Gasp, gasp, gasp…
Traveling is so easy when flying Business Class on Lufthansa from Chicago to Frankfurt. Recline seats, watch movies, eat, and drink; disembark in Frankfurt and head for a Lufthansa Lounge to spend the next five hours, eat and drink. Board another Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to Delhi, recline seats, watch movies, eat, and drink. Sounds a little like “Groundhog Day” doesn’t it? And we’re still not “there yet.”
Arrival in Delhi’s beautiful new Terminal 3 that combines Domestic and International around Midnight (who can remember how many hours has been spent up to now). Through Immigration, customs, collect bags and walk into the Domestic section. There are semi-reclining chairs here to throw bodies on for the next 5-6 hours. A good thing since the Jet Airlines flight for Leh doesn’t leave until around 6:30a. (Almost all flights to Leh are completely sold out during the summer season.)
Foreign airlines load, check manifest and leave when everyone is on board; sometimes 10 minutes ahead of schedule. If you’re not on board, they will make announcements until departure time. After that, tough luck. Let me repeat an earlier statement regarding Jet airlines. They suck! Prepare to strong arm a flight attendant zooming down the aisle with water (still free). They don’t ask and, are probably hoping you don’t either, to help Jet Airlines’ bottom line figures. If you miss her, no water. Want coffee? Prepare to cough up Rupees. No tea, no coffee, no anything.
Leh is always a mob scene with two, inconveniently placed conveyor belts. One for the considerable military presence you’ll see all over Ladakh and the other for whatever plane just arrived. Baggage trucks pull up, handlers throw duffel after duffel on the belt and you pray, “Please let them be there.” Three flights later, our bags were there. TIP: Don’t stand like a dork waiting for your bags. Take one of the obligatory forms all foreigners have to fill out, grab a pen, complete, hand in and go back to the conveyor belt. Believe me. You’ll have plenty of time.
Now it’s time to face the gauntlet outside, still gasping for breath. No one flies into 3,500 meter/11,482 foot Leh without gasping for breath. Two rows of tour operators stand holding signs with their client’s names. Yes! Stanzin from Skywalker is here to pick us up and will also be our guide in Zanskar; a family affair since his sister has worked at Deskit Villa for years.
Acclimatizing. It doesn’t seem to matter what people read about high altitudes. They still come with this blithe, preconceived notion that they will adjust without any problem. Steve and I spent three days in Leh, just sitting around, sleeping, eating and reading books. Completely necessary, difficult to do when there are places to go, places to see. I can’t count how many people we’ve met staying at Deskit Villa each time that have become ill from the altitude. One man was flying out the next day because of a Pulmonary Embolism. Two young girls from Montreal had diarrhea and were sick to their stomachs. Don’t be naive about altitude. Only Tibetans and Ladakhis can fly into 11,500 feet and not suffer. Oops…forgot yaks. Unless you have any of this blood running through your veins, sit and vegetate for several days.
Fairly well acclimatized, Lobsang made last minute tweaks to the itinerary with Stanzin, gave instructions and we set off for Dha Hanu before visiting Zanskar. A crowded 4×4. Nepalese cook Baikaji, guide Stanzin #1, assistant cook Stanzin #2, driver, us, three iron chests filled with perishables, packed lunches precariously balanced on laps, dozens of eggs on the dashboard, duffels, tents, propane heaters, gallons of petrol loaded on the roof, crammed into any available space.
Roadwork is a constant in Ladakh. One main highway leads west from Leh to Srinagar. Kargil is the halfway point where a “road” heads south into the Zanskar region. All these roads and highways make their way up and over precarious passes. Military convoys, trucks, cars, and 4×4’s share the space. In America, you’d encounter massive road rage. Here, everyone patiently sits in line and waits until whatever is done. One hour for blasting, cleaning, repairing. Another hour while a gigantic military convoy barely squeaked by.
What can you do but sit, admire the scenery, ripe apricots drying along the river, and watch locals?