Up early as expected. Over the past few days my friends had been talking about returning through the Srinagar route. Our original plan was to return via the same route we had come but then we didn't quite know what to expect from the most difficult road in India. I had my reservations but you can't fight the majority view on such trips. The road through Srinagar (called National Highway 1) was much better than the Manali route, with excellent roads and only one difficult pass – ZojiLa. This was welcome news for my bike.
My bike was in the worst shape of her life and the first thing on the day's agenda was to find a good mechanic. For this I had to go out of town and towards the airport. The stretch before the airport is full of garages and logistic offices. Being a Sunday, many shops were closed but I found a mechanic at work on some bikes. I went in and started with my long list of problems. The guy told me that these were normal problems given the bike had done the Manali-Leh route and went on to tell me what he could do and what he could not. What he could do was essentially a change of oil and cleaning of the carburettor. The rest, he said, I should look at after getting back home. I went to another shop and picked up the oil – it was meant for cars but the shopkeeper and the garage guy said that it was better suited at high altitudes. I didn't see the point of arguing with experience.
(My bike at the garage)
I spent a good hour at the garage and the mechanics checked and tweaked a lot of things on my bike. It enjoyed all that attention after the punishment it had received. The other customer at the garage got chatting with me. Mr Dhakate, originally from Nagpur, had been working in the accounts department at the local ITBP guest house for a few years now. I asked him for help with the places around Leh and he patiently listed all the things that shouldn't be missed. I noted it all down. Thanks to him I had a notebook filled with information of places between Leh and Kargil peppered with insider tips. He gave me his number in case we ran into any problem on the way, and then also gave me his wife's number as backup in case we had trouble reaching his number. My bike was ready by now – I thanked the mechanics and came back to the hotel.
The power goes off quite often in Leh and that compounded the problem we had with limited charging points. We decided to leave our devices connected to the charging points hoping that they would be charged when the power came back on. We then headed to the market for a hearty continental breakfast. Lots of bread – served with cups of butter, jam and honey, potatoes, various preparations of egg, and exotic sounding teas. The cafe had an attached bakery and we ordered some pies to round off the meal.
(First of the four eateries we visited during the day)
After that heavy meal, we wandered into a bookstore. It had shelves full of foreign language literature – Japanese, Spanish, Korean, Russian, etc. Most of the books in there were used and there were very few books in English. I picked up a few maps to see the route back to Srinagar. The young Sardar at the counter came over to help us.
Gurpreet Singh, born and brought up in Leh, had manned this family-run store from as long as he remembers. He was as clueless as us about the route. Turns out he hadn't travelled much, not even the places around Leh. As he put it, "Ghar ki murgi dal barabar". He spoke about life in Leh and how it is important to be happy in your own company. Very few people stay in Leh through the year as life gets incredibly difficult in the winters. According to Gurpreet, the road outside his store has over six feet of snow at the peak of winter and they can't even open the main door which gets blocked by snow. On learning that we were from Mumbai, he told us that he had been there once. The only thing he remembered from his visit was a day spent at some amusement park, he couldn't recollect the name. Esselworld, we chipped in. Why a Punjabi family would prefer the harsh, inhospitable mountains of Ladakh to the irrigated fertile plains is beyond me.
We walked around the market, looking at souvenirs but found them too expensive. Feeling hungry again, we went into another cafe that offered a wonderful view of Leh palace from our seats. The food was average but the baked good on display looked delicious – yes this too had a bakery. After this, me, Kunal and Sanjay went out to explore the places nearby. Amey was primarily interested in the food joints and stayed back.
(View of Leh palace from our Leh cafe)
(Backpackers in Leh market)
We took out bikes out of town and towards the palace. Indians have it good here, like everywhere else – we had free entry while the foreigners were charged 100 rupees. The palace was being restored by ASI and many places were off limits.
We could see Tsemo Gompa further up on the same hill and that is where we went next. I was having difficulty pronouncing the name of the place. The guide outside the gate kept repeating Tsemo but all I could repeat was Semo-Semo. He had a tough time explaining to me how to pronounce it correctly. There's a beautiful statue in the complex that should not be missed.
(Our bikes parked at the entrance of Tsemo Gompa)
The entire town could be seen from up here. Little white rooftops dotting a desert background with the snow clad Zanskar further beyond. There's a little hill at the entrance of the gompa that is covered with Tibetan prayer flags. The climb was through a narrow ridge and I wasn't feeling too confident about reaching the other side. Kunal went first and I followed ,slowly, on all fours at some stretches. Got many awesome photos from here of the town, the palace, and the Stok Kangri range.
(Leh town and the Zanskar range in the background)
(The hill with prayer flags on top - MUST VISIT!)
Before sundown we were back in the market, in yet another rooftop cafe having pretty the same stuff and loving it! While returning to our hotel, we saw a rather interesting looking place next door. I went in to check it out and the place resembled Mocha before the hookah ban came into effect. The place was open-air and the Zanskar range, lit by a full moon night, could be seen from all the seats in the house.
(Our enclosure in the lounge)
Called Elements, this place claimed to be a lounge and was a stone's throw away from our hotel room. I went back for my friends. We couldn't believe we hadn't discovered this place earlier. The night was chilly but we got a nice enclosure filled with red gaddas and pillows. We had a chess board and sketch pad on our table to keep us busy. The food and drinks were great. There was some brilliant music playing and I discovered many awesome songs that went on to become regulars in my playlist. There was a noisy Punjabi group in the next enclosure but we were in a world of our own. After we were done we stayed back till closing time. I am sure no one wanted our last night in Leh to end. I lay down with my feet up watching the bright little holes, the stray cloud, and a snow clad mountain range painted on my Leh sky.
(Imagine there's no countries, easy if you try)