Ladakh, the abode of the mountains in the sky

It all started with my group of friends trying to toy around with an idea to hang out at the hongkong promonade. Skyrocketing fares & indecisive dates kept the plan under wraps and later one of my friends decided that we give our tired souls a breath of the divine and land directly in God’s arms. And so it was decided we were going to Ladakh – The abode of mountains in the sky.

Not once did we anticipate that we would be witness to the most astonishing landscapes in the realms of our lives. Beauty so infinite, it captures every space within you and turns you into something new. Our journey started with unlimited selfies, the mesmerizing Himalayan glaciers over 33000 feet above sea level, and on the other hand an annoying groups of Gujjus who had hijacked the plane with their frequent pacing trying to capture pictures to flaunt off on their facebook pages.
Our trip had been suggested by someone i met on travel forums – Mr Pradeep Bakshi, who had led quite a few travelers with his 4 experienced expeditions to Ladakh.

Our Journey:

We learnt:: There is no thumb rule for this trip. Road trips are ok if you’re daring to pass through mountains across 400 odd kms, else flying there directly doesn’t kill either.
Surrounded by magnanimous snow capped mountains, it took us 3 days to decipher how & from which direction did the pilot navigate and had us land on the airstrip; our first glimpse of the military airport. Small yet managed efficiently, it was a sight to see planes trying to take off within this limited runway space.

We had our first meeting with the charming & handsome Zubair – the hotel owner of Royal Palace at Leh & our trip planner, who had come to welcome us at the airport, since we had suggested we would go directly to Uletpko to acclimatize.

Uletpko, ULE:
Day 1: Our stay at Ule Eco Resort was handsomely driven by the very helpful Amit who took care that our stay was most comfortable. Organic vegetarian food ensured we stay in the fittest of health, but we ensured that bit of leniency & gave our taste buds a treat by sipping on to some delicious apple wine made at the resort itself along with some rum & hukka that we carried along. Our first day ended with us testing our fat bodies to a small trek & tour of the resort down the river bed.

Day 2: An apple a day, keeps the doctor away. But with an apple tree, we just pose & stay. Dying to catch a glimpse of the apple trees in our surroundings, we posed & smiled for as many pictures as we could capture. We then headed out to visit the Lamayuru Monastery passing through the vast moonland like landscapes. Evening was well spent with water rafting in the lower Indus river. We tried to impress our Nepali guide Sanju by mentioning the number of times we’ve rafted in strong tides like the Rishikesh & Kolad. Not amused he put us against a rock trying to overturn the boat & scared the daylights out of the team. The water was so cold it could brain freeze you if unattended in 5 min. Coupled with the setting temperature & the sun we paddled for 7 kms with enthusiasm. At the end of it, we were treated to a cup of tea brought by the rafting team themselves offering the sheer pleasure of hot liquids going down through a sub zero degree freezing body. Taking the ride to & fro from the rafting start & end point was also an adventure as 2 of my colleagues climbed & sat on the raft tied to the wagon above although it was chilly and they froze.

Uletpko to Leh:
Day 3: The day was planned for River Rafting in the Zanskar. Passing through the most treacherous roads we reached the starting point. The road journey was long as we had to stop for road constructing activities. The mountains were being blasted so that we could go through them. As the trainer helped us with our suits & other gear we asked them the distance we would have to raft to reach Sangam; the destination, where both the Indus & the Zanskar met. We felt shivers run down our body as we heard we had to row for 17 kms, most of which was calm & flat waters. Pawan, our trainer once again a Nepal inhabitant gave us an amazing ride through the mountains, posing here & there for pictures taken by my Dad on the roads that connected the waters. We landed on a small beach & made ripples through the water with stones. Nothing could compare the sheer strength of our trainer who could gracefully create 7-8 ripples before letting the stone drown leaving us in awe. Another raft carrying 6 military personnel passed us. We felt like a bunch of cowards when we witnessed their physical training in the rivers. Their rowing speed, their perseverance left us motivated and with the inspiration 2 of my friends dived into the waters to test themselves only to realize that they could not survive more than a minute & begged to be pulled up as soon as possible. Our bunch of rowing amateurs rowed sometimes completely uncoordinated, cursing & happily bad mouthing each other to row together with rising slogans of “Suck an egg” innovated by one of the group’s most enthusiastic comedian – my sister.
Our journey was completed in 1.5 hours & we heaved a sigh of relief. The rafting suits saved us from the tan & the frost of the journey. The joy of nature was short lived with our visit to the toilets to relieve ourselves. This ancient type of sanitation had 1 side open rooms with planks of wood in the air and a dungeon below to collect the waste. It was as if a way of sensing that this adventure was not enough for us, we were told that Leh was closed to vehicular traffic owing to a strike for civilians, although not one individual dared to stop the movement of army vans. We wallowed our time at the Magnetic Hill which we realized was only a hype. When cities develop, places that are different from normal things are given importance & built up as tourist destinations. This was one of them, although the very occasional long stretch of road present there was so picturesque that we thronged in line to get our smiles captured. The Gurudwara Patthar Sahib was one of the many gurudwaras created in the mountainous ranges in the name of an army Sikh who was believed to defeat evil. We were so enthralled by nature’s beauty that when someone got sick & stopped the car we would see it as an additional opportunity to click away. At 6 pm when finally the gates were opened we were allowed into Leh & thus our first time at Hotel Royal Palace. After checking-in we visited the market, in endless search for walnuts. We managed to buy some dried apricots, famous for the region & some Buddhist give-aways. Dinner was planned at the hotel.

Day 4: The day was planned for local sight seeing which included The Hall of Fame built & managed by the army as a tribute to their tribe & every Indian. After a quick visit to the Spituk Gompa, we were recommended to visit a restaurant named “Summer Harvest” where our innovation buds were harvested. The herbivores feasted on a Tibetan veg delicacy whereas the carnivores preferred to try the Lamb. With very little to do except click away, the Shanti Stupa & The Leh Palace were next on the list. Once again our day ended with a visit for some more dried apricots & buddhist give-aways for some more forgotten friends.

Nubra Valley
Day 5: The first day, when our long traveling journeys start. We left early morning. Ladakh was never about the destination. We enjoyed every moment of the journey. Our long 6 hour drive to Hunder in Nubra Valley led us through the highest motorable road in the world; The Khardungla pass. We learnt: In Ladakh, La is for mountains & Tso is for Lakes.
The Khardungla Pass was situated at 18000 feet with very little oxygen due to little vegetation & hence there were signboards warning us not to spend more than 20-25 min there. Surmounting the highest motorable road was a feat every single person wanted to capture through his lens. The thrill of having tea & maggi sitting in a small cabin like structure at this peak was beyond words could describe. Khardungla lies between 2 check points called The South Pullu & The North Pullu. The journey beyond seemed never ending and we were getting used to the long winding roads and the beautiful multicoloured snow capped, shadowed & unshadowed mountains. Occasionally we would be feasted to a long straight road where our drivers Jimmy & Tashi (both Ladakhis) would drive at 80 km/hr. Nothing beyond that speed was possible with the roads in Ladakh. Once we descended to around 15000 feet, normalcy resumed in our heads. Our heads felt heavy due to the altitude, many feel sick too, but we were one healthy group of dinosaurs. Passing khardung village we headed towards Khalsar village. Then what seemed a never ending journey, Jimmy told us we are headed into Diksit. Through my research on Ladakh, I immediately realised we were close to Hunder; our destination.We passed a small cafe in ruins which mentioned in bold “EDLI & DOSA available”. We ignored the typo but immediately got bitching about the Gujarati group of people who come visit Ladakh & look around for their staple diet even in this desert. Our camp Chunka was located in Hunder village with tents laid down in the gardens. Though it didn’t quite give the feeling of a camping ground, the cold weather & compulsion of washing your hands in icy cold water was sufficient to give the status of ‘adventure’ to this stay. The evening was full of camel shit & double hump camels humping. The double humped camels are rare & found only in this region in Ladakh, with sand dunes surrounding the majestic snow capped mountains. After a nice long camel ride which most of the boys didnt quite fancy, we ended up with hukkah & rum to survived the night thanks to my notorious Gujju friend. Our night was followed by a nice warm bonfire & organic food which included paneer not to mention. Paneer is adored by my group’s most loved boy and a foodie. It was his birthday at 12 midnight & we were to find him a birthday cake. The village in winters would freeze to -25 degrees so we didnt venture out but instead asked our camp assistant to bake a cake for us. The proud friend enjoyed every bit of his cake & himself smothered some over his face too in happiness. We packed ourselves with hot water bags & 2 woolen bedsheets & dozed off tired & anxious about our ride back to Leh the next day.

Nubra Valley to Leh
Day 6: The ride back was smoother. Tashi recommended an army canteen near Hunder where Alu (potato) & Egg Parathas were served with tea. The enthusiastic group followed & little did we regret it. Every bite of the hot Egg Paratha was heavenly. The canteen was located next to the Hospital ‘Siachen Healers’ where civilians & army staff could be treated FOC. We visited the Diksit Gompa & stopped by at some river streams to try our shutter speeds. Passing Khardungla again we made our way back to Leh & choose to visit the market once again for some more treats. We went enroute Leh by-passing the road to Turtuk (this place holds historical significance in the Kargil War against Pakistan) & the Panamik hot springs. We learnt ‘To wish Julley everywhere & to everyone’.. “Meant Everything good!”

Pangong Lake
Day 7: This day was special. The journey to The Pangong Tso (Lake) was embarked. The place has gained significance only after the movie 3 Idiots & has categorically thanked the film team for this everywhere. The road to Pangong was set to pass through the 3rd highest motorable road in the world; Changla Pass situated at 14450 feet altitude. We led ourselves through Shrey Palace, Tokmom monestery, The Chokhnonsa (where the famous Dalai Lama is said to visit during the Kalchakri festival), passing monesteries like Khargu,  Chemdy, Thirksey & the largest of them- the Hemis monestery although we could not see it as it was located in between the mountains, with the Indus river flowing in between. We learnt:: The indus river is said to inhabit fishes but the Zanskar freezes & hence does not have any marine-life. Had we directly come in from Nubra to Pangong, we would meet at a point called – Durbuk. But the roads were ill conditioned, long & hence we were told to come back to Leh.We stopped at a place called Tsoltak where we saw mountain yaks. Being a wildlife enthusiasts I absolutely adored the Himalayan Marmots seen at The Chungthang sanctuary on our way. Everyone in Ladakh called them “junglee chuha”.
The first sighting of the magnificent Pangong lake was seen half an hour earlier of the destination & all of us could hardly wait to get there. Our stay arrangement Marstemik camps were comfortably within 1000 mtrs away from the lake & gave a fantabulous view of the blue shining waters surrounded by large mountains held up between China & India- although 80% in foreign land. Half hour of photoshoots & we were blue with the cold winds flying at speeds that hit us although covered in layers of clothes. The day was pleasant in the hotel dining rooms but nights were windy & cold. Buffet meals served was gobbled up, they say winters make you hungry. Our night followed under rugs & mattresses after a pleasant evening enjoying in one of our tents.

Pangong Lake to Leh
Day 8: One of the group’s photo enthusiast captured the morning sunrise with her new camera. We headed back to Leh after breakfast not before we were taken to the actual spot where the climax of the film 3 Idiots was shot. On our way back we visited the school that was featured in this film, now made as a tourist spot too to collect donation for the children who are given free education in that region. Druk restaurant at Khargu greeted us with Choymeyn both lamb & veg with a soup like gravy that is given with this dish.
We learnt :: If you need to understand which side is China & Pakistan when in Leh, follow the flow of the river Indus. It originates from China & flows into Pakistan.

Leh to Tsomoriri
Day 9: The day was dreaded by all of us since the destination was around 8 hours away. The lake was spotted by us from our aircraft on the way to Leh & it was a little over 20 min that we reached the airport after that.This was our last destination in Ladakh & obviously had to be quite exciting. For the road to Tsomoriri situated in Korzok village some 250 kms off Leh, we had chosen 2 routes. The route was the same for about 25 kms untill we passed Upshi, passing Khargu. From there we joined the roads that were adjoining the Indus river till about 4 hours. The journey was beautiful as it passed the Hemis monestery entrance. The yellow and green leaves alongside the river bank gave the journey the much needed balance since we were on a jumping ride on the under constructed roads. Sheep grazed on the majestic mountains giving them their sheer magnificence. On this route we stopped to have a look at the Chumathang hot water springs. We realised this was God’s own creation when we noticed boiling hot water oozing out of the earth and within its distance; just a few feet away was the Indus river with its sub zero degree water. Where else could you get to see the complex structure of 2 kinds of creations meeting together, but here in Ladakh. We followed the road until Mahe bridge which was the last point for civilians. Beyond that one way was Korzok village where we were headed & on the other side was Loma, the last village on the route. Due to tight security measures no photography was allowed on Mahe bridge, but that didn’t stop me. Tsomoriri was 60 kms from Mahe bridge. When we cross the bridge we headed into model village korzok. Except for the locals of Loma villages, no visitors / tourists were allowed beyond the Mahe bridge point except for the route to tsomoriri. Beyond this point the mountains turned Purple colour- a sight one rarely finds in the surroundings.At our stop on the Mahe bridge check post we spoke to an army man who told us about the road and the destination. We were skeptical of the condition that prevailed in this part of Ladakh owing to Chinese troops invading & building bunkers on Indian soil. He mentioned there is nothing to worry & anyways the troops were asked to return to their base. He spoke proudly that the Indian army sent 5000 troops when the Chinese ventured into our territory with a mere 1000 troops.We witnesses the proud moment of the army returning back in lots of 30 trucks together with a convoy. This proud moment was truly a victorious one.
We learnt:: Tsomoriri lake was higher in altitude (15000 feet) than the Pangong Lake, more beautiful yet unexplored.
Our stay at Lake View Hotel was a relief to the whole team since the temperature in the day was around 5 degrees & we dreaded the night.Hot Soup tasted heavenly at night to keep ourselves warm. We were told of the privileges of getting electricity only for 3 hours a day (7.30 to 10.30 pm).
We learnt: Do not waste and take water & electricity for granted. It is a privilege for a few.
Our adventure began once the sun set. Ice cold winds blowing through our hair when we visited the lake side didn’t let us hang around for more than 20 min in the open. Once back at the hotel, the food was delicious although vegetarian. After puffs of hukkah and the last bottle of rum we were introduced to a host of stories by our driver Tashi who explained why the lake was called so. A girl named tsomo had ventured out with her herd of yak on the freezing river then. She noticed cracks & realised the ice was about to break. She called out RIRI to her herd – which means come here & before they knew they were below the ice. Tashi also mentioned that due to the cold temperature of the lake there are minimal marine life but there must be something inside as when their bodies were found, they were eaten. No one has been asked to check the lake since then.With this being one if the stories and many more Tashi gave us a great evening coupled with insights on Ladakh, its seasons, the tourists he’s encountered, places worth visiting & most of all the people. Tashi also told us about a village called Dahanuk in Ladakh, where the very few of the remaining Aryan race survived. With as much as 3 layers of clothes, 2 warm blankets & no hot water bags, we tried to put ourselves asleep. It wouldn’t help. We were cold & little did we realise what was happening outside. The temperature kept dripping.

Tsomoriri to Leh
Day 10: It was only the next day when taps wouldn’t give out water, did we realise that the temperature had dripped to -8 degrees & water was frozen. Water streams froozen outside our windows, herd of sheep being taken to graze over the small fields overlooking the mighty Tsomoriri was a sight no one would ever forget. Helping ourselves to a bucket of normal water organised by the hotel team we freshened up. We also had the opportunity to taste the homemade butter tea from Tenzing’s mother, a friend of Tashi. Tenzing was a playful & beautiful local child who fancied Tashi and loved our company.
We took off for Leh with a gleam of excitement & the journey back. Listening to a few Ladakhi songs, we recollected our memories of the past 10 days that we spent here, we now truly felt like Ladakhis. Our return route was different. We were to reach Leh via Puga, Tsokar & the 2nd highest motorable road called Taglang-la via the Manali Leh highway. We changed roads from sumdo for the return road. My gujju companion drove the car through this road & felt so proud. With the flock of sheep passing everywhere we stooped at puga hot springs, where my enthusiastic Tamilian companion & Tashi walked right upto a place where there was a huge rock spitting out boiling hot water. Mountains on this way held together large boulders, as though it was creating a wall.
We learnt::  There are white, black and brown yaks. We also got an opportunity to see a black and a white one.
Our last lunch was at Tibetan Kitchen recommended by Jimmy at the Leh market where we ordered Sabagleb & thukthan veg soup, chilli chicken n chicken wantons. We returned to our hotel and packed for our flight the next day.
Rarely do dreams come true, rarely does one encounter such beauty.It is only when we truely care for this environment will our next generation get to see the beauty that mother Earth beholds. We hope & pray that the Army, tourists & locals preserve this beautiful landscape which is rightly called HEAVEN ON EARTH.

Remember::- In Ladakh it is never the destination that one needs to yearn for, you need to enjoy the journey.


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