From bus stop to hotel in the dark of the night
My bus reached Leh at 1.30 am after a delay of over six hours.
Even though it was so late at night, Leh being a popular tourist destination, I expected at least the bus stop would still be active with tourists coming and going and the usual queuing up of the taxi drivers in front of the arriving buses to catch hold of unsuspecting tourists. But I was wrong.
Leh bus stop at night was completely dark and deserted. Ours was the only bus that arrived at that time and we were just about fifteen people. My fellow passengers soon dispersed in different directions. Within ten minutes of getting down from the bus I found myself completely alone in the bus stop. For a moment there I was a bit nervous but reassured myself because we have always known Ladakh as a peaceful place.
I looked around and found a taxi stand and a bunch of men. At this point my decision (well actually my dad’s suggestion) to pre book a hotel appeared sensible because otherwise it would have been very difficult to find a hotel or guest house in that dark of the night in a city I was visiting for the first time.
My hotel was in Upper Tukcha Road. Where it was, I obviously had no idea. The taxi guy asked for INR 300, the hotel desk had earlier told me they would charge INR 200. I negotiated and agreed to pay INR 250.
The taxis in Leh are Maruti Omni or Maruti EECO vans. Local people do not use the word ‘taxi’, they call them ‘vans’. It reminded me of the time when I was in a village in Murshidabad, West Bengal and my hosts kept referring to vans for my travel. “We’d call the van, you can go to the railway station in that” they said. When the van came, it was just a wooden plank on a tricycle.
I got inside the ‘van’ and called the hotel for directions. Before I could hang up the call, I had reached the hotel. It was at a mere distance of 2.1 kms from the bus stop. There it was, my first big shock in Leh, the cost of local commute is obscenely overpriced. I have no idea exactly on what basis do they charge INR 100 per km. To add to it, besides the vans there is absolutely no other public transportation within the city.
The hotel wasn’t very good but the attending person was nice. He brought me a cup of tea and a few slices of butter toast as there was nothing else to eat at that time. I asked for hot water for bathing, but there was none, so I took a cold water bath at 2 am and went to bed.
From hotel to guest house
The next morning, I ordered for breakfast in room, took another bath, packed my things and checked out in search of a guest house. It was around 11 am when I came out of the hotel with my luggage and had my first look at Leh, the capital of Ladakh region. It was something I hadn’t seen ever before in my life – the sky so blue and bright, trees so green, air so clean with yellowish narrow curvy lane with big houses on both sides having big lawns fenced by low level stone walls. It was stunningly beautiful. The weather was also very pleasant.
I couldn’t see any human around, neither any vehicles like cars or scooters or bikes. I stood there wondering where to go. I had done some internet research and had figured that most of the home stays are at Upper Changspa but the question now was where and how far it was and how to reach there? Seeing me standing there, a guy from the hotel came out and tried to help. I told him I wanted to go to Changspa and he said I cannot get any ‘van’ here for that I would have to walk up to the market which was on the left of the hotel.
Overhearing our conversation from the balcony of a nearby house a young boy suggested, “You won’t find any vehicle here, but instead of walking to the market to hire a van just walk to Changspa. Market would be fifteen minutes, Changspa would be 25 minutes.” I asked him but how do people here go around, ‘Idhar udhar log kaise jaate hai?’ He answered in Vans or by walking but vans have to be called in advance.
After thinking over for a while, I started walking towards Changspa following the direction given by that boy in the balcony. It was not easy to walk as I frequently felt breathless. There was the altitude issue, the obesity issue and the luggage issue. But I had absolutely no choice. It took me over half an hour just to reach the main road. As per directions, from the main road one has to walk towards Shanti Stupa, Changspa is just below it. I could see Shanti Stupa at the distance but had no more energy to walk, and desperately wanted to find a vehicle since the road was now getting steep.
In the spirit of hitchhiking I started asking for lifts from the vehicles that passed by, most of them being army trucks, army jeeps, petrol trucks, and few private cars.
An army jeep with two army men finally dropped me at Changspa. They asked me where I was from, whether I was traveling alone etc. After they left, I was once again standing on the road without a clue. I had to go to Upper Changspa, a place which is not even on Google maps. Within minutes a red Maruti 800 stopped near me and the man on the wheels asked in broken Hindi, “Kya raasta kho gaya kya?” I recognized the car and the driver as someone I had asked for a lift a while ago but was turned down.
The nice man then drove me to upper Changspa which was just about half a kilometer away. Total distance from Upper Tukcha Road to Changspa was 1.3 kms and Upper Changspa is another few meters walk through the lovely woods and river stream.
It was most embarrassing to offer any money to the gentleman who dropped me. I asked him “should I give you anything?” He said, “Whatever you wish madam, as petrol cost.” So I gave him thirty rupees. He was happy to receive it and went away.
Every house with big lawn is a guest house here but I didn’t have much energy to knock on each door and find out their room rates. I already had the names of couple of guest houses which I got from a friend and I quickly decided on one of them, Raiwa Guest house. Single room for INR 500, attached bath room, free wifi. No food, no laundry.
It was lunch time by now and I would have had to go do the market for it. But the walk up and down the woods had left me panting frantically and extremely hungry. I made a puppy face and told the land lady that I was too tired to go to the market for lunch. She was kind enough, said, “For today I would give you lunch.”
I had a simple lunch in the traditional Ladakhi kitchen, rice and saag. I chit chatted with the lady about her family. She and her husband both are teachers at government schools, they live with their two kids and her mother in law.
Post lunch I went back to my room and slept like a dog till late evening. The days are long at this time of the year in Ladakh. Even at 7 pm it had day light. In the evening, I went out for dinner and to find out about shared taxi options to go to Pangong Lake. After a ten minutes’ walk through the woods I reached the most happening place in Leh, Changspa Road. This is a no stopping no parking road with nothing but travel agencies, cafes and restaurants lined on both sides. Changspa Road is the main hub for tourists, mainly the foreigner tourists; I instantly liked the feel of the place. I explored various travel agencies, checked out the shops, cafes and finally closed the day with a Banana Pancake and Apricot Juice for dinner.
If traveling alone to Leh, it is advisable to book a hotel accommodation for the first night because whichever route and mode you take you are most likely to reach Leh towards late evening or night, not a good time to go guest house hunting. Next morning you can check out of your hotel and go about looking for a suitable accommodation. Accommodation in Leh is quite cheap, the hotels are in the price range of 2k to 3k. Besides the hotels almost every house is a home stay or a guest house. These are in the range of INR 200 to 700. Usually the guest houses give you rooms with shared bathroom. TV and room services is rare in the guest house, some of them provide food, while others don’t. The safety and cleanliness is much better in guest house as these are somebody’s house which they keep clean out of habit. These are not run as businesses, you actually feel like at home. At least that’s what I felt in my guest house. Changspa Road, Changspa (under Shanti Stupa) and upper Changspa are the best places for stay. Changspa Road is the place for all tourist information related to trekking, shared cabs, camping etc. All foreigners are required to register themselves with a travel agency to obtain permits for visits to places around Leh.
To be continued…