Monday, 21 February 2011

LADAKH JULY 2010 - Stop 3: LEH

As we left from Kargil, we knew it was going to be a long day ahead. Our aim was to reach Leh by early evening; the journey was roughly 9-10 hours.
• Our first stopover on this route was Fotula top. At 13, 479 feet, it is the highest point on the Srinagar-Leh road. The space around the milestone was dotted with brightly-coloured prayer flags fluttering in the wind making it a moment to be captured on the lens and find a place in our memory.

• Within an hour or so from Fotula, we began noticing the change in landscape. We identified some fascinating rock formations that resembled human forms. The patches of green vegetation we’d witnessed throughout the road from Srinagar to Kargil was now replaced with a slew of rocky mountains, which served as an indication of what’s to come.

• Combining a visit to a temple that houses giant Buddha sculpture on Rock Mountain with a stopover for some snacks, we took a break for half an hour.

• We drove on through dusty roads and revelled in snow-clad mountain views before we reached Lamayuru monastery. The Lamayuru Gonpa was originally named Yung-Dung Tharpa Ling that means ‘Land of freedom’. It is said that in the 16th century, the monastery was declared a holy site where even criminals could seek sanctuary. According to legend, this whole valley was once under a lake. Nimagon, an Arhat (a Buddhist who has attained nirvana) prayed thus “May a monastery be founded in this place.” He offered votive water offerings to the Naga serpent spirits of the water and caused the lake to drain out. The grains of corn offered to the water spirits mysteriously grew in the shape of Yung-dung (a Swastika). Hence, when a monastery was later founded here, it was called the Yung-dung Gonpa.

Here we had an interesting interaction with two American girls, Elizabeth and Jennifer, who’d come to Ladakh to work amid the locals and learn more about the culture. I was particularly amazed by how quickly they’d picked up the Ladakhi language within a short span of two months. They suggested we visit the Pumpernickel Bakery in Leh; they said it has “the yummiest pastries you’ve ever eaten!”

• It was 8:30 p.m. when we finally made it to Leh, after a very exhausting road trip. We just dumped our bags in the hotel and headed to satiate our long-pending hunger. Leh-View was the chosen restaurant, considering its proximity to our hotel.

Day 1: Leh-Nubra Valley
Khardung La—the highest motorable road in the world
On our first of three days in Leh, we headed to the Nubra Valley via Khardung La. The 39km ride up to Khardung La from Leh was really exciting, as the weather became cooler and cooler as we progressed up the road. The landscapes went from barren valley to snow-clad mountains in the distance. As we went higher, the roads got narrower with loose rocks and dirt covering the path. We encountered several cyclists and bikers en route. I wasn’t surprised to see the large no. of bikers, as it is heralded as every biker’s dream, but was taken aback by the numerous cyclists who’d chosen this route.

Once we reached the coveted 18, 380 ft., the temperature dropped drastically and we were surrounded by snow, dotted with innumerable colourful prayer flags (they seemed to be a permanent fixture at similar milestones we touched upon throughout this trip). History states that Khardung La lies on a caravan route from Leh to Kashgar in Central Asia, and during World War II, a futile attempt was made to transfer war material to China through this route.

There was a picture-clicking frenzy up here; after all, this IS the highest point any automobile can go. I met a Swiss cyclist in the midst of this chaos and began enquiring his group’s interest in cycling on this tough terrain, that too without any winter apparel considering the high drop in temperature at the top. He revealed that they had practiced on a similar terrain in Leh before taking this up as cycling on the highest motorable road in the world was part of their bucket list. He certainly gave me something to think about...

A cup of hot black coffee with some maggi noodles providing much-needed respite. I also found a interesting chocolate called Funny! Turns out, it was a local rip-off of Nestle Munch. There is also a souvenir store here that offers curios like T-shirts and mugs.

As we drove forward, towards Diskit, for the first 20 minutes we were passing by a snow-covered road. There was snow in every direction; some of it had melted on the road as well, which (I admit) did frighten me a tad. But everything was back to normal in no time. As we entered the Nubra Valley, the vistas changed to a land of arid barrenness, much like a desert.

Diskit Gompa A larger than life, intricately-designed statue of the Maitreya Buddha, held atop an elevated rock formation, stated our arrival at the Diskit Gompa. Smiling monks greeted us as we gaped at this 500-year-old monastery; the largest and the oldest surviving monastery in the Nubra Valley. Adorned with colourful murals and decked with Tibetan patterned silk, the temple complex displays typical Tibetan architecture and is home to almost 100 monks. The view of this fog-drenched valley from the gompa was simply spectacular. According to an intriguing legend, it’s believed that a Mongol demon, who was against Buddhism, was slain here, and his spirit is said to constantly revisit the monastery. It’s also said that his wrinkled head and hand lie somewhere within the monastery. I felt pangs of curiosity and jittery excitement simultaneously. The crime-show loving side of me was itching to prod on, but knew better not to.

We dragged our tired souls to the Olthang Guest House, located five minutes away. They had gorgeous wooden log-cabin-like rooms; just the kind I like :) A few drinks and several crazy conversations later, we went to bed.

Day 2: Nubra Valley-Hunder-Leh
We woke up bright and early (which I only do on trips, by the way) and took off for the sand dunes at Hunder, about 15 minutes away. A camel safari was in store for us at this stretch of sandy desert in Hunder. A bouncy ride later, I got engrossed in the clean, straight lines that naturally formed on the greyish mountainside in the background. This is one of the most amazing things about Ladakh; its widely changing landscapes.

We began driving back to Khardung La. I’d assumed that this time round we’d only stop to grab a bite, but we found another reason to get click-happy again. It was snowing!! It was a breathtakingly beautiful scene; light snowfall + hot coffee + hot maggi that turned cold within minutes of being prepared. We added on the extra sweaters we’d been lagging around and cosied up with gloves and caps. Standing there, we couldn’t help but admire the beauty of the mountainside bathed in a white blanket. At one point, the area was completely covered in dense fog and we could barely find the road ahead. As we descended, the temperature rose and soon, we were back in Leh town.

Fortunately, we made it back in good time, so a bunch of us set out to find the highly recommended Pumpernickel Bakery. Tucked into a tiny by-lane, the bakery and restaurant looked very inviting with modest outdoor and indoor seating. Picking our favourite goodies from the bakery was the easy part; waiting for the rest of the order was rather tough on our extremely hungry stomachs that had been surviving mostly on maggi. A refreshing mint tea and finger-licking pastries later we knew the recommendation was well-deserved. From apple crumble to chocolate coffee cake, this quaint bakery and cafe produces delicious treats at a whopping size and measly price of Rs. 50 only. Our next stop was to walk around the market and do what girls do best—shop!

Shopping here poses a bit of a dilemma. The wares are unique and enticing, such as the treasure trove of jewellery, belts and other accessories adorned with turquoise stones that holds cultural significance in this region. However, the word bargaining certainly doesn’t figure in the dictionary of a majority of shopkeepers here. But women being women, we tried anyway. We did manage a few discounts, but at times, our greed gave in. Prayer flags, prayer wheels, Buddha statues in various sizes and designs, thangkas (Tibetan paintings) and many more curios that one can take back home as souvenirs.

We ended our night at Summer Harvest, a restaurant serving authentic Tibetan cuisine, where we gorged on yummy momos and thukpa (a Tibetan noodle soup).

Day 3: Pangong Tso
To visit the Pangong Lake, you’re meant to start your journey really early in the morning (maybe 5-6 a.m.), as it is said that by late afternoon the ice at Chang La—the world’s third highest mountain pass—begins to melt and there is a remote possibility of an avalanche taking place. So, a five-hour drive through Chang La, at 17, 586 ft., tumultuous roads and avalanche scares, we finally reached Pangong Tso. Its beauty is inexplicable. As a perfect reflection of the cloudy sky amid barren mountains forms on the water, it changes its colour to display myriad hues of blue, while ducks wade their way through from one side to another. It made for a postcard-perfect photograph. Situated at a height of about 14,270 ft., the lake is 134km long and extends from India to China. It’s in disputed territory, as the Line of Actual Control passes through the lake and 60% of it lies in China. During winter, the lake freezes completely, despite having saline water. We sat there for a while, dipping our feet in the cool water, lying back under the warm sunlight. There is a tiny shack-like restaurant here, but the food lacked taste. The fried rice was horrible, while the omelette was edible. We managed to leave by 1 p.m.

Chang La

Pangong Tso

That evening, after a quick pastry at Pumpernickel, we discovered the best momos at Gesmo restaurant; a cute little place with gorgeous green windows, located at Fort Road. I especially liked the useful notice board they put up here that lets you find new places as well join other groups for treks and other expeditions.

The momos, cumin cookies and chicken sandwich at Gesmo Restaurant

Day 4: White water rafting from Chilling to Nimmu
On our last day in Leh, we went white water rafting on River Zanskar for a dose of adrenaline-pumping adventure. We were to cover the 25km stretch from Chilling to Nimmu that lasted for two and a half hours. With scenic rock formations in the background and gushing river water in the foreground, I really wished I could have carried my camera in the raft. Maddening grade 3+ rapids combined with mini whirlpools made it far more adventurous than I imagined (and a tad scary when we told to row like our life depended on it so as to prevent ourselves from being sucked in by a large whirlpool). But, if there is one thing I’m glad I did, it was taking a dip in the freezing river; even though my tired body and sore arms were hoping to give it a miss. The indomitable rush you feel once back on the raft is absolutely worth it.

We ended our tryst with Leh at our already favourite restaurant—Pumpernickel. We’d almost become friends with the waiters; they recognised us and knew what our choice of food within two days. It reminded me of the old TV show Cheers that had the title song “Where everybody knows your name...”.  With this, we reluctantly said our goodbyes to the staff and began packing to leave for Sarchu the next morning.

The route taken was: Mumbai-Delhi-Srinagar-Kargil-Leh-Sarchu-Manali-Delhi-Mumbai
(click on the names below to go to the blog post on that destination):