Friday, January 26, 2018

A Mountain Pass And a Couple of Avalanches.

Original Post Date: June 30, 2017.

Back at Nyamgal Guesthouse, we said our goodbye's to Tsering and wished her much success in finishing up with her college degree.  We then rushed back to our rooms and quickly repacked our back packs.  Of course, Chantale....with all her gear, had the most stuff to pack up but in no time, we were ready to hit the road with Dorje.

The group of Indian men, staying in the other wing of the guesthouse were also leaving.  They are friends who apparently do a motorbike road trip every year.  How fun is that?  We would later pass them on the road as they were also making their way towards Leh.

It was time to say goodbye to the Nubra Valley on yet another dreary day.  It's still morning so the clouds were still hanging low.

Only every now and again would I get a glimpse of a snowcapped peak.  For now, I can only imagine how spectacular this scenery would be on a bright sunny day.

As we drove along, we got higher in elevation and the valley below got smaller and smaller in view.  We were slowly beginning our ascent up the mountain.

I had taken so many photos of the landscape that by now I just decided to really enjoy the ride so I put down my camera and didn't pick it up again until we passed through a small village.  Oddly, I didn't recognize it though I am sure we drove through here two days ago.  In any case, this was our lunch break spot - at the Happy Restaurant in the village of Kharzong.

Many of the small eateries that dot the road between Leh and the Nubra Valley are essentially pop-ups which only exist during tourist season.  It makes sense because the rest of the year, the road is closed so there is little to no business to be done.  As a result, most of the places we ate our lunches at were tented establishments.  Truly, nothing to write home about.  Even the food is nothing to write home about - just carbs to fill the stomach.

Inside the tent were a few small tables and towards the rear, the kitchen.  As you can see, it's not much in terms of equipment - there were three burners and that was it.  There is no electricity so the stove is propane operated.  There is no running water either so water is brought in using the big plastic containers.

But....there were lots of noodles and a few momos left by the time we arrived which was around 12:30p.

I don't think Dorje had breakfast so he was definitely hungry!

This was my lunch.  Veg ramen soup.  I added the chilis.

For Dorje, it was just a plain bowl of ramen.  He lives near Leh so I am sure he will make up the paltry meals he's been having on this trip with a home cooked meal that will be way more satisfying!  He's a very shy guy but he has a very gentle disposition about him and a beautiful pair of hazel green eyes.

When you travel through these remote parts of Ladakh, it's not like there are a lot of eating places to choose from so it's common to run into fellow tourists.  So far, we've not encountered any non-Indian tourists. I think for most Western tourists, especially the less intrepid ones, they will just hang around Leh.  This super friendly and slightly rowdy group of young Indian travelers arrived after we did and to no surprise, wanted a picture with us. 

So we volunteered Chantale who has more than gladly obliged on all requests.  She's in the middle of the picture.  I smiled when I took this group shot - their effervescent joy was infectious!

As all the commotion was taking place around the selfie, a young boy sat at a table, focused solely on his big plate of ramen.  You can't see much of his face but I swear he could've passed as Dorje's son....a mini version of Dorje but without the beautiful hazel green eyes.

For our trip in India, Ayşe agreed to be the banker. Basically, she oversees the kitty so she handles all payments except for personal purchases like souvenirs.  When money gets low, we all add to the kitty.  So much easier to travel this way than to constantly have to figure out who owes what.  In India, the meals  have been so cheap it's not worth trying to divide up the bill.

Back on the road, it was more of that stunning scenery but everything was shrouded in clouds.  As we neared the mountain pass, I just hoped the road would still be open.  The weather here can be very unpredictable and the worse thing would be for us to be stuck up at a high elevation. I had taken Diamox in anticipation of the road trip but even so, I was almost certain I would suffer from a headache.  I just told myself to be distracted by conversation with my two friends.

The higher up we got, the more shrouded in clouds we got.  In my mind, when the view out the window looks like the photo below, it's not a promising sight.  We're heading for snow.

The driving was not easy for Dorje.  Bad weather and road conditions or not, the road to Leh is a popular one so he definitely had to be very careful while he was behind the view.

I swear it happened in an instant but I'm sure it wasn't.  One minute it was mountains with a smattering of snow. Next thing you know, there was so much snow of the ground, you could barely make out the mountains!

Luckily, because so many vehicles had been here, the road itself was not snow covered....a lot of slush though.

In some ways, it was nice to see Ladakh covered in snow.  It's beautiful and I can pretend this is what it looks like in winter but with a whole lot less snow!

The closer we got to the Khardung La Pass, the heavier the snow was falling.  At one point, it was traveling through a blizzard.  All traffic came to a dead stop.  This was the thing I was dreading.  We have warm clothing on but it would be a challenge to make it through the night.  For the moment though, I didn't want to think about the negative so I switched my brain to positive thoughts!

We all got out of the car to stretch our legs and to try and figure what was happening with the traffic ahead of us.

As time passed, the snow fall got heavier and heavier.

Then we spotted the plow.  A small avalanche had occurred and the plow was needed to clear the road.  I presume the plow came from Khardung La and that on a weather condition day like today, it will be working various sections of the road as avalanches continue to create road blocks.  Wow!  I don't think any of us will ever forget this road trip!

Then, as if the snow plow was a sign from heaven, I swear as soon as it was done removing the snow from the road, the skies began to clear up.  There was a glimmer of sunshine in the far distance that had not been there just a few minutes earlier.

As we neared the snow plow, I rolled down my window and waved to the driver as we passed him by.  My way of recognizing and thanking him.

I could tell you the moment we arrived into Khardung La without having to see the sign.  How?  My altitude sickness headache immediately kicked in.  Sigh.  How I envy my two travel partners who do not suffer a lick of altitude sickness.  Now, I am just still still and being very quiet....okay, not very quiet but quiet as best as my hyper active self can be.  😁

Of course, by the time we arrived into Khardung La, so had all the cars ahead of us.  It was literally a traffic jam here and at times, everyone was just at complete stop.  Even Dorje decided it was better to just let the traffic thin out a bit before moving on.

With my head beginning to throb, I needed to distract myself from the pain so I got out of the car and took a few photos.  They should build a large visitors center here and charge an entrance fee.  People like me would be willing to pay just to escape the traffic.  Instead, I took way more photos than necessary of the prayer flags hanging down the mountainside.  I include all the shots so you can share in the pain of my headache.

I managed to get in a shot of Chantale. She does not mind posing for a photo and this one is a memorable one.  Taken at Khardung La, Ladakh, India on June 30, 2017.

I saw Chantale stalking some monks so I had to take this photo. I should ask her for the photo to post up.  I want to the image she captured.

Aside from my pounding headache, the one really, really bad thing about being stuck up at Khardung La were the exhaust fumes from all the vehicles.  It was especially bad when the behemoth Indian trucks rolled by.  I was not about to roll down the window so poor Chantale just had to put her face up against it.

Ayşe had also wandered off but kept us in eyesight at all times.  When she noticed the cars moving, she sprinted back to the car.  That turned out to be not a good idea because minutes later, after we had started moving again, both Chantale and I noticed that she had turned pale white.  She acknowledged she was feeling sick to her stomach and while she did not need to vomit, she was not in a good state.  Lesson.  When you are at high altitudes, even if you don't suffer from altitude sickness, you should not do anything to exert yourself because you can essentially bring on altitude sickness as your body is not able to replenish the oxygen to your system as quickly as it was exhausted from that activity.  Unfortunately, there was nothing we could do to alleviate her discomfort other than to get down, as quickly as we could, to a lower elevation.

But Mother Nature was not about to cooperate with us.  A short distance from Khardung La and we ran into another road block created by yet another avalanche.

Given the short distance that we were from Khardung La, I expected the snow plow to arrive fairly quickly but no.  Maybe it was somewhere else clearing off more snow.  By now, I think people were getting frustrated. A small group of men, including several monks started removing snow with their bare hands. 

I didn't that snow removal was going to be a fruitful effort given how much snow had slid down the mountainside but they were determined until they came to the same conclusion themselves.  We just all had to be patient and wait for the monk.  I was worried about Ayşe.  She had leaned back against seat with her eyes closed.  The pained look on her face told the story - she was definitely suffering. 

Then, we heard the sounds of a large vehicle approaching.  Fingers crossed it would be a snow plow to come and save us and yes, it was!  Hallelujah!

Back on the road. It was slow driving but the further we descended, the more of the snow we left behind us.

We would quickly enter the *No Avalanche* zone though that also meant entering the *Land of the Really Big Potholes* also known as the *Land of Streams Today Where None Existed Yesterday*. 😁

As we left the snow behind, we were greeted by bright blue skies!  Leh is nearby.  Poor Ayşe. All the jostling over bumpy, windy roads was not helping her at all.  I think she was actually worse by the minute.  Thankfully, we are at a lower elevation which should help her.  I most certainly was starting to feel better as my headache was beginning to subside.

The little patch of green, nestled in between all the really tall mountains was a welcome sight!  We're quickly approaching Leh; we're almost back to town.  We're spending the night at the Hotel Kidar.  It was nice to be *home*.  Tomorrow, we will begin yet another road trip with Dorje but for now, we could enjoy some time back in the city.  For Ayşe, it was straight to bed. She had barely spoken a word the entire trip from Khardung La to Leh and now all she wanted to do was get under the covers. Too sick to even eat.  For Chantale and I, we headed back to the Ladakh Cafe for a bite of their delicious roasted eggplant with hummus sandwich.  It also gave Chantale a chance to touch base with her parents.  Her father is still struggling to recover so her concern is understandable.  On the way back to the hotel, we popped into a local bakery that advertised that it specialized in German baked goods.  It all looked good and we bought a cookie bar to try add.  Sadly, looks were deceiving or perhaps this thing was just stale.  Not good.  In the defense of the bakery, Leh is situated at an elevation of (3500 meters) 11,500 feet which high enough that baking is a real challenge.  In any case, no more baked goods for us while we're in Leh.

Back in our room, we had time to shower and to deliver some dirty clothes to the front desk for laundry.  In exchange, we got some clean clothes back.

Stanzin and Tashi stopped by to check in on us.  They've been very attentive which has been very nice.  The original itinerary had us doing a two day mountain and village hike starting in Stok.  But, after our ride over Khardung La and the realization that the altitude was definitely going to be an issue for me and a potential one for the other two should they have to exert themselves, I had strong second thoughts.  So, I proposed to the gals that we cancel out on the hiking trip and instead, go to Pangong Tso.  I told them it was a beautiful lake and the largest in the region.  Without any questions, they agreed.  I was grateful for that.  Had they decided they wanted to do the hike, I was more than willing to have them go on their own and I would hang back in Leh - I have no problems keeping myself busy.

When I brought up our wish to scrap the hike and go to Pangong instead, I could see the look of disappointment on Stanzin's face.  I sincerely think that the landscape you hike through is spectacular and we are missing out on that.  But when I told them about what happened to Ayşe, they understood.  Tashi and Stanzin would relay the change in plans to Dorje but they also told us that we would have to find our own accommodations for the night.  I had no problem with doing that as long as Dorje either had an idea of where we could stay or at least help us find a place.  Of course, the guys indicated that would not be an issue.  Feeling much better about our new plan, Chantale and I bid the guys goodnight and headed back up to the room.  Ayşe was still tucked into bed.  We'll break the news to her tomorrow.  Hopefully, a good night's rest is all she needs to get well.  Fingers crossed.

I am looking forward to tomorrow and seeing a beautiful lake!

Goodnight from Leh!