Shangri La

Last August I trekked in the Himalayan mountains in the Ladakh region of Northern India. You can read about some of it here. We were partially defeated by the unseasonable weather – one of the increasing symptoms of Global Warming – although the whole experience was amazing. To give you a taster (and apologies if I’ve already bored you in person) we crossed 6 passes all around 5000m high, climbed a total of 5889m and walked more than 50 miles. Most of it in water, it seemed. We weren’t ab;e to summit the intended 6000m peak but we scaled the nearby 5700m Konga Ri.

One of the most memorable moments for me, and there were many, was on summit day when our guide spotted three animals in the distance. He was convinced they were wolves but footprints we came across later confirmed that they were Snow Leopards – a mother and two cubs. I have a grainy image of three dots on the snow slope which is my photograph of these rare creatures. I also saw Lammergeier Vultures, a Golden Eagle, Black Kites, Snow Cock, Blue Sheep (which are actually bluish grey mountain goats) and some of our little group were fortunate enough to see marmots in some of the many marmot holes we passed every day. The mountain environment we were immersed in was incredible too.

Inevitably, on the last day of the trek we talked about what was next. After we’d all got over the initial longing for a flushing, sit-down toilet that didn’t overflow in the rain, thoughts turned to what treks we would do next. In my mind I wanted to come back to Ladakh. By the time I’d got home and dumped everything in the washing machine, the new trekking brochure from Exodus was on my doorstep and 18 seconds later, I had found my next trek.

In the early spring, I’m off on a photographic adventure to get some snaps of the wildlife in the Ladakh region, with the aim being to photograph Snow Leopards. We will be accompanied by several wildlife expert guides who will scout ahead and spot for us. We’ll spend a week camping in the mountains at more than 4000m but this time there won’t be high passes or multiple river crossings. Instead we’ll be based in one spot and we’ll take shorter treks and walks to the places the spotters have identified as likely places to find the wildlife. Snow Leopards are incredibly rare – the number thought to be in the Ladakh region is in the low teens and the chance of spotting them will be low. But in our favour is the fact that it will still be winter in the mountains, and the Snow Leopards come down from their high altitude habitats to hunt during the winter months.

And so we come to the two factors that will certainly have an impact on the trek. Ladakh is high in the Himalayan mountains. Leh, the principal town of the region, is at 3500m and well within the zone in which altitude sickness can strike. In August I stepped off the plane at Leh airport and felt as if someone had taken all the air away. Pushing the trolley with 5 kitbags on from the luggage claim to the bus, perhaps 200yards, was exhausting. Climbing the stairs to my second floor room at the hotel (which was another 200m above the airport) with my backpack was exhausting. The local girls carrying my kitbag made it look easy, but when I offered to help, it was all I could do not to grind to a halt as I carried my bag along the corridor. The giggles from the young ladies were polite. The other element that threatens to curtail activities is the temperature. In August it was hot in Leh – 30+C. It was colder in the mountains, with negative numbers at night and during our blizzard day as the cold winds blew down the valleys from the snow covered mountain. But that was summer.

In winter, much of Ladakh is cut off from the rest of the world by land. Roads, which all have to cross high passes through the Himalaya, are blocked by snow and ice. Properly blocked; not with a light covering of snow which would bring the UK to a standstill, but with yards of deep snowdrift and frozen snow which no amount of gritting is going to cure. The only way in or out is by plane and the only reason the airport is open is because it’s a military base. I found a website the gives the weather in Ladakh. It offers a historical record as well so I thought I’d look at the weather last March as an indicator of what I can expect. The screenshot is below. But if you can’t wait, the good news is that on the day in question – mid way through the camping phase of our trip – the temperature ranged from -15c to -39c. Yup, those are little minus signs in front of the numbers. And we’ll be in tents.

I’ve been trying on my fleeces, down jacket, thermals and windproof jackets. All of them. At the same time.

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Marrakech Express

“Give me back my debit card!”

“Non!”

“S’il vous plait?”

“Non!”

My schoolboy French negotiating vocabulary exhausted, my conversation with the cash machine just up the road from the hotel in Marrakech ended in defeat. I wasn’t quite penniless, thanks to the friends I’d met on the trek who all offered to lend me local currency. But I was afraid to use my credit card lest it go the same way, and I wondered what would happen to the debit card now it was in the bowels of some machine in Morocco. For the sake of literary tension, and to encourage reading the whole blog, I shall now time travel back six days to my arrival in Marrakech before telling you the outcome.

I hate the actual, mundane physical travel part of ‘travelling’. If you read a recent blog ‘Travel Fun’ you’ll get a few of the stories. Getting to Marrakech was no different. I flew from Gatwick and I have to say I preferred the experience to that at Heathrow, thanks largely to it being a smaller airport and having better transport links to the local hotels. A slight delay due to armed police confronting and arresting a man on the outskirts of the airport aside, the journey to my seat on the plane was straight forward.

The plane set off for the runway, and 5 minutes later was still taxiing. I decided that we were clearly going to drive to Morocco and I wondered who we’d get through the Channel Tunnel. But eventually, the plane found the right bit of the airport and, in an effort to put aside any more fears of hesitancy, the pilot swung on the the runway and accelerated without first pausing. We were off. There is always a moment as I’m pushed back into my seat that I wonder what on earth I’m doing subjecting myself to man made flight. But it soon goes as I look out of the window seconds later to see a live version of Google Earth below me. Today was slightly different, in that someone had painted the ground a slightly grey white colour, similar to the colour of clouds but no matter. I was soon chatting to my neighbour, a geography teacher from London, and we quickly found a common interest in trekking when I explained where I was going.

The flight was relatively short, about 3 hours plus taxiing time, and Marrakech was warm and sunny when I arrived. The following extract from ‘Travel Fun’ sums up the airport transfer:

“After a mix up with the transfer arrangements, I was taken in a car to the hotel. The driver was clearly under orders to get there and back as quickly as possible and so we shot off at high speed. My attempts at conversation were hampered by my lack of Arabic, my poor schoolboy French and the drivers need to concentrate on the road lest he hit something. Except he didn’t really seem to mind about the impact side of things in his mission to get to the hotel in record time. We sped across pedestrian crossing barely missing people who were already half way across the road. I watched in horror as the face of one man, mouth agape, passed by inches from the side window. We overtook on corners, undertook on other corners, undertook on roundabouts, forced motorcycles out of the way and generally sped through the busy streets to finally arrive outside the hotel. To be fair, we hit nothing, knocked no one over and got to the hotel in half the time it took to transfer back at the end of the trek.”

The mix up involved a second group of people, a group of Cypriot cyclists on a biking tour of this part of Morocco, and the transfer bus. It sounds like the start of a complicated joke that inevitably won’t live up to the promise. It was, in a roundabout way, as the group were in the same hotel as my group, and we had our briefing immediately after them. It turned out they were not a happy bunch as they were expecting a better hotel (there was nothing wrong with the hotel), and they let their guide know in no uncertain terms. When we saw him after their briefing, he was clearly stressed. “They are definitely not from Britain,” was his cryptic remark to our guide as he left, probably for a mint tea and a lie down.

Marrakech is a beautiful place. It’s called ‘The Red City’ because most of the buildings are painted with an ochre wash, which glows pinky red in the sunrise and sunset. The French, in an act of wisdom, developed a new city around the old town and left the ancient settlement alone, preserving the style and culture of Marrakech in the process. The old town, or Medina as it is known, is surrounded by a mud brick wall and a number of towers. Within, the narrow streets are lined with little shops, restaurants and pavement cafes. On our last day there, we had a tour of the southern part of the town in the morning and I explored the northern part of the town walls in the afternoon. Our morning tour, led by Mustapha, was interesting and frustrating at the same time. Interesting because he took us to all the right places to get a flavour of the old town in the limited time we had. I would not have know to go to half the places he led us, and we managed to avoid the crowds (it was a local school holiday) because of his timing. Frustrating because his English was poor and heavily accented and it was hard to understand what he was telling us. It was a shame because he clearly knew his stuff. But by concentrating hard to understand what he was saying, we risked missing the sights, and sadly we concentrated on the sights and not his narrative.

In the afternoon, I walked around the outside of the town walls and at one point ventured in to a decidedly untouristy area, which I immediately sought to leave. I had a feeling of unease and while nothing happened (other than the classic scam of someone telling me the main square was ‘that way’ when I knew it wasn’t), I was glad to be away from that bit of the town.

All roads lead to Jemaa el Fna, which translates variously as the ‘place of the lost’ or ‘the place of the dead’. The latter is most appropriate as it was hear that the heads of criminals and conquered foes were displayed many centuries ago. Now the only victims here during the day are the may tourists who are hassled for money when stopping to watch the snake charmers or Barbary Ape owners. Both are cheap tourist traps and when I was there they looked tacky and, to be honest, fake. The animals were real enough, and clearly unhappy and I wasn’t happy even being in the square with them around. I read later that the apes are an endangered species and people like those in the square only make the situation worse. Anyone who gives them money is funding the problem. There was little else to hold my interest but I knew that come sundown, the place changed it’s vibe to one more like the descriptions in the guidebooks. The previous night, as we’d waited for a bus following our celebratory meal, the exotic drumming and music, the lights and smoke bearing the delicious aroma of freshly cooked tagines all combined to make me want to return.

We made our way back to the square the following night. In the dark, it was exciting, definitely exotic and a little scary, particularly when the girls in the group were accosted by a large woman offering henna tattoos. It was quite a persistent sales pitch and when the woman finally got the message, she left saying “if you change your mind, remember Fat Mamma”. We stifled giggles, because she was quite a large lady. We did laugh, however, when one of our group pointed out that she had probably said “remember Fatima”.

There was no sign of the cheap tourist acts. Here were little groups of talented musicians playing tradition music on traditional instruments for the gathered crowd. There were dancing and whirling performers, singers, drummers and story tellers. This was what I had expected and it hadn’t disappointed. I quickly overcame my initial nervousness at the large crowds, mostly locals, and relaxed to enjoy the sights and sounds and smells. In a long line at the centre of the square tables radiated out from large stalls on which tagines were simmering enticingly. The touts for each stall were very enthusiastic but as we had eaten we didn’t partake. One waiter even told us that his prices were “cheaper that Aldi”.

We wandered around, taking in the atmosphere. On the periphery of the square were carts selling figs, prunes and other fresh fruit. Stalls sold mint tea, coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice and for 4dh (about 30p) we each had a glass. It was gorgeous. We must have spent over an hour in the square altogether and it was late enough that some of the traders were starting to pack up. While one of our group haggled over a couple of decorative metal candle holders, I took a few photos and then we left.

As we reached the edge of the square, I was suddenly surrounded by six or seven little boys, all clutching glow sticks in their hands and hassling me to buy one. In the past, I’ve usually dealt with this kind of thing by a curt ‘no thanks’ followed by completely ignoring them but it didn’t work this time, so I took a side step to try and break out of the ring of kids. By now I was isolated from the rest of the group by the kids and before I knew it, I could feel a hand dragging the zip of my left hand jacket pocket down. I slapped it out of the way and shouted “this kid is trying to pick my pockets” loud enough that the others could hear me. I pointed at the kid and he looked scared, unsure of what I was going to do. And then I felt the zip of my right hand coat pocket being undone, so I turned and pointed at that kid, shouting the same thing again. As I did so, a local man cuffed him on the head, and the kids all disappeared. My camera, in the left pocket, was safe. My phone, in the right pocket, was almost completely out and in another second or so it would have gone.

I was a little shaken for a few minutes but soon overcame the shock. And I refused to let it taint the impression of Marrakech that I had got to that point. I don’t know what drove the kids to picking pockets. It’s simplistic to say they steal for personal gain. That may be so but its more likely that there was some threat to them if they didn’t bring back a certain amount of goods or money each night.

And the card? I phoned the bank straight away and despite having to provide details that were only on the card, I managed to get it cancelled within 10 minutes of losing it. And two days after I got back, the replacement arrived. One of my friends changed £20 into local currency and I ended up changing £30 of local currency back to sterling at the airport, which saw me through the journey home.

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