Frozen lake along Chang La [pass]
Pangong Tso Panorama
When friend Anil Rajput knew that I was planning on two options for this summer holiday, Conoor in Tamil Nadu and Leh, his shocking expression was ….”What comparison! You must go only to Leh!”.
I was desperate for a date with Leh for the last four years, but my travel team was giving me the most impossible rates and dates. Anil came to my rescue and made our dream-plan, a reality!
Our Delhi friend Anjali quickly decided to join us and more the merrier it was!
With a lot of anticipation spiced up, wife Jayashree, daughter Nishkamya and I set off from Chennai by the evening SpiceJet to Delhi. Night halt was at Anjali’s place and catching up with years and years of talk, we then hit the Delhi airport at 4am for the Go Air check-in. Prompt to take off, we had a very comfortable touchdown at the Kushok Bakula Rinpoche Airport at Leh, on the dot at 8.15 am. I am sure you are aware that it is the highest altitude commercial airport in India at some 3500 metres. Jayashree rightly quipped, “There is no great height for the plane to descend here at Leh!”
Day 1 – Arrival
The weather in May was good 11 degree during day break! While the sun hits you sharp, the wind is equally sharp and piercing through windcheaters. That is when one notices that your lung is beginning to seek some fresh air – when the entire place is sooooooo fresh and soothing! What’s wrong man?! We folks in the plains have to get used to altitude of over 10000 feet – and that means during the Day 1, we all are tucked away in the Hotel Namgay Palace into our rooms and mostly in our bed, acclimatizing Leh !
For a great view of the picturesque mountain-range and the Leh palace, we sought our rooms on the 3rd floor. Our attempt to climb down for lunch meant a panting climb. Later in the evening after we had rested adequately, we were driven up to the market and recommended a slow trek back after all the window shopping! While Anjali kept awake and ‘sort of disobeyed the rules’, the rest of us looked ship-shape for the Day 2! Anjali suitably decided to be safe in bed and take ample care for a tougher day 3!
Our Day 2
Gonpa Visit: Shabir Ahmed of K2 Adventure had planned to take us to visit key Monasteries or ‘Gonpas’. We set off with our driver Lotus at 8.30 am to visit the Hemis monastery and museum, the Thiksey monstery, the Shey Palace and the Stok Museum. The drive today was all along the plains, crossing meandering roads, small mountains, schools and many defence establishments. Coming from Chennai, we were thrilled to read ‘The Madras Sappers’ – they were white painted stones laid to form the alphabet on the sloping sand dunes. Every major locations along the mountain and dunes are marked this way! We hopped off the Xylo and sought Lotus to shoot some images!
About 40 kms away from Leh, the Hemis Gonpa we found was very safely tucked in, not very visible from the outer world. Said to have been established in 1630 as a Gonpa, this large cave hermitage has a complex design and is stated to be the oldest one. The entry ticket [Rs 50 per person] has the legend of its total layout plan including the basement museum collections that has some amazing works of art in pure gold and innumerable manuscripts and relics as well. Complex entries and altars took us to many temples within, dedicated to many deities and guru’s including Guru Padmasambhaba also known as Guru Rimpoche.Young monks and students from the monastic schools were seen trickling out after their classes in great discipline – contrary to the children of our city convents!
The entry route to Thiksey Gonpa was a dusty one and later on the road took us on a beautiful climb to oversee the vast range of plateau and the far away snow clad mountains. 18 kms away from Leh this Gonpa was built in 1430 and is situated on a hilltop north of the Indus River. A 49 feet statue of Lord Maitreya [future Buddha] is the main point of attraction at Thiksey. A small museum, curio shop and a well laid out efficient restaurant offers complete range of food – from Tibetan to Chinese- for the hungry tourists. All these are effectively managed by the monastery folks.
The route down carried brutal evidence of the terrible flash flood calamity that hit Leh on the 6th August 2010. While traces were noticed even around Thiksey village the severity was at Choglamsar and Leh. We observed that most of the house and wall construction was carried out with mud-brick — much larger than the conventional ones used in rest of India. Driver Lotus affirmed that the clay used is of local soil that has very high bonding and retention quality, but they are not baked in any kiln; moreover the area has very scanty rainfall during the year – therefore no reason to fear these bricks losing its shape! While there was semblance of rehabilitation happening at slow pace, there were more schools and homes seen damaged beyond redemption.
On return a visit and climb up to the quiet Shey palace [the old capital city] and a drive off to Stok Palace museum featured some very interesting insights to the yesteryears of Leh-Ladakh, its rulers, religious heads and the very hard life they led against such adverse climatic conditions.
On return to hotel we found Anjali, having rested well and fit as a fiddle to take on the onslaught of a long drive on day 3 — to Pangong Tso [Lake Pangong].
Frozen lake top – Running brook below
Day 3 – The Awesome Pangong Lake
This Pangong lake is situated at an elevation of 14,000ft. In the Eastern sector of Ladakh, at a distance of 154km.from Leh across Changla pass (17,000ft.) upto Lukung.This lake is one of the largest – some over 150 miles long [and some part is in China side as well] and the most beautiful natural lakes in the country.
Well…. reaching here is no joke! We set off at 7 am from the hotel. The steep drive was across meandering mountains, steep glens and treacherous mountain routes. The roads are not very bad – is well in line with any mountain stretches in Himachal or UP. All along we find Innova’s, Scorpio’s and Xylo’s carrying tourist to this enchanting lake-destination; and once in a while we’d find Gypsy and military Vikrant ferrying army officials and jawans. Soon we hit one of the highest pass along the route – the Chang la Pass – at some 17586 feet above sea level! The army camp offers every visitor a cup of hot piping tea where the wind would zip off any loosely held caps! Only a firm woolen cap that envelope the ears would do here! We soon find our way to ease at a queued-up toilets [the mug of water would freeze even as you flush it!]. We soon get a bit dizzy and the heart is pounding for air, and we slowly find our comfort levels back with Lotus in the Xylo and descend the mountain!
Few hours of witnessing the ever changing profile of the picturesque mountains, snow clad tops and frozen lakes, we soon notice the first glimpse of the Tso! The turquoise blue Pangong Lake! The last stretch seems to take a bit more time as our anxiety swell!
At last we were right in front of this unbelievable huge water body – it is cased amidst rocky and some sandy mountains on all four sides; stretching across some 150 miles. We go berserk enjoying its vivid colours – deep blue, turquoise blue, crystal clear aqua, a sudden brown, yellow, deep orange —- the colours seem to swiftly change as the sun plays hide-and-seek on the water or when the water surface reflect the hues from the nearby mountain range. When the air is still the surface reflects like perfect Belgian mirror and with heavy winds they create wave like patterns. The magic goes on for hours and hours!
We then set to start feeding some of the unique birds at that height – yes! Sea gulls! How come sea gulls at lakes?! At this 14000 feet? We wonder! Our inquisitiveness now knows no bound. We try to fetch some crystal clear water to taste it —- yak…. It is salty!! Sadly this natural water body with rich minerals has no way to drain itself that it is said to haveturned brackish and therefore has no fishes or any form of life – aquatic or plants and weeds.
A narrow strip of land stretches into the water body – like a peninsula, and tourist have their whale of a time clicking away shots, feeding the birds, chipping a stone and seeing it jump pass over the top, deep into the middle, or they just laze along the edge.
Finally when hunger pangs hit us, we find that we are too late for lunch! From noodle to rajma-rice, everything has been sold out at these innumerable make-shift restaurants! [You go hungry at these heights, you could be asking for trouble!! Head ache will linger on for hours and hours!!] Soon we have a shop keeper offer us some left-over rajma rice and Maggie noodle. With gratitude we manage to polish and hit the road! The images of Pangong Tso linger on our retina – and as hundreds of pictures in our Canon / Fiji cameras!
Open to sky – check post
At the Nubra Valley and at Camp Life: Nubra valley is about 195 kms from Leh and is popularly known as Ldomra or the Valley of Flowers. It is situated in the North of Ladakh, between Karakoram and Ladakh ranges of Himalayas. Nubra lies at average altitude about 10,000 feet above sea level. The climate, of the areas being soft, soil is much fertile and the vegetation of the area is comparatively thicker than those of the other areas of Ladakh. Shrubs, bushes and trees grow in abundance wherever there is any source of water. Due to this reason Nubra has acquired its right name- Ldomra. Nubra is a very expansive valley with lofty mountains on all sides. Shayok River and Siachan River largely drain into Nubra . The Valley assumes greater attractions at the site where both the rivers meet. Village Diskit is the Sub-Divisional Head Quarters of Nubra. An imposing Diskit Gonpa is also situated at a height of about 200 mtrs above the village, on the spur of rocky mountain and at the most commanding point having clear view of the entire central part of Nubra.
The drive along this northern stretch is a bit more treacherous than the earlier day! By then the clouds had gathered and we were witnessing snowfall in small measure and then it turned harder into larger flakes!! Lotus had to halt at two points to organize our transport documents. Soon the roads got further dangerous. Only vehicles with chain-strapped-wheels could now brave to lead the mountain roads! Lotus is an able driver but was not equipped with the chain-strap for the wheels. We preferred to follow with caution along the snow-n-slippery stretches. The road sides had thick layer of snow and icicles were forming. At some points the lake-tops had frozen while water would be found flowing from the bottom-end.
Soon we hit the world’s highest motorable pass… the Khardung La [pass] at 18380 feet! Our folks got off to make two-feet snow man with their bare hands! As a photo opportunity the snow man was carried a la ganapatibappa. Soon the snowman was in great demand! Who’d not want to enjoy the fruits of someone else’s labour? Having taken some very ‘milestone-moment pictures’ [amidst heavy breathing and oxygen draining off our brains] we soon started to descend with an overdose of cautious driving. Ugly remnants of careless driving – shells of Omni and Jeep were seen scattered along deep gorges. It can’t but give people a creepy feeling. No more singing, no more talking. We let Lotus do his concentrated driving from thereon.
At one stretch, the frozen glacier water was seen running over the concrete culvert having eroded the road on the two sides. This had affected ground clearance for many vehicles – traffic movement had almost halted. In the meantime our typical signs of ‘Indian indiscipline’ and ‘me-first’ attitude ensured that the narrow road was jammed from both sides. About 100 minutes was lost in this mayhem – as people waited for almighty to intervene and clear the traffic mess! [in fact there ought to be a better way to establish traffic policing and walkie-talkie gadgets for managing order and communication along such stretches; especially at such hours of crisis].
As ever, hungry pangs were gripping us – we should have reached our destination at Nubra Velley Camp Resort by this time! When traffic cleared, we soon drove down to the nearest eatery and had plates of spicy and steaming Thupka .
Post lunch, the last stretch of the drive revealed some very finest work of art by the master creator of the universe – GOD!
Every mountain had a different colour hue, red, grey, green, pink, ash with multiple pattern of rock-formation. Soon we descended the mountain and for miles drove along a straight road, built on the bed of a dried river! Mountains towered all around us on all four sides!! We were dwarfed by such mighty majestic mountains. They seemed so fully rich in iron and other minerals that every streak of sunlight they presented itself in varied colours. We also passed through Wildlife Parks to notice wild ass, wild horses, Zebra [not in stripes], Mud Mud rodents that posed its head out of its mole-hole on the ground, fox, yaks and Xo’s! It was suddenly ‘Animal Planet’ at ‘Channel Ladakh’!
Very strong gusty wind that was blowing along the entire mountain and valley stretch was raising fine ash-dust, cutting down sun light and stretched itself to reach the mighty hill-tops. There was an altogether different drama!
Even amidst all this, we passed through innumerable military camps which reminded us of the situations in which our jawans and army men live their days to protecting the nation and its people. They live their day-to-day life this way,where tourists venture just one day in their entire life!! As our hearts went out to them, we pay our salutations and warmest regards to these brave men of glory. Rightly every base camp has its icon and a symbol of their regiment boldly displayed on mountain slopes.
By sundown we reached Nubra Royal Resorts run by Mr Dorjee. Set in the foothills and amidst running brooks, apricot orchards and a small hermitage of a Lama this sprawling campus with 30 deluxe cottages and well equipped with modern toilet, hot-shower facility and a large dining hall is any weary travellers ‘home away from home!’. After a good recce around the resorts and a cheerful drink to warm up the evening, folks invited us for an early sumptuous dinner. [We cannot believe our eyes that we were having a five course Indian meal here!] As we hit the bed early, lightning and thunder add variety and natural flavor to the valley. Mild rain sprayed all through the earlier part of the night. By 10 pm the entire campus lights had been turned off as we set to nestle in the womb of Mother Nature for that night. Sssssshhhhhhh!!!! ZZZZZZzzzz!!!! [Snore!]
Dry Patch and Meandring Roads
Day break at the Nubra Valleyis very early even by about 5 am. The sun hit the snow-clad mountains far along the mountain rains of Karakoram Range. The rains had also settled all the dust of the previous day and had ushered in some crisp freshness into the valley.
After a hot piping bed-tea, we once again hopped over all along the campus. The water in the brook was cold as ice. Hammocks along the trees were very inviting. We walked into the humble hermitage of the lama there as we picked few young apricot fruits on the tree. The fruits were young but partly sweet and tangy.
The hermitage was built on a single floor – using wooden beams, tree trunks and reinforced across with twigs and branches of ‘safetha tree’. The top up roofing was ably done using natural clay soil [once again used for making bricks that serve for their walls]. Life seemed to be lived in such humble dignity here that there could be nothing that would pass off as something beyond bare necessity! Strong tones of Buddhist preachings are seen put to practice!
Breakfast had all the wildest spread! Omelets, stuffed paranta’s with pickle, toast, and homemade apricot jam! The biggest surprise came in the form of Upma, with red tomatoes and with typical tangy Udipi flavor! Wow – this was the way my mother would make Upma!! We could not believe that we were in some village at the end of Indian civilization [the next village some 30 kms away was the last of the Indian Territory abetting Pakistan border. One helper said that each family here had a dozen kids! ].
While we meant to skip our bath, our tent-mates from Pune, urged us to have hot water shower bath! In fact the camp was providing inmates with piping hot water off the solar geyser with water coming from the nearby stream carrying all the rich minerals and healthy ingredients. The whole luxurious experience was like a SPA! Chennai, Delhi or Pune — what we had here, our cities could not have given this!
Soon we thanked and bid farewell to Dorjee and moved into the sand dune desert land of the Nubra Velley. This is indeed a great attraction here. Double hump camel and camel owners await our arrival. A 15 minute camel trip into the sand dunes at Rs 150 is by far a reasonable fare than riding along the beaches of Chowpatty! Folks went on camel back, went sliding some 20 feet along the sand dune wall, played with little lambs, fed the heavily wooly-wooly dogs – to finally wash hands in the fresh water spring. It was noon time and we hit the highway, back to Leh. By then all the snow along the roads had cleared and the return was by far peaceful.
The night was spent in reviewing the hundreds of pictures taken during the days – to relive every moment of our time at Leh.
Khardung La [pass] with the snow man they made [Yeti?]
a trip to the Magnetic Hill and Indus River / Zanskar River Sangam: On a leisurely note today, we took the highway and drove some 30 kms away to witness an amazing phenomenon. To reach the Magnetic Hill, Ladakh, we took the Leh-Kargil-Baltic National Highway. The hill is at an elevation of around 14,000 feet above sea level. To the eastern side of the hill flows the Sindhu River, originating in Tibet. At a Valley and on a well-laid motorable road, as the road began to slope upwards till a stretch, we witnessed a phenomenon here. . At a marked point our driver shut the engine and halted the vehicle. At neutral gear, the vehicle started moving up the slope on its own as it touched some 20 kms speed!
As we witnessed this rare occurrence we decided to drive further to the sangam of two rivers – Indus and Zanskar, some 15 kms ahead. We could see from our heights, two imposing large rivers merge into one – it was like tea and coffee combining into one colour! We turned back to come into the fold of the magnetic hill. We experienced the occurrence again – as we shot the video clips of the same and backed it with stills! It is said that even helicopters and aircrafts that fly in the range feel the magnetic impact and has to fly at greater speed to overcome the magnetic pull! [this is said to be one of 100 such magnetic locations and occurrences across the world!] We set to return to Leh via the Gurudwara Pathar Sahib. Sikhs and other army teams were engaged in the langar offering on Sunday noon . It is said to be an auspicious place where Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th guru of the Sikhs, had spent time meditating in the 17th century.
As we reached Leh, we signed off with a last visit to the Mahakali temple and the Monastery at the hilltop that overlooked the airstrip. By then we had climbed innumerable hills and been into many palaces and gonpa’s we decided to admire the Leh palace and monastery from far.
A great lunch awaited us at the Tibetan Kitchen after which we had just the right time for purchase of few Tibetan items and hit the hotel for early dinner and final packing.
We were at the fag-end of our 6 nights’ packaged programme at Leh.
We bid adieu to folks at Namgay Palace at 5 am. We were extremely happy that we were so punctual and ‘on the dot’ to catch the 6.55 am Go Air flight, back to Delhi.
As we reached the outskirts of the Leh airport in a bid to have the tickets on hand, I suddenly realized that my rug-sack[ that had our tickets and other belongings] were not loaded in the Innova! We swiftly took a ‘U Turn’. The rug-sack was safe on the centre table of the hotel lobby! The drive back to the hotel was just 5 minutes flat!! Unbelievable?! We felt that this return was perhaps only an indication that we had left our hearts back here and that another trip to Leh seemed very much in store!!
The most common symptoms of acute mountain sickness are headache, disturbed sleep and loss of appetite, nausea, coughing, irregular breathing, breathlessness, lassitude and lack of concentration. If you are reaching Leh by air, it is important to take complete rest for the first 24 hours after arrival. Any kind of physical exertion is to be avoided. Smoking and drinking should also be avoided till you are fully acclimatized. The symptoms of acute mountain sickness generally develop during the first 36 hours, and not immediately upon arrival. Your body should get used to the lower oxygen level of Ladakh after 2 or 3 days if you have taken complete rest for the first 24 hours and as much rest as possible during the next 12 hours.
High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema (HAPO) and High Altitude Cerebral Oedema (HACO) are very serious forms of acute mountain sickness. These are life-threatening ailments and warrant immediate medical attention. As a preventive measure, Tab Diamox 250 mg should be taken at the rate of 1 tablet twice a day for 3 days, at least 2 days before coming to Ladakh or any high altitude area.
To take lots of water, store chocolate bars and energy food; good woolens and caps at all times; torch; plenty of sun cream lotions; good medical kit including head ache tablets, for stomach ailments; fruits as emergency meal; good pair of shoes.