“The inhalation of fresh air is like a tonic for the soul, awakening each sense and energizing it with renewed vigor, raising it to a level of consciousness that reflects supreme awareness”
There are no easy days in the city. If you sit carefree and have a cup of tea to relish few moments of peace, the prickly conscience makes you feel guilty. More so, because you see everyone around you, trying to meet a target or achieve something with an incessant hurry. In Ladakh, you only see the river trying to reach its destination, that too, slowly without much haste, just persistently carving its way through the rocks while mocking you as it washes the dirt of your feet. Here the ambient city sounds consist of whirring engines and loud noises of people. Even silent is not truly silent. There, it’s only the soothing sound of water as it nuzzles past the rocks and the mellifluous sound of the wind as it expresses its eternal love for the magnificent mountains.
When you return from a 15 day trip to the isolated beauty of the Ladakh region, you realize that your physical being has come back, but subliminally, your mind still wanders in those majestic mountains, hearing the intoxicating gush of the vibrant river and feeling the soothing wind on the face, and more often than not, yearning for the endless road again.
Tranquil places have a great way of redefining things! On this exhilarating road journey in Ladakh region of Jammu & Kashmir, we redefined the meaning of life, a peaceful journey within our souls that bought to light interesting facets of our personalities, pleasantly surprising us!
The first half of our journey included a road trip from Manali, through Jispa along with the experience of staying on the 3 big lakes of Ladakh. We have written about those wonderful experiences in our previous blog, (http://www.dralitunkiwala.com/blog/?p=301).
The second part of our trip consisted of traversing through the stunning landscapes of the Zanskar Valley, all the way to Padum. A place where the earth comes to an end and with that our thirst to go elsewhere in search of peace is definitively quenched.
Our Route: Leh-Srinagar Highway up-to Kargil. From Kargil we turn into the Zanskar valley flanked by the Suru river and then the Zanskar river. The route follows Panamik, Parkachik, Rangdum and then reaches Padum with many smaller, even more quaintly named settlements along the way.
10th day into our journey, we started early morning from Leh to visit the Thiksey monastery and then went on to the Leh-Srinagar Highway (NH1). Our night halt was to be opposite the Lamayuru Monastery. We passed the Fotu la (pass), the Namkee la (pass), and on the way we were graced with the sight of the beautiful confluence, an eternal meeting point of the Indus and the Zanskar rivers, about 3km from Nimmu village. The grandeur of the two rivers is evident when seen from the top of the mountain. Both of them carry a different colour individually, but they merge into one, as if the divine designs have anastomosed them forever with surgical precision into one inseparable entity.
Enroute, the barren brown and sandy mountains, lit up by the morning sun, welcomed us. A detour from the road took us to the Alchi Monastery that was founded in 1020AD by Rinchen Zangpo and provides a beautiful glimpse of the ancient arts. The ornate paintings in the monastery are being restored to their former glory through efforts of multinational charities in collaboration with Archaeological survey of India. It was a great experience visualizing the restoration work with painstaking precision. The lunch at Zimskhang was a welcome change from the measly meals we were having so far on the trip.
The long straight roads on the Leh-Srinagar highway kept our spirits high and we devoured each mile on the road with a sigh, spellbound by the scenery that nature offered us. As we approached Lamayuru monastery, the mountains got reorganized in layers of ruggedness, giving them the appearance of moon land. Hence the name of our night stay was hotel Moon land. As we took our evening walk towards the monastery, we fell in love with everything on earth again. Lamayuru is one of the largest and oldest gompas in Ladakh, with a population of around 150 permanently residing monks.
The monks, the rhythmic chants, the spirituality in the air; it makes you want to merge into the elements that made you, and feel the peace in the minutest crevice of your physical being. After watching the glorious sunset work its colorful magic, in the already sublime surroundings we retired into the coldness of the night.
Early morning next day, we started from Lamayuru and through Kargil we had to reach Rangdum village.The first village of significance was Mulbekh. Apart from its double gompa, its famous for the Chamba Statue, a striking enormous figure carved into the rock face. It pictures a standing Maitreya Buddha or Buddha-to-come overlooking the old trade route and modern highway. As we travelled further we passed the Haniskot village and Budh Kharbu village where we saw lot of pashmina sheep ready to churn out high quality pashmina. After a late lunch we reached Kargil. Protected by heavy army presence, the town itself on the banks of the river looked peaceful. From Kargil we then entered the lush green environs of the Suru Valley. Here we had a lot of issues with the local Taxi Unions of Kargil stopping vehicles from Leh and harassing the customers.
As the sun reached its zenith, we passed several small and sleepy villages like the Minji, Trespone and Saliskot. Interspersed with heavy army presence, these villages invoke a sense of pride and patriotism, and at times your hand automatically rises to salute these men.
Following the path of surging 185 km long Suru river, in the Suru valley, we passed through the Faroona village, Kilmarse, Lankarchey and reached Sankoo Village. Every village brings with it a new hope for civilization, a new promise for a better tomorrow. As the beauty unfolded along the picturesque way, we reached the first big landmark of the day at the Panikhar Village. The Nun-Kun Glacier resides in the mountains of this village between the Nun and Kun peaks. We had a great view of it from the only functional tea stall we could find the entire day after leaving Kargil. The distances are not much, but the curvaceous roads slow you down and to add to the pleasant delay, is the need to stop to take pictures and capture the beauty of the landscapes in your camera.
The road from Parkachik to Rangdum was one of the most mesmerizing sojourns of the day. The road kept its promise to be with the Suru river. The roadside and all along till the base of the mountains was adorned by fall colored grass and shrubs. They added a unique dimension to the scene. Snow peaked mountains, textured differently in the rays of the gleaming afternoon sun, and an orange red base of grass with a calm river going about its business without any complaints was a sight to behold. In several places the lusty river obdurately pierced its way through the mountains and provided the much needed respite to the landscape from the rocky monotony and barren emptiness of Ladakh.
As the river made love to the mountains and gently walked away, I saw the wind taking its place and tenderly soothing the wounded heart of the mountains. The mountains regretted the adulterous venture. It’s always the short span of infidelity that makes you value the constants in your life. The wind kept its word, stood by the unfaithful mountains, in spite of them having strayed at the sight of the mesmerizing curves defining the young, wholesome river. True love should be forgiving of small misdemeanors.
The road condition here was very poor as this region does not see too many tourists. Thank fully that has preserved the wild virgin beauty of this place. Every turn of the road brings in new vistas, new collections of mountains interspersed with sleepy cold villages gearing up for the lazy winter ahead. Every turn makes you believe in divinity. We loved the sight of the pastoral fields in lap of the barren but starkly beautiful mountains, paving the way for our car, flanked by dawdling springs seemingly busy in their daily endeavors.
Our stay at Rangdum was a ‘home stay’ arranged by our driver at the last moment. We had a unique experience of staying in one of those hay-topped houses. It wasn’t the best accommodation we had on this trip but it was the warmest. We had a cosy room and a pit in the ground in the adjacent one that acted as our loo. We were worried about doing it in the pit, but nature is a great teacher and we managed well. As I put my head on the pillow that night, I saw the glittering sky, with a slightly more than crescent moon adorning it, celebrating our first village home stay with no modern amenities.
Early, next morning, we left for Padum. The Pensi la (pass) on the way was the first landmark after we crossed the sleepy Rangdum Monastery. Situated at 14,436 feet above sea level, the Pensi-la pass acts as a gateway to Padum.
After a few days of travelling in Ladakh we were now seasoned, we knew that on any day on this trip, beauty is a given. In what form it will manifest is the question; so we decided not to greedily devour the scenes, rather just nibble at the landscapes so that they last longer, hopefully leaving a sweetish after taste.
First up was the Abran village where we had tea and reached Khushul village. Here we caught an enthralling site of the Satsgolatsgo lake devouring the reflection of the beautiful snow clad mountain peaks. A wave of stupefied daze engulfed my physical being as I stood below the bluest sky, by the edge of the translucent lake, beside the somber tall mountains. As the palliating wind caressed my senses, I realized, this is it! This is what my life should be spent upon; being within nature and perish one day in the bosom of its earthy elements.
The next three hours, on the makeshift roads we passed Hanling, Bakarsey, and Remala village and then reached the Manda village that had a BSNL tower. The joy that this tower bought to us was unbelievable. Only in proximity of this tower the cell phones work and we called home after 48 hours to check-in the status of our families while appraising them of ours.
It was harvest time for the crops in all these villages. On the way after Penzila top we saw the mighty Drang Drung glacier. This is the largest one in the ladakh region after the Siachen Glacier and is 23km in length at a height of 15680ft. From the top of the mountain, the glacier descends down to kiss the road leaving us astounded by its sheer size.
The road from Rangdum to Padum was very poor and almost non-existent in places. It takes 6-7 hours to drive the distance. On the way there are absolutely no restaurants or shops. You eat and drink what you have carried. There are hundreds of reasons to stop on the way. First are the picturesque scenes that need to be captured. Second is the amazing wild life that you rarely get to see. Different species of cows, yaks, horses, sheep and many little pretty birds that keep gallivanting along the way to keep you company. The quaint little villages on the way are an example of how to survive in a desolate, isolated harsh terrain and still be peaceful and happy.
The enviable, tortuous roads seem to enjoy their promising paths. Hugging the mountains tight, with a pledge to never leave their side, they lead a satiated life. Entangled in their eternal embrace, the mountains too, stand tall with loving pride.
We managed to request one of the houses to make us a warm cup of tea which they did very kindly. As I spoke to the people in the house, I realized that this is the busiest time of the year. The wheat crop needs to be harvested and processed to sell. They have to collect and store enough hay for the winter months to feed animals. They make discs of cow-dung and keep it ready to light fire during winter months. The next 5 months will be really harsh and totally snowed out for these people. Many members of the families travel to warmer regions like Leh while a couple of them stay behind alone during the winter to feed the cattle and sheep and keep all of them alive during that period. We have nothing of this sort to be done for any weather conditions in our city; we truly take for granted 24 hour electricity and hot water with a sanitized loo in our urban lifestyles.
Seeing the privations of these isolated villages, makes me wonder how these guys so happily survive the brutally harsh climatic conditions having nothing but white of snow to look at, a vast ocean of ice that covers everything, not even leaving the horizon to give them hope, when time gets frozen and passes at a glacial speed. The preamble to the icy winter keeps them physically busy while mentally dreading the months ahead, the end of winter will be eagerly awaited, where life will sprout again from beneath the snow.
We reached Padum at lunch. After resting in the afternoon we went for a good 2 hour walk around the Padum village. It was great to see the entire village wind up the day’s activities and be ready to be enclosed within their simple warm abodes at night.
The next day was our rest day, and we chose to do local sight-seeing in Padum. It was a cloudy, rainy morning. It had snowed overnight on the mountain peaks. Some of the clouds were so low; it looked like they have invaded the Padum town. We saw the only nunnery in Zanskar, and the Zangla fort. An hour drive from the fort was the beautiful Stongde Monastery founded in 1052CE. It is the second largest monastic institution in Zanskar, with a community of about 60 monks. Located picturesquely on the top of the mountain it provided a beautiful view of villages in the valley.
Rain did not dampen our spirits. After lunch we headed to the Kersha monastery. It’s the largest and the most important monastery in Zanskar and is under the control of Dalai Lama’s younger brother. It was built against the craggy hillside like a massive white fortress, with deep-set, black-edged windows. From a distance, village, gompa, and mountainside were fused together. During our visit it was under renovation, the paintings were beautiful inside but the monastery was not maintained well at all. Our last evening in Padum got severally rained out. We spent the evening in our room with no electricity, in the light of the only candle in the hotel. We reminisced the best moments of our lives and talked late into the night.
The next morning when we woke up to the white neighborhood we were very excited. It snowed heavily at night and the entire Padum village was covered in a thick sheet of ice. It looked great, but scary. Snow has the ability to create havoc with travel plans. We kept our fingers crossed as we start from here to reach Kargil. The estimated travel time is 10 hours on road covering 240km. 10 hours of the great landscape covered with snow and some good soulful music. We will reach Kargil by nightfall.
But our excitement was extinguished, when the driver walked in and said, “We can’t drive today. The Pensi la (mountain pass) is snowed out”. Somehow we convinced him to try to leave at that time. The fact that 2 other vehicles had left meant that he was willing to take a chance. If we can’t cross the pass we will be stuck in Padum for a long time which could be a couple of days to weeks. We invoked divine blessings, and loaded our luggage with some food and hesitantly started our journey.
In the next 10 hours we witnessed the most beautiful white washed scenery from Padum to Kargil. On our way from Kargil to Padum a couple of days ago we had loved the mountains. Their texture and the fall colours, the serene lakes and lazy rivers, we had soaked it all in. Our return journey was a total contrast in landscape colours. It was as if someone had sprinkled fine white powder over the entire region with a sieve. We got stuck in snow and had to push our vehicle out of it. Then we got stuck behind several trucks and cars and after an hour of hard work the trucks ahead of us went through the snowy road without skidding and we all followed suit with chains tied on tyres. After four hours we crossed the Pensi la with a sigh of relief.
On the way we saw some of the most spellbinding, ethereal beauty. Snow has a unique way of covering all the niches and blemishes in the landscape making the scene look even and clean. The experience cannot be described in words. Maybe the photos will do justice.
After sleeping comfortably in Kargil that night, the next day started without any expectation. We had decided to travel that day and reach Sonmarg. On the way, we visited the Kargil war memorial in Drass. Our hearts wept for the soldiers who gave their lives for our country and our heads were held high with pride. The harsh conditions in which these soldiers fight and survive and win, a suffering that we have experienced only superficially in the past few days, made us all the more proud of the Indian army. How these jawans stay for weeks and seasons in these environmental conditions without losing their sanity is beyond my nascent understanding. But patriotism has to be the greatest motivator for someone to put their lives in line of duty towards the country. They truly gave their today so we could have a better tomorrow.
The refreshing drive from Drass to Kangan town, 40km ahead of Sonmarg was breath taking. It made us feel alive. The barren mountains of Ladakh and Zanskar valley were beautiful. They had the stark and sometimes desolate beauty that makes you exclaim with amazement. But somewhere it leaves me bewildered and asking myself if I would want to come back to this lifeless isolation again. Seeing the lush green valley of Sonmarg and the beautiful trees on the fringe of the mighty Sindh river, flowing with youthful energy, was a welcome change.
The Chandra-Bhaga, the Indus, the Suru and the Zanskar rivers on our trip were gorgeous, and it was remarkable the way they accompanied us on the journey in these regions, but it felt like their hard-work was not put to good use by the rocky barren mountains. On the other hand the Sindh river that joined our way from Zoji la (pass) to Sonmarg looked like a winner.
I finally know what I like in a picture. It’s not the lonely beauty of the stark desolate mountains, but it’s the flow and surge of an energetic river carving its way through the well-endowed mountains, keeping the hope alive for life and growth. There will be flowers, there will be fruits and the scene will never become monochromatic and white like the snowy Padum town we experienced. I love the greens.
Alas! The last day of our beautiful road trip in the Ladakh region of J&K began. It’s going to be a trip we will remember for a long time. The sheer difficulty the people face in these regions especially during the winter, and the strong perseverance shown by the Indian army all over the region in hostile climatic and political conditions has been a revelation. I will not be complaining about small things in my life back home.
The intricate designs of nature, in Zanskar valley of Ladakh, leave a place for everything. While the austere mountains stand stubbornly tall, manning the gates to heaven, the rivers cut through them with their sheer perseverance. While the harsh sun can heat up things, the clouds can smartly cover it when it gets the support from the impish wind. While the night may seem cold and dark, the morning brings with it a hope that puts a spring in the step of sleepy living beings. This is one region, in which we could be lost for a lifetime, only to find our true selves again, and experience an awakened existence like never before.