my memory! Our guide’s view “every step today is step lesser tomorrow”. While it was hard to argue with that logic and his smile, it didn't make it any easier!

PS 1: All qualms about an “elaborate” staff (yes, the presence of cook versus a cook-cum-guide counted as elaborate, not really, but somewhat) have been squished. The extremely watery Maggi and pickle waiting for me was like heaven. (Yes, Maggi and pickle!)

PS 2: For tomorrow, my friend (who has half a mind to cut the trek short at Skiu) is taking the horse. I hope that works, I would hate to turn back!

Red clashing with brown

The lonely Chorton (or Stupa), among the many we saw

Green fields at Yurutse

Friday, September 26, 2008

On the Markha Valley Trail: A Smiling Guide, Four Horses and a Sprightly Donkey Later

"The person who wrote these notes passed away the moment his feet touched the Argentine soil. The person who reorganizes and polishes them, me, is no longer, at least I am not the person I once was. All those wandering around "Our America with a capital A" has changed me more that I Thought". ~ 'Che' Guevara, Motorcycle Diaries

(As written on 18th August)

Finally, today we are embarking on our Markha valley trek. I know I sound like we have been waiting ages for the trek to begin, though it has only been three days. I guess I have been a little worried that we may not get to do it at all.

We began by getting the band together – the horseman, guide, and we were surprised to find a cook thrown in to the mix as well. The ‘preparatory activities’ at some level came as a shock – it seemed like we were taking way too many things contrary my intention of taking as less as possible and going basic. The sight of loading these animals with kerosene cans, stoves and tent equipment wasn’t the prettiest. They are the beasts of burden, but some looked so ill-fed and unkempt that we were worried about some animal activists locking us in. At some level, we began to wonder if this was the best way to have gone about it. We ended up with 4 horses and yes one sprightly donkey. The donkey, despite the weight on it's back, was jumping around like a scatter-brain scared out of its wits. Quite cute really.

I was unsure if Markha would do justice to the beauty that Ladakh had to offer. The first hour put to rest all these doubts. After walking through a short green patch, we emerged on to a desert like flat land. This stretch ran along small towns like Phey and Phyang on side and was bordered by rambling mountais on the other, capped by azure skies on the top. This stretch extened for like an hour before we landed on to the narrow trail cutting across the mountain slopes.

As we set off

A group of horses in the distance

The stark mountains intermingled with vast patches of desert like sand sweeping the slopes, the wonderful play of brown, the numerous shades and shapes. The Sind gave us company for the initial part of the route – it is surprising, but I would have never imagined that a brown river could look so beautiful and so right at home.

Veins cut into the mountains

Rafters on the Sind

We crossed a french couple with whom we got chatty. J was upset they had more donkeys in his group than horses (:)). Yes, it is always nice to have mighty beasts to spruce travel tales. It was nice chatting up with them - and the first of interesting people we met on the trail. J also had ridiculously long number of vacation days, which we faithfully felt jealous of! Not only that, his job allowed him to travel crazy - he was off to Burkina Faso after Ladakh!

Our stop for the day was Jingchen. But having reached Jingchen at an early hour of 3 in the afternoon, we wanted to plough ahead to our next stop 4 hours away. Our cook had already set up camp and refused to budge. He seemed to think he was the boss of the group and well, we didn't really know how to impress otherwise. I was now regretting leaving behind my reading companion in an effort of travelling light. But as you can see, I have put these free hours to good use – thoughts have never before flown the way they do today - fresh from the experience and free of after thoughts and hind sights.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Through Coffee and Chaos, We Made History

In a matter of days, my world has been turned 360 degrees several times around and if possible upside down as well. It would be unreal and unnatural and just, well, unreal for me to carry on with my Ladakh trip accounts, without making a note of these events – which have left their mark on not just my life but I would think world financial history as well. Hell, for all you know, I could be a part of a HBR case study – alright, may be the part that gets lost between the lines, but definitely a part. So, in the duty of dutifully recording the most important events in my life, here I go.

You may be aware (honestly, I wouldn't blame you if you weren't), we just witnessed what could be THE financial crisis of "our time". Yes, I hear people are talking about this debacle in the same breath as 9/11. (:) (I know I joke, but it is not every day that you are a part of something this big, even if it is big in a screwed up kind of way!) And I have been a spectator, but a spectator from the inside simply from the virtue of being employed in one of these firms. The recent demise of my firm however has of course drawn me from the audience right into the battle field.

It all started two weeks ago when we saw our public standing see a rapid descent in a matter of days. While the gods convened, we, the lesser mortals remained glued to our screens tracking the minutest flickers in the pulse of our survival, and the craziest of speculations, all the while wondering, and actually joking about our future. Time was filled with rounds of coffees, meetings and discussions. By Friday, we knew. From “business as usual”, we had progressed on to “business no more”. I find myself, once again, seeking refuge under the word “unreal” to describe the mood, but unreal it was.

September 15th, Monday. That morning brought a whole dose of reality. Hearing “I am sorry” from my boss was not the best wake up call I have had in years. We were left to the only other choice available – to break ourselves into parts and put each up for sale. The days that followed have been the most surreal of all – clearing and saving the remnants of our past. Coffee and discussions continuing ....

Just as each passing day has brought new developments, it has also brought about a change in our attitude and standing. We have been disappointed by what we believed in. For all the one firm philosophy that was brandished, it was the each man for his own attitude that survived. The bright spots have been the support and concern extended by the people we work with and friends.

As for me, I still wait. Out of pure inertia and nothing more. (And of course the absence of enticing job offers at the moment - and not for the lack of trying!) This definitely puts a spoke into my 2-year plan (or rather at least 2-year plan). However, all is not over - not yet. And of course, I continue to worry that I have still not had the opportunity to brandish my photos from Ladakh...

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Towering Into The Clouds

I know, I know! For someone who just came back from Ladakh, instead of flooding my blogs with pictures, I've been dousing it with words. My laptop has crashed sadly - with no signs of revival in the near horizon. Unless of course the random laptop repair guy I called today proves to be a jem! What you see below is one of the first photos I uploaded - consider it a preview for the full show!

The mountains outside of Leh

Saturday, September 06, 2008

The Familiarity of Leh

(As written at the Airport, waiting for the flight to Mumbai)

Two weeks of crisscrossing with this city at various instants to acclimatize, just rest between journeys, search for travel agents, trip deals and drivers, trying out its various German bakeries, walking down its sinuous gully-ways. By the time we left this place, Leh almost had the familiarity of a city lived in.

One day as we were walking out of Zar-la, our residence in Leh, we noticed a small board which said ‘shortcut to market’. It was a narrow gully leading to the market crossing fields, other houses and gutters. Though we later conceded, that these were really not “shortcuts”, but nevertheless fun exploring them. On our first visit to the Shanthi Stupa, we were once again guided to a narrow gullyway, which on the way back we truly lost. But we still managed to figure our way back.

Leh's Gullies

There was the scarf shop man, who would wave every time I walked past his shop and invite us in over for chai. The day we came back from our trek, we were out hunting for a deal to go to Nubra and Pangong. And we turned around to ask a taxi driver for some directions and there was our Jumma ji. Jumma was the driver who took us for our first couple of road trips. We had had a great time on those trips. His favorite question used to be “trek jaake kya karoge – mein aapko nubrak leke jaathi hoon, whana bahuth kuch hai” (what will you do going on a trek, I’ll take you to Nubra). It was fun listening to his description of tourist, the place and little titbits we gleaned about his life. The first thing he told us when we ran into him was that 'Aapka rishtedaar bi nahi pehachanega' (even your relatives are not going to recognize you now!). It was like running into an old friend.

Then there was the Mero travel agent, another person we kept running into after the trek. He didn’t think we'd make it beyond the second day of the trek (a thought that might have echoed through us to at some point on the trek). And then we'd stand there reminiscing about our trek or he'd tell us some of his experience. And of course, there always seemed to be some of our fellow travellers whom we kept running into. We got to know a few quite well; With others it was just a quick wave.

Yes - I'd say the familiarity we developed and meeting new people was one of the best things about Leh and this vacation.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Last Day, Lasting Thoughts at Leh

(As captured on 30th August, our last day at Leh)

Today is our last day in Ladakh and Leh. We are sitting at Penguin – a café we seemed to have frequented the most. There is lovely music playing in the background – what seems like South Indian classical fusion, though the café manager claims it to be Nepali. Quite a change from the Buddha beats which seemed to be their favorite.

Yesterday, on the way back from Pangong Tso, I was panicking. Pangong was our last trip in Ladakh, and right towards the end as we were returning back Leh, I was driven by this sudden urge to photo-shoot like a mad woman. Had I clicked every single moment, recorded every memory? My friend, M, sitting opposite to me refuses to even listen to my already beginning ‘post vacation’ cribs. She doesn’t want to talk or even think about the Monday morning that’s up ahead of us, not until she absolutely has to.

I have heard of people saying that their vacation was a total break from reality – and this one was truly like that. Maybe it was the length of the trip – fifteen days seems to have been enough for us to completely break from all things familiar. Or maybe it was fifteen days with nearly no cell connection, no TV, no news (for some of reason, none of us even really thought of picking up the paper even while in Leh), barely any connection to the world we left behind except for quick calls home assuring family that we were indeed alive. Or maybe it was simply Ladakh - long hours spent hiking, or driving and just soaking in the beauty of these mighty ranges, the nights spent lost in one of the best night skies we have ever seen.

The iPhone 3G has been launched in India, Bihar has seen a flood, J&K is worse off, Salman and Shah Rukh seemed to have made up, and Air Deccan is no longer Air Deccan. A lot has happened.

The hope for today is to laze around at Leh Café. Maybe chew on a book. And maybe search for stoles and jewelry to break the monotony of lazing around. A one last visit to the Shanti Stupa for a view of Leh sprawled below and the unreality of the mountains would be a perfect ending. A day of endless possibilities...

PS: Yes, we made it to Shanthi Stupa for one last time after all...

PS 2: Did I already mention it? It was glorious 15 days! And reality hurts!

Lying down on the terrace of Shanthi Stupa on our first visit

The lay of Leh beneath us