Sunday, October 30, 2011

Jullay from Ladakh

Diwali was this past week and with it the end of the festival season in India, as well as a week off for Greg. We finally made it to Ladakh, India’s most northern state, located in the rugged Himalayas. Our time there marked the end of the tourist season, so we were greeted with calm and quiet as there were not many tourists and many of the guesthouses, shops and restaurants were already shut down.

In order to get to Leh, there are two routes, by air or road. The road route can take about four days from Dehli, so we flew, starting from sea level and landing at 11,500 feet. Luckily, Greg and I did fine acclimatizing. Only some small headaches that didn’t last long and huffing and puffing up the steep stuff. We spent the first two days in Leh, exploring the town, walking up to the two palaces, over to Shanti Stupa and around the main bazaar. There are many narrow walk ways, lined with irrigation canals that were covered with bright yellow leaves in many areas that crunched under our feet. Both of us were so thankful to experience late fall weather since we missed it last year. The walk ways were also for human, dogs, and cows only, so it made for a peaceful way to get around.

Day three we decided to test our lungs and headed to Hemis, a monastery about an hour and a half drive from Leh. Hemis was located in a tucked-away valley, so we winded up through grasslands and farmlands until the monastery appeared around a corner. After exploring, we found a path that headed into the mountains, which was well maintained. Again, the fall colors along the valley were breathtaking, with huge, rugged peaks in the background. The pathway headed up a steep mountainside to another monastery built around a cave, Gotsang Cave, where a Buddhist monk first came to the area to meditate. When we arrived, we were greeted by a monk who spoke fairly good English. After sitting in the cave for a bit (amazing energy inside), we were invited for tea to warm up. We enjoyed chatting with the young monk and learning a little about his life. We decided to keep climbing up since we were both feeling okay, and hiked another hour until we reached the top of a pass. We were greeted by three Bharal or blue sheep. They scooted to the side, but didn’t seem too disturbed by our presence. The views of Leh and the surrounding valleys were spectacular. We found out later that we were up at about 13,500 feet. It was also very cold and windy, so we had a quick snack and then headed down. The monk had invited us to his room for more tea and some snacks, which we welcomed for warmth and energy before heading back to the monastery. The building where the monks lived, was also built around caves and very cozy. When we reached back to Leh in the late afternoon, we warmed our bodies with yummy Thukpa, a Tibetan noodle soup. Our diet for most of the trip revolved around Thukpa , Momos and Tibetan Herbal Tea. Both very comforting food.

The fourth day, we headed to another monastery, Likir, that housed a 30-plus foot Buddha statue as well as a school for young monks. We had a nice cup of tea and conversation with one of the teachers. They heated the water with a solar-powered stove, very cool. We then headed to the trail-head of a two day trek along the valley and we hiked for a couple of hours. This trail reminded us of Western Colorado and Utah, with the sandstone rock formations and arid climate. We started with a steep downhill and then rolled along until we hit a small village, then turned around and, surprisingly, despite the uphill, made it back the same time it took to hike out. Maybe getting acclimated…?

Day five, we headed out on a river valley at the start of the Stok Kangal trek, a four day trek to the top of the highest peak near Leh at 20,082 feet. We didn’t get far enough to glimpse the mountain from our hike, but had a great view of it each day from the guesthouse. We were lucky enough to see another heard of Bharal and a lone Urial, with amazing horns. The latter was quite skittish and ran expertly up the mountainside to get away from us. The rock formations back in the valley were amazing. Rows and rows of sharp fins, rising high. In two areas, there were remains of brick buildings that were built, balancing precariously on the top of these fins. We hiked about six hours out and back and both of us were pretty tired and ready for a rest. It’s amazing the energy it takes out of you at that altitude. Answer…nope, not quite acclimated, but getting there.

Our final day, we couldn’t resist the drive to the top of the highest (actually second highest) motorable road in the world at 18.380 feet. The drive was up a long, windy, mostly dirt road that is constantly being worked on to keep drivable. Greg did well and did not get carsick, though we had to ask our driver to slow down several times as he liked to take the corners fast. At the top, we did the requisite photo-op and then hiked the short staircase to the small monastery, having to pause to catch our breath several times. It was a great view of both sides, the snow capped mountains dominating. It was also very cold, so after a quick cup of tea, we jumped back in the car and headed down. We’ve now been over 18,000 feet! (by car J).

We walked back up to the Shanti Stuppa in Leh to watch the sunset and to mark the end of a great week. We are both so grateful for getting to have such a great week in an amazing place and hope to get one more chance to do some multi-day treks before our time ends in this part of the world. Jullay! (hello, goodbye, thank you in Ladakhi).

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Kaas Plateau

Over the three day weekend for Gandhi’s birthday, a friend and I headed to the Kaas Plateau in southern Maharatra in the Satara District. Our significant others were going to join, but one had too much work and the other was not feeling well. Luckily, we were both encouraged to still go.

The Kaas Plateau is not found in any of the typical guidebooks. It is a local Indian tourist spot during the monsoon, as the plateau becomes a canvas of changing colors with the rains growing a large variety of wildflowers from August-early October. When we were told about this beautiful sight at a meditation retreat in July, I couldn’t wait for this three day weekend.

We took an overnight “ish” train to Satara, arriving at 2am. We had hired Rajesh to meet us and take us to our hotel. It all worked out without a hitch. I think we were some of the first foreigners to stay at our three star hotel and we were the only “whitees” in the area for the weekend. Our first day, after a decent southern Indian breakfast of idlis and sheera, we jumped in the hired car and enjoyed the hour and a half ride up, up, up the steep hillside towards the plateau. It was green and lush around us as we breathed in the fresh air. The driver reported that “1 lakh” people visited the plateau last weekend. Wow! When we reached the plateau, we were not allowed to stop. The government had set up a bus system to transfer people from a parking area to the plateau. Amazing!! They were actually trying to conserve the area. I was very pleased about this. Our driver did his best to explain that we foreigners should be accommodated with the car, but they would not budge.

We spent awhile exploring around Kaas Lake, just below the plateau and there was evidence of the previous crowds from the trash laying around. Despite that, we didn’t have to wander far to get away from the trash and start seeing evidence of the flowers we would be seeing on the plateau. The lake was peaceful and we had our first snack while gazing at a patch of lily pads.

When we got to the plateau, looking out, one could see swaths of white and pink. Upon closer inspection, there were many varieties of flowers in white, pink, purple, yellow and blue. There were many large cameras with huge lens being toted around by others. I had my small point and shoot, which worked just fine at capturing the beauty. We spent several hours wandering around, having lunch and walking back to the parking lot. We opted out of having the bus drive us back. That evening at the hotel, we had an amazing Guajarati Thali for 110Rs and watched Dandia dancing for Navatri.

After a lazy morning, we set out the next afternoon for some nearby temples. The temples were of the Shiva variety, with one being filled with lingums. The hike up the ridge and exploration took about an hour. At the top of the ridge, we were rewarded with spectacular views of the valley below us. We started to hear what sounded like rain falling, but could not see rain anywhere. I guessed there might be a waterfall close by. Ha, I was very wrong. Just as we started back down, there was a light sprinkle. Then it became a light rain, so we pulled out rain jackets. Finally, it was a steady rain. By the time we reached the car, we were both soaked. But, by the time we reached the Kaas Plateau for some evening photos, we were both dry, except for our shoes. We found a beautiful meadow to explore as fine clouds settled in over the plateau. Unfortunately, we did not get to see the sun set from that vantage point, as was our goal. But, on the drive back down, the billowing clouds were a spectacular show as the sun faded away. After another fantastic thali dinner, we headed to the train station to return back to Mumbai.

For fresh air, getting outside, and wildflower viewing, it was a great trip. To find out more about the Kaas plateau, just plug the name into google and the sites available are endless. It’s a fun adventure to get off the Lonely Planet’s beaten path.