White Magic Adventure Travel – THE adventure specialists in India

Yesterday, with great reluctance, I left snowy, wintery, beautiful Leh, and headed back to Delhi, after another stunning trip with White Magic Adventure Travel.

As I unpack and download my photos and generally ease back into city life, I thought I’d put pen to paper (as it were) and give you an update on the travel company that organised this latest adventure.

I have travelled with White Magic Adventure Travel twice before and have written about them in an earlier blog post, but since every trip is different, I felt an update in order.

No surprise, White Magic did it again.

In the face of extreme weather, beyond unpredictable conditions, sickness (that would be me…) we had a fabulous trek on the frozen River Zanskar high up in the Himalayas.

The River Zanskar freezes over in the winter and what has always been the traditional access route between Leh and Zanskar for the locals, has become an increasingly popular trekking destination.

The very nature of this trek means it is extreme in every sense – you are camping on a frozen river bed, and the logistics are nothing short of astounding. Tents, food, supplies – everything has to be ferried by hand, with a team of 20 fabulous porters dragging the food and luggage and baggage on wooden sleds, and then hoisting both sledge and baggage onto their backs whenever the ice was broken and we had to clamber up hills. (More anon).

The trip started in Leh, and it was great to catch up with old friends from previous treks, like dear Tashi Angchuk, Nitesh Sati and Mohan Singh, who has always been a tower of strength.

On day 2 in Leh, I felt unwell – drowsy, no appetite, vomiting – and so after a morning of worried nagging by Sanjeev Ganju and Tashi, I was marched off to Leh hospital and put on oxygen.  I wound up spending the night in hospital on oxygen.

Since my oxygen saturation level had risen overnight, I was cleared for travel the next morning, though Sanjeev made it quite clear to me that at the slightest hint of further sickness on my part I would have to turn back.  And no discussion.

This is one of the reasons I travel with White Magic –  they are safety-conscious in the extreme, and expect you to follow their advice.

Another member of our group came down with a bad stomach so he too was whisked off to hospital, injected and also cleared for travel.

Full marks to White Magic for prompt reactions – and for visiting me in hospital late at night and first thing in the morning.

So, off we all set to drive to our departure point.  Nitesh had done a recce run the previous day so it came as a total surprise to him when we rounded a bend in the road and – whoa! – landslide. The road totally blocked.  No way vehicles could get through.  And so we scrambled over the landslide and walked, while the porters had to offload and reorganise and walk for miles in the sleety cold snowy weather.  Indeed, some of the porters wouldn’t even make to our first campsite until the next day, poor fellows.

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I shot this video as we left the valley after our trek – and to be honest, the landslide looked even worse than I’d remembered…Goodness knows when it will be cleared.

The Chadar – the ice cover on the river – was so broken in places that after 5 days, the decision was made that we should turn back, having already accepted that our 3 day planned homestay in Zangla was out of the question, since the region was under 5 feet of snow & inaccessible.

Throughout all his process of decision-making and re-working arrangements, plus 2 people turning back earlier, Sanjeev, Tashi Zangla and Nitesh handled things with smooth but firm efficiency.  Cups of tea, warm fires, hot meals – everything went like clockwork, despite all the behind the scenes headaches.

The weather was so extreme that the DC – the local authority – actually closed down the Chadar trek for a few days, banning anyone from setting out, and in addition Leh airport was closed by snow for 2 days.

There was no mobile connectivity, satellite phones are not allowed in India, so the fact that the trek leaders rearranged, planned, re-jigged our trip is nothing short of a miracle.

We were fed copious amounts of food, served gallons of tea and hot mango juice (my latest fav drink, by the way, below)

and slept every night, come snow or high winds, in super-warm double sleeping bags and I, for one, was honestly never cold.  OK, let me rephrase that – it was cold, but I was honestly never uncomfortably cold.  OK, admittedly, one night I did sleep in 2 layers of fleece, I never took my thermal beanie off once – but other than that…

After we turned back from the Chadar, the White Magic team quickly re-organised the rest of our stay.  A welcome night back in the toasty-warm hotel in Leh, and then off we went for a 3 night homestay in Stok village –  all quickly arranged on the go – and never forget the lack of connectivity.

From then on, people started peeling off, heading back to Leh earlier, and with the threat of more snow, some of the group even brought their flights forward.

I didn’t, deciding to gamble on the weather gods and indeed the predicted snow never came, and so I squeezed every last moment out of this amazing trip.

Tashi and Mohan even took the final remaining 4 of us rock climbing, which was super-fun & has now inspired me to tackle new ventures…

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our kitchen crew baked a birthday cake for Anu, we watched the cricket with our homestay family, our kitchen crew and – I think – a few neighbours, all of us happily ensconced around the heater or “bukhari” – oh, the whole adventure was so much fun, and it was a credit to Sanjeev and his team who took a lot of strain.

Trekking in -15C/-18C is already tricky enough, but when you add landslides, dangerous ice conditions, a lack of connectivity, then even more praise is due to the competent, devoted folk at White Magic Adventure Travel.

I fully and whole-heartedly recommend this company – and the proof of the pudding…I have already signed up for my next trip with them in April.

“The High”. A documentary by Barry Walton

If you love an exciting tale of extraordinary people doing even more extraordinary things and doing them in extraordinary scenery to boot –  then get yourself a copy of “The High”, a documentary about the toughest race on earth.  Settle down and prepare to be blown away by the crazy dreams and the lovely, crazy people you will meet.

I say this advisedly, since Dr. Rajat Chauhan, the man who dreamed up the idea and is the race director, is my running guru and a friend, so I can take liberties and describe him as a crazy dreamer and I know he will smile and say his trademark “Awesome ma’am.”

A few years ago, Doc Chauhan had a decidedly crazy idea.  How about organising a race high up in the Himalayas, one that would take in the highest motorable pass in the world?

Why ever not?

And actually why not make the race a nice jazzy length of 111km?  (Inevitably a second race of 222km was added.  And, yes, how did you guess, as of last year, there’s now a 333km…)

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Crazy.

I told you so.download

Everyone said it couldn’t be done, including the army, who pretty much run things up in Ladakh, a high altitude sensitive border area, but Doc was having none of it.

The first edition of Ultra the High in 2010 had 3 runners and only one finisher, and this is their story.  And it is a gripping tale of huge physical effort, commitment, and –  yes, let’s not deny it –  physical danger.

I already knew quite a bit about this extraordinary high altitude ultra marathon, having spent time with the 2014 team up in Leh.  Several girls from my running group were crewing for the race last year, and since I was up there acclimatising before attempting a 6300m peak, we all hung out.

So I knew the background and some of the players in this amazing story, and yet, even so, I was gripped watching Barry Walton’s documentary.  Just seeing the struggles and the pushing through the mental and physical barriers of these ultra runners is so exciting.

The runners, the organisers, the crew –  everyone is so committed, so laid back, and so low-key about their achievements.

Ladakh looks as stupendously gorgeous as it is.

A great way to share in the drama of what is, after just 6 editions, already known as the toughest race on earth.  Well, the 6th edition is still on as I write, but you know what I mean.

Awesome.

To buy the DVD, follow the instructions on the website.

To run in this race…ah well, now, that’s a different matter altogether…

Re-visiting Bon Appetit, Leh, Ladakh

Last year, I ate at and enthusiastically reviewed a delightful restaurant called “Bon Appetit” in Leh, high up in the Indian Himalayas.

In Ladakh this year, once again acclimatising for a 6000m+ climb, I spent quite a lot of time alone in Leh, and inevitably found my way to “Bon Appetit” several days for lunch.  I know there are many new places to visit in Leh, but working on the if it’s not broke, then don’t fix it principle, I knew from last year that I could get a fabulous salad there, if nothing else.  Plus delicious al dente pasta.  Plus it’s quiet.  Plus the views are gorgeous.  Plus the loo is spotless.

And this year they have free wifi.

What’s not to love?

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Every day I had virtually the same thing, oh unadventurous soul that I am : either a tomato and rucola salad (same price as last year) or the mushroom and chive pasta (Rs 20 more than last year).

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One day I branched out and tried the spinach and ricotta gnocchi which was OK, but not rave-worthy.

Most days I ended up having delicious local seabuckthorn juice, and always served in a recycled beer bottle, for some reason.

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Frequent power cuts meant, sadly, that I didn’t get to have as many iced coffees as I would have liked.

The last time I went there for lunch, the day I staggered back into Leh after 17 days camping and climbing, the charming waiter told me that they had had no power for 2 days –  so no iced coffee and no classical music piped quietly in the background.  But fresh salad…

Some trekkers I met told me they found “Bon Appetit” too expensive.  It’s not cheap, but the food is delicious, the service lovely and quiet and unhassle-y, and you can while away many calm hours there.

Enthusiastically re-recommended.

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Hotel Omasila – a delightful hotel in Leh, Ladakh

Having just returned from a pretty epic visit to Ladakh, including trekking, climbing, a debilitating bout of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) and quite a lot of time on my own, acclimatising, I can safely say that the pretty, well-situated Hotel Omasila was a perfect base for all my adventures.

And for some weary downtime, too.

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What marked this hotel out from the other Leh hotels I have used over the years is its  genuine friendliness and warmth.  Every member of staff,  from the gentle Ladakhi owners, to the waiters and those dear strong ladies who heft bags up and down the stairs for exhausted climbers like yours truly – every single member of staff was kind, welcoming and considerate.

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Lovely chat one morning with the owner about flowers and politics and life in Leh and lots, lots more…

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Knocked pretty sideways by AMS, I returned to Leh alone, ahead of the rest of my climbing team, and the hotel staff couldn’t have been sweeter. They carried my luggage up to my room***, offered me tea, clucked over my sunburned face, and promised to hand over a padlock and key for the luggage I abandoned on the mountain for my teammates to bring down.
The single biggest plus that this hotel has – other than location – is an utterly gorgeous garden, with killer views. Shanti stupa. Stok Kangri. You name it, you can see it from the Omasila garden, and I spent many a happy afternoon there, reading and sipping tea in the shade of a tree.

 

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The rooms are OK size wise.

The bathrooms are also fine. Adequate but fine.

Food is copious.  I turned up late one day for lunch, having slept through my sickness, and yet they served me food, way after hours.

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But it is the kindness and the gentleness of the staff, and those views, that makes the Omasila hotel such a great place.

 

*** such a contrast with the hotel where I stayed last year…http://christinesreviews.com/2014/07/hotel-royal-ladakh-in-leh-ladakh/

These things really do count…

 

Personally recommended.  Contact the hotel (details below) for rates.

 

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And if you would like “my” view of Stok Kangri, ask for Room No.3…doesn’t get much better…

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Hotel Royal Ladakh in Leh, Ladakh

I stayed in this hotel last August, pre and post my Mentok Kangri climb.  All the team stayed there, and by and large it was an OK experience, with just a couple of quibbles.

Location, first of all.

The Hotel Royal Ladakh is a little way out of town – way too far to walk in the heat –  which is a negative.

It does, however, enjoy fabulous views and has a pretty garden where you can sit out, which is a huge positive.

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On my first stay there – pre climbing Mentok –  I had a lovely ground floor room with a great bathroom and super (if rather public) views.  There were nice touches, and there was TV, so it was a good place to have tea and rest up before the climb.

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On my exhausted return, post successful summit but nursing a broken shoulder that I didn’t yet realise I had broken (does that make sense?) I was put in a room up a couple of flights of stairs.  I explained in vain to very bored staff that I was feeling dreadful, was physically exhausted and please could I have a ground floor room.

Nope.

Could someone please carry my luggage, since my right arm was in a sling?

No one free, sorry.

So I lugged it myself (with a broken shoulder) until a kind waiter took pity.

Could I eat in my room, since I was too exhausted to go down?

Nope.  No room service.

That kind of indifference, sad to say, negated the first experience.

 

Would I stay there again?  Not so sure, mainly because of its location, which does preclude wandering into Leh.

The hotel is clean.

The rooms are decent sized and the bathrooms are good.

Food was the usual bland, indifferent buffet food, but that is pretty standard in all Leh hotels, to be honest.

 

I didn’t tell them I blogged or wrote reviews, and I paid my own bills.

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The Tibetan Kitchen in Leh, Ladakh

I first visited this iconic Leh restaurant in 2009.
Fast forward to 2103 when I ate there again. ***
Decor hardly unchanged. Same easy going friendly service. Same intriguing Tibetan food.

On both occasions we ate outdoors, and both times the place was packed, and buzzing.  Both times, we ate there at night.

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The restaurant is tucked down a little lane, and is quite simply a good place to sit out, enjoy momos and thukpa, and soak in that brilliant Leh vibe.

 

I did not tell the staff that I blog or review, and we paid our own bill.

Thoroughly recommended.

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***And yes, I will most definitely head there to eat, when I am back in Leh in a few weeks.

Hotel Spic ‘n Span, Leh, India

If you are looking for a brilliantly located, spotlessly clean hotel in Leh, then the aptly named “Spic ‘n Span” fits the bill.  Within walking distance of the town centre, it has adequate, comfortable rooms and bathrooms, a pretty garden and a restaurant that serves standard hotel buffet fare.

Very popular with foreign tour groups –  mainly European trekkers –  means that it’s always busy, but the staff are charming and helpful.

We stayed there for a few days last July, and had no complaints whatsoever. Just one thing : our package included dinner, but were I to stay there again, I would opt for just B & B, as the food is nothing wildly exciting.  Since the hotel’s location is so central, you are within easy walking distance of a couple of good restaurants in town, such as “Bon Appetit”, “Gesmo” or “Open Hand“.

Most evenings, we sat out in the little garden, reading, chatting, enjoying the cooler weather after hot days.

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Yes, that really is a full moon shining over a mountain peak (below)…

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Looking down on the tiny car park, and the lovely view beyond.

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For rates, which vary according to the package you take, check their website.

Personally recommended.

I did not tell them I blogged or wrote reviews, and we obviously paid our own bills.

Where to stay between Kargil & Leh?

The road journey to Leh high up in the Indian Himalayas is a spectacular but oftentimes difficult one.

The terrain is unforgiving, the road can be blocked by sudden landslides, but oh those views…and those colours that look as though they have been overexposed, so bright are they.

Last year we drove from Gulmarg to Leh, and one of the issues was where to stay for the night en route. No-one expects luxury at altitude, but a clean, hygienic overnight stop was a must.

And the little tented camp called Nun Kun did not disappoint.  It is about 25 km beyond Kargil, surrounded by mountains and makes a good overnight stop.  The camp describes itself as “luxury” and I know most of my party was underwhelmed by the camp, but quite frankly, to find a clean loo, a bed groaning under the weight of so many quilts and hot food was luxury enough for me.

 

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The bathrooms are simple but functional, which is all one needs and expects at 3660+ metres.  To find western flush toilets was more than I had expected, to be honest.

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Recommended, though I think one night is all you need there, to break the journey.  There was a French couple staying there for a couple of days when we were there, but I’m not sure what you would do during the long hot days – walk and explore the surrounding peaks, I guess.

 

Nun Kun Camp is popular with biker groups – as is much of Ladakh.

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Not the camp’s fault, but perhaps they need to explain to men like these that:

(a) they have their own bathrooms for a reason, so there is no need to brush their teeth in the middle of the camp, spitting toothpaste everywhere with gay abandon.  Manners, guys, manners…

and

(b) you don’t walk around camp in your thermal long johns.  Once again, manners, guys, manners…

Perhaps the charming, unfailingly polite Ladakhis need to be a little stricter with these groups…they mainly are from Maharashtra, which is neither here nor there, I realise.

 

 

For information about rates and to book, you can contact the camp via this website.

I didn’t tell them that I write or blog and we obviously paid for our own stay.

 

Yak cheese heaven in Leh

We had been told that Gesmo’s is THE place in Leh for yak cheese, so 9 of us duly headed there for dinner one night.
Gesmo’s is one of those brilliant, typical hill-country places, serving casual food and selling bread and amazing looking pastries, and filled with an eclectic mix of clients – read young vaguely-hippy foreigners galore, and a few Indians (our party) – and with great fast, efficient service.
Within seconds of our arrival, on a busy July evening, 2 French guests had been seamlessly moved from one table to another, the back door had been closed to make more space, and 2 large tables pushed together to accommodate our group.

Our young Ladakhi waiter was one of the most polished I have met anywhere, with flawless English and a nice line in gentle put-me-downs.

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The yak cheese pizzas were delicious, large, very filling, but (if I am being 100% honest) I wouldn’t have known it was yak cheese – as in there was no distinctive taste other than nice, tangy cheese.

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The thukpa was declared delicious –  and again, look at the generous serving :

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And this (Israeli?) dish – below – that hubby dearest and another friend ate was apparently good but oh-so-filling, they said.  You really cannot complain about portion sizes at Gesmo:

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Nice casual, relaxed place.

And they also sell yak cheese, as well as serving it in all its avatars, so all in all –  Gesmo is pretty much yak cheese heaven.

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We paid our own bill (Rs2000 for 9…not bad)

I didn’t tell them I blogged or reviewed restaurants.

 

A good shopping & eating combo in Leh, India

I mentioned in a review posted earlier today of a restaurant called “Bon Appétit” in Ladakh’s capital Leh, that this little city’s eating and shopping profile has changed hugely over the 4 years since my previous visit.

Another great discovery on my trip earlier this month was the Open Hand Espresso Bar & Bistro.  In fact, this was a double discovery because once I had ooh-ed and aah-ed myself silly in Open Hand, I then discovered that there are outlets in Delhi, where I live, and that as a concept, Open Hand has been around since 1999.

Travel really does broaden the mind, in more ways than one…

So, we went for lunch at Open Hand, 6 of us, and the food met with everyone’s satisfaction.

So, food first (and curiously, I can’t find our bill, so forgive me in advance for this).  Rather foolishly, I didn’t choose a salad -mainly because I felt like soup, which was delish, so no complaints there –  but these salads looked perfect.  I helped myself to the feta from hubby’s salad, and it was as creamy as you could wish.

So, big thumbs up for fresh, crisp salads and creamy feta cheese at 3500 meters – Leh, you really are astonishing.

 

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Gita had this veg fried rice dish (below) which she said was OK, but not rave-worthy:

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My veg soup (below) was, as I said, delicious, filling, and just what the doctor ordered – though if I am allowed a quibble, I would’ve expected better bread than sliced white.

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I was in need of a caffeine fix, and this espresso milk shake did the trick

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Now, not only is Open Hand a café, complete with loungers in the sun, and ‘firangs” a-plenty checking their email and sipping coffee, it is also a fair trade kind of shop, which I enjoyed pottering around :

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You can shop from all over India…

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…or closer to home, from the Himalayas…

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and you can support any number of good causes

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This was a clean, relaxing place to spend a few hours.

Good food.

Wifi (though s-l-o-w, but hey, it was free) and a nice vibe.

We paid our own bill, and I did not tell the staff that I write reviews and run 3 blogs.

Next time, I will head there for breakfast and coffee, though 2 of our party tried that one day, just as a coach party of the ubiquitous Leh summer visitor foreigners rocked up.  Apparently the Open Hand staff were very sweet and told our friends that it would probably be better if they tried elsewhere, since there was bound to be a long wait otherwise –  a refreshingly honest approach.