It’s strange how you lose your grip over the city you love and want to, at times escape from it. It’s the chaos, the incessant cacophony, the daily grind, the endless journeys of needless materialism. To heal from these urban maladies, we decided to embark on a road trip away from fellow humans where phones don’t ring and internet is virtually non-existent. Our chosen destination consisted of mountain trails embellished with some of the highest natural lakes, displaying anastomoses of great rivers and sprinklings of deep blue in the sky we have never seen before. Where the stars adorn the night with a brilliance that can only be imagined in fairy tales and where the cold weather and warm people presents a perfectly harmonized contrast that soothes the eyes and soul and fresh air wakes you up to the view of the snow peppered peaks of the magnanimous mountains after a night of blissful slumber under the naked skies. We went with the hope that the sublime landscapes will calm us down while the photographic catharsis will allow the release of our inner angst.
Our 15 day trip to ladakh region of J& K was planned for traversing, by road, the entire Manali –Leh Highway with detours to the three big lakes and then through the Leh- Srinagar highway with detour to the Zanskar Valley. This blog speaks of our experiences and journeys in the first stretch, the Manali Leh Highway. The revelations of Zanskar Valley are written in our next blog. (http://www.dralitunkiwala.com/blog/?p=385)
Our Route: (Manali – Jispa – Tso Kar – Tso Moriri – Pang Gong Tso – Sumoor –Hunder –Leh)
Landing in Chandigarh, we drove all day to reach Manali. The open fields that welcome you with tight hugs on the way are a treat to watch. Lush green, full of hope, they fill our hearts with joy. I can’t decide if I love the open fields of Punjab more or the snow peaks of Himachal more, the warm waters of Lakshadweep more or the salty placid lakes of Tso Kar more. But I know for sure that the urban shenanigans no more entice me as much as these outings do. Most of the route follows the Beas River that has a shade of turquoise green complimenting the green of the prosperous mountains flanking it throughout. We reached Manali after sundown. After staying the night at Manali we initiated our journey to Jispa. We woke up in the serene mountains set aglow in the soft morning light. Nestled within its bosom was a beautiful house and the view from our room was filled with delight. Johnsons lodge was a quaint little place with wooden rooms and spectacular service. The freshly made juicy trout during dinner treated our bodies well.
As we started our journey to Jispa (6-7 hours) the first look of the magnificent mountains on outskirts of Manali was awesome. The snow within its crevices speaks of the great times to come on the way further. Every turn presents a new vista; every breath brings a new lease to life.
The infamous Rohtang pass was a smooth sailing ride with beautiful prayer flags adorning it. The scenic beauty of Himachal has been talked about a lot. You have to witness its grandeur to believe it. The glorious mountains standing tall with pride make us remain in awe throughout. The lazy tributaries of the Chandra River meandered with us all along the route and at one point they happily coalesced with the Bhaga River.
Their union seemed to be celebrated by the mountains and the sky, both of which brought out their best views on display to enhance the scene further. We had a simple lunch at Khoksar village that was a conglomerate of 10 odd houses. The rest of the journey up to Jispa was uneventful and along the way we witnessed the only fuel station for 400km. The little town of Keylong made us stop for a couple of pictures.
The roads all along the way kept their curvaceous promises and left us dizzy by the time we reached the altitude of 13000 odd feet above sea level to check in to our secluded abode in the middle of the galaxy, welcoming us with a deafening silence, only the continuous muffled sound of the river at the far end percolated the atmosphere. It was a cold evening and we called it a day after a long walk and some tasty food.
The third day of our trip included a drive of 7 hours from Jispa to Tso kar (lake). The route passes through little sleepy villages with fewer humans and more animals. Dercha….Patsio….Zing Zing bar….Baralacha Pass….Sarchu; are the landmarks we crossed before entering Jammu state and reached Paang.
On the way we crossed the 21 beautiful Gatta loops and reached 15000 odd feet to cross the Nakeela and Lachungla (‘la, means pass). Thereafter we took our detour from the Manali Leh highway and navigating the dirt roads we reached the Tso Kar Lake settlement.
The journey left us awestruck. Barren mountains devoid of trees and life bejewelled the landscape. The rivers; full of flow, reeling with life carried on their journey with unrestrained persistence and the road we were on seemed like it had an eternally endless existence obstinately carving its niche from within the stubborn mountains. As we go higher on the mountain passes a peek down into the valley from the precarious edge of the road shows us the twirling route we have taken and the entire stretch shimmered proudly in the soft light of the sun.
As we reached Tso Kar we were left enthralled. 12 tents picturesquely arranged in the plains surrounded by differently textured mountains in all shades of brown welcomed us. We were staying in the middle of the valley, freezing cold; the sky was a colour so pure in blue that it lifted up the spirits of any onlooker. Our evening walk to Tso Kar Lake was eventful to say the least. The lake was a mirage; at high altitude with oxygen levels depleted walking at a brisk pace for a few steps can get you panting heavily. The lake seemed just a few steps away and we started walking in that direction only to find the lake mysteriously moving away further away from us. But the long walk was worth it. As the pellucid lake calmly basked under the glorious blue sky, the surrounding stark mountains stood for eternity like mere spectators, adding to the beauty of the landscape.
At night the canopy of stars decorated the sky like glittering jewels and as I kept awake in my tent I was fascinated that there is just a piece of cloth between me and the heavenly Milky Way above. Sleeping in a tent for the first time was not easy.
The cold persistently pierced through three thick layers of blankets and reached our shivering bodies, making us value all the heat that we suffer through, back home. The previous day the mountains made me feel small, today I realised that they themselves are so tiny when compared to the millions of galaxies that surround us. We, humans are infinitely small as compared to these elements. What choice do we have but to be humbled by the powers of nature?
Fourth day was a tranquil journey from Tso kar to Tso Moriri (3 hours). The first living beings that greeted us with a gallop were the Kiang. The Polo Konka pass on the way made for some colourful pictures. I love the prayer flags on these passes. Legend has it, that the traveller must encircle these passes and tie a prayer flag that will keep them safe on their journey.
On the way we passed Sumdoh village where we had our daily dose of noodles and reached Korzok village near Tso Moriri Lake, where we stayed the night.
The rocky roads took us to Tso Moriri, a salt lake not frequented by too many tourists. The first glance of the lake was astounding. Peeking at it from between the layers of characteristic mountains, our anticipation to see its beautiful body in full glory increased drastically. And what a glorious display of beauty it was! We drove along its perimeter before we reached the Indian Army post. While our documents were being verified I could not help but feel proud at the sight of the Indian flag flying high, with snow peaked mountains providing a magnificent backdrop.
We checked into a spectacular view from our room. A small monastery (Photang) visible from our window was the temporary residence of the Dalai Lama used during his visits here. It was idyllically nestled with the crystal blue lake in the background, a picture of eternal calmness and serenity.
There is a little quaint monastery at the heart of Tso Kar village and in its neighbourhood is this beautiful tiny restaurant that makes hot momos and chowmein. The warm food was devoured in no time.
It was incredible to see how they manage the kitchen in about 40 sq feet with supreme efficiency, with a great view of the lake.
As we strolled around, the lazy lake lay bare below the naked sky in broad daylight, making eye contact with its heavenly companion, devouring its magnificent beauty in the rich extravagance of space that nature has provided them.
Our 5th day entailed the journey from Tso Moriri to Pang Gong Tso (7 hours). The route included traversing the Mahay Village followed by Nyoma and Loma villages that lead to the Tsagala (pass), on crossing which we crossed the Chorgok Village and reached Chushul.
There is an easier way to reach Pang Gong Tso using the Manali Leh highway, but we chose this scenic route. The journey up to Mahay was stuffed with views of the exquisite austere mountains. The only thread of life along these is through the gentle stream of water that provides much needed respite from lifeless landscapes around us.
The scenes transformed after Mahay Village as our way was skirted by the mighty, stunning Indus River. Indus river, the name brings with it so much of history of emperors trying to cross it to invade India and of the multitude of civilizations attached to it. As we passed through Nyoma, we realized that this is the most picturesque part of our journey with the sandy mountains on the way providing a refreshing contrast to the unproductive hills of past few days. Each mountain had its own unique texture of sand that contrasts differently with the blue-green waters of the Indus. After the Tsagala (pass) the road was non-existent for almost 5 km. The Kumaon regiment memorial, in memory of Indian soldiers who gave their life in 1962 skirmish with China was the only construction on the way.
As we entered Chushul village, the journey became more arduous as in most places there are very poor road conditions (Due to recent heavy rains) and for the last two hours of the journey there is no road at all. This route requires inner line permits to be procured from the Army and for many miles you do not see another vehicle. Several beautiful army check posts on the way add to the sense of discipline and patriotism and garner a tremendous respect for the soldiers posted there.
The onward journey from Chushul village was marked by sighting of the Pang Gong Tso. For next two hours, as we reached Marek and Mann villages, the lake kept its company with us along with a plethora of wild life like the kiang, yaks, pashmina sheep and horses.
The 134 km long but narrow Pang Gong is an unbelievable deep blue, sometimes turquoise lake that is cupped by protective mountains that border it throughout. This saline beauty is 5km wide at its broadest point and less than 25% of it is within India. Thanks to the different appearances from the mountains, the lake offers numerous vistas, at every 15 degree turn of your head.
As the placid lake dissolved into the lap of the weary mountain, revealing the stark contrast between the colourful depiction of life and barren, cold, serene and astoundingly beautiful hillscape, our eyes devoured the bounty nature offered us. The sky, though majestic in its dealings, in most places, was dwarfed by the sheer beauty of the elements on earth. The horizon was ashamed and hidden behind the mountains, questioning its own existence, while the wind caressed them as it soothed our senses. The sun was merely a spectator who, swooned like us, came to pay its daily obeisance to the pellucid lake. The stars provided a shimmering background to heal and cleanse the surroundings that have got spent by the human eyes that engulfed them during the day’s proceedings.
When I came to these three lakes I had read so much about them, I wondered what is there for me to photograph and write about this place. But now I can say that no picture can capture their beauty and no words can describe the remarkable arrangements of elements that have been organised by nature, to be devoured at least once in lifetime of all mortal creatures like us. A photograph of these lakes will show you only one in ten thousandth part of the actual beauty these places possess. Man here has failed miserably; whereas nature created these wonders effortlessly, man cannot even capture it in its entirety.
Our 6th day involved travel to the famous Nubra Valley (5-6 hours). We took an interesting route again staying away from the beaten track. Our first big landmark was the Tangtse village followed by Durbuk, Shyok, Agam and Khalsar villages that finally hauled us into Nubra.
Our night stay was at the pictorial Sumoor Village. The serene beauty from Tangtse to Durbuk was again beautified by the Army presence. It warms your heart and fills it with pride to see these gentlemen work here for the nation in hostile conditions far away from their family. Enroute the Shyok River gave us company and displayed its mighty beauty in various unbelievable forms.
As the opulent river meandered through the heart of the valley, it showed a definite purpose, a positive energy that brought life to the most desolate regions in frigid wilderness.
The road was in poor condition in several stretches, which is good for us as we go slowly and soak in the views. We took a long time to reach Agam village. In many areas the recent rains had washed away all the mud roads and left them in tatters. Around 15 km before Khalsar village we experienced a mighty sandstorm that blurred the scenery while providing a lot of drama as we traversed through it. Khalsar village was the worst affected by the rains in July this year where massive landslides caused damaged to houses if most villagers. The spirit still seemed intact, when we stopped there for tea; the owners of the place were working hard to serve some tourists passing by.
After Khalsar we passed the quaint Tirit village and reached Lakjung village that had beautiful roads flanked by Poplar wood trees. The gush of greenery was a welcome change in the scenery. As we entered the Sumoor village we found ourselves gleefully happy with the place we had to spend our night at. Silk route cottages are made of bamboo and they had a secret garden with beautiful flowers.
Our evening walk consisted of an uphill exploration to the monastery in Sumoor. We saw some beautifully crafted houses ensconced between the sandy hills behind and a layer of poplar trees in front. They could entice anyone to give up their busy urban life and live in the hills. At dinner we met an old couple from Belgium who were in India to do the Spiti Valley and Ladakh region. Inspiring stuff, when I see the old generation do that and not get bogged down by aches and pains.
One thing that has left me spellbound in an all new starry way was the night sky. With zero pollution and clear skies, I was blessed to have no moon nights throughout the trip so far. The glittering bodies spread over like an ocean in the sky taking over the beauty of the night to an all new level and to top that I was able to capture the mighty Milky Way. For me astrophotography is a new genre but I must say it’s fascinating.
As I froze out in the open with layers of clothing to keep my body temperature to mortally acceptable levels I looked at the skies thanking my stars. The frequency with which shooting stars appeared that night allowed me to make a million wishes that will now come true.
On our seventh day we left from Sumoor and after some local sightseeing reached Hunder. This is a short distance so we make it longer by going to see the Panamik hot springs and the famous Diskit Monastery.
We passed Tigger village on the way with cute school going children were waiting at several bus stops, the colours of their ruddy jackets and cheeks matching perfectly. After crossing the Chimshan and the Trishna village we reached Panamik village. The hot springs turned out to be a touristy affair although it was fascinating to see hot water spring emerge from the womb of the earth, so hot that you could not touch it with your hands for more than a second.
We then headed to the Diskit. The road to the monastery was a long straight well maintained one and the monastery kept its promise of providing a beautiful picture in the foreground of the unadorned mountains.
The mention of the word ‘monastery’ conjures images of the flickering candles, the scent of incense, the monks with bright red attires, the mellifluous chants that govern the rhythm of the breath and the meditative silence. This is something that will surely provide for fodder that leads to an awakening of the soul. Peace finally beckons.
Avoiding the rush for a Bactrian camel ride we chose instead a pleasantly exhausting walk straight into the sunset. The sunset colours, snow peaked mountains, lush green valley and the tall poplar creating mesmerising silhouettes in the foreground sets up a scene worthy of a romantic song filming. The evening was spent chilling out outside our tent and looking at the colourful flowers and talking about the times gone by. The campfire at night provided the much needed heat in a climate that dropped the mercury to lower than comfortable levels in a hurry. Dinner was simple and sleep was sound.
We woke up at 6am on the eight day to go from Hunder to Leh. During our morning walk the Bactrian camels blessed us. The sleepy village of Hunder was just awakening to a glorious sunrise as we passed an open wheat field beautifully complimenting the mountains lit up by the first light. On the way to Leh we were enroute the Khardung village. The long winding roads lead us to Khardungla (pass), the highest motor able road in the world at 18000 odd feet. It was cold and we had to take a deep breath to get our fill of oxygen. On the other side of the pass we saw the Stok Kangri range of mountains and Leh town at the base of the valley.
We reached the hot Leh town with all superficial layers of clothes out. Passing through the streets of Leh gave us a great view of how we would spend the evening strolling around. I love these bustling chaotic markets (so full of colours and textures), but only for a short time, and only after my soul has been sanitized from too much human contact resulting from our 7 nights in ladakahi wilderness.
Leh, kept its promise of being the most touristy thing we will do on this trip, but it’s a welcome change, full time electricity and warm water all day never hurt anyone in these freezing environs, plus the great food scene will allow us to soak in the flavours of ladakh! With a nice sizzling meal at Gespo we rested for an hour and started our long evening walk in the market place. Seeing the various Tibetan crafts (that we had seen a hundred times before) we entered into a bookstore and got some detailed maps of the region. The next 7 days in the Zanskar region are routes not generally taken. A map will keep us on track.
The world of pashmina was a fascinating one. We found a nice shop where the agreeable shopkeeper explained to us all about it. The wool from the back of the sheep, from belly and from the neck and throat region is respected and used in different ways. The purest and most expensive pashminas wool comes from the neck of the sheep. To feel the softness of this supple material and imagine that it can keep someone so warm in such thin layers is amazing, that too with such a negligible weight. The Thiksey Monastery was a great experience, especially seeing the Monks at work.
The next day we started our journey on the Leh- Srinagar highway with revelation of the gigantic and spellbinding Zanskar Valley about which we write in our next blog.
Ladakh is said to be the land of passes, but to us it is much more, it’s the land on which historically significant and stunning, beautiful rivers chart out their meandering paths , the land of stupas of various shapes and sizes, the land of peaceful monasteries symbolizing sacrifice at a every level, the land of tranquility and spirituality, the land of dark blue skies, the land of mountains with varied colours and textures, the land of warm people and simple food, the land of winding endless untiring roads that go on for an eternity, with supremely hot days and spine-chillingly cold nights. Ladakh to us is an epitome of life in the mountains, a model of humble existence.