On top of the world

None of us felt too bad with our 3 am start, having had at least a few hours decent sleep. In the end, our flight is delayed something over an hour so we could have enjoyed an extra hour in bed! More ominously, the reason given for the delay is weather conditions in Leh….. However, once we get going, the pitot informs us that the real problem is that part of the runway at Leh is damaged so they had to make sure there was a long enough useable part. Too much information, the more nervous fliers amongst us think!

Nerves are soon forgotten though. As we head north over Himachal Pradesh, the Himalayan foothills are every shade of blue in the early morning light. Pockets of mist in the valley bottoms and higher peaks poking their heads through more dense clouds in the distance complete the stunning effect. As we fly north the mountains get larger and more arid looking but we see many huge glaciers, and the remains of melted ones, amidst the highest peaks. I wonder how much the extent of these has been reduced since I was here 30 years ago? Landing in Leh is hairy, to say the least, though I’m sure Dad would love it. It’s not clear until very late in the day where there is going to be enough flat ground to land on and we seem to skim mountain tops on our descent. When we get off the plane I’m not sure whether the slight nausea I experience is the result of altitude or nerves. The airport is just three km from Leh and the driver who meets us drops us at The Grand Dragon Hotel in just a few minutes. It looks every bit as imposing as the hotel in Delhi, if quite different.

We are greeted by two ladies in traditional Ladhaki dress who present us with white silk scarves. As it is still not 9 am our rooms are not ready but, instead of saying this, we are graciously offered breakfast. The saffron, cardamom and cinnamon-infused Kashmiri tea, served over crushed almonds, soon sorts out my nausea. It also provides a solution to which spices I should take back for our International Women’s Group meeting in October. This hotel goes much more for understated elegance than the one in Delhi, apart from porch and the ceiling in the dining room which are decorated in the colourful style of a local Buddhist monastery. All the staff are very friendly – many from Kashmir but others looking much more like their Tibetan neighbours – and it feels very comfortable to us. When we do get into our rooms, they are lovely and the views are breathtaking. We face south towards the Indus Valley and the mountains of the Zanskar Range and Hemis National Park, with picture windows running the whole length of the rooms.

The ever changing light over the mountains makes our self-imposed day of inactivity for acclimatisation something of a pleasure and we spend it planning where we will visit, napping and enjoying the pretty hotel gardens. Though the breeze felt chilly when we arrived at the airport, it soon warms up and the sun feels very intense. Not so much of a filtering atmosphere at over 11 000 ft! Garlic soup is recommended for lunch, as an anti-mountain sickness remedy, which we decide is fine as long as we all have it. I’m sure the waiters think us very odd, eating naan bread and soup for lunch, but they do a good job of disguising it! Afterwards we wander in the gardens – I’m busy looking for ‘weeds’ as well as enjoying the garden flowers. It’s encouraging to find lichens growing on the ornamental boulders too, though not species I recognise.

Helen makes friends with the ladies farming a small strip of land below the hotel and scores a handful of pretty green and pink apples and an invitation to their house. We spend some time planning what we will do for the next couple of days – it seems a good idea not to venture too much higher up tomorrow so we thought Thiksey and Hemis monasteries and a look for plants in Hemis National Park might be a good idea. The following day we may venture up to the Khardang La pass – at 5600 m, it is supposed to be the highest driveable road on Earth. Or then again, we might not….

Our Indus contact, Tashi, appears this afternoon to arrange a meeting between us and a geologist from Leh. CP Dodje is both very friendly and very helpful and we arrange to meet him on Wednesday evening for a meal. The wildlife officer we were hoping to meet couldn’t make today, unfortunately, but we should get to talk to him on Wednesday too. CP did say we should find plenty of alpine vegetation around Kargil though, which is reassuring. Dinner at the hotel tonight was a buffet with a wide range of Indian and Tibetan food to try – all very tasty and perfect for three people all feeling tired and a bit ropey by this stage. The altitude definitely takes it’s toll. The billboard advertising the Leh marathon we saw on the drive from the airport doesn’t appeal at all! We intend doing some more planning after dinner but are too tired to last long – it can wait till tomorrow. It would have been much easier to hit the ground running here if we’d been able to acclimatise on the road from Srinagar.



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