After a cancelled trip in 2012 I was a bit apprehensive about our Leh trip. News of some GoAir pilots quitting did not help matters nor did experiences of some friends.
What had we got into????
Burying all doubts we flew into Leh via Delhi. Till date I had only one encounter with high altitude so was not sure how a prolonged stay would affect me. After many deliberations we took the Dimox tab which seemed to help in hindsight! I had deliberately not watched any TV programs about Leh to avoid preconceptions. The magic begins during the flight in as one is mesmerized by the snowcapped Himalayas which seem to soar up to meet you! Clothed in pristine untouched white they suddenly make way for a bare brown valley with a few buildings and structures. The airport is pretty basic and reminded me of the Mohanbari or old Bhuj airport! Camouflage painting and blast pens just added to this feel!
A strict instruction was to do everything slowly. Period. A cautionary warning at the airport gave some tips about acclimatization. We were on the first flight hence had the entire day… To acclimatize… Eat drink sleep sit talk sleep …Note: Eating was in moderation as the digestive system was not to be overburdened at that elevation. Drink means liquids nothing alcoholic. At 11300 feet AMSL these instructions must be taken seriously! Yes we went upstairs one step at a time (no lifts) and any hurry meant becoming breathless!
By now, tech addicts faced withdrawal symptoms as cell phone data packs did not work nor did the hotel Wi-Fi. Prepaid phones too took a much needed break and I could only send SMS to inform family back home! Of course there was the idiot box but it seemed such a waste when our eyes could be glued to the snowy mountain peaks framed by the windows. “A view with a room”, a quote I have borrowed from Rahul Rao (our expert from Foliage Outdoors). We had a great view of Stok Kangri from our room.
The birds were totally different here except for pigeons. For a person with almost zilch knowledge about our avian friends, a day with an expert meant I could identify common species there! What a difference a good guide can make!!
Contrary to expectations sleep was deep and sound under two thick razai !!
On day 2 Rahul was reassured about our rest and we ventured out for a drive to see the Sindhu- Zanskar Sangam. The waters showed two distinct colours at the confluence but slowly merged into one as the river flowed onwards as the Sindhu. The river had a gentle flow as the snow melts had just begun. The Zanskar is the site for the winter Chader trek (walking over the frozen river) and offers river rafting in summer.
The Magnetic Hill was a popular stop but I was quite unconvinced… The vehicle is supposed to move ‘uphill’ by itself when parked at a particular spot. This movement is attributed to the magnetic hill and such phenomenon are seen in some other parts of the world as well.
For every destination in Ladakh, the journey is as beautiful as the actual site. The mountains were coloured almost every possible shade of brown and some more. Coming from a relatively lush green city, the browns had a unique character simultaneously benign and malevolent. Huge grotesque boulders suddenly turned into fine sand and snow which seemed set to roll down onto the road at the merest whisper of a wind. Accumulations of coarse rock formations are called Scree. These mountains are said to be predominantly of sedimentary rock hence more brittle whereas the rocks in the Sahyadris are said to be basalt. Interesting patterns have developed in the rocks due to wind, water, ice/snow erosion and one of which is called ‘moonscapes’ – obviously said to resemble to terrain on the moon.
Green was an almost nonexistent colour in May except for the planted Poplars that looked like match sticks jutting up! On 29 Oct 2012, a world record of sorts was created when 99103 Willow saplings were planted in within one hour at Leh ! Environmentalists have reservations about this introduced plantation. Some suggest that this move has increased local rainfall (it’s a cold desert) which has changed the region’s flora and fauna.
Other than the Shanti Stupa, the Sangam, The Army’s Hall of Fame museum, Leh Palace, the Zorawar Fort and the Rock and Mineral museums, tourists need to head out of Leh, on often pretty long drives. On most sections the roads are pretty good; drivers maintain their lanes and generally help each other out in close confines. Leh has a very strong taxi union and only local drivers and taxis ply here other than army vehicles. Srinagar has a similar dictact in its area! The Srinagar-Leh highway had just opened so we had eggs for breakfast. The Manali road was still closed continuing its winter break. Once open, it would bring many more busloads of tourists to this austere town.
The ubiquitous prayer flags, Chortens, Llamas and monasteries on hills reiterate Buddhism as the dominant religion. About three major lineages of Himalayan Buddhism are practiced in the region. However we did see 2 mosques and a missionary school but strangely no temple. Due to the harsh sunlight, locals have darkened, much-lined skin. A few villagers stay put in the harsh winters but most folk in the town migrate to Delhi or Chandigarh to beat the cold. ‘Julley ‘ is the common greeting similar to our Namaskar ! Apricots and the Seabuckthorn are indigenous to this region and its products are freely available. So you can buy apricot jam, apricot juice, apricot scrub, apricot oil and cream, nuts, dried and semi-dried apricots ! All organic! Seabuckthorn juice is really tasty.
Chortens are the white pyramidal structures in the foreground in the image below:
Let’s get back to our sightseeing… One has to cross the Khardungla (18,380 feet AMSL) and Changla (17,688 feet AMSL) passes to reach the Nubra valley and Pangong lake respectively. Roads at dizzy heights that may be shut at any time due to bad weather or landslides. These drives are pretty unique as the roads traverse successive mountains, climbing ever so gradually. We did not face ear popping even amid the ice and melting snow. Innova and Aria were the commonest civilian vehicles with the occasional Maruti 800 (that’s right the old faithful) and Santro. Of course there is a heavy army and paramilitary presence but it’s more subtle than in-your-face. We had been told to keep our Ids ready as checks were likely at any time anyplace.
After the some acclimatization we were slated to visit the Nubra Valley via the Khardungla Pass but intelligence from the taxi drivers indicated that the pass was likely to be snowed in hence closed on the day of our planned visit. After some consultations, our itinerary was rejigged and we set off for Pangong Tso (Tso means Lake and La means Pass in Ladakhi) instead. The Pangong – Nubra road had been opened for tourists and civilian traffic so we would use that road. My blog profile says “Happiest on the road less traveled” and I was about to truly experience this!
But something about Pangong first…
Foliage Outdoors had taken care of necessary permits, and these are necessary considering that we are close to an international disputed border with China and Pakistan. The journey is long and pretty tiring but simply fascinating as the mountains change from brown to white. Marmots (rodent like mammal that resembles a squirrel) and birds like the Tibetan Partridge, Chukar, Brahminy Duck and Choughs (Red and Yellow Billed) go about their business in the area adjoining the road. If you are lucky you can spot Blue Sheep as well. Lucky because their fantastic camouflage colouring makes it next to impossible to notice them – except for the experienced eyes ofcourse! Cows, Horses, Yaks and Tibetan Wild Ass (aka Kiang) graze at the Bogs (green grassy areas near the rivulets). One does meet vehicles but not many people on these roads other than tourists (I am told the area has a population density of three people per square kilometer). Villages are few and far between and the countryside seemed desolate.
Chang La was a surprise as people seemed to freak out in the snow almost forgetting the elevation they were at (17688 feet)! The area has a heavy army presence and one store of sorts offers Maggie and Tea/coffee/soft drinks and chocolates. The melting ice creates beautiful sculptures by the roadside- constantly changing and sparkling as it caught the sun’s rays.
We proceeded to Tangse for a mandatory halt as the drivers have to produce permits for permission to travel on the road ahead. The only available rest room which ladies can use is a tin structure at a tea stall – for Rs 10 per person. This is the last spot with BSNL coverage and thereafter its total silence as far as electronic communication is concerned! This can be daunting for many but the magical surroundings don’t really leave you much time to want to talk to anyone in the urban jungle!
Pangong Tso is a saline water lake is situated at an elevation of about 14000 feet AMSL amid the Ladakh range of the Himalayas. A large of part of this about 134 kms long is in China hence it is manned by the Army, ITBP at all times. In fact we saw a couple of plots that had warnings about mines. Phew! Tourist traffic to this place has soared after the movie 3 Idiots! In fact there are several ‘fast food’ stalls named Rancho on the banks of the lake. We just had to get off and try to capture the lake colours but frankly, none can do justice without some editing! The lake water changes colour every hour amid changing sunlight conditions. So its blue, azure blue, turquoise blue, blue-green, emerald green till you start creating new shades of blue green.
The ice cold water is crystal clear and the stones at the lake bottom are easily visible. The wind set off waves as brown headed gulls flew around to occasionally swoop in or swim in the water. I was told that, in summer, this habitat is the breeding ground of many birds which obviously means there must be food for them despite the water being brackish. There were several small shrubs and grass varieties still in their winter garb and I’m sure these must be in full glory in another month or two! The short summer means a small window for these plant species to complete their reproductive lifecycles. I spotted some Wild Rose bushes and Himalayan Birch trees. Identifying the dry grass was beyond me so I would need to visit in another season just to identify the grasses and shrubs!
The camp sites where tourists can stay overnight in tented accommodation is a short distance away. The dining tent was spacious and the hot fresh food was a feast considering the circumstances! Individual tents by Krishna Tents (an Indian company) designed for two people and with an ensuite bathroom were pretty good, and were rain and snow proof. This claim was tested in the overnight snowfall when we did not feel or hear a thing! It was lights out at about 10 PM and we slept soundly helped to a large extent by the thickest possible razai and the old fashioned, low-tech hot water bags. Naturally every turn during sleep meant a cold reawakening! The water in the pipes freezes in such conditions and is advisable to store a bucket of water! Bath was not an option but it didn’t really make a difference as no one wanted to test or prove themselves with freezing water.
Along the bank of the lake and elsewhere one sees little towers created by stones piled one on top of another with no seeming pattern. These are said to be prayers and stones have been used as offerings. It’s not advisable to disturb these stone towers. Star gazing was not an option due to snow and chilly weather and Vibhas would have to postpone his new found hobby at this latitude to Nubra. Astronomical wait!
The commonest language that I overheard was Gujarati followed by Marathi. Naturally the amount of plastic waste on roadside has phenomenally increased and its common to find beer bottles strewn around. Remember this place is really cold, so degeneration will not occur. Who will remove this waste? A clear case for responsible tourism…!
The next day we retrace our route till Tangse and then take the ‘road less travelled’! Oh boy! Less traveled is an understatement. Apparently it is mostly closed (by the Army) but was recently opened as the passes would get snowed in which would totally halt movement. The river Chushul and then River Shayok accompanied us all through! The landscape resembled the set of some SciFi movie of another planet as the mountain rocks were like no other! The gurgling blue waters cut a brilliant blue streak through the predominant brown and white surroundings. Again no sign of villages, people, grazing animals or even birds as the five vehicles created a dust trail navigating over the boulders and stones. Other than thorny bushes of Edelbergs Thistle full of pink blossoms there was no sign of life.
Initially all there seemed nothing amiss though we were warned about landslides in some parts. Nothing prepared us for a condition where there was no road for several meters. In some parts the vehicles drove over the rubble and the real skill of our drivers was tested here as our convoy of about five vehicles sped along the track from Tangse to Agham. Our driver was the most experienced of the lot and extremely skilled. His superb car control meant he could move ahead or reverse 1 mm at a time over the rocky river bed. This was a detour was forced upon us since the landslide clearance was incomplete and going off-road was a necessity. He was most apologetic when asking us to get off the car so he could drive over a particularly rough patch.
We finally reached Agham and then on the road improved as we joined the road coming from Khardungla at Khalsar. The undulating sand dunes were an unreal sight among the snow capped peaks. The rippled sands had scores of double humped camels giving rides to enthusiastic tourists. The Shayok River joints with the Nubra River that comes down from the Siachen Glacier and this part of the journey brought back memories for Vibhas – his stay at Siachen in 1984 and then flying this airspace while at Adampur. A pilgrimage of sorts for him…
We reached our campsite by teatime and lunch was waiting for us. The tents were even better here as some basic floor construction was permitted unlike in Pangong.
Image below: Our tent and steed at Hunder (Nubra Valley)
We set off for the dunes almost immediately and the camels were quite a sight. Unlike camels from Rajasthan these were short with darker hair and seemed to have a mind of their own- obeying or disobeying their master when someone sat on him. Or her. Some people were obviously too heavy for the poor beast as he could barely rise up and walk. Was this exploitation of animals? Or was it to be accepted as it provided livelihood for the locals? I could not make up my mind and gave the camel ride a miss. As it was in huge demand, the camel tenders only accepted groups of four or more. At Rs 200 for 15 minutes and about 40 camels working for 5 hours, I leave the Math to you! I hope they fed the brutes well! This part also has a forest of sorts of Seabuckthorn (aka Leh Berry) another local tree species. A small tributary of the Shayok flowed through the Hunder Sand Dunes reserve and we were told it could really swell up in late summer.
The Nubra valley was quite green compared to Leh or other parts we had driven through. Several campsites some with tent accommodation and ‘adventure’ dotted the countryside. The 14th-century Diskit Monastery stood on a nearby hill with a benevolent eye on us. A huge Buddha statue installed in the open glowed in the morning sun as we sped to the ancient monastery the next day. One has to climb up to reach the worship chambers. Like in our temples, it is the norm to remove footwear before entering. The monastery has a protector temple of the Goddess Kali and her different avatar. The main hall had been graced by the Dalai Lama himself. Offerings were available foods – so Tropicana /Real juice cartons, chocolates, biscuits, Maggie etc with ornate water-filled bowls were the norm. The door of the sanctum had a beautiful unique lock, with its keys in a colourful braided keychain, possibly as old as the monastery itself. The walls were covered with interesting murals and some had Thangka paintings inside. The living quarters for the Lamas had tiny wooden windows set in stone walls, an austere simple life. It was obviously a testing existence in harsh weather yet their smiles and faces radiated immense peace… I rotated the prayer wheels hoping to imbibe some of this peace.
The monastery gave a panoramic view of the Nubra Valley and the confluence of the River Nubra and Shayok was the centrepiece. Thereafter, it flowed into Pakistan as the Shayok. The sand dunes were visible as rippled brown carpet beside the blue streak of the river and the landscape would be a photographer’s delight! A cat called the Lynx lives in these areas but we did not spot it.
We headed back home from here driving to Khalsar and up via the long slowly winding road to North Pulu and onwards to Khardungla. It’s strange how our Leh hotel was now ‘home’ in our minds as we hoped to clear this pass uneventfully! After all it is the highest motorable road in the world at over 18000 feet. A road that is often at the mercy of weather and hugely susceptible to land and/or snow slides. A word here about the Border Road Organization which has done and is doing a yeoman’s service in maintaining surfaces in these treacherous conditions. Personnel and heavy machinery is constantly on hand to clear obstructions and regulate vehicle flow. The pass opening timings are conveyed to the taxi operators. This strategically important pass for India is used to support our troops and positions on the Siachen glacier and naturally military convoys get precedence. While we were humbled by these mountains we wanted to get across to the pass as soon as possible but this ‘getting-home-itis’ did not have a quick remedy. We were told that the North to South traffic would be permitted at 3PM so there was really nothing we could do. The vehicles were parked in a surprisingly disciplined manner and the drivers seemed quite patient about the wait. I guess the mountains do make us philosophical, accepting of our circumstances… We decided to have lunch which was Maggie and MoMos. It has been years since I have eaten this form of instant noodles, one for which I have never developed a taste for, but it was the bestest meals ever…
Suitably fed and satiated we returned to our vehicles with nothing to do except enjoy PL Deshpande’s Katha Kathan on Rahul’s iPad. His hilarious and brilliant tales helped time fly and soon we realised that the pass had been opened for us to move out! Again there was no honking or trying to get ahead of each other as the cars moved ahead on to the really tricky part. We halted at Khardungla proper for the mandatory photo-op and noticed a mad scramble to get a selfie and endless other images with the Khardungla board in the background. I did visit the Army store to pick up a memento of our drive through. The Army provides emergency medical aid all along the two major passes to all travelers. The sight of snow often makes tourists forget the elevation they are which can create massive health problems. Many do not bother to undertake bare minimum acclimatization which is vital since there is reduced atmospheric oxygen. This is evident when drinking tea as the common comments were “The Tea is not hot” (this triggered a vague school memory that boiling point of water reduces at higher altitudes).
We returned ‘home’ happy to have seen some of the most amazing and coveted geographies in the world and thankful that the Leh Gods had smiled upon us and enabled us to have a safe journey. The last day in Leh was for the Thiksey Monastery and the Maitreya Buddha. This is an amazingly peaceful visage of the Buddha and one can easily sit there and forget time… A climb up to the roof gave a panoramic view of the town, the Sindhu, Leh Palace and beyond. The group of Black Billed Magpies used the topmost windows of the monastery as their perch and their antics and friendly in-flight fights were a treat to watch! The Zorawar Museum maintained by the Ladakh Scouts (Army) was a somber tribute to a great warrior. The evening was dedicated to the market and shopping to give our bit to help local entrepreneurs. A good way to justify retail therapy! Whatever the case, we returned laden with bags of stuff we did not really need but happy nevertheless.
The return journey was swift and those travelling Go Air were in Pune by 1130 AM (Departure Leh was 5AM)! Our country is great with huge diversity in flora, fauna, geography and rich history. It’s for us to see, explore, respect and love our country and those who don’t, are poorer for it.
Leh passes the test of every adjective that the marketing and sales guys can attribute to it.
Leh, is Le(i)h Bharri!
Farewell Himalayas! You take our breath away! (Almost literally)…
Best Of Ladakh – May 2015
Mrs. Archana Pande