The huge and merciless brown mountains, large lumps of snow carelessly dumped on their tops, the blazing sun and pregnant clouds playing hide and seek, Indus and Shyok rivers merrily wading through the barren territory, creating oases and civilizations of their own,
serpentine and lofty roads, as if suspended from heaven, endless and awe-inspiring panoramas, stunning kaleidoscopic lakes, strange grasslands and seductive sand dunes. Countless constellations that adorn the night and a clear sky that could define the colour blue – Where does one even begin to describe the miracle on earth called Ladakh!
Although it was a second trip to the ‘Moonland’ yet the feeling before and after the trip was that of heightened intrigue and mystery – Yes, the more one tries to know Ladakh the more one gets mired in questions, the attempt to unravel is futile. Our group chose the simpler path – And submitted ourselves to these magnificent highlands of Ladakh, no questions asked!
A tour to Ladakh is no child’s play – for starters, courtesy the altitude, one has to contend with the lottery of getting adjusted to low air pressure (and consequently low oxygen supply and everything else associated with it!), physical demands of climbing virtually everywhere, sometimes misplaced adventure of driving on roads that are at best narrow strips of tar menacingly accompanied by deep gorges, piercing rays of the sun and often chilly harsh winds in the open lands, the list is long!
Ladakh is more about a sense of struggle and consequently a sense of achievement; of challenging the status quo of a comfortable life and of giving one’s comfort zone a quick by-pass.
Our eyes were set on experiencing all of the above – it was more a question of when than whether!
We chose the month of September as by that time the tourist population starts dwindling and Ladakh is more like the desolate heaven often portrayed.
Extensive research on the internet made us choose three directions in Ladakh – Westwards towards Srinagar on the NH1, Northwards to Nubra via Khardung La in the direction of Siachen base camp and finally Eastwards to Pangong Tso via Chang La. Finally after having settled all the loose ends of travel, boarding and logistics, we set ‘sail’ for the travel of our lives… to Ladakh, the Moonland!
After acclimatizing for a day (a word of caution here– it is perfectly normal for a person to take two days to acclimatize so do not fret you breath heavily at the end of day one) to the high altitude at Leh, we started our week long road trip by tracing the National Highway One, the road to Srinagar.
We paused to take a glimpse of the Sangam, the confluence of Zanskar and Indus at Nimmu and then proceeded on the beautiful NH1, accompanied by the mighty Indus River to our first two stops, Likir and Alchi monasteries. The monasteries, as a structure and as an institution have always amazed me and the fascination continued as we explored the deep, quiet recesses of each of these.
Rest of the day was spent in a camp at Ullay on the banks of Indus nestled inside an apple and apricot orchard. The beautiful tents were our home for the night in which we saw probably the most breathtaking night sky we have ever seen!
We proceeded to a quaint town called Lamayuru in Kargil district the next day. Lamayuru is famous for extraordinary sediment rock formations that give the surface of the region a moon like feel! The strangeness of these rock formations haunts one for days together.
The most beautiful part of the journey is, surprisingly, not the road trip. The Indus, flanked by huge mountains, is a beautiful companion all through the way and at places we stopped our vehicle and trekked our way down to touch the water – divine!
The second night at Leh was perceptibly chillier than the previous one. We woke up the next day to discover the snow cover on the Ladakh ranges in front of us being much more than what it was a day before – it was snowing at the peaks, and we were headed towards Khardung La (K-Top), world’s highest motorable pass. Our excitement knew no bounds!
The road from Leh to K-top launches the traveler from 3500 to about 5600 mts above MSL over a distance of mere 45kms – making it one of the steepest climbs we have come across. The road is great at some places and absolute rubble at some others! We reached K-top with our heads in pleasant but dizzy states due to the climb and the very high altitude. Since our gang is very comfortable traversing mountainous terrains we still enjoyed every moment of the ascent, especially since it came with an added incentive of, yes, the snow-fall!
A refreshing cup of black tea and countless snaps later we started for yet another wonder at Ladakh – The Nubra Valley located en route to the Siachen Base Camp. The picturesque route took us along the Shyok River to Khalsar where out of the blue the surroundings turned into silver sand – Lo and behold, we were in the cold desert of Ladakh!
We spent the day at the breathtaking Tirit camp (on way to Panamik) reflecting over the number of changes of landscape we saw in the course of the 6 hours of travel from Leh, not to mention a temperature change in the range of plus 15 to minus 10 degree Celsius!
We set off to Hunder the next day to see the famous sand dunes of Nubra and be a part of the historical Silk Route. We could scarcely find time to blink… The trip was just half way through and we were already experiencing the pinnacles of natural beauty – we stood in the middle of the desert and looked around – miles of silvery sands, flanked by snow capped mountains and resplendent sunshine – I felt like crying in disbelief!
We saw the beautiful 14th Century Diskit Gompa and marveled at the 35 meters statue of Maitreya Buddha dwarfing everything else in its vicinity! Our eyes feasted on the huge panoramic views of the Diskit valley perched on top of the Monastery. We would not have returned if we didn’t have to!
But we had to return, in the quest of the climax of beauty… The Pangong Tso (lake)!
The last leg of our journey took us to Pangong Lake through a typically multi-hued, long, rough and dramatic road trip.
The first sight of the lake can leave you numb – 135 kms of saline water body with about 40 kms in India and the rest of it in China, seemingly endless stream of water that takes as many shades of blue in the day as there are moods in our mind, perched at 4350m above MSL and flanked by majestic jaw-dropping scenery!
This was indeed a time of reflection for that’s exactly what you do when a trip like this nears its end and you are confronted with a seemingly unreal piece of magic ‘someone’ up there decided to conjure for mortals like us – the Pangong Lake.
We stayed the night in freezing cold but pleasant conditions at the Water Mark camp adjoining the lake and took time to come out in the open, look up at the sky and thank the stars who had turned up in millions to bless us.
We have since, returned from Ladakh, still dazed whether we actually went there. Still coming to terms with our minuteness and irrelevance in the large scheme of things called Nature, still marveling at the miracle this place is.
Still wondering whether there can exist another place like Ladakh… Still wondering if Ladakh exists.
By: Soma Bolar & Saumya Shanker
Soma writes poetry and dabbles with dance, loves books, an avid traveler,a native of Shillong. Saumya composes and performs music, recently launched a band ‘Dwi’ and has released albums with Times Music in his earlier avatars, loves driving, traveling …and writing.