Written by Priyabrata Chowdhury
Keen to escape the dregs of the city before it saps us of sanity and salt in peak summer, we headed north, into the rocky heights of the Karakoram and the snow-capped Himalayan peaks of Ladakh. Packed into our busy nine-day itinerary was a frenetic day’s whirl at Srinagar.
The trip got off to a bright start as me and my wife heaved a sigh of relief to finally be away from the soaring Delhi mercury. With the flight on schedule and streaking through cloudless skies, eating up air miles faster than a swine swallows its meals, it wasn’t long before I caught up with my extended family (in-laws) at the small but quaint Srinagar airport. As the beaming stewardess directed us to the conveyor belt, we were filled with the sense that this was to be the start of a trip that one seldom gets to experience in a lifetime.
Day 1 – Srinagar
As we made our way out of the Srinagar airport, we met the welcoming gaze of the chinars, which majorly hogs the local flora and adds to the lush greenery of this paradise city. Settling into our couches and catching up with a few hours of rest after checking into our hotel, we were ready to hit the road and take in the local flavour.
Nissar Hussain, our driver doubling up as the local guide, had very wisely planned to take us through the lovely Mughal gardens before dropping us off at Dal Lake for shikara rides. On the way to Chasma Sahi, our first stop, we passed the city’s main market area at Batamaloo and the historic Lal Chowk with the Tricolour fluttering proudly in the high winds, among other landmarks.
Before stopping at the city’s first Mughal garden, which ranks No.3 in the pecking order after Nishat Bagh and Shalimar Bagh, we passed the high-security area housing the Governor’s house. After a brief trek uphill during which we were momentarily separated from Nissar Bhai for security reasons, he caught up with us for the remainder of the drive to Chasma Sahi.
As our Innova screeched to a halt at the garden, we were joyously received by the smiling flora. Lining the stone stairway leading onto the garden was an array of bright petals. After spending some moments taking in the green spaces around us and putting our mobile cameras to work, we vroomed off for Nishat Bagh. Though bedecked with a similar vista of petals, this garden of Eden was spread across a much wider area, interspersed with lush grass banks and benches.
Having taken a leisurely round of the garden, letting our senses feast on the sights and sounds, we proceeded to Shalimar Bagh. The last of the gardens, too, spread out impressively, offering similar sights. After a brief stopover at a nearby park where we broke for lunch, we next headed to Dal Lake where shikaras, at least 50 of them, were moored. After a brief haggle with the boatmen, we sailed into the waters glistening under the bright afternoon sun. As we leaned back, enjoying the cruise, our shikaras were literally swarmed by local traders selling a range of merchandise, from dry fruits, vegetables and fruits to Kashmiri saffron and Kahwa (a local beverage). On the way, we also passed some houseboats and shops, with the keepers eyeing us curiously in the hope of doing some business.
After an hour’s sail, the shikaras brought us back where we started, leaving us in a lovely daze. Back at the hotel, we wolfed down dinner and headed straight off to bed, pregnant with anticipation of an exciting Day 2.
Day 2 – Driving through the treacherous Zojila Pass
After taking an early breakfast and having our trolleys loaded onto the roof of the car, we set off for Kargil via Sonamarg and Zojila Pass.
Roughly an hour into the drive, we arrived at Sonamarg. However, it wasn’t powdery snow but a green valley that greeted us at this tourist hotspot. Manzoor Ali, our driver on this leg of the tour, said owing to subdued snowfall, the valley wasn’t white as it is wont at this time of year.
Though the lack of white on the valley came as a slight dampener, I climbed atop a ridge, capturing the snow-capped peaks in the distance and pulling selfies with gay abandon. With the skies turning grey and a light drizzle about, we had to rush down and set off for the treacherous Zojila Pass.
Though I had heard stories about how the Zojila brought many within an inch of death and had them praying that they clear the slushy hairpin bends without the wheels going off the cliff, living every moment of it with our hearts well and truly in our mouths was an experience like no other. Thanking the heavens after we passed Zojila, we stopped for coffee in the biting winds and driving snow at 11,575ft above sea level. Though not much of a shack, the sight of the keepers huddled over a fire and steaming up beverages was one we couldn’t ignore.
Our next stop was an Army installation, which served not only as a repository of military hardware used to win back Indian posts from Pakistani occupiers in the heights of Kargil in 1999 but also as the resting place for the mortal remains of our jawans who made the supreme sacrifice for the cause. After standing over the graves of our fallen heroes, reflecting in sombre silence on the hardships they have to endure in inhospitable terrains to keep us safe, we came away with a profound sense of pride and gratitude. On our way out was a moving takeaway in the form of a message inscribed over the gate reading, “When You Go Home Tell Them Of Us And Say, For Your Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today”.
After driving past some more wondrous sights, leaving us with the belief that we were in nature’s most beautiful corner, we drove into Kargil in the evening. From the snowless valleys of Sonamarg to the dangerous heights of Zojila, there was a lot to process and as we fell into our beds at the hotel, sleep came early with dreams of an eventful day and anticipation of what lay ahead of us.
Day 3 – Exploring Kargil: Of guts, guns and glory
As is, perhaps, the case for a short trip with plenty to see and little time to rest in between, we rose with the lark and were among the first to answer the breakfast call. After briefly taking in the view of the riverfront from our hotel, the Zojila Residency, we set our sights on the next phase of our journey, a drive to Leh through Kargil.
We started uphill, marvelling at the spectacular sight of the mountains spreading out in the distance. The wheels kept crawling up the concrete, interspersed with rough patches, with a mountain on the left and a leaping valley with the lovely Indus (Sindhu) river bursting through, on the right.
Our next stop was Namika La (Namik La) Pass, which stands at a height of 12,139 feet. On our way there we passed another local natural wonder – the Moon Mountain. It derives its name from the similarities it has with the lunar landscape and locals believe that the mountain is built from the same rocks and minerals as are found in the Earth’s celestial partner several light-years away.
The sheer joy of reaching one of the highest motorable passes in the world, breathing in the pure, rarefied air and having pictures taken next to the landmark standing at 12,139 feet above sea level is one that no word can do justice.
Leaving the gilded, snow-capped peaks in the distance, we set off for a place of which we had only seen pictures before, the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar, a river which owes its origin to the former in the northeast of the Himalayas.
Up close and personal with nature, we had our sights riveted to the scenes we passed, each more beautiful than the last. Conversations were few and far between as nature held us in its thrall and had us speechless.
After negotiating a few more bends and passenger and commercial vehicles from the blind side, we reached the confluence. Standing at a distance up top, we could see inflatable rubber dinghies anchored on the banks for rafting. Many thrill-seekers were crowding below, ready to push their oars and have a feel of the waters at their meeting point.
Asked if we, too, could head down to get a closer view of the confluence, our driver Manzoor said the crowd had arrived from Leh and there was no roadway for the ones travelling from Kargil to get closer to the banks.
‘Never mind’, we said as the sight of two great rivers, which have sustained lives and livelihoods for ages, meeting and making for a breathtaking blend of blue and turquoise, was a thrill no less. Truly, an experience of a lifetime!
Our next visit was to the Lamayuru Monastery, a house of worship for locals in Leh ensconced in reverential silence as behoves the monks who watch over it. After giving the prayer wheels a spin on my way into the shrine, I was struck by its serene interiors and modest ambience. Inside was a bronze statue of Lord Buddha, the structure embodying every bit of his godliness. Below the statue was a framed photograph of the Head Lama (head priest) and on both sides were framed photographs of lamas who came before. Neatly stacked below the frames, on a silver salver, were offerings from devotees, ranging from toffees, and dry fruits to cash. After paying my obeisance I headed for the exit, the heart significantly lifted and my mind somewhere close.
After the heights of Namik La and the joyful confluence of the Indus and Zanskar, we could have driven straight into Leh and called it a day. However, there was one place still left to be ticked off our Day 3 checklist – a visit to the Hall of Fame, an Army museum in Leh.
Nestled in the mountains, the repository houses a range of items, from traditional dresses of Ladakhi people to bows, arrows, spears, axes and other hunting tools testifying to the ethos and rich cultural heritage of the region.
Barring these, there are framed photographs of some of the Army’s greatest wartime moments, from the taking of Pakistani POWs in 1971 to the jubilant jawans posing by the Tricolour at Tiger Hill in 1999. Also on display are commendation medals testifying to the gallantry of the boys in fatigues and the equipment they use to negotiate harsh terrain and survive the unforgiving whims of nature.
Adding to the list of takeaways from the exhilarating drive to Leh was the unique ‘Magnetic Hill’ experience. A patch of a concrete roadway, barely spanning metres, it gives you the feeling of being dragged back if you kill your car’s ignition, waiting for gravitation to take over. It is a place like no other where nature meets physics for a guaranteed hair-raising experience.
One couldn’t have asked for a more enriching visit to cap off a long day and from there, there was but one place to go – our hotel for a good night’s sleep.
Day 4 – Criss-crossing Leh
Before getting to the next phase of our trip, a word is in order for our hotel in Leh. Away from the bustle of city life and nestled in a leafy neighbourhood, the Charu Palace stands impressively, surrounded by mountains in the distance. The best part of our hotel rooms was an open balcony overlooking a front yard dotted with flower pots and chairs laid out on velvety grass. On the balcony running parallel to ours was a telescope, a fitting installation for a city where a cloudless night sky fuels an urge for star-gazing.
We could afford to rise late the morning after, lying around in our beds a wee bit longer with drowsy eyes and stretching under the quilts, as the day’s plan was to take a trip downtown and visit spots popular with locals as well as visitors.
We started with a visit to Hemis Gompa, a monastery in the lap of mountains like the one we had earlier been to.
Namrata, my better half and a journalist like myself, asked to be counted out after seeing the number of stone steps that needed to be scaled to reach the monastery. My mother-in-law, too, opted out. That left us with myself, my father-in-law and brother-in-law, to test our lungs and endurance. Acing the test, we reached the entrance to the monastery, pausing momentarily to catch our breath. The Gompa stood on the other side of a large front yard to the left of which was museum housing items and artefacts as old as this 500-year-old monastery itself. On the right was a university offering higher learning in Buddhist studies as well as a range of other courses.
The interiors of the sanctum-sanctorum were roughly the same as Lamayuru, with an artfully sculpted figure of Buddha and framed photographs of head Lamas surrounded by dark, dank walls.
As we headed for the exit, we saw students, in monk-like robes, busily pacing the front yard. While there are religious places doubling up as centres of academic excellence in the country, one so ancient and carved out of inhospitable terrain was certainly worth a visit.
Our next stop was the Shey Palace, dating aeons back. However, not much is left to see at this once-majestic seat of a monarch, as after scaling another flight of stone steps and crossing an overhead pathway, we reached the foot of what was the shadow of a palace it once was. The door to the palace was locked and all that was open for visitors was a terrace offering a gorgeous panoramic view of the city.
Next on our list of must-visits in the Ladakhi capital was the Thiksey Monastery. However, having put me through the grind of visiting Hemis Gompa and the Shey Palace, my lungs had nearly given out and I let this pass.
We headed next to a school where a sequence from the cult Bollywood hit ‘3 Idiots’ was shot and it had since become popular as ‘Rancho’s (character essayed by Aamir Khan in the film) School’. We were told it was a place of tourist interest and my father and brothers-in-laws were curious enough to take a look while we waited in the car.
Our vehicle then turned towards the Leh market. Though a laid-back city that sleeps and rises at its own whim and is unhurried in most ways, the main market area presented the familiar sight of locals going about their business and shops throbbing with visitors.
After stopping at a popular local eatery for lunch, we sampled the shops around us. I looked in at an apparel store for a knitted head cap while the others visited another shop where they bought handbags.
Our last stop was the Shanti Stupa, a Buddhist house of peace situated close to our hotel. I let it pass citing weariness and our driver Nizamuddin said it was a decision I might come to regret as it’s considered a must-visit. While a regret it sure must be, it’s also an excuse to return to Leh someday in the not-so-distant future.
We called it a wrap thereafter and returned to our hotel excited for what awaited us on Day 5.
Day-5, Over to Nubra Valley
The journey to Nubra Valley made for a fascinating drive, both uphill, cutting through deadly mountainous curves, and downhill past a glistening Shyok river and the rugged hills.
What struck me about this drive uphill was the contrast that nature presented here – a rugged valley by the brook spreading into the distance and the icy whiteness and snow-capped peaks that beckoned us from far up above. After a steady climb on wheels during which some local folk songs played on the car stereo and we didn’t do much else than drinking in the sights around us and capturing some in our mobile galleries, we reached Khardung La. Counted as the second-highest motorable mountain pass in the world at 17,582 feet, Khardung La is mighty as it is magnificent. Standing on a rarefied height, it testifies to how far the human footprint has expanded on nature’s virgin land. However, it also holds in ample measure nature’s bounties that have stood the test of time and have remained unblemished.
After a few wordless moments during which we stood agape, taking in the wondrous sights around us, we posed triumphantly by the landmark with smiling faces, eager to take home images testifying to the fact that we had, indeed, hit the Khardung La heights.
The next phase of our drive was downhill, to the Nubra Valley. On the way, we stopped at an eatery, with tables and chairs neatly laid on the front yard if one cared to break bread under the sun, and more seating places inside. After ordering tea, I fell into a conversation with the owner who opened up on how the locals were used to spending 16 hours in the dark and travelling far to fetch a pail of water.
Refreshed after letting the beverage steam through the veins, we set off for the last legs of our journey to Nubra. The driver insisted that we pay a visit to the Diskit monastery before he dropped us off at our hotel. The abiding feature that made this monastery stand out among others in the city was an imposing statue of Lord Buddha over the shrine. It almost gave the feeling that the Lord was watching over the place and the people who inhabit it. The concourse out front was dotted with benches for visitors to catch their breath, pray or simply enjoy the view from the top.
After consuming the remaining hundreds of kilometres, we checked into Hotel Grand Nubra, which again nestles in nature’s lap, comfortably away from the bustle of the city. Save for the cackle of children at a government school right opposite our hotel, there was a wonderful stillness about the place broken only by the occasional chirp of birds nesting in the midst.
After cleansing and catching a couple of hours of rest, we were off again, this time to the Hunder Desert Oasis Camp. An ideal haunt for adventure-seekers, the camp offers rides on locally-bred Mongolian camels and sand biking.
While my intrepid journalist wife and her brother decided against riding the camels, spooked perhaps by the intimidating sight of them, I was game and so were my in-laws. We’re assigned three camels, two of which were fairly experienced fellows in the trade and the third barely an adult.
After being told by their keeper to take the saddles and arch our bodies in a way so that we rise comfortably with the camels, we set off into the white desert.
It was a world of fun while we’re at it as, barring a sneeze here and a fart there, the camels obeyed road rules that motorists seldom do and kept trundling along, ably shepherded by their keeper. It felt as though we were in a swing as the grumpy beasts of burden kept carrying us along on their backs.
As unhurriedly as we went, we returned in about half an hour, with the camels bringing us back where we started. The fellows sat us down safely, ready for their next rides.
We next headed to a man who was asking visitors to try their luck at archery. We took aim and misfired. That was the last bit of fun we had for the day as we brought our worn selves back to our hotel, cleaning out our dinner plates nice and quick and slipping into our warm beds. Day 6 was to be exciting and exhausting and we simply could not wait to say, ‘Bring it on’.
Day 6 – To Turtuk and Thang
Rising at first light, or so it seemed on the evidence of the amber sky, I headed straight for the shower. The steaming hot bath took away my drowsiness and perked up the old engine for what was to be a riveting drive down to Turtuk and Thang villages.
Tucking into the complimentary breakfast offerings, we started for Thang, the last border village on the Indian side of the Line Of Control (LoC) in Leh.
On the way, we crossed a bridge over the Shyok river from there on, it was a steady drive down a concrete road interspersed with shooting pebbles and rocks from the mountains that towered on the side.
An otherwise monotonous drive, broken only by the slow churning of wheels on the concrete and the drone of the engine, was rendered far less as the scenic beauty kept unravelling itself.
As we motored along and landmarks and milestones kept falling by the wayside, quaint villages with single-roofed houses clustered around trees and the free-flowing Shyok river came into view. Asked if locals fish in these waters, the driver said though forbidden by law, some often dip their fishing rods into the waters in the hope of hooking a catch.
Further, into the drive during which Nizam, our driver, shared a few more anecdotes on how some of these border villages, which were previously under Pakistani occupation, fell to India during wars, we ran into a landmark that told us that we were barely a few kilometres away from reaching Thang. With the border village lying a little far off motorable distance, we had to park someplace close and cover the remaining distance on foot.
With only a few families inhabiting the place, it wasn’t much of a village. However, the only reason why it stood out was the closest and clearest view it offered of the other side of the LoC.
As we took turns posing by signage proclaiming the village as the last on the Indian side, a lady came across, offering to share a pair of binoculars that she had strung around her neck for a magnified view of what lay across the LoC.
Looking carefully through the binoculars, I spotted houses and a few people bustling about in the nearest Pakistani village. Directing the binoculars a little to the right, as advised by the kind lady, I also caught sight of what appeared to be a Pakistani bunker. However, both the Indian and Pakistani border outposts lay unpopulated as the prevailing peacetime dictated.
Standing so close to enemy territory, I couldn’t help a surge of national pride coursing through my veins and as I turned my back on this village, my thoughts turned to the brave men in olive green standing firm and resolute to keep our borders safe.
Our next stop was Turtuk village, which used to be the last under Indian control till Thang fell to our forces during the Kargil conflict.
The driver this time, parked us close to an eatery standing on the other side of a flight of stone steps. We had to make our own way from there on. Crossing a hanging bridge which could barely take the load of footsteps, we scaled some more stone steps before signage announced our arrival at Turtuk. As we made our way through a kaccha road with humble village huts on both sides, we ran into some local women fetching water on pitchers and some more going about their daily chores.
As we went deeper looking over our shoulders, a few children running around with smiling faces came into view. A few steps further, we saw a group of women who sat chatting under a tree. We also passed some local shops that had just about opened for business and a tailoring shop where some women sat pedalling their sewing machines.
Further on, we saw some village folks tending to their fields – a woman watering her yields and another spraying insecticides.
With none of the local eating places open for business, we had to abandon our luncheon plans at Turtuk and turn our back on this spotlessly picturesque village.
We stopped for lunch at the point where we started and after taking generous helpings of Maggi and beverages, we returned to base. That was to be our last bit of dance at Nubra as we took to bed early ahead of the last legs of our visit.
Day 7 – Pangong Tso
A journey so eventful and memorable as this calls for a fitting end and what could be more fitting than a trip to Pangong Tso.
Having our trolleys fastened on the roof of our vehicle, we set off for the lake where the water seems to change its colour every time you look at it and you can simply lose yourself sitting on the sand and watching seagulls fluttering overhead. While we are not alien to the phrase ‘out-of-this-world’, it doesn’t find its true meaning till you land up at a place like Pangong.
On the way to this lake of lakes, we passed a dry riverbed with our wheels jumping over loose rocks like popcorn on a hot fire. After clearing this rough patch, we hit the highway again, picking up speed and giving ourselves more than a decent shot of reaching Pangong well ahead of time.
And, as it turned out, we beat the clock comfortably as our car streaked into Pangong well ahead of the scheduled time. The lake soon reared into our line of sight and shone like a blue diamond as the sun beat down on it.
The lake appeared to get bigger as we closed in on it. Before checking into our designated cottage, offering an uncluttered view of the lake, we stopped at a point where a motley crowd of visitors had gathered for selfies while many made good use of the famous ‘potty seats’ from ‘3 Idiots’. Enjoying the wind in our faces, we headed closer to the bank letting our eyes feast on this unvarnished natural wonder.
I sat myself down on a boulder, feeling the water and shooting pebbles on it, while the others in my brood took turns at pictures.
Seeing me idling close by, a couple requested me to pull some snaps on their mobile camera. I duly obliged as they posed cosily by the waters. I thought to myself that as far as natural aphrodisiacs go, they don’t come much better than this place.
The Polaris Cottage, which was to be our home for the night, was at the forefront of all resting places for Pangong visitors.
An icy cold wind was sweeping the lakeside as we checked into our cottages. Inside it was cosy, with the bed neatly laid and the rooms kept nice and warm.
After treating ourselves to some ‘garam chai‘, we decided against strolling down to the lake in fading sunlight and bitter cold and engaging in a chat over snacks instead.
Though cut off from mobile coverage and electricity, barring a few hours of backup that the generators afforded, we weren’t too fussed about it as it fits into the bohemian narrative that we built for ourselves over the course of this trip.
The dinner that night was unlike any we had as the buffet was laid inside a tent buffeted by strong winds. We took helpings of the food on offer and huddled on a charpoy, eating with hands that we could barely keep out.
On the way back to the warm confines of our rooms, we caught sight of stars glistening in the clear night sky. We were told that the lake turns divine on full moon nights as a mystical silver halo is cast on the water, giving it a magical makeover. We missed the full moon but the stars more than made up for it.
Early next morning, we checked out of the cottage and headed for the ‘shooting point’, the point by the lake where the climax of the Aamir Khan-starrer had been filmed.
Leaving my family to itself, I broke away to the virgin side of the lake, taking in the unalloyed beauty of the waters and pulling selfies with abandon. The sight of waves breaking into the shore presented a captivating contrast with the mountains standing tall in the distance.
I could have been there for hours, rapt and lost to nature, but the wind had picked up quite suddenly and before I knew it, a snow storm came, chilling me to the bone.
We rushed back to the car before the snowfall got heavier and started for Leh. The nine-day trip was coming to a close and I struggled to fight off a momentary pang of self-pity before turning to nature again to salve the wound.
Day 8 – The magnificent Chang La Pass
Our route back to Leh was different from the one we took to get there. This time, we were to cross our third mountain pass this trip – the Chang La pass.
The roadway on this stretch of the drive seemed to be made out of silk as we cruised to the song of birds and cackles of nature.
After passing valleys and catching a herd of yaks grazing in the meadows, we drove into Chang La. Standing at 17,688 feet, the pass had received a fresh burst of snowfall and we had to watch our step as we posed for pictures. On our drive uphill to Chang La, we had to round a few treacherous bends, with signage proclaiming that they were avalanche-prone. On one of these bends, our car was stuck in a queue of vehicles that had to stop because a couple had fallen off their bike while trying to negotiate the snowy stretch and needed help to get back on their feet.
A driver rushed out of his vehicle and helped them to their feet. He then sat them on their bike and set them on their way, thus clearing the roadblock.
That was to be our only animated moment of the day as the remainder of the drive back to Leh was fairly uneventful. Back in the capital city, we checked back into Hotel Charu Palace to crash for the night.
Day 9 – Journey’s end
It was time to bid goodbye to the city which had played such a good host, treating us to its wondrous sights and filling us with countless moments that are never to be forgotten.
Loading our baggage onto the vehicle, we started for the airport. It wasn’t long before we were thanking Nizam for being a wonderful travel companion and a friend. Though not a tear was shed, it was plain to see that we were sad to see us part.
Before long, we were saddled in our seats as our flight took off for Delhi. As the mountains flashed on the window panes, for one last time, I gave them a sombre wave to bid ‘so long’.
The only thought that crossed my mind then was that it was good while it lasted!