Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Leh to Manali Plus - July 2010

Lee Child's protagonist, Jack Reacher, is an interesting guy: ex-Army, travels around the US with only a toothbrush, an ATM card and an expired passport. I haven’t quite achieved that: ex-civil service, I travel around the world with a carry-on sized backpack, an ATM card and a valid passport. It is a goal,though, to be as unencumbered as the fictional Reacher. But it was with my normal bits and pieces that I returned to India, my fourth trip and again in the north - I must get to the South one of these days.

This trip was with Explore, one of several small British budget tour groups, booked through Adventure Center. I’ve traveled with them before and never been disappointed. Labeled Little Tibet, the tour began in Ladakh; then Leh to Manali, on to Dharmasala and Armritsar with individual time in Delhi at the beginning and end. I did have a bit of difficulty signing on as Explore isn’t enthused about the solo Senior traveler, aged eighty or over. But with the help of my Adventure Center agent and assurances I could deal with the altitude and long drives on essentially unimproved roadways full of melting snow runoff and falling rocks, I was squeezed in. Actually, I more than held my own, only huffing and puffing when it came to step climbing up to several temples and monasteries. And I would have huffed and puffed on those steps ten, twenty years ago. And I was one of the four who didn’t have intestinal problems. .

The group of sixteen included seven Seniors, one couple, one Scot with ukulele, an Irishman, several Malaysians now Brits, a Canadian, four guys, the Brits and me, the lone American. Most were well traveled - good companions, all! The four single women rotated roommates so we became well acquainted.

I got into Delhi early and caught up on sleep, missed on the two night flight from San Francisco. When the rest arrived, there was the tour of New and Old Delhi - Old Delhi via pedal rickshaw. This was probably my third tour of the City; the sights, sounds, smells and colors of Delhi continue to fascinate me. I could park myself at a curb and just stay there indefinitely, losing myself in the entire scene,

Then we took off to Leh, a hill town, starting point for various tours and treks, There was combinations of Westerners, local Indians and Tibetan refugees. Throughout, there was a large Army and Air Force contingent for The Great Game lives on in this part of India bordered with China and Pakistan. And if Americans are concerned with AlQueda, the Indians and Pakistanis have played their game since Partition, particularly with nearby Kashmir claimed by both sides.

The time in Leh was spent at several monasteries and gompas, including Seville hours at a Buddhist Festival, the performance reminiscent of a similar event I attended in Bhutan several years ago. Here however, we were able to be up close and personal. The grotesquely masked dancers moved in repetitious rhythm to the beat of drums and the sound of wailing horns, augmented by stringed instruments of ancient vintage. The dancers movements appeared to be roughly choreographed but presented no competition to the Rockettes.

Enroute to Alchi, there was a rafting opportunity - no takers. So a long dusty drive. Again, we climbed to gompas and monasteries. I ran into two California women who were marking time to rejoin their trekking group - they dropped out early on with problems climbing in high altitude. At Likir, there was a striking Golden Buddha that caught my attention. Next a lovely morning walk over wet and soggy meadows marked with streams to reach the Saspol caves, two of which were beautifully decorated. Then off to Leh and the Leh-Manali Road which is the second highest motorable road - it had been closed due to rock slides and snow run off as I left California and was barely open, now. But the scenery was awesome, on a par with that along the Karakoram Highway.

It was a two night ride to Manali. The first night was spent in Sarchu, a tent city for travelers, where I managed icey fingers and toes. I slept with every piece of clothing on me - cold, cold! High mountain passes, snow and a rocky, rocky road, nearly indecipherable at times. Road crews were hard at work to open up areas. At best a one lane road, trucks, cars motor cycles and goats navigated past one another. Always a bit exciting to look out your window and see straight down into the valley. The drivers and the Toyota Qualis’ performed magnificently.

As we went from one jurisdiction to another, there were check points where police laboriously wrote down every bit of information from passports - no computers there. In fact, electricity was a bit iffy at times.

The second night was in a comfortable lodge, similar to one I had stayed at in Georgia along the Military Highway. And then a long days drive got us into Manali. where there were a dozen or so Enfield motor bikes parked at the hotel, readying themselves for the ride to Leh. Brits, Kiwis and Aussies, including several women were confident their ride would be less arduous than ours.

There is Old Manali and New Manali, both appearing rather old and tattered. With MJ growing along the road, it was not surprising there were hippies with the Marley-braided hair, wandering about, along with the backpackers and tourists. There were several good restaurants, a bookstore and various shops. Some people hiked and others shopped. All of us got caught up in a morning’s Hindu temple celebration.

The rest of the trip was in a big bus, which bounded and bounced its way down to Mandi, Dharamsala and Armritsar. The view to and above Dharmasala was spectacular - through mist and fog up to McLeod and the old Cantonments to our hotel in Bagsu about 3 km from McLeod and the Dalai Lama’s compound. The rains let up to allow for a wander about the Dalai Lama’s compound - he was leaving the next morning for Leh! Despite intermittent rains the next day, the determined shoppers added to the locals’ economy. while others checked out a museum and returned to the compound.

The last day was spent driving to Armritsar and with time for Jallianwala Bagh where in 1919, Brits had slaughtered peacefully demonstrating Indians. Then to the The Golden Temple, holy place for Sikhs. One of our group was of Sikh heritage; I followed her around, having a much more participatory experience than the last time I was here. I went into the temple and then to the Langar where free food was served: chapatis and lentils.

Thus concluded the tour. I flew to Delhi and stayed in a very nice, reasonably price hotel in Old Delhi, less than half the cost of the New Delhi Hotel where I started this trip. And the restaurant at there was superb, the best food I had in India. There was a mosque in back so I had prayer calls throughout the day. Down the street from the hotel, was half a dozen men/women with portable tables and typewriters, providing business services to the locals. A product market and a book store were further down the street. Though damp and hot, I did walk around, absorbing the sights and sounds of India to hold me until I return.

Then the two night flight home!

Recommendations: Ah, The Broadway Hotel and restaurant in Delhi. I had stayed there on a earlier trip and remembered them fondly. In this case, both were even better than remembered.

The Lazy Dog in Old Manali, an exceptional restaurant.

Costs: Tour ran $1611(allowing for a 10% discount); extra meals probably ran about several hundred dollars. The New Delhi Hotel was $156 for the extra night while The Broadway was $66 for the last night. Airfare was $1700.

Screw-ups: There were a couple of problems. First, I didn’t have a voucher for the extra night at the start and had to make arrangements through the local agent - for a bit, I thought I might sleep a night in the hotel lobby for I arrived at 2AM and sat in the lobby until 10 AM when arrangements were worked out. And $156 is the most I’ve ever spent for a hotel room, anywhere, any time.

The second problem had to do with the tour. Originally listed as a Delhi-Dehli tour - which was one of the reasons I booked this specific itinerary. It turned out the trip ended in Armritsar. Fortunately I found out before I left so transportation to Delhi could be booked. Overall a good experience and I got my 2010 Himalaya fix.