Monday, October 18, 2021

Ladakh: The Land of High Passes

Very much in the news, Ladakh is the travel focus for this month. By Navneet Sahni

La Dakh – the land of high passes – is the northernmost portion of India, a vast land that is mostly barren, yet one of the most beautiful and rich areas of our great country. Contrary to most people’s thinking, this is an area which is probably one of the most “senior-friendly”. What is really important for all of us who are above the young age of 60 to remember that as the average height of the two main valleys (Indus Valley and Nubra) is above 9000 ft (above sea level), some basic precautions are required, but the rewards are immense.

Leh is the capital of this large Union Territory and is very accessible with several flights a day from Srinagar, Delhi and Mumbai. The best time of the year is from May till October. However, I would avoid going from mid May till the first week of July as the school holidays makes the place crowded. Also, as demand is high the hotel and flight rates too become prey to one of the basic principles of economics. Any trip with friends and like-minded people heightens the tour, and in this area – even more so.

The flight in itself is something worth taking for this trip. It holds the world record of crossing the maximum number of mountain ranges in the shortest duration of time. Here’s a tip: It is worth your while to pay the 200 – 300 Rupees extra to take a window seat on the left-hand side of the aircraft from Delhi / Mumbai, as on a clear day you can be rewarded by glimpse of Nanga Parbat and the twin peaks of Nun & Kun. The landing into Leh is also spectacular with aerial views of a few monasteries like Matho, Phyang, Lamayuru (for flights from Srinagar) and Spitok. The snaking Indus river and the greenery on the banks makes it a sharp contrast to the brown and barren mountains.

Mandatory precautions

Nubra, one of the two main valleys, is about 9000 feet above sea level
Nubra, one of the two main valleys, is about 9000 feet above sea level

The first and absolute must “precaution” one has to follow strictly after arrival by flight is to reach the hotel or your guest house, rest and sleep. The basic idea is to acclimatise to the high altitude. The first day is a mandatory rest day for everyone. Most hotels and guest houses have magnificent views of the Stok Khangri range, so why not sit back in your room sipping tea / kahwah and taking in the scenery? The second golden cardinal rule is to remain well hydrated – Ladakh being a high-altitude desert, the body loses a lot of fluids which need to be replenished. Needless to say, alcohol should be avoided for this reason alone.

An ideal programme of a week will cover the 3 most important areas of the Indus, Sham and Nubra valley. So on the second day of your trip you set off by a private car for a visit to Stok Palace, Thikse and Hemis monasteries. The palace houses the royal costumes and artefacts, but more importantly it gives you a beautiful view of the city of Leh from across the river with the backdrop of Khardungla. The newly built massive statue of the Buddha is very humbling.

Thikse and Leh are two of the biggest monasteries in Ladakh and belong to two of the most dominant sects of Mahayana Buddhism – the yellow hat Gelugpa and red hat Kargyu. The beautiful frescos and “thankas” which adorn the walls are breathtaking. The Maitreya (Buddha of the future) and Guru Padmasambhava statues in Thikse and Hemis are simply awe-inspiring.

Panggong Lake

Panggong Tso is truly a mesmerising sight
Panggong Tso is truly a mesmerising sight

The next day we left early for a long day’s excursion to the beautiful Panggong Lake on the eastern border with China. One of the picturesque Himalayan lakes, only one third is with India and the rest in Chinese occupied territory. The azure blue water changes colours with the angle of the sun and is truly a mesmerising sight. Of late the authorities have banned overnight camping on the banks for environmental reasons, and so one needs to drive back via the third highest motorable road in the world, Changla pass (17550 ft).

Sakyamuni Buddha (The Buddha of the past)
Sakyamuni Buddha (The Buddha of the past)

After a night of rest, the next morning we drove to Nubra valley. Before leaving Leh we stopped at the Shanti Stupa, situated on a hilltop overlooking the city of Leh. The white monument against the brown mountains really stands out and is probably the most photographed place in all of Ladakh.

Thiksey is one of the two biggest monasteries in Ladakh
Thiksey is one of the two biggest monasteries in Ladakh

The next part of the drive was exciting as we were driving to reach the world’s highest motorable point in the world – Khardungla (18379 ft). Separating the Indus Valley and Nubra this is a very important road pass as it carries all supplies for the glacier hotspot – The Siachen. After a quick photo stop we drove down to the district center of Deskit and the nearby Hunder village. The Nubra valley is lower in altitude than the Leh (Indus valley) but is better climatically. Due to the high mountains, rainfall is very scarce and so it is classified as arid wasteland. However the hard working locals have started farming and have orchards too. The most unique geographical feature of this valley is that you can see many sand dunes with snow covered mountain tops in the back ground. To complete the image of a desert where there are sand dunes, can camels be far behind? Bactrain camels – the famous 2 humped camels are to be found in very few places in the world, Nubra being one. Nubra was part of the great silk route and so traders would bring these camels, laden with goods, from Mongolia. Evidently some traders just settled down here and so you have these magnificent beasts of burden here.

A billion stars

We drove to one apple orchard at Hunder and slept the night in a beautiful and comfortable Swiss Cottage tent. In the evening the biggest treat came, I swear that I have never seen a billion stars in the sky and that sight alone made my visit worthwhile.

After an early morning walk in the orchard picking apples and small, but sweeter than sugar, Apricots from the trees, breakfast was one of the most memorable memories amidst trees and mountains. After our byes, we packed and left for the very picturesque Deskit monastery which is dwarfed by the huge statue of the Maitreya Chamba. Later we drove back with many photo stops and arrived back in Leh by late afternoon. That evening in Leh we decided to shop and eat in one of the many fantastic restaurants which dot this city. In fact it is difficult to choose from the wide variety of gourmet places.

It was the last day of our visit but still one very keenly awaited as the drive to Lamayuru is considered to be the highlight of the visit. We stopped at the gravity defying magnetic hill and the Gurudwara Patthar Sahib before driving along the Indus river. The climb to Lamayuru (the main road to Srinagar) and the general area around is known as the “Moon scape” and very picturesque. A quick dash into the beautiful 13th century monastery gave an insight to the teachings of Lord Naropa – the founder of this remote monastery.

After a really satisfying Indian Tibetan meal at the monastery restaurant we drove back and stopped to visit the oldest standing monastery in Ladakh, Alchi (10th century). This unique structure is made out of wood and the frescoes inside are a must visit. The small but very important statue of Avlokiteswara – Lord of Mercy & Compassion is amazing. The famous mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum” rings in my mind every so often. It is one of the most soothing mantra and chanting this guarantees a calm mind. The last evening in Leh too was magical as we dined at a Tibetan-Ladakh restaurant overlooking the pedestrian only main street of Leh. You are spoilt for choice of restaurants as there are Mughlai Indian, Kashmiri, Chinese, Israeli, continental, Pizza and Burger places all over. A special recommendation is to get a “ Yak Milk Cheese” while in Leh ( available at a few places).

The flight back to Delhi was uneventful but full of beautiful mountain memories.

Useful notes

The Spitok Gonpa, which you can see while landing into Leh
The Spitok Gonpa, which you can see while landing into Leh

It is very important that you get a good tour operator who has good first-hand knowledge of the region you are travelling to and Ladakh is no different. I am a fan of the internet and online touring, but it is always recommended that you book through a reliable person who in an emergency situation can be contacted and can help in rescheduling quickly. Without a travel professional you really are on your own.

Nowadays hotels of all category and price range are available in Leh (INR 1000 – 15,000 a night). It is important that in Ladakh you get a hotel which is close to the town centre (so that you can walk to the restaurants & shops in your free time), with a good view (after all, is that not what you are going to Ladakh for). Finally it is also important that the hotel has an oxygen cylinder available in the premises as chances are that you will need to take a puff or two during your stay. In any case the locals always suggest that 30 minutes of oxygen intake on the first day works wonders for the rest of the tour. Most hotels offer accommodation with varied meal plans and frankly it is your choice if you wish to try different and local places to eat, like I do.

There are excellent camps and small hotels in Nubra which are affordable. It will be advantageous for you to book rooms on all-meals basis, specially as there are very few places outside to eat. At Alchi a new hotel has just come up which compares very favourably to the ones in Leh so if you wish to experience village life stay a night here and walk through the village and meet the friendly people. It is also highly recommended that you hire a good vehicle (for the whole tour) and a friendly guide on the days you are visiting monasteries and monuments.

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