Ladakh, another chunk of heaven, is a city that has quite recently found a place in the bucket list of all adventure seekers. I had the fortune, as many have said since I showed them the pictures, to have got the opportunity to be there and see it and experience it, at a time when I could do all of it best, with people, with whom I have shared the most precious time of life – childhood.
The experience started with three school friends, after a decade, having chosen three different professions, staying in three different states, meeting one fine summer night on Delhi airport to begin the journey of a lifetime – a trip to Ladakh.
A week’s break is a long time to ask for, and so, to enjoy Ladakh to its best, we chose to fly from Delhi to Leh. A flight of around an hour, that leaves you spell bound just before landing. The feeling of slowly descending amidst the exquisite snow-clad peaks of the Himalayan ranges, with melting streams and spots of green from within the fluffy white clouds is just priceless. The tiny town of Leh literally seems to peek from between the white topped bare brown tough mountains. And those ten minutes of descent and landing resets the mind to expect the unexpected for the next seven days.
At the airport, rustic and unconventional, we met our driver, Mr. Thani and local arrangements person, Jhamyang. One undeniable fact about Ladakh is that the people, the locals, are just awesome individuals. It is the one thing that sets it apart from the usual common holiday destinations around the country. They have a very welcoming warm attitude towards tourists, giving an air of safety and security to the place. From the airport we went to the place that would be our home for the next seven days to come. A quaint villa, set with the backdrop of mountains, surrounded by a gushing stream, embedded with neat little vegetable and flower gardens bordered by colourful umbrella shaded cafe tables. Our room was huge, wood panelled, simple and cozy with the windows opening onto Chinar trees and chirping sparrows with a distant snow clad peak in the backdrop. The tea, served whenever you request, is one of the most delicious tasting milky concoctions ever. And the weather, mildly cold with a mountain breeze makes a perfect setting for the taste and temperature. The food, dinner and breakfast was always simple and filling, perfect for long hours of travelling around Leh.
The first day, we were advised to stay in house and get acclimatized to the low-pressure and high altitude. In the evening, we visited Shanti Stupa, a magnificent Stupa built on the top of a hill, with a small old cafe just beneath, serving hot tea and toast. It was the perfect weather for an evening stroll around the hill, drinking in the vastness of the mountains and clouds around with a bird’s eye view of the city beneath.
For the evening dinner, we went to a place called Bon Apetite, an open air quiet candle lit restaurant with crisp service and great ambience where we had delicious Lebanese and Italian food.
The next morning, we set off on our way to a remote village Alchi, 60 kms, north-west of Leh. On the way we visited the Hall of Fame of Leh, which houses a memorial raised for all the soldiers who lay down their lives fighting for India, a museum showcasing several war instruments and personal belongings of our soldiers and those retrieved from the attackers as well as an informative outlook on the historical and environmental facts about Ladakh. We next went on to visit Pathar-Sahib, a Gurudwara, maintained by the several nearby military regiments, which has an interesting history of its own. Our next stop was Zanskar – the confluence of Indus and Zanskar rivers. Because of the melting snow, the confluence, which is usually seen as a clear mark of blue and green merging along a line, was muddy, but the mild difference in colours could be seen quite well and the gushing gurgling and powerful Indus, leaves you mesmerized. We walked along the river bed and sat for some time near one of the many strong rapids, tiny water droplets splashing onto the face. This was our introduction to Indus, the mighty, never-ending road traveller we had for the next six days.
We passed the valley of Zanskaar, bejewelled with small patches of greenery along the river bed, and fields of “sarso”, that shined like golden dots, reflecting the glaring sun in a sea of green. Our driver bhaiya suggested a tiny kitchen for lunch, in the village of Nimu, where we had steamed momos and noodles. Either it was the hunger and weather or it was the chef, but we hadn’t tasted such delicious momos and mustard sauce ever, probably our first genuine taste of local cuisine so far. Our next stop was the monastery at a town called Bazgo. This has remained my personal favourite in the whole of the itinerary. It is a dilapidated four storey structure, built on a hill on the outskirts of Bazgo. A towering white monastery built of bricks and rocks with uneven wooden window and door frames. For the first hour, we did not find a single person around the structure. It was calm and serene and beautiful. The almost perfect setting for a Yash Chopra song shooting. After exploring the structure for a while, we finally found one single Lama and a puffy kitten. He opened up the door to the temple, and what lay inside was as breathtaking and awe-inspiring. A huge statue of Lord Budhha with the typical colourful painted stories all around the walls of the chamber. Not having much knowledge of the religion, we could only admire the aesthetics of the place and the tiny temples surrounding the main chamber. By this time, the sun had decided to rest behind stormy clouds and the setting couldn’t have been more perfect. It seems we never left that place completely, a part of us still roams there, and we meet in the dreams even now.
There are no words I have for describing the road from Bazgo to Alchi. There were mountains all around, and a single tar road on plain sand and rock desert. We could see dense stormy clouds kissing the mountains and strong winds everywhere. Here and there, a small patch of green popped up with a single track rusty iron bridge over gurgling crystal clear springs beneath. In the evening, we reached Alchi, a tiny village with some hundred homes, an ancient monastery and a huge dam. Our place of stay was in Alchi resort, a bunch of cozy tiny cottages built in apple orchards with tiny patios and flower gardens everywhere. We went on to visit the Alchi monastery, whose details I forget. But it was yet another beautifully made, ancient set of temples along the river side, with an almost heavenly calm and sense of peace. The whole village smelt of fresh flowing streams and was lined with surprising purple coloured gushing water rivulets all around. We bought some pretty trinkets of gem stones and copper, amongst those displayed outside the monastery.
The next day we set of to visit Lama-Yuru, yet another monastery town, but known for the landscape that resembles the moon surface. This road, unlike the previous one, was along the rushing, raging Indus on one side and colourful rocky mountains on the other. I wonder if such a landscape exists anywhere at all. It seemed like we were on another planet altogether. The mountains seemed to have been painted by an extremely creative artist, with colours and hues I doubt can be re-created on a pallet. We entered this area which had light yellow clay like tiny hills placed between rocky mountains. We climbed on one such hill just to feel what it was. And on reaching the top, you could see it flowed like a river, for long curved lines, embedded with pebbles of different colours, flaming red, sparkling yellow, turquoise and indigo. It was fascinating as to how this landscape was formed. The monastery was also beautiful. On our way back, my friend couldn’t stop clicking the camera. However many pictures you took of that place, the beauty and splendour could not be captured. We stopped on our way back to swing on one of the hundreds of wooden bridges that crossed the river there. Yet another rare observation was the many coloured cloth pieces of Buddhist chants lining these bridges.
That evening, after returning to Leh, we went for a walk around the city, to experience the local cuisine and culture and to get some souvenirs for back home. The market presents you with a plethora of colourful hand woven yak wool clothing items, stoles, sweaters and Ladakhi hand crafted embroidered cloth pieces and jackets. There are tiny little cafes lining the road with aromas of black lemon tea and hot coffee wafting out. Lots of german bakeries selling home-made pastries and cakes lure you to break the calorie bound. The sun set there is quite late, so we usually roamed the markets till about nine in the evening. The crowd is interesting, families speaking Gujarati and Marathi, troupes of foreign nationals laughing and joking in French and German, newly weds, kids and the adventure cyclists and motorcyclists zooming past.
The next day we left for the most exciting part of the itinerary, crossing the Khardungla pass, the highest motorable road in the world, built at 18000+ feet, and spending the night in Nubra valley. The road leading up-to Khardungla pass seems to be a feat in civil engineering. The terrain on which the road is built is quite difficult, with snow melting all around leaving it constantly submerged in ankle deep waters and rocks and sand from the mountains making it bumpy and unpredictable. The valley on the other side is daunting and the curves and blind bends make you wonder how the drivers there risk it each week with a new set of tourists. The journey is quite bumpy and jittery and is sure to leave the steel nerved, ruffled. But when you reach Khardungla pass, the slow deep monotone of Tibetan chants coming from the Stupa at the top and the maggi and hot simmering black lemon tea served at the cafe there gives a feeling that can probably only be termed as getting “high” on nature.
From Khardungla pass we descended into a valley that had the Shyok river flowing between the mountain ranges. And here we were greeted by yet another different landscape, with the greyish river playing hide and seek in white sand deposits with huge brown and orange tinged stone mountains behind. And of course, there were the perennial spots of green lining the river beds. Along this river we kept going to land into the Diskit town in the Nubra valley. Our driver bhaiya again surprised us by taking us to the Diskit monastery which had a humongous gold plated Buddha statue atop a hill and a white set of buildings forming the monastery on the hill right behind. It was drizzling when we stepped out to visit and that just added an ounce of stupor to that the surroundings had created. Imagination had never helped build such scenarios even in the wildest of my dreams.
From Diskit we went to the chief tourist attraction of the area, the Nubra valley white sand dunes and the double humped camels there. On entering this huge clearing that almost seemed like an artificially created park, to perfection, the first thought that entered my head was, man! Someone got confused or uncharacteristically creative while making this place. It was a piece of land, in the middle of two mountain ranges, with a small clear, sparkling water stream on perfectly rounded rocks, flowing in the centre and white, soft white, sand dunes for miles on end, with Chinar forests and shrubs clustering around the stream. The place seemed to be completely raw, untouched. No buildings, no hotels, no cottages. The nearest things to human habitation were canvas camps raised by tribal local tradesmen. The locals were dressed in the native Tibetan outfit complete with the head dress. And the baby double humped tame camels were so adorable, I couldn’t stop smiling at their pouted mouths. We took a ride on the camels, shrieking all the way into the dunes, and then just kicked off our shoes and sat there, sliding and playing in the soft silky snow like dunes, drinking in the snow topped mountain peaks, swishing of the river and the Tibetan folk music that just added to the fairy land like atmosphere.
That night we camped at the Nubra Sarai, a set of some thirty odd well furnished tents set in the midst of vegetable plantations on the edge of a thick clump of trees with a stream gurgling through the camp and the ever present distant snow clad peaks on the edge. In the night, people camped around a bon-fire, under the stars with the sand dunes just round the corner, yet another night to cherish for a life time.
The next day we set off again for Leh. The roads are extremely difficult to traverse, and once again I would mention that the drivers have terrific ability to drive there. We also crossed many cyclists and motor cyclists along the way. That afternoon, on reaching Leh, we visited the Leh palace. It was in a bad state, under reconstruction by the Archaeological Society of India. Most of its chambers were being redone and part of it was closed down. A few artifacts, paintings and possessions of the royal family were on display. The balconies at several floors gave a good view of the Leh town. Unlike palaces of the south and west, the richness of Leh palace seems to be in the survival techniques and construction rather than the intricate architecture and delicate collectibles.
The next day we were supposed to leave for Pangong lake and spend a night there, but uncharacteristically it rained pretty heavily that night and the roads to Pangong were blocked by landslides. So our driver bhaiya took us on a monastery tour around Leh. Again, the district never stops to amaze. Its adjacent cities are farmlands cultivating vegetables and fruits, alternating between lavish green and barren sand. We visited the Stok palace, Shey palace, Thiksey monastery and Hemis monastery. Each of them has its own unique grandeur and history. We also visited the famous Shey High School, better known as Rancho’s school, having come in the movie 3 Idiots. Its a pretty enchanting place for a resident school and we all concurred that we would have been a lot more interested in studying in a place so much in sync with nature.
That evening we dined at yet another interesting restaurant named Il-Forno. The food was delicious, and the ambience more so, with a roof-top view of the Leh market just below, fast beat music, a laughing happy crowd of tourists and of course the snow clad peaks just on the outline. The next day, we set of for Pangong lake, earlier than usual, to beat the traffic and heat. Crossing Changla pass, at 17000 + feet was daunting but Pangong was a prospect worth the trouble. The journey was uneventful, except for the hot tea and noodles at Changla pass, that helped beat the ice-cold weather. The roads were quite slippery and swamped in water, because of the excessive snow melting in the scorching heat of the day. We reached Pangong at around ten in the morning, the first view, of shining sparkling blue in the distance, amidst the muddy brown mountains, was exhilarating. No pictures, words or videos can prepare one for the breathtaking colours that meet the eye when you first see this water body. With the mountains all around, the blue and green and turquoise and emerald and golden shades just get highlighted more. The calm swishing of the lake and chirping birds is all you hear in that stretch. We walked along the lake for a while and sat, listening to the ripples crashing on the shore, seeing the hues of green and blue change with the moving sun. It is blissful peace and calm for the ears and for the eyes. The trip of four and a half hours to visit this body of water, and nothing else, seems worth the effort and time. Such places in nature must be rare and they must be preserved. They redefine beauty.
That night, back in Leh, we went out one last time in the city, to roam a place we might never visit again. We had dinner at a roof top restuarant called Chopstiks, on Fort road, that served lip-smacking Tibetan and Thai cuisine. And we packed.
No words, pictures or narrations, can ever do justice to the experience of having walked on a chunk of heaven. Everything was perfect, the weather, the places of residence, the people, the food, the roads. No trip, for me, has ever been as glitch free, comfortable and smooth as this one was. No doubt, a big thanks goes to our host at Chali Villa, our driver bhaiya, Jhamyang, our local co-ordinator and of course, the planners of it all, the team of Trip Hippie, Tanmay and Sarbojit.