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Leaving Leh, LADAKH – Destination uncertain

Time to move on

We checked out the rustic bus stand on a road leading out of Leh to determine our options.

Our general direction was Kashmir.  We toyed with idea of exploring the Zanskar Valley accessible via a stop in Kargil.  Actually we bought tickets to Kargil.  The ticket vendor told us we would be in Kargil by 8pm with our bus departing around 3pm and we thought we could break our journey overnight, explore Kargil and continue on to either Zanskar Valley or Srinagar.  I forgot to mention that both Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh are favorites for bikers from all over India wishing to escape the sultry monsoon weather in more southern parts of India.  In addition these states have stunning scenery made famous by many movies.  Our bus had a passenger who had been on motorcycle tours of Ladakh.

The road leading out of Leh is one massive and endless string of army camps. 

Leaving Leh by bus scenery and army camp
Leaving Leh by bus army camp

This is true for all the border states.  The roads in Ladakh are decent and very scenic, often following raging rivers and weaving through green little hamlets full of apricot and apple trees and old-style mud houses. 

Monasteries dot the countryside perched high up on cliffs and visible from quite a distance. 

Srinagar bound it seems

Security is strict in Ladakh and as the only foreigner on the bus the driver was obliged to stop 4 times in Ladakh to register my passage through the territory.  Our 8pm ETA turned into an actual 11pm arrival at which point we decided to bypass Kargil and the Zanskar Valley and stay on the bus until its final destination of Srinagar. We continued on through the night stopping at the entrance to Zojila Pass at about 1pm.  At this point the driver turned off the engine, brought out his sleeping roll, and had a much needed rest until dawn arrived and the pass opened. I was much relieved to see our stellar driver get some shut eye.  It is worth waiting for dawn to witness the beauty of Zoji La Pass which lies at an altitude of 3,528 meters (11,578 feet). The extremely narrow almost one lane route is heavily trafficked especially by heavy trucks including army vehicles.  Construction is underway to make tunnels and repave the crumbling road with cement bricks.  Shepherds with their flocks can be seen grazing below in the increasingly green valleys.  

Army camps dot the route as well.  The closer you get to Srinagar, the greener it gets and the closer it resembles Switzerland. 

Increasing green scenery descending from Zoji La Pass

At one point after descending the pass, a lush green and very scenic valley is suddenly full of large hotels with parking lots closely crammed to each other marring the otherwise beauty of this once tranquil valley.  With the Pandemic the face of tourism in India is changing rapidly with a shift from international tourism to local tourism resulting in a crush of tourists descending on every location as well as a huge boom in unsightly tourist buildings to cater to the demand. 

A short interlude in Srinagar

As with Leh, Ladakh my visit to Srinagar was a repeat from my trip to India in late 2019 to attend a photography workshop.  When the workshop ended and at the recommendation of Eva Erdmann I booked a houseboat in Dal Lake for 5 days.  The New Bulbul group of houseboats was a family run establishment where I willingly retreated for five days watching lake life glide by me and talking to the two sons who ran the establishment.  My infrequent forrays off the boat and into town convinced me that the houseboat was the best place to be in Srinagar.  The town was crowded, polluted and economically depressed not to mention the overwhelming presence of Indian military and equipment on almost every corner. This visit we stumbled off of the bus from Leh a bit worse for the wear after a 19 and ½ ride.  We sought refuge in a cheap and cheerful lakeside hotel making the most of the bathroom with hot running water and a comfortable bed. 

When we did venture out we found a path around the lake that serviced local residents thus avoiding the onslaught of an army of touts who patrol the main road which lines the other side of the lake. Children whizzed by us on bikes and neighbors chatted in the street.  From time to time we could glimpse the boats and the lake and very often we were offered rides on the many tourist boats which ply the lake.

The locals were friendly and kind and encouraged us to explore the pathways beyond the closed gates. 

Women paddled boats laden with vegetable and/or floral cargo. 

The next morning we opted to explore the town.  The town was fairly deserted when we ventured out at 6:30am with only dogs and street sweepers to be seen. 

In addition the Indian military was very much visible at very regular intervals.  This long early morning walk convinced us that it was time to move on. Many had suggested that we visit the Pahalgam Valley if we wished for a more rural setting. 

Pahalgam bound via Anantnag – shared taxis and changing scenery

In India transportation can be challenging.  In the cities and between cities there is inadequate transportation for the vast population needing it.  Buses and shared taxis rule. We tried to find a shared taxi to Anantnag the midway point of our journey.  Finally we caught a crowded bus that took us a little ways out of town to a point where the shared taxis to Anantnag were found. The shared taxis in this part of the country are jeeps with two front facing rows and a back seating area which seats 4 with the seats facing each other. Technically the capacity of the jeep should be 10 passengers (2 next to the driver, 3 in the middle section, and 4 in the back).  However, the scarcity of transportation and the shorter distances that most passengers travel means that the capacity is frequently overridden with an extra passenger placed on the right side of the driver in the front, up to 4 or 5 passengers placed in the middle row, and when absolutely full, passengers riding on the outside standing on the back bumper and hanging on the roof luggage rack. No matter how packed the vehicle gets, passengers remain good natured and cooperative. This willingness to bear a bit of discomfort to benefit others is something I admire in India. As the journey began the countryside immediately appeared fresh and green. 

Green countryside from Jammu to Anantnag on the way to Pahalgam

What a relief!  A short hour’s ride later we were in Anantnag and a helpful fellow passenger led us along busy streets lined with fruit and vegetable stalls to the other taxi stand where we would find a taxi to our final destination, Pahalgam. We were in luck and an almost full taxi was waiting for us with a young driver who drove like a cowboy and played cheerful upbeat music. He knew how to pack a taxi to its capacity!  We soon found ourselves following a road with a lovely canal on our right full of greenish/gray jade colored water.  Eventually the wide and raging Lidder River appeared on our left.  We went from gentle plains to dramatic forested mountains enclosing us on either side. We reached an area that looked like a small town with a number of tourist oriented stores lining the road but our driver told us to stay put. Finally when all the passengers had departed and we had taken on two young backpackers waiting for the return ride, we stopped in a large gravel parking lot with nothing but a few stores, the river and a bridge nearby.  This was ‘the end of the line’. 

Waiting for a room at the taxi stand in upper Pahalgam

We had determined our destination…upper Pahalgam!

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India again…returning to Leh, LADAKH

Back again

I keep returning to India.  This latest trip started with an early morning arrival in Delhi on August 21, 2022.  As it is the monsoon season in much of India with hot, wet and muggy weather, the northern reaches of India (Ladakh, Kashmir, and Himachal Pradesh) seemed like logical destinations.  

Ladakh – Frozen in time

The incredibly beautiful scenery of Ladakh

Leh, Ladakh caught my eye many years ago (2011) when I read an article in Jozan Magazine called Costumes of Ladakh – the Hidden Kingdom highlighting the preservation of ancient costumes in the area due to geographical remoteness.  When I saw a notice for a photography workshop given by French photographer Eva Erdmann in Ladakh in July of 2019 I jumped at the opportunity and decided then and there to retire from my academic career and pursue my interests of photography, writing and travel.  Coming straight from the UAE the adjustment to the high altitude of Ladakh was tough.  This time however I was better prepared and after a stunning 11/2 hour flight from Delhi covering 623 kilometers.

Green Valleys as seen on flight from Delhi to Leh, LADAKH
Arid terrain with snow and glacial runoff with cloud cover – flying from Delhi to Leh, LADAKH

I returned to the small family-run guesthouse, Youthok Guesthouse where I had stayed for my workshop but this time I just stayed put for 24 hours to help me adjust to the altitude of 3,305 meters (11,500 feet).  

Just like family

Youthok Guesthouse is a distance from the town center in a peaceful, tree lined street with a canal filled with gurgling water streaming down from the mountain.  Out the window one of the monasteries was visible high on a rocky outcrop.  The guesthouse itself was a cozy family-run place with rooms centered around a common terrace. 

Youthok Guesthouse terrace and room, Leh, LADAKH

Great grandmother lives on the ground floor, grandmother lives in a room on the second floor and tends to the many flowers decorating the terrace, mother is often at the helm receiving guests (although father seems preoccupied with the new guesthouse being constructed across the street) and their son is sometimes on hand to greet guests. 

Trees, canals and guest workers

The terrain around Leh is very arid and rocky and the only green seems to be rows of tall, skiny trees planted along the roads and around perimeters of land. 

Tall trees of Ladakh

Apparently there has been a significant movement starting about 2012 to plant trees, especially the tall willow trees.  What we discovered on our second day was a heavenly network of water canals running in between farms and houses and providing hours of ideal walking paths to explore Leh.

Canal and trees outside of Youthok Guesthouse

Best of all we could escape the honking, speeding cars that hurtle through the main roads. We would often encounter lean and usually young migrant laborers heading to various construction sites around town.  The Pandemic has seen a rise in domestic tourism and hotels are springing up all over the place.  Wherever you go in India the workforce is often made up of migrant workers often from Bihar but also from other states in India. Casual laborers can be found congregated on busy roads all over India waiting for day jobs.

Dogs rule

Leh is overrun with stray dogs who have a penchant for sitting on fences. 

In large packs they are fearsome but alone or in pairs they seem benign. 

At night the cacophony of barking growling dogs is enough to disturb a sound sleep. 

A costume display

Did I mention something about costumes? 

The best place to see the ‘collection’ is the main street which is closed off to cars.  Local women arrive throughout the day but primarily in the afternoon and evening to sell their produce, often knitting scarves in between customers.  They set up ‘shop’ outside the main tourist stores. 

Flower and produce sellers main road Ladakh

Fresh bread anyone?

One last attraction for me in Leh was the numerous bakeries most located on one narrow street leading to the main tourist street in downtown Leh.  The darkened walls of the bakeries along with the glowing cave-like ovens and hardworking bakers make for great photographs. 

Tea breaks

Life in India is punctuated by tea breaks and Ladakh is no exception.  In addition to the sweet milky tea found all over India, Ladakh and Jammu /Kashmir also offer a salty tea topped with butter which is a lovely dusky pink color. 

Sweet or salty tea?

It’s a great alternative when you’ve just had enough sugar for the day. Almost all the tea stalls in this region serve their tea with one of the many flat breads available in the nearby bakeries. 

Portraits

Leh is full of wonderful people and faces.  Here are a couple I captured during my visit.

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Musoorie & Landour

Rising temperatures…head for the hills (or hill stations)!

Longing for Musoorie

You’re looking at the hill stations of Musoorie and Landour in the far background as seen from the apartment terrace I have been staying in Dehradun since mid-April of 2022. At night the hill stations of Musoorie and Landour sparkle like jewels. When I arrived in Dehradun in mid-April temperatures were quite pleasant and the humidity was low. By mid-May the weather had heated up considerably bringing with it rising humidity. Occasional violent thunderstorms would clear the air and bring down temperatures temporarily. I finally made it up to Musoorie, a short hour to hour and a half car ride traffic, permitting, in mid-May and returned for a follow up visit at the end of May. I was (and remain) enchanted!

The journey up from Dehradun

On a good day the trip by car from Dehradun to Musoorie will take you a mere hour to hour and a half. On a busy day you might need to add another half hour to the journey as the tailback of traffic begins just past the humongous green parking garage and inches its way ever so slowly much to the delight of itinerant fruit and cotton candy vendors. The start of the journey from Dehradun is dry with little forest and it isn’t until you are almost at the Mall Road that the majestic trees appear. The roadside has hairpin curves and numerous ‘Maggi point’ restaurants perch precariously on pillars erected over the steep slope forming makeshift restaurants with tourist appearling views of Dehradun.

Musoorie layout

Musoorie is linear, snaking along the top ridge of the mountain from Mall Road in the west over to Landour in the east with other areas like Happy Valley spilling out up and down from this central spine. Aside from Mall Road and Camelback Road most all routes in this area involve a steep climb and/or descent. The trek from the beginning of Mall Road up to Landour involves an arduous almost two-hour climb the beginning through some interesting neighborhoods and the end through forest area with views that last forever over the surrounding hills. To get to Happy Valley you go in the opposite direction for about 45 minutes and at the end roll down hill to the valley. In addition, you can always stray off the flat routes and head up very steep roads to some lovely old areas dotted with quaint villas.

Twilight from the Prince Hotel overlooking Mall Road

The new and not so new face of tourism

In general tourism can be disruptive and unattractive although admittedly it brings business to an area. Since the onset of the Pandemic, tourism has taken a very different look. It is now primarily domestic tourism with overseas visitors being the rare exception. The local tourist tends to breeze through a place quickly, visiting all the ‘must-see’ sights usually by car or other means of transport and taking plenty of selfies along the way. While foreign tourism was marked by the lone tourist making his/her way slowly and often on foot through Indian cities with the help of a guidebook, local tourists tend to be groups of either family or young students, coworkers or friends. Many come by car, often a large bulky SUV, clogging up the streets and creating a lot of business for hotels with parking facilities.

What destinations are popular in Musoorie & Landour? In general the average tourist tackles a list of the must see places (Buddha Temple, Community Gardens, Kempty Falls, Lal Tibba outlook and the cable car to Gun Hill Point). In my opinion these destinations are NOT the interesting part of the area. As for activities there are many to be found along Mall Road. Number one might be shopping with numerous stalls selling acrylic shawls, crocheted sweaters and other items of clothing. Eating is definitely near the top of the list! I wholeheartedly support this activity! My daily routine included a visited to my favorite soft serve ice cream shop where I was often served by the owner’s young son. I marvelled at the fresh fruit and produce vendors with their artistic displays laid out on circular trays close to the pavement. Watching them slice up a selection of fruits or vegetables for customers was almost as satisfying as eating their treats.

Many activities on the Mall Road are geared to families. Perhaps the most popular is taking a ride in cycle rickshaw pulled or cycled by a hardworking local. Their bells are constantly ringing to alert pedestrians to clear the way. The rickshaw seats two in front and accommodates a lightweight adult or child seated precariously in the back facing the opposite way.

There are numerous stalls with games such as throwing a ring over a table of prizes to ‘win’ the prize, or shooting balloons on a placard to win a prize. Rivalling the rickshaw ride is ‘dressing up for a photoshoot’ which is also my favorite as a photographer. Although it is incredibly corny, many tourists ‘go for it’! One golden afternoon I parked myself in one of the areas and observed the whole process.

The ‘dressup photoshoot’ is actually a great activity for a street photographer like myself as the layers of activity (official photographer getting the dressed up folks ready for the shoot, dressed up folks finished with the shoot taking their own photos presumably for immediate distribution on their social media channels) give me the needed ‘camouflage’ to carry out my own shooting. Later on I had a nice chat with the trio pictured here (dressed up couple being man and wife and third person being the sister of the dressed up man). The lady not participating had spent a year in Switzerland (about twenty years ago) studying comparative religions.

Steeped in history, yet changing on a daily basis

What I like most (second only to the cool weather) about Musoorie is the feeling of walking through history. It’s everywhere with the architecture, old churches, villas, puzzling plaques and signs outside of villas, wrought iron railings on Mall Road, etc.

I was so intrigued by the history of the area that I visited The Cambridge Book Depot on Mall Road during my first visit and purchased two books. The first was a slim but colorful soft cover book called “Mussoorie Medley” written by a local, Ganesh Saili. I enjoyed the photos but found the text a bit difficult to read as it often was a long list of facts or places or people with little narrative. The second book, “Mussoorie & Landour, Footprints of the Past” by father/daughter pair Virgil Miedema and Stephanie Spaid Miedema was much more to my liking and an easier read.

I would review my photos after a day of walking and try to find some links in the second book, “Mussoorie & Landour, Footprints of the Past” . On my long uphill walk to Landour I took the following photo and discovered almost its historical replica in the book. Some things haven’t changed!

The Taylor’s Flat playing field in the early 1900’s and today…not much change!
wrought iron fences on Mall Road

During my second stay, a crew of workmen were sanding down and repainting the ornate wrought iron railings along Mall Road as well as adding some very welcoming benches for the tired traveller. Another lovely feature of the place is the tin roof, often weatherworn and sometimes decorated with an ornate trim. Many an old villa could be found on the slopes leading down from the main flat roads giving a great view of the roof.

tin roof

But life must go on and side by side with history is of course the unrelenting march of construction often to the detriment of both history and nature. Some of the construction is regular maintenance mainly shoring up the steep slopes of the mountainside so they don’t come tumbling down into the road.

Happy Valley

I don’t believe in spending a lot of money for accommodation while traveling as most of my time is spent outside of the hotel. Having said that, I do enjoy being in a good neighborhood and soaking up some pleasant atmosphere. I experienced both separately on my two visits. On the first visit I stayed in area called “Happy Valley” and who can resist a name like that? The hotel itself La Hill Vista was unremarkable but the neighborhood was a winner. The small terrace overlooked the entrance to a Tibetan boarding school with the cumbersome name of ‘Tibetan Homes Foundation – SOS Tibetan Children’s Village’. The school was founded by the Dalai Lama in 1962 to serve the children of Tibetans in exile.

The coming and going of a steady stream of children provided ample entertainment during my stay. I was also lucky to encounter a former student of the school, a delightful man in his late sixties who was revisiting the school for the first time in almost 46 or 47 years. He currently works as a teacher of Tibetan medicine in Darjeeling. He gave an ‘insider’s tour’ of the school which sprawls across the mountain in a series of dormitories and school buildings. We even got a tour of his former dormitory perched very high up on the hill.

From Happy Valley to Mall Road

On my second visit to Musoorie I chose a hotel that I had fallen in love with on my first visit. A chance meandering up a very steep driveway with a couple of hairpin curves off of Mall Road led to the charming old world Prince Hotel with a bird’s eye view of the Mall Road and the surrounding area. It was really a case of love at first sight!

In addition to the delightful old world public areas, my room was on a scale rarely encountered in modern hotels. The most remarkable feature was the height of the ceiling! In the early morning the sun would come flooding through the window located near the ceiling and sitting above the narrow exterior corridor. The bathroom was reached through a long corridor adding to the luxurious sense of endless space. The corridors were wide and spacious and also included skylights and glass tile floor panels as well as a narrow outside corridor with views of the green mountains. All doors had burgundy curtains allowing one to keep the door open while preserving one’s privacy.

The hardworking folks of Musoorie & Landour

I cannot talk Musoorie & Landour without referring to the hardworking folks I encountered daily, the porters, cycle rickshaw drivers, construction workers, and vendors.

The porters caught my attention every time carrying incredible loads on steep and congested streets. Often their loads were so heavy that they were bent over and unable to see the cars or pedestrians ahead of them.

Walking wardrobe

The cycle rickshaw drivers were hard to ignore as they constantly rang their shrill bells to clear the path of pedestrians. Although the Mall Road was for the most part flat, other areas had slight inclines forcing them off their pedals and onto their feet to push the rickshaw up even a slight incline. The construction workers, both men and women were luckier as they usually worked far from the crowd building new villas, hotels, and reinforcement walls in the mountains.

I would gladly revisit this popular hill station to continue exploring this enchanting hill station!

Staying focused, paying attention, and getting things done in a digitally distracted world

I have been gathering resources related to productivity from podcasts and on YouTube.  My one-hour commute to work (each way) is just the right amount of time for a 45 minute pep talk.  I have tried to ‘digest’ the collection more thoroughly.  Not only do I gather inspirational materials, but I also note the key points down and attempt follow them.  This is a sign of progress for me, moving from theory to action. Have you noticed that the basic principles leading to a well balanced life seem to be repeated in slightly different forms amongst the gurus?  In addition, many of the gurus regularly quote each other and in other ways lend their support.  Being a ‘slow learner’ I find myself benefiting from the recycling of the messages. Continue reading

The gig and startup economy

The rigors of adapting to the new world of digital job searching have taken their toll on me propelling me into exploring freelance writing, remote & consulting work, blogging, and starting a business.  I have always been independent as well as being very itinerant (pun intended as I have both a WordPress blog and a Behance photography portfolio website under the handle ‘itineranti’… pronounced ‘itinerant eye’ and coincidentally meaning ‘travel’ in Italian).   The thought of calling the shots is a tempting one.   The overall lesson from my recent immersion in the world of webinars  is marketing cannot be overlooked.  Read on to see if going solo is easier than going up against  the Applicant Tracking Systems protecting Human Resources from a deluge of CVs! Continue reading

Job searching in a digital world

Welcome to the new world of Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) and personal online reputation management, branding, and search engine optimization (SEO)!  It’s time to play with keywords and learn how to please the data miners in Human Resources a.k.a. Talent Management!  Continue reading

Here we are!

This is where I get to pontificate on the subjects that enthrall me…mostly topics dealing with digital disruption and technology driven innovation.  Our world has been turned upside down by the Internet and it fascinates me.  I am always exploring new topics such as coworking, job searching in the digital age, the sharing or gig economy, unplugging from digital distraction, and technology driven innovation in education to name but just a few.  Join me on the journey and let your voice be heard as well!