When people hear of our long term and slow travel stories, we are often asked questions – how do we plan, what do we plan and for how long do we plan. And when we say that we don’t really plan anything at all, more questions follow. We have always said that serendipity is a big part of our travel and we let the road lead the way.
We are starting this series from our first long term trip (well, it wasn’t THAT long but for us, it was, at the time) – our 3 months in the Himalayas. We won’t talk much about the place and our experience but about how did we decide the next destination, how we moved ahead and how the decision panned out. We will just “write out loud” what was going on in our minds. We hope this series throws light into the psyche of long term travel and acts as a guiding tool for future aspirants.
…Continued from Part 7
Dispatch #36 – When a valley celebrates
The next day was the main festival in the Sani monastery. The monastery itself was all decked up. There was festive energy in the air. Kids were happy because they didn’t have school. Youngsters got an additional hanging out time. And all the adults were getting a chance to meet their relatives from the far corners of the Zanskar valley.
The Sani monastery festival was not just a religious event. It was an important social event. Which gave us an excellent opportunity to observe the social camaraderie of the people of Zanskar.
The day was full of dances performed by the monks wearing elaborate costumes. Needless to say, chang was free-flowing at the festival.
Apart from the locals, there were a few foreigners, mostly photographers. And at the festival was when we realised that ever since we had left Kargil, we hadn’t met any non-local Indians.
We strolled around the Sani village until sunset, realising and relishing a slow pace at which time moved ahead. In fact, time didn’t mean much. It felt like it had stood still. We just soaked in this new way of life.
Back in our homestay, there was a mad ruckus. The Italian couple (who were also living in the same room) and three other girls were waiting in the room for dinner. The adjoining living room was full of the family’s personal guests. The mood was of high merriment.
Later, someone actually came to our room to ask us to hide their car keys. Because? The same story we have all heard at some point.
His uncle, super high on chang insisted he could drive back!
We looked around and burst out laughing. Nothing around us had an iota of familiarity. We hadn’t found a common thread joining us to anything or anyone we had met here. Everything had been a new experience.
And yet, here was this young man being responsible and trying to keep his family safe.
It could be a sentiment in any of our houses, in any family home, anywhere in the world.
Dispatch #37 – Cravings
We stayed a couple of days in Sani. The Sani monastery festival was done and word was that the curfew in Padum had been lifted and that it was slowly returning to normalcy.
So the next morning we got ourselves seats in a pickup truck that was headed to Padum, the headquarters of Zanskar.
Padum essentially is the only place in Zanskar catering to “tourism”.
We had heard this on our way to Zanskar. And now, we knew what exactly that meant.
Because Zanskar is a high altitude valley, like most others in the Greater Himalayas, water is a scarce commodity. And dry compost toilets are the way “to go”.
Now, it’s all fine to say that we want to be responsible travellers, live with the locals as they do. And to a large extent, I honestly feel we did that.
But humans are creatures of habit and after 4 days – 2 in the truck and 2 in Sani, we started craving for toilets – as we knew them.
And we didn’t really realise that, until we reached Padum, went to a homestay that the pick-up truck guy took us to.
“Rooms are yet to be prepared. It will take some time for you to check-in.”
“That’s okay, we’ll wait. But do you have toilets that we can use?”
Chetan and I went to two separate ones and when we got out, we had this huge smile plastered on our faces. Taps, tiles and water…it had been blissful!
“Let’s stay here for a few days!”
We had never imagined that among the things we shouldn’t be taking for granted, a toilet would be one!
Dispatch #38 – A different world, inspiration and questions
We made Padum our home for a few days. Ate in our homestay, the Mont Blanc and ate with the family. Sometimes the grandparents, at other times the kids would give us company.
We also met some crazy travellers here. Among them, was this 60 years old from Belgium, cycling in the Himalayas. He had already cycled over the Khardung La, the Dha Hanu villages and was looking forward to cycling down the Leh Manali highway.
Then there was this chemical engineer turned farmer living in Tasmania, Australia. He had been arrested a couple of years back for loitering around on the Amarnath route without permission. This year he was returning to complete the trek and say hello to the colonel who had arrested him since they had become good friends.
Then at Karsha, we met this old monk. He was so happy to see Indians visit.
“I have been to Mumbai once. I love the sea. You are very very welcome here.” From him, we earned our first katha (the white welcome cloth).
We now got used to seeing old people walk up and down the steep steps of a monastery like a walk in the park. It all looked simple until we took ten steps and though our hearts would explode.
Here in Padum we also got used to constantly hear our heart beating into our ears.
We saw the solitary petrol pump of the entire Zanskar valley. You had to operate the hand-cranked pump yourself. A BRO sign outside rightly said, “Bringing people of the remote to the mainstream”.
And then, we had this conversation with a lady who owns one of the hotels.
“You people visit and don’t want things to change. But why should we not progress? The recent riots happened because young people didn’t have anything to do.”
We believe we get open-minded when we travel, but do we, in reality, turn selfish?
Dispatch #39 – Taking it up a notch
“It’s beyond the end of the road”, we were told of the Phuktal monastery. Maps in Zanskar had these “end of the road” markings. And huge arms of the valley existed beyond, accessible only by foot.
We were overwhelmed enough with the remoteness of Padum itself. Phuktal monastery was in the remote part of a remote valley. We didn’t know what to expect.
First, we had to wait for enough people wanting to go there to fill a jeep. The Italian couple (from the truck) were also interested. That meant, four people already.
Among our co-passengers was an older woman visiting her daughter. Her baby grandson started to cry as she waved goodbye. How to make him quiet? Just take him along. No bags needed for this baby. Won’t the winding roads be a problem? Not if you shove some chang down his throat.
We stared wide-eyed as this granny gave her little grandson strong doses of alcohol. Our driver recognised our expressions. “Don’t worry, this is common here.” We crossed our fingers hoping it wasn’t common for him to have some before driving.
The plan was to reach Purne, on the other side of the mountain for night halt. However, the high altitude, our slow pace and the breathtaking landscape meant we had no chance of reaching Purne in daylight. We decided to stay at Cha, a village on the same side of the mountain. When we say a village, it essentially means a settlement of a handful of houses.
We had never walked through such a brown landscape before. We had never seen brown turn into gold like this before. We had never lived in a house so remote before. We had never before lived in a place where food was “only what’s grown on the farm.”
#Dispatch 40 – Overwhelm overload
“Don’t go to Purne. Go from here only straight to Phuktal”, they told us. “You should be there in an hour and a half. Purne will take much longer.”
Sounded good. It was a beautiful sunny morning. We started our walk. We walked and walked some more. The path became smaller – single file small. At times, it vanished. We could see the river when we started. Now it was just a slim line.
There were no villages. No trees, not even grass. No chirping birds. Just the sun and the wind. The Tsarap river was too far down to hear it flow.
The only sound was our shoes rubbing the loose mud of the mountains. The giant Greater Himalayan mountains. And there were our hearts beating. Fast and loud. Thumping, actually. We were well over 4500 meters in altitude.
An hour, then two – no change of landscape. No sign of the monastery.
After four excruciating hours, we were at the Phuktal monastery. We had lunch at the monastery with the monks. At this point, having walked through this unbelievably remote valley and seeing a fully functional monastery – we were too stunned for words. We were numbed enough to not know what to feel. We didn’t have the strength to process what we had experienced.
We knew we didn’t want to take the same treacherous path back. The path via Purne, albeit longer, was lower and wider. We had to cross three bridges to get back to our homestay in Cha.
The next morning we walked back to the end of the road where we had asked the previous day’s taxi driver to pick us up. We reached our homestay in Padum. When the street of Padum felt like “too much stuff”, we knew something within us had colossally changed.
We didn’t feel like the same people anymore.
To be continued…