Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Ladakh - Zanskar Trek: Day 9 and the Trip home

Day 9: Pishu to Padum, via Karsha

From Zanskar Trek

We started the last day of the trek hoping to find a taxi along the way. It had rained a bit through the night, and the morning was colder and cloudier than usual. It helped make the hike easier, but the clouds also hid the tall mountains around us.

The hike to Karsha from Pishu was along an unpaved path that clearly had car tracks. Cars clearly did make it to Pishu, but we didn’t see one until Karsha.

The hike was along the flat bed of the valley, along the Zanskar river. As we walked, the valley opened up more, and we started seeing taller, whiter mountains around us. We saw the Stongde monastery on a hill across the river -- something we would have thought about making a detour to if we weren’t that dead tired. Past Stongde, we could see Padum in the distance as well.

From Zanskar Trek

We didn’t meet any hiker this day -- in either direction. We suspected that most people must either drive to Pishu, or even Zang La to start the hike in the opposite direction. We were the only idiots who hiked the entire distance.

It took us a good part of 5 hours to get to Karsha. We expected horses to catch up to us by the time we got there. We had hoped that if we couldn’t get a taxi, we can ride the horses to Padum -- we definitely did not want to hike the last two hours to Padum. As we neared Karsha, we realized the horses weren’t going to catch up with us. They had taken a different path and were taking a shorter route directly to Padum. We could see them in distance closer to the bridge on the river, while we stood on the hill in Karsha.

From Zanskar Trek

Luckily we found a taxi as soon as we entered Karsha. It was a different matter that the guy expected us to pay him Rs 800 for a 10 minute ride. Under normal circumstances, I would have refused to pay anything more than 50, but this time we settled for 700.

Ten minutes later we were in Padum -- which clearly looked like a town with facilities.

Immediately we set about finding a proper hotel to stay in. We looked at three and finally took the third one -- none of them was as clean as we would have liked. Once we had found the hotel, we ventured out looking for food. Our notion of “food” was clearly different than what was available in Padum. Apparently they don’t have any vegetables, so we could only get mutton, or chowmein and mo-mos. We, on the other hand, had been day dreaming about all kinds of meals we would feast on once we ended the hike. Alas!

However, we had a hotel room, beds, shower, warm water and a taxi for the next day to take us to Kargil and Srinagar.

The Drive to Srinagar via Kargil

From Zanskar Trek

The drive to Kargil goes through the Zanskar valley and it was probably the most breathtakingly beautiful drive I have ever been on. We passed through valleys and passes, always surrounded by tall snow covered mountains. As we neared Kargil, at some point the region became more lush and villages became more frequent, roads became better. We also noticed that the population changed from being mostly Ladakhi to mostly Muslim.

It took us 12 hours to get to Kargil. Kargil itself is a pretty big town, especially when compared to everything we had been subjected to so far. It seemed bigger than Leh.

We stayed at a hotel that our guide had said is the best hotel in Kargil. Pooja took it to mean that this was going to be a 5 star hotel, complete with spa and shops and all elements of luxury. I asked her to not expect too much, and indeed she felt quite disappointed when we arrived at the hotel. The hotel was quite alright though -- a bit baroque, but had warm water, and everything we needed. It was probably the first day in many that we enjoyed a really good meal.

We left early morning the next day for Srinagar -- we were on the road by 4am! I realized why we needed to hit the road that early a litle bit later. The highway to Srinagar is closed in the night and the barrier at Drass opens up at 6am. The road is lined with cars and trucks waiting to cross at 6am.

I had thought the drive to Kargil was pretty, but as we got closer to Srinagar I realized why this place is the one people rave so much more about. Ladakh and Zanskar are extreme places -- and very brutal -- but Kashmir is just as beautiful and a lot more habitable and soothing. It is very saddening to know that this place suffers from chronic militancy and disputes -- because you fall in love with Kashmir very quickly.

From Zanskar Trek

We stayed at a houseboat on the Dal Lake -- the houseboat called “Teharan,” owned and run by an elderly gentleman whose hosptality made our stay very memorable. Based on what everyone called him, we addressed him as Haji sahib too. His cook made for us lamb curry, biryani, seekh kebab -- and we downed them all. If you are ever in Srinagar -- look up Teharan houseboat!

For a change, Pooja’s expectations were also met -- we thoroughly enjoyed our stay, however short it was. And it did feel short. Both of us promised ourselves to return to Srinagar for a longer visit.

But after a long trek, we were looking forward to the comfort of home. Sweet home.

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