Looking back at my three years of marriage, I still feel that one of the best part of this journey was when we visited the epicenter of varied natural beauty and the rooftop of the world – Ladakh.
Just like so many other couples, we too have our bucket list of places to travel. One of the major vacations on the list was the 7-day trip to Leh, Ladakh. We checked it off the list when last June we finally made the memorable trip. But this took months of planning, visiting travel agent companies and even ordering for woolen clothes and accessories online, and yes, in the summer months.
We planned on taking a flight from Delhi to Ladakh and our excitement knew no bounds when the flight eventually flew atop the snow-clad mountains with streams of lakes in the centre, and sandy fields with glimpses of green in between.
The slow and swift lifting of the misty clouds unraveled the beauty of the rugged terrains, sparse greens and beautiful mountains as we sat on our seats clicking pictures of the marvelous sight in front of us, feeling eager to view such beauty in abundance up close.
After de-boarding the flight at Leh airport in the afternoon, we looked for our tour guide booked by our travel agent company – a local native of the area who was as warm and welcoming as the city itself.
As soon as we got into the car, we found ourselves looking out of the windows at the grand mountainous terrains, vast valleys slowly reaching up to the huge market area replete with handicrafts, antiques, Buddha statues, apparel and accessory shops that marked the culture of the place, all at a stone’s throw away from our hotel.
We were told to rest for the day as we needed to acclimatize ourselves with the lack of oxygen at 3000 metres above sea level and the cold weather out there. We were also warned against the symptoms of AMS – Acute Mountain Sickness that is especially caused if one stays in a place high in altitude for longer than they should or without letting themselves acclimatize with the environment there.
So we chose to explore our hotel, have our lunch at the hotel cafeteria and relax ourselves with some coffee sitting right in the middle of the garden, among trees and surrounded by our bungalow-style hotel and the clear sky with snowy peaks peeping from afar.
We then decided to check the nearby market out on foot (It turned out to be a good idea) although we chose to not exert ourselves too much.
Next day we were shown around Leh by our guide and visited some Buddhist monasteries like the Thiksey Monastery, the Hemis Monastery and the Shey Monastery one by one while on our way to the Moon Valley of Ladakh, Leh. These monasteries were perfect examples of Ladakh’s splendid architecture, its culture and its practice of Buddhism.
About 20 kilometres from Leh, Thiksey Monastery was our first stop where we were spellbound by the number of stupas, wall paintings, Buddha statues and his teachings beautifully engraved on the wall. While the main prayer hall houses a 15 metre high seated Buddha statue, the museum has some other valuables in its store like a royal sword that is considered sacred and some interesting souvenirs.
Hemis Gompa is however the largest monastery in Ladakh and has its own unique style of architecture. Both Hemis and Thiksey host festivals and ‘bazaars’ that are invigorating and are celebrated to mark different occasions.
Later we also went to the Shanti Stupa that stands tall and from where we could view the entire city of Leh.
Leh-Phyang-Khardung La-Khardung-Hunder-Nubra Valley
That evening we went back to our hotel rooms to pack our clothes for our one day trip to Nubra valley, about 140 kms from Leh.
The valley was lower in altitude and to reach there we had to cross the highest motorable road in the world – the Khardung La Pass. We started off pretty early in the morning and were soon on the narrow winding roads with snow-filled mountains on one side and alluring valleys on the other. Vast landscapes, rivulets with the calm waves of Shyok river among the huge mountains took turns to lure us towards where it meets the Nubra river to form the large and pristine Nubra valley.
By the time we reached Khardung La (18380 feet), snowfall had begun and it was an amazing view and an even more amazing feeling to be there witnessing nature in all its glory, although we could not be there for more than 20 minutes for fear of AMS.
It helped to get some tea and rush to our car after taking some wonderful pictures at the spot. Reaching the higher altitudes of Khardung La and stepping into lower altitudes at Nubra valley helped us acclimatize and settle ourselves with the temperature and oxygen levels of the place. I and my husband had witnessed our first-ever snowfalls here at Khardung La.
The trails were completely covered with snow now with Rocky Mountains on the either side, sometimes followed by icy lakes in between or steep valleys. We could see ice melting from the mountain sides and it was nothing short of stunning.
On our way we chose to stop for lunch at a restaurant at Khalsar which offered both accommodation and food. However, we were only there for the food, which, I must say was good and filling after the tiring journey of about four hours.
Once we crossed Khalsar village, the breathtaking landscape of Nubra valley at 3048 metres above sea level seemed to call upon us with the clouds bending over the mountain tops and the colors of the trails varying from being a barren, arid field to a valley of flowers, while the mountains changed colors from brown to snowy white as you shift views from left to right.
While on our way to our place of stay for the night, we came across a beautiful trail at Hunder with greenery on both sides and mountains in front of us, further leading us to the famed sand dunes and it was here that we also experienced the camel safari.
There were double humped Bactrian camels here and I took a ride on one of them with complete strangers riding on other camels in our group. My husband decided to not take the ride and waited for me while I was both nervous and excited for capturing the mesmerizing view of the majestic hills when the evening sun was playing with the colors of the sky and the pale white sand dunes while riding the camel.
After this ride we had some maggi (commonly found in Ladakh) and coffee at the little canteen out there and decided to head over to our tent camps that were quite luxurious, given that they had ample space, convenience and comfort with a proper room, arrangement for the cold night and an adjacent tiled en-suite bathroom. Our place of stay in Nubra Valley welcomed us with some great food options, both evening snacks and dinner.
The deep valleys with some small villages covered in lush greenery contrasted against the rocky mountains and with little streams of water was a view for sore eyes.
After dinner, there was an arrangement made for bonfire night which we enjoyed for a while but then came back to our tents, spent some time in the quietude of the night before we packed our things to make a move back to our hotel in Leh the next morning.
While on our way back, we visited the Diskit monastery (believed to be over 600 years old) which is known for the 50 feet tall statue of Maitreyi whom the monks revere as the future Buddha and who holds in her hands a mummified human head and forearm. The Gompa is nestled at the edge of a cliff and to reach there, first our car had to make a steep climb and then we climbed the rest on foot. All the monasteries have an inclination for a certain height because either you have to climb steep slopes or a lot of stairs. The monastery housed a temple for Goddess Kali inside which was a moment of enlightenment for me.
While making a move from here we were told by our guide that there is a deviation towards Sumur that leads to the Siachen Base Camp surrounded by the Siachen glacier facing Pakistan and China on either sides.
The village of Sumur was laden with rivulets, green fields and mountainous terrains and driving through these we reached Khardung La, and through Khardung village to the mighty Chang La Pass, the third highest route in the world.
This time we had decided on having some fun in snow from the closest we could get to it – a moment in time that lives on in our minds forever.
When back to our hotels, we came to know that our rooms had been changed owing to the coming of more tourists and foreigners, and this time we got our room upstairs from where the view of the sky and snow peaks was even more scintillating.
Leh-ChangLa-Tangste-Pangong Tso Lake
The next morning we were ready for our visit to the famous Pangong Tso Lake, the spot where the movie 3 Idiots was shot. While en route to Pangong lake, we spotted many camping spots and some people who were practicing ice skating on one of the lakes that had turned into ice.
On our way we stopped at the Magnetic Hill road, named so because of an optical illusion that is a major tourist spot because vehicles move on the road even if they are not being driven. A little ahead, we came across an arid landscape where few beavers were having some fun fighting with each other – this reminded me of the movie ‘Chipmunks‘.
We also covered some avalanche-prone spots while our car was moving through narrow bends and curvy alleys. As dangerous as it was, there was no taking away the fact that we were surrounded by picturesque landscapes with small rivulets, steep valleys, lofty peaks and beautiful greens. The journey was of about 5 hours to Pangong Lake so we decided to stop at Tangste for lunch.
We further went on to visit the Rancho café (named after Aamir Khan’s character in 3 idiots), the school featured in the movie and the famous wall with a painting reminding the tourists of the movie. It was a beautiful stroll up the valley when we visited these tourist spots.
Our journey then continued with the snow peaks increasing in number as we reached Pangong and in no time, we could see the lake from afar. But, once we reached the place, the fresh air, noise of the swans and seagulls, neighing of the horses kept alongside the lake and the beautiful sand on which we walked towards the lake was all a mesmerizing wonder, to say the least.
The lake was most beautifully shadowed by the low hills, clear blue sky and the hanging clouds. This lake, as we later came to know changes colors during the course of the day – from dark blue around mornings and evenings to aqua green through the afternoon and a stunning golden during sunrise and pitch black at nights.
Our accommodation couldn’t have been better than this: we stayed right on the banks of the lake in eco tents but we had been given thick spreads and heavy mattresses for protection against the chilling temperatures at night. It being evening time, we explored the lake, took some beautiful pictures around it and near our tents. By dinner time, the lake was not visible but we could hear the riveting flow of water and it was a challenge moving with our mobile torches on. The electricity, we were told would only be there until 11 p.m. so we made sure we had slept by then. But even with blankets and despite wearing our woolen clothes and accessories we were still freezing in our tents at night.
The morning after, we had planned to wake up early for sunrise but the sun happened to rise even before 5 a.m. when we had woken up. We planned to have our breakfast at the buffet hall and click some good pictures with the swans now in their full swing.
While our trip back to Leh found us hooked to the postcard perfect pictures of the beautiful lake we had left behind, the very next day we planned to explore more of Leh. Our first stop was near the Zanskar river – two rivers unite to finally form this river that connects India and Pakistan. Next we visited Gurudwara Pathar Sahib which has its own story of courage behind its foundation.
The trip had left its unforgettable imprints etched in our mind but somewhere we did not want to part away with those scenic beauties yet. So our last stop was at the Spitok Gompa, perched atop a rugged hill that houses a hundred monks and a huge statue of goddess Kali.
In the evening, we visited the market, picked some desirable souvenirs and packed our bags for our trip back home.
Next morning, we left for the airport with a heavy heart as we still were absorbing the pure, untarnished beauty of the place. It feels terrific to be a part of the bountiful nature that shines in all its glory with snow-capped peaks, crystal blue waters and the splendid thick carpet of greens. No wonder Ladakh has turned out to be a vacation spot for the world over. In all its graceful beauty, the charming city also tests your ability to withstand the brutal cold and to live among the truest forms of nature.
The trip is over but the memories etched in our mind will last forever. Leh Ladakh could rightly be the gateway to paradise that is a must visit at least once in a lifetime.