Archive for October, 2014

the commute

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i spent my last days in Leh soaking up every last bit of Himalaya i could before moving onto my next epic commute.  this commute would involve three bus rides, each longer than fifteen hours.  the first one was by far the worst of the three and potentially the worst ever of my life.

i stepped onto the van full of tourists just after midnight where i was promptly placed in the front seat and thrust up against the front windshield with a seatbelt that stretched only halfway across my chest to a non-existent buckle.

instead of leaving right on time, the driver decided it would be a better use of our time to drive aimlessly around the city, through alleyways, backing in and out of just about every compact driveway he could, even knocking on random doors while searching for locals he could accept bribes from to bring them along for the ride.  after many failed attempts at meeting his price point, he did eventually find his clients.  he packed them three to a seat and stacked them high in the aisle.  several tourists tried to voice their concerns throughout this process as if actually believing it would do any good but the driver paid them no mind whatsoever.

as soon as his payload of tourists and locals were intact, we set off on our eighteen hour journey though the high desert mountains back to Manali in Himachal Pradesh.  the driver gripped the wheel with purpose as we sped stupidly fast along the many cliffs and curves of the unpaved highway.  a thin layer of glass only inches from my face was the only thing between me and perhaps death.

to top it all off, as chance would have it i was also experiencing the worst flatulence induced abdominal pains i have ever had.  its origin was unknown and its onset was sudden.  as we hurtled haphazardly down the road, piercing pains shot through me and became more pronounced with every bump and dip.  my stomach quite simply was a war-zone and it took all the strength i had not to let loose the mayhem into the van where the other innocent passengers were clung to each other for warmth and pretending to sleep.  they had their own demons to work through i’m sure.

we did stop a few times where i attempted to remedy the situation by any means necessary.  this only gave me temporary relief and restarted the clock of the ticking time bomb that was the civil war inside Roark’s guts.

on and on we went as night turned into morning and morning turned into day.  finally, my pain subsided enough to allow me the luxury of passing out from the exhaustion i felt.

i awoke conveniently several kilometers shy of Manali at the town of Vashisht and begged the driver to let me out.  there, i teamed up with two cheerful Spaniards i had met a few days prior in Leh.  they had also just endured the same commute.  we found accommodation in the tallest building in town and got some much needed sleep.  i awoke the next morning feeling almost like myself again.  whatever that means.

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these Spaniards were the first travelers i had met who had brought along their own climbing equipment as well as a slackline.  i met up with them after their morning climb to do a bit of slacklining.  we managed to find a prime spot in a half-built building between two concrete columns with a roof that sheltered us from the rain.

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Vashisht is one place i could get happily stuck in for a very long time but the truth of the matter was that i had an elsewhere to be as well as a time window to get there in.  so instead of growing happily complacent in that blissful village in the hills, i got right back on another bus.

…to Delhi!

this time, a VIP air conditioned luxury coach with seats that recline and Bollywood films that blare.  we finally arrived fifteen hours later outside the hot and filthy Delhi bus terminal that i have come to know so well.  i couldn’t possibly have braced myself enough for the barrage of tuktuk drivers that attached themselves to my face immediately upon exiting the bus.  i’m sure it was no accident that the bus driver let us off two kilometers from the actual bus station so we would actually need to rely on these vultures.  like leading lambs to a slaughter, we each got surrounded and consumed.

i have been in this situation enough times to know that there is absolutely nothing i could say to get them to leave me alone.  words will only indicate to them that you recognize their existence, thus further fueling their fires.  so instead i let my actions do my talking for me.  i immediately unslung Escapo (my trusty guitar) and held him straight out in front of me with the body facing directly ahead.  then i simply walked forward with purpose letting Escapo pave the way.  each person i struck met me with looks of confusion and disgust until the crowd opened up to let me breath.

when i first purchased Escapo almost eighteen months ago, i imagined i’d be using him to serenade attractive girls in parks on cool afternoons.  i never imagined i’d also be using him as a weapon to for example: fight off angry dogs in an alleyway.  Escapo has become an extension of my arm.  a tool for any circumstance with the scars and scratches to prove it.  he is my one and only true sidekick.

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i only needed to spend less than an hour at my favorite bus station before my next bus departed.  this time a public bus headed due west to Rajasthan and deep into the Thar Desert.  this was the most pleasant fifteen hours of my commute.  the driver was nice enough to let me ride the entire way up in the cockpit for a front row view of the endless flat landscape with the occasional torrential downpour that inflicted flash floods on the small towns we passed.

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it was a long haul to my final destination but the bus driver made good and sure i was comfortable the entire way, keeping me fed and quenched when appropriate.

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the hour was late when i finally reached the city of Bikaner in northwest Rajasthan where i promptly made my way to Vijay Guest House run by the notorious Camelman.  i couldn’t know it at the time, but the bustling town of Bikaner would soon become one of my favorite destinations in India.

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a bite at the lake

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my next Ladakhi adventure involved a long bumpy ride 70 kilometers east of Leh to the small village of Spangmik located on the shores of Pangong Lake at 4350 meters. Pangong is a long and skinny endorheic lake that stretches 134 kilometers, 40% of which lies in Ladakh and 60% in Tibet. it’s also only 5 kilometers wide at its broadest point.

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one’s itinerary at this lake is simple. you go to the lake, you stare at the lake, eat and sleep in basic accommodations and then be transported back to Leh. once you arrive in Spangmik you can walk or drive to the next village but you can’t go much further than that before hitting a military blockade.

in general, there is a large military presence in Ladakh. though Ladakh is a peaceful realm, it’s only a stones throw from the ongoing boarder disputes with China and Pakistan that range from annoying to deadly.

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in addition to military, Ladakh is also infested with marmots of questionable character. on the way back from Pangong, our driver pulled over to show us his favorite marmot watching spot. he showed us that all one needs to do to see them is walk out a few yards and then make a kissing sound with your lips and they will all run out of their holes, scamper toward you and stand at attention. they are so curious and unafraid that you can even pet them.

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i of course had to learn the lesson the hard way that one should take precaution when petting a marmot. for example, always pay close attention to the petting hand and under no circumstance shift your focus to snap a photo of your hand petting the marmot.

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the aftermath + iodine treatment

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once our driver saw the bloody mess that was my finger, he immediately rushed me far into the hills past several military checkpoints to a half-cylinder shaped bunker. upon it was written “World’s Highest Field Hospital”. crammed inside it, were hundreds of military personnel all milling about. many were queued into lines that wrapped around rooms. others were crouched on hallway floors. some were lying on stretchers and seemed to be in a considerable amount of pain. they all looked as though they had been in this hospital for a very very long time. my driver took me by the arm and lead me through the crowds. the layout of the bunker was surprisingly elaborate for what it was and there seemed to be no inch of it that wasn’t occupied by a soldier.

when we finally made it to the room where the only doctor sat, the doc took one look at me then immediately stopped treating his current patient and then beckoned me to come and sit. this room was by far the most packed full of uniformed men and as i walked toward them, they all moved out of my way willingly while each giving me the same accepting head side-bob. when i reached the doc, i sat and tried my best to explain to him what had happened. this was of course a very laughable matter to him. i was still too traumatized by the incident to share in his amusement but i understood it all the same. how often after all does a tourist wander into the world’s highest field hospital after being bitten by a marmot? i am willing to bet almost never. “Marmots are so docile” he told me, “you must have really done something to provoke it”. “this was an evil marmot” i explained. then i asked him if marmots were known to carry communicable diseases such as rabies, to which he simply replied “i don’t think you have anything to worry about”. then he sent me off into a storage closet full of drugs where a very nice man administered me a tetanus shot and then gave me some antibiotics and painkillers. finally, i was sent to another nice man who applied a bandage over my wound. after it was over, the doc saw me again to impart to me a few lasting words of wisdom then sent me on my way. this was all of course completely free of charge.

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the ride back to Leh was a beautiful, quiet and contemplative one. i decided then, once and for all that if i were to become rabid then it would have all been worth it.

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trekking in The Markha Valley

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i spent several days in Leh, exploring the town, visiting near by monasteries, acclimatizing to the altitude,  and pretty much getting used to the fact that i could no longer benefit from taking a deep breath.  then one day i packed a small bag and embarked on a seven day walkabout that would take me deep into the Markha Valley and back.

Markha is a barren holy valley carved by the Markha River that runs parallel to the Himalayan range and is located south of Leh and east of the Zanskar River.

Day 1 – Leh Airport to Yurutse ~21km

i left my guest house at dawn and walked down to the bus station in hopes to catch a local bus south to the neighboring town of Spituk (A.K.A. the trail head) but somehow i ended up at the airport instead.  giant military cargo jets flew overhead as i walked the remaining few kilometers to Spituk.

from there the road crossed the Indus River and followed it west for about 12 kilometers before heading south again up a canyon that followed the Jingchan River.  the true trail started here or at least the road became so unrecognizable that we might as well call it a trail.  the road here is in-progress and i came upon several excavators clearing freshly blown boulders from the path.  one excavator i had to negotiate my way around.  this led me straight down a slope of loose rocky debris.  this was not easy to do in flip-flops.  yup, i have not got around to putting my shoes on yet.  with all these river crossings, it just makes sense.  i’ll get around to it eventually.

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as i climbed, the valley became more pronounced and started to curve west as the rocks turned a deep red color.  i arrived at the hillside settlement of Yurutse well before sunset and was warmly greeted by a kind Ladakhi woman who offered me ginger tea, a hearty meal of dal and rice and a tent for the night.  in these parts, a no-bullshit approach is taken toward food and lodging.  for a fixed 800 Rupees (13 USD), a traveler gets accommodation, dinner, breakfast and a pack lunch.  get em in, get em out, make it simple.  a far cry from anything Indian.

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from the rooftop of the only building in town, the other guests and i enjoyed a meteor shower and a very clear view of the rest of our galaxy.

Day 2 – Yurutse to Shingo ~12km

my newfound trekking companions – Charlie, Chloe, Eva and i set out early the next day to conquer Ganda La Pass at 4980 meters.  we followed the stream bed west through the valley for several hours when i decided to turn on my GPS to assure the others that we were still on the right track.  not only were we not on the right track but we had been walking in the wrong direction ever since we left Yurutse (hey man, these things happen).  the good news was that we were only 800 meters off our mark so it was not completely necessary to backtrack.  the bad news was that this was 800 meters according to a satellite that couldn’t care less about the fucking mountain that sat between us and the true trail.

it takes a unique kind of person not to freak out in a situation like this.  when it came right down to it we had three options: (1) take the safe approach and turn back, (2) take the risky approach and head straight up the mountain into the unknown, or (3) freak out needlessly for a while and then end up going with either option 1 or 2.  Eva and Chloe were mostly un-phased by our dilemma and Charlie was even starting to get a bit excited by the fact that things were not going according to plan.  yup, these are my kind of people.

we ended up going with option 2 of course, mostly because it was the option that aroused Charlie the most.  it was a long tough climb up to the top of the ridge.  i had to go most of the way barefoot because the steep incline was causing my sweaty feet to slip out of my flip-flops (yup, i’m still wearing the flip-flops).  once we got to the ridge we could finally see the true trail.  it was located at the bottom of a thousand meter drop directly below us.  we indulged on cookies and apricots and stared awkwardly at the other trekkers below who were happily trodding along (the one’s that sprung for guides of course).

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“well, that certainly was a fun exercise… isn’t that right guys?”  one that was anything but worthless, especially once we turned our heads east to the hoards of high mountains that filled the horizon.

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we continued further west along the ridge-top until Grand La Pass was in clear view.  we surmised that the trail below had to come up to meet it at some point.  so rather than turning around, we continued along the ridge in hopes to intercept the trail.  sadly, the ridge did not connect with the pass as seamlessly as we had hoped, but at least our path did not end abruptly at a cliff.  instead it brought us to a steep yet negotiable slope that we scrambled down to meet the trail.  from there it was another ascent up to the pass where we were greeted by prayer flags and stone tablets.

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we took rest that night in the settlement of Shingo in a small guest house tucked away by the meander of a stream.

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Day 3 – Shingo to Chilling ~17km

today was a pleasant stroll 7 kilometers down the canyon to a confluence and then another 10 off my originally planned course back to the hints of civilization.  Charlie, Chloe and Eva were all headed on a different path further west to the town of Chilling where they would spend the night and wake early to embark on a rafting adventure down the Zanskar River.  i decided to follow them knowing i would have to backtrack the next day and they didn’t seem to mind.  trail turned to dirt road, then to paved road at a large bridge-in-progress that crossed the impressive Zanskar River.  from there the paved road hugged the river bank for several kilometers until we reached the one-building town of Chilling.  luckily they had a vacancy in the room above the restaurant which they shoved us all into.  once we got settled we drank beer and engaged in inappropriate conversation until sleep overtook us.

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Day 4 – Chilling to Sara ~20km

coffee and an omelet followed by a ‘see ya later’ and i am back on the road flying solo once again.  after backtracking the 10 kilometers and beyond i noticed the landscape gradually turn into a different beast.  the trail began to weave its way along a wide river bed with high red desert cliffs that towered above on either side.  i had finally entered the Markha Valley.

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i was moving fast for no good reason and enjoying the challenge of covering as much ground as i could.  every once in a while i would get pushed off the trail by a tourist caravan coming the opposite way.  it starts with a group of about 7 Europeans all marching in single file and sporting all the latest equipment – water bladders, trekking poles, actual shoes, the works.  then comes the procession of 20 ponies all packed to the brim with tents, food, propane, kitchenware and everything else one may need to get comfortable in the wilderness, not to mention the Ladakhi guides to facilitate it all.  it’s quite the production to see and quite the contrast to the approach i decided to take.  i also couldn’t help but wonder what the encounter was like for them.  here is a man with an unkempt beard, wearing flip-flops of which are barely held together with super-glue and straps.  “this man has certainly been away from the office for a while”, or perhaps “this man has lost all touch with reality”.  either will suit me i suppose.

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further down the trail a light rain started to fall and aroused a fresh desert scent.  i pushed forward and ate as i walked.  lunch is always the same – a hard boiled egg, basic unleavened bread they call Chapati, one individually wrapped slice of cheese, a chocolate bar and a juice box.

i arrived to the tiny settlement of Sara in the early afternoon and procured my no-bullshit food and accommodation.  i got to sleep in my very own room this time and decided to pamper myself with a hot shower –  or rather a bucket of hot water and a ladle to pour it over my head.  i have become a master at cleaning myself in this fashion and i even tend to prefer it to the good ole western shower.  i have also grown to prefer what i have come to call the “Ladakhi Longdrop” – an above-ground two-story outhouse built out of solid stone with the second story often open to the sky for intimate stargazing.  the most important thing that distinguishes the Ladakhi Longdrop from just any longdrop is of course the sizable pile of horse manure that chills out next to you while you go about your business.  once the job is done, just sweep the manure down the hole so the sight and smell gets masked for the next person.  fresh, basic and thoughtful.  welcome to Ladakh.

Day 5 – Sara to Hankar ~20km

i have made friends once again – with an Indian man from Bangalore named Sarej, an Israeli girl named Amit and a girl from the Czech Republic named Tereza.  Sarej and i headed out early and hit the trail.  soon after crossing the river we encountered a pony carcass in the process of decay.

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i just hope that poor tourist got their money back. (sarcasm)

we were caught up with a short time later by the girls who had been truckin’ all morning.  it was mostly Tereza who had the need for speed.  her name was Tereza but we would eventually give her other names like “Czechers”, “Czech Mate” and “Trailblazer”.  the most we saw of her was from behind as she darted off into the distance until she was a dot on the horizon.  then a few hours later we would find her perched on a rock with an accomplished smile on her face.

there were two noteworthy river crossings today.  the water only came up to just above my kneecaps but the current was strong and the stones underneath were smooth.  Amit took the first plunge and herself took a plunge as the water consumed her entirely for just a moment.  she got drenched but her resolve seemed to maintain her good spirits as if it was nothing a few good laughs and some sunshine couldn’t fix.

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the deeper we went into the Markha the more magical it all became.  the river bed intersected with crossing valleys causing the the high cliffs to break up and take on various unique shapes including the occasional peak topped with a monastery or ruined structure.  villages and patches of fertile farmland cropped up along the river’s edges.  one village called Hankar became our home for the night.  Hankar consisted of multiple buildings this time, spread out on the banks of the Markha River.  it was the largest village i had seen since i left Leh.

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Day 6 – Hankar to Nimaling ~10km

toward the end of the Markha Valley we were greeted by the 6400 meter tall snow-capped mountain of Kang Yatze.  we then left the Markha River and began to climb.  not up that mountain but up and over a ridge just north of it to a tent camp called Nimaling which was situated at 4700 meters on a grassy plane at the base of Kongmaru La Pass.  we spent the afternoon relaxing while watching the shepherds heard their goats and sheep from one place to another.

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as soon as the sun went down the temperature started to drop dramatically.  first we huddled in the mess tent and ate our dinner then it was off to our respective tents to try not to freeze to death.  unfortunately, all the tents were full that night so there were no extra blankets.  i swaddled myself in everything i had and tried my best to endure a long uncomfortable and sleepless night.

Day 7 – Nimaling to Shang Sumdo ~18km

i decided to put my shoes on today.  the six consecutive days of the direct dry desert exposure on my feet had finally taken its toll.  the almost year and a half of calluses that had by now formed on my feet were being eaten away at an alarming rate.  the dryness had penetrated them layer by layer until my virgin skin was exposed and starting to crack, causing me considerable pain.  i carefully rinsed my feet in an ice cold stream, dowsed them with neosporin, covered them in all the bandages i had, put on my wool socks and shoes and then chalked the whole experience up to that of considerable stupidity.

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we got an early start and headed straight up the steep trail to Kongmaru La Pass at 5200 meters.  the combination of the high altitude, physical exertion and sleep depravity gave me an endorphin rush unparalleled by any i had experienced before.  my body and lungs were pushing their limits but my head was floating blissfully down endorphin river, bringing tears to my eyes and a huge smile to my face.  once we reached the top, we dropped our packs and scrambled an additional 200 meters up to a nearby ridge that overlooked a most diverse scene.  an endless russet mountain range to the west, a carved gaping valley to the north and the monolithic Kang Yatse Peak to the south.

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from there, it was a smooth yet confusing descent.  once we reached the river that formed the valley, the trail seemed to diverge and either zigzag through the middle of it or along side it sending us up a cliff at times.  we followed the river the best we could until we reached the town of Shang Sumdo and then got a taxi back to Leh.

the hour was late when we finally arrived back to Leh.  we were dirty, exhausted and starving.  rather than check into a guest house right away, we headed straight to our comfort zone – the Nirvana Cafe on Changspa Road.  there, we choked down some veggie burgers and napped on the floor with some warm blankets.  i am sure we would have been more than welcome to stay the night there but the thought of a warm shower followed by a soft bed was just a little too appealing.  it was a group effort but we finally managed to emerge from our blankets and achieve a standing position.  then we wandered back to our respective guest houses and surrendered to at least two days of hard earned recuperation time.

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back to reality, i mean India

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last we spoke i was lying naked on a table in Jalalabad, Kyrgyzstan getting scolding hot mud poured all over me by a man wearing a rubber apron and boots, but what i failed to mention was that i was also suffering from the flu. for three whole days i clung to my bed sheets in an unassuming guest house while an old strict buxom Kyrgyz woman took very good care of me. when on the fourth day i awoke to notice my fever subsiding, i had a slight travel epiphany. it’s time to go back to India! not just any India, however. but the far northern region of Ladakh near Tibet, Kashmir and Pakistan amidst the high desert mountains.

after spending 36 days in Kyrgyzstan i still felt that i had only begun to scratch its surface but i have also been traveling long enough to know that when i feel that familiar travelers itch, i would do best to respond to it. sometimes it’s just simply time to move on.

my journey was of course a long, painful and beautiful one. it started with a 12 hour mini-bus ride back to the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek, followed by a half-hour plane ride to Almaty, Kazakhstan where i spent the night in a cramped, insanely overpriced terminal. here my flu symptoms decided to resurface rendering me practically helpless against the harsh air-conditioned halogen-lit room. another 12 hours later my flight was finally announced and i boarded a plane to Delhi. on that plane with an entire row to myself and a hot meal in front of me i realized something kind of amazing about the situation i was in. i was actually flying from one end of the Himalaya to the other with Tibetan China beneath my feet almost the entire way.

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once i arrived in Delhi i crammed myself into the first metro train car i could. standing there sleep deprived and flu-ish, pushed up against a deluge of Delhi’s finest was a perfect reintroduction to the subcontinent. whenever the train doors opened it was all out chaos while the people filed in and out but once the doors closed again it was a gentile and peaceful calm as all the heads swayed side to side in unison. oh India, it’s been too long.

once i arrived at the main bus station i booked a 15 hour bus ride to Manali in Himachal Pradesh and waited an additional 7 hours before boarding it. Manali is a small attractive stretch of village along the Bees river in the lush green mountains of Northern India. many Israeli tourists flock here during the summer months and seem to get stuck here for weeks at a time. perhaps because they become hypnotized by the subdued hippie pace one gets reduced to upon arrival. this was as good a place as any to take some much needed rest and work every last bit of flu out of my system.

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4 days later i finally felt whole again and was ready to embark on the final leg of my journey. yup, you guessed it, back on the bus i went, this time for a 21 hour drive that spanned 2 days and took me far up into the high desert mountains over several passes higher than 5000 meters. when i finally arrived in the remote city of Leh at 3500 meters in the heart of Ladakh in the heart of the Himalaya i was beside myself with joy.

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Leh is a predominantly Buddhist outpost that formed sometime prior to the 10th century when traders carting goods between Tibet and Kashmir needed to make a pit-stop. its a peaceful city chalked full of winding dusty streets, cheerful Ladakhi people and apricots. from the rooftop of the ruined Leh Palace atop a hill in the center of town, one can behold the magnitude of the giant valley in which it sits.

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there is a kind of solitude here that allows the passage of time to accelerate undetected. this is ideal if you plan to spend your time meditating in any number of the breathtaking monasteries built into the hillsides, but if it’s adventure you seek then it’s the rapidly dropping temperature that motivates you to seize the day.

it’s become a sort of mission of mine to attack the world’s most epic mountain range from just about every angle i can. first Nepal, then Kyrgyzstan and now India. due to the colder climate, high altitude and rough terrain, the road to Ladakh is only open for just a few months a year. so unless you want to spring for a very expensive flight, your window for adventure pretty much lies in the July-August time frame.

i settled in easily and quickly and then wasted no time getting started on the planning and plotting of my very first adventure in Ladakh.

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