Away from the City!!
According to Seneca, travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind. This statement holds true for every individual who is constantly experiencing the grind of the city life. Only when our brains and bodies reach an alarmingly dangerous levels do we realize the need to take a break. Quite recently, I had the chance to escape the tyranny of my monotonous life, thanks to this long vacation to the mountains that my family and I successfully managed to execute. I say execute because there have been incidents in the past where we will engage in days and days of research to select places we haven’t explored, prepare itineraries and then wham!! The vacation is thwarted due to some unanticipated reason.
So which mountain ranges did I escape to? Well, it is called the “Land of High Passes” in the state of Jammu & Kashmir. It is surrounded by the Kunlun mountain range in the north and the main Great Himalayas to the south. The history of this place is predominantly dominated by the Tibetan culture and the great Pangong Tso Lake is situated in this part of the region. Yes, Ladakh it is.
The excitement for this trip begun the day it was planned and our tickets booked. I had only seen the beauty of the place through pictures because I wanted to make sure that I visit all the important places during my brief stay in the region. But even before I landed, the glorious charisma of the Himalayas simply blew me away. So to all those who had always dreamt of touring this region and to share my experience with my friends, let me take you through Leh..all over again.
We were told to rest on the day we arrived in Ladakh to acclimatize to the extreme climatic conditions and thin oxygen levels that creates difficulty for travelers. The official tourist season had not yet begun and the temperatures would drop to minus during the evenings.
Day 1 of our excursion consisted of local city tour and visiting the Buddhist monasteries which are present in abundance in this region.
This massive stupa overlooks the entire Leh district giving a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains and villages. It is believed that you have to circle the stupa in clockwise direction since it is considered as good fortune in Buddhist culture.
Since we were still getting acclimatized to the weather conditions we decided to take it easy with our itinerary and explore the local monasteries and other places of interest around Leh. Our first stop was this place known as the ‘Hall of Fame’ which, on the outside looked like a museum that houses memorabilia of Indian martyrs who fought endlessly for safeguarding the pride of our nation against Pakistan and other infiltrating forces. But when I entered this place, it was an experience in itself. This two- story geometrical structure with a cannon placed on top of it was everything I needed to know about the history, geography and culture of Ladakh.
Just as you enter the place there is a huge clay set up of the mountain ranges that surround Jammu and Kashmir (be it the Kargil, Karakoram, Siachen and Zanskar for that matter) so that once you get to know the story behind it, it will be easier for you to locate and relate. This museum is divided into sections where every part tells you about Kashmir. One room was dedicated to the flora and fauna found native to the region, another to animals. Then there was a section which was entirely about the history and culture of Ladakh- how it was heavily influenced by the Tibetan culture and the subsequent battles that the monarchs fought with the rulers then. It was a pretty impressive setup.
On the second level, there was a room full of arms and ammunition equipments stored as a memorabilia of the battles that our Indian soldiers fought with Pakistani forces. There were all sorts of things starting from letters that must have been written by the soldiers to their families, not knowing whether they will ever see them again to the types of food the soldiers consumed while they were out in the field (due to stipulated rations). Not only this, our soldiers wear around 15- 20 kgs of heavy gear from head to toe to prevent them from catching frost bites in the extreme temperatures. So much just to safeguard the integrity of our nation. Hats off to these guys!! Really.
Our next stop was perhaps the most beautiful ‘Sangam’ I have ever witnessed in my life so far. Although it does not have any religious significance but I can now proudly boast that I saw the convergence of two of the most mightiest rivers that flow through our country- Indus and Zanskar.
From the right it is the mighty Indus with its brown sediments mixing seamlessly with the ice cold Zanskar making this convergence as one of the most glorious sights amidst the brown landscape. The Indus then flows further ahead entering Pakistan.
After two days of casual sight-seeing we decided to take a step further and ascend into the adventurous mountains of Ladakh. These snow capped mountains had been inviting me since the day I landed. Now it was time to have a tete-a-tete with them. It was time to explore the Khardungla pass. Khardungla means ‘la pass’ in Tibetan. Located at an altitude of 17,000 feet it is considered to be the world’s highest motorable pass. As exciting as hell it might sound the 2 and a half hour drive from Leh to Khardungla was perhaps the riskiest drives of my life. Since the ice from the mountains had not even started melting, we were driving virtually on snow at a speed of 30 kmph. You cannot even imagine surpassing that speed because there is a constant risk of the car slipping on the ice (for which our driver used to tie the tyres of the vehicle with chains that would eventually break the ice with friction).
Also I had never in my life seen these massive sheets of ice in front of me, glittering sharply under the rays of the sun which was almost blinding after a point.
On reaching there, I realized the minus freezing temperatures along with the cold breezing that simply did not let us stand peacefully. And whenever I wanted to walk a certain stretch on ice I would sunk deeper into it due to the thinning of the top layer of ice.
On our way back from Khardungla, we passed this Gurudwara which is built in the memory of the first Sikh leader, Guru Nanak Sahib. It is a beautiful gurudwara situated at 12,000 feet on Leh- Kargil road, constructed and maintained by Indian army. The gurudwara has an interesting story behind it, where Guru Nanak ji had saved the Ladakhis from the misery of an evil giant Chardi Kalan.
And this was the last and the final day of my stay at Ladakh. Inspite of my not so great health condition (caused due to the thin depleting oxygen levels) I was little sad because I was in love with the landscape of Ladakh and did not want to leave it so soon. Today was the day for visiting perhaps the best tourist attractions in the world (trust me, mark this place in your must- visit places before dying and you will not regret even one ounce)- the vivid Pangong Tso lake.
The lake was almost a 4 hour drive from Leh- perhaps the longest and most tiring since one had to cross the dramatic Changla Pass followed by a few villages and small rivers before you finally make it to your destination (it felt like light years since the road would seemed to be never ending). This is the same lake where the famous climax of the 2009 Aamir Khan starrer hit film ‘3 Idiots’ was shot. It is said that out of the 600 km long lake only 40% lies in India and the rest of it is in Tibet. Since I went in April, the lake was frozen on all ends and there was hardly any soul to be found. It felt as if the lake belonged to me and I am the owner of this vast expanse of landscape. It was a different experience to stand in the middle of the frozen lake and feel the wind blowing through you.
The blue above and the white below makes you forget where you are from and in those few moments that you are standing there, you become one with nature. I wish my words could do justice to the empowering feeling that one feels enlightening their soul.
On our way back from the lake, we visited our last destinations- Zorawar Fort and Ancient Palace of Leh which is one of the oldest palace in Leh. This 8 storied palace is built using local ingredients like mud, brick and mortar and houses some of the valuables and memorabilia of the kings and their stories of wars with Kasmiri rulers of the 19th century.
Apart from this I visited the market for some local shopping. Make sure that if you are planning to shop, take a local along with you since the Ladakhis have a habit of quoting everything four times the actual worth of the item.
And with this my momentous trip to Leh came to an end. Although I wouldn’t call it as an end since this is just the beginning and I have promised myself to come back to this region again just to travel along the NH1 highway all the way to Kashmir through the green valleys of Kargil. Something that I learnt from the people of Ladakh is simplicity and gratitude in everything they do. Even though they stay in a place where there is scarce vegetation throughout the year, these people are one the most hospitable lot I have come across. They are genuine and humble in their mannerisms and they will go all out to keep their guests comfortable and happy. All the 4 days that we were in Leh, we had opted for homestay and the owner of the house used to treat us like family; serving us home cooked food and hot herbal tea to keep our body temperatures normal. It was perhaps the sweetest gesture of hospitality I ever experienced.
I will strongly recommend all my friends to take the trip to the mountains because it is not about discovering the beauty within the peaks, it is about getting a notch closer to your soul.
Please note: All the images © Kainat27