Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Passage to India X

23 September
As a farwell greeting, the hotel manager told us that we can leave Soni's car n the guarded parking lot only if we stay in his overpriced hotel again upon our return; my mood was sour enough when we had to leave the Scorpio behind and climb into Himalayan Eco-Drive's smelly Toyota Qualis. This car, which combines the comfort of a tank with the graceful looks of a pig, must be the ugliest vehicle Toyota ever designed. In this photo you have the misfortune to see three of them at once.


Anyway, off we drove towards Nubra valley, leaving Leh behind...



...enjoying the views towards the far Ladakh range as we climbed higher...



...and higher...


...and higher...


...all the time squeezed between trucks of an army convoy crawling painfully slow towards Khardung pass. We counted 67 trucks alltogether.



Fortunately they stopped at a checkpost and we could make good progress, feeling a little relieved that at least the Sorpio didn't had to endure this particularly bad - but amazingly beautiful - road.


And there it was at last, the highest motorable pass in the world. I mean, it was the highest until recent topographic surveying fixed its altitude at around 5340 meters instead of 5650. This must have been no comfort for the soldiers stationed there throughout the year. When not gasping for oxygen and freezing, they must be bored to death.










After enjoying a cup of hot tea (courtesy of the Indian army), we drove on towards Hundar village, our target of the day. It was a landscape photographer's dream but I became the nightmare of our Ladakhi driver (Mr. Yangdzho) by making him stop for a photo every two minutes. He behaved like a hero and didn't utter a word of complaint. I mean, when I was there. Soni told me that behind my back poor Mr Yangdzho started bitching at every stop: "What, you drive with this guy since three weeks? How can you bear this? Next time he makes me stop I'll freak out!" He didn't, and as much as I hated his employers I appreciated his cooperation. What made both Soni and me wonder was his ignorance. He drove the same tourist routes every week, up Khardung down Tsomoriri, and whatever we asked him, he didn't know anything. What's that gompa called? I don't know. What's the name of this river? I don't know. Are there hotels in Hundar? I don't know. When did you check the brakes for the last time? I don't know.







At around 5000 meters above sea level, the landscapes were literally breathtaking.


We drove along this little river which has a wonderful turquoise color and I thought, this sight can hardly be surpassed....


...until we reached the sangam (confluence) of the Nubra and Shyok rivers stretching out before our eyes...



...with the Nubra valley proper towards the Siachen glacier in the north, top of the picture, and our destination in the Shyok valley towards the west.



However, even this sight was topped by a little pond which reflected the surrounding mountains with inredible clarity.






It was dusk when we reached Hundar...


...and the Snow Leopard Guest House.


Later a funny bunch arrived from Leh: a Belgian masseuse, an Irish student, a French photographer and an NRI (non-resident Indian) guy. It could have been fun, had the latter not done all the talking. And it could have been even more fun if we had had some alcohol (it was getting pretty cold anyway and wee needed something to keep us warm...). When they ran out of beer (somehow I didn't desire beer that evening), it came to my mind that I have some wine powder with me. It works like this: you take a glass of cold water, pour the powder inside, stir, and after a few minutes you have... something like wine. First it tastes like aceton, then like gasoline, then like brake fluid - but after a few mouthfuls you don't care any longer how it tastes. The Irish girl found out a more sophisticated way of consuming it, though. She arranged the powder into little strips on the table, rolled a tube from a 100 rupee note, and sniffed it up as if it was coke. She tried to convince us that it tastes great and soon the whole bunch was sniffing wine powder. have to admit I didn't take part in this because I was beyond the point where the taste still mattered and managed to drink the vicious concoction. When they asked me how I could give out money for such crap, I admitted that it seemd like a good idea when I ordered the stuff in a webshop. Anyway, I still have a few pouches left so if anyone's interested in a coke-substitute wine powder let me know.


24 September

Waking up next morning was like finding myself in paradise. The morning lights turned the garden into a veritable field of flowers and my eyes rejoiced - it was such a wonderful sight after many days when Buddhist prayer flags were the only color apart from brown landscapes and blue skies.


I found myself taking photo after photo, letting my eyes get saturated by the colors...




...which was a good thing to do because after we left the wind filled the valley with grey dust, making it look even more desolate than yesterday.


The haze and dust didn't prevent an Indian couple to take funny photographs on the roadside. Driving past them, I took a snapshot of the girl (maybe, had I waited, I could have seen her taking off to the sky?).


I said "gotcha baby" and we all had a good laugh with the two drivers and I felt as if I had taken the shot of my life. (Maybe it is.)


Anyway, after missing Thikse and all the other famous Buddhist monasteries I felt compelled to vsit at least one gompa, so we stopped at Giskit. The huge thing on the hilltop is a gigantic Buddha statue.







It was very calm there and I could explore the buildings, nested atop the steep hillside, at my own leisure.



Saw lots of protective deities...




...and the lama protecting the protective deities...






...who was orginally dressed in a red T-shirt with the number 11 on it. I asked him if he is lama Nr. 11 and although it was a joke, he said yes - he's player 11 in the gompa's football team. For the photos he changed back into his "work dress", as he put it.

I was busily photographing the friendly lamas and their kitchen...



...when I ran into the guys from last night...




...among them the French photographer, Grégory, whose Nikon gear was the object of my envy from the moment I first saw it. This time was probably one of the few occasions when he was being photographed for a change.


I managed to kill time in the gompa until noon when the haze disappeared, and we continue towards Panamik on the northern road.


We stopped to have lunch (that means Maggi noodle soup) at a village called Tiger...




...where the polaroids again broke the ice, this time with the local tailor and her daughter...



...and back on the road I met these little brothers.

We continued northwards...



...(I'm not sure if this belongs here but anyway, it's Ladakh)...



...until we arrived in Panamik. Allegedly there are some hot springs in the village but after looking around and finding nothing of interest except some camera-shy locals...

...and having arrived at the point beyond which only yaks and the military goes on towards the highest battlefield on earth...




...we discussed our options in the car...



...and since it was still early afternoon, it was decided to head back straight to Leh. It was at Panamik that Mr. Yangdzho and Soni switched places, which was a good idea as Mr. Yangdzho was tired from driving and Soni tired from not driving. While our Ladakhi man was a cool enough driver, I felt safer too with Soni at the steering wheel.


We ran into a yak caravan on the road...


...and some bucolic scenery...



...while we made our way through the hills...



...to Khardung pass where we arrived at dusk.




This totally messed-up high-ISO shot shows Soni, who insisted to be photographed with this sign in the background. After all, eventually he drove across the highest motorable pass in the world (even if not in his beloved car).





After the pass the drivers changed places and I told Soni, "not such a bad car after all, eh?" and I meant it. Soni answered, "do you want to know really, sir?", took a deep breath and bursted out in a long-long litany over disfunctional gear shift, slow-reacting brakes, totally worn tires, ruined suspension and so on. It was no comfort for me to know that there were no safety belts either.
The moon was out and the lights of Leh seemed tantalisingly close...


...but it was late evening by the time we arrived, praising the gods of all religions because at least the right headlight worked. After all, driving with only one headlight still gave us 50% more light than most Indian drivers ever use at night. And after trampling on Mr. Yangdzho's nerves by stopping for night shots every ten minutes or so (which must have appeared to him as a totally idiotic thing to do - what the hell can someone photograph in pitch dark?), at last we arrived back to Leh.

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