Intense… Forceful… Bewildering…
These are the first 3 adjectives that come to my mind when I try to describe Ladakh. The people, the geography, the pot-potpourri of cultures everything evokes such compelling emotions that its difficult to put them in precise words. My visit to Ladakh and the roadtrip I took across Khardung La and Nubra Valley upto Turtuk and then to Pangong Tso and Chang La, was a humbling experience to say the least…
My sister and I set out on our roadtrip starting from Leh in an Innova with a Ladakhi driver (Namgyal) hailing from Panamik village, 3 kilos of dried apricots (read all about it here), cold weather jackets, wool scarves and a lot of excitement. The sun was shining bright, Namgyal said this was a sign that the weather in Khardung La will not be very bad (it seems the weather in one of the world’s highest motorable roads is unpredictable and cannot be depended on) and we just knew that the trip would be a success. At the outset, let me clarify that we didn’t really have a itinerary in mind – we had simply told Namgyal that we wanted to visit Khardung La, Hunder and Pangong Tso and we just winged the rest of it…
As you read on, you’ll realise that we had put our implicit faith and confidence in Namgyal and he in turn had understood us and our expectations to the ‘T’.
Leh to Khardung La is about 40 kms across mountains and mostly up-hill and it takes about 1.5 hours on a good weather day. It took us a little over 2 hours cause we needed to stop at every turn and every bend to take pictures, make boomerangs and record videos. The latter half of the Leh – Khardung La road is covered in snow and its too much of a temptation to resist stopping and attempting to capture every moment. It wasn’t like my sister and I were experiencing or witnessing snow for the first time in our lives, but I think for majority of Indians, snow is like Gujiya/Karanji – a sweet that is synonymous with certain Indian festivals and even though it is not anyone’s “favorite” but everyone is excited about it and gobbles up at least half a dozen during the festivities.
While the majority of the Leh-Khardung La road is pretty good, a stretch of about 10 kms (from 5 kms before Khardung La to 5 kms after) is dodgy – slippery, seems almost unpaved, has no guard-rails and is full of blind turns. If you are caught off-guard by bad weather and if you are on a motorcycle (like many we crossed on the way), you need to be extra cautious.
Khardung La pass, which is the gateway to the Nubra and Shyok valleys (and hence the Siachen Glacier) is at a whopping height of 17,900 ft above sea level (second highest motor-able road in the world) and the shortage of oxygen is a glaring reality. This shortage of oxygen coupled with intensely cold winds and slippery roads makes it a very difficult chore to walk even short distances. I remember, my sister and I wanting to visit the washroom about 200 mts away and we just couldn’t make it. Looking at the long queue, we weren’t sure if undertaking the painful and tortuous task of walking to it was even worth it, when Namgyal suggested waiting (unless it was absolutely critical) till we make it to the North Pullu Police Checkpoint 30 kms downhill, where walking is easier, toilets cleaner and the crowds thinned considerably.
Namgyal - 1 Generic Tourists - 0
Every motor-able pass in Ladakh has a place of worship identified by numerous prayer flags and Khardung La is no different. We did not visit it because Namgyal was worried about the weather changing and the long journey that still lay ahead of us. We were kind of relieved for an excuse because I don’t think my sister or I were down to braving high altitude sickness when having to climb the 35 odd steps to the temple. We did not discuss it at the time but there was a moment that passed between us that I think spoke volumes (in silence)!
Once you come down from a very high altitude region to a comparatively lower altitude, acute hunger kicks in and we made a pit-stop at Khalsar village for a quick lunch. The make-shift “restaurant” where we stopped for the meal was serving vegetarian food and a large family already dining there made a considerable noise about it and finally settled for Maggi, Omlette and Tea. I am still amazed at how Maggi is available at the remotest of places in India.
In all its cultural, geographical and hence demographical diversity, nothing unites India like Maggi does!
But honestly, we did not come this far braving the cold and shortage of oxygen to eat a plate of steaming hot Maggi, I mean yes it does make for some Instagrammable and Twitterable moments but I am a realist (Ahem!). While I had all this going on in my head Namgyal went ahead and ordered food on our behalf. My sister and I waited dubiously and Oh Boy were we pleasantly surprised at what was served to us – Chicken Thenthuk, Veg Momo and gur-gur chai or Nun chai (Tibetan Salted Butter Tea).
Namgyal - 2 Generic Tourists - 0
Nubra & Shyok Valleys
The Nubra & Shyok valleys also simply called the Nubra valley is an interesting place. It is created by two rivers (Shyok & Nubra) cutting across the Ladakh and Karakoram mountain ranges, meeting each other and creating a breathtakingly beautiful valley. Nubra river also called Siachen river originates from its namesake glacier, while Shyok river is a tributary of the Indus river. Coming down from Khardung La, the Nubra valley is a shock to the senses – there is a surreal beauty to the barren landscape, dotted with vegetation along the deceptively grey-green Shyok river and mountains always changing color owing to the play of shadows cast by floating clouds.
The altitude of the Nubra region is much lower than that of Khardung La and averages around a comfortable 10,000 ft. The geography does tend to get a little monotonous too, with grey-brown mountains largely made up of loose soil on one side and patches of greens here and there along the Shyok river on the other. My sister dozed off and I made small talk with Namyal while “ruminating” on dried apricots… Namgyal had “decided” that we wanted to visit Diskit Monastery, he was pretty excited about taking us there – “Dalai Lama har saal idhar aata hai; sab aas paas ke gaon se aate hai“, he went on and on 🙂
The Diskit Gompa overlooks a 106 ft high statue of the Maitreya Buddha and is a bigger tourist attraction than the monastery itself. Towering, colorful and serene, what’s not to love about it really?
They’ll tell you a lot about Diskit village and how its big and is the main center in Nubra Valley but be aware that it is a sleepy little village that may cater to some of your basic needs but it is sure is no Leh, fortunately. It gives you an opportunity to experience an authentic feel of the Ladakhi way of life. Now, if you plan to travel further East into the Nubra valley, then you have two obvious choices where you can spend the night at – Diskit or Hunder (~12 kms from Diskit). There are a number of guesthouse and homestay kind of accommodations available in Diskit while Hunder offers you a more of a camping and tenting experience.
We were of course staying at neither of the villages. My sister had booked us a guest room in the IAF officer’s mess at the IAF base in Thoise (~26 kms from Diskit). The plan was to visit Hunder next to experience a cold desert mileau and maybe go for a Bactrian Camel ride and then finally make our way to Thoise and end the day.
We took a week to plan out the logistics, financials and quasi-itinerary of our Ladakh trip and the constant in all of those discussions was a “desert” safari on a Bactrian Camel in Hunder. I was really excited for some reason and now that we had set out towards the 30 mins drive to our destination, I was chattering nineteen to a dozen. There was my enthusiasm on one end of the spectrum and Namgyal’s utter lack of it on the other end. He remarked a couple of times that Hunder was too commercial. But you know when you have hyped something up in your head, nothing that anybody says to you against it makes a difference – something like Cheese Popcorn. Just because you love cheese, the uber salty powdered cheese that they coat popcorn with simply makes it unpalatable and yet you pay INR 480/- for that crap at PVR cinemas, isn’t it?
Hunder is beautiful, breathtakingly so. The fine, almost silky sands, beautifully bright sun and a cold breeze is how we experienced Hunder. The site of the camel ride however was another story. Crowds thronging around the camels, the camels braying almost as if crying out for help was enough for my sister and me to dump the idea of the camel ride and simply walk the desert and experience its beauty.
Like I already mentioned earlier, Hunder is full of tented camps that sees a lot of tourist traffic and crowd. We left the desert and the camel ride area with sullen faces (partly because of the gross commercialization around the camel rides and mostly because of just too much touristy-ness of Hunder) and sensing our deflated demeanor, Namgyal asked “aap dance dekhega?“… Ummmmm wait what? Dance? Namgyal clarified “Ladakhi dance“. We replied in unison “haan haan haan“.
Of course, the “dance program” that showcased the beautiful music, dance and outfits from the different Ladakhi tribes was a program put up for tourists but it was a nice touch 🙂
Namgyal - 3 Generic Tourists - 1
With our hearts all warmed up with all the beautiful display of culture, my sister and I were ready to call it a day. It was 5:30 pm, it was getting dark and we were tired. I particularly wasn’t very hungry because I had been devouring dried apricots all day, along with the little almond-ish nut that is encased inside the kernel of each apricot but I think Namgyal and my sister were. Namgyal suggested “Chicken momo khayega madam? Yahaa Nepali momo milta hai, Ladakhi momo jaisa achha nahi hai par chicken ka milega.” Now to set a little context about the mention of “chicken”, Ladakh that is majorly Buddhist is generally vegetarian and redundant killing of animals is against the beliefs. Hence, getting non-veg food in Ladakh is difficult – fishing in the stunning lakes of Ladakh is illegal and poultry etc is not encouraged. You do sometimes get Yak meat but I have been told it’s mostly found during the winters out of sheer necessity. Hence, getting chicken or any other meat outside of Leh (which caters to tourists) is a rarity. The people running the Nepali kitchen on the other hand were not Buddhists and chicken could be found easily to be stuffed into momos.
After a few appetizing plates of chicken momos (Nepali style) and ginger black tea, we set off for Thoise. There is not much to write about Thoise really because it is mostly a defence base. The nights are cold, winds are relentless and when its not snow weather, the rugged terrain around is stunning. Snow, I feel softens the landscape…
Day 2 turned out to be quite a day, it was educational, it was awe-inspiring and most importantly it was humbling but nothing prepared us for what was to come the next day! Stay tuned 🙂