Ten Days in the forbidden lands with Pink Escapes | Journey to Leh, India | Guest blogging by Neeta Gupta. Travel services by Pink Escapes. No one said this was going to be an easy journey but Pink Escapes made it comfortable, fun and special!
3 AM alarm/ With great difficulty made it to the airport at 5 AM. Ate Idlis, muffins and drank coffee out of sheer nervousness, shopped at the M&S store and boarded the plane by 6.30 am.
8 AM / Landed in Leh. Happy [note the sarcasm!] to report – absolutely no signal! The guide informed us that only BSNL SIM cards work in Leh. Thanks to the company’s foresight we had local working SIM cards kept ready for our use.
9 AM / Our moods became upbeat like children with their candies, having found out about the new SIM cards . Also there’s an Internet-WIFI café at every corner. Breakfast: omelets and Aloo Paranthas, coffee and melons. And what melons, man. So sweet!!!
10 AM / Took the doctor’s advice very seriously. We went to bed after breakfast. Nobody messes with this high altitude thingie in Leh. Each one of us was given our individual oxygen cylinders. One puff of cigarette before one puff of oxygen. You can’t be too careful here. Relax. Just kidding! Mesmerized by the view from the window.
1 PM / Lunch: fresh spinach and garlic veggie, daal, rice, egg curry and poppadums. Back to bed.
5 PM / Drove to Shanti Stupa for the fabulous vistas. Felt incredibly jealous of Gujarati PYTs roaming around in strappy tops and sandals, while we oldies were muffled in woollies.
8 PM / Dinner. Special Chinese meal served by the hotel for Korean tourists – them being special invitees of the Ladakh Buddhist Association for Buddh Purnima celebrations. “Indian food, very good!” they told us later. At dinner we met this young and lovely American girl, traveling with some friends. She was however “monasterised” out of her brain. She gave us a couple of good tips: including where to eat authentic local food; about this fabulous traditional Ladakhi home in Stok run by Paldan and Yangzes and her mother-in-law, Mrs. Tsering Chandol, called Gyab-Thago; she also advised us on how to get “running” hot water in the restroom. Made a mental note: not to get “monasterised”; eat at Summer Harvest on Fort Road; call 213 for “running” hot water and get a taste of traditional Tibetan hospitality at Gyab Thago.
5 AM / Body clock had re-adjusted to getting up early. And what a delight it was actually to watch the sunrise over the mountain tops in Leh.
9.30 AM / Done with breakfast. Watched the Buddh Purnima procession as it passed right outside our hotel – with people chanting, waving white prayer flags, carrying scriptures, singing and wearing yellow hats. Floats depicting scenes from the life of Buddha were the highlights of the day. The procession winds its way through the city and ends at the Polo grounds for a grand finale. This year, as I mentioned, the Koreans were the special invitees. Ministers were in attendance, many speeches were made and a huge community lunch was served.
In the meantime, we caught up with our high-altitude acclimatization – meaning, lazed in bed after a sumptuous lunch. Doctor’s orders, remember! [The doctor had also advised us to eat lightly…but never mind!] It’s very important to take Diamox pills every night, at least a couple of nights ahead of your departure for Leh-Ladakh, and then continue to take a tablet every night while you’re there. Many people we met hadn’t done that and they truly suffered—you get intense unexplained frightening headaches that don’t seem to abate no matter what medication you take.
7.30 PM / This was an evening dedicated to mooning around .Starring: One full moon.
7.30 AM / Thikse Monastery belongs to the Buddhist Yellow hat order. What distinguishes them from the other orders is their discipline. This famous discipline was however not on display when we visited them today for the morning prayers. This was a relief actually because I would have been very sad to see the little Lamas being straight jacketed into solemnity so early in life. The prayers began with a ritual breakfast of pound barley and butter tea. There was a sense of joy and fun at the Dukhang or prayer hall — even as the older Lamas recited and chanted solemnly, the little ones [one of them was as young as three – four years of age maybe] fooled around with their food. It is customary for families in Ladakh to give their second son to the monastery. But now they prefer to hat their sons than join the Indian army.
The Thikse monastery is built on the lines of the Potala Palace in Lhasa and was established in the 13th century. What amazed us were the extremely clean sanitary facilities for visitors — which is a little hard to come by anywhere in India.
We then drove to the Hemis Monastery which belongs to the Drukpa lineage. They are known for their ritualistic practices. It is one of the few monasteries in Ladakh which wasn’t invaded during the Dogra invasions and has managed to retain most of its treasures, which are displayed beautifully in their subterranean museum in the Temple precincts. There are beautiful Tangkhas – some made with threadwork, old photographs of Nehru visiting the Monastery in 1949, the remains of a baby dog born of a vulture mother and a very sacred symbol in the deeply tantric order of this sectAlthough the monastery was established in the 11th Century, it was re-established in the 17th century by the kings of Ladakh. One of the famous stories of Hemis monastery is that the Russian journalist Nicolas Notovitch visited Hemis in 1894 and claimed that this was the origin of an otherwise unknown gospel, the Life of Saint Issa, Best of the Sons of Men, in which Jesus is said to have traveled to India during his “lost years”. According to Notovitch, the work was shown to him by the monks at the Hemis Library, while he was at the monastery recuperating from a broken leg. Although later this was never proved. And the story has generally been dismissed as a prank played by Notovitch. An annual festival is held in Hemis honoring Padmasambhava in early June. Padmasambhava, an Indian tantric teacher, called Rinpoche in Tibetan, was responsible for spreading Tibetan Buddhism. On the day of the festival the protectors of the world come out onto the quadrangle outside the Hemis main prayer hall and dance to the beats of the drums. The locals believe that if one glimpses these frightening deities at Hemis, their passage to Heaven becomes easier as you are now able to distinguish between the truly bad spirits and the protective ones, who will guide you to the right path. I couldn’t help thinking how useful these discerning powers might be on Earth too – with the people around us and their frightening masks!
From Hemis, we drove to Stok. When the Dogras of Jammu invaded Ladakh in 1842, the Namgyals abandoned their palace in Leh and fled to Stok, on the other side of the Indus, and established the Shey palace. The main palace and monastery are under renovation at this time. But the elevation still affords a fabulous view of the valley.
We then proceeded to have lunch at a heritage home with the Gyab-Thago family in Stok (as was advised by the young, beautiful American). When I asked the guide what we would have for lunch, he said, or did I not ‘ear’ correctly… did he say…Donkey’s ear soup! I almost gagged—but turns out these are little donkeys’ ear-shaped dumplings stewed with vegetables. The broth is called Chhutagi locally. We also had some excellent momos, both fried and steamed, along with an interesting type of bread called Khambir, followed by stewed apricots and green tea. The locally brewed Chhang beer was optional.
After lunch the family took us around their beautiful 200 hundred years old home, with their traditional family altar, hearth, some wonderful stone utensils—which they were using until 2 years back — and traditional headgear displays.
8 AM / Drove to Nubra Valley, via Khardungla Pass. Within 45 minutes of leaving the sunny Leh valley, we entered the land of the snow queen. Cameras were out to capture what we thought was sheer delight. Snow all around, fallen fresh on this barren land, welcomes you in this arid zone — glacial ice and fresh snow are the only drinking water sources. But now suddenly a fog began to envelop us as we approached the checkpoint at South Pullu.
9 AM / Arrived at South Pullu checkpoint. The distance to Khardungla from there was not much. Maybe 6 kilometers? But it seemed as if only a prayer could get us there in such snow storm. We were advised to await the arrival of a tipper truck with news of whether the pass was open to traffic or not.
11 AM / Stuck at South Pullu for 2 hours now. So still, so still, so still, this snow. Cavafy came to mind. “As you set out for Ithaka hope your journey is a long one…”
2.15 PM / Still stuck at South Pullu checkpoint. It had been five hours since we got there. Every hour or so a car would turn around and drive back to Leh. Not us. We were too strong-willed; and besides we had Cavafy to keep us going… ”But do not hurry the journey at all. Better if it lasts for years, so you are old by the time you reach the island, wealthy with all you have gained on the way…” We were also very hungry. Fortunately the tour operator had provided us with chips, Kurkure, chocolates, boiled eggs, juices and couple of bottles of water each. But what we really needed was a cup of hot tea, even Maggi…
2.45 PM / Gave up. Drove back to Leh. Sorry, Cavafy!
3.15 PM / Word was out that Khardungla Pass was now open to traffic. Drove back to Khardungla.
4 PM / Crossed Khardungla and started our descent to the beautiful Nubra Valley. What a pity that the world’s highest roadside café was shut! We weary travelers could have done with a cup of tea and a pee.
8 PM / Drove into Sumoor Village in Nubra. Passed some amazing valleys criss-crossed by Shyok [pronounced Shayok] and Nubra river [also called the Siachen River], sand dunes and stunning sunsets against stark mountains. Nubra is a high altitude cold desert. Our cabbie incidentally hailed from there and was happy to show off his village. They grow wheat, barley, peas, mustard and a variety of fruits and nuts, including blood apples, walnuts, apricots and even almonds. The region is home to rare species like snow leopards, brown bears, marmots and ibex.
You get the picture, right? Nubra is really green compared to the rest of Ladakh (although this didn’t quite explain why our campsite owners had planted fake flowers in their garden!!! But still it painted quite an appealing picture in this cold desert. Refer to picture.)
A little detail that spooked me out was the fact that we were less than a hundred kilometers away from Siachen—the highest battleground in the world. Most locals aspire to work as coolies in Siachen. They say it’s very risky [many lose their lives every year], but that is too lucrative to resist.
9.30 PM / Dhaba dinner at camp: paneer butter masala, pindi chhole, tarka daal, roti, rice, dahi, salad (yes, salad!), followed by gulab jamuns. It is a bit surprising that none of the hotels or camps we stayed at served us local food. However, the food was hot, freshly prepared and tasty, enough to bring a smile on our chilly faces.
Interestingly, of the seventeen camps which were fully booked for the night, we were the only guests to have made it. Be warned that there is absolutely no phone connectivity in Nubra. And no electricity either. The army provides these campsites with 4 hours of power between 7 and 11 pm, and that’s about it.
10 AM / After a fairly sumptuous breakfast – who eats choorma laddoos dunked in hot milk in Nubra? — We left for Hundar village where Bactrian camels roam. These camels hark back to an era when there was a flourishing trade between the region and Central Asia. However, since trade ceased in 1949, these animals became redundant, until the tourists arrived more recently to revive their dwindling numbers.
The sand dunes of Nubra should really be another story, in another medium, told by a painter, preferably.
The massive 32 metres Maitreya Buddha statue at the Diskit Monastery towers over the Nubra valley. No matter where you are, it is impossible to miss its serene divinity. At the Diskit village, however, I am happy to report the availability of more mundane things—its long and narrow bazaar full of trinket stores, stationers, you can buys prams, toys, sleeping bags, Pashmina shawls, hardware, software, “hi-fashion” wear, vegetables, bananas [they must come from very far off], digital photo studios (and the girls here are very pretty).
Around lunch we drove back to Leh. This time crossing the Khardungla pass was so smooth. Fine weather is a fine thing, and very rare in these parts, I am told.
What fascinated me during these drives were the Mani walls — the miniature Great Wall of China-like structures found along the hillsides. Legend has it that kings would make prisoners carve or paint prayers on each of the stones that made up these walls, as a kind of penance. And weary travelers could stop here to pray.
Oh, these stones on which time has etched a story…
11 AM / I set off to meet a young niece who works at this unique school in Phey, 18 km from Leh. Set on the banks of the River Indus, The Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh, SECMOL, was founded by a group of young Ladakhis who wanted to reform the educational system of Ladakh.
The campus wore a festive air today. They had a presentation later that afternoon and students were scurrying around — putting final touches to their songs, dance performances, speeches etc. After a much needed cup of tea with the volunteers in the school’s warm kitchen, a student was assigned to take me around the campus.
The student proudly showed me a set of solar panels, and illiterate that I am, I assumed these were for electricity. The young student gently chided me, ‘For Boiler, for water!’ Then we passed another shiny panel with reflecting mirrors, I asked whether these were for electricity? ‘No, this is for cooking!’ he was exasperated by my idiocy. Now we walked to a row of solar panels parked by the banks of the Indus. These were connected to the batteries in a shed. Clearly this was what kept the entire campus warm and well-lit. Ladakh has over 300 sunny days a year and it makes perfect sense to rely on the sun for energy.
8 AM / Crossing Changla pass at 17000+ feet, on our way to Pangong Tso lake, was a breeze after having conquered Khardungla pass two days ago. We stopped on the way and had a little picnic by the River Indus. We saw some wonderful wild horses on the way, and a few mules, also some ‘love’-ducks who swam in pairs, marmots, squirrels and golden eagles.
Had tea and Maggi at a stall in Tangtse. This picturesque village is the last halt before you enter the border area, for which an inner line permit is required. We also drove past the Chemdey Monastery.
4 PM / What can I tell you about the beauty of Pangong Tso that you don’t already know…words fail me and even now, as I picture it in my mind’s eye, I skip a beat in my heart. However the place is windy and cold and my first reaction was to feel a deep sense of pity for Kareena Kapoor, who had to dance here in a bikini and even fainted during the shoot for the flop Bollywood film, Tashan. Just to give you a perspective: we were wearing 5 layers of clothing! And our teeth were still chattering…
That night we were the only guests at Camp Water mark, which should rightfully have been named: Camp Water-less Mark, for there was no water. There were 14 tents that made up this campsite. Suffice it to say that we left ‘a little part of ourselves’ in each of those tents that night…
5 AM / Sunrise at Pangong. These magical mystical waters keep changing color all day long — but early in the morning I felt a certain stillness, clarity and calm as I have never witnessed in my life. And you can hardly be prepared for when the sun stealthily climbs over the mountains and turns these stunning blue waters to molten gold…
8 AM / We left for Leh soon after feasting on tea and toast. What saddened me as we were driving away from here was that these pristine waters at Pangong may no longer remain as beautiful as fly-by-night campsites and developers descend here in the name of development. And we might see a repeat of what happened in Uttarakhand.
On the drive back to Leh we stopped briefly at the Druk Padma School, which featured in The 3 Idiots movie. They now conduct tours of the school and have named their canteen for visitors – Rancho Café!
11 AM / This morning we visited the vegetable market in Leh—laden with bokchoy, palak, pudina and fresh green onion saplings. In fact, we had noticed that most places in Ladakh served vegetarian food. We could only ever find cabbage momos. It was only later that our guide explained — apart from the strong Buddhist influence on the cuisine there was the fact that most Ladakhis thrive on meat all winter and hence revel in their vegetables through summer.
There was such an organic wholesomeness to the fruits and vegetables there that we ended up haggling for greens we didn’t even need.
Since we had a free day to roam around in Leh, we ended up discovering the little trinket stores, the Pashmina shawl outlets and fabulous restaurants tucked away in the city. It was lovely to walk around the old part of the city, calling out “Juley!” to all the warm Ladakhis! We had lunch at a place called the World Peace Café. Fantastic pizzas and lasagna in a lovely garden ambience.
5 AM / Transfer to Kushok Bakula Rimpochhe Airport in Leh. Strict security standards, so we were advised to be here 2 hours before the flight. Then on to Dilli meri jaan. Landing in Delhi at 9.30 am was a shock to our senses. It was one of those zero-to-fifty-degrees-in-fifty-minutes kind of situations. Un – effing – believable. What a Leh Experience!! ( Photo Credits: Ramu Ramaswam ) CM @ Carlos Melia Recommends
How to get there:
Planes, trains, automobiles
However convenient it is to get there by air, nothing can quite compare driving down via Manali – Leh highway or alternately from Srinagar. You need extra days to do that but I have been assured it is totally worth it! Also the high-altitude sickness doesn’t hit you if you choose to drive up.
Hotels in Leh:
Omasila Hotel [best views]
Druk Ladakh [best showers]
The Grand Dragon [5 star!]
Local Hangouts at Leh:
Summer Harvest Restaurant-must try ‘muddonchowmen’
World Peace Café – great lasagna
Himalayan Café [internet and WIFI heaven]
La Pizzeria-well, lovely place to hangout. Food ok ok!
Gym Playlist [even Akon if you please]
Driver Gurmet’s latest Hindi hits
Richard Wagner – Ride Of The Valkyries
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