“Now more than ever do I realize that I will never be content with a sedentary life, that I will always be haunted by thoughts of a sun-drenched elsewhere.” ― Isabelle Eberhardt
When the call of that “sun-drenched elsewhere” gets too loud to ignore any further, I prefer to leave behind all baggage and burdens of the daily grind and escape, to wander. Wandering is essential for me not only to explore new places, but also to introspect and detoxify my mind from the accumulated clutter. My wanderings very often take me to the Himalayas, and it is here that I find myself closest to nature and my-self, for truly “mountains are the cathedrals where I practice my religion”.
However, choosing to explore the Himalayas necessitates that I go deep inside to discover the true essence of the mountains. Popular hill stations, such as Shimla or Mussorie, with their carnivals of gaily dressed tourists and shiny shops show the mountains in a physical sense, but the soul is missing. So finding and exploring the lesser known places is essential to create a deeper bond between the hills and me.
Ladakh. It’s an enchanting land of many high passes, gompas, chortens, and indescribably beautiful natural landscape. The name is quite familiar to many Indians, and the three names that are almost synonymous to Ladakh are: Leh, Nubra Valley, and Pangong Lake. Leh, the capital city, is located beside the mighty Indus, and is the place where all tourists and travellers must come while they are in Ladakh; while thanks to the blockbuster movie “The Three Idiots,” the beautiful Pangong Tso attracts a great deal of noisy crowd; and who doesn’t know of the Bactrian camel rides on the sand dunes of the Nubra valley! Ladakh, however, is much more than just these three names. It is about exploring other places that surround these famous names. It is about staying for many days to feel the places, walking around, and most importantly, acclimatising. Ladakh, as the very name suggests, is a land of high passes, and one must cross many such passes with very little oxygen content at regular intervals. The entire region hardly falls below 9000-10000 feet, and human bodies must first acclimatise to such heights and low oxygen levels to avoid high altitude sickness and other related medical conditions. Travelling is fun, but so is taking precautions and then travelling, which makes the experience so much more worthwhile.
In 2017 when I wondered off to Ladakh with my friend Reema, we took the road that goes to Ladakh via Manali- Rohtang la- Jispa -Baralacha La and Sarchu. My friend has her home in Sarsai, which is very close to Manali, so I stayed there for few days to acclimatise myself and prepare for the 12 days ride ahead in high altitude areas. We started early one morning in August, and on the first day our night halt was decided to be at Sarchu. After crossing the cloud covered pretty Rohtang La, we stopped for a short breakfast at Keylong. The road here goes by the side of the Chandra river that descends from a glacier in Chandra tal, a beautiful high altitude Ramsar site lake in the Lahul valley. This Chandra river meets the Bhaga river in Tandipule (we saw the meeting point of the two rivers on our way to Sarchu), forming the mighty Chandrabhaga or Chenab. From a place called Zing Zing bar, the road takes a sharp turn and the climb towards Baralacha la starts. In Baralacha la we were met with the pristine blue waters of two lakes, Deepak tal and Suraj tal. The beautiful Suraj tal is the place where the Bhaga river starts its long winding journey downhill, to meet the Chandra river. The road here is quite rough and oxygen content low, so we didn’t spend too much time here, and kept moving. Once the long and rough ride across the Baralacha La ended, a new tarmac road greeted us, which took us smoothly to Sarchu, where our first night halt was made.
Sarchu is a beautiful place with the black tarmac road running right across it, and wide green meadows on two sides. The place is located on the banks of the Tsarap Chu that cuts strange patterns on its high banks on two sides. Here many tented accommodations are available, and it was a welcome break after the jolting drive across the two passes. We reached Sarchu by afternoon, and had the entire second half of the day to rest and wander around.
The next day we left Sarchu early in the morning, and after a while crossed a little bridge to enter the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The beautiful road from here meandered across wide valleys surrounded by tall snow capped mountains, until the car reached the point where the famous Gata loops start that in 21 sharp twists take one straight up, from 13780 ft to 15302 ft. The landscape all around us was breathtaking, and as we crossed Nakee La and Lachung La, two high passes one after the other, the drive was pretty enchanting. The roads were rough until Pang, where there is a large army camp; thereafter the road turned silky smooth, and it was a dream run through the beautiful Mori plains. Imagine driving through a beautiful road, with yellowish to white sandy soil dotted with green shrubs stretching far on both sides, and snow capped mountains surrounding you at a distance from all sides. Sounds like heaven? Well, you are there, or as near as one can get to it.
The smooth road moved on through this slice of heaven, but the rough ride unfailingly caught up with us again as we left the Mori plains behind and started our long winding journey up the third pass in this route, the Tanglang La. The view from this pass is breath taking, but the oxygen is dangerously low, and staying here for too long is inadvisable. Also we had to reach Leh before sunset, so our drive continued, and the road on the other side of the pass being smooth again took us down quite fast. The road moved through scenic villages with pretty white chortens dotting the roadsides. Here, between the villages Gya and Upshi, we saw beautiful red and purplish coloured mountains, and it is in Upshi village that the mighty Indus is seen for the first time, which gives constant company until one reaches Leh. Upshi was the also the place where we finally stopped for a break and our lunch.
Leh is a rather serene town laid out on a wide valley surrounded by brown mountains on all sides. The town is green and beautiful, with a wonderful view of snow capped peaks, old houses, chortens, the Leh palace, Shanti stupa, among many more, and one can really stay in this town for many days just exploring and relaxing. From the Shanti stupa we had a wonderful view of the town from top, and ended up spending few hours there sitting quietly and admiring the serenity of the place. It is advisable for travellers to spend few days in Leh, as there are many places to visit from here, such as the Hemis gompa, Thikse monastery, Stok monastery and palace, Shey gompa, Alchi gompa, Magnetic hill, Llamyuru, etc.
Nubra valley, which is around 150 km from Leh, is a beautiful place, especially with the river Shyok and tree-lined banks. While it was a wonderful sight, seeing sand dunes amidst tall mountains peaks in Hunder, but the number of people vying for double humped Bactrian camel rides made us wonder whether these rides should be regulated or not. Despite the breathtaking landscape all around, it was not a happy feeling to note that the Hunder sand dunes have turned more into an entertainment park where more people come to take camel rides and click selfies, and only a handful come to enjoy the scenic beauty of the place.
While in Diskit, we also visited the Diskit monastery, which goes back a long time in history; however, being of a more adventurous mind we soon took the long road filled with white sand for the remote village of Turtuk.
Turtuk, which is located just about 10 km away from the LOC, is a place worth visiting, both for its beauty, and the feeling of adventure derived from the 4-5 hours drive through deserted roads beside the river Shyok. The village, which was opened for tourists in 2010, grows the best apricots in India, has some old historical structures to see, and the Balti people living here are extremely warm-hearted and welcoming. My advice to all travellers planning for Ladakh: Do visit Turtuk, albeit armed with a permit which is given in Leh. Also: do be sensitive to the military rules that are followed there, remember it’s a sensitive area and you are just a guest.
While entire Ladakh kept us enchanted by its ever changing landscape and indescribable beauty, I will consider the high altitude lakes as the glittering jewels in its crown. Among these, the better known ones are the Pangong Tso, Tso Moriri, and Tso Kar, and all have brackish waters. The word Tso means ‘lakes’ in Ladakhi; as the word La means a mountain pass. Glacier fed, the pristine blue waters of these lakes kept changing colours from deep blue to light blue to emerald green with every flutter of a breeze and the passing of a cloud, even as we watched from the banks. Their ethereal beauty overwhelmed the senses, and as I stood beside the lakes, gazing at their crystal clear waters reflecting the surrounding mountains, while hearing the sound of the waves gently lapping at my feet, I felt as if I had lost my own entity and had somehow become one with the surrounding nature .
Points to remember: Ladakh is a place where I found that the beautiful landscape coupled up with extremely hospitable and friendly local people always eager to help. It is also the place where we saw the famous Ladakhi goats that give wool for weaving the pashmina shawls. Besides them, we found the area full of wild yaks, wild horses, marmots that keep popping out of their ground holes, different migratory birds besides the lakes, and the famed wild asses of Ladakh. The innumerable roadside chortens, big and small stupas, and colourful Buddhist flags with mantras written on them fluttering gaily in the wind, added to the already brimming over beauty of the place. As we retraced our steps towards Manali, I felt that Ladakh is a place where going once is not enough, as it keeps calling you back. Perhaps even one lifetime is not enough to explore Ladakh; and you wish that you could keep coming back again and again to this part of the high altitude heaven.
(This was published on Tripoto, in a slightly different version)