04 January 2011

Sky to Ground 1: Leh

This is a post long overdue and so necessary. I'm splitting it into three parts. Part one and two can be the fun, happy, pretty parts, I'll save the more serious bit for part three. I probably should have written it ages ago since I can barely remember the details anymore so how's about a little photo journal.

Last time I was in India for vacations was June-July, and props to my father for organising what I am not hesitant to call the best family trip ever (except maybe Sikkim but I don't remember as much of it and that's for another post). Sure in terms of politics, Kashmir's one part of India you'd generally want to stay clear of. But in terms of tourism and natural beauty, good god, nothing comes close. What made it even better for me was to visit the Himalayas after a semester of studying geology. It gives you such a profound appreciation for the place.

We flew to Leh from Delhi and made it our base. You get the most stunning view of the Himalayas from the sky:

We spent the first day acclimatising (Leh is at an altitude of about 11,000ft) and wandering around Leh, getting a feel for the town. It's like an oasis in the middle of these huge barren mountains. I think it's my new favourite part of India. It's such a typical backpacker's town. It's got a bit of the chaos of the rest of the country but at the same time it's so peaceful and the people are lovely. The night we got there it was a full moon - truly stunning seeing the moonlight reflect off the mountains and snow and light everything up.

The next day we drove up to Khardung La. It's the world's highest motorable mountain pass at around 18,000ft. Needless to say, the altitude sickness was bad and the ascent was painful. We probably should have acclimatised for another day. It's a different world up there though, totally covered in ice.

As far as wildlife goes, the only wild animals around were marmots and yaks (though they were probably domesticated).

The next part of our trip was almost a full day's drive from Leh to Pangong Tso, definitely my favourite day of the trip. The drive itself was breathtaking. My new geology knowledge (thanks John Compton) got me really excited about road-cuts and the formation of the Himalayas. I fell in love with the mountains - for one the scale of them is just unbelievable, but also you can see such a huge part of the earth's history all around you. The Himalayas are without a doubt one of the most humbling places on the planet.

For the first part of the drive we took a detour through our driver's village:

And then we proceeded up to Chang La - yet another mountain pass some 17,000 ft high. More altitude sickness.

The drive from Chang La to Pangong Tso was filled with sights like these:

And then finally we reached the lake. I'll give a little background on Pangong Tso (Tso = lake in Ladakhi). It's at a height of about 14,300 ft and is 134km long, extending from India to China (60% of it lies in China). It's a saltwater lake in the process of becoming a Ramsar site. There are actually no words to describe it's beauty. Hands down, it's my favourite place in the world. The shades of blue of the water and sky in contrast to the rusty mountains are phenomenal. Apparently you find lots of ruby in those hills. In the distance there are snow-capped mountains around you. The air is so fresh and there are brown-headed gulls everywhere :) Unfortunately by the time we got there it was almost sunset, so even though the light was great, we didn't have much time.

(I've just realised how overloaded with pictures this post is. Moving on...)

After Pangong Tso we were exhausted and freezing and passed out once we got to the army guesthouse in Tangtse that we were staying at. I woke up when I heard an intense discussion outside the room about environmental politics. I went out, keen to join in, and found my dad talking to this young general who looked like my dad's successor in Jo'burg. Quite frankly I had no idea what they were on about so I just sat and listened, waiting for the intensity to subside. We later found out from him that not only were we in snow leopard country (!!!) but that there was a place about an hour away where there are saras cranes. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, we saw neither =/

The next morning we went back through Chang La and took a new route back to Leh.

I think that's more than enough for part 1.

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