There is an air of complete chaos and confusion at the check-in counters, as I reach New Delhi’s spanking new air terminal number three at Indira Gandhi International airport. Airline staff appear to be trying their best to guide the passengers, but it is obvious that their efforts are proving very ineffective. I finally manage to rush to a check-in counter and soon find out the reason for this helter-skelter situation. The computer system that controls the reservations and checks-in the passengers has given up. The airline staff are manually preparing the baggage slips and the boarding cards. Despite all the confusion, thanks to the efficiency of airline staff, I manage to get my baggage checked in and secure a boarding pass.
The flight is announced and I move on to board the aircraft. Even after all routine departure announcements are over, nothing seems to happen for a long interval of time and we are still on the ground. I make inquiries with the air hostesses. I find that Air traffic control at Leh (my destination) is not allowing our aircraft to take off for some reason or other. Finally the clearance is received and I am airborne after a delay of about a hour.
We are served piping hot breakfast. As I finish the last few bites of my tasty grub, I glance outside through the window. I am wonder struck, as a fascinating scenario is unfolding before my eyes. Just below the tips of the wings of our aircraft, I see range after range of tall and snow covered Himalayan mountains, rolling past our aircraft. It feels that if somehow I can take my hand out of the aircraft, may be, I could just touch those grand peaks. The aircraft keeps slowly moving ahead and the snow covered mountains are now suddenly replaced by bleak, stark and barren mountain ranges spangled in shades of brown and an occasional ice cap. I know for sure, that we have arrived in Ladakh.
The aircraft does not glide in and land in a straight forward fashion. It descends first to a lower height and circles the airport while descending. After second or third circle, the aircraft descends to a height, well below the towering heights of snow covered peaks surrounding us. After one more circle, aircraft makes a smooth landing. I have finally arrived at Leh.
Even since I decided to make this trip, I have been warned, cautioned and tipped by endless number of well wishers, about perils of high altitude sickness, which I am sure to face in Leh. With all that advice pressurizing my sub conscious mind, I am little bit tense on arrival. I take a deep breath and step outside the aircraft. Its about 9 o’clock in the morning. Weather is nice and cold. The airport area is huge but quite empty. Except for our aircraft, I do not see any other aircraft on ground anywhere. Breathing however is no problem at all. Feeling little relieved, I collect my bags and get out of the airport. A taxi cab is waiting for me with a banner, with my name printed on it. I feel happy and secure as I reach my hotel.
A welcome cup of Tea awaits me. As instructed, I move to my room, change and get into the bed. I am advised bed rest at least till evening. I still manage to get a peep through a window. A stunning landscape appears right on my window frame, complete with towering hills and mountains as back drop, tall poplar and willow trees and lush green grass.
I am served hot and tasty lunch around 2 PM. Whatever apprehensions that were there in my mind about high altitude of Leh and my physical capability or incapability of handling it, are all gone by now. I feel fit and ready for Ladakh.
After landing at Leh, first thing that I had done was to switch on my mobile phone. I had found out to my dismay, that my service providers, Vodafone have no service in Leh. This was definitely a major irritant. The problem is solved by my travel agent, who cames to see me to discuss my travel plans. He happily gives me a sim card, which works in Leh and interior ladakh. Word of caution, only BSNL service works in Ladakh and it is also not possible to call numbers, who are serviced by other service providers. You can call only BSNL numbers. Carrying a post paid BSNL sim card with you, is a must.
Around 4 PM my car arrives. My first impressions about the driver of the vehicle, who would be driving me around for next few days, are not exactly favourable. I feel that he is bit rude and keeps unusually quiet for a guide cum driver. I keep my feelings to myself for now and get ready to get out. Our first destination is a hillock at Changspa, about a kilometer away from the Leh town and about 1000 feet higher in altitude, from the airport.
A nice motorable road takes me up the hill. At the top, I can see a huge white domed structure. My car stops just below the top. It is necessary to climb up, last hundred feet or so by foot. Again a feeling of anxiousness, about the height, creeps into my mind. To my relief, I face no problems at all and easily reach the top. The white structure on top of the hill is known as Shanti Stupa and has been built by a Japanese Buddhist organization as legacy of Nichidatsu Fujii Guruji, who was awarded Jawaharlal Nehru award for international understanding in 1978. The work on this stupa was started in 1983 and is supposed to be a symbol of the spiritual ties and relationship between people of Japan and Ladakh. The Stupa itself is a two tiered structure with two terraces, a huge central statue of Buddha with an octagonal wheel on his head. Brightly coloured bass reliefs, from the life of Buddha are engraved on all sides.
The view from terraces is absolutely stunning. The Leh town in the valley, with scores of poplar trees and lush green parks contrasts absolutely with the barren rocky mountain sides. Straight in the south west direction, I see for the first time, river bed of Sindhu or Indus river. This river has been one of the principal motives for me for making this trip. Much beyond the river, the Mountain ridges and ranges of Zanskar mountains rise up and up. And much further beyond , I can clearly see the glowing peaks of Stok Kangri(6130 Mtr), Matho Kangri(6010 Mtr) and Go-Leb Kangri(6120 Mtr), bathing in the Golden light of the evening sun. I feel somehow a sense of belonging to this entire landscape. May be, this is what my ancestors saw six or seven thousand years ago when they first set their feet on the Indian sub-continent after crossing the desert lands of central and west Asia.
Hundreds of tourists visit this place every day. Even now, there are quite a few of them around. With small children and youth, all bubbling with joy as usual, the place appears perhaps even more brighter and sunny.
I get into the car and we move on. We get into Leh town and go to the most congested part of the city. Winding through the narrow lanes and by-lanes which is an essential part of any Indian village or township, we again start climbing a hill, which appears to be sitting right in the middle of the market street. The road climbs a few kilometers and stops. I get out of the car and start walking. My new destination is the Leh palace.
This construction work on this palace was completed in 17th century in the reign of King Senge Namgyal. Senge means lion, hence the palace is also known as Lion palace. Today the palace is in deserted state of dilapidation. Some restoration work seems to be going on. Construction of this seven storied structure, based on the Potala Palace of Lhasa architecture, was started in 1553. Only two storeys, of the original seven levels, remain in good shape today, with one assembly hall and a Garbhagriha or a chapel.
I climb few steps and enter the palace. The entrance gate is adorned with intricate wood carvings on the sides and above. It is very dusty and dark inside. In front of me, there is another flight of stairs. In the twilight, I can barely see the steps. I climb up and discover a terrace, brightly lit with fading sunlight. The terrace offers a magnificent view of the Leh town. While I look around, I realize that the sun is setting down behind the tall mountains. Dark shadows are already spreading across dusty and darkened steps of the palace staircases. I hurry back to the car. It is almost dark, when I reach the hotel.
It would have to be an early dinner and off to bed for me today, because I have to leave rather early tomorrow, for my first journey across Ladakh. No doubt, I am mildly excited about it because for a significant distance of my journey tomorrow, I would be travelling along the river bed of Sindhu or the Indus.
As I reach my hotel, I find that there is no electrical power and the hotel is in complete darkness. Electrical power shortage is a reality in Ladakh. There are couple of Hydel power projects along with few oil fired thermal sets. However the situation is unreliable. Luckily my hotel has a generator set so today I can have my dinner comfortably. If the power fails at an odd hour, there is no substitute arrangement. It is essential that every traveller to Ladakh must carry a good electrical torch with him.
My first day in Ladakh has gone rather well and without any hitch. The real thing is to be faced tomorrow.
(To be continued)
14 July 2011