2 degrees below zero: First impressions of Ladakh

The dull throb of the engine grew into a tremendous roar as the plane got ready to take off. I was seated by the window, just ahead of the engine. From where I sat, the engine seemed to be a cannon getting ready to propel its target across the sky. The roar grew louder as the plane rushed along the runway, the engine sucking up the air for a final thrust to get the plane off the ground. And suddenly, the nose of the plane rose and we were airborne.

Darkness still ruled, and as the plane cruised over Delhi, I played connect-the-dots with the innumerable lights flickering below. Ribbons of gold crisscrossed the city, as the streetlights shone bright along the major roads, their work for the night not done yet. I could spy lights moving along the paths traced by these streetlights, which I made out to be trucks and buses getting produce and people into the city. The city was awakening.

As the plane continued climbing, it breached the layer of clouds that hung overhead, and from above this, it seemed as if a thin muslin veil was drawn over the lights of the city.

The sun poked its first tentative fingers out of the blanket of darkness, and deciding it was time to start off the day’s work, it started arching itself above the clouds. A small crest of orange appeared, and bathed in this light, the clouds resembled a huge orange carpet laid beneath the plane.

After an hour of cruising over the clouds, our flight finally broke cover and began its descent towards Leh.

A whole new world unraveled as the plane broke into the mist, revealing lines of mountains, an earthy brown sprinkled with white where the snow lay in patches.

From my window, the first line of the peaks looked like sand mountains that are playfully created by kids on the beach, hued a deep brown and set as if a giant hand had mold them from the earth. Further ahead, I could spot snow shoveled over the next range of peaks. The most distant peaks presented a fantastic sight. Covered entirely with snow, with just the naked tops of the peaks showing through, they scratched the sky’s underbelly and drew clouds from it. It seemed as if they had cut a giant pillow and all the cotton had just spilled out in the surroundings.

As the plane flew over them, I saw the valleys framed by the lines of peaks. The Indus snaked its way across one of these valleys; its deep blue a visible contrast to the brown and white surrounding it.

The peaks that framed it seemed like each one had a tale to tell about its fight against the wind. The wind slammed them with a fist of snow, but the peaks just shrugged it off and refused to cow down. The snow lying on them seemed like huge scars on battle veterans, each one talking of a wound claimed when the wind fought from a particular direction. On some of these peaks, the snow lay as if sprinkled over, while in others it gathered in the nooks on the peaks, spotting them as if the peak itself suffered from mottled pigmentation. Yet others had snow lying along horizontal creeks, seeming to be the white sacred ash smeared liberally across an Iyer pujari’s forehead. In the early morning light, the sun lent its color to the snow capped peaks and it seemed as if they had been topped by gold powder.

I caught sight of the valley where Leh city lay. Nestled between the peaks, it looked like it was out of an architect’s model, the houses neatly arranged within the city and the roads stenciled out. A set of hospitals lay outside the main city, their green rooftops bearing a huge red cross on white background, perhaps as an indicator to the pilots in case of need.

The plane swung through the air as it prepared to land, offering a panoramic view of the landscape. While snow clung on to some peaks, it slid off in rivulets in others, while other peaks seemed to be ice cream cones turned inside out, with all the ice cream flowing out of the cone. A few stray clouds got between some of the peaks and the sun, and the shadows they cast created an impression of an artist having inefficiently erased spots on his otherwise marvelous landscape.

A bump and a screechy halt later, we climbed down to Leh Airport.

Leh does not have a civilian airport, and passenger planes land on the Defence civilian enclave. I took out my camera to capture the scenery – the airport too was framed with snow laden peaks – but an airport guard asked me to put it away. The outside temperature was around 2 degree celcius, and though it did not seem cold at first, my jeans started clinging to my legs and the metal handle of the trolley stung. As Johnny, Lalit and I admired the landscape, white trails of vapour rose from our mouths and dispersed into nothingness a few feet above our heads.

I had been warned about the effects of rarefied air before I touched base, and as per the advice, I decided not to rush with activities. At first, things seemed quite normal. But as we reached the conveyor belt to collect our luggage, the first effects started manifesting. In low oxygen air, the slightest activity produces breathlessness, similar probably to breathing after a few rounds of jogging. One feels a slight tensing of the lungs as they eke out oxygen, and there is a slight burning sensation between breaths. In case of breathlessness, one just has to stop moving till breathing is back to normal.

A Tata Sumo was waiting for us to take us to the LEDeG hostel. After the sting in the air, the confines of the Sumo seemed refreshingly warm. We drove through the city and got a quick tour of the main centres before reaching the LEDeG hostel, 12 km from the airport.

The LEDeG hostel is housed in a huge compound surrounded by bare hills. Snow falls further ahead and shrouds mountains further away, but the area around the hostel is free of snow. As I entered the gate, I saw rows of solar panels lining by the compound wall with wires running to batteries housed somewhere within a hut behind it. A huge parabolic mirror stood in front and to the left of the panels. Further ahead, a local was pouring water into a pipe attached to a solar water heater, while a bucket to the other end of the heater collected the warmed output. Of the two main buildings within the compound, the façade of one was made almost entirely of glass, stretching over its entire length and its two storey height, as if the whole front was a series of windows joined together. We later learned that this was a solar trombe house, constructed to retain maximum sunlight during the day so that heating needs during the night were minimized. The other building had a couple of stories, but only two windows. We entered a small door to its right, and found ourselves in front of another door just ahead, creating a small passageway maybe 5 feet in length. This too was later revealed to be an energy saving strategy, as it prevented cold air from outside directly entering the heated building.

We met Stenzin, our project coordinator within the building, and then went to wake up Meherzad, Sanjiv and Rohit who had reached the day earlier. Their room was very cozy, and they were all enjoying a nice nap under heavy quilts. We got them awake and asked them to join us for breakfast at Stenzin’s room.

Stenzin’s room was on the first floor of the building. It had just one window, and seemed to be a house squeezed into a room. On one side, there was a small kitchen, where our breakfast and tea was being prepared, and a sink with a bucket near it (there is no flowing water within the hostels), while on the other side, by the window, was his meditation centre. A small altar had many books with the Dalai Lama’s photo on all of them, and a stand to light incense. Just in front lay a mattress covered with a thick rug, which had a room heater, called a bukhari, at its foot. The bukhari uses wood to warm the surroundings. It is a two foot high metal cylinder about a foot and a half in diameter and has two holes on top. Wood is put in through one of them, while the other smaller hole is used to warm hands, or can be shut to regulate the heating provided by the bukhari. I gratefully rubbed my stinging hands over it, and my hands started feeling normal in a couple of minutes. I made a mistake of touching the chimney of the bukhari. This part gets superheated as it conducts the smoke out of the building, and had I not pulled off my finger immediately, the skin would have remained stuck to the chimney.

Across the bed lay a study table with a laptop and a pile of books on it, and a small TV and a DVD player with a host of CDs about Ladakh lying beside.

After having a quick breakfast of roti and crushed garlic pickle, we then went on to the other building which housed our rooms.

Since none of us had slept the night before, Johnny, Lalit and I sunk into deep slumber easily and woke up just for a quick lunch before hitting the sack again. I woke late in the evening and made my way to Stenzin’s room, where the others had already gathered. Stenzin was giving a presentation on LEDeG’s efforts with installation of micro-hydel projects. Sanjiv, Meherzad and Rohit were to accompany him to office the next day, but we were asked to stay and rest another day to acclimatize.

I tried working on my laptop that night, and since there was no power outlet in my room, I ran it on battery power. The battery indicator showed me a good hour and a half of charge, but in just around a half hour, the laptop drained the last vestiges of charge from the batteries. I presume the battery is not designed to function at such low temperatures (must have been -2 to -5 degree celcius then).

The next morning, we faced our first ordeal.

Based on a WHO report, most toilets in Leh are designed to provide for compost. While this sounds quite noble, all it involves is to replace the existing sewage system with a hole in the ground (surrounded by four walls, of course!) where all “operations” are carried out. Once a week, the compost is carried out. I shall leave out the scatological details, but squatting over a one square foot hole is bad enough, but its worse when there is no provision for lighting and it’s on a daylight-only mode!

Stenzin arranged for us to have a cook, and after a breakfast of rotis and berry jam, we set out to climb up the hill nearby hosting a Buddhist temple called Shanti Stupa. The climb was easy, but we still found ourselves struggling for breath every few hundred yards. We spent the rest pauses taking pictures of the amazing scenery – the hill is surrounded by a virtual fortress of mountains, some bare, but most covered with snow. After climbing around 300 metres, we got to the Shanti Stupa, which houses a 10 foot high idol of Buddha in a meditative pose.

We got back and Lalit and I started work on our presentation on the District Energy Plan. We were to present this to a gentleman who has worked in the energy sector in Ladakh for the past 20 years, along with the director of LEDeG.

That evening, Stenzin came up and discussed what we were to do. All my hopes of having an easy time here were dashed as we heard what all was outlined. In addition to the district energy plan, we are to work on financial viability of micro-hydel projects, work on helping them get their documents in order and their annual report. The next 40 days are going to be busy.

Of course, it will not be without adventure, as we will be making field visits with our energy demand questionnaire, something I am looking forward to.

Today we made our presentation to Mr. Dawa and Mr. Namgyal, the advisor to and director of LEDeG. We will be doing a pilot test of our survey for the next one week and then discuss the results with energy consultants. (Will outline the approach later)

After a quick lunch at the office, where all employees take turns at cooking, we finally got some time to browse.

It’s 5:30 PM now, and the temperature’s already plummeting. It gets dark here by 7:00 PM, so we have to get back to the hostel before that, else it will be one long cold night.

Tomorrow’s going to be a long day, with the details of secondary data research being worked out. I’ll try loading snaps tomorrow (some amazing ones, of course!). Till then, jhulae (that’s namaste in Ladakhi)

In 2006, I spent the months from March to May in Ladakh. Six of us from SPJIMR had chosen to do our summer project there, working on understanding and forecasting energy demand and supply for the region. It was an incredible experience. As part of the project, we travelled across Ladakh for primary surveys. The posts below were written during the visit.

I couldn’t, however, get Ladakh out of my mind. I visited Ladakh again in 2009 with friends to enjoy the now-discontinued Confluence music festival. The post on the second visit:

Read all my travel posts here.


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