Editor's Note: Welcome to the blog Isaiah Einzig, our first guest writer!
The US government has instituted a travel warning to India's Ladakh region due to a decades long territorial dispute between Pakistan and India. At first glance, one might wonder why any Westerner would ever venture to such a deserted region with Mars like landscape. After some adjustment - a significant adjustment, one begins to appreciate the region, culture, and people.
After 21 hours of travel from New York City I landed at Leh Airport. The landing was one of the most thrilling because the pattern takes you across the runway over a massive rock formation parallel to the landing point, and then the pilot quickly descends as he turns downwind. Landing at an altitude of 10,682 feet, the pilot included altitude sickness warning signs as part of his debriefing. At first I didn’t feel anything, but it hit me once I strapped on my Osprey backpack and walked outside to meet Matt.
We got in a cab and drove to our guest house as the finest North American export, Justin Bieber, blasted on the speakers. It was immediately evident that this was a dusty place; motorcyclists and pedestrians covered their faces with cloth to keep the dirt out of nostrils and mouths. Leh is not a big city at all; it’s existence is based on its presence as a stopping point along the Silk Road. Nonetheless, it is now dominated by domestic and international tourists seeking a starting point for trekking, mountaineering, white water rafting, and wildlife photography.
The guest house was a two story structure in the back of a multi-generational family home. The structure consisted of 8 bedrooms, each with a bathroom and a full sized bed. The bathroom had a toilet (don’t flush the toilet paper) and a shower that rarely provided hot water. The carpeted floor and bedsheets probably had not been clean since the border with Pakistan was drawn, but the owners were welcoming and kind.
I didn’t want to give into my jet lag so we dropped off my bags, put on our hiking shoes, and started the activities. The first stop was Leh Palace, which overlooks the town. It was a short walk through the old part of town and then we started ascending a hill. The small museum showed various famous sites of India, but the real attraction was the 360 degree view of Leh from the 8th story.
Once on top, it was time for me to experience the much talked about drone. I was immediately captivated by the unique perspective provided. My initial impression of Leh as a small town was altered by the drone video that showed small cement and mud buildings for as far as the eye could see.
As common with most utilization of the drone, the session was cut short by security personnel halting our flight. After a little more exploration of the palace it was time for my first experience of the local cuisine. I very much appreciated the simple thukpa soup as my first meal. During sunset we walked up to Shanti stupa and watched the surrounding area twinkle as the sky’s color transferred into nighttime.
The next day consisted of a private driver taking us to three nearby monasteries. For anyone who has traveled in Europe, you know that the itinerary can be consumed by century old churches. Monasteries are the equivalent in Ladakh. The majority are built into and on top of a hill, have a multistory golden Buddha, require that you take your shoes off, and include a room to light oil candles.
The next three days consisted of a Jeep tour throughout the Nubra valley. I’ve learned many times “don’t always take the cheaper option” and this was another perfect example. Instead of having a private driver, our van was shared with three other domestic tourists. My initial concern of comfort in the van wasn’t a problem; rather, it was the misogynistic, exclusionary, and overtly rude actions of the other passengers and driver. Even though he spoke fine English, the driver only communicated in Hindi to the other passengers, they thought it was permissible to blast Bollywood music for the 15+ hours we were in the car, and the elder passenger spoke as if we lived in a world in which females were the property of their male counterparts. Much of India has evolved, but we witness how the older generation still has an “old school, boys club” mindset. Additionally, the younger generation still requires some life lessons regarding appropriate human interaction in the modern world.
Besides the blatant lesson of local rudeness, the three day Jeep tour provided some heart stopping roads, breathtaking views, and vivid examples of how the region is heavily guarded by the Indian military. The tour advertised that we would drive on “the highest motor road in the world” and although I didn’t fact check this, the road was scary as hell.
The adventure of the first day was riding the region’s famous two hump camels. Thank goodness I was wearing pants as I would have been in direct contact with the family of flies dwelling in the camel’s half shed winter coat and got camel snot all over my legs. After our 15 minute ride, we launched the drone and recorded some good video before the inevitable cease and desist from the local inhabitants.
After a cold and dirty night of sleep we ventured back into the Jeep and off to Pangong lake. I’ve seen big and small lakes before and was a bit confused over the excitement when we eventually turned the corner and saw the lake.
I was further confused by everyone’s excitement to take selfies seated on yellow mopeds. Over steamed and fried Momos, Matt and Stefje neutralized my confusion of the yellow mopeds by explaining they were from the critically and commercially acclaimed bollywood movie, “The Three Idiots”. My confusion over the “wow factor” of the lake was expelled the next morning when Matt’s early morning knock on the door invited me to a drone flying session. The previous day’s clouds and light mist had morphed into a clear sky for as far as the Tibetan border to the East.
After breakfast we packed up the Jeep and ventured through the death defying roads for one more day. We arrived back in Leh, cleaned our bodies, over filled our bellies, and slept well back at our guest house. All was in preparation for the upcoming three day trek.
After a morning of traversing the false information from various trekking agencies it was time to get in a taxi for the trail head. Once again I had a front row seat to a ballet of twist and turns along a mountainous road.
We strapped on our bags and started hiking. It was immediately obvious that we were in a desolate area. From the onset I wasn’t sure what my objective was 1) make it to the 16,100 foot peak 2) achieve complete inner peace 3) continue my selective eating to avoid the dreaded diarrhea or 4) get some exercise and have a good time. We hiked for 4 hours in the heat and all agreed that the area was undoubtedly the most isolated area we had ever been.
We appreciated the seclusion and the magnificent beauty, but began to wonder, “who lives here?” and “where will we sleep?” Besides minor signs of altitude sickness, there wasn’t any physical dragon to slay; rather, just the mental concerns of where the next meal would come from. I sensed the day’s hike was coming to the end; thus, I exacerbated my NYC walking speed to ensure I could be the one to shout back “we have a home to sleep in!” After a slight hill, I turned the corner and saw a lady sitting amongst her barley fields sipping some tea.
There wasn’t a need to check out the room or to negotiate a price. We knew this was our only option. Although I may be biased, I can only assume that Matt and Stefje were thrilled to finally have the opportunity to share a room with me.
After a home cooked meal and plenty of rounds of cards, it was time to go to sleep. I stuffed myself with multiple egg roti rolls at breakfast because I knew we had 5-6 hours of hiking ahead of us, the majority of which would be an uphill battle. Our host gave us prepackaged lunches of roti, a hard boiled egg, a potato, a chocolate bar and a juice box. It was a bagged lunch fit for a middle schooler or a 28 year old dirty American hiking with two friends in India. From the onset it was evident that our energy would be drained climbing the 2,300 feet of elevation gain. Before I knew it, my buff vertically surrounded my head, my baseball cap draped slightly over my eyes, and I was enveloped in my own world, a world in which all I could hear was “keep hiking up”. Every so often I would look back to make sure Matt and Stefje were still in my sight. Both are very fit, but Matt was weighed down by a bag containing both hiker’s possessions and neither had my NYC walking speed. After getting disappointed by some false peaks, I finally made it to the real one.
It’s existence was evident, not by some commercialized “you made it” sign, but rather by the abundance of prayer flags. I quickly put on my jacket to capture the body heat (I laughed when I originally packed it in the 90+ degree sunny heat the previous day) and waited for Matt and Stefje for the obligatory summit picture. We snapped the picture and then I said “I apologize, I always go down too quickly, I’ll see you down there.” It was time to get to better oxygen levels and hopefully a warm meal.
The race down included a brief drone session, but was otherwise uneventful. And just like the previous day, a random turn around a bend presented an unexpected ‘village.’ There were three buildings! A sprawling metropolis for the region! We put our packs down and immediately laid down for a rest. And then it happened, the moment I dreaded since I originally decided to travel to India, the moment I meticulously tried to avoid. I don’t know why it happened then or what caused it, but I had no doubt it was happening. I spent the next three hours dodging back and forth from working on my core strength at the squat toilet to curling up in the fetal position on my sorry excuse for a mattress. I was grateful that this literal punch in the gut didn’t occur a couple of hours earlier and 2,000 feet higher. Modern medicine enabled me to eat a little dinner; nonetheless, our host constantly put food on my plate and gave me any angry look for not eating more of her food. As I put my head on the pillow, I fell asleep to the thought of “tomorrow couldn’t possibly more draining”. Yeah, right!
After breakfast we started our hike under ideal conditions; the landscape was magnificent and the weather was perfect.
Upon leaving the homestay we ran into an Israeli couple that we played cards with the previous night. We had a brief discussion regarding potentially sharing a cab once we made it to “town”. Exact logistics are a fantasy when hiking in India; regardless, the exit plan back to Leh seemed slightly more unknown than previous plans. Nonetheless, we hiked on and I brushed the lack of plans as a “later problem”. Dry areas led to rivers and lush green areas. I was excited to see the “town” because, to give Matt’s back a rest, I had been carrying their heavy bag. After about five hours of hiking we arrived at the “town” and sat down by a little stream to refuel. I had learned not to expect much from such towns and I doubted that this one would live up to its billing as the communication hub of the valley with its ability to call for a cab. The homestay owner, in her broken English, stated that a cab will be back in an hour. My fear was subdued, an hour is no time when hiking in India. Over the next half hour, the Israelis and an Indian lady joined our lunch. The domestic tourist helped with communication and informed us that the cab is only able to bring us to the river because the water is high and at the river we can take a trolly across and then call another cab. The Israelis didn’t understand the word “trolly” so I showed them the below picture to explain.
There was a short debate if we should even wait for the cab or start the 4.5 miles walk. As I had little faith in obtaining a cab once we crossed the river, I quickly shot down the idea of walking. Thank goodness we waited because the road to the river was completely exposed to the sun and was another mountainous road that curved back and forth. We got to the river and were delighted to see a semi completed bridge, meaning we didn’t have to take the questionable trolly. The cab driver saw our hesitation to walk across the uncompleted bridge so he quickly jumped out of the cab to stomp on the bridge to show its security.
As predicted, there wasn’t access to a cab; the road was closed due to a landslide. We threw on our bags and started walking the next 3 kilometers to the next town. As we walked along the river road, we kept wondering “where are these fallen rocks?” We made it to Chilling, which resembled an actual town, but there were still no cars there. I looked at Matt and said “guess we are hiking more.” Tiredness, thirst, and hunger were in full throttle, but we had no choice. About 45 min more of hiking and we finally saw the culprit: large jagged rocks laid across the road. There was an army (literally workers from the Indian army) working around the area to move the debris. We couldn’t go around as there was a 100 foot drop to the raging river so we knew we had to go over. As we approached the obstacle, we saw a worker walk next to us with two bundles of dynamite. Our eyes lit up, but were calmed when a superior whistled the guy, and the dynamite, to retreat. We stopped for a second in hesitation but soon agreed that turning back was not an option. We carefully climbed over the debris unharmed and finally saw a cab.
As I approached the driver, I greased my palm with money and was excited to get ripped off to be driven back to Leh. He immediately rejected my offer with “can’t, the road is closed”. I was confused, didn’t we just tackle the road closure?
He pointed down the road towards another debris pile. The cab was sandwiched between two piles, he was having a worse day than us! This debris pile was different. It wasn’t formed by strong rigid rocks, it was a mixture of small rocks and sand. Every step looked like it would displace a significant amount of the pile, which would tumble down to the river. The incline was steep, but we knew we had no option. Matt looked at me and asked “is this ok?” but I understood the intention of his question. There wasn't any answer besides “it’s the only choice." After a visual stare down with the pile, Stefje ventured across first. I immediately froze and pictured myself alone on one side. I unconfidently asked Matt “can I go second?” He nodded and it was my turn.
The minute to cross seemed like an eternity, especially when I stupidly looked down. I couldn’t hear sounds, not even Stefje's voice and outstretched arm for me to grab at the end. I made it across and could only think “that was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done, but I had to do it.”
We took a moment to gather our emotions and knew there was only one thing to do: hike until we saw a cab. To our delight, we saw about three cabs up the road. Rejection after rejection after rejection. The drivers were all waiting for clients that they were supposed to have gotten up the road. I tried the American capitalist way of offering more money and explaining that they had enough time to drive us and be back by the time their client arrived. But it was all to no avail.
As we walked for another hour we saw more groups of army workers working on the road, so we knew that at least we weren’t alone in the desolate area. An army truck filled with workers came directly at us to drop off the group. I waved a 500 rupee bill at the overpacked truck and the driver laughed as he zipped past us. A couple of minutes later the truck was headed back towards us, but empty. To my surprise, the soldier stopped the truck and we hopped in. He gestured that he would only be driving us a short distance, but we were happy to take what we could get, we had over 75 left km to Leh.
The treacherous road was scarier eight feet up perched in an unstable army truck from the 90’s. After about 6 kilometers the truck stopped, so we gave the driver a chocolate bar and exited. We were back to hiking and back to scheming about our next mode of transportation. About 15 min later we saw a male motorcycle driver coming at us. I tried to charm him to abort his joy ride and drive us to Leh. He laughed off the proposition and continued past us. Ten minutes later he was coming up from behind us, stymied by the road closure. He stopped to chat and entertain the idea of driving us. Matt pressured me to jump on and go ahead.
Coincidentally, a car was approaching us, so we interrupted and asked for a ride for Matt and Stefje. Soon enough, the three of us were once again off our feet. They nicely dropped us off at bodega, where we immediately chugged two bottles of water each. We saw a car next to the stand and started charming the shopkeeper to drive us to Leh. After five minutes of consistently annoying her she agreed to drive us 20 kilometers to the road where we should be able to find a cab. Unknown to us, this small lady must have been a former participant of India’s NASCAR circuit, because she screamed down the road like Dale Earnhardt Jr. Within We two minutes of getting dropped off, we were in the car of an army engineer. At first glance, he was one of the scariest looking Indians I’d encountered, but once he opened his mouth he was by far the nicest person to date. He gave us a cheap ride because he wanted to practice his English and was headed towards Leh anyhow. We had our salvation, it was time to celebrate! Obviously we didn’t have beer or champagne, so I popped open a bag of Sour Patch Kids, which tasted better than any form of celebratory alcohol.
As we sat at Leh’s finest restaurant that night, we recapped the day. Stefje blamed everything on my presence, saying that “these adventures only happen when you are with us”. Matt was simply happy that we were clean, drinking a beer, and eating real food. And all I could think about was, “I hope my mother never finds out what I did today”.