Category Archives: India

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!

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.