If anybody remembers my “travel plans” post about India, one of the big things that I wanted to do was to get to a place called the Spiti Valley in India’s Northern Himalayas. The Spiti Valley would have been cool, but it was just an idea; in reality I just wanted to see the Himalayas, in some way, shape, or form. By the time I got to the actual planning phases of this, I was literally making it up as I went. It was mid-September when I was in Varanasi, and I knew that my window of opportunity for the Himalayas was rapidly closing, because soon it would start snowing up there. The issue with Spiti Valley is that it takes quite a long time to get there, and the roads are known to be the worst in the region. In order to reach Spiti, I would have had to take a long series of train rides, bus rides, and jeep rides up from Varanasi, through New Delhi, and then through cities called Shimla and Manali. By the time I arrived, it would have been too late. So it was back to the drawing board.
What + Where + How
What I decided to do instead was to fly directly to a place called Leh, which is actually much farther north than Spiti. It is in a region of the Kashmir region known as Ladakh. Ladakh had been a part of Tibet in the past, but having been taken over by other, stronger nations, both Tibet and Ladakh are only cultural boundaries now. The language is Ladakhi, which is a dialect of Tibetan; the two languages share an alphabet. Since the cultural boundaries of Tibet fall within the modern-day borders India, China, and Nepal, just as a clerical note, I’m going to begin my chronicling of Tibet here. Hopefully I will be able to visit the Chinese and Nepali regions of Tibet soon as well.
For some more clerical housekeeping, the northernmost province of India is formally known as “Jammu & Kashmir”. Jammu is a Hindu region farther to the south that has been tacked onto Kashmir to dilute the Muslim-ness of the area (although the region of Ladakh is Buddhist). None of what follows is in Jammu; I’ll be operating entirely in Ladakh and Kashmir.
Leh is about as far north, and as high up as it gets when it comes to the Himalayas. It’s a small town, but there are direct flights from New Delhi that go up regularly. My main concern was whether the weather would hold out for me, so I talked to some Indian people, who texted their friends that lived in Leh, and I was able to get a few on-the-ground confirmations that the weather was still good. That’s about as good a signal as was possible, so if I wanted to do this, I had no time to waste. So I booked a 1-way ticket for a 6am flight out of New Delhi for 89 USD.
I took the night train to New Delhi from Varanasi, which was only delayed by 7 hours (a story for another time). Then, the next day, I flew up. People had told me some gnarly stories about landing in Leh, so I was a bit worried. The plane would apparently descend into a narrow valley, with snow-capped mountains rising up on either side, and do a crazy-sharp u-turn in order to land on a little patch of concrete. I was more than a bit worried actually – I couldn’t sleep. I'm a nervous flyer. The plane ride turned out to be fine, but thanks to my anxiety I was operating on 1 hour of sleep when I arrived. The airport is mostly a military outpost, so it was very small. I took 1 picture when we landed, but I was told that taking pictures on a military base was a bad idea, so that was all I got from on the ground. I took a few from above though as well:
Leh is surrounded by some unstable / dangerous territories, so in order to go out from Leh to the surrounding areas, you have to get a permit. The permit costs 650 INR (10 USD), and must be presented in combination with your passport at the military checkpoints surrounding Leh, but you can’t get the permit alone. These permits are only issued 2 people at a time, which presents a small challenge to the single traveler. It’s okay though, I’m a social dude, so the problem wasn’t finding friends to go on this trip with me. The problem was this: there was no Internet in Leh.
How I Got Trapped In Leh (It’s Complicated)
I got trapped because there was no way out, in a nutshell. Let’s start with the fact that there was no Internet in Leh. Apparently there had recently been some pretty heavy rains. The rains had caused mudslides, which knocked out Leh’s Internet cables. These cables had supposedly been repaired, but the Indian government had since cut Internet to the all of India’s mountainous north (Kashmir/Jammu/Ladakh). Why would they do this? There are a number of things that inform this.
Do you know what Eid is?
Perhaps you recall that I had been planning on staying in Dhaka, Bangladesh for Eid. If you missed that article, the punch line was that I had to leave early due to visa problems. Eid is a Muslim holiday that celebrates the end of a fast. On this holiday, cows are slaughtered by the thousands so that a feast can be prepared. This doesn’t mesh very well with the Hindu belief that cows are sacred. While India is mostly Hindu, it is also the 2nd most populous Muslim country in the world, behind Indonesia. The Muslims in India face a lot of discrimination, but they hold true to their beliefs nevertheless, and this causes friction. I’ll come back to this in a moment.
Do you know what Kashmir is?
Kashmir is a disputed territory between India and Pakistan. It's also gorgeous. While India is holding roughly half of it at the moment, there is fighting there between the two governments pretty regularly. As a result, despite being (mostly) sovereign Indian soil, being here feels a bit like a military occupation. Indian troops, who look just nothing like the Ladakhi/Balti locals, patrol the streets with machine guns. Military checkpoints are everywhere. While Leh (+ Ladakh) are 80% Buddhist, the Kashmir, and this whole region of the Himalayas, has been sort of a hotbed for Islamic extremists. The Indian Kashmir is sketchy, but once you cross into Pakistan and Afghanistan, you're officially a part of the War on Terror. I had hoped to make the long journey from Leh to the westerly Islamic (but relatively safe) city of Srinigar, but driving south to Manali was going to my plan B for an exit strategy.
The Road West To Srinigar
Once I arrived in Leh, I began hearing story after story of westerners having nasty run-ins with local Islamic groups. The worst story I heard was about a British woman being kidnapped. She was held for a few days before her captors made the mistake of leaving her alone with the wifi on. She was able to send a message out for help, and was eventually rescued. Allegedly. What is more common though is to have your vehicle attacked on the treacherous mountain roads that connect Srinigar and Leh. These stories have varied from rocks being thrown at jeeps as they pass by, to roadblocks and attempted carjackings. This could have been a good route to take from Leh, as there is both an airport and safe road that goes south from there, but after hearing a few horror stories, I decided against it. It probably would have been fine, but I chickened out. So the road to Srinigar was out for me.
The Road South to Manali
Manali serves as "base camp" for many travelers going into and out of the Indian Himalayas. The road connecting Leh to Manali would have been the next best thing after the road to Srinigar, but it's infamous for how treacherous and ridiculous it is. The views are supposed to be breathtaking, but it’s something like 24-hour ride on a good day. However, the "good days" had pretty much stopped about a month before my arrival in India. Now the road was almost impassable. The key word here is "almost." Buses were still traversing this road. Travelers that had taken the route more recently told stories of camping for an additional 24 hours while snow was cleared from the road. It was doable, but it was going to be a harrowing voyage. I can get pretty carsick too, so I really just didn’t have the mojo to deal with this. So that was the other road out of Leh being ruled out. I would have to fly.
Bringing This Full-Circle
Back To Eid
With Eid just around the corner, the friction in the region was increasing. Every cow that was slaughtered put the Muslims in the region more at odds with their Hindu neighbors. I don’t know all the details, but there were apparently massive protests happening near Srinigar, some of which may have turned violent. Eid was expected to be the focal point of the unrest. So what did the Indian government do about all this? They cut the Internet and cellular data to the whole region. No WiFi. No 3G. No Ethernet. Barely even any phone signal. Nothing. If you want to stop protests, that’s a pretty genius move, actually. Especially in a place like the Himalayas. If there’s no information/communication, there’s nothing to protest, and no way to go about doing it. So for the Indian government – problem solved!
Unfortunately that creates a big problem for people like me who booked 1-way tickets into the region. With no Internet, in this modern world of ours, it is almost impossible to book a ticket back out. Travel agents were in the same boat as me I’m afraid. In the mean time, it was almost impossible for anybody to communicate with one another. Indian SIM cards, like the one I picked up in Calcutta, don’t work in Kashmir. Getting a Kashmiri SIM card is apparently quite a process, so I couldn’t even use the telephone. Normally you would still be able to just go to the airport and buy a plane ticket, but the airport in Leh is actually more of a military base and, at the time, there were very narrow parameters set on who was allowed to come back inside. A foreigner and a civilian, my place was outside of the barbed wire fence.
I was MIA, isolated, and helpless.
But that didn’t mean that I couldn’t enjoy where I was, because it was iNCREDIBLE!
Guesthouse Review: Shaolin Guesthouse
Price: 500 INR (7.63 USD) per night
I stayed at place called Shaolin Guesthouse, and I loved it. To be fair, it wasn’t the best location, as it was a solid to 20 minute walk into town, but that was really the only downside. It cost 500 INR (7.63 USD) per night for one of their normal rooms. However, on the first night I was there I offhandedly mentioned how cold it was in Leh, and they upgraded me to a bigger, more expensive room for no additional money because it was supposedly warmer. It was marginally warmer, significantly bigger, and had a private bathroom, so that was nice. The family that runs this place are seriously some of the nicest people you could ever meet. That the Tibetan hospitality for you though. If my unsolicited room upgrade doesn't sell you on how awesome they were, I was served hot tea every morning, and dinner at night if I was hanging around. When it was time for me to leave, my taxi never showed up, so they drove me into town to find one for me. They also drew me maps into town by hand when I asked for directions. I would definitely recommend it, but the walk was annoying.
It’s a small little town, but it is the main jumping off point for travel in this part of the world. Winter was blowing in fast, which is a little scary in the Himalayas. Places like Leh attract a pretty extreme brand of travelers to begin with, but this close to winter, the it was filled with only the craziest, bravest travelers. Everybody I met was either about to start, or had recently finished a 2-week trek through the mountains. I even met one Dutch guy who had cycled—that means a bicycle, not a motorbike—the entire road from Leh to Manali, and was about to cycle Khardungla Pass, which is the highest motor-able road in the world.
THAT is what a man looks like folks. My hero.
Yeah, there were a few of us crazies wandering around, but after that, Leh was pretty void of travelers. Granted it was the end of the season, but I was still surprised at how un-touristy it felt. The streets were busy, but there weren’t many white faces in the crowd. Like most places in India, bulls wandered through the streets as they saw fit. But aside from that, it felt totally distinct from the rest of the country. The thing about a town like Leh is that during the off-season, it is inaccessible. The snow was just around the corner, so already most of the tourist-oriented establishments were closing their doors. Restaurants had run out of food for the year, ATMs were low on cash, it felt a bit like the Great Depression at times. That, combined with the bone-chilling cold, which I was not prepared for, made it sort of a lonely place for me. It was beautiful though. The sparse, green forests and brightly colored flowers were a welcome change from the dusty hustle and bustle of the rest of India. It was peaceful up there. I found myself quite content to sit in a bookshop drinking Kashmiri Kawa tea and reading a book, which is unlike me. I get bored fast, but not in Leh apparently.
Dotting the landscape in and around Leh are Buddhist stupas, temples, and monestaries. Many of them are at an elevation, positioned on the mountain side so that they are visible from almost anywhere in town. Indeed, the majority of what you see around Leh are prayer flags and prayer wheels, Tibetan trademarks, but one of the main fixtures of the town’s “busy” area was the mosque. It felt a bit out of place. There were very few Muslims that I saw outside a 1 block radius of the mosque. Ladakh is 80% Buddhist and, geographically, the start of cultural Tibet. Nowadays however, it is first and foremost a part of India, which means it has undergone some integration and is much less culturally homogeneous than it was when it was still part of Tibet.
One of the first things I was told when I landed in Leh was that the landscape looked a lot like Kabul, Afghanistan. That struck me as an odd thing for the Indian man sitting next to me on the plane to say, but it’s true – this region of the Himalayas is a barren, windswept, desert. Leh itself however, is quite green. This, I’ve been told, is because of its sophisticated irrigation system. Everywhere in the town you go you will find little streams of pure mountain water trickling down through cute little spouts, or tiny grassy creeks. These streams pass in front of most people’s houses, so you will often see people come outside to fill a bucket for whatever they are cooking. Walking along these spouts in early autumn you will pass through lots of hay fields, and light forests. Once you begin following these little streams you will find yourself in a labyrinth of tiny, idyllic stone alley ways, all with spouts or streams as their centerpiece. It is thanks to these little spouts and streams that the people in Leh have easy access to water, so they are very important. That is probably the reason that my guest house is able to get by without an actual number for an address. Instead it simply says “Near the water pump, Sankar Rd.”
Altitude Sickness In A Buddhist Monastery
I didn’t even know that altitude sickness was a thing! Am I stupid?
Beautiful Tibetan-style Buddhist Monasteries speckle the landscape surrounding Leh. I’m ashamed to say that I barely even scratched the surface in this department, as the area around Leh has a LOT to offer. I had intended to rent a motorcycle and visit them all, but the altitude took a toll on me, and I found myself too weary to be bothered with such a thing. There was one monastery however that could be seen from my guesthouse. It was clearly going to be a long, steep climb up the rocks, definitely not what you want to do if you haven’t acclimatized yet, but I let my ego get the best of me and made the climb within hours of landing. It was some of the most stunning scenery that I’ve ever seen, but I was feeling pretty dizzy as I made my descent. That night, eating dinner with some travelers I had met, I was feeling very under the weather. The next day I felt like I’d been hit by a train. So, reader, learn from my mistakes, and take a day to chill before attempting something like this. Here are the pictures though…
I needed at least 2 people to get anywhere outside of Leh, because in order to do any real exploring I would need to get a permit. The northern border of India is quite a touchy place, so visitors to the area have to jump through some hoops to comply with regulations.
After about a day of wandering around, chatting up random people on the street, and talking to travel agencies around town, I was able to find myself a 2 travel buddies, a permit, and a jeep. Joining me would be a 30-something British man, and a 40-something Indian man. Our destination was the Pakistani border. Go big or go home, right?
We had a few other adventures along the way though as well. Stay tuned.
P.S. In the week I was there, Leh never got their Internet back. I had to get a travel agent to call his friend in New Delhi to get me a ticket out. And even once I had the ticket, I couldn’t print it out without Internet. I showed up to the airport with a confirmation code written on a note card, pushed past the soldiers with machine guns, and LUCKILY it all worked out okay. During that week though, I was just MIA. Sorry mom.