Sunday, June 25, 2017

Greetings from Leh!


We're finally in Ladakh and for the past few hours, I have enjoyed some wonderful cool air and the girls are discovering a very different side of India.  I had told them to (virtually) close their eyes when they left Delhi and then to open them when we arrived into Leh.  They will feel like they traveled to another country....it's that different here.  I don't think they believed me at first but they do now!

Flash back to morning in Delhi.  We left the Red Fox Hotel bright and early in the morning.  Surprisingly, as I was getting us checked out, one of the hotel workers showed up with boxed breakfasts for us.  One look inside at the juice box, some muffin-y thing and an apple and I was good to say "no thank you".  Chantale didn't look all that interested either but she took a box and I took one for Ayşe as she was the last of the three of us to make it down to the lobby.

By the time we were ready to leave, our taxi had already arrived and was waiting for us.  It was a very short drive to the airport.  Security check begins where you would expect it to.....at the entrance.  The line for GoAir was open so we queued up and got our luggage checked in.  On to the next security line which is actually two lines - the usual one line for men, one line for women thing.  I was doing just fine until I got up to the female security officer and she asked to see my passport which was in my purse....that had been scanned separately.  Same thing happened to Chantale.  So we had to retrieve our bags, get our passports out, get back in line and then finally, clear security.

We got some seats in the waiting area but didn't stay there long.  I had itchy legs....didn't feel like sitting still.  There was not a whole lot of window shopping to be done so we opted to head up stairs to where it appeared the restaurants were located.  Since I had turned down the breakfast lunch box courtesy of the Red Fox, I was ready to buy me some brekkie.

View of the waiting area from the 2nd floor.



The most popular restaurant, by far, was the one selling South Indian food.  The line was a tad too long for me to want to wait.

2nd floor food court.

I eventually found a place that would whip up a simple masala omelette.  Chantale got a cup of coffee and we managed to find a table to sit at.  The place was surprisingly crowded.  This is a no announcement airport so we had to pay careful attention to time.  The departure gate was on the lower level and we headed down a bit early.....again, you never know about security here.

We queued up in line as we noticed others doing.  Yes, we were in the correct line!  Boarding was quick and efficient.  We took time out for a quick selfie....our first 😁


We took off on time and smoothly.  I had put Chantale in the window seat so she could take in the view.   At one point, I remember glancing over to her and noticing the mountain peaks.  I tapped her shoulder and told her to look.   Seconds later, she had her camera out and was taking photos.  She leaned back and I managed to take a couple as well. I don't know what range of mountains we were passing over but they were most certainly tall ones!



At one point, the pilot announced that we were passing over a lake.  I think it was Tso Moriri.  Whatever lake it is, it's a good size one and the water was a beautiful brilliant shade of blue.


It took a while for us to pass over the mountains but once they disappeared from view, the rest of our flight was (thankfully) a very uneventful one.   Stepping out of the plane into a picture perfect sunny day with just perfect temperatures and perfect humidity, I was happy as a clam.

Inside the terminal, we did have to fill in some arrival forms.  As we were waiting for our luggage to appear, Chantale turned to me and said, "hey, they're calling your name".  So I paused to listen and didn't hear anything.  A few seconds later, she said the same thing and again, I paused to listen and again nothing.  We turned our attention to our luggage and for a few minutes I was getting worried as one by one people were walking away with their suitcases til there were barely any left standing around the carousel.  Thankfully, my suitcase did make it!

We made our way outside and I told the girls to look for someone standing with a sign with my name on it.  Our 10 days in Ladakh was organized as a private tour and hotel transfer was part of the package.  The airport here is teeny, weeny so it takes barely 15 seconds to scan the crowd.  There was no one standing around with a plaque with my name on it.  I wandered a bit away from the entrance and still I spotted no one.  So, I decided to call my contact at the tour agency - his name is Stanzin.  Though the connection was not a good one, I did manage to speak with Stanzin.  Apparently, there was some mixup with who was coming to pick us up so he was going to quickly make alternative arrangements.  He instructed us to wait and so we did.

We stood in a corner of the airport and I was giddy with excitement to be here.   Ayşe was still trying to take in the fact at just how different this i.e., Ladakh, looked from the part of India that she had just left.  I told her the faces were going to be different and as the minutes, it's all beginning to sink in for her. 

I guess the three of us did stand out in the crowd.  At one point, an airport worker approached us and told us that a taxi would be arriving to pick us up. I had to make sure we were the right people being picked up so I simply asked, "Stanzin?"  He replied yes and nodded his head.  He walked off but not far - I think he wanted to keep an eye on us.  Later, Stanzin told us that this man was a friend of his and so Stanzin asked him to help us out.  It's a small world here.

Sure enough, a taxi pulled up.  It was a beat up, banged up car but hey, as long as it can take us to the hotel, I'm good with it.  With our suitcases piled inside the trunk, we piled ourselves inside the car and headed off.

One of more former tour mates told me I would love it in Ladakh, that it would remind me of Tibet and indeed it does.  The people, the houses, the landscape speaks more to Tibet than India but this is that part of India that shares history with Tibet.  After all, it is the country that is the home of the Dalai Lama who was exiled from Tibet.

Stanzin had booked us into a hotel called Hotel Kidar.  It's a small, family run place and the moment we stepped foot inside the front gate, I felt very comfortable here.  There's a very relaxed vibe.  One of the family members was carrying a baby for a walk around the garden.




Out front is a small garden with a table and some chairs for guests.  The other part of the garden is used as a vegetable garden.  It's a very sensible use of the land.   As soon as Ayşe saw the vegetable garden, she was happy as a pea in pod.  She loves nothing more than digging into the dirt and planting something.  Another family member, a woman, was working the garden and Ayşe was keen to offer help but it did not look like the woman was prepared to have a helper.  Another time.


The owner, named Jigmet, came out to meet us.  He had been expecting our arrival.  Check in was smooth and easy.  Our room was just one floor up; we had been assigned into a very large room with 2 queen size beds.  I think this is what you call a family suite.  In any case, it was plenty of space for all three of us to just spread out and that's what I like.   After just one night of being in two separate rooms, I think we all enjoyed being back together again.  We're family.

We had inquired about internet access and Jigmet informed us that because of construction work that was taking place in and around Leh, access was very unreliable.  He basically said there was none.  Through her contacts, Chantale had arranged to get a local SIM which was going to be dropped off later on today so we'll see how that goes.  I have a feeling, having been to remote destinations like this so many times before, that the SIM will have limited access as well.  As long as we can place a phone call when we need to, that will suffice.

Chantale with Jigmet.

After we got settled in, it was time to head out to explore Leh.  My first order of the day was to meet up with Stanzin.  I wanted to confirm our plans for the trip.  I had the address of Ju-Leh Adventures, the tour agency that Stanzin works at and a rough Google map of Leh that I downloaded to my cellphone so I don't need internet to access it.  


Hotel Kidar is located on a side street that is just about a 2 minute walk from the main road, Fort Road, that leads up to the center of the old city of Leh.  We're in a neighborhood filled with lots of small hotels.



At one point in the walk, I caught sight of a monastery.  I just looked this up - it's Shey Monastery.  I've put it on the list of places we must visit while we're in Leh.   I'll have to ask Stanzin about it.


The main road is dotted with travel agencies, souvenir stores and a few restaurants serving up meals to tourists.  The closer we got to town, the more commercial it got.  For a main road, Fort Road is pretty narrow.  There are no sidewalks and we had to be careful to not get run over by a speeding motorcycle or car. 


Store owners were often sitting out front of their establishments, shouting out what sounded like my name.  Of course, they were attempting to lure us inside in hopes we would buy something from them but no luck.

In any case Jigmet had debunked the mystery of why people were shouting out what sounded like my name.  When he explained it, the light bulb went off in my head.  What people are saying is "juleh" as in the name of Stanzin's company.  It's pronounced "joo-lay" and it's the universal Ladakhi greeting.  It's hello, goodbye, how are you....all wrapped up in one.  Chantale was more than happy to shout out juleh to anyone she crossed paths with.  It will ring in our heads forever - we will never forget this greeting!



Fort Road eventually forked into two branches.  According to my Google map, we had to take the left fork onto Zangsti Road.  That would take us closer to the building that Ju-Leh Adventures' office is located.  After a short distance, still walking up hill on a dusty road,  Zangsti Road dead ends at an intersection.  There, we spotted a nice cafe.  Well, it was time to treat ourselves so we popped in.  The sign read Ladakh Cafe but everyone seems to just call this place Leh Cafe.  In any case, it's a very small establishment that knows how to cater to foreign tourists.  We ordered up some hot drinks and pastries to share.  Foodwise, everything is made to order - there's a lot of focus on fresh, healthy foods with emphasis on vegetarian fare. 


We came for some simple food but in all honesty, what kept us here was that they had good WiFi!  Both Chantale and Ayşe were able to make phone calls to their respective families to check on things.  Chantale's father is still struggling in the hospital and I know her worries have been wearing on her.  At one point, her brother asked her to return home and she did think about it as I did ask her.  In the end, she decided to continue with the trip.  I hope it was the right decision.


While the two girls were talking to their family members, I was trying to reach Stanzin.  The connection wasn't all that great.  I knew his office was nearby and was hoping he could meet us at the cafe.  I hung up the phone not really knowing if he would come or not.  A short while later, a young man walks in and scans the room looking for someone.  I took a guess and just asked, "Stanzin?"  He smiled and nodded.  We shook hands.  After literally months of exchanging emails with this man, we finally meet.  My first impression is that he seems like a very nice man.  It's been a breeze working with him.

He immediately apologized for the mixup with the pickup at the airport.  We told him it was okay.  These things happen and in the end, we made it to the hotel....which Ayşe told him we very much liked.  So far, so good and you could see the relief on his face.  I told him we owed him the balance of our tour payment and he said that he would deal with that later.  I didn't realize until just a few minutes ago that "later" meant "later tonight.....at your hotel".  More about that later 😁

Chantale with Stanzin

Stanzin stayed with us til we finished our drinks and paid up.  We then followed him out the cafe and walked to the end of the block - maybe 30 steps.  He then pointed up to the second floor of a building called NAC Complex.  A banner with Ju-Leh Adventure imprinted on it was affixed to the facade.  That was his office.  Now we know where to go.



It turns out NAC complex is literally stone's throw from the main bazaar road.   We said  "see you later" and continued our exploration of Leh.  I already love this place.  Dusty, dirty but everywhere you turn, something interesting for the eyes to feast on.  I know Chantale is in street photography heaven!  I too enjoyed taking photos as we strolled along, taking in the sights and sounds of this old city.  Here are a few of the shots I took.







Along the main bazaar road, village women sell vegetables.  I was surprised at the variety of greens they have for sale.  This is very different from Tibet where vegetable equates to onion.



Looming over the old city is Leh Palace.  You can see it at the top right of the photo below.  This is also on my list of places to visit while we're in Leh.


I don't remember seeing all that many souvenir shops in Lhasa.  Perhaps I wasn't paying attention.  Leh is a different story.  Pretty much every other establishment is a souvenir shop and they all appear to be selling pretty much the same stuff.  I've got my share of Tibetan souvenirs so no shopping for me.







These villagers are so poor that I told the girls we should try and buy items from them.  Whatever we do purchase, we can donate to the kitchen at Hotel Kidar.



I ended up buying a small bag of mustard seeds from this man.  10 rupees....about 16 cents.  I have plenty of mustard seeds at home but I figure he could use the 10 rupees.


What's so pretty about Leh is that every which way you look, you see snow capped mountains. This is the end of June.  I can only imagine how cold and how much snow this place must get in the heart of winter.  Brrr......


In Leh, women sell veggies and the men sell the dried goods.


There are a lot of very interesting faces here. To me, they don't look wholly Tibetan or wholly Indian.  Sort of a unique mix perhaps.



I saw the juniper which is typically used for incense.  I had forgotten about the juniper.  I am not a fan of its pungent scent.  On my 2007 trip to Lhasa, there was a huge clay oven burning this stuff 24x7 just right outside my room.   There was no way to avoid the strong smell.  I was not a happy camper.


You can't be in a Tibetan place and not have yak cheese.  Another thing about Tibetan culture that I do not enjoy.  I'm sure this is a good buy at 350 rupees for a kilo!




Ayşe noticed one vendor selling dried, unsulphured apricots.  Not the prettiest looking of dried fruits as without the sulphur, the fruits look a little orangey brown.  But she wanted some, so she got a small newspaper bag's worth.  I am not a fan of dried fruit so she and Chantale can have them all to themselves.



Across from the row of men selling the dried goods were two butcher shops.  Ayşe was not about to go near them so as she waited while Chantale and I crossed the street to check them out.  Neither one of us is squeamish and we've seen plenty of fresh meat vendors in our lifetimes.


It looked to me like they were selling either lamb or goat.




Meeting back up with Ayşe, we continued our stroll down the main road.  Ignoring all the souvenir shops, I just focused on the more interesting stuff to see.  Well, at least I find it to be interesting.




We encountered our first set of prayer wheels which neither Chantale or Ayşe had ever seen before.  I explained the lettering on the wheels and how to spin them while walking which they both did.  I really appreciate having travel partners who don't just sit back and observe.  They are keen to participate as well.





We veered off the main road to a small side alley.  Here, the shops focused on selling every day goods - not tourist souvenirs.




Even nuns have to replenish clothing.  It looked like they were rummaging around through a pile of socks.  Hope they bargained for a good deal!



Our walk circled us back to the main road.  It was already 6:30p when we entered inside a local Tibetan restaurant.  After all these days of eating Indian food, I thought it was good time for the gals to try out some Tibetan specialties.  Momos and thukpa , anyone?



The restaurant backed up on to a park so we had a nice view of green space to look out on as we ate.  Out front, we had a view down Main Bazaar Road.  It's height of tourist season so the place is hopping though really not as crowded with foreign faces as I had expected.  Seems that the majority of visitors are Indians from the southern part of the subcontinent.  Can't blame them.  This is a great place to escape the heat from plus you get to experience a culture that's far different from your own.

Interestingly enough, we have crossed paths with Kashmiris here - Ladakh is just a small region within the larger Indian state of Kashmir and Jammu.  The Kashmiris, many of whom own and operate the souvenir shops, are firm to distinguish themselves from the Tibetan Ladakhis.  To start with, they rarely greet you with the word, "juleh", preferring to use "namaste".  The moment you hear namaste, you know you're looking at a Kashmiri.....although the fact that they don't look Tibetan is already give away of their cultural heritage.  They are also Muslims and not Buddhists.  I know there are cultural tensions in this region but so far in Leh, everyone seems to be behaving okay.  Let's hope it stays that way while we're here.


By this time, I had long stopped looking at the map.  We were just wandering around.  I figured that as long as we wandered in a downhill direction, we would eventually make it back to our hotel.




The sun was about to set and I did want to make it back before it got dark.  I'd rather not be walking on unfamiliar streets in the dark of night.  Might not be safe.




Our walk took us back to Fort Road.  From here, we knew exactly how to get back to Hotel Kidar. 


Of course, ever so friendly Chantale would get side tracked talking to someone or other. 😁  No doubt, she ended up with a few photos too!


We got sidetracked a second time when a market selling items that were supposedly made by Tibetan refugees, call our name.  No shopping for me or Ayşe but Chantale did buy a Tibetan prayer bowl for her daughter.  I think she was captivated by the way you could produce a sound by running the wooden pestle (?) along the edge of the bowl.  The woman who sold the bowl to her obviously had who knows how many hours of doing this so she was able to make the bowl *sing*.  Chantale and bowl?  No go.  It's a pretty bowl though.




Back at the hotel, a new group of guests had arrived.  Royal Enfields seem to the be the motorcycle of choice here.  I noticed quite a few on our walk through old city Leh.



Back at the hotel, we just relaxed.  I had forgotten what we were going to be doing tomorrow and just as I was rummaging through my backpack to get to our trip itinerary, the phone rang.  It was Stanzin.  He was down in the lobby.  So, I quickly got the girls to each cough up their share of the remaining payment for the tour and Chantale and I headed down to meet up with Stanzin.  He was there with another man whom he introduced to us as Tashi.   After a bit of light chitchat, it was down to business.  We talked about the money and handed over what we owed to Tashi.  From what I can gather, these two men jointly own Ju-Leh Adventures.  Seems like Stanzin handles the customer relationship side of the business and Tashi takes care of managing the finances.  Once we cleared the money issues, Stanzin then told us that our driver, Dorje,  would be by to pick us up and take us to Lamayuru Monastery and that we would be spending the night near the monastery.  What??  I obviously had failed to pay attention to the fact that Lamayuru was not a day trip from Leh but in fact, an overnight trip.  So, with that in mind, Chantale and I headed back to the room to deliver the news to Ayşe that she would have to pack an overnight bag - we would be leaving our suitcases with the hotel.  So, we did a bit of hustling to get packed tomorrow and now, we can finally sit and relax.  It was a lovely evening outside so Chantale and I took advantage of that and headed to the garden to sit for a bit.  At this point, I have no idea what tomorrow holds for us but whatever it is, the girls and I are up for it.  I speak for all of us to say that we are thrilled to finally be in Ladakh!


It's been a long day and I'm ready to hit the sack!  Goodnight from Leh!