Too many adjectives crowd my mind when I think of describing Ladakh. To keep it simple, let me begin by just saying that Ladakh is beautiful. Very beautiful.
On July 24, after months of planning and deliberation, AV and I finally began our Ladakh adventure. We flew from Delhi to Leh, which was once the capital of the Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh. Now the entire district has become a part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Right from the time, we stepped on to the Leh airport, our romance with the sights and sounds of Ladakh began.
The first thing that will strike you in Ladakh is the rocky mountains that surround the entire district. Vegetation is sparse and majority of the mountain ranges are bare. And that’s the striking feature of the entire region. Despite the little flora and fauna, Ladakh is gorgeous.
From the airport, we headed to the Oriental hotel and guesthouse which became our home for the next seven days. Nestled in the hills and conveniently placed from the busy Leh market (it was about a ten minute walk), the hotel offers a wonderful view, pretty, comfortable rooms, a beautiful garden and a very hospitable, warm and efficient staff.
The first day was spent in leisure. Almost. While we lazed away in the afternoon, enjoying the glorious mountain view from our hotel room and basking in the sun—which was surprisingly hot—in the evening, we thought of taking a stroll in the town. When we came across the Shanti Stupa, a Buddhist chorten very close to our hotel, we decided to go for the climb. For it is situated right at the top of a hill and one has to climb a fleet of stairs to reach it.
We had been sufficiently warned of the need to rest on the first day to avoid altitude sickness. But buoyed by striking nature and the healthy air, clean and pollution-free, we thought we were equal to the task of climbing the stairs. We embarked on the climb, but soon realized it was not an easy task. As the climb became steeper and the altitude higher, I was left gasping for breath. However, the view literally made up for every physical discomfort. From the heights, we could see across the Leh town, almost entirely. It’s a very small place and sparsely populated and offers some stunning views of the mountains.
It was a difficult journey back to the hotel but looking back, I must agree it was worth it. What is a little altitude sickness to a beautiful surrounding and nature whose every sight and sound leaves one breathless, literally?
The next day, we headed to the Magnetic Hills. Located at over 11,000 feet, the hill is alleged to have magnetic properties strong enough to pull cars uphill. While these magnetic qualities are often disputed, the beauty remains unchallenged. The vast stretch of the road engulfed by the mountains from all four sides and the clear sky acting as a brilliant, blue overhead dome make for the wonders of the Magnetic Hills. Also, the place is so far removed from the ‘sounds of civilization’, that you will actually be able to hear the sounds of nature. One has to be there to experience and understand this.
We continued with our journey and visited the monasteries in Alchi and the Likir, two villages in Ladakh. I have seen far gorgeous monasteries in my life, but when it comes to the natural beauty, nothing beats the beauty of the gompas in Ladakh. The Alchi monastery is a very old gompa, overlooking the Indus river. The mountains surround the gompa as it does the whole of the district.
When we reached the temple complex, we saw that the monastery was locked. We were wondering what to do, when a monk approached us and led us to the gompa. He unlocked the door and let us in. It was dark inside and very somber—not one of your shiny, bright temples that are nearly synonymous to Buddhist monasteries. But the feel of a forlorn and a long-forgotten place almost in ruins is what makes Alchi special. For it’s a very popular monastery.
When we were looking around the place, another old monk greeted us and told us to take a round of the monastery with him. He promised us that it will bring us luck and good fortune. “But it won’t amount to wealth; you will reap the benefits on judgment day,” was what he said. I can do with some wealth, but taking a round of the breathtakingly-placed monastery with a man who knew almost every stone of the area was a richer experience I guess. Two more couples were with us. They were both Polish and didn’t understand the language, but I believe, soaked in the beauty of the nature and the serenity of the company just like us.
The Likir monastery, our next destination, is a white structure placed against the brown hills and it offers an equally striking view. It has two assembly halls and a huge, gleaming Buddha (the Maitreya Buddha signifying the future) sitting at the rooftop. You can see the statue of the Lord miles away from the monastery. The last stop of the day was the confluence of river Zanskar and Indus.
The next two days, we spent at the Nubra valley. The Shyok river meets the Nubra river to form the valley here.
We had to travel past the Khardungla pass to reach Nubra. The Khardungla pass is located at an elevation of over 17,000 feet and is often considered to be the world’s highest motorable pass. Whether this is true or not, it makes for again another striking experience.
When we started from Leh, the sun was shining bright and it was rather warm. That’s one striking thing about Leh. That despite the altitude, the sun can be really, really hot. As we climbed higher to Khardungla, initially, we didn’t feel any difference in temperature. Looking out from the car window, as we went higher, we could see slabs of snow, tucked in the nooks and corners of the hills. But the larger terrain remained rocky, the hallmark of Ladakh. And the weather sunny. So when we reached the top, the sudden view of sheets of snow and the blast of icy, cold air took us by surprise. I had worn a cotton pants instead of jeans as I was feeling hot in Leh and was chilled to the bones. But the snow was enticing, the view had to be enjoyed and pictures taken, so I stepped out of the car along with AV.
It’s surprising how the sight of snow lifts our spirits. Probably, it’s more so for people like us who do not encounter snow in their everyday lives. Our magical experience was complete when we saw tiny snowballs falling from the sky--snowfall! Of course, it was nothing like the snowfall that we see in movies, but very tiny droplets (if you can say so) of cotton flakes. But nonetheless, for snow-starved person like me, it was heavenly. It added on to the magic of the already magical surroundings.
We continued with our journey to Nubra valley. The roads here were bad and our driver told us that the running streams—melted glacier water—are major factors in ruining the roads. On several occasions, we had to wait for mountain tractors to clear the road as mounds of rocks and piles of mud blocked our way. One time, we had to wait for over an hour before the roads could be cleared.
One thing that struck me was how calm the drivers remained in the face of roadblocks. Living in Delhi (and other cither cities like Kolkata and Bangalore), waiting in the streets is nothing new to me. But traffic jams, though inevitable in our daily lives, cause us irritation, anger and we keep swearing, cursing and honking as if it’s an unexpected, unpleasant situation. But unlike us, these people seem to find it easier to accept their fate, their daily hazards. They live amidst nature and have made peace with it.
At Nubra, we stayed at a place called Sumur and chose to stay in tents. Our hotel had given us an option to choose between some nice lodges or tents, and we went for the latter. For both of us, it was a first time experience.
When we finally reached Sumur, it was almost evening and we were very tired. The Mystique Meadows, the series of Swiss tents in an enclosed green camp where we stayed, was situated further inside the village. White tents dotting the huge, green garden engulfed by mountains on all sides was a beautiful sight. The tents, though very basic, with a bed, table, lamp and a private bath, were lovely. Again, nature was breathtaking and it was VERY quiet. But it was not a silence that causes depression or a sense of loneliness, but a quietude that evokes poetry from even the most unimaginative mind.
We visited the hot water spring at a place named Panamik and spent the night in the tent. It was a unique experience. We were aware of almost every noise around us, which appeared magnified, and barking dogs seemed akin to growling wolves in the dense garden, where the tents were housed.
Next day, we headed to the mountain dessert in Hunder, the chief attraction in Nubra. It was an amazing experience to witness the rocky ’moonland’ terrain and the stretches and stretches of white sand at such an altitude. The white dessert is encompassed by towering mountains and is mesmerizing. The Bactrian camel safari was not really a mind-blowing stuff but nevertheless an experience. AV was not very keen on the safari but I made him tag along, which he claims, is because I wanted to add on to my FB pictures!
From Hunder, we went to the monastery in Diskit, the largest gompa in Nubra valley. We took a round of the gompa, and the gorge overlooking the back of the monastery was especially alluring. We could hear the sound of the Shayok river but were unable to see it; so we headed to the backside of the monastery. Following a steep climb, we did manage to catch a glimpse but had to draw back immediately. It was enchanting, but somehow, it felt like it was drawing us and we felt as if we will fall straight into the steep gorge if we didn’t take heed!
On Day 5, it was time to visit the famed Pangong lake. Every friend/relative had who visited the lake had raved about its beauty. And of course, who can forget the sparkling blue lake shown in the last scene of 3 Idiots? So our expectations were high and we were but prepared for an amazing experience. But no matter how prepared you are, Pangong lake is going to take your breath away. When you see the lake from a distance, it may make you (at least it made me) wonder what’s the hype all about? Yes, it’s pretty, clean and quiet, but is it not true of almost whole of Ladakh? But as you draw nearer, you will realize it’s worth the every bit of hype. It’s serene, still and is a riot of colours! The clear water mirrors the blue sky, and with the sun shining bright, mountains bordering the lake appear golden, brown and red at the same time. And the lake is huge. I had never seen such a big and blue lake before in my life. To top it all, what was before us is not the whole of the lake. We were told that 60% of Pangong Tso is in China and only 40% in India. Wonder, wonder!
We had lunch at a shanty in Pangong and came across a group of Bengali tourists travelling with a renowned Kolkata-based travel agent. There is a reason why I am mentioning them. A group of nondescript, ‘typical ‘ Bangalis with their constant chatter not only amused AV, but were a lesson in themselves (agrees AV). Couple of them was complaining of breathlessness and one of the elderly fellows of the group in fact fainted. Yet, with a bit of rest and ‘thanda jol’, they were back on their feet, praising the view and of course gorging on ‘mangsho'. Even at the risk of sounding parochial, I couldn’t but salute the larger Bengali travellers’ spirit (yes, despite the oddities). And for a change, AV agrees!
The last two days in Ladakh were spent in local sightseeing, including the visit to the Hemis monastery, one of the largest monastic institutions in the Himalayas and the colourful festival at the Dakthok monastery. Not to forget of course the shopping in the Leh market, the Tibetian and ladakhi shops and simply strolling across the streets of Leh.
While in Ladakh, we observed that 70% (if not more) of the tourists are foreigners. Whatever be the reason, it was a pleasure to see them go about their journey. Their absolute love for travel, braving all the difficulties posed by nature or situation, is amazing and something to appreciate. We came across trekkers and groups of bikers (both on motorcycles and mountain bikes) who were journeying across the steep hills, covering hundreds of kilometers in extreme weather condition just to soak it in all. Travel for travel’s sake is something we can learn from them, for sure.
The people of Leh-Ladakh compliment the place. Simple and straightforward, they are largely untouched (yet) by commercialization. The place is also quite safe. We would eat at different eateries by the roadside (Wonderland needs special mention, AV’s favourite) and walk back to the hotel as late as 9.30pm-10 pm (that’s late in any hill station) and would see women travellers walking along the streets, all alone.
Each and everything about Ladakh is beautiful and our every experience was unique. And after rambling on for some time now, I must confess that the most of the beauty of the place and experience is indescribable. I do not have the talent to capture the magic of Ladakh in few words!