Getting Leh’d

So here’s the thing about Leh; it’s remote as fuck. Seriously. There was no Internet for three days when we rocked up and the town often loses connectivity. Apparently they have one line that comes in from Srinagar and if the weather is bad and the line goes down, boom, no Internet, and the only SIM cards that work here are ones bought in Kashmir or Ladakh. It’s all to do with security on account of the proximity to Pakistan and the dispute between the two countries over Kashmir. The government likes to keep a very close eye on all communication up here, and you’re very strongly advised not to give your SIM card to anyone when you leave India in case it’s used for terrorist purposes, and you have to jump through bastard hoops just to get one in the first place. Even then, if you’re foreign, your card will only last three months before it deactivates. So there’s that, and if it rains at all then you basically can’t get in our out of town. Roads are blocked by landslides, the airport closes because mud spills onto the runway and nothing can take off or land. Flights are frequently cancelled due to poor weather, even in summer, and I had a flight booked to Delhi before my flight back to the UK. I gave myself a week’s buffer, y’know just in case.

That’s some epic looking rain over yonder that I would much rather not be hiking in.

There’s quite a bit to see and do in Ladakh and aside from that little jaunt up to K-Top and back I did exactly fuck all of it. Lot of reasons really. It was the end of my trip, I was running out of money anyway, but the main thing was,I didn’t want to get stuck behind a landslide. I would have loved to have visited Nubra Valley and Pangong Tso, but what if I went there and it rained and I couldn’t get back? I worry. I worry a lot. I worry a lot about everything all the time. The inside of my head is a very stressful place to reside. So I decided not to do any of these things because they’d been having unseasonally bad weather recently. Even the relatively safe bet, the Markha Valley trek, even that had washed out bridges and it was up in the air as to how accessible it was right now so I gave that a miss too as Austin and Jess went off to have a bash at it. It’s doable with or without a guide and they went without of course, whilst I stayed in Leh and gave that my best shot.

Ancient palace. Their words, not mine.

Leh.

You can spend a lot of time wandering around Leh on account of there being very little to distract you by way of Internet. Old Leh is pretty cool with lots of little shops and stupas to put in your eyeholes. I walked up to the palace which is in pretty good nick for a stone and mud building started in 1553, but mainly it’s good for these epic views over the town. Seriously, it’s worth the lung ache, and you could see the pissing rain over yonder, the dark clouds and the kind of torrential downpour which looks incredible from a distance but is probably several types of misery if you got caught in it. If you feel like it you can carry on walking up all the way to Tsemo Fort and I stood at the bottom looking up, eyeing the trail. Yeeaahhh… nah. I briefly considered it then decided against it loudly blaming the altitude to anyone who would listen. You can also check out a little gompa by the palace which has the usual wall full of little boxes containing scripture, and a statue of a deity with loads of arms and heads called Sitatapatra. I think she’s different to the deity with all the limbs and heads we learned about in Mcleod Ganj though. Buddhism is complicated. I did lots of wandering around Leh during half arsed attempts to find a better place to stay, but they’d given me an alright deal on the room at Ti-Sei after Jess had headed off.

Inside the gompa by the palace and no, I can’t explain the creepy fake deer head.

Well, I say an alright deal, it would have been better if the roof didn’t leak. The rain had reached the town and it was relentless. I was woken up by the noise of it belting down onto the roof, but rain isn’t too much of an unpleasant noise to wake up to if the most important thing you have to do the following day is consume breakfast and locate something good to read. I lay there, drifting in and out of sleep, then suddenly I felt it dribbling onto my head. Cold water, stained brown from its journey through the roof, dripping onto my face.

Drip.

Drip.

Drip.

Fuck’s sake. I engaged enough basic motor functions to drag myself to the other side of the bed. The water rhythmically hit the linen. I sighed, debated the pros and cons of ignoring it then figured I should probably just get up and get a fucking bucket to put underneath the leak. Not that it was the only leak, I noticed as I got up that the floor was getting a good soaking too but I was less bothered about that, I just didn’t want to sleep in a pond. The next day when I ventured out it was apparent that the whole building leaked, the carpet at the top of the stairs contained so much water that I wondered if I’d come back to a family of frogs later on. Well I figured there were two things to do in Leh when the weather was bad. One was white water rafting, not that my extremities would agree that bouncing along a freezing cold river in the rain could be described as any manner of fun. Turned out the local government had pissed on that parade and banned all rafting on account of the rivers running too deep and too fast and it’d be far too dangerous. Ah the government have no fucking sense of adventure. I thought of Jess and Austin and their Markha Valley trek and getting over rivers with no bridges. Oh bugger, I hoped they hadn’t been washed away.

Thiksey gompa.

I see this a lot in gompas. The seven bowls of water I now know respresent the seven steps Buddha took when he was born. I still don’t know why people leave things like the juice and the treats though.

Option two was sitting in various cafes and drinking enough tea to give my bladder a nervous breakdown. I’d found a cafe that sold books for cheap and if you took finished books back they’d do you a discount on the next book you bought, and yes, I really do read that quickly. My favourite cafe though was a little place around the corner from the guesthouse called Bon Appetite, not to be confused with the larger, high end restaurant I also visited a couple of times called Bon Appetit, not that you could confuse them unless you were blind and had no tastebuds or concept of money. I loved them both. The latter sold delicious Italian food to standards you’d expect back home, and the former, the one I went to every day, was more of an omelette and toast kinda place with a German bakery selling less than fresh stuff that kinda sucked all the moisture from your mouth. There are lots of German bakeries in Leh. I have no idea why. I don’t even associate Germany with particularly spectacular baked goods, I think of Germany and I think of bratwurst, if I was to pick a European country to steal bread related ideas from I’d probably plump for France. But anyway. There was a small group of us that somehow ended up hanging out here for breakfast most days and myself and one of these chicks decided to rent a couple of scooters and go on a little ride to Thiksay Monastery.

Thiksay Gompa.

There were shit loads of these crumbling white stupas at a little place called Shey. I’ve no idea why they’re there.

Originally I had no intention of renting a scooter ever again, certainly not since I nearly rode into a shop in Goa on the back of a fucking hairdryer. But this time I wouldn’t have a passenger and I really, really wanted to look at this gompa so we grabbed a couple of little buzzy two wheelers from Changspa Road and off we went. Well it’s much easier without a passenger then, this was actually quite enjoyable. As we cruised down the highway to get out of Leh, someone in a car was reversing up the stupidly busy main road. I leant on my horn like a proper Indian road user but here’s the difference; when a local leans on their horn they’re simply saying, “Hey, so I know you’ve very busy reversing up the highway and everything but I just wanted to let you know that I’m here and about to overtake you and please don’t run into me.” When I use my horn I’m saying, “What that actual fucking fuck are you reversing up the fucking highway for you absolute fuckwank??” But it was worth the near-terror of riding on Indian roads. After stopping at a couple of other cool looking places we finally got to the gompa and it is awesome.

The top part of Maitreya Buddha, because it’s too bloody huge to fit the whole thing in one photo. The Dalai Lama is apparently particularly fond of it.

You can buy a little booklet which guides you around the various rooms and temples. From what I can gather the current rinpoche, the head lama, is the reincarnation of the first Thiksay Rinpoche. All of them have been reincarnations of the first who founded the monastery in 1430, the current is the 9th. Relics of past rinpoches are kept in stupas in the monastery. There’s a whole room dedicated to a goddess called Tara who has twenty-one images, ergo the whole room is needed to display her twenty-one statues. Then there’s the Maitreya Buddha statue. It’s an epic one, it’s so big it spans two floors. Even the Dalai Lama himself is well impressed with it, it’s basically his favourite Maitreya, or future, Buddha. As we wandered from room to temple to room we entered the main prayer hall where four monks were creating a mandala from sand. Oh my god, it was incredible. I sat next to a monk who was watching them and asked him if I could take photos and he said of course, as long as I don’t use the flash. That’s a deal then, buddy. He told me it would take up to four days for them to make a mandala this size, then they would meditate over it, then they would destroy it. I’m not even shitting you, four days painstakingly trickling sand into intricate patterns using a hollow metal funnel called a chagpur, then once they’ve done their prayer they wreck it to “illustrate the impermanence of all things.” I’d be well pissed off. I’d probably steal them and hoard them, I’d end up with enough coloured sand hidden in a shed somewhere to make the world’s largest psychedelic beach.

Some of the many statues in the Tara Room.

Honestly, I resent food that takes me longer to make than it does to eat. Spending four days making this just to destroy it would infuriate me.

We’d intended to do a loop back to Leh taking in another couple of sights along the way, but just past the monastery the road looked pretty washed out. There was a lot of traffic slowly trying to get both ways and as we waited our turn people travelling the other way in cars warned us that it would be dangerous on scooters, the water was deep and there was a lot of mud. As we debated our options a bloke on a motorcycle slipped sideways and hit the floor. Riiiiight! Fuck this shit, we’ll go back the way we came thankyouverymuch. I swung by the stupa overlooking the town on the way back for a little look and a nice cup of tea. That’s worth a visit too. You can either walk up to it from Changspa Road if your lungs weren’t on strike already, or just wait until you’ve got the use of something with an engine. Okay, so there was one more thing I wanted to do whilst I was here and the weather wasn’t trying to drown me. Climbing. I like to boulder back home but it’s inside at a nice little climbing centre that has a cafe with tea and cake. I’d tried bouldering outdoors at Hampi and I think I managed to leave half the skin on my hands there, and I found it utterly terrifying on account of the fact If I fell I’d have to aim for a tiny little mat or I’d find out the hard way how much granite hurt when it makes rapid contact with the human body.

Views from the Shanti Stupa. There are even placards telling you what you’re looking at.

The Shanti Stupa.

This was climbing with ropes though. Much easier, right? Yeah? Right? Ha! There was me and two Swiss brothers around eight and ten years old. They were proper climbers though, I mostly watched them do all that scary lead climbing thing where you hook your own rope in as you go. Yeah that wasn’t going to happen with me, I wanted my rope already there and properly secured and I also wanted a ladder and I wanted the bloke belaying me to stop looking at his fucking phone. I’m not even shitting you, half the time I looked down he was reading a text or Facebook or something, basically he wasn’t watching anything I was doing. I believe these were meant to be easy climbs. I guess they must have been, because whilst I spent most of my climbs frozen to the wall in abject terror the Swiss boys climbed up beside me, ropeless, to show me where I needed to put my hands and feet. I decided that I did not enjoy climbing outside. The end. And not only because of the lack of tea and cake. Leh is easier on the hands than Hampi but I didn’t think my toes would ever forgive me for cramming them into those climbing shoes.

I mean, where the fuck do I put my hands? There’s literally nowhere to grip onto. I’m not a fucking gecko.

At this point all I wanted was a nice, stable ladder. But at least the fucker was actually watching what I was doing whilst I was abseiling back down.

Of course I need to come back to north India. I think Ladakh alone would be worth a three month visa and I didn’t even set foot in Kashmir which I’ve heard is an incredible place. I’d like to do everything I missed out on doing around here. I’d like to do a lot of trekking, I’d love to visit the places beyond K-Top, and what I really want to do is overcome The Fear that has developed over time of riding a motorcycle. I want to rent a Royal Enfield, and I want to explore the fuck out of north India.

Bonus photo: There was building work going on next door to my guest house which isn’t as disruptive as it sounds. I spent ages watching this bloke handmake bricks one by one. Which in hindsight was a little bit stalky.

Leh, Ladakh, India
Altitude: 3500 metres
Stayed at: Tisei Guesthouse

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