Ladakh: A World Apart

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August 15th 2008
Published: January 26th 2009
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Some places are such that when you think of capturing the beauty of it in words, you feel afraid that you will do injustice. Ladakh was an experience like that for me. It was so overwhelming in its grandeur and visual experiences that I kept postponing this blog for months. I would stare at the pictures and loose myself in those unforgettable moments.

5-days for experiencing Ladakh is really too short. But that was all that we had - Debdeep, Maya and me. Debdeep is in some sense my photography guru and to get him to accompany us in this trip was a bonus. There is no place in Ladakh which does not seem to explode with photographic grandeur - every mountain, every monastery, every angle. One can go completely berserk snapping pictures, and still feel that something is being missed. Debdeep’s keen observation and boundless enthusiasm was a real help.

The story of this trip should begin with the day before we left for ladakh. Delhi witnessed the heaviest rainfall in a day. A city that is so unaccustomed to downpours that everything came to a standstill in Delhi. Debdeep arrived from Kolkata in the evening and could not reach a distance of 10 kms from the airport to our place. He stayed at the airport to take the morning flight to Ladakh. On our part we got so tense that we will not be able to reach the airport on time, that we left at midnight to catch the 6 o’clock flight. All three of us were at the airport by 3 am, waiting for the long planned and eagerly anticipated flight to Leh, the capital of Ladakh. The flight was perfectly on time, and after a short 1-hour journey we were at the tiny airport Ladakh early in the morning.

Unlike other trips, for this trip we had planned everything through a travel agency. I would highly recommend this agency ( for anyone who is looking for a trustworthy tourist agency. Just a few phone calls got everything planned for us perfectly. There was a car waiting at the airport to drop us to the hotel. Beware of the altitude sickness in Ladakh. In matter of an hour we are transported from sea level to few thousand metres. It does take its toll on most people. It is highly advised to take the first day a bit easy. That’s exactly what we had in mind too. The entire morning and afternoon was spent in acclimatizing, and gorging on delicious authentic momos. Momos are a typical Tibetan preparation - meat or vegetable stuffed inside flour balls, and steamed or fried. If you have not tasted it, don’t miss that in Leh.

Pangong Tso
The next day was planned for Pangong Lake. This is a high altitude lake, part of which lies in India and the greater part is in China. I have seen hundreds of pictures of this lake and one can imagine the excitement of being there finally. One difficulty in Ladakh is that you have to endure long drives on mountain roads at mind-boggling altitudes. If you are one with motion sickness carry enough medicine to keep you kicking and fit.

Within an hour, we were driving through the mountainous wilderness of Ladakh. We could see the city Leh gradually disappearing at the foothills. The road to Pangong goes through the third highest motorable pass in the world, Chang La (La means pass in Tibetan). The remaining two highest passes also happen to be in this part of the world. At this point I should switch into a long description of the beauties of nature that we were encountering at every turn and in every direction, but I feel that I will lose my way with words in painting it with words. I will leave some of the pictures we took during our innumerable short halts on the way to Pangong for the reader to share my excitement.

After crossing Chang La, it takes another 2 hours to get a first look at Pangong. But even in between there were so many nice little lakes that we took a lot more time than scheduled. We would stop and gaze and shoot and feel like staying there forever. Had it not been the temptation of something more amazing waiting for us, it would be difficult to get back into the car and get going. Finally, around 4 pm we reached Pangong. Usually people who plan the visit to Pangong as a day trip return from this point, and obviously they have to make haste on their way.

We were going another 3 km down the lake to Spangnik, where there is a camping resort for overnite stay. This is the farthest one can go towards the international border. The car reaches till the resort, but a walk along the lake sipping in every bit of its beauty is what I chose. The lake seemed to dazzle in so many shades of blue and green. When we reached the lake it was getting a bit overcast and we could see light drizzle near the horizon. We were really worried that nature is going to play spoilsport with us, but little did we realize that it was going unveil the most amazing sight I will ever witness -- a rainbow spanning the entire expanse of the lake. My camera could not capture it in one frame, and fortunately, Debdeep was carrying his 10mm lens, which could barely compose it in a single frame.

Surprises were in store for us when we reached the resort. Our booking somehow was cancelled. In this remotest of places there was no phone connection even to check with the authorities. The person in-charge at the site offered to accommodate us at one of the few local houses that were there. It turned out to be unique in its own way. We were greeted with Khunak, which is a local type of tea with yak’s butter and salt in it. Soon we were chatting with them, and I must say that their hospitality and amiable nature is something one hardly gets to see in the daily grind of Delhi. I was enjoying it to the fullest. The lone policeman at Spangnik, Skarma Anchuk, told me his tales of woe. The only wireless set he had has broken down and it takes days to get it fixed. He lives there alone, and longs for his family who are in Leh. He was eagerly waiting to be transferred to another post. There was Thondu, a Tibetan who had emigrated from Tibet after Chinese occupation and sewn his life in the lonely slopes of Ladakh with his Ladakhi wife. The only piece of connection with the modern world was the radio set. In the little conversations time flew and night fell. It was a full moon night. The entire lake and the surrounding covered itself in the sublime light. Debdeep was already busy with tripod and camera capturing this nocturnal beauty.

Next day morning was as bright and blissful. I would have stayed there for few more days just to enjoy the peace of the place. But we had only 5-days to spare. We headed off early. There were places to visit, castles and monasteries to see on the way back to Leh.

Nubra Valley
Half a day of rest was all that we got after returning from Pangong. We were headed for the Nubra Valley on the 4th day of our trip. This was going to be another overnite stay at Nubra Valley. The Nubra valley is quite different in character from the barren wilderness on the way to Pangong. While at Pangong, it seems Ladakh appears to be a dry barren landscape. Complete contrary is at Nubra valley, which is a verdant valley adjoining a cold desert. Nature has unwrapped all its treasures in this corner of the world.

The drive to Nubra valley is longer than that of Pangong. It crosses Khardung La, the highest motorable road in the world. I did feel quite sick at that altitude of 5359 m. But soon the descent towards the valley began relieving me somewhat, and all felt well as I looked out of the window and saw the magnificent panorama. Once there was rock formations which I have seen nowhere except at the Grand Canyons. It is in much smaller scale than the Grand Canyons, but nevertheless it reminded me of that. Then, the scene changed to a river down at the valley disappearing all the way into the horizons, like a scene from the “Lord of the Rings”. Then there was the desert. Finally, the green valley in the midst of it. It was a visual overload for me. At one point I forgot to take pictures realizing that it is impossible to capture this in any format, other than your memory.

The Nubra organic retreat is another beautiful place. My first expression was that we have come to paradise. There were trees laden with apples and oranges, flowers in myriads of colors, and sizes, and shapes. Bees were humming around the place, and for the first time in my life I saw a humming bird. It is so tiny that in the beginning I could not believe what I am seeing mistaking it for an oversized bug, or a grasshopper.

I would have sat there and relaxed. But Maya was all excited at the prospect of the camel ride at the desert at Hudsar. These are not the usual camels. They are Bactrian camels with double humps, a little short in height, much darker in complexion than the usual yellow camels, and a lot more hairy. During the camel ride I felt I am like Marco Polo traversing the Silk Route. Somewhere I have read that one of the important cities on the Silk Route is actually in Ladakh. Pangong Lake, followed by Nubra Valley were two amazing treats, and though I tried many times later to compare them, it was beyond me. How can one compare two paradises?

Monasteries and Forts of Ladakh
Ladakh is dotted innumerable monasteries. There are many famous ones, like the Hemis Monastery, the largest one in the region. The Diksit monatery near Nubra Valley is notable for its location. The thing that attracted me was the architecture of these monasteries which was built like a series of houses along the slopes. To see all around a monastery climbing along the slopes is an effort in itself. I wonder what makes the monks so fit. Another thing that looked different is the form of Buddhism practiced here. There were idols of different Gods, other than Buddha. I learnt that the local religion has merged with Buddhism and given rise to a different sect of Buddhism that is practiced here. My knowledge on the religion does not go much beyond. It is the realm of Maya, and she took enormous interest in exploring every bit of the monasteries that was there to be explored. I accompanied willingly.

There are two forts we visited in Ladakh. One is called the old fort, and the other the Leh fort. The old fort looked quite impressive, not because of its size or structure. It is nothing as impressive as the forts in Rajasthan, but the its presence in that setting was what caught my eyes. The Leh fort is better preserved than the old fort, and looks more modern.

Shanti Stupa is another spot one usually never misses while visiting Leh. It’s a modern addition, situated on a hilltop near Leh. One gets a beautiful panorama of the city and the adjoining mountains from the Shanti Stupa. If you can wait till sunset, then the view becomes even more beautiful with tiny dots of lights covering the city.

I remember a moment in this trip. We were driving alongside a river as we were approaching Leh. I asked Tani, the best driver I have come across in any trip, what was the name of this river. He casually said it is the “Sindhu”. I could not believe I am watching the Indus river, the river from which India gets its name, the river that had nurtured the earliest of Aryan civilization. I was so excited that we stopped and went to the river bank and I was lost in my own world of dreams. I guess others could not understand the feeling in me. It is the feeling of finally getting to see something that had captivated my imagination since the time I could read. Many people have been enthralled by the beauties of Ladakh. Its pristine landscape, its people, its culture - so unique, so different that it transports you into a world right out of the fairy tales.

Additional photos below
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30th April 2009

thank you
thank you for such a beautiful description to make me want to go more ....

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