Ladakh - land of the the mountains

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August 22nd 2014
Published: December 22nd 2017
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Ladakh is and will be one of my favourite travel destinations ever. The picturesque landscapes and beautiful valleys always leave me awestruck. Nestled in the laps of Himalayas, Ladakh is an eye candy for nature enthusiasts. The numerous Buddhist monasteries in Ladakh give an insight into the religion and the teachings of Buddhism.

The best way to reach to Ladakh is via road. Manali to Leh on motorbike is one of the most famous road trips and is on the bucket list of many people. I haven’t been on a road trip from Manali to Leh but have read that it is one of the most scenic rides and it offers a magnificent view of the Himalayas as you ride along.

Since we had only a week off from work , we couldn’t plan for the road trip. Instead, we booked a return flight to Leh. Most of the Leh bound flights are via Delhi.

On a clear Friday morning, we landed in Kushok Bakula Rinpoche airport , Leh. Once out of the plane, I found myself surrounded by the mystic bare mountains that were uncannily beautiful.I had always pictured Himalayas as blue snow capped mountains. But here I was looking at the brown Himalayan mountain range , bare but mysteriously drawn to them.

Ladakh is open to tourists only between mid-June and early November i.e during spring/ summer. Winters in Ladakh are harsh and the road connecting Manali and Leh is completely covered with snow in the winters and hence inaccessible. Since Ladakh borders with China and Pakistan, one can see an imminent presence of the Indian army in the region.

We had booked a homestay – Goji villa in Leh and also hired a four-wheeler with a driver to show us around. Cabs/taxis with other Indian states’ registrations are not allowed to be driven in Ladakh . You can either hire cabs in Ladakh or drive your own car. And mind you, it is not easy for a normal car to be driven in that terrain. So the taxis there are usually SUVs that can be easily manoeuvred around. There are also Royal Enfield motorbikes that can be hired on a day basis and rode around. Ladakh is every motorcyclist’s dream.

We checked into Goji villa . It was a huge 6 bedroom house owned by a local Ladakhi family. The owner Stanzin Goji (the husband), his wife , their two little daughters and his mother comprised the family. After the introductions, we freshened up and had breakfast at the homestay.

Ladakh is at an altitude of ~3000 mts (9800ft) above sea level. It is very important that the body gets acclimatised to the altitude else one will have problems like dizziness and altitude sickness. So, we hadn’t planned to visit any of the higher altitude places around Leh that day. We just went sight- seeing places like the ancient Leh palace and Shanti stupa in Leh.

Leh palace is a miniature version of the Potala palace in Lhasa. It is also a legacy of Ladakhis’ wars with the Kashmiri rulers in the 19th century. The construction of this palace was started in 1553 A.D. and the materials used for construction were mud mortar, stones, mud bricks and poplar wood. ( Source – Archaeological Dept of India). It also houses a small temple inside it. The view of the city from the palace is stunning. The mountain range surrounds the city with the palace overlooking the city.

Shanti stupa is a circular monument with paintings and POP designs depicting different avatars of Buddha and other gods inscribed on it. It is a holy place. We visited Shanti stupa and later that evening, roamed the Leh market and its streets. It was bubbling with activity from tourists thronging the souvenir shops to people waiting for tables at some popular restaurants/ eateries. The Tibetian kitchen and Gezmo restaurant are few of the best eateries to check out. We went to Tibetian Kitchen but the waiting time was too long, so we headed to Gezmo restaurant. Gezmo restaurant is a famous German bakery and coffee shop in Leh. It also serves delicious yummy food. We had to wait for some time to get a table but when we got one, we feasted on veg momos and thukpas (regional delicacies).

Next day, we started towards Nubra valley which is around 120 kms from Leh. But because of the terrain, it takes about 4 to 5 hours to cover 120 kms. Nubra valley is at an altitude of 10000 ft ( 3098 mts) almost same as Leh. As our driver drove the SUV along the carved roads on the mountains, beautiful landscapes started to unfurl before us. The gorgeous valleys and the shadows of clouds playing hide and seek on the mountains was simply out of the world! Landslides are a common phenomenon here, so be prepared to wait if a road is closed for clearing the block. But thanks to the relentless work of Border Roads Organisation ( BRO) of the Indian army , most of the roads are in good shape.

To reach Nubra valley, we have to pass Khardung La ( La means Pass in Tibetian). Khardung La was then a part of the ‘silk route’ . It is at an altitude of 18380 ft (~5600 mts) and is claimed to be the highest motorable road in the world. Khardung La’s altitude can prove to be a problem if one has altitude sickness. Because of thin supply of oxygen at that altitude, one can be prone to headaches and dizziness. It is not recommended that one spends a lot of time there. We got down of our car , clicked pictures of the stunning valleys around and spoke with few Indian army guys when my husband started complaining of giddiness. So, we just got into our vehicle and drove off to beat the altitude sickness. We also made stopovers at couple of other places on the way for hot tea and maggi and of course, to attend nature calls.

We reached Hunder village in Nubra around 3:30 pm. The sand dunes and the double hump camels in Hunder village are well known for. These double hump camels were used to carry goods for trade on silk route way back in history. Now the camels are just used for tourism purpose. Nestled between the mammoth mountains, the sand dunes stretched as far as my eyes could see. It was such a lovely picture. We then went for camel rides on the sand dunes. Post that, we watched a local Ladakhi dance show which also gave us a chance to experience the Ladakhi culture. After the show, we drove towards our accommodation in Diskit.

Since Ladakh has a tourist season window of just 4 – 5 months, there are very few brick-mortar hotels elsewhere in Ladakh except for in Leh. Most of the places around Leh, have camp type set-ups with cosy tents having most of the 3 star hotel amenities – a comfortable bed and an attached bathroom. Having camp type setups makes it easy for the locals to dismantle them as soon as the harsh winter kicks in and fix them up again during summers for tourists. Most of these places can be booked online but let me share a secret with you here – If you go down there and book directly ( most of these places are available and are not booked out), you may end up paying less as they quote lesser than the online price. We were not aware of this fact and had made online bookings .

We checked into Chamba camp. A tiny gorgeous setup of tents with each tent spacious enough. Big, huge mountains overlooked the Chamba camp. The tents were clean and had enough warm beddings for the cold night.

Next morning, we went to Diskit Gompa ( gompa means monastery in Tibetian) . Diskit monastery is recognised by its huge ‘Crown Buddha’ statue. The actual gompa is on the other side of the statue etched on a mountain. The view of Nubra valley from the monastery is so stunning that I was speechless for a moment. Words fall short of describing the beauty of Nubra valley. We just stood there admiring the beauty. Later we went to the gompa on the mountain. Cars can be driven up the mountain leading to the gompa. Later that morning, we were on our way back to Leh. It was the same route back that we had taken the previous day to reach Nubra valley.

We reached Leh early that evening and spent time with our hosts talking and getting to know each other. It was fun spending time with their two cute little daughters.

It was time for some serious adventure the next day. It was river rafting time ! We had booked slots for river rafting the day we landed in Leh, so that we did not have to worry about last minute booking. The package comprised transport, rafting and lunch. That morning we were picked up from the booking office in a jeep along with other river rafting enthusiasts . We had booked the 26 km rafting stretch which was supposed to be of 3 - 4 hours duration. The rafting was in Zanskar river and would culminate at the Indus river-Zanskar river confluence. This stretch has rapids ranging from grade 1 to grade 3. This was my second rafting experience, the first one being in Dandeli, Karnataka.

From Leh, we drove around 30 Kms before we reached the starting point of rafting. We put on our life jackets, helmets and got rafting instructions from our guide . The water was freezing in summer. We set sailing on our raft and rafted through some cool rapids. We took a break half way through to relax for 5 – 10 mins. I think there was no energy left in any of us on the raft when we were like 2 – 3 kms away from the end point. It was so dead tiring ! Our guide then said that if we wanted to, we could jump into the freezing waters and then get pulled up. None of us on the raft was ready to brave the freezing waters. We slowly rafted our way to the end point completing the 26 km stretch. We changed and were then served food which was basic but hot and delicious. We were then dropped back at the booking office. What a day to remember!

On the fifth day of our trip, we headed to Panagong Tso ( Tso is lake in Tibetian). It is at an altitude of 13944 ft. This lake is shared by both India and China. They say that one-fourth part of the lake is in India and the rest in China. This lake and the location became a hot tourist spot after it was featured in the last scene of the Bollywood movie ‘3 idiots’.

On our way to Panagong tso, we passed through the third highest motorable pass in the world – Changla. Changla is at an altitude of 17688 ft (5360 mts). We stopped there for a while for some hot chai (tea) and maggi. The drive to Panagong tso was like driving through a painting. It was like a painting, I bet , we have all painted as kids - the mountains lining the road on either sides, the clouds kissing the mountain tops and the sheep lazily grazing on the flat grassland. Driving through this painting, I couldn’t help but wonder that the scenery in the painting did exist in real and it was just not an imagination as a kid ? . We also managed to spot yaks and beavers on our way.

We reached Panagong tso around 3 pm. Since the lake shares border with China, there is obviously a heavy presence of the Indian army in that area. We walked around the lake admiring its beauty. The best part of the lake is that the water’s colour changes depending on the sunlight. Sometimes it appears blue, sometimes green, sometimes just clear . It is a treat to the eyes. And as mentioned earlier, there are no hotels for lodging but there certainly are these tiny tent house camps on the banks of the lake. One can just sit outside the tent all day sinking into the calmness the lake has to offer. One word of caution – It really gets cold at night. I have heard that there are couple of homestays if you can’t take the cold. We had booked one of the tents in a camp there. We were served tea in the evening and we spent time sitting on the bank of the lake sipping hot tea. How I wish life could be so simpler?

Vegetarian food usually in these camps are aloo bhaji (potato curry)and poori. They also serve rice with dal. We had dinner and retired in our tent. The next morning, sunrise was lovely! The sun peeking through the clouds with its golden rays and soaking the mountains in gold – what a sight ! When nature offers you the best, simply sink into it letting go of all the worries.

Had our breakfast and bid goodbye to Panagong tso. On our way back to Leh, we made stopovers at Hemis and Thiksey monasteries. Hemis monastery is the largest monastic institution in Ladakh. The annual Hemis festival takes place on the 10th and 11th day of the Tibetian Lunar calender. I have been told that the Hemis festival is celebrated with a lot of pomp which includes mask and dragon dances. Thiksey monastery is a miniature replica of the main buddhist monastery in Lhasa (Tibet). Both the monasteries have beautiful painted walls depicting stories of Buddha and likewise. There is a giant sitting Buddha statue in the main hall of Thiksey monastery measuring two storeys. The statue down till the chest part is visible from the first floor. The other half part is visible from the ground floor. However, tourists are not allowed on the ground floor as it is the main prayer hall of the monks. Later, we visited the Shey palace before heading back to our homestay in Leh.

Next day, we were on our way to Tso Moriri (Moriri lake). It is at an altitude of 14,836 ft. Karzok village is located on the banks of this lake. It is a tiny village with a handful of houses. We also spotted horses/ ponies grazing on the banks of the lake. There were couple of camps ( tent hotels) in Tso Moriri. We had booked a tent in one of these camps, but when we reached there , we found out that our reservation hadn’t gone through for some reason and we did not have any booking. So, there was this guest house (couple of rooms let out by a local in his house) where we checked in. And that night we realised how lucky we were to have got a room and not a tent, owing to the sub-zero temperatures at that altitude ( and believe me that was summer time!! ). I wonder how the villagers are accustomed to living in that freezing temperatures! There was also a trekking group that had halted for the night in one of the camps.

After checking into the guest house , we went out for a walk that evening around the village . We walked to a hilltop from where we had a magnificent view of Tso Moriri and the village below. Then we drove to the banks of the lake and spent some quality time in nature’s lap. For dinner, we thought of exploring the small hotels with a seating capacity of 5 – 10 people . At this altitude, nothing can beat the experience of enjoying a hot bowl of Maggi with a hot cup of chai. I can’t describe how heavenly it is ! We got talking to the locals and learned that there was only one telephone connection in the whole of the village and that it was in the village post-office. Mobile phones did not work there as there was absolutely no connectivity. And I do not think any of the villagers had any mobile phones with them. Also, the villagers pile up stocks of food, firewood and other necessities during summer because the village gets completely isolated / cut-off from the rest of the world during winters due to heavy snowfall. It is kind of their hibernation period.

It would seem to us ( the so called urban people) that the village is backward in terms of infrastructure. But it just got me thinking that the villagers lead such peaceful and healthy lives away from the digital world of ours. I envied their healthy lifestyle - lot of physical work with so less worry about.

The next morning, after breakfast, we started towards Leh. We were to take a different route that would connect us to Manali – Leh highway and on our way , we wanted to get a glimpse of Tso Kar ( Lake Kar) which is famous for its sulphur deposits. After making a stopover at Tso Kar, our next stop was at Tanglang La ( Tanglang pass) – the second highest motorable road in the world at 17582 ft. It had just snowed there, and we could see patches of snow littered on the mountains. And after that, we made a final stop at Stok palace in Leh before heading to our homestay.

That evening we spent time talking with our hosts about our Ladakh experience , food etc and Stanzin’s wife and her mother -in-law invited us for a home-made momos evening the next day. Our flight back was not until the day after. We happily agreed and accepted the invitation. I believe staying in homestays is one of the best options when one travels to a new city. The reasons being – (i). You get to see, know and understand the new place through the locals’ eyes. (ii) The cost of stay is not expensive. (iii) You get to learn about their food and if you are lucky, you could even get their secret recipe!

We spent our last day in Ladakh visiting the market and buying gifts and souvenirs for friends and family. Turquoise jewellery and accessories are famous in Ladakh, so our homestay owner’s cook took us to some shops in the interior markets (only known to locals I guess !) and we got some pretty good deals on the turquoise accessories. Then we went down to a bakery which was famous for its cakes and pastries and bought few pastries for Stanzin’s two cutie daughters. Later in the evening, we all sat in the big kitchen of Goji villa and started preparations for the momos. I helped in stuffing the momos which I must say is an art ! Then batches of momos were steamed and served. Yumm.. I had never had such delicious momos. You see, the perks of staying in a homestay !

We bid goodbye to our hosts and Ladakh the next day and made a promise to ourselves that we will visit Ladakh again. Why do all good things have to come to an end?

Additional photos below
Photos: 45, Displayed: 34


24th December 2017
Nubra valley

Nubra Valley
Breathtaking I muttered when I enlarged this photo...surreal I muttered in another breath.
24th December 2017
Scenic drive to Panagong Tso

Follow that Road
What a great addition to our Follow that Road thread in the Photography Forum. I'll post it there now.
24th December 2017
Scenic drive to Panagong Tso

Thank you !
24th December 2017

Wonderful blog of a place that has always been atop my Bucket List but thought impossible to get there. Where there is a will there is a way. Your blog has inspired me to reconsider,
24th December 2017

Thankyou Dave ! Happy that the blog was of help.

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