Tibetan prayer flags over Namgyal Tsemo Gompa
After viewing the gardens of the Taj Mahal and experiencing one of the largest Hindu festivals in the holy city of Varanasi (click here to read part 1 of my India blog), it was finally time to head towards an area that had excited me the most, the Indian Himalayas.
Getting there would be an almost four day straight slog across four Indian states, so I decided to break the journey up with stopovers in the very welcoming Rishikesh and Manali.
India is big, but you never really appreciate just how big until you need to travel somewhere. Varanasi to Rishikesh is a crazy 1000km by road, so a 20 hour sleeper train that traces the Ganges river, with a non-optional six hours of delays, is still the quickest way to go. The train station was beyond crowded, as those dressed in orange returning with holy water from the festival in Varanasi were lying on every square inch of the ground. A rough train ride later, and their presence was also felt at my destination of Haridwar, another holy site on the Ganges and usually only a 35 minute car ride away from Rishikesh. On this day however, the highway between the two cities was completely blocked and would not clear up for a couple of days. Forced to stay the night in a sleezy but ultimately cheap hotel, the following morning I instead hired a car that took a much longer loop around rural roads.
My impressions of Rishikesh are mixed. It exhibits all the normal markers of an Asian tourist town - in many ways it is to India what Pai is to Thailand. Every visitor I spoke to had come to Rishikesh for a yoga retreat, and trendy vegan cafes with meditation themes lined the street. It was a chill couple of days, but after a heated discussion with a frustratingly unselfaware American sporting dreadlocks, making jokes about how little the local hostel staff make while flaunting his latest Macbook features to them, I was off.
Manali is where India stops feeling like India, and transforms into a strange Canadian-Himalayan hybrid. The increased elevation and reduced urban development has allowed lush cedar and willow forests to flourish, all around a town divided into new and old districts by a freshingly clean river. A handful of iconic temples are placed between these districts, including the Manu temple, positioned at the apex of the new district.
Not so Canadian
While walking up to the temple, it quickly became obvious just how few people lived here compared to the more southern states. Greeting only a few workmen and a couple of goats, I felt like I could finally relax for the first time in India - and from here on out, no more upset stomachs. At Manu, three young boys playing with toy cars became transfixed by an older boy sweeping water away from the temple entrance. The older boy spotted me and smiled, and started to pick up the pace with his broom, drenching the others in large waves.
Following on from the temple, I recieve my first sneak peak at the ice-capped Himalayas, only a short walk outside of town. Through this cedar forest, a stray labrador tagged along and became my guide, ecstatic to have a companion for his stroll.
This short glimpse was a tease of what was to come, as the next morning I boarded a bus that would transport me to the Tibetan Himalayas, across an exhausting two day journey.
Bussing through the heavens
The following two days were the most terrifying I've experienced, but absolutely the most beautiful. It is difficult to put into words the constant awe of staring upwards at endless towering titans piercing the clouds, coated in ice and sand, while also peering downwards at unlucky vehicles that had plummeted down the valley, as the bus you're on negotiates oncoming traffic with it's wheels less than a metre from the cliff's edge.
Happily there were no crashes on this journey, and the first day of climbing 1km up winding passages ended with a night in the small village of Keylong (3080m).
The second day began with a rough 4am wakeup, as somehow the driver managed to exceed his speed from the previous day while navigating through utter darkness. Honestly, these bus drivers have supernatural abilities. Breaking into Ladakh, the forested and icy mountains gave way to dry sandy rock formations reminiscent of the Martian landscape.
The road roped around the side of numerous expansive valleys, and frequently climbed over mountain passes that reached 5000m in elevation. Stepping off at several of these passes, the lack of oxygen really hits home as you explore. On the last pass, hidden to the side, beneath the curve of a downward slope, a supposedly ancient mannequin wearing medieval-looking garb and armour was propped up above some rocks - a warrior's resting place, perhaps.
Tibet is the fabled Himalayan homeland of the Tibetan people, but today the land and its people have been forced into a juridiscial tug-of-war between two of the most resourceful countries in the world, India and China. The latter has historically employed a more forceful approach to invoking control, and after the failed uprising of Tibetans in 1959, many had fled the border to seek asylum in India.
On the Indian side, the government administers the Tibetan region of Ladakh, a once independent Himalayan kingdom with a rich history, language, and separate culture in its own right. Nowadays though, Ladakh has lost much of its historical grandeur and its culture has mixed with its neighbour, so is commonly incorporated under the umbrella veil of "Tibet".
I arrived at Leh (3500m), the ancient capital and royal seat of Ladakh, just in time for internet lines to be cut. You see, Ladakh, a Buddhist majority region, used to be administered along with Jammu, a Hindi majority, and Kashmir, a Muslim majority, within a single controversial state since 1947. The grouping of these three regions with vastly different cultures, religions and histories into a single state caused a great deal of civil unrest in Northern India, with Kashmiris bearing the brunt of violence both from India's military and Pakistani/Kashmiri militants. With Ladakh bordering China on one side, Kashmir bordering Pakistan on the other, and frequent Hindu-Muslim conflict between Jammu and Kashmir, the state was the the most highly militarised zone in the entire world.
But during the summer of 2019, when I just happened to be visiting Ladakh, a decision was made to separate Ladakh into a union territory, separate from Kashmir and Jammu. This was the first step in what people believed to be a plan to further divide Kashmir from Jammu, in hopes of providing them both with a semblance of independent governmental authority. Almost two years later however, as of the writing of this blog, Jammu and Kashmir remain unseparated.
In the days leading up to the passing of the bill, the Indian government decided to cut internet services for the entire state, causing Kashmir to descend into a state of panic. Over in Ladakh meanwhile, the easy-going demeanour of the Buddhist population meant it was business as usual, with those most frustrated by the lack of an internet connection being travellers (e.g. me).
The most imposing structure in Leh is Namgyal Tsemo Gompa, a 15th century Buddhist monastery, which resides above the restored royal palace of Leh at over 3500m.
Namgyal Tsemo Gompa
From the city of Leh, many other jewels of the Indian Himalayas can be reached. A popular tourist route is to journey to Pangong Lake, a destination that has exploded with popularity within India, as it featured in the finale of the bollywood film "3 Idiots". It is also a lake that crosses the disputed Indian-Chinese border, where violent clashes between each country's military in June 2020 led to the recent agreement of withdrawing troops from the area.
The lake itself is pretty enough, but losing at the Indian tabletop game of carrom against an expert Ladakhi was much more enjoyable. Sadly, Pangong lake is one in a line of destinations that have been destroyed by the increased tourism of the upcoming Indian middleclass. Trash litters the side of the road, and wild Himalayan marmots approach vehicles dangerously close as they are now accustomed to humans stopping to fed them.
To get to here, I had rented a multiday shared car with some other visitors from Leh. Our driver for the next few days was a kind and humerous Ladakhi man, who I immediately clicked with. While driving through areas like Ladakh though, often the journey is more exciting than the destination. We greeted (and I secretly fed) a triplet of friendly stray dogs, helped put up prayer flags for our driver at a temple on a hill, stopped at Khardung La and Chang La, boasted as the first and second highest motorable passes in the world, and had some chai tea at the highest cafe in the world. Although Khardung La has signs and t-shirts saying it is the highest pass in the world at 5602m, in reality it is only 5360m. Still, this is enough to put it in at least the top five, and make walking up some steps a significant physical exertion.
Just north of Leh over Khardung La pass lies Nubra, a high altitude cold desert that has a strong historical association with the silk road. Many ancient monstaries and unqiue cultures reside within this valley, as well as the Bactrian camels that were used in the caravan trading days of old.
Wild Bactrian camels are critically endangered, and efforts to breed camels in Nubra valley for tourism has been reported to have brought the species back from the brink. Here, people can ride these double-humped camels across the sand dunes and snap some photogenic shots. All good.
Unfortunately, wild Bactrian camels (Camelus refus) are actually a genetically and behaviourally distinct species from the other Bactrian camels that have a domesticated past (Camelus bactrianus). The Bactrian camels of Nubra valley are not from the wild species, and so the noble yet vague conservation tagline that is advertised to tourists, providing an incentive for them to engage in animal tourism without moral objection, is false. Not only is this camel breeding industry unsustainable because of its placement in a sensitive strategic location with a fragile environment, but it is plain to see that there is little thought for the welfare of these camels.
Walking around, men with sticks hit the camels in the face to control them during photo ops, they pull on nose rings to direct them, and scare babies away when it is time for their mother to give a ride. It remains unregulated, with no real animal welfare considerations or veterinary care to be seen, but it was the busiest place on my journey by far.
While this may have felt a somber end to my time in India, part of me is glad I saw both the beauty and the ugly. I hope to return again soon and explore the Kashmir side of the Himalayas, as I had originally planned before the state was officially split in two.
Never ride an animal abroad, it's just not worth it∎