When I planned a backpacking trip to Ladakh, I didn’t account for dirty toilets and bone crushing cold.
I went for a trip to Ladakh with my friends. I know what you’re thinking - stunning sunsets, starry nights, clean air. When my best friend - also named Simran - suggested ten days in Ladakh with an NGO, I was sold. The Ladakh based foundation works on educating children and accepts 'voluntourists' from all over the world. The travel bug and philanthropist in me were overjoyed at the thought of participating in a 'noble' vacation. What a perfect opportunity to give back to society I thought (while living with the notion that I owe something to society).
After some research from the very deceptive NGO web page, an invite to two other friends, some serious grovelling to my parents, a "volunourist" fee of Rs.75,000 and a return ticket costing Rs.20,000 we left for Ladakh. I had been warned about the lack of oxygen, the freezing cold weather and even the non existence of WC’s, but I felt rather excited about roughing it out for once. So I went prepared with my warmest best, a backpack, sleeping bag and a whole lot of toilet paper.
The first two days of the schedule were to acclimatize, so we had an itinerary full of tourist spots to visit. We spent the first day in and around the hotel and the nearby market, and I was in love with Leh. The weather was -3 degrees C, the sun was out and the air was already making my skin better, my hair smoother, and my entire being felt healthier than ever. I really did love that first day in Ladakh. We spent the evening eating lots of pizzas at the only functioning restaurant in the market with some Wi-Fi but decided not to connect because it made us that much more free from the world and worldly things. The second day we visited Thikse Monastery and the office of the foundation, where we decided what material we needed to take with us and what games to make the children play.
Skidmang Nunnery School
Leh Ladakh lies at 11,000 ft above sea level. The school we were teaching at was in Nubra Valley, slightly lower at about 10,000 ft. Nubra is a famous tourist spot, so we figured we’d get to see that as well. But due to some sad twist of fate, the school had announced a four day holiday because of some unrest in Pakistan. So the foundation sent us to the only functioning school at that time which was a monastery a distance away from Leh. A 5 hour car journey followed by an hour long upward trek away to be precise. At 15,000 ft no less. Adventure, right?
Much needed break
The long car ride made us queasy, but we were still so pumped about getting there, that it didn’t seem so bad. At the base of the monastery, a local man and his donkey helped us by taking our backpacks up for us. And so began our ascent. It was the toughest trek of my life. We took 4 hours for what locals take 1. We had to stop every 10 minutes to take oxygen from tanks. The thin air made it hard for us to breathe and walk at the same time. It was a trek along a frozen river in -15 degrees and when we finally reached the monastery, we had no energy to do anything but spend the first evening and night just trying to sleep. We had special sleeping bags, the same ones used by Indian soldiers in Siachen. But it was still so cold, we layered up, wore our thermals and heavy jackets, mufflers and gloves - the works. But it was the kind of cold I’d never experience before, a cold that went straight to the bones, making us feel like we were swimming stark naked in a frozen lake. That’s when I realized there was a giant gap between my imagination of “roughing it out” as a Bombay brat and what that life really was.
Happy faces made it all worth it
The next morning we went for breakfast with the other teachers, put dollops of butter in our chai to try and add some heat to our bodies, and tried eating as little as possible to avoid having to go to the toilet there. Disgusting, nauseating, foul and nasty are just some of the words I can think of and even they don't do justice to that little enclosure they called a toilet. It was basically made with four steel sheets that had one massive hole in the ground. The hole was so large that you can’t help but look down and what you see is layers and layers of shit stacked on top of the other, getting lighter and lighter towards the mountain. The struggle of having to squat with your legs spread wide apart, really praying you don't slip and fall, with flies all around and that stench! I could not. I may have eaten just enough food to not faint, because I had to avoid that toilet at all costs. In the 3 days there, the maximum hygiene we maintained was brushing once a day and only I know how dirty that felt.
Phunsukh (not Wangdu) and Parshav
The children were the best part of the trip. They were the only reason we lasted the 3 days. In the time there we taught them about the solar system and the planets, enacting it by going around each other. We taught them to make paper planes and they were obsessed! We did some finger painting and art and craft that they loved, seeing a paper plane for the first time. Being isolated from the rest of the world as they are, they really don't have much exposure. We had the most wonderful time with them but even they weren't enough to make us last another day there.
Flying paper planes
We finally gave up on our fourth day in the monastery and the foundation made arrangements for picking us up. The thought of a hot shower felt so grand. We finally made it to the hotel. The foundation coordinator was already making arrangements for us to teach at a school in Leh for the remainder of our trip, but when a friend decided he could not stay there a day longer, we loved the sound of it and decided to leave. We booked tickets for the next morning, spent the last evening shopping for souvenirs and eating pizzas and connecting to Wi-Fi. It felt so good to have my phone blow up with messages from my friends and my family. I returned to civilization and civilization never felt so good.
I tried to get “Leh’d” and failed pretty badly. I want to go there some day again, when its a lot warmer, in a nice hotel, book a car and drive to Pangong lake and Khardungla pass, and drink a lot sitting close to a bonfire, stargazing. But till then, roughing it out in Leh Ladakh is not for me.
We got Leh’d
1. Take a flight via Delhi because there are a lot more options.
2. Their summer is from June to August so that would be the best time to visit.
3. Most of the fresh produce is available from May to September and they freeze vegetables and fruits to use for the remaining months.
4. For road travel, highways remain shut from about November to April.
5. Acclimatizing is extremely important.
6. Things to do in Ladakh are Pangong Tso Lake, Khardungla Pass, the Magnetic Hill, Nubra Valley.
7. Carry only cash preferably, not too many places accept cards.
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By Simran Moorjani
Photographs by Simran Moorjani