Land of high passes
This title is so apt as it has Khardung La pass at 17,582 feet, Chang La pass at 17,586 feet and Kela pass which is yet to open for general public at 18,600 feet. These are some of the highest motorable roads in the world.
While driving through Ladakh what comes to mind is barren and beautiful, there is hardly any vegetation on the mountains as there is very little rainfall in the region. The rivers get their water from the glaciers. The sky is bluer than anywhere else in the world. At night you can see zillions of stars so close that they shine like fairy bulbs. In the span of an hour I could actually see 4 shooting stars, I ran out of wishes to make.
Ladakh is mainly made up of 2 districts Kargil and Leh. Sightseeing is mostly monasteries, all of them give a sense of peace and have a lot of history. Ladakh is more for experiences than for sightseeing. To fill your senses with the vastness of the mountains, the blue skies, the turquoise Pangong Lake, the chilled gurgling streams. All around monks and monasteries can be seen, giving a sense of peace. Military presence brings us back to reality, close to both China and Pakistan goodwill cannot be taken for granted.
Whatever activity…. trekking, cycling, biking all can be accomplished here. Excitement seekers can do paragliding, zip lining, rafting.
There are a few luxury hotels for those who want to have a chilled out vacation rather than the active one I had. In the literal sense as well as it’s cold most of the year. Having said that the sun is so strong that if you are not covered well it can almost burn.
Best time to visit is May to end September. Winters are harsh and many roads are closed.
All flights land into Leh, since this is the first point of entry, because of the high altitude at least 2 to 3 days are needed to acclimatize. These can be used by just soaking in the ambiance or doing some sightseeing around Leh. There is a fun shopping street also which can be explored. It has lots of souvenirs as well as carpets, shawls and some other stuff from Kashmir. Ensure you keep well hydrated and don’t have any alcohol at least first few days. Some take Diamox a couple of days before the trip to help acclimatize. Personally I did not feel any such need. Any medicine should be taken only after consulting your doctor. There are many options to stay from home stays to luxury hotels.
Shanti Stupa : It’s an elegant white structure, visible from flight as well, built by the Japanese in 1991. It has relics of Buddha and even for the non religious the panoramic views of surrounding landscape is good enough reason to visit.
Leh Palace : It was constructed in the 17th century by King Singe Namgyal. It served as the regal residence of the Namgyal dynasty until the mid 19th century, after which the royal family permanently shifted to Stok. Personally was kind of disappointed, maybe used to grander palaces in other places in India.
Kali Mata Temple : It is located between the Hall of Fame & the Magnetic Hill. The idol is with 6 arms & there are some other idols as well. The face of Kali mata’s is covered with a cloth due to religious reasons & which is removed only for 2-3 days in a year during an annual festival.
Shey Palace : The Shey palace was built by King Deledan Nagmyal and boasts of the largest victory stupa in Leh, the top of which is made of pure gold. The Shey Palace was the abode of the royal family till 1834 AD when they moved to the Stok palace. Could not visit as there was some local unrest.
Hemis Monastery : It was re established in 1672 AD by king Segge Namgyal. It has a festival held in July. It is close to the Hemis National Park, an area that is home to the endangered snow leopard. Gyalwang Drukpa, the current spiritual head of the 1,000-year-old Drukpa Order is more of an environmentalist than a monk, in 2016 he concluded a 2 month cycling expedition covering 2,500 kms along with 200 nuns and 300 monks. More than religion he promotes cycling, afforestation and gender equality. His cycle is displayed at the monastery.
It was fitting then to cycle instead to drive to Thiksey which was our next stop. Cycling was a breeze, mostly downhill or flat. Cycles have to be prearranged.
Thiksey Monastery : Is located on a hill slope, its building are arranged in an ascending order of importance and are well spaced, from the foot of the hill housing the dwelling units to the top of the hill enshrining the monasteries and potang (official residence) of the chief lama.
Gurudwara Pathar Sahib : It’s been so named as legend says Guru Nakak ji was meditating at this place, a demon threw a big rock to destroy him but the boulder turned into wax. The demon, repentant asked for forgiveness. Guru Nanak ji forgave him. The boulder is on display with the imprint of body of Guru Nanak Dev and the footprint of the demon. The Gurudwara is maintained by the Indian Army. Delicious hot halwa is distributed to all. A flight of steps lead to a temple on top and magnificent views of the area.
Magnetic Hill : It’s a road near Leh, it’s an optical illusion where it’s felt the car is rolling uphill in defiance of gravity. There are ATV rides which can be done here.
Hall of Fame : Constructed by the Indian Army to honor the brave soldiers of India who have fought valiantly on the borders of India and Pakistan. It’s a must visit with time on hand to read all the stories, feel the pride as well as be humbled by the sacrifices made by the brave men. They have to fight with the enemy in harsh temperatures with very little to protect them. There is a sound and light show which happens every day at 8PM. Tickets for which have to be bought during the day when the ticket counter is open.
River Rafting and more : Around 35 kms and an hour away from Leh there is river rafting on the Indus-Zanskar river. Difficulty level is medium. Start point is Skarbuch and end is at Sangam. Wet suits are given, it’s however advisable to wear dry fit tracks and t-shirts as these wet suits are worn by many and may feel not so comfortable to have them against your skin. The entire excursion including briefing takes around 3 hours. There are no proper washrooms. To visit the loo is a greater adventure than the rafting. Having said all of that it’s great fun. Cost is approx 1500-1800. There are 26 companies who have rafts there as told by the person in charge of our raft. At the end of the excursion there is a small shack which has hot tea and basic eats which is so welcome as a little water does get in the suits as well and the water is icy cold. I did see rafting in another place as well on way to Nubra but did not look as exciting as this one. Lunch after this HAS to be at Alchi kitchen, it around 45 minutes away and has the best local food possible, the owner herself cooks in an open kitchen with her helpers. There is diwan types seating as well a couple of balconies with tables which overlook the mountain. Would not mind going back just to eat here again. Around 15 minutes away from Alchi’s kitchen is Uley Ethnic resort, it’s beautiful and quaint with apple trees outside the cottages, a lovely viewing gallery overlooking the stream and the mountains. They make their own wine as well ( which I did not like ) there are 2 resorts of the same name so ensure you book the right one. http://www.uleresort.com/
Nubra valley is around 150 kms from Leh, takes around 5 hours to reach. We pass the Khardung La pass, was advised by a few to not stop here for long as the altitude makes breathing difficult, luckily none of us faced that. It’s a must stop to click pictures of the magnificent view, actually there are many times when you want to just stop and pause to revel in the majestic surroundings if you give in to temptation would be impossible to reach your destination. On the way to Nubra is Diskit Monastery and Maitreya Buddha. To stay there are mostly tents, some luxury ones with attached toilets and running hot water.
Diskit Monastery : any amount that you want from Rs 100 to Rs 5000 you can donate and put the name of any person you want the monks to chant for in a register. The chanting will get peace and maybe wish fulfillment. They have a hall with mountain views and view of Maitreya Buddha where they serve free tea, the place was so peaceful that none of us wanted to move on.
Maitreya Buddha : just across Diskit, it’s 108 feet tall and at an altitude of 10,308 feet. It presents 3 ideas: protection of the Diskit Village, promotion of world peace and prevention of further war with Pakistan.
Hunder sand dunes : Located in Nubra it’s the coldest desert in India. The place looks like a mini fair ground, with people all around, ATV bikes, archery, photo op with local clothes and the unique Bactrian camels with 2 humps. These camels have been declared endangered species with only 1400 left in the world. Found only in North West China and Mongolia apart from Nubra.
Turtuk : From Nubra it took 2 and half hours, I really don’t know how as all research said it should take 4 hours. It’s a quaint village which was once in Pakistan, known to grow apricots. There are small shops selling everything that can be made out of apricots, jams, oil, lip balm, just about anything. What is a must here is a local guide, without that point of having visited is lost. It’s a Muslim village where no non veg is cooked or served, even in weddings. Only 2 months of the year when it’s very cold lama meat is consumed. Indian and Pakistani flags can be seen fluttering at a distance of 200 meters from each other. Soldiers of both countries are friendly to each other and exchange greetings and gifts. There is so much interesting history to this place. Small eateries are all around which promise to serve food grown fresh and local. This place is a must visit
Pangong : Nubra to Pangong took around 5 hours, it’s a tiring journey which is well worth as soon as the first sight of Pangong lake. It comes as a flash of blue nestled among the mountains. Like a mirage of an Oasis, so blue that it’s unreal. I did think that the color changes with the sun rays. It was bright blue when I first saw it around 4 in the evening, became grey with the setting sun. Quite a few bollywood movies have been shot here. Inspired by the movies there are a few props by the lake to create your own movie. That’s the only allowance to commercialize the place. No swimming, boating, or even entering the water is permitted. For accommodation there are tents, the luxury ones (stretch of the imagination) have attached toilets but no hot water in the taps. Almost no one is know to have braved taking a bath here. The skies are so clear the milky way can be easily seen by the naked eye. If the cold can be braved it would be lovely to sleep under the open sky. From Pangong if travelling Leh, Chang La pass is on the way, again a photo op, probably the last before bidding adieu.
Delicious local food :
Khambir: Local fermented bread, stuffed with various fillings.
Chhutagi / Skyu : Hand made bow tie/ cap shaped pasta stew in mild sauce, served with veggies or non veg.
Mok Mok : Dumpling stuffed with various veg or non veg fillings. A sweet version is stuffed with chocolate. ( I want that just now 😦 )
Thupka : Barley flour soup with noodles, veggies or veg flavored with herbs and spices.
Ladakhi Tea : Tea served with butter. A lot of other tea variations, many having walnuts, apricots and saffron, served hot and perfect for the warmth generated in the cold weather.
A lot of buckwheat and barley is used to cook, making local food a healthy option. When you want to cheat Maggie is available everywhere.
There are prayer wheels in all monasteries turning them clockwise and chanting Om Ma Ni Pad Me Hum will drive away negative karma,bring peace and wish fullfillment.
Many places stacked stones are spotted. It’s a way of worship and to ask for wish fullfillment.
Mask dances are performed in most festivals, sometimes by Monks as well.
Pangong Lake despite having saline water freezes over in winter. It’s the highest salt water lake which freezes.
Highest natural rink in the world at Karzoo. In winter the pond freezes, making it an open-air ice rink. The winter sports club tournaments take place in this rink.
Things you must carry
2 pairs of sturdy comfortable shoes, a cozy slip slipper on to wear at night and rest your feet, cap for sun and monkey cap for cold ( both will be required ) Sun glasses, loads of sun tan lotion as if you are going to a beach destination. Lip balm, lots of moisturizer as the climate is very dry. A thermos to take some hot tea or coffee along if you want. Alcohol is not available and not advisable to have as well, but in case you want to still consume it should be carried beforehand.