Thursday, September 13, 2007

Down and Out in Leh

Up too early for my liking, we walk to Engineer’s house to have breakfast with him. No sunglasses on the way. Breakfast is Tibetan style bread with butter and jam, and tea. I try local salty tea, again not liking the stuff, although at least this is only lightly-salted. They have a little girl from Kargil who stays with them whilst at school.

We give Mohan our passport copies to apply for the Pangong permit, then carry on into town and have a second breakfast at Pumpernickle Bakery.

Walking down from Karzoo

I read the newspaper and learn that there was a bus attack a few weeks ago in Srinagar, a bomb went off and six tourists were killed at Shalimar Gardens!! Gulp! Round the corner, we book our ticket to Manali with the Himalpradesh Tourist Association. They run a (relatively) deluxe bus to Manali from here every other day, so we’ll leave on the 28th. They also do an onward bus to Delhi, so that’s booked too, result. This does mean we have three days of buses to look forward to. Don’t think about it.

Buddha’s Bones
Down at the bus station, we hop on the next local bus to Choglamsar. There is apparently some sort of exhibition going on, Buddha relics, and there’s a Tibetan Refugee Centre with shop, i.e. guilt and more importantly haggle-free shopping for me! We’re dropped roadside in a small dusty village. Not obvious where the place is, but by walking a little we find Tibetan-style gates, and the shop.

Further along the road is the Mahabodhi Meditation Centre. Asking on the way, I find out that Buddha relics means Buddha’s bones. So that’s what all the fuss is about! There is a large open area before the meditation centre, looks like a fairground. This has roped walkways and a long queue of people filing into a temple in the corner. We head in and join the queue after a cursory inspection of my bag (metal detector waved, it bleeped, the chap says I’m okay to go). We are overtaken on the way to the queue by a bunch of old wrinkled Tibetan women. Those who fail to overtake us just push in once they reach the queue. Looks like we made it just in time though, as thousands of small kids have just rolled up in buses.

We reach the front of the queue, and head into the temple. I’m shocked that there are armed army troops inside the temple, just yards from the bones! Armed! How inappropriate! We barely get a chance to glimpse at the large glass exhibit with a few tiny specimens in the middle before we’re asked to move along. I ask an assistant what the bones are. Small bones he replies. From where in the body? He dodges, clearly doesn’t know. So there you are, a few tooth-sized fragments of Lord Buddha’s bones. Once we’re out of the temple, having been in there about 15 seconds, we walk over to the prayer mat where a dozen or so people at a time pray to the temple. I find it strange that people really believe all this stuff.

The Dalai Lama was here a couple of days before we arrived, visiting this, and other places in the area, including the Nubra Valley.

Bus back to town on another bus, we pick up our laundry. It looks like it’s been washed rather ineffectively and brutally. Welcome to the world of a hippy! Dinner is, of course, Korean food again!

Faking it for the Indian Army

Jullay, which is Ladakhi for Namaste

Next day, Mohan tells us there’s a problem with permit for Pangang Lake. Thuzar is Burmese, and apparently the District Magistrate will not issue permits to go to this touristy spot for three nationalities – Pakistani (okay), Bangladeshi (a bit strange on this side of India) and Myanmar (Burmese)! Why on earth? I can only assume that they have a standard list of nationalities that will not be issued with permits for all areas – I can understand it being an issue near the Burmese border, but we’re about a thousand miles away. If they’re going to issue Burmese with tourist visas, why not the permit.

Anyway, Mohan has an idea – he has copies of passports from people who have used him before, how about Thuzar pretends to be someone else. He flips through a pile of papers before pulling out a Korean girl Hyun Ju. He shows us. To me, she doesn’t look anything like Thuzar, but he thinks it will work. We need to practice the name and date of birth. So the story is straight, I won’t take my passport either, we’ll both have copies and will say we left them at the hotel. Mohan thinks that the checkpoint isn’t until just before the lake, so they won’t be that bothered. He’s not exactly right – more later!

We frequent Jeevan Café again for dinner, but neither of us feel great. Feels like we’ve both got some sort of flu coming on.

Breakfast at Jeevan Café. They’re playing nice music – I ask the waiter and he says it’s Nitin Sawhnhey. I ask if he minds if I copy it. He says the cd is scratched up, but I’m welcome to try. I grab my laptop from our guesthouse and dash back. He’s right, the cd is a nightmare, but I manage to pull off the song I want, track 4 on the Philtre album. I love the girl’s voice!

My blog is so horrendously out of date now it’s depressing me, so we go back to the guesthouse, Thuzar does some washing whilst I tap away. In the afternoon we head down into town for some shopping. First stop, post office to dispatch more postcards, then the Penguin Restaurant for lunch of salad, and egg curry with rice.

Penguin Restaurant

Pharmacy for women’s things, then we call Engineer’s mobile. It’s always engaged.

We have a beer up on Pizza de Hut (!) terrace, people watching, then head back to Changspa, of course bumping into Engineer as we do so. Apparently his phone hasn’t worked all day, hence engaged!

We try to book some flights using the internet, but I keep getting an error with my card. Eventually we telephone – who I’ve used to book Air Deccan twice before, and eventually I get out of them that they’ve just changed the rules, they now don’t accept international credit cards. What a pain in the backside, and how bad of makemytrip – at least inform people that you have made this change – would have saved me time and money. We’ll have to go to a travel agent tomorrow.

Incidentally, we tried to call them from a phone box, and the line dropped half way into the call. Not responsible for dropped calls, the sign says. So much for quality of service!

I distress by watching some King of the Hill (thank you Lewis!), then we head out, back to La Pizzeria, only to be told that the beer is finished. It’s Friday night! They’re out. I order some pasta Genovese. They’re out of pesto too. What do you have? A large collection of Bob Marley music. It’s that kind of place. We’re almost done, when suddenly there’s excitement the other side of the garden from us – our laid-back rasta waiter is beating a customer! Then he runs to the kitchen and grabs a large knife!

Turns out, he explains afterwards, the customer is a local who is always swearing, and, being drunk tonight, he made one comment too far about the waiter’s mother. We pay and leave.

After breakfast at Jeevan café, we walk to the Main Bazaar Street to visit Air Deccan’s office. It’s not obvious whether it’s an official office or an agent, but they have the biggest logo’d poster in town, so must be reasonably official. The girl who serves us in going to study to be a teacher at Jammu University – there isn’t one in Leh, soon. It’s cash only for tickets, ouch. But they’re booked, for about the same price as online. This is a flight from Delhi to Jodphur, i.e. to get us out of our 3 day trip becoming a 4 day one. Call me lazy.

Today we take a local bus to Thikse, supposedly the monastery in the area to see. It looks great, perched on top of a hill above the dusty plain. We walk up, past the lines of stupas and whitewashed buildings to reach the top, with its beautiful view.

The monastery was founded in the 15th century by Gelukpa monks.

There’s an old library up here which a monk unlocks for us.

Filthy creatures

The Dalai Lama in the Dukhang, which houses a Buddha from the 15thC

Coming down the other side, we realise that we came in the back – this is the main part of the monastery, with an enormous Maitreya, or Future Buddha indoors, 15m high.

A sign explains that one should not take photos of yourself with Buddha, as even images of Buddha are holy to Buddhists.

Here are some of the details in the temple:

Heading out of the main entrance, we pay the entry fee (doh), then walk down towards Shey.

Looking back to the back of Thikse

We give up the walk in the heat, and chat to some locals, some cute kids then a woman carrying a huge bundle of a kind of vegetable (like kamgong) on her back. She’s very pleased to be photographed!

Stupas abound towards Shey

Our bus back to town is rammed, and I spent half the journey with my neck at an awkward angle because I’m being crushed by those standing. We walk back through town a different way, visiting the polo ground, the main area for any events in Leh.

Then somehow we end up back at the Korean restaurant!

We’re given a tip for Rajasthan, there’s a Korean restaurant in Jodphur called Titanic (nb, turns out they were not quite right, it’s in Jaisalmer). It’s also a guesthouse, but not good, only the food is good! They don’t have beer here either. Is this a health conspiracy?!

Trying to use the internet to book train tickets, I find the Indian Rail booking system, which I thought was fairly good, has been “improved” and so doesn’t work any more. Towards home, we pop into Oasis Garden but they’ve only got strong beer, no thanks. Finally we find Kingfisher across the road. Ahhhhh

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