Leh: Start to the Highest Roadtrip in India (Day 1)

Ladakh Roadtrip

I visited Ladakh for the first time when I was 7 years old and the second time when I was 8. Ladakh wasn’t considered “cool” then. Not many were aware that a region actually even lay north of Kashmir that was a part of India and was home to the world’s highest & coldest battlefield (Siachen Glacier). But 25 years later, things are different – Ladakh is now the hippest place to visit in India (sorry Goa & Spiti valley) and riding the Manali to Leh or Srinagar to Leh routes is a conversation starter in many office cafeterias and bars! Needless to say, it was time I visited Ladakh again.

And so in June of 2019, my sister and I made an impromptu plan to indulge in the highest roadtrip in India as part of our yearly sisters-only vacation. It was tricky to plan because I could only take a few days off from work and so we created the tightest itinerary ever and rushed 4 nights 5 days into an unforgettable and a memorable trip.

Rushing Ladakh into a 5 day itinerary is gross injustice and I would not recommend it – but it is doable.

My Ladakh itinerary? Coming Soon!

Colorful Stupas, snow-capped mountains and moving clouds – constants in Ladakh

My sister was in Jorhat (Assam) at that time and hence she flew down to Pune and then we took a middle-of-the-night flight to Delhi, changed terminals and waited for it to be 5:30 am to proceed to board our connecting GoAir flight to Leh, that’s DEL –> IXL for you. In June 2019, there were only 2 airlines servicing Leh airport – GoAir and Air India (ever wondered why Air India is always the more expensive option?).

Flights to Leh depart from Indra Gandhi International airport’s Terminal 2 and T2 is by far the most boring terminal that the Delhi Airport has to offer! And yet, my sister and I were wide awake at 3:30 am, chattering non-stop and changing seats in an attempt to “explore” the terminal – the excitement was palpable! By the time it was time to board though, the adrenaline wore off, we were exhausted, our energies had taken a sudden dive and we were thankful for the 1.5 hours long journey that lay ahead of us.

Now, I have been on umpteen flights in my life but the cabin crew announcements before the descend starts into Leh, is hands-down the most interesting I have heard. They cover topics from how wearing sunglasses is important to counter the sun’s glare to oxygen shortage to high altitude acclimatization. And if the snow covered mountains over which your aircraft is flying to approach the Leh runway does not do the trick, these announcements will surely set the mood and the tone of your trip!

Approaching Leh

Airplane landings fascinate me. In all honesty, I find take-offs interesting as well but I have acute air-sickness that for some reasons peaks during ascents and hence I don’t enjoy them as much. Descends on the other hand is when I am the most in my element and I use landings as a means to prepare for what’s to come. They are very telling. Descending into Leh was no different. Once we pass over the snow-capped mountains and the runway comes into view, you cannot miss the brown & barren landscape, dotted with some greens here and there, kachcha mountain roads and a hint of a dust storm brewing. But what really hits you while your your aircraft is aligning itself to the runway is the obvious presence of the armed forces. Over the next few days the ubiquitous existence of the Indian Army, the IAF and the BRO kind of grows on you and you learn to understand the profound impact they have on the lives and livelihood of the locals.

The runway at Leh

Ladakh’s geography is fascinating to say the least and I have not been overwhelmed by the sheer force of nature anywhere else as in Ladakh. Once we alighted the aircraft, the delicious, cold air hit us so hard that our eyes started to water. That mixed with an unusually bright sun reminds you of the cabin crews’ appeals to wear sun glasses and I hurriedly fumbled in my bag to find my trusted pair of aviators.

Leh’s airport is noisy – its an intriguing mix of the sounds of the winds and the rumbling sounds of a number of Indian Air Force air-crafts some queuing up for taxiing, one readying for take-off and one just landing. I found it absolutely enticing.

Once we entered the airport lounge, the scenes seemed a little more familiar – the chaos at the baggage belt, random announcements on the PA system and taxi service touts. But what stood out was stalls of oxygen pouches on sale to help you tide over bouts of breathlessness due to the high altitude. While writing this post in May 2021 (the peak of the Covid-19 second wave in India and a shortage of oxygen), I cannot help but feel a sense of poignancy.

The ubiquitous Armed Forces’ presence in Ladakh
National Highway 1 (NH1) – Leh Airport to Leh Town

My sister and I had booked a Toyota Innova with a driver (Namgyal) who would be our guide and our friend and companion for the next 5 days when we’d be on the road with no other soul on the road for miles.

Public transportation in Ladakh is pretty flaky and is designed around catering to the locals rather than the tourists obviously. Tourists generally come with their own bikes or 4-wheelers or like us hire a local tourist taxi and there I guess has never been a need felt to have high frequency buses plying on the typical touristy routes.

Our first stop from the airport was obviously to our guest house in Leh town. By the time we reached the guesthouse, we were running on fumes; the lack of sleep from the night before, the constant adrenaline pumping and wearing off and the high altitude had started taking a toll on our energy levels. Once we were in our rooms, we had an intense debate about what should be the course of action for the entire day. It was 9:15 am and we still had the whole day to see Leh but we were exhausted. I suspect that the lack of sleep as well as oxygen made us delusional for a bit when we decided to shower and immediately set off to explore Leh. But common sense prevailed (thankfully!) and after a light but fulfilling meal of veg Thuppa and chicken noodle soup, we showered and slept for a couple of hours before venturing out.

Veg Thuppa and Chicken Noodle Soup for Breakfast

Leh as a city has a lot to offer. From stunning monasteries or gompa to the Leh Palace to shopping on and around MG Road, you can easily spend 2-3 days in Leh town itself. But because we were to officially start our roadtrip from the next day, we packed in as much sightseeing as we could on our first day in Leh. We started with the Shanti Stupa, the most visited gompa in Leh and after spending an hour or so of taking videos, pictures and feeling the overall vibe of the place, Namgyal suggested we visit a more “off-beat” and a very old gompa called Tsemo Gompa. Tsemo was more our style and it was a sign that Namgyal was starting to understand our pulse right at he beginning of the trip! πŸ™‚

Shanti Stupa at Leh
Shanti Stupa at Leh
Tsemo Gompa, Leh

Tsemo gompa though, is bang in the heart of Leh town but its on a hill and hence when we reached the top of the hill, it felt more isolated and far from civilization. We had to climb “a lot of” steps to reach the actual gompa thus the lethal combination of difficulty in breathing, a fragrant breeze and stunning views of Leh resulted in a high so beautiful that till today I find it hard to express what it actually felt like. It was surreal!

Tsemo Gompa

Our next stop was at Leh Palace but before that we needed some fuel for our bodies. Every time I am out of energy there are only 2 things that can revive me – some form of carbohydrates (preferably either bread or potatoes) and a hot drink sans milk. Thus, we ordered some home-style potato wedges and kahwa and with renewed energy entered the Leh Palace. Leh palace may feel a little underwhelming especially if you compare it to the Mughal or Rajput palaces and fortresses. But the vistas and the views and the stunning woodwork on the palace window and door frames make up for the 25 bucks they charge as entry fee.

Leh Palace
Selfie at the Leh Palace – Leh Town in the background

Our day in Leh was coming to an end and we had two more agenda items on our list before we called it a day – we wanted to have an authentic Ladakhi meal for our first dinner in Ladakh and I wanted to buy tons of dried apricots (Chuli is Ladakhi) to see us through our 4 days of being on the road. My thing with dried apricots is kind of a long story that I am perfectly willing to pen down here πŸ™‚

I am a “creature of smell”. I primarily rely on smells to make memories and take me up and down nostalgia lane. Now, during my earlier childhood trips to Ladakh that extended for more than 2 months at a time, my parents used to store dried apricots under the bed. THAT smell has stuck with me all my life and I was looking forward to relive that memory again during this trip as well… So, of course we went Chuli hunting at Leh’s main bazar…

Spoiled for Choice – Varieties of Dried Apricots – Sweet, Sour, Smoky-sweet, seedless

I am a sucker for the smoky-sweet apricots that look the least appetizing but are the ones that are full of flavour…

Leh’s Main Bazaar Area

For dinner, we wandered the Main Bazaar area on foot and just couldn’t settle onto a restaurant that we both were ok with. Our mistake? We hadn’t researched good and authentic restaurants in Leh while we had WiFi available at our Guesthouse. My postpaid Vodafone and my sister’s prepaid Airtel connections were useless in Ladakh. Finally, after almost 30 mins of walking, feeling tired and cold we ended up at Himalaya Cafe on the Main Bazaar road itself and boy were we relieved that that it felt cozy and had some really delicious food!

After a delicious dinner of Skew, Tingmo and Vegetable soup, we made our way towards the parking lot of the Leh palace where Namgyal had dropped us earlier and promised to pick us up at 9:00 pm… It was almost 9:30 pm now and we realized that we had lost our way in the dark, narrow alleys of Leh. Wow! Our first day in Ladakh was proving to be really adventurous and more!

If you are wondering, if anything happened to us or if we safely reached our guesthouse, well there wasn’t anything dramatic that actually happened… We just kept exploring the alleys and in the end Namgyal found us πŸ™‚ Apparently, he was worried that we were 30 mins late to our rendezvous point and he came looking for us!

Phew!

It had been a long, long day and even though the afternoon had been warmish but the night was proving to be pretty cold at 8 degrees. I, however braved the cold, the exhaustion and the faint headache that was starting to stir and took a hot shower, stuffed myself in layers of thermal wear, dived into the blanket and was asleep in a matter of seconds.

In my next post, I’ll talk about the epic roadtrip that started the next day!

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