Thursday, 22 November 2007

Road Trip, part 2: Endless steppes of Rupsu

Rupsu Valley, Ladakh.

Although I don't know what we missed by going to Nubra Valley, I'm actually really glad we ended up going to Rupsu instead. I just love these huge mountaint steppes with their grassing animals and a few nomads being the only life you see. Scenes, such as the one above with a small group of Yaks eating the sparse vegetation, look good on pictures: But in reality they are just breathtaking. This post is dedicated to this type of landscape.

Nomads and their sheep.

Another landscape, this one without any life in it. Such desolation.

A single wild ass. These are amazing creatures, which are closely related to the domesticated donkey, but look more like little horses. They are living in Rupsu completely without dependence on humans.

We were lucky enough not only to see the wild asses from afar, but also very close as a group ran straight in front of our car. Luckily we didn't hit any of them, but it got us closer to them. This picture was taken through the window glass of our moving jeep on a non-existent road. Considering that, I think the picture turned out quite good.

Our ride, out in the middle of nowhere.

A large group of sheep down in a canyon. What a strange pattern they form.

And finally one of the cutest animals I have ever seen: A Himalayan Marmot. These animals were a bit shy, but also very curious. They would run a little bit away, but then stick their head up and observe us. I'm guessing no one is hunting them, or they would have been extinct long ago.

A Marmot on the run, looking almost like a furry missile in flight. Adorable.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Road Trip in Ladakh: The Way to Rupsu

Indus River, somewhere on the road to Rupsu Valley.

As nice as the Indus Valley is with all of its old towns, palaces and monasteries, we wanted to experience more of this amazing district of Ladakh. We were planning to pass through the world's highest motorable pass to the neighbouring Nubra Valley. But since massive blizzards had shut down that pass, we had to change our plans. So instead we chose the somewhat longer drive to Rupsu Valley, close to Tibet in the southeastern corner of Ladakh. We followed the Indus river for a long time. As we moved ahead the valley was transformed into the canyon ytou see in the picture above. Not much room for more than the river and a road.

To share cost we teamed up with a Germany guy, Marc, and a couple of Israeli girls, whose names I can say but not spell.

Another picture from the rugged canyon. I love how one little, white house is placed on the mountain ridge seemingly in the middle of nowhere (slightly to the right of the centre of the picture).

Rupsu Valley is unlike any place I've ever been too. It's consisted of enormous, cool, windswept plains at altitudes of well over 4000 metres with very sparing plant growth and very little shelter. Most inhabitants here are nomads, who constantly move their herds of goats, sheep, cows and yaks to where there is a bit of food to be found. In the picture above is one such nomad dressed for late September weather. I can barely begin to imagine what life here must be like in the height of winter. Despite temperatures not far above zero degrees centigrade we saw several people here wearing only sandals without even socks. How they get through a Himalayan winter I simply do not understand.

A flock of sheep making their way through the barren and inhospitable yet amazingly beautiful landscape.

A large herd of goats walks past the shore of Tso Kar lake.

Marc using a break from the jeep ride to take pictures of the landscape.

A close up of some of the formations across the lake. I don't know how or why the rocks have so many different colours but it looks amazing, especially in this very weird sharp and cool light.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Monasteries of the Indus Valley

Unknown monastry, Indus Valley.

After a couple of days I felt it was time to get out of Leh and see some of the surrounding areas in the Indus River Valley, which are richly endowed with Buddhist monasteries like this one. Lasse still wasn't feeling too good, so I went on my own.

The largest monastery of Ladakh is that of Hemis, which is perched inside a canyon. It is home to about 500 monks.

The main building of Hemis.

Inside one of the prayer rooms (or whatever it is). Rich in colours and dark wood monastery interiors tend to be very atmospheric.

The hall has a three story atrium in the middle. Very cool.

Local painter restoring the old paintings.

Another cool monastery: Thiksey Gompa.

The view of the surrounding landscape from the monastery.

Decorations carved in wood at Thiksey.

One of the main chambers at Thiksey with a centrally placed picture of Dalai Lama.

Statues in the inner chamber.

Offerings, or other items of ceremonial value.

Every year in winter the monasteries hold amazing masked dances to celebrate the victory of Buddhism over evil. Normally this would never happen in September when we visited. But as luck would have it, they were shooting an "Incredible India" for the Ministry of Tourism, with the masks and dancers in all their glory.

A monk with a mask.

Dancers in action.

The local band accompanying the dancers with music.

Young monks following the spectacle.

Dancers taking a well earned break with a cup of chai (Indian tea).

Outside Thiksey monastery purple flowers on a grey-brown background.

White stupas in the landscape. According to my guide they are erected in remembrance of different people, but I don't know if that's true.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Hiking to the Palace and Beyond

No trip to Leh is complete without a small hike to the Royal Palace and the hill beyond. The 17th century Palace is currently under renovation so there is not too much to see on the inside, but the views are fantastic.

One room does however make the trip into the Palace worth it. The prayer room has been completely restored to its former glory. It is very atmospheric with the only source of light being a small shaft letting in natural light through the ceiling.

Beyond the palace, which is already high above town, the path leads further up to the 15th century Namgyal Tsemo Gompa (Monastery) and behind it a medieval, ruined fort. Of course we had to go up there, following the path on the right, where you see other tourists making their way up.

Lasse on the ascent. You can see the Palace way down behind him.

On the top, a man takes pictures of the snow covered mountaintops in the distance.

View over the Indus Valley. You can here clearly see the contrast between the barren hills and the very green and lush valley, made fertile by the famed Indus river.

View towards the less fertile desert side, where a lone truck makes its way across.

Lasse wasn't feeling too well at this point, so he went down while I stayed to take a few more pictures. The little black dot on the hill side is him making his descent towards the narrow streets of Old Leh. It really is amazing scenery. More of that to come in future posts.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

Leh

Leh, Ladakh.

After returning from Jaipur, Lasse and I took a scary but beautiful flight to the fairytale town of Leh, which is capital of the remote Himalayan district of Ladakh in the state of Jammu & Kashmir. Despite being the capital of one of India's geographically largest districts, Leh is home to only about 10,000 people. This view is from Leh's polo grounds looking towards the now empty Royal Palace overlooking the town.

Unlike most of India, Hinduism has never made much headway into Ladakh. The majority religion here is Buddhism. On the picture above are some prayer stones (and again the Royal Palace in the distant background), carved with prayers in Ladakhi language, which is written with Tibetan script. In general Ladakh is very culturally close to Tibet and the Dalai Lama is deeply revered here.

Lasse trying out the prayer wheel surrounding a local stupa. As it is appropriate he is walking clock wise around it.

The other major religion of Ladakh is Islam, which is the majority religion in the rest of the state of J&K. In Ladakh the Muslims are however still a clear minority, which doesn't stop them from putting their mark on local architecture. Here is one of several mosques in town.

We stayed at this wonderful Guest House called Padma. It's a nice place which even has a view to the Palace. Only drawback is there are no TVs. It might sound wieird why we would go to Ladakh to watch tv, but the explanation is simple. Since Leh is situated in 3500 metres altitude one has to acclimatize oneself to avoid AMS (Acute Mountaineering Sickness or simply Altitude Sickness). This means staying in the room for a couple of days. A TV makes it infinitely easier to pass the time. Since we had no TV I ended up going out for exploration too early, which earned me a bad case of AMS later in the week.

The garden of Padma is really nice though. Thousands of colourful flowers and other plants abound. A beautiful contrast to the barren hillsides of the area.

I even loved the symphony of colours in the cabbage growing there.

Beneath the palace you'll find the labyranthine old town of Leh, which is comprised of tons of old houses made of mud and wood as well as the occasional stupa.

A wonderful wooden screen over the small entrance to one of Old Leh's houses.

I also liked these window plants which used old oil cans as pots.

In a walk around Delhi we were looking at Indian trucks, which tend to be very colourful. I was taking a picture of this truck unaware that the driver was sleeping inside. He heard us, stuck his head out and invited us to come see it from the inside:

Isn't this nice? I realise that Indian truck drivers do not live very glamorous lives, but at least they can feel like a King in his palace when their truck is so richly and colourfully decorated.

Finally I'll introduce a few of the locals. Beautiful faces: