The Himalayas of India:  Ladakh and Srinagar, Summer 2013
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The ethereal Shanti Stupa towering over Leh at night, a quick preview of a few of the Himalayan sights on our adventure. I have gotten into night sky, star trails, long exposure, and "light painting" photography in the last year or two, and did all of that under the Himalayan sky.

But more on that later.

Tuesday 11 June:
I have been friends with Tom, who is Indian, for decades, so he is like a brother to me. I consequently have an Indian family. I called them upon arrival in Vikas Puri. I hadn't seen them in years, and I was overjoyed at seeing them, with us talking about Tom and previous visits. They cooked a delicious Bengali vegetarian lunch.

I then took a taxi to Himachal Bhawan Mandi House in Connaught Place at 5:30 pm, waiting inside HPTDC office because they had AC for their 8:30pm-6am bus. The expressway from Delhi to Shimla was modern and impressive.

Wednesday 12 June - Shimla and then to Sarahan:
Got to Shimla. The town is a huge place hanging off the sides of green mountains. Didn't want to stay, too big of a town, and too wet, so I decided to go straight to Sarahan to see Bhimakali Temple, a carved wood temple surrounded by high peaks. I took the 6:45 am bus to Rampur (150r), then a 45r bus to Sarahan, following the surging and muddy Sutlej River. On the way, I called Lisa back home using Mr. Chand's cellphone along the way (approximately 80 rupees for what I'm guessing was a 10-min call, so about 8r/min.

Lovely setting for the temple, as you might expect from Himachal Pradesh, although rather damp. There seemed to be a lot of rain in Shimla as well as here. The Bhimakali temple is a cross between Buddhist and Hindu styles, quite nice. I decided to stay in a guest room in the temple for 550r.

The wooden Bhimakali Temple in Sarahan, the gateway to the region of Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh, is dedicated to the mother goddess Bhimakali, and is best known for its intricate woodwork on both the exterior and interior.

Built completely of wood, the Bhimakali Temple is an amalgamation of Hindu and Buddhist styles, and is considered an architectural masterpiece.

Watching the temple pujas and admiring the architectural details was fascinating, but I also had to feed my belly as well as my mind. I went to one of the local dhabas surrounding Bhimakali Temple, which all looked very basic, and ordered thukpa, a Tibetan noodle and vegetable soup. As it turned out, I would eat mostly vegetarian food throughout the trip.

Fun facts about Bhimakali Temple!

* Who is Bhimakali?
I'm glad you asked. Long ago, demons lived in the Himalayas, distracting the priests and saints from meditation. They prayed to the Gods to rid themselves of the demons. The Gods heard their pleas and focused their powers on a single point, causing an enormous explosion. When the smoke cleared, a single small girl stood on that spot. She grew into quite a force, eventually destroying all the demons. This temple is dedicated to this great female power known as Bhimakali.

* How the temple survived the earthquake of 1905!
That's right, kids, over a hundred years ago, a powerful earthquake struck this place and the temple tilted to one side. However, this was not to last very long, for another tremor occurred, jolting it back into place!

* A Secret Scooby-Doo StyleTunnel!
Some say that there is a secret tunnel inside the temple that was used to reach a nearby village by the priests. Wow!!!

Bhimakali Temple door handle, shot with my trusty Nikkor 50mm.

One of the doors of the Bhimakali Temple in Sarahan, Himachal Pradesh, with another Hindu temple in the background.

Since my arrival in Delhi and then Himachal Pradesh, it had been raining non-stop. This was the first break in rain, so I grabbed my tripod, ran up to the top of the steps in the temple complex, and took this photo of a temple alongside Bhimakali Temple at night, the Himalayan Mountains barely visible in the horizon.

Thursday 13 June, Sarahan to Manali:
I woke to devotional music from the temple around five in the morning. I had thukpa again at another dhaba, wanting soup for ease of digestion as well as hygiene. Better, but also 60r. It continued raining, so I decided to push northward in the hopes that there would be less rain. I decided to go back to Shimla (Sarahan to Rampur, 45r; Rampur to Shimla 155r). I had the best meal I've had so far at an Indian dhaba halfway between Rampur and Shimla for only 50r, chana plate with two chapatis. Arriving at Shimla, I quickly caught an overnight bus to Manali (8:20 pm to 6:00 am, HRTC deluxe for 455r from the new bus stand), eating a dismal meal of yellow curry and rice with boxed sweet lassi. I think our country needs to get sweet lassis in a box. Actually, I think our country needs to simply get decent lassis, period.

Friday 14 June - Manali (arrived 6 am):
Although dark, I could see that the road followed the Beas River for quite some distance, and went under what must be by far the longest tunnel I have ever been in. I sat next to a spiritual policeman who liked to talk and rambled somewhat. Unbeknownst to me, the cellphone that Tom's father loaned me fell out of my pocket, causing all sorts of problems later since I had to get a new phone, no easy task for a foreigner, and needed to file a police report.

Rooms were expensive in Manali, and scoring a room for 1100 rupees along the The main area known as The Mall was actually cheap for this time of year. I dealt with the lost cellphone for much of the day, replacing the new one, for which you need photocopies of your passport and many passport photos as well as a voucher from a local, although the company fudges this.

But I also needed to figure out where to go.

My original plan was to go to Spiti Valley. But I encountered many roadblocks, both literal (Manali to Kaza via Kunlum Pass was closed due to a landslide) and figurative (I was told I needed to be in a group of four to obtain a permit to go to Spiti Valley). And it kept raining. And raining. This was pre-monsoon, but I hadn't recalled Himachal Pradesh raining this much.

Enough with the roadblocks. I decided to go to Leh instead. Upon making this decision, my mood lifted. I loved Ladakh. And this also solved the logistical problem of going to Spiti Valley and also trying to visit Fayaz and his family, my Kashmiri family, in Dal Lake. How would I do this? Would I have enough time? Getting from Manali to Srinagar was no easy task, either by many days of spine-rattling bus rides or by expensive plane rides, flying back down to Delhi, then back up to Srinagar.

But going from Leh to Srinagar was comparatively easy. Yes. This decision felt right.


By the time I made the decision, it was evening. I walked over the lake, then back down to a couple of Tibetan temples. At Von Ngari Monastery, I saw children monks playing in the courtyard, and then met Jampa, a kind monk. We spoke for a while.


Jampa cooks rice and dal in the Von Ngari Monastery kitchen in Manali. We shared dinner, spoke a while about Tibetan issues, fundraising, and other things. I left a small donation.

Saturday 15 June - an all-day and night minibus ride from Manali to Leh:
Remember I mentioned my mood lifting upon making a decision to go to Leh? One thing stood between this decision: that was getting to Leh.

There are two options:
- going back down from Manali to Delhi by either bus or plane, then flying to Leh.
- taking a bus to Leh, which was much cheaper and faster.

I chose the latter.

But the latter comes with consequences. Although I've been on most of the major major mountain roads in Ladakh, going to Pongong Tso, Tso Moriri, Nubra Valley, Lamayuru, and other roads, I've never been on a road so grueling or painful as the one going from Manali to Leh. And it was also surprisingly cold, even in the mini-bus.

The most enjoyable part of the bus ride was stopping for food, such as here, eating the plain but welcome aloo parathas.

Go to the Manali-Leh Road Bonus Page

What made the mini-bus ride from Manali to Leh so grueling and awful?

- The mini-bus drivers were racing along as fast as possible, driving far faster than I would have ever felt comfortable driving on bumpy mountain roads. Coupled with this is our driver, who had only slept two hours the night before, having made a drive from Leh to Manali. But bus drivers don't say no to jobs, or they are not asked to do them again.

- I was sitting in the very back of the bus, so every bump was magnified. All of us in the back were flying up, regularly getting completely airborne as the bus careened through the mountain roads. I had a bruise on my left arm from slamming into the side of the bus.

- The bus broke down, puncturing a tire, about 50km from Leh. We were stuck in the bus for a couple of hours as he fixed it by the side of the road, as it was extremely cold outside.

- The bus ride took 22 hours in total.

Never again.

BONUS PAGE: Scenes From the Amazing Road from Manali to Leh
The views, though, were incredible. I've created a bonus page to share some of these outstanding views with
you. Many of these photos were shot through the smudgy, wet windows of the careening bus, but they will give you an idea of the impressive Himalayan landscape between Manali and Leh.

Go to the Manali-Leh Road Bonus Page



Sunday 16 June - first full day in Leh:
Our grueling and painful bus 22 hour bus ride was over.

We had gotten in late, and most hotels and guesthouses were closed, but the driver had a cousin who had a guest house called the Mountain View Guest House.

I roomed with a 51 year old dreadlocked, bearded Argentinian guy named Miguel who also rode on the bus, dressed in full-on hippie glory. He has not had a home for 22 years, traveling continuously around the world. He has been in India for 8 months, but has also traveled in Spain and Italy, sleeping in the streets because it's too expensive, and has also traveled in South and Central America. In India, he prefers Varanasi because he sells more jewelry there than Goa.

How he traveled so extensively in India while speaking almost no English was a topic of conversation at the guest house. I mean he knows almost nothing. He knows "today", "tomorrow", numbers, greetings. That's about it. No one could understand what he was saying, so I translated, eventually leaving some simple phrases with the hotel manager when I left a couple of days later.

The Mountain View Guest House charged us just 150 rupees for the night. I told Miguel that I snore ("vasquer" I think the word is). He said, "No problem, I talk a lot (in my sleep)". And he did a bit. But I had ear plugs and all was good in the world. I slept soundly.


Why my first photo in Leh is a mannequin, I'm not sure. But so it is.

Remember, follow the little forward and backward autorickshaws to navigate.

Ken's photos of Nobel Peace Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as photos of Peru, Burma, India, Morocco, China, Thailand, Ghana, Ecuador, and elsewhere, have appeared in many books, magazines, websites, and galleries.  Visit the Ken Lee Photography Website. Some of Ken's select photos may be purchased through his Imagekind Store.

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The Himalayas of India: Summer 2013


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Bonus Page - Manali-Leh Road
Bonus Page - My Kashmiri Family Eleven Shadows Travel Page

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