Leh-Ladakh: The rugged beauty

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Syed Zafar Mehdi

The picturesque snow-clad peaks kissing the clear azure sky; the icy cold waters surging down the glacial heights into the brackish lakes; the rhythmic chant of the monks in beautiful, ancient monasteries; the rugged terrains, expansive meadows, rich wildlife, glorious cultural heritage. Their remains no sense of date and time in Ladakh. The Roof of the World as it is called; a journey through Ladakh’s rocky landscape is simply breathtaking.

Bordered by two of the world’s largest mountain ranges and surrounded by alpine desert, Leh’s dry barren landscape full of historic Buddhist monasteries makes it an incredible sight to behold. A silent, blissful place, its intimacy belies the rugged 6,500 mt peaks enveloping the former kingdom. Travelers can trek through the hilly terrain of Ladakh, enjoy a game of polo or watch an archery contest where local residents compete in a contest that has remained unchanged for years. White water rafting, wildlife tours and mountaineering are hit here.

Three regions

Ladakh comprises of three main regions, all distinct in their own way.  Perched at 3500 mts, Leh & Upper Indus Valley is the historical and cultural heartland of Ladakh, home to numerous Buddhist monasteries, quaint villages, fairs, festivals and bazaars. Other is the Zanskar Valley, a relatively isolated valley to the south of Indus Valley. Among Ladakh’s remotest regions, Zanskar is ringed by mountains and only accessible by high passes. The twin peaks of Nun-Kun, its monasteries and its extremely rugged, awe-aspiring landscape are its main attractions. Then comes Kargil & Suru Valley, falling just behind the famous Zoji La Pass. Kargil is a small town with cobbled streets surrounded by apricot grooves.

Lakes taking breath away

The major attraction is Pangong Tso Lake, located at an altitude of almost 4,500 meters, a five-hour drive from Leh, most of it through rough mountain route, traversing the third-highest pass in the world, the Changla pass. The Pangong is a delight to the eye. The golden colored range to the north, with its rolling spurs culminating in chiseled peaks, spreads before your eyes a panorama of spectacular dimensions. In winter, the lake freezes completely despite being salt water.

Then comes Tsomoriri Lake, a beautiful mountain bounded expanse of water, located at 14,000 ft in Rupsho Valley. The nomads are focus of attention here, who graze herd of goats and yaks on lakeside. Tsokar Lake, around 76 kms from Tsomoriri is also a breathtaking lake. A trip to these two lakes can be organized in two or three days by jeep or two to three weeks by trek.

The sights to behold

The village Alchi situated on the bank of Indus River is home to one of the oldest monasteries in Ladakh known for its 11th century wall paintings, depicting both artistic and spiritual details of Buddhist and Hindu kings of that period in Kashmir. Down the Indus, on the route to Balistan, at an altitude of 2600 mts, lies a small community called the Drokpa, tracing their roots to Aryans. They are Buddhist but also worship nature gods and spirits. Numbering a few thousands, they have preserved their racial purity through centuries, but only two of the five Drokpa villages are open to tourists. The Nubra valley, referred as the orchard of Ladakh, because of being richer in vegetation, offers unparalleled trekking opportunities for adventure travelers.

Spectacular side trips

Among the most spectacular side trips from Leh is a journey along the Zanskar River. You’ll see hanging glaciers, green villages, Buddhist monasteries, and towering Himalayan peaks. The Nubra Valley, on Khardung La, the world’s highest motorable road, is another unforgettable trip. The sights of Himalayan icicles, wild yaks, horses, and hairy double humped camels, you’ll be rewarded with water, mountains, and desert all in the one area.

Monastries, the cynosure of eyes 

Among the largest, oldest and most famous monasteries in region is Hemis Monastery, around 45 km from Leh. Here Hemis festival is celebrated every June. Shanti Stupa, located on the hilltop, boasts of state of the art work, which pulls in lot of tourists to the place. Stok Gonpa and Palace, 14 kms from Leh, is the residence of present day royal family. The three days trek from Stok to Spituk and the 8 days trek of Markha Valley starts here. The palace has an exquisite collection of royal dresses, and king’s crown that is open for visitors. Lamayuru monastery, remarkably built on a rock, on the Leh-Srinagar highway is a major attraction too. Besides these, Thiskey Gonpa, the most beautiful of all the monasteries in Ladakh is the place for witnessing amazing sunsets.

Adventure trails

Ladakh provides great opportunities for adventure sports such as river rafting, trekking, mountaineering and mountain biking. Adventure tourism has contributed in a big way to Ladakh’s economy. For trekkers, Ladakh offers numerous trails to choose from such as the ones from Likir to Temisgam, and Markha Valley from Spituk. The joy of walking through tough tracks, deep gorges and rivers can be a rewarding experience for all levels of enthusiasts. The trekking season is roughly between May and October.

Mountain biking is also a hit here. The most popular route for biking is the Manali-Leh. Biking tours generally involve a 12 to 13-day bike rides. After a few days of fairly easy biking along the Manali-Leh route, the difficult ride begins with the climb to Baralcha (4,880m) as the altitude increases. The toughest part of the ride is the climb to Lachung La (5,065m). Mountain climbing trips can be booked to peaks such as Stok (20,177 feet), Goleb (19,356 feet), Kangyatse (20,997 feet) and Matho West (19,520) in the Zanskar Mountains. For river rafting, the best stretch is between Spituk and Saspol on the Indus, as well as the Shayok River in the Nubra Valley, and Zanskar River in Zanskar. The Nubra Valley offers camel safaris as well.


Getting to Leh:

Flights to Leh operate regularly from Delhi. Flights are also available to Leh from Srinagar and Jammu. Alternatively, the roads to Leh are open for a few months of the year, when the snow has melted. The Manali Leh Highway is open from around June to October each year, and the road from Srinagar to Leh is open from June to November. Bus, jeep, and taxi services are all available. The trip takes around 2 days because of the difficult nature of the terrain. If you have the time and are in good health, do travel by road as the scenery is amazing.

When to Visit Leh:

The best time to visit Leh is between May and September, when the weather is the warmest. Ladakh doesn’t experience rain like elsewhere in India, so the monsoon season is the perfect time to travel to Leh.

Stay in Leh:

Hotels in Leh Ladakh include various budget hotels, luxury hotels, mid-price hotels and homestays. A family-run Oriental Guesthouse in the hamlet of Changspa, is an ideal place with clean rooms, hot water, Internet, library, delightful garden, and stunning view. The new Spic n Span Hotel on Old Leh Road is another popular choice with modern amenities. Double rooms start from 2000 rupees. The Grand Dragon Hotel is more upmarket and is Leh’s first 4-star hotel, with prices starting from 6000 rupees for a double.

(First published in Hindustan Times)


Books on Afghanistan worth your time


Syed Zafar Mehdi

The war in Afghanistan has produced a barrage of books over the years. We pick five must-read books from a rich literature. 

The Taliban
Ahmed Rashid

Authored by the seasoned reporter and observer of Afghanistan, this gripping account was originally written in 2000 and updated in 2010. In a finely studied and mellifluous prose, Rashid explains the ideological and historical origins of the Taliban, their interpretation of Islam, and ‘the new great game’ between regional and western powers. The book walks its readers through a dense social, religious and military history of this beleaguered country.

Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839-1842
William Dalrymple

Written by the master storyteller, this stunning narrative, with a wide range of recently discovered primary sources, is the most definitive account of the first battle for Afghanistan. It is a tale of violent rebellion, great military defeat and political stratagem. Dalrymple delves into the convoluted complexity of Afghanistan’s age-old tribal rivalries, and how it is intertwined with politics in this country. It has striking parallels with what is going on in world today.

Poetry of the Taliban
Alex Strick Van Linschoten

An anthology of more than 250 poems written by the Taliban, this book shows the lyrical, poetic side of the members of this dreaded militia. The soul-stirring poems have been translated and edited by Linschoten and Kuehn, sourced mainly from media, most of them from Taliban’s official website. They portray a range of emotions such as unrequited love, thrill of war, sense of nationalism through powerful images of wine, women, songs and beauty.

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

It is a riveting story of a courageous Afghan woman, a dressmaker, who faced extraordinary odds under the Taliban, but overcame all odds and challenges to become a role model for women entrepreneurs in Afghanistan. Written by a Harvard Business School student, this inspiring account gives voice to the unsung heroines of our time, and reminds us that no progress is possible without the active participation of women in all walks of life, including business.

Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10
Marcus Luttrell

This is a heart wrenching story of war, sacrifice and survival. Authored by the lone survivor of Operation Redwing, it presents a vivid description of extraordinary firefight in the mountains of Kunar that led to the largest loss of life in American Navy SEAL history. The author, who managed to survive with the help of locals, presents a rich chronicle of courage and sacrifice. It is a powerful narrative of war that shows how the soldiers battle it out in the field.

(First published in Afghan Zariza)

Five movies on Afghanistan worth your time


Syed Zafar Mehdi

Many feature films and documentaries have been made on Afghanistan over the years. Here is our list of five movies worth your time.

Osama (2003)
Director: Siddiq Barmak
Starring: Marina Golbahari, Zubaida Sahar, Mohammad Arif Herati,Mohammad Nadir Khwaja

During the repressive regime of the Taliban, women were barred from participating in the socio-economic affairs. This path breaking movie revolves around a girl, who loses all the male members of her family, and has to disguise herself as a boy, to make money and support her poor family. It was the first film to be shot entirely in Afghanistan since 1996, when Taliban announced ban on films.

At five in the afternoon (2003)
Director: Samira Makhmalbaf
Starring: Agheleh Rezaïe, Abdolgani Yousefrazi, Razi Mohebi

The first film to be shot in Kabul after the NATO invasion, it tells the story of Nogreh, a young and ambitious Afghan woman from a conservative family, who lives with her father and sister-in-law. She defies the norms and wants to be educated and become the first female President of Afghanistan. Premiered at 2003 Cannes Film Festival, the film earned rave reviews for breaking many stereotypes.

The Kite Runner (2007)
Director: Marc Forster
Starring: Khalid Abdalla, Zekeria Ebrahimi, Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada, Homayoun Ershadi

Adopted from a best-selling novel of the same name by Khaled Hosseini, this film tells the story of Amir, a boy from a posh locality of Kabul, who is torn apart by the guilt of betraying his friend Hassan, son of his family servant. The story traces the tumultuous events from the fall of monarchy to Soviet military intervention, the exodus of Afghan refugees to Pakistan, followed by the Taliban regime.

Buzkashi Boys (2012)
Director: Sam French
Starring: Fawad Mohammadi, Jawanmard Paiz, Wali Talash

A feature film that was nominated for Academy Awards in 2012 tells the story of the fascinating but dangerous game of Buzkashi in Afganisthan. Filmed entirely on location in Kabul by a group of Afghan and international filmmakers, the film revolves around two best friends – a street urchin and a blacksmith’s son – who dream of becoming champion horsemen in the game of Buzkashi.

Lone Survivor (2013)
Director: Peter Berg
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, Eric Bana

Based on the 2007 book of the same name by Marcus Luttrell, it is the story of failed U.S. Navy SEAL counter-insurgent mission Operation Red Wings in the mountains of Kunar, who go there to neutralize Ahmad Shahd, a dangerous Al Qaeda leader. All of them except Luttrell are killed. Luttrell survives because of a generous Afghan family. The film received two Academy Award nominations.

(First published in Afghan Zariza)

Saudi-Iran Hajj standoff a sign of growing discord

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Syed Zafar Mehdi

As fallout of the growing discord between Tehran and Riyadh, Iranian government refused to take part in the annual Hajj pilgrimage this year

The relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, two formidable regional rivals, have soured greatly following last year’s Hajj stampede which left 2426 pilgrims dead, including 464 Iranians. The colossal tragedy shocked the world and raised many eyebrows over the management of the annual pilgrimage. Tehran came down heavily on Riyadh, resulting in war of words between the two great geopolitical adversaries vying for regional supremacy.

Thousands of people marched through the streets of Tehran to register their protest against what they termed the ‘mismanagement’ of Hajj pilgrimage by the house of Al-Saud. As fallout of the growing discord, Iranian government refused to take part in the pilgrimage this year. This is the first time Iranians have boycotted Hajj. In 1988-89, at the height of Iran-Iraq war, Iran had boycotted the five-day pilgrimage after at least 400 Iranian pilgrims were killed in fierce clashes with Saudi riot police.

Iran has demanded an independent body to manage and administer the pilgrimage to the Islam’s holiest shrine, but Riyadh has refused to entertain the demand. In his Hajj address this year, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Syed Ali Khamenie lambasted the Saudi government for not taking adequate measures to ensure safety and security of Hajj pilgrims. In a brutally blunt way, he said the September 24 stampede was the result of Saudi government’s complicity or incompetence. As expected, Saudi government’s hyper-jingoistic Muftis launched a nasty tirade against the Iranian leaders.

Iran has demanded an independent body to manage and administer the pilgrimage to the Islam’s holiest shrine, but Riyadh has refused to entertain the demand

Ayatollah Khamenie, in his characteristic tone and tenor, denounced the Saudi rulers for “blocking the proud and faithful Iranian pilgrims” from going to the Beloved’s House. He said they are “disgraced and misguided people who think their survival on the throne of oppression is dependent on defending the arrogant powers of West, on alliances with Zionism and the US.” The supreme leader urged Muslims to “familiarise themselves with Saudi rulers and correctly understand their blasphemous, faithless, dependent and materialistic nature.”

Ayatollah Khamenie echoed the sentiments of the majority of Muslims that the House of Al-Saud are unfit to be the custodians of Islam’s holiest shrines, describing them as “small and puny devils in the service of the ‘Great Satan’ (US). “Those who have reduced Hajj to a religious-tourist trip and have hidden their enmity and malevolence towards the faithful and revolutionary people of Iran under the name of ‘politicising hajj’, are themselves small and puny satans who tremble for fear of jeopardising the interests of the Great Satan, he said. “Because of these rulers’ oppressive behaviour towards God’s guests, the world of Islam must fundamentally re-consider the management of the two holy places and the issue of Hajj,” he said.

In reply, a top Saudi cleric Grand Mufti Abdulaziz Al Sheikh dismissed Ayatollah Khamenie’s criticism and spoke of pre-Islamic history of Iran where majority were Zoroastrians. “We must understand they are not Muslims, for they are the descendants of Majuwa – a term for Zoroastrians – and their enmity towards Muslims, especially Sunnis, is very old,” he said.

Tehran has accused Saudi of supporting groups that seek to overthrow or destabilise the democratically elected government in Tehran

Iran’s outspoken Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif took to Twitter to respond to the diatribe of Saudi cleric. “Indeed, no resemblance between Islam of Iranians and most Muslims and bigoted extremism that Wahabi top cleric and Saudi terror masters preach.”

The Hajj controversy is a sign of growing discord between the two regional powers. Tensions escalated in January this year after Saudi executed a prominent cleric Sheikh Baqir Nimr after a flawed trail. The ‘extra-judicial murder’ drew sharp reactions from human rights activists across the world. In Iran, irate protestors attacked Saudi diplomatic mission offices, following which the two countries snapped diplomatic ties.

Today, Iran is a growing power in the region with considerable political clout and military muscle and plays a key role in the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Palestine and Lebanon. It also has clout in Bahrain and eastern Saudi. That is what has made the ‘small and puny devils’ jittery and forced it to contain Iranian influence through knee-jerk foreign policy, which means destabilising Iran from inside by promoting terror groups.

As author Ralph Schoenman wrote recently, ISIS is useful for US agenda against Iran because its Wahabi extremism is directed at fomenting sectarian divisions

Tehran has accused Saudi of supporting groups that seek to overthrow or destabilise the democratically elected government in Tehran. According to Iranian observers, Saudi has backed separatist groups in Iran, especially ethnic Arab Ahwaris in Khuzestan province and Kurdish separatists. Iranian officials have suspected foreign hand in these attacks, supported by the ‘reactionary state’, a term used to describe Saudi.

Mohsen Rezaei, a member of Iran’s Expediency Council, recently denounced Saudi for backing “terror cells” among Kurds. He claimed to have foolproof evidence to prove the dalliance between Kurdish rebels and Saudi agencies. Bahram Qassemi, Foreign Ministry spokesman, also denounced Saudi government’s sponsorship of international terrorism. “Given the situation Saudi has gotten itself into, and in the light of international circles acquaintance with the country’s activities, its measures to advance its agenda would be of no avail and the country would have to answer for its support for international terrorism.”

As American author Ralph Schoenman wrote recently, ISIS is useful for US agenda against Iran because its Wahabi extremism is directed at fomenting sectarian divisions. Saudi and Israel, he writes, has direct interest in assisting their US masters in orchestrating surrogates due to their hatred for Iran.

As the situation prevails, the two regional adversaries are unlikely to bury the hatchet. But moving from proxy war to direct military confrontation also seems unlikely. While Iran has superior naval forces, Saudi is dominant in the air. Any clash between the two regional power could have long-term ramifications for peace in the region.

(First published in The Witness magazine)