Dates: July 2018.
Route: Flew from New Delhi.
In the far north of India, there lies a magical and stunningly beautiful land of high-altitude peaks, rugged mountains, glistening bodies of water, and landscapes that shatter any expectations one may have of India. It is a high-altitude (3,500 meters / 11,500 feet) desert with an arid climate and very low precipitation because it lies in the rain shadow of the Himalayas. Bordered by China, Tibet, and Pakistan, Ladakh is often known as ‘the land of high passes’ due to the narrow means of reaching those countries. Shrouded in Tibetan-Buddhist culture, Ladakh offers a fascinating mix of people who draw their lineage from these bordering countries as much as they do from India. The 2009 movie ‘3 idiots’ (I highly recommend) brought mainstream tourist attention to this area and with it came construction of roads and places to stay to make it more accessible. I had seen pictures of the shimmering aquamarine lakes in an in-flight magazine before, but the movie put Ladakh at the top of my list. So, in the summer of 2018, we decided to make it happen as we were going to be in India in the summer (worst time of year to go) for a wedding anyway. I couldn’t remember being that excited in a long while as I was boarding the flight to Leh at Delhi airport. Here was a top dream destination and I was finally going to make it there.
Flying into Leh, the capital of Ladakh, I got a glimpse of the towering mountains that surround the city and a taste of what was to come. That view itself was stunning and I could not believe how there seemed to be such a beautiful and vivid contrast between the caramel-colored mountains and the stark-blue sky. After landing, we made our way to baggage claim and I noticed the thinness of the air right way. I was literally out of breath by the time we reached the main hall and now I know why altitude acclimatization is a mandate for any visitor here. Also being a cold, high desert, resources like water are hard to come by and most of it is transported in. We reached our cozy hotel and were given some refreshing tea to relax with. We spent the rest of the day lounging and doing much of nothing to begin acclimating. It is not a good feeling as I was lightly nauseous and dizzy all day and the cold was biting compared to the sweltering heat of Chennai where we had come from.
Leh is the district headquarters and the main location that tourists arrive at when flying to Ladakh. The far more interesting and difficult route is via motorcycle from Manali, and many make that journey a bucket-list item. Leh is the closest to a real city you will find in Ladakh and has the basics such as shops, restaurants, and a good selection of accomodations. Everywhere else that we went, we ate the food provided at our camp or homestay, which was good but lacking in choices. Alcohol is also difficult to find away from Leh and the altitude does not lend itself to drinking anyway. And as a side note, if you end up taking medicine (Diamox or equivalent) to prevent altitude sickness, it completely distorts your tongue’s taste of beer. Needless to say, I did not drink except one night in Leh towards the end. There is a single hospital in Leh which is run by the Indian army with a separate section for tourists. We heard horror stories of tourists who went out on a bender the first day and had to be airlifted back to Delhi due to acute altitude sickness. Cell and Internet coverage in Leh is good but falls to no data once you get away from the city. We spent a total of 4 days here which was more than enough to do some day trips which are well worth doing. The best were as follows.
Hemis Monastery: A large, beautiful monastery about 45-km outside of Leh. While one of the older monasteries, it is very well preserved and contains a rich collection of antiques including a copper statue of Buddha, murals, stupas made of gold, etc. It has a huge courtyard which happened to host the Hemis Fesitval when we were there. It is well worth taking time to attend the festival which is full of traditional dances and acts from Buddha’s life.
Thiksey Monastery: The 12-storey monastery is one of the newer ones and resembles a palace. It is very interesting to walk around the various buildings and experience life as it was centuries ago. My favorite part is the Maitreya temple which has a massive statue of the Maitreya Buddha inside a beautiful temple.
Sangam Point: Sangam, meaning confluence, is the meeting of the Indus (Sindhu) and Zanskar rivers. This vista offers a spectacular view of the blue-green waters of one river meeting the muddy waters of the other. All with the mountains as a background. You are also able to go rafting down the river or hike along its banks.
We visited many other smaller temples and monasteries, but the best part was stopping often as every turn offers a spectacular vista. Leh also has a market that is as lively as it is diverse. You can find everything from shawls and rugs to local handicrafts and souvenirs. There is also a Tibetan Refugee market that sells locks with unique designs and carvings. It is also a great place for people photography and watching life.
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Nubra valley is about 120-km north from Leh and the drive there takes you through some of the best landscapes Ladakh has to offer. The literal pinnacle of this drive is Khardungla Pass which is one of the highest motorable passes in the world. Not only does the temperature plummet as you get closer to the top, but the air gets even more thinner and it’s an effort to walk from the car to take the signature selfie in front of the sign. Coming down from this towards Nubra Valley, there is a noticeable difference in the landscape as it becomes flatter and sandier with patches of lush greenery. And since Nubra is at a lower altitude than Leh, there is a welcome lessening of any lingering altitude sickness you may have. The temperature is also milder here which is also a welcome break.
The star of the show here though are the adorable double-humped camels that are a legacy of the old Silk Road from China. They were brought by traders ages ago from China’s Gobi Desert by traders to haul goods for trade. Today they are a tourist attraction and adorable to wander among. They have no fear of humans, and we were able to pet them with no issues. We stayed in a basic hotel which was far more rustic than our place in Leh. Nubra offers options of basic hotel, homestays, and camps (tents on platforms and attached bathroom). There are two main monasteries here, Diskit and Samstanling and both are worth visiting.
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Featured extensively in 3 Idiots, our next destination was my favorite in all of Ladak and one of the most beautiful sights I have seen in all my travels. One of the world’s highest lakes at 4,350 meters (14,270 feet), it is also completely landlocked and unable to drain anywhere. This area is also in generally disputed territory where neither India nor China can agree where the Line of Control lies. The lake itself is a third in India and the rest in China-occupied Tibet. As we came over a rise in the road, I got my first glimpse of the lake as a loud, yellow sign actually announced, “First View of World Famous Pangong Lake”. As we got closer and our driver finally pulled off to let us take in the view, I was in a trance at the sight before me. The lake is an indescribable shade of blue that changes based on the time of day. But what really made the scene dreamlike was the caramel hued mountains at the far side of the lake. Looking like some mad giant had taken scoops of caramel ice-cream and plopped them about, the blue lake stood in stark contrast.
It was here we decided to experience the way Ladakh was meant to be experienced by staying in a camp. Though technically a tent, our temporary home was a large tent permanently fixed to a platform with an adjoining tent serving as the bathroom. You must realize the sheer effort that it takes to build something like this in such a remote place but hats off to human will (for money). After the relatively mild weather in Nubra Valley, it was much colder here along with sudden bursts of rain that seem to come out of nowhere. It is almost always windy, and the clouds being driven across the sky ensures the landscape is always changing. This place is a photographer’s dream, and I was able to get many beautiful shots and drone videos. Check out the video link at the top of this article to see just how stunning it really is.
The lesser-known cousin of Pangong Lake, Tso Moriri is a place of not only beauty but also serenity. While Pangong is high on every tourist’s list and quite busy, most don’t come here as the facilities are even more basic and it’s off the main path. On our roughly 175-km drive from Pangong, we saw a convoy of Indian tanks which served as a reminder of the proximity to China and the contested areas between the countries. Just before getting to the village where we were to stay, we pulled over to admire the massive Tso Moriri emerald-green lake. It was here that I got my first glimpse of the wild horses that inhabit parts of Ladakh and it was so surreal to see. There are many moments like this in Ladakh where the world just fades away as you find yourself in a waking dream. The main village is a collection of low-slung houses all nestled together to try to provide a refuge from the winds and bitter cold. We went in summer and while it is relatively mild during the day, it dropped well below zero at night.
The lake itself is surrounded by snow-capped mountains whose grey-brown color stand in contrast to the shimmering blue-green of the lake. There is a viewpoint atop a small hill nearby where you can see much of the lake and the half-moon shaped bay in front of the village we stayed in. There are also a few monasteries and other villages here that offer a glimpse of rural life and the peaceful co-existence the people have with nature. In fact, every aspect of life here exudes a quiet serenity and offers a view into what a life of peace could be like in the modern world. The Korzok Monastery on the northwest corner of the lake reflects this energy and contains many beautiful paintings and images of Buddha. There are also hot springs in the village of Chumathang and yet another lake called Tso Kyager but we did not have time to visit either of these. Next time…
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