Ladakh – Beyond the Edge

Ladakh as Wikipedia says is the ‘land of the high passes‘. Any travel to the northernmost region of our country is considered to be a difficult one as the region is not easy to reach, has inhospitable climate, thin air because of its height from sea level, minimal infrastructure and thus least possible facilities for a family traveler, however all of the above was proven inaccurate as my recent journey to the most beautiful part of the sub-continent and perhaps the world revealed.

Our trip begun with lots of planning as we were about 16 of us including kids and senior citizens ( above 60 yrs). The planning was done several months before so as to avail the best possible airline and hotel rates.

We began in Kashmir, the gateway to the heaven. Kashmir as what we generally call is basically the Kashmir valley comprising of major city of Srinagar with famous hill stations of Pahelgam, Gulmarg, Sonmarg , guarded in the north and east by the Great Himalayan Range and bordered by Pakistan in the west. If we have to define the region by a color then it has to be Green. People have called it the Paradise on Earth and compared it rightly to Switzerland.  Lush green outfields with beautiful flowers and tall trees are found everywhere with snow-topped peaks surrounding the entire region, it is an ideal place for tourists who are tired of heat of other regions of India.

The temperature when we went was close to freezing and it rained a bit as well. We went to Pahelgam first and enjoyed the drive from Srinagar to Pahelgam. Pahelgam reminded me so much of Manali, with the river flowing by it and little bridges and hotels on the side. The road from Anantnag to Pahelgam was very much similar to Kullu-Manali road. Like all hill stations in India, Pahelgam too has its own sightseeing ‘points’ which we avoided mostly.

We went to Chandanwadi which is the base-camp for Amarnath Yatra and enjoyed the snow there. There is also a ‘Betaab Valley’ in Pahelgam where the film Betaab was shot way back in 1981. I can still hear Sunny Deol’s echo there. We mostly relaxed in Pahelgam as we had long journey ahead.

Srinagar is usual city like any other Indian City only with 50 times more security cover than any other city I have seen. You can see police, army men, CRPF personnel, home guards everywhere you go. The city is virtually a fortress, especially the important VIP areas. There are more gardens in Srinagar than you can count, all of them beautiful with different flowers and trees all around. The main attraction of Srinagar is of course the famous Dal Lake and its Shikara ride. We enjoyed the Shikara ride with lots of food and drinks which we bought during the ride through the ‘merchant shikaras’ and ‘floating markets’ which passed us around. It was a unique experience however must say that Dal Lake is not a pleasant sight these days with lots of dirt around and water also muddy and with water plants and weeds almost touching the boats. The houseboats are also not a pleasant sight and we were glad that we didn’t stay in one.

Our real journey started from Srinagar onwards to Ladakh region. We took the National Highway NH1-D which connects Srinagar to Leh via Drass and Kargil. This is the same road which the Pakistani infiltrators wishes to capture and control by taking over the mountains in 1999 Kargil war. The road passes very close to the LOC and at many points on the road there are signboards which says ‘Enemy is Watching you Here’. The road passes through mountain passes including the very treacherous Zojilla Pass at around 11000 Ft. This pass is notorious for its razor sharp turns, landslides, rain and snowfall and avalanches. The pass remains close for more than 6 months a year and we were fortunate that the pass opened just a day before we went through and the pass closed down for 2 days the day after we left because of heavy rainfall. We were lucky enough to sneak through it at the right time.

Once we cross the Zojilla pass we enter a different zone altogether. The lush green trees are replaced by brown sandy and rocky backdrops. The mountains turn brown and very less greenery is visible. By crossing the Zojilla pass we have finally crossed the Great Himalayan range and have entered the Ladakh region. Drass is the first village which we encounter on the other side. It is indeed a very cold place and supposed to be the 2nd Coldest permanently inhabitated place in the world. We pass various hills known as Tiger Hill, Tololing Hill, Batra Point all of which were household names during the 1999 Kargil war. Ahead of Drass there is a Kargil War Memorial and War Museum which is a must see for every passerby. The 20 Minute film prepared by Indian Army on the Kargil war tells you more about the event than JP Dutta managed in his 4 hour LOC -Kargil.

Kargil itself is a slightly bigger town which provides tourists on their way to Leh a decent night halt. Kargil is located at the height of 9000 Ft and it is necessary to spend a night at a lower altitude before reaching Leh at 11500 Ft. Acclimatization is very important when visiting Ladakh region. Travelling by road ensures that you are properly accustomed to the lower oxygen level in the air. It doesn’t much rain in Kargil however the day we we reached it was raining and highly windy taking the mercury below zero at night.
Ahead of Kargil we continued on the national highway. The roads were narrow and bit rough due to excessive rainfall in last few days. We passed the Mulbek monastrey with large statue of Maitreya- the future Buddha carved out from a huge single rock. It can be said that the huge statue is guarding the narrow highway next to it. Next up were the First of the 2 high passes through the Zanskar Range of Mountains. The first was Nameek La at 12150 Ft followed by Fotu La at 13500 Ft which is the highest point on the National Highway. The 2 passes have curvy roads but thanks to the Border Road Organization (BRO) which monitors and maintains the roads through out the year these 2 passes remain virtually open most of the year. We experienced fresh snowfall on these passes and everybody got down from the car to enjoy the snow and enter into snowball fights. We even ate some of fresh snow by making it into ‘Golas’ and pouring Tang over it, it tasted really nice. The altitude of the passes and the snowfall and the heavy wind ensured that we did not stay there for long and moved ahead.

Now we enter the Leh district, one of the largest district in our country with least no. of people residing in it. The region is hilly and roads are bumpy but one stark difference you see here from any other part of our country is the color of the landscape. Brown and Blue dominates here, whereas in any other part of our country beauty is defined by lush greenery and blue skies, here there is hardly any greenery around and has brown stone rocks of different shades all around, very few trees in this harsh region and yet this region’s beauty is incomparable. It simply feels you are walking on another planet altogether. The brown, black and white mountains surround you, the brown and black roads and clear blue skies with a little white cloud here and there presented a picture which was never seen before my eyes. This district gets very less rainfall throughout the year and has clearest of skies in the country. ISRO even has a Space Telescope and Research Laboratory in this region to take advantage of clear skies throughout the year. This truly is a high altitude desert trapped between the Himalayan range in the south and mighty Karakoram range in the north and bordered by the Zanskar range of mountains in the west and Ladakh range in the east. It is truly a land locked from all sides by high altitude passes and thus is rightly called Ladakh – land of the passes.

We visited various monasteries on our way. Every small town has its own monastery here and each one has its own history and its own set of followers. Some of the biggest monasteries are located in Likir, Alchi, Thiksey and Hemis. Along with this there is the Palace of the Namgyal Kings of Ladakh located in Shey and Stok. We camped out for a night in an adventure resort near a place called Uletopko, where we stayed in tiny houses amongst a small oasis in this cold desert. It was a unique experience. The weather was too harsh for river rafting and we decided to do it at a later stage.

Leh, is the heart of the region and is a small little city with tourist friendly facilities and several big and small hotels. It also is the base for the Indian Army, Air Force and has one of the smallest yet most beautiful airport in the world. One could have flied in to Leh from Delhi and could avaoid the entire journey from Srinagar to Leh over 2 days, but then he would need to spend atleast a day doing nothing just to acclimatize to the thin air of the region. Leh is located at an altitude of 11500 Ft and requires serious acclimatization to stay here. Because of the thinness in air your body would get that much less oxygen and you would feel exhausted and tired pretty quickly at least initially.

We mostly stayed in the hotel with most needed amenties and some luxuries as well. We also spent a night in a place called Ladakh Sarai which had full furnished tents to stay out in open. The tents were actually Mongolian Yurts but with all necessary luxuries within, including a heater and an attached bathroom. The temperature in the region was close to freezing and yet the skies were clear and one could get a fantastic view of snow laden peaks all around us, right there siting in our tent. At night the sky is lit with so many stars that you do not need any other light source.
We did various activities in and around Leh including sightseeing of palace, monasteries, visiting Hall of Fame Museum and visiting the Leh Markets in numerous times to purchase cheap mementos and Tibetean stuff which you get at throwaway prices. The Hall of Fame Museaum is a ‘must visit’ for all and it not only shows the various aspects of Ladakhi region, its culture, history, food, people etc. but also has a section dedicated to the Kargil War, Siachin War and has interesting stuff like the Uniform of a soldier in Siachin which costs nearly 2 lacs each.

We could not visit the Nubra Valley across the Khardungla Pass which at 18380 Ft is World’s highest motor-able pass. The road to Nubra Valley was closed during our stay and we were forced to spend more time in Leh, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise as we had more time to relax and enjoy the scenic beauty of the place. We could also do adventure stuff like River rafting on the Zanskar and Indus river.

The 2 rivers Zanskar with its brownish water of freshly melted snow of the Zanskar Range and Indus with its blue-green spring water originating from the holy Mansarovar collide at the junction to emerge as the Mighty Indus which goes across to Pakistan near Kargil.

The other must see thing to do in Ladakh is visit the lakes. It has 3 main lakes. The fresh water lake Tso Moriri located at about 15000 Ft across the Namshang La. There is also a smaller Tso-Kar which has salty water and then there is the beautiful Pangong Lake located at a height of 14000 Ft across the Chang La pass at 17500 Ft.  Drive to the Pangong Lake from Leh takes about 4 to 5 hours and with the mighty Chang La pass in the middle it gives you a thrilling ride. The Chang La top at 17500 Ft is a sight to see although people are advised not to stay at such a height for more than 20 minutes. Just across the Chang La pass is a desert. The sand dunes line up the road , surrounded by brown rocky mountains. It is a a unique sight to see desert at such a high altitude. Pangong Lake is one of the marvels of the world. It is the highest salt water lake in the world and offers undescribable beauty. The lake is partly in India and 2/3rd of it is in Tibet. The lake has crystal clear water, which changes colors every hour and you can easily see 2-3 shades of blue and green at any point of time. The Lake is bordered by the brown and white mountains of the Ladakh range and the Karakoram range. The blue waters of lake has birds sitting at various places and is an unmissable sight. Surely it was the highlight of our entire tour.

Ladakh is a region which although is a part of Indian subcontinent, however topographically it is far too different from any other part of India. Its landscape, its mountains, rivers, lakes are seen to be believed and one discovers during the trip that the whole journey is an adventure in itself.  It is a place where you would see snowfall in a desert and a place where the sun stroke and frost bite can hit you both togather. It is a place where time has no meaning. Nature has given so much to this part of the world that one is amazed at its power and realizes that we human beings are such a small and powerless entity in front of the mighty nature.

Here are links to my Photo Albums on Facebook

Kashmir – http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=231956&id=523247305&l=f49dbe4636

Kargil – http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=231971&id=523247305&l=96aa123dca

Ladakh – http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=232063&id=523247305&l=22a955c347

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