Day 6, September 4, 2014
Alchi to Leh (90km, 4 hrs)
Another rainy morning. The clouds and the incessant rain were getting a bit depressing. I stepped out thinking maybe I could walk around the village and the monastery before breakfast only to find Anand, the enthusiast photographer, sitting in the veranda looking a bit disappointed. His mood affected mine and I turned right back in. I did regret this later when I found out that Alchi is bidding for a spot on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list! But, honestly, there really was not much we could have done in that rain.
We showered, dressed, and packed up, and walked over to the dining room. The morning light revealed many laden apricot trees on the plot. Inside, a nice breakfast awaited us. The fruits at the table, papaya and watermelon (!), brought joy to many, and we all had many helpings. There were eggs-to-order, toast, and paranthas. The tea was good and I had many rounds as the rest joined us, one by one, at the table.
There wasn’t much point to hanging around in Alchi in the rain and it was decided that we should all get to Leh and have a free-wheeling afternoon with each to their own. The Pathfinders were going to be at the back with the Scorpio’s suspension-bolt still needing replacement. We rolled out as a convoy but after overtaking each other a few times we weren’t really sure who was behind whom. We sped up a little to catch-up but eventually lost radio-contact with the rest. The plan had been to meet up at the Sangam (confluence) of Indus and Zanskar but we didn’t find anyone around. We must be lagging far behind, we thought. The phone-GPS made us feel less lost. Not that you can get lost; there is but one way to Leh! We continued the drive down the road that was surprisingly straight for a very long stretch. We made the stops (sangam, Magnetic Hill) but hurriedly. At Gurudwara Pathar Sahib we finally caught up with the gang as we were about to drive off. It so turned out, we had been in the lead!
Some decided to partake the langar at the gurudwara. Despite the lure of langar-food the two of us were loathe to remove shoes again and go back in, and decided to join those who were planning to lunch in Leh. Momos perhaps (actually, mok mok in Ladakhi), I hoped.
We arrived in Leh around 1 O’clock and made straight for down-town to lunch at the Penguin Cafe, apparently a well-known spot much frequented by foreigners. Sadly, for me, there was no Ladakhi food on offer. It came highly recommended; how bad could it be? The menu was really diverse and hinted at the possible nationalities of the frequenting customers. We sat around a large table in the garden cafe, under more apricot trees. Vijay and Anand ordered pizzas, Bharat ordered schnitzel, Bhavna a pasta dish, while I hesitatingly asked if the French Onion Soup would take a lot of time. I thought I might at least order something that otherwise takes much effort at home. The waiter assured me they had a quick way with the preparation of the onions, and I was not to worry about the zap-in-the-oven-with-cheese part either. To be safe, I also ordered mashed potatoes with sauteed vegetables and batter-fried yak cheese. The rest of the gang was further down and I didn’t catch their orders – there might have been some chicken curry + nan orders further down.
The pizza was alright. “What about the French Onion Soup,” you may well ask. It was some cornstarch-thickened vegetable broth, in the manner of Chinjabi-style soups, topped with crisp-fried onions! There was nothing French-Oniony about it. The mash was prepared with potatoes that had been boiled much earlier in the day and then mashed into an almost gritty mush with no flavour from any butter or cream or milk or salt. The only thing good about the meal was my ginger-honey-lemon tea and the pieces of yak-cheese pakoras. Those poor expats must be really starving for home-food to visit this place at all!
After lunch, we walked back to the parked cars and checked into the hotel. By the time we had all dumped our stuff into our rooms (we got a nice suite with great views!), it was late afternoon. The young ‘uns decided to hire motorcycles for the afternoon and visit nearby monasteries while Vijay and I decided to catch the famous Leh Palace. Bhavna planned to shop around a little while Abhey was at the workshop for car-repairs.
After a little bit of asking around we made our way through the narrow city streets of the part of town that lead to the Leh Palace. The 17 Century palace, built in adobe, stands an impressive nine storeys and overlooks the city. We spent some time walking up the many levels and took in the panoramic views of the Zanskar range.
I wanted to walk around the market but Vijay was not too keen. He napped in the car as I explored the market street, my foodie-senses alert. Friendly shopkeepers indulged me as I pointed to merchandise on display. First, I bought some fresh apricots from the lady by the curbside-shop where we were parked. She continued with her spinning as she chatted with me. She asked me where I was from and where we were traveling to. I asked her about the sack of dried white stuff by her side. She told me it was churphey, a slightly stinky, dried cheese made from dri-milk (a female Yak is a Dri!). She told me I could use it in thukpa, the Ladakhi-style soups. We chatted some more before I moved on. I crossed the road to explore the shops on the other side. I stepped into a shop with all kinds of silks and fabrics with beautifully embroidered motifs. The store was a treasure trove of all the knickknacks needed for Ladakhi Buddhist rituals – there were lamps and incense, and many such things. My eyes were drawn to what looked like cellophane noodles. The shopkeeper informed me it was phing, a type of noodle made from urad-dal starch. A web-search tells me that phing, also known as glass-noodles, are made from mung-bean starch, but that is not what the shopkeeper in Leh said. He was also nice enough to write down the name for the noodles as also for the cheese I had bought earlier, on a piece of paper. I was having a hard time remembering the unfamiliar names.
I ventured into an inner lane and discovered a shop that had sacks and sacks of dry fruits (walnuts and dried apricots), dried cheeses, beans, and apricot oil. I tasted from the sacks and bought a few kilos of walnuts and apricots, and some churphey. With my arms loaded, I walked back to the car. Vijay has a thing for dry fruits. He checked what I had bought and promptly sent me back for more! I agreed they would make good gifts for the family. I returned with more. I showed the packet of phing to the friendly lady. She smiled and said, “Ah, you bought phing!”. I asked her for a recipe and she said I could cook it with potatoes or any other vegetable, with a bit of turmeric and garam masala. Yes, that is the masala she usually uses! “Eat it with rice or roti, whatever you like!” 😀 Doesn’t sound very ‘traditional’ now, does it?
On our way back we spotted Bhavna, Abhey, and Anand in the market and decided to get some coffee before heading to the hotel. As luck would have it, all the cafes had shut for the day. We found the main street dug up with some renewal work underway. We walked around and found information boards illustrating the proposed urban design interventions. Downtown Leh was slated for a makeover.
We found a shop selling hand-knits that was still open and Bhavna helped me pick out a couple of woolen hats. I was pleased with all my shopping this evening as we walked back to the cars.
We had barely sat in the car when we saw the shopkeeper running towards us waving his hands. I had left my brand-new Mi3 at his shop! If he hadn’t spotted it in time and rushed out…we were leaving too early in the morning for the shop to be open. I thanked him profusely and he just smiled. I had so many panorama-shots on it!
Back at the hotel, no one was in any hurry to retire. The hotel-owner, Mr Namgyal, arranged a space on the top floor for all of us to hang out in. I had taken a peek at the dinner buffet downstairs and it looked simple but inviting, even though without any local dishes. Looking at our delicate stomachs, Bhavna had requested khichdi for us. I had that as also the ‘normal-looking’ mixed vegetables. With that I called it quits at around 11:00 while Vijay and the others sat talking into the wee hours.
Day 7, September 5, 2014
Leh to Hundar (300km, 9 hrs)
I sat for a long time with my morning tea by the corner window in the room looking out at the tall poplars just outside and the mountains beyond. All was quiet around me.
We had a long ride ahead of us though not as long as planned initially. The beautiful Pangong Tso would have to wait another trip. The cloudy skies meant we wouldn’t be seeing any mountain-tops against blue skies even. Breakfast was the usual and followed the usual pattern, and we rolled out of the hotel parking a little after 9:00 am. We were still driving without a front number plate but none of the shops were open yet. We had a mechanic give the car a look-over. He tied up the plastic engine-guard of our car that was hanging loose after taking a few hits from driving on boulder-strewn roads. Everything else looked fine. The SX4 was taking all that the mountains were throwing at her in her stride. While Anand was looking for a cheap phone to replace the one that had died on him, I took the opportunity to step out and see if I could land some quince. We were two weeks too early; it was not quite quince season yet.
By 10:30 am we were on our way, headed to the Nubra Valley. We would be crossing Khardungla soon. The winding roads brought us up higher and higher and soon we were in the clouds. The temperature outside was 6 degrees C and visibility was dropping steadily. Our speed was reduced to a crawl at under 20 kmph with zero visibility. And, there they were, the cyclists on the road by the side. I tipped a virtual hat to their spirit and enthusiasm.
Despite the clouds the views, as we climbed, were spectacular. The weather system had brought fresh snow and the mountains looked incredibly beautiful. At 18,280 feet above mean sea level, Khardungla top is among the highest motorable roads of the world.
Our camp for tonight, a little past the Nubra Sand dunes, was another 90km away. We persevered and were on the lookout for a spot for our long-awaited cookout, the rain and wind not withstanding. We halted where the valley widened a little. The plan was to create a sheltered space under the stretched tarpaulin surrounded by the cars. It needed a lot of resolve to not give in. Just across the road from where we were trying very hard to keep out the wind and rain stood an abandoned house. Eventually, the cook-“out” happened there. Bhavna got some soup going as Ravi cooked Maggi; you can’t be in Ladakh and not cook Maggi. Abhishek and I prepared aloo-tamatar with which I passed around some local breads I had purchased earlier in Srinagar. Finally, we had that first cookout out of the way.
By seven in the evening we were at the Nature’s Nest Camp in Hundar, the tents nestled in an apricot orchard. We had swapped it for the camp at the gorgeous Pangong Tso. The weather had claimed another scenic spot from our itinerary.