Planning a trip to Ladakh!! Well a word of caution. If you are planning with family, please consider twice. Ladakh demands a serious traveler. Else you will find yourself complaining saying there is nothing much to see. I am experiencing it nowadays around me as everybody is going to Ladakh.
Finally, the end of a long train journey of around 2200 km started nearing. Around an hour is left till we reach Delhi. The first leg of our way bound to Ladakh will be over by then. We started two days before from a small hamlet in coastal Tamil Nadu. Now we are reaching the Indian subcontinent capital. We have to go further north, actually northern side of the great Himalayas that decides the major factors in Indian climate. Our journey looks so different; it is something going steep vertical up unless you are stopped by political boundaries.Till now, a variety of its landscape was on offer through this train journey – starting from the coasts of Bay of Bengal to Deccan plateau to forested central India to urbanized capital region. Still, we are yet to see even a more different land. Himalayas being the southern boundary of Ladakh region, precipitation is rare. This causes it becoming cold desert. The land is called moon land. These all we are yet to witness.
Delhi is non-descriptive during this season of mid July. The only thing one would like to do is to go somewhere cooler. Additionally, due to monsoon it is humid. Presently we have to take rest as much as possible. A very hectic schedule is awaiting us. So we restricted our roaming in shopping in Palika Bazaar and having a formal visit to Jantar Mantar and India Gate.
We’d have to start at two in morning from hotel for the 5 am flight from Delhi to Leh. Once we are there, I have no idea how our bodies will react. Now may be the last time for a long to take rest. We tried to sleep in afternoon. It proved a difficult task. Finally we ended up lying down for some hours. As a result, we are not at 2 am. I can just hope that once we are there in the mountains, the serenity of the place will lift our spirits.
Himalayas always used to be amazing whenever I have been in them. On 10th July, when we flew from Delhi to Leh early in morning, within no time we started crossing the great Himalayas. At the beginning, it was the familiar greenery of the heights – the lower Himalayas. Then started the snow capped mountains, the valleys of ice, the ridges, the gorges – altogether, the variety of whites.
And finally the rugged face of our cold desert destination – the Ladakh range with Sindhu decorating it – came in sight. It was difficult to believe that we were actually witnessing all this – the shades of browns on the earth and the jewel blue sky hanging on them.
Landing at Leh airport is unique experience in itself. Leh is famed being one of the most geographically dangerous airports. To enhance the thrill, the runway lays in opposite direction from the way of its only civil connection – Delhi. So the plane has to take a turn to align itself with the runway for landing. When it starts turning between the mountains on both sides of the airstrip, the toughest atheist will also pray for the skill of the pilot. Armed Indian army stand guard in and around the airport as this is an army controlled airport.
We are on our tour in Ladakh during its summer. Outside temperature was around 15 deg C. It is tolerable, but to give our body enough time and scope to acclimatize with the high altitude, dry and extreme climate, it is advisable to guard us with some comfortable warm clothes while coming out of the artificial temperature of flight. Otherwise the first ‘not required’ attitude can bring high altitude problems later in the day which can stay for even longer.
Leh airport lounge is a funny one. It is of just one hall size. Everywhere decorations and structures have directly come in from the Tibetan Buddhism story books. The two luggage conveyer belts run on their moods. Anytime either or both of them may stop without any visible reason even though queues of people are awaiting their luggage.
Out of the airport we were received by Tsenwang Yangjor – our driver cum guide for next one week. We were readily greeted with a hearty ‘Juley’ – the Ladakhi derivation of Tibetan ‘Tashi Delek’ – that can mean anything from ‘hi’, ‘thanks’, ‘bye’ or any other general greeting.
We stayed in Botho guest house in Shey. So instead of driving towards 3 km away Leh town, we drove 15 km to Botho. On the way, the first thing that catches eyes is the layers and layers of rugged high terrains. We kept on moving on keeping a safe distance from them as a start. Later we have to go in their depths when we will want to go outer places of more populated Leh.
The next that brings thrill, at least to Indians, is the Sindhu river, from which the name of this subcontinent had been derived. We always read about it in history and in geography from the very beginning of our school days. Later some of us read stories based or related to this same river. Somehow for Indians, their identity is inter-tangled with Sindhu. And now, the same great existence appears in front of us and flowing in humble silence through its self created valley under the ever guardianship of the high mountain ranges. Our side of the Sindhu runs Ladakh range and the opposite bank is hailed with the great Himalayan ranges.
On the way we pass by Shey palace – the ancient home of the Ladakh kings and within two minutes we reach our guest house to be welcomed by Thinles Namgyal – our host. As we reach their territory, both Namgyal and Yangjor become ‘acholey’s – the respected call for elder brother.
With Thinless Namgyal..
Rooms are the combination of basic needs and comforts. The tall glass windows open on the Leh-Manali highway. The sounds of a lone lorry, army vehicles, bikers and sometimes taxi type small cars make one wondering the silence of the place. In fact, Ladakh is not really silent. Every now and then a gush of wind makes huge sound. This sound travels from one end to the other end of the valley, as if touching the skyline. It’s awesome, even though a bit ghostly.
We were given strict instruction by Namgyal acholey to take breakfast and take rest till almost lunchtime to acclimatize. We followed this with extreme eagerness as to catch the flight we had to start from Delhi hotel by 2 am. And then this sudden altitude gain made us not very comfortable. Breakfast was simple bread and omelet with tea. This tea was always served in a never ending fashion. Most probably in our entire stay, we could never finish the 2 ltr flask during each serve.
We tried to sleep after breakfast. Personally it was a disturbed sleep for me – a symptom of altitude sickness. So then on I started pumping in medicine into my system to keep it away from this problem.
Our only outing for the day was to Thiksey gompa, around 4 km away from the guest house. We passed through the village sides of the Leh neighborhoods and climbed up to the gates of the gompa. This was our first gompa visit in Ladakh.
We took lunch in the gompa restaurant and started climbing up through the staircase. At this altitude, problem of breathlessness is well expected. The only way to keep going is to take rest frequently and properly what means it is not advisable to talk or move for photo-shoots when you are supposed to sit down between the climbs.
Thiksey gompa offered the first panoramic view of the locality. The mountains are always defining the horizon, some green patches suddenly appear to mark a village, some Euler trees are dotting some boundaries and always the feeling of the existence of the Sindhu river. A truck may come up through the hills from a long distance. The sound of its roaring engine is heard from top of the mountain at a time when the truck itself has not appeared in vision.
Thiksey gompa has its own importance in the Tibetan Buddhist population of the region. Well, for tourists, the importance is not much understood, but nevertheless the beauty and mystic appearance are unmistakable. Like all other monasteries there, the doors of various halls and rooms of the gompa are closed with practiced punctuality even though tourists are arriving or awaiting a glimpse inside.
Visit to Thiksey on the first day in Ladakh is a good option as it is situated at bit lower altitude than Leh and it’s really nearby. In Thiksey, while climbing the steps to the gompa, the first symptoms of high altitude sickness may appear. As till then one is at a lower altitude, and has enough time to understand own body needs and take rest accordingly, visiting Thiksey is a cool option to pass some first part of the limited time without wasting it sitting in room.
On one side of Thiksey car parking lot, is the approaching road that comes through brown shaded rough terrain. The other side is a small countryside – a sudden green patch of human habitat.
Day trip – Lamayuru and Alchi
On the way – Magnetic hill. Confluence. Moon land.
Next day we set out for Lamayuru and Alchi. Some tourists chose to stay in either of these two hamlets to reduce physical strain and to enjoy remote mountain establishments. We chose to complete it in one day and come back to the coziness of our guest house in Shey.
The route to Lamayuru itself has many things on the way to spellbind its visitors.
After leaving Leh, one can see the highest LPG bottling plant of Indian Oil on the roadside. I doubt, the location may insist anybody to think of having a job in that small lone unit. This is the same company (one of the Fortune 500) that has the fame of having world’s highest fuel station here.
Magnetic hill seems to be an optical illusive phenomenon where the obstructed or absence of horizon makes one mistaking the slope of the road. There are two such spots in India. One here, in Ladakh, the other one is in Gujarat. The myth says that the surrounding hills are having magnetic properties that attract things. Leave alone arguments, the shear and naked existence of the surrounding mountains is enough to make one believe any myth that is told (or maybe written, as it was done on the sign board by Border Road Organization (BRO)) standing over there. Ironically the illusion has a man-made effect. It started happening due to the dynamite explosions to make roads.
Sangam or the confluence
The journey of Zanskar river ends at the confluence with Sindhu and the two carry on as Sindhu henceforth. The colors of the waters of the two rivers are different. Zanskar looks muddy and Sindhu greenish from the height of the road.
In evening when we stopped at the confluence of Sindhu and Zanskar – locally known as Sangam, there was enough daylight on the road, but it was dimly lit down at the water. We are at the foothill of the guardian mountains. We are actually witnessing the river at so close vicinity on whose name the entire subcontinent is named after. The ‘Indus Valley Civilization’ – it was here – it is still here. We read in books, we mugged to pass exams, and now, we are feeling the wet air from its waters on our faces. The stones it washes carry the history of origin of our homeland. Indus Valley Civilization – I am touching the water of its mother. This is too much to think – to feel – to carry.
The chilly breeze from the river has moisture in it – a rare occasion in Ladakh. The familiar wetness of air is intoxicating. It is difficult to leave the river bank.
For enthusiast tourist, here river rafting facility is available. Come in morning before 10 am and you may choose a rafting expedition based on your experience and endurance level.
This was the only place this time where we came face to face with river Zanskar – at the end of its journey. But it has an entire valley on its name. Padum is the main operating point in Zanskar valley, around 175 km from Shey.
After crossing the confluence and going farther for a while you can see the greenery of Nimoo establishment. We stopped here for tea and ladies washroom. It was not very clean, but it didn’t force us to opt for open air.
Before reaching Nimoo, tendency or even actual vomiting may happen. It’s advisable to take plenty of water in such case, avoid oily food and go under some immediate medication that suits you. Without such precautionary measures, the rest of the journey may become horrible and the sick feeling may continue for some days more or even worse, for the rest of the stay in high altitudes.
Before we reached our next photo session halt at Moon Land, we passed places like Gurudwara Pathar Sahib, Basgo etc. without stopping. At Khaltsi we had to make an entry of our vehicle. Here little Ladakhi women come to the cars to sell fresh apricot – extremely cheap and tasty. But our driver told that this was not of good quality. Well, as first time fresh apricot eaters, we were not having enough knowledge to differentiate least the tastes of different apricots. Now is the time for another warning. Raisins may bring nausea to some people. One of our friends had got this. He was OK till the time he just ate one raisin. So once more, avoid anything sweet.
On the way forward, we stopped at an unknown spot which was part of the extremely beautiful road. As this was not any regular tourist stopover, there was no rush. We could even sit on the road. Sindhu flows along the road a little below. There was a small hamlet a few km away, greenery of which was looking like emerald from here.
The next stop is at Moon Land. This one is nothing but another roadside. The mountains around are shaped, arranged and colored in a manner that there is no shade anywhere. Entire light gets reflected. We were there at almost midday and the hills were looking white. Possibly, at moon light, the whiteness of these hills against the backdrop of black night would give the appearance of sharp contrast. From such look maybe the name of the area has come as Moon Land.
Next stop is at Lamayuru. It’s a small village with an ancient gompa looming over from the hilltop. The entire slopes of this hill are occupied by Lamayuru gompa’s various flat roof huts. Most of these are the living quarters of the lamas. Some are used for some other purposes like kitchen, storage etc. also.
From top of the hill, sitting in the shade of gompa walls, one can see the village at the foothill. Some water resource has created a green patch in the midst of dry peaks. Some agriculture has been done. Some crops are being grown. Time of harvest has not come yet. It will be sometimes in the end of July or beginning of August, that is, at the end of the Ladakhi summer.
Breathing in Lamayuru is a task. For every step one has to mind their breath. The thinness of air is evident in this place. Particularly, it is not cold. The midday heat is burning. But there is no sweat and with every breath body water is going out. The only option to survive is to take water aplenty, as even sitting to take rest also feels exhausting sometimes. Good that just at the main gates of the gompa there is a restaurant. Even though high priced, but food is nice and truly speaking, life saving.
Lamayuru is one of the oldest monasteries in Ladakh. The main prayer hall is not very big, neither extensively decorated. The baseness of everything is evident everywhere. Walls are painted, pillars are covered with silk – but in everything, showing off is strictly absent. The room behind the main prayer hall is somewhat fearsome. I suddenly entered into that, it was dimly lit as windows are not enough to allow daylight; two ferocious looking masks were hanging from two pillars. A strange uneasiness caught hold of me. Something that can help to get rid of such feeling is the collection of old Buddhist literature. All in pothi form, with wooden covers for top and bottom. These are stacked in the shelves throughout the main prayer hall side walls. I have no idea how old are those, but from the way they are kept it seems they are still in use by today’s lamas.
After witnessing all the grandeur of the gompa, it is somehow disheartening to hear from a little lama asking money from the visitor. His demand was not more than ‘one rupees’, maybe enough for a lollypop. And as in so many other places, there was an old Ladakhi couple with whirling prayer wheels in hands who demanded money from tourists after giving pose for photos. Poverty and limited time to earn in a year bring out the worse from better people.
Our next destination would be Alchi gompa. We kept on hearing Alchi-Lamayuru – Alchi-Lamayuru all the time. The inter-tangling way of their appearance in tourist itinerary guides made some of us even thinking that these two names together constitute the name of a single place. Well, as it is not so, we started from Lamayuru after lunch. Again we passed the same Moon Land, same river flowing in opposite direction of the road slope and the same rugged mountains with its sound of silence and wind.
To enter into Alchi village, we have to cross a fragile bridge on Sindhu. The road is extremely rugged, which has become familiar to us. Then we cross through desert looking grounds with some stray domestic animals in sight. After some ups and downs, we reach the boundary of the Alchi village.
The gompa complex is in the midst of green fields in full bloom. A narrow foot path, with souvenir shops on both sides, finds its way to the gate of the gompa. There are small village houses along this path. It is the walking through a high altitude village. The gompa by itself looks more a village home than a gompa. It is majorly single storied. The scattered small chambers on the rooftops are the living quarters of the few resident lamas.
It is said that the wood carving and wall painting of Alchi gompa had been done by a Kashmiri pandit. The colors of the painting had been prepared from gem stones. We saw some foreign tourists were using torch to see the paintings closely. Maybe they were trying to get rid of the darkness that is everywhere inside gompas or they were trying to make the paintings glitter in light to show their gem characteristic. There had been periodical restoration in the gompa. Today what we can see is the wood carvings on the frescos have very prominent Hindu influence which carries the truthfulness of the story of those being done by a pandit. There is a nice staircase leading from ground floor to a top chamber in one of the temples. The stair case is nothing but a sturdy tree trunk with steps scooped out from it. It’s innovative and nice to look at.
Like most of the Ladakh gompas, Alchi also has a temple for Maitreya the Future Buddha and a grand statue of Avalokiteshwara Buddha. There may be many differences among different forms of Buddhas, but the basis difference that we could locate being a lay person is the gesture of fingers – Mudra. Most probably different Mudras on different statues are carrying different meaning to be conveyed to human kind.
Like the village homes, there are trees inside the gompa premises. So bird population is also a sight over there. We went at the end of the day, time for the birds to return to nests and time of having fewer tourists around. This may be the reason that we could watch more birds and louder chirping in Alchi than in other gompas.
Alchi gives some sort of physical comfort or peace in its premises. Reason for this may be its less height of 3100 m than that of Lamayuru which is sitting at a height of 3510 m. The feeling of coming home and there is nowhere to go at least for the day comes throughout the body and mind. Especially, as we visited at the end of the day, the desire of retiring was even more.
Anyway, we had to come out from the place and return to Shey. Before that like the ritual expected to be performed by any tourist, we did our souvenir shopping from the wayside shops lining up to the gompa gates. Every shop is overflowing with their artifact collections. Everything is horribly high priced. But remember, you are not shopping for need, but for entertainment. And the entertainer has only four months to earn and a whole year to feed. So three times high prices are justified. We, the two girls in our group, purchased some jewelry items from an abandon collection. Others went for decorative items like Buddha face etc.
In and around Leh
Previous day was too tiring with all of its journeys through several high altitudes that we needed a resting day to regenerate our energy levels. We chose to roam around Leh leisurely for one full day.
Hall of fame
We started with “Hall of Fame” – the war memorial museum of Indian army just outside Leh near the airport. The theme of this museum is 1962 war with Pakistan and the Kargil war. Like other war memorials, it contains various medals, weaponry, battle and survival equipment etc. The articles I personally felt most attractive are the letters on display from soldiers. They reveal tremendous mental states of a man when he sees death face to face at every moment of his existence.
Our next hangout is Spituk gompa. Literally it looks over Leh army cantonment. This gompa is well known in army for Kalimata as one of its deities. The deity is actually Tara in Buddhism which is similar to Kali for Hindus. Both the religions are clubbed together over this deity.
View from the gompa is divided in two parts. The front portion shows the stretch of army and air force settlement in Leh. The backside view contains green agricultural fields, Sindhu river, wavy plains at the feet of rugged mountain on the opposite bank of the river and brown mountains as the boundary of the scene. These mountains being a bit away from the gompa hill, the panorama is more beautiful than expected.
We had heard much about the palace, but it did not seem to us that attractive. Perhaps, as just previous day we had been to more beautiful and fascinating places that this palace could not add to our expectation. Or maybe, we were too tired to put much mind into it. Whatever might be the reason, we did not put much effort and time in the palace.
It is said that Leh palace is a miniature of Lhasa’s Potala palace. The vicinity of Sindhu even resembles with the Brahmaputra or Tsangpo as it is called in Tibet. But another recent study shows it is actually other way around. Potala was built following Leh palace design.
Leh palace is presently in ruining state and there is an effort to repair it. But maybe due to the volume of the repairing work, the outcome of the effort is not much visible. There is no organized navigation direction for the visitors to explore the palace. Many rooms are so dark that it seems not worth to enter there. And because of such continuous maintenance, the fresco of the palace has become really dull. The charm and glory of the ex living quarters of royal family is somehow missing in the building.
The rooms and corridors of the palace are less high. Something that is characteristic for the ancient structures of this region. Possibly, the climate again played the decisive role for such design.
There is an open terrace in the palace. From here you can see the old Leh is stretched from just bottom of the palace. Frankly, the area is not good looking, and it is difficult to believe that the area was such slum-like when the kings were there in the palace. This area shows the struggling face of the town.
Atop the hillock of the palace, there is Tsemo Gompa. One has to climb a stretch of steps to reach there. Our exhaustion did not allow us to explore it.
Our last stop of the day in Leh was at Shanti Stupa. This is a Japanese stupa, dedicated for world peace. The presence of golden Buddha within the voluminous pure white stupa on the hillock where it is located binds one to the serenity of the place. There is a high mountain at the back of the stupa and the front view stretches up to the Leh palace, Tsemo Gompa above it – the small remote houses in the same hill where the palace stands and the patches of greens and village house everywhere in the locality. This place is not to explore, but to sit comfortably and spend time as much as one wants. Air will be blowing hard without any pause, it will be difficult to keep on staring, but like any other high elevation platform, it will not allow one to move away.
There is a humble sign board at Shanti Stupa asking the visitors to maintain the calm of the place. So nobody is prone to run around or shout. Sometimes, it seems keeping calm in such places comes naturally. First of all, it is so difficult to do normal works of day to day life that it is really not possible to spend energy lavishly just for fun. Evidence for this we can see in the style of music and dance of such places. They are never much energy consuming. Even for us, the low land people, they may also seem monotonous or boring. But the real reason is to hold energy as much as possible.
The second and the more significant reason maybe the way of life. People are contended. They don’t have to convince others all the times. Nature has taught them to be understanding and tolerable to many things that we cannot imagine. So finally, they don’t really have to shout. We saw in Ladakh, sometimes when we ourselves talked with loud voice, which is natural to us, it echoes so hard and sometimes it vibrates inside the room that it makes us ashamed of ourselves to create such noise. Possibly, these natural replies also make the people to be soft speaking and soft behaving.
At the end of the day, once again we all came to the waters of Sindhu at Sindhu Darshan site. This is a project initiated by Mr. LK Advani to let people from rest of India know that the holy Sindhu covers at least some portion of its long journey through our country, not entirely through Tibet and present Pakistan. An annual cultural festival is being arranged since some years now at this site. It is good to be near the river once again, but here it is narrow and somehow shy. The vastness and kingly appearance in Sangam is not present here. As if this much interference of people is not really enjoyed by the river. It was even darker and cooler, so we came back to guest house.
The trip to Nubra valley takes two days with one night stay in Diskit – the most prominent town of the region.
Two rivers – Nubra and Shyok – together form Nubra valley. Shyok is the larger one with wide flat mud color water. Its contribution in forming the valley is more than river Nubra. But in Ladakhi, Shyok means death. Now none will wish to live in a place which means ‘death’. So came the way out, the valley is named after the other, though minor, river – Nubra.
Nubra is at the foothill of Karakoram Range. So when we go from Leh, we have to cross part of Himalyas, entire Ladakh Range and descend towards Karakoram. To do so, we have to cross namely the highest motorable pass in the world – Khardung La, at a height of 5602 meters. Khardung La is famous as bi-cycling summit also. A clear steep road leads to the pass. There are tourists throughout the road from Leh cycling up to Khardung La. Oxygen level at Khardung La is significantly low and many tourists need the help of portable oxygen cylinders. When we were preparing for Nubra, Yangjor achole made us purchasing a cylinder in the previous evening. We crossed Khardung La in morning, it was perfectly chilly. There may be temptation for tourists to be there for longer time, but it is recommended to leave the place sooner and come to the areas with higher oxygen in air.
In the month of July also we got ice just after crossing Khardung La. We just stopped somewhere on the roadside and climbed a bit on the slope of the ice covered hill side. Ice was melting at that time, and it would go on for some more days before starting freezing again for a prolonged winter.
The road after Khardung La is tough. Just after the pass starts mud road apparently without any end. And as a cherry on the cake it was under construction and repair in most of the places. Riding on such a road is an adventure in itself that reminds you the real feel when we see the beautiful picture taken of the same road.
This trialing road ends at Khardung village, after crossing North Pullu, the base of Khardung La pass, which is the first stop after crossing Khardung La. Our Thinles achole packed bread-butter early in the morning for breakfast. Some of us took that and others opted for the Maggie available in the only food outlet of the village. The same eatery provided tea also.
Khrdung is one among many villages those came to be known to people due to their strategic location on the busy tourist route. This road that we were travelling was part of historic silk route. From the plains of India to central Asia, this was the major link. This road stretched itself beyond Nubra valley towards Baltistan and Tashkhand, but both the extensions are closed for political reasons. Here in Khrdung, there is a small mountain stream flowing. Yaks and djos of the village graze around the stream whole day. In night all of them will be locked up in the community cattle shed to secure them from wild animals.
Well, it is difficult to imagine that presence of wild animals is a threat here, but they are there. The mountains around us have unimaginable nooks and corners, which can be haven for the wilderness of nature.
There was a small log bridge on the stream meant particularly for the cattle. Though water was not deep enough to drown such a big beast, flow was certainly strong enough to topple them over and bring injuries. The clever biggies never faltered to keep on crossing through that bridge only.
Leave Khardung and head further for the next stretch before seeing any hope of shelter. We stopped briefly at an unknown river bank, just before another bridge. The spot seemed well frequented by daily commuters. Sort of cooking and eating ground. We saw a bus coming from an interior village heading Leh. The passengers got down at this spot and took their simple portable food and refreshed at the river. The group was not of tourists. Some people grouped up to take the long journey to accomplish their unavoidable works related to the rest of the world. For us, it was strange to witness such activities. Their journey, it seems, might have been longer than ours, provided they are coming from farther hamlets than Nubra.
The place itself was of pristine nature. Slopes on the surrounding mountains were gradual, there was meadow and there was the crystal blue sky and the foaming river below. We could stretch, we could walk, and we could recompose and make ready ourselves for the upcoming road.
After leaving the river side, our next stop was at Khalsar village. Here on river Shyok kept our company till Diskit. It was post noon when we reached Khalsar. Achole told we can stop and take lunch here or directly go to Diskit driving 3 hours more. We chose to fuel ourselves up.
Khalsar is bigger than Khardung. There are some restaurants to choose from. Mostly they are serving basic meals, which taste awesome at such locations. Go to the end of the market area, there is river Shyok, with its big fat muddy hue. It tells you “see me, I will go with you up to the destination, till when you don’t have any more halt”.
We left Khalsar and took up the dust again. This part of the road was winding blindly sometimes. I was sitting in the front seat of Innova, it was appearing anytime it may hit anything or jump into nothing. After a long time of this tour, I read the novel “Shahzada Darashukoh”, where some parts of present Afghanistan are described. I was feeling as if I have seen everything in that novel myself, I was particularly remembering this journey.
After Khalsar, we descended for some time and drove on the level of Shyok. This part of the road is too difficult to forget. On the left of us was the mighty rolling Himalayan range. Right of us was peaceful Shyok (even though rough under currents were inside) and after Shyok the visible range was of Karakoram. It’s difficult even to imagine such a scene. We read Karakoram only in geography books and saw some diagrams in maps. Now here he was awaiting me. I don’t have suitable vocabulary.
During this drive we crossed some marshlands. Some strange phenomenon at this height. But well, Nubra is at lower altitudes than Leh.
It was afternoon when we reached the village of Diskit. I got fascinated by seeing a Kendriya Vidyalaya in the village. It has the structure of stone huts. Suitable for the place and in total contradiction to other KVs that we see in plains. The first feeling of fascination vanished with the awe. Here also teachers will be posted. Some of them may come from the farthest end of the country. They would take an eternity to reach here from their natives. Tremendous it is here when you are in India.
Our hotel in Diskit was Hotel Sten Del. Nice and comfortable. We already had lunch. So we took bath and slept off for a while.
If I say, we went out in evening, the misunderstanding may raise the doubt that we went out in dark. Here to remind again, evening in Ladakh does not come so easily. Around 8 pm only it starts getting dark. So we had enough time to make an outing to Hunder.
Hundar is famous for its white sand dunes and double humped Bactrian camels. They say (not the camels), these camels are the descendents of the camels that traveled from Bactria to Indus valley through silk route. There is nothing not to believe this statement as Ladakh lays on the silk route as a very important nodal link between mountainous central Asia and Indian plains.
Here we come in touch with River Nubra. A small stream. Far away is flowing River Shyok, washing the feet of mighty Karakoram. We could see the mountain walls of Karakoram but were discouraged by Yangjor Achchole to go to the river. Here comes the famous fact of judging distance in mountains. What was looking so near actually was a day’s walk.
Well, we dropped the idea to see the other river and amused ourselves in the small stream on which the valley is named. The river banks here are of white sand dunes. The Bactrian camels would take you to take a round over the sands. It was nothing of a comfortable ride, but enough adventurous though. But, I personally did not like the idea of riding the animal, all for fun.
While coming back from Hundar, you can stop anywhere to see the span of Karakoram, Nubra, sand dunes and color changing sky above. We stopped at one nook of the road.
In hotel it was just to take dinner, play a bit of board games and go to bed. We have to start our return journey next morning.
We got some time in morning to roam around the hotel. There are some more hotels and homes nearby and some beautiful village gardens of flowers and vegetables. It was a happy and leisure roaming after breakfast.
We left the hotel and headed back. Before leaving the valley we planned to visit Diskit Gompa. It has a huge open air Maitreya Buddha statue. On the way up to the Gompa, there is a small curio shop. I purchased some Ladakh themed t-shrit, knots, pendants etc. It is run by the Gompa itself and a friendly monk was the keeper.
Here in Diskit Gompa we saw that a bottle of whisky was offered to Buddha. Offering like this first I saw in Sikkim, most probably in the monastery of Pakyong. There toffee, candy etc. were offered to Buddha. Buddhism is such a regular way of life for the believers that offering can be anything from common people’s platters.
There is a story in Diskit Gompa. It was told by a young monk. It seems there kept a hand and head of a Mongol demon used to harm people during and after his lifetime. Keeping his hand and head in the Gompa ensures that the demon cannot spread his harms onto the people overcoming the good charm of the monastery. We actually saw these body parts, but unable to authenticate the truthfulness of the story.
Wherever we went to a monastery, we could see the elaborated ribbon braid door pullers. They will be hung on the rings of the doors beautifying them and solving the purpose of a heavy hinged door puller. Diskit is no exception.
We climbed up through the main steps. While returning, I and Vijith took a different set of steps just out of curiosity. It was along a gorge and though stone railing was there, it was always giving the empty stomach feeling of toppling over. Here we noticed a strange sound. There was nothing visible and the sound was suggesting that it comes from a heavy stream. We tried to lean over the gorge to find the stream deep beneath. It was of no use. We were stunned and we decided to stand and hear for a while in hope of making out something. As we concentrated on the sound, it became the only sound around us. It was louder and clearer now. Finally it gave us the explanation. Our staircase railing guards us from the adjacent deep gorge. After that, there is a steep mountain wall. Not very high, but high enough to block the vision of its other side. After that wall, there is another gorge and through this gorge the stream is flowing. So it is like there are several parallel mountain walls stood over there revealing the cross section view of the valley to us.
The high statue of Maitreya is on the adjacent hillock of the Gompa. Climb down from the statue platform and there is the prayer room and Dalai Lama house. Me and Sandeep started peeping in the Dalai Lama house with full curiosity. A monk was cleaning the building at that time. He allowed us to go inside. It is awesome. It’s a small establishment. But it has everything that a man of such height may need during his occasional visit here. Other than bedroom, bathroom etc. it has drawing room, preaching room and even a library. Seeing this was seeing the personal chamber of the highest man of one of the world’s oldest religion. Both of us were awestruck. The same monk took us to the prayer hall and explained how old are the Thangkas hanging on the walls over there. He told that even older Thangkas are there in the treasury of the Gompa and brought into display only on special occasions. Co-incidentally he visited Kushalnagar monastery, the same that we visited during our Coorg tour. So we got some common points to talk on. Here he showed us to tie silk scarf praying something.
We left Diskit and headed for our den in Shey. Now we were traveling as experienced travelers, along with Shyok. The breeze from Shyok was brushing our faces with a bit of moisture. We were seeing small hamlets along the other bank of the river and so on.
Same road again
We reached Khardung La by noon. Previous day it was morning and we were wearing everything that we could carry. I personally was looking like a standing colorful mummy then. But now, when sun is high on our head I was wearing just a cotton full shirt. Stunning is Ladakh, stunning are its deviations.
At this broad day light, we could enjoy the valley scenes from top. Ice was melting. Sky was taking the clearer hue. Everything was ready to be pictured.
While return from Nubra, we witnessed the forming of rivers. There was ice on the mountain walls. They started melting with the approach of summer. The drops were finding easiest paths on the mountain walls and flowing down. Many tiny streams are joining and becoming a noticeable one before they reach the valley bed below. It’s awesome. Better geographical museum than this! No way.
Reach Shey, reach home. Next day we have to start early, we are going to Pangong Tso.
Halfway to Pangong Tso
A strange day. Durbuk village. These should be the key words for this day. We started early in the morning. Our bigger achole had already packed boiled eggs and bread-butter for everybody as breakfast to be taken on the way. We were all a bit down due to last day’s long journey from Nubra. Still we kept our spirits up and started cheerfully. As usual I sat beside chhote achole, our driver. He put “Om Ma Ne Padme Hum” chant in the car player. Actually we liked it on the previous day and he might have thought it would be cherished again. But things were different now. With previous day’s unrecovered tiredness and early morning getting ready the continuous, monotonous chanting brought incessant sleep to my eyes. It’s no way recommended to doze off sitting beside the driver, and without doubt, it is far more unacceptable on the roads of such high altitudes. So I decided to go to back seat of our Innova, normally I hate most.
We were continuously crossing dawning hamlets. A few army outposts. And we were continuously gaining altitudes. After a brief drive through relatively straight roads, suddenly we took a whirling path. This road was going straight to Chang-la, another high altitude pass awaiting us.
As we drove on, the strange Durbuk village kept us company on the left. It sounds strange that a mountain village kept company to a long stretch of road. But it is in this way. The road is on one side of the mountain. Going higher and higher. The village is in the valley at the foot of this straight mountain. So with each second turn, we can see the village lying down. There are fields, crops spread over it. The village was looking like a green carpet woven with stunning artistic skill. Just imagine, on my right, I guess I can say, “50 shades of gray”, that was what the mountain wall gave to me. And on my left, far below my feet, there was green revolution. I don’t know whether I’ll ever forget this!
While still going up, I saw meerkat for the first time in my life. And you see, I saw it in wild. A shy creature. Posed for a while and ran to its hide out.
After a short break, we drove to Chang-la and stopped to have some steaming tea.
It was super chill at that altitude. It’s really very difficult to explain the cold bites we were getting over there. No scale of hot beverage seemed hot enough. Perhaps I saw similar cold in my subconscious mind when I traveled to Gomukh. But there I was nestled between maa and baba. Here I had to stand alone, and yes, it was testing. Here also we got ice, but not as much as on Khardung-la.
The next part of the road is not much descriptive as I have already talked so much on Ladakh roads. Suddenly a cargo van came from opposite side and told achole something in Ladakhi. As we enquired, he answered in a cool manner, possibly road is blocked ahead due to landslide.
Hello, “landslide!”, have we heard it correct! But yes, we did. Anyway, he drove on. And we reached to the point where army was stopping any car approaching. There was a major landslide last night. People who stayed in Pangong could not come back, we who are about to go could not go further. We were among the early birds, that’s why we didn’t get any information. As we stood there many more cars kept on coming. All waited for some time. Army came and told it won’t be cleared within at least next four hours. Nice. We have to cancel Pangong for the day. Because, we have come just half way. If we wait for four hours, we won’t be able to come back by that night. And, there is seriously no guarantee that road will be cleared within four hours. It may take any length of time.
Seven broken hearts started homeward. Seven hungry mouths ate the boiled egg-bread-butter breakfast in the car. From Chang-la I was again on the front seat. Now I found myself peeling egg for a shy hesitating chhote achole. But that is life. When you are on the road, the outdoor people become the ones you care for most, as you are taken care of by them only.
But now what to do for the remaining time on that day! We decided to visit Hemis gompa. Largest in Ladakh. It has a nice museum also.
Just outside the gompa, there is a small restaurant serving some options of food. We went for some plates of momo. After it was served and we started eating, we realized it was so much more for our stomachs. We sought help from the waiter-cum-manager. It did not seem a problem to him. He simply took the remaining untouched momos on another plate and counted the pieces to give the rational discount. How precious food is, can be understood only in such terrains where having money almost ensures nothing about availability of food.
Hemis is a giant. In all aspects. I didn’t feel anything special that I can feel to tell here. Maybe I was struggling to cope up with the fact that I am not seeing Pangong. Hemis national park surrounds the gompa and the village. While driving through it the mustard fields caught my eyes far more. A small spread of land. But due to the bright yellow of mustard flowers, it was looking like a bulged up canvas. That is what of Hemis remained in me.
Hemis over. Come home. Another day left with us. After that, an early morning flight to Delhi. Not sufficient to go for Tso Moriri, too much to try something around. And by then, we became a bit less interested in visiting more gompas. Otherwise we could have tried for Stok, it is very near to Shey. Anyway, we were confused on what to do.
In Leh as a local
I and Sandeep wanted to give Moriri a chance. But none other. They wanted to do white water rafting. Now, I personally don’t see rafting much interesting. It is something coming to a silent place and instead of feeling the silence, making some noise without any reason. Instead of listening to the waves’ sounds (so many are there), disturbing them with our chaos. And for Sandeep, he did it while visiting Gangtok and has no further wish.
So they four went for rafting on Sindhu. We two went to roam in Leh market to enjoy the gift that Sindhu keeps on giving us as the bearer of our 5000 years old civilization.
This day we chose to travel solely in public transports. Thus we got into a share auto that dropped us out of Leh market. We started through the first lane we saw. Shops shops shops. I was feeling why I don’t need all such exotic items in my hot native land! Why don’t I have to use heavy woolens all the time! It is not the matter what you shop. It is the matter where you roam. Lanes after lanes, all tranquil. Business is going on with utter low voices. Neither the customer, nor the shop owner tries to prove their point with any loud manner. I was visiting the nodal point of the silk route. I was realizing how nature’s silence, nature’s sounds make people express them in the same manner.
It was this day that we saw woman from Dah-Hanu villages. Theoretically the pure Aryan blood in her veins. She looked different. Perhaps due to be pure Aryan. But I felt she was carrying the name for this civilization.
We hopped in local café, local book store and started coming back. We planned to visit Shey gompa on the way. It has a tall sitting Maitreya Buddha statue, my favorite.
We got our directions to bus stand from locals. We climbed down age old stone public steps at the end of the market. Reached bus stand. Looked for our bus. Got into a packed one (the only available then). Got into talks with locals. Got clear instructions where to get down to go to Shey gompa from them and finally reached Shey gompa.
Shey gompa is inside Shey palace. We were exhausted due to continuous walks in thin oxygen. We climbed a bit, I took Sandeep’s backpack as he was panting heavily and we stood for a while. This time was already dark evening in south of Himalayas. But there it was just an afternoon. And as gompa and palace were open dawn to dusk, we had time.
There was ticket that we had to take. But it seems that monks are really not much examining. It is understood people would take ticket. And for locals, who are coming to worship Maitreya, no ticket is required.
Shey had been the ancient capital of Ladakh before Leh. Hence the palace has its intrinsic old era wood architecture. More technically gorgeous than Leh palace. The gompa here was meant for the royal family. You can go to many nooks and corners and find glimpses of religious objects. Just like our village home, important things are kept as per ease of access, not to show to the uncertain visitors. Shey palace and gompa will make you cozy, willing to sit on and on.
The Maitryea is as majestic as it can be. It is huge. I don’t bother to remember the measurements. The hugeness is enough to inspire awe. Data have no meaning. The statue sits in lotus position. Common Maitreya pose. It bears bright Tibetan Buddhist hues and appeals like nothing else. The ruining palace is in its grays, and inside, there sits the bright future Buddha. Once again, it is to see to feel. No description has any match.
From here we walked back to Botho. By then others came back. This night we four (other than the married couple) would spend in the typical Ladakhi room in ground floor with short bedside tables topped with apricot bowls and floor spread with thick and colorful mattresses.
We finished our dinner with acholes. Made the calculations. Paid the dues. Used outhouse toilet with torch – no electricity at that time. Went into a deep consciousness of last night in Ladakh for unknown time before another return.