I visited Ladakh last July. This was after a slew of failed plans and a break after almost 2 years. It was well worth it.
I like travel planning. I took some time out to read about the places to see and made a rough itinerary. I picked Pangong Tso, Nubra Valley, Tso Moriri as the top places to see and of course Leh. I have been to Manali once, although it was a brief stay, so I thought I should go via Srinagar instead. Ideally one would want to cover both the Rohtang Pass from Manali and the Srinagar-Leh route (NH 1D) but it made economic sense to book to and fro flight tickets from Srinagar. Economics always has the final say. I didn’t want another failed plan so without much further thought I booked the flight tickets. It was only afterwards that I asked a few friends if they would be interested in joining me. 2 of them – Deepak, Nagaraj – were and they are so awesome that they booked their tickets immediately. As I made the final plan for 8 days it felt like one of the three places had to be missed as it seemed too arduous and tiring. However, in hindsight, it is very much possible (for youngsters at least) to visit all the above mentioned places within a week.
As soon as I landed in Srinagar, I was asked by a taxi guy if I’m Mallu. The outrage that followed hardly did justice to the punishment he deserved. We had booked an Innova (for Rs. 14,000) for the journey from Srinagar to Leh. This was the only arrangement we had done for the entire tour prior to leaving. The journey, about 440 kilometres, is best done over two days. Some background: The road connecting the two places was built after the 1962 war with China and was made better for good movement of Army vehicles after the 1999 Kargil war. We wasted no time by starting the same evening we reached Srinagar. Our stop for the night was Dras (the second coldest inhabited place after Siberia). The road went through Sonamarg and the scary Zoji La. The first half is spoilt with views of the gorgeous river Sindh.
Over the entire trip we came across numerous rivers and streams but Sindh was the most majestic. Tumbling downhill amidst distant snow-capped mountains, its white angelic appearance hardly does justice to what it really is – a brutally cold, ferociously strong river. The views it provides along the road are a treat though (also the trail for Amarnath Yatra). We stopped at Sonamarg for some tea and snacks. The sun was still up at 7pm. Then begins Zoji La. The road becomes much narrower and essentially only one vehicle can pass at a time. Or that’s what you’d think. The drivers plying this route are mostly seasoned and have been doing this for a living for decades. They know how the edge of the road will hold up and then you just close your eyes and hope it does. I engaged our driver Mushtaq in a conversation to keep my mind from focusing on the road. He was a native of Dras. He said that the snow will be up to 7 or 8 feet during winters on the same road we were traversing although it was becoming less of late. I asked him the reason and if it has anything to the growing number of tourists like us. Mushtaq thought maybe and that God probably does not like what we do…we are destroying his creation. We reached Dras, our destination for the night and found a cheap, spooky ‘Evil Dead’ house type of hotel. We became the reason for some angry exchange of words between two hotel owners as we immediately said ok to our hotel guy when he offered a decent room for 700 bucks. Mushtaq had a friend there who was willing to give a room for as little as 300 rupees and we weren’t allowed any second thoughts as an agreement was in place.
Our first stop the next morning was the war memorial at Dras. The history is haunting. One can see how the Pakistani army would have attacked from the Tiger and Tololing hills. It’s frightening how far they had ventured and how entire villages would have felt like it was under siege. There is a huge Indian flag flying high behind which, on a wall, are all the names of the soldiers who laid down their lives in the war. We also spoke to some Tamil army men who were from all over Tamil Nadu.
The road then goes along the Dras River. One can see a couple of places where two rivers join before reaching Kargil on this stretch. The Shingo from Pakistan joins the Dras and then they together flow down for a while before uniting with the Suru River to go back into Pakistan. The distinct colours between the waters are obvious to see and it creates a moment to marvel. The next stop was a village called Mulbekh where there is a 1st century BC stone carving of Maitreya, the ‘future Buddha’. A monastery has been created around it and more importantly shops that sell noodles. If I have to pick just one thing I learnt during this trip it is that – true love is Maggi. It is after you pass the sleepy town of Kargil, you get to see the real barren desert that is Ladakh. The first such instance is at Fotula Top, the highest point on the Srinagar-Leh highway. There are hills all around you, far out of your reach and just them as far as your eyes can see. The colours of the Ladakh sky deserves a mention. They majestically blanket the desert in royal fashion. And you just get used to this sight for it exists throughout the region. You don’t get bored though. For the awe persists throughout as well. It has it’s crests and troughs though just like them hills watching you from all around you. The crest of your awe is some 50 kilometres outside of Leh just before ‘Magnetic Hill’. The roads until then always have their twists and turns and ups and downs. Then comes a long, flat, straight stretch. The hills have parted ways for the road which is like a tiny crack on the desert. The sky is as cheerful as ever. The barren land on either side is vast. And your jaw hits the floor.
There is nothing magnetic about the ‘Magnetic Hill’. The place itself is an extension of the crack. The optical illusion created there is such that the downhill for a small stretch is masked by the uphill for a bigger stretch seen at a distance. A signboard tells you to park your vehicle at a certain spot and see it go in reverse (because of a downhill). Bikers find it fancy to drive their way down to the nearest hill (called the Magnetic Hill) from the road and try to reach as high as possible on it. It’s a nice pit stop on the road though, to take in the empty vastness and talk to the bikers maybe.
Beyond this we can see glimpses of city life as we approach Leh. There is a war memorial called ‘Hall of Fame’ (which we visited later), the airport, an army camp just before we reach Leh at around 4 pm. Our first task was to find a decent, cheap place to stay. Mushtaq took us to his wife’s cousin who runs a travel agency and a hotel. (We kept looking for cheap accommodations throughout the trip to make up for the travel costs which was more than expected). The evening was reserved for a casual stroll in the lovely town. The main market is a wonderful place to walk around. The minimum temperature was just around 15 deg C so it was perfect for a walk. Leh has a good choice of restaurants – Indian, Chinese, Thai, European, and spoils you if you are in for some souvenir, hand-loom or jewellery shopping. Throughout our tour, we tried a couple of Indian restaurants, a wonderful french cafe which had wonderful breakfast options and and Italian restaurant in Leh. All the places offered a quiet ambience, good food, was easy on the wallet and beer wasn’t difficult to get. Apart from Leh other places in Ladakh do not sell alcohol. It is to prevent tourists taking a joy ride for/with the alcohol and to lessen the littering. The Tibetan refugees sell their own hand crafted souvenirs – which look like pretty much what everyone else sells. And as you’d imagine – Buddha is a popular chap.
Days 3 and 4 were earmarked for Nubra valley. Diskit is the most popular town in Nubra and it is about 140 km from Leh. It is advisable to cover this over 2 days as it involves going via Khardung La – the world’s highest motor-able road (or so it is claimed).
Ideally you’d want to get acclimatised over a day or two in Leh but we didn’t have any discomfort yet so we were confident that we wouldn’t have any high altitude sickness. We arranged for a taxi and started at around 9 am. This is when the feeling that you are travelling properly kicks in – narrow, beautiful, well laid roads going round and round the mountains slowly building a vantage view of Leh and more. That continues for a while as you ascend before Khardung La. At 18,380 feet it is claimed to be the highest motor-able road in India but they’ve later built a road in Chile apparently. Doesn’t matter really. After all the hype, I thought there’d some breathing difficulties but no. Not yet. The top point is just a pit-stop for photographs. That means…well obviously you get noodles and tea. The first sign board you see when you enter the cafe warns you not to spend more than 30 minutes at the top point for there’s not much oxygen. That is the best bit of advice. I started feeling the cold what with all the snow around (existed only at cliff tops at over 17,000 feet) and the wind. You can feel you are running out of oxygen to breathe. There is just not enough air that you need but you don’t start panting either. I developed a headache first. The symptoms and the timing of it was common for all three of us. It was gradual. And it was breath taking, quite literally.
The descent is truly a different half altogether. Enter Nubra valley. The vastness of Ladakh kept surprising us. The journey is again round and round the valley but it’s just more enormous and deserted. A tiny white stream of water flows beneath you. Even as you wonder if it is tiny indeed you reach the place and are driving along with it. It is the river Shyok, a tributary of Indus. When our Ladakhi driver said Shyok – I could hardly make out what he was saying. The valley itself is a result of Shyok meeting Nubra. The Shyok is muddy and not so ferocious. The white appearance almost made it difficult to differentiate it from the sand dunes that appear out of nowhere. Soon, the Shyok had to make it’s way around and between the sand dunes. It was the first time I was seeing sand dunes. The wind ripples on them paint a beautiful picture. They weren’t massive though – just around the river and at a radius of half a kilometre at the most. And then again, there came a wonderful narrow stretch of road. It’s just white sand on either sides. No mountains. Nothing. Just plain sand at the same level. The vastness of it….Wow! Our car was following an Army vehicle at this road and it felt like they were the only two objects on Earth. It was straight out of the movies. Views and moments like these awaken your brain. And your heart. And all your senses. Here I was, travelling on a road that was so flat, narrow, offered nothing to see and made me feel so lonely. Yet it was more exhilarating than a roller coaster. At the end of it, an ascent towards the next part of the valley began. It was later when we reached a higher point I could entirely witness the awesome road that we just travelled on.
Diskit is the most popular town in Nubra valley. It’s fame is a 32 meter Maitreya Buddha statue built on a high ground. It is very near the Diskit Gompa. One long hard look standing before the Buddha in the middle made me remark that it looks so much like Optimus Prime. And soon I was imagining the abandoned metal parts in Diskit as Autobots in hiding waiting for their moment.
Next up on the plan was Hunder. It is a very short drive from Diskit and it is where we had chosen to stay as well. Diskit is more of a proper town and therefore slightly more expensive for the same range of accomodation. Hunder had plenty of options – cottages, hotels, huts, home stays. All of them lined up in a narrow stretch. Before we picked the place of stay we did the camel ride. The camels in these parts was the ‘Bactrian’ camel – a critically endangered species. It has two humps and it’s teeth are just as ugly as any other camel. The baby ones are real cute though. In case you were wondering, you sit between the two humps. Again, this was a first. After you sit, the moment the camel stands up, often reluctantly, is not to be filmed. Then, you slowly get used to the sideways movement of your body. And then your body starts doing the movements by default. You move your head along as if you listening to rock. If your camel isn’t a bother, like mine, it will be just that. So one person guided the first camel and five others are linked to it – behind one another. This poor thing I was given kept going away from the line or too close to the one walking before it. It was a nice experience though. A refreshing break from the travel. The baby camels even like to pose.
There’s nothing much to Nubra valley apart from this. Panamik, a 45 kilometre detour from Diskit, has a hot water spring. I wouldn’t deem it worthy of a visit by itself but it’s not everyday you can see a natural hot water spring. The drive is again along Shyok. We had a funny moment there. They have built restrooms and a spa with the hot water being stored in water tanks. It has a really poor and a shady look. When we first entered the place we thought that was all there is to this hot water spring. We sat down and laughed hard before we found the ‘stream’ above this ‘spa’. I say ‘stream’ but it was just a tiny flow of water from above a hill, inside the rocks. You can’t go up, explore too much of it’s path but just wash your face maybe in the bloody hot water. It wasn’t big enough to cook noodles or pasta as we saw in some photographs – maybe that was some other place. Though we had time on our hands, Panamik is not an essential stop.
The first thing we were determined to do when we were back in Leh was to look for motorbikes for hire. None of us were confident enough to drive on such roads or for so long. But what the heck – we were in Ladakh. We had to do it. It is the fad. A rule to honour. We had to experience it. If not Khardung La, the next best option was the trip to Pangong Tso (160 kilometres approximately from Leh) via Chang La (third highest motor able road apparently). We set out looking for bikes late in the evening but the demand was enormous. It’s not too expensive though. For Rs. 1000 to Rs. 2000 a day you can pick from Pulsar, Apache, Duke but mostly Royal Enfield. Although most of these guys recommended against going for a 150cc bike at such high altitudes it looked like we were going to end up with one. But then, all of us were most comfortable in a not so heavy bike. After around 2 hours of hunting we managed to get a 200cc Pulsar and a 150cc Pulsar. One person was to drive the 150cc alone and the 200cc would carry two people. The driving load was to be shared evenly, although pillion riding was equally difficult as we learnt later. It was a safe bet and our best one. We went into the night low on confidence, afraid if we will be able to do it. The nervousness only added to the sense of excitement.
We took a picture of the map of the road from Leh to Pangong. Although it is near impossible to lose the way – it did help us. We started cautiously on great roads – the first hour was boring before we stopped for breakfast at ‘Karu’. The roads turn dusty, nasty, bumpy, rough, curvy, steep, narrow, dangerous and back-breaking after that. Bottom-line : it is lovely.
We mostly enjoyed the drive going past small road blocks – a result of the Army clearing the rocks falling down, tiny streams – a result of snow melting, even a river, ascended with difficulty (the pillion rider in the 200cc bike had to get off at some places), some snow (near the top most point at Chang La), descended rapidly on narrow stretches, a U-bend where I almost died and a lovely lake hidden between mountains. I am not even sure if it has a name but it was so calm and too good to be true. The timing of it and the location was perfect for us for a break – a good 50 kilometres before Pangong. Cars, buses didn’t bother stopping there and we were almost the only ones there. Just a few feet away from the tar road and it offered a place to disappear from the world. There was a lot of greenery, clean water, cows and yaks, mountains around it and more importantly – no people and a lot of silence. It is probably the most perfect habitable place on Earth.
We resumed the journey after almost taking a nap and the desert soon took over. Ladakh is incredible that way. One moment it is all lush and green and soon there will be an endless stretch of the sand. The hills and the blue sky are constant though. We had driven close to almost 6 hours when Nagaraj was suggesting we take another break. It was 4 pm and we were 10 kilometres or so away. We were tired – our backs and necks were hurting and truly exhausted. I knew another break would last at least an hour. I pushed and didn’t want to stop. It was like running the last leg of a marathon. The only thing that could have possibly cured us of the physical (and mental) exhaustion was a stunning piece of art, drawn by nature. That is exactly what Pangong Tso is. The pictures are true – in fact they don’t do justice. The first sight of that blue water was enough to make us forget the pain.
We just got down from the bike and laid flat on the rocky banks of the lake. It took us quite a while to take the sight in and process all the colours. The lake itself had at least three different shades of blue. The hills on the other side had quite a few shades of brown. And the sky – well, a lot more blue. I had reserved a luxury tent (for Rs. 2500 per head) just in case we don’t find one. To be fair, all the accommodation was almost full by the time we got there. Except one. The only place we enquired. The guy runs one of the eateries there and offered us a decent tent with 4 beds. It was the first tent after the road from the lake. We took it without bothering to ask about the cost. Turned out it was Rs. 600 altogether! After settling down, we took a walk by the lake. It was starting to get windy and cold – the sun was just starting to set. Nagaraj and me – we were talking to someone interesting. He was interested in astronomy and photography and was doing a lot of travelling (Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, J&K) in a motorbike with his friends. It was he who mentioned that we are lucky tonight as it is a clear sky and perfect weather to see the milky way galaxy. It was only then that I actually knew we would be able to see the galaxy from there. The nice chap gave us a brief 101 in astronomy and waved us a goodbye with a tip to look out in the North-East direction after 10 pm. I couldn’t wait.
And so it was there. A magic streak of light across the sky. We could even see the centre of the galaxy – a black spot. It was and remains the best couple of hours that I have ever spent. ‘Breath taking’ hardly begins to describe it. Here we were – sitting in pitch black darkness, some dogs barking in the distance, the howling wind louder than them and we were staring at the sky, a billion billion stars spread over what appeared to be a narrow patch – and we were on the other side of the patch – so tiny that it appeared foolish to even consider us relevant. The space can crush you that way. Our cameras weren’t good enough to capture the sky but we did see some photographs that some people were clicking – it was art. We just sat down in absolute silence spraining our necks in love with the Pangong sky. The next morning – I kept alarms for every hour since 4am to catch the sun rise. At 6 am, it was still very dark with the moon clearly visible. And at 6:15 the sun was out like a monster star out of nowhere. It was so bright that it felt like noon already. We took a ride along the Pangong Tso for sometime before starting on the long, arduous drive back to Leh. I kept looking back throughout – until all the blue and the brown was out a sight. It is not an easy place to leave. I wish to visit the place in the future during the winter when the lake will be frozen.
After a tiring couple of days we had a reserve day to go see around Leh. I had initially planned this to be first day at Leh – before the Nubra valley or Pangong trips – because almost everyone on the internet had warned about having to get acclimatised. But then we wanted to get the major places out of the way first up and had no breathing or sickness issues. We walked around for most of the day. Shanti Stupa, Leh Palace and Hall of Fame are the only significant places to see around the town. We missed going to Shanti Stupa because….we were lazy and time was up lazing around. It was nice though – to have a relaxing day, doing things at our own pace. It was a proper holiday. After walking around Leh Palace for a long time (place is worth a visit but meh), we headed to Hall of Fame which is in outskirts. We got a ride from a local guy who was driving a Maruti 800. The place has all the Kargil war memorabilia and is a sort of advertisement for Ladakh. Guns, artillery, outfits, newspaper articles, letters of soldiers, flora & fauna stuff of Ladakh, history of Ladakh – all the rulers, wars the place has seen and so on. They also play a documentary about the Kargil war. We spent quite a lot of time in their ‘amusement park’. It has rope walking, climbing, shooting, archery and provides for good time pass. The cafeteria had some board games and we spent hours playing chess. It was quite late and dark by the time we left the place but managed to get a ride back into town. It was also the only evening we had some beer.
The last day at Leh provided a close second best moment of the tour. It was even more special as this was also not expected or part of the plan. Rafting! So essentially, it takes about 14-16 hours by road to reach Srinagar from Leh. We wanted to save some money so had booked a ‘shared taxi’ for this journey. It’s available in plenty and costs Rs. 1800 or so per head. However, they won’t stop anywhere on the way for sight seeing except for dinner. It was ideal as it worked cheap and we were going back the same way. I should do the Leh – Manali route via Rohtang Pass the next time. The taxi was to leave at 4 in the evening so we had the day for ourselves. The travel agent himself was making arrangements for rafting. I hadn’t planned for it. It was too exciting to miss out. The rafting is at Zanskar river. The end point is the ‘Sangam’ of the Indus and Zanskar. The 14 km stretch has 4 major rapids. When the guide started giving out instructions, I was scared. It hit me that rafting is indeed dangerous. The setting was beautiful though. The brown Zanskar flows amidst some vast landscapes, tall hills and a rocky terrain. Once our guide was sure we understood all the instructions and the multiple ways we could die at the end of this – we started on a smooth part of the river. The first rapid was soon upon us and it was the biggest. I was on the right side of the raft and was almost at 90 degree looking down upon the person adjacent to me. It was amazing how we all stayed in same positions. This was followed by a lot of synchronised rowing, avoiding rocks, more rapids, swirls and even taking some people on board from a punctured raft. It was a tiring and a very exciting experience. The best part of it happened towards the final stretch – after we were past all the rapids and the river was flowing swift and smooth. The instructor stood up and just said “OK all of you jump out of the raft now”.It took me a minute to see that he was not joking. The water was cold (must have been around 5-10 degree celsius) but I was excited immediately. I held the rope on the outer side of the raft, made a splash in the river and held on to the raft. The water was indeed freaking cold! I was the first one out of the raft and soon the rest of them made the same move. I was thrown a rope to hold on to while I tried to float. And there I was – floating along with the moving raft – 10 feet away from it – just staring into the sky, the cold water making my body, oblivious to the world, experiencing bliss. I would have been like that for about 1 km – it was just blissful! I got back into the raft only when my legs started experiencing some sort of cramps (possibly because of the cold) – which the instructor expected. The lunch, rafting, travel (30+30 ams back to Leh) – all together cost us only Rs. 1000 per head. I thought it was a steal.
And so we left back to Leh at around 4 pm, stopped only for dinner at some small village and reached Srinagar around 5 am. The shared taxi is recommended only if you can sleep through in a car for long durations. Though we had almost 10 hours in Srinagar – we weren’t in a mood to go explore the town or even go shopping. It had been a tiring few days. We walked to Dal Lake and spent some time around the place. Dal Lake is enormous and is full of those houseboats. I wasn’t too impressed by the place – the waters were polluted, it was too commercialised and the lake itself didn’t offer any great views. Maybe we were roaming around in the wrong end or Bollywood has ruined it. It was nice to see some people fishing early in the morning. We watched a father and son duo watching the water ready to pull their fishing rods out at the slightest hint of a catch. It never happened though. We spent our rest of the time at Srinagar Airport and I spent quite a few more at New Delhi airport as my flight to Chennai was delayed by 4 hours! A day sitting in airports wasn’t the ideal end to such a superb holiday.
I wrote this down just to document my experience. I don’t want to forget this trip to Ladakh as I’m sure I’ll smile whenever I read this in the future. If you did read all of this until here – I thank you. This is also to help anyone planning to visit Ladakh. I hope it is of use and you can always contact me if I can be of any further help. Ladakh is the kind of place where you’d want to go multiple times. A week hardly does justice. Ladakh can be the holiday you seek. The break you earn. The solitude and peace you desire. The adventure and awe you crave. A bid at sanity. And the story you write. For me, it was all of this. It definitely is one of a kind.