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Old 17th May 2011, 11:09   #1
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Default Last-minute Ladakh: My early summer travelogue

Background:

We usually do a family vacation every summer. Last year we missed out but made up with two roadtrips to Goa, both in winter (one in Feb and the other in December). This summer nothing concrete was planned since the missus didn't anticipate any leave from work. As the temperature touched 40 degrees and the work piled up, we resigned ourselves to a miserable vacationless summer. And then suddenly...

The principal of the school where the better half works decided that even teachers and daycare coordinators need a break . A week's holiday was declared in the second week of May. Only problem: we had 2 weeks notice, give or take. And no place to go!

I suggested the one place we have been trying to go unsuccessfully for many years: Switzerland, with a brief hop through Paris. We first planned a trip there back in 2005-06 but shortly discovered that the good Lord had deemed it fit to bless our household with another member, and since then it has been a case of plan-and-never-quite-go: I have a couple of friends there who never tire of inviting us over, bless them. And we could always fly some third-world airline via Trumpsk, Kazbakuzbekistan (or wherever) to cut costs. But wifey was strangely reluctant. I guess women are romantic about such things. European holidays need to be properly planned.

She suggested Singapore. It was our home for nearly 2 years and we have valid visas and can fly in and out at whim. It would be great to catch up with old friends and relax in familiar surroundings, maybe check out the new casino and Universal Studios that have come up. So I hopped on to makemytrip.com and to my horror, discovered that fares were nearly double what they usually are (a round trip BOM-SIN-BOM was 31K!). Called up the missus who immediately vetoed the idea of going. Dejectedly gazing upon the screen, I caught sight of some promotional deals at the corner of the screen.

"How about Ladakh?" I suggested.

And that was that.


Planning and Packing:

In the internet age, booking a package tour online is the simplest of things and luckily we found one that suited our needs to a T: departure on early 7th May and return on the 14th. 6 nights in Leh and one at the Tirith camp in Nubra Valley sounded like a great plan. We were covering most of the touristy places: Khardung-la, Nubra Valley, Chang-la/Pangong Lake and of course Leh and its surounds. Since those were the highlights of our trip, am structuring this travelogue with an episode devoted to each of these.

The next few days flew by in a frenzy of planning for the big trip. I checked out travelogues on TBHP and most people it seemed did trips in July-August when the snows had melted and the highways were open. Were we being stupid by planning it this early, we wondered? I tried to find a reliable website for accurate weather-related information and imagine my consternation when a self-proclaimed guru on Tripadvisor announced that March to May would be "peak summer in Ladakh with temperatures up to 35-40 deg C". Considering that we had just spent the last 72 hours digging out whatever woollens we had and borrowing the rest from friends and relatives, that was a bit of a shock (Clarification: No offence at all meant to Tripadvisor- I have planned some of my nicest holidays based on what I have read there- but that's the thing about user-generated content: trust it at your own risk!).

So I did what I usually do when I am in a dilemma these days: consulted TBHP! Dropped a PM to Tanveer (@tsk1979) and was delighted when he replied within minutes. No need to unpack, was the gist of his reassuring message: it will probably snow the day you land in Leh and 4 layers should keep you warm in the passes. He also provided a helpful hint about the IMD website being fairly good source of weather information (http://www.imd.gov.in/section/nhac/d...ast/ladakh.htm). In the end we were well-served by this advice: it did snow in Leh, lightly, on our rest day the day before we returned; and fairly heavily in Khardungla when we passed through and at the Pangong Lake as well (a sudden blustery snowstorm that ended as quickly as it started!)

Being the hardened sea-level dwellers we were, we tended to overpack since we didn't realise that in cold and dry climes you can wear pretty much the same clothes everyday with nobody except yourself noticing . I reckon we could have reduced our check-in baggage by half if we packed one of everything instead of two, as we did! Anyway, no harm done.

All our bags are packed and we're ready to go...
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I guess there is enough stuff on the internet on what to pack but let me just list a few things that you should not be caught dead without:
  • Diamox tablets: start taking these a day before you leave and take at least 1-2 the first day when acclimatising. Sip plenty of warm water. It will make you want to go to the bathroom a lot since it is a diuretic. Pop one whenever you start feeling breathless or dizzy.
  • Vaseline: Your lips will crack, your nose will look like someone prospected for gold onits surface. Use petroleum jelly liberally on all exposed areas. Budget a jar per person for a week.
  • Sunblock: of minimum SPF 30. Ladakh, to repeat a popular cliche, is the only place in the world where you can get sunburnt and frostbitten at the same time.
  • Woollens: At the bare minimum, carry thermal inners (full-sleeved vest and pants), a thick sweater, a waterproof jacket, sports socks and warm waterproof gloves. Regular woolen mitts will help at most in Leh but in the passes you need the real thing- we bought lovely waterproof wool-lined gloves in the Tibetan Refugee Market in Leh for 180/- each. Don't skimp- you could end up losing your fingers.
  • Camera: My friend who did Ladakh a few years ago told me "A blind man with a mobile phone can shoot great pictures in Ladakh". It's true. Carry enough memory (I bought an 8MB card specially for this trip, with a 4 GB one as back-up). Charge your battery every night. Power situation in Leh is iffy so buy a spare battery if you can. And shoot as high-res as you can (I went 14 MPi on my Sony P&S). Be alert- the perfect moment is always around the corner- grab it!
Departure: Day Zero: May 6th, 2011
The flight from Delhi to Leh was at 6 am Saturday and so the agent booked us on a feeder flight from Mumbai at 2.25 in the morning. Which suited us fine, since both of us were working that Friday. Thoroughly unable to concentrate, though, I composed my Out-of-Office and took off around mid-afternoon only to find that wifey had beat me to it and was already home making last-minute packing changes. Our original plan had been to take a cab directly to Mumbai airport but that would mean a hurried dinner at the airport, where an overpriced sandwich was probably the best we could expect. So a last-minute change of plan was made: the Vento was deployed to drive up to my Mom-in-laws' in Central Mumbai where a hearty homemade dinner awaited us, before taking a black-and-yellow to the airport.

Where else but maximum city Mumbai would you find traffic like this at midnight...!
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Checking in at the Kingfisher counter at Mumbai airport
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Our flight was uneventful, bar some early excitement when an untrained ground staff member struggled to through-check-in our bags to Leh: it took my wife's iron hand (she is an ex-service industry veteran and has no patience with incompetence in this area) and a supervisor's intervention to ensure that the bags were properly tagged and our boarding cards issued. An on-tarmac transfer at Delhi and we were on our way. Soon enough, what we saw through the windows lifted our spirits and blew our minds (helpful hint: sit on the left side flying into Leh):

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Landing at the most picturesque airport in the world:
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Julleh, Ladakh!

Last edited by noopster : 18th May 2011 at 16:51.
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Old 17th May 2011, 13:34   #2
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Default Re: Last-minute Ladakh: My early summer travelogue

Leh & Surrounding Areas

Leh, the capital of the erstwhile Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh, is now the second largest district in the country (after Kutch in Gujarat state) with an area of 45,110 sqkm. Leh town is still dominated by the now-ruined Leh Palace, former mansion of the royal family of Ladakh. The town is at an altitude of 3524 metres (11,562 ft).

(Note: Secondary information sourced from Wikipedia and other online sources)

There are primarily 3 ways to get into Leh:
  1. National Highway 1D connects Leh to Srinagar in the northwest, 434 km distant. The drive (via Kargil and Dras) is the best way to approach the Ladakhi capital according to locals.
  2. Leh-Manali highway via Jaspa, Sarchu, Keylong, 473 km long. The toughest of the 3 options, involves at least 2 whole days of driving and an overnight camping stop. It is snowed out till June and was not an option for us, even if we were fit enough to try it!
  3. Flying into Leh: Kingfisher, Go Air and Jet Airways operate flights from Delhi that take an hour or so. This was the soft option we chose .
You need a whole day to acclimatise at that altitude. We were warned that even moderate exercise can be lethal, so most of Day 1 was spent relaxing, chatting, napping and watching TV.

We ventured out after lunch to take some pictures of the hotel's beauteous surroundings.

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Leh market was a mere 15 minute walk away.

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Pashmina shopping:
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Picking up curios for the folks home:
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Picking up some jam for my little one, whom we badly missed this trip:
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Kinship with those across the border:
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An interesting menu at a restaurant we dined in:
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The schedule was well-planned. Once acclimatised we did a few short runs out of Leh to the monasteries, places of worship and palaces & other touristy spots around the city.

Hitting the road:
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First stop: Gurudwara Pathar Sahib, with its 600 year old history, to seek Babaji's blessings.
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At the Sangam Point, where the Indus and Zanskar rivers meet. You can tell clearly the colour difference:
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A quick stop at the Spituk monastery/Kaali mandir to wind up a light day:
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Last edited by noopster : 17th May 2011 at 16:17.
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Old 17th May 2011, 15:57   #3
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Leh & Surrounds Part 2: Shey, Thiksey, Shanti Stupa, Leh Palace

We did a round of the monasteries around Leh and were amazed to find out that Tibetan Buddhism is far from monolithic: in fact the Druk(pa) sect (dominant in Bhutan and parts of Ladakh) does not even revere HH the Dalai Lama as its spiritual head. We visited Shey Palace, a beautiful monastery dedicated to the Druk sect:

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The sect also runs a school, made popular by the movie 3 Idiots. In fact, it seemed as if most of the tourists there were really thrilled about the fact that it was the "3 Idiots school"- the way some of us were behavig, the teachers and students must have been wondering if it was the first time we were seeing a school!

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But come to think of it: who wouldn't want to go to school if it were this beautiful!

The Thiksey monastery: a beautiful structure housing some truly magnificent idols of various forms of the Buddha:
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How's this for the perfect picnic spot? "Sindhu Ghat" on the banks of the gentle Indus river:
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The awe-inspiring Shanti Stupa: a perfect blend of location and architecture that leaves one physically and spiritually cleansed:
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Leh "Palace" is little more than a ruins actually; having been taken over some time ago by the ASI, it is yet to be restored to any sort of grandeur yet. Could possibly serve as a great venue for Paranormal Activity 3 though :
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The palace offers a beautiful view of Leh town, shot here as the sun sets:
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Last edited by noopster : 17th May 2011 at 16:56.
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Old 17th May 2011, 18:02   #4
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Khardung-la @18,380 feet above sea level:

Now that we'd mastered the "plains" (if you can call 11,000+ feet that), it was time to get serious and hit the real heights. Khardung-la ("la" means pass in Ladakhi) is the highest motorable pass in the world and it was a thrill to be able to drive up there, play in the snow, get stuck in a mammoth traffic jam for 2 hours and then head back down into the low-10,000s to Nubra Valley.

We passed Khardung-la twice, once each on the onward and return journey, and it was simply magnificent. Not much else to say: let the pictures do the talking!

First signs of snow @ 14,000 feet
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Got off to frolic in the snow around South Pullu
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Magnificent Vistas!
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At K-top, at last!
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Without doubt the best location for a traffic jam- ever!
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Last edited by noopster : 18th May 2011 at 13:17.
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Old 18th May 2011, 13:58   #5
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Nubra Valley: Riding with the Camels

Nubra Valley, about 150 km north of Leh, is commonly accessed by travelling over the Khardung-la from Leh, as we did. The Shyok River meets the Nubra or Siachan River to form a large valley that separates the Ladakh and the Karakoram Ranges. The average altitude of the valley is about 10,000 ft. above sea level. Geologically it is classified as a high-altitude desert. Non-locals require an Inner Line Permit (obtainable in Leh town) to enter Nubra (our travel agent arranged this with copies of our ID proofs).
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The difference in landscape after Khardungla, where it was blustery and snowy, was stark. The Nubra Valley is possibly one of the most beautiful parts of Ladakh that we visited. The cameras were firing away as dusk settled on the valley- we were lucky to get there in time for the last few camel rides.
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The camels found in Ladakh are the double-humped Bactrian species found across Central & West Asia and in the Mongolian desert. They are lovely to behold compared to their pain-looking dromedary cousins found in Rajasthan and other parts of India.
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While we waited for the camels, we could not get enough of the beauty around us.
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After our camel safari, we drove up to Tirith camp, literally an oasis of greenery in the barren desert. In a lovely spot nestled in the mountains and near the river, we found our camping site for the night.
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This is my favourite picture from our trip:
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Last edited by noopster : 18th May 2011 at 14:38.
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Old 18th May 2011, 15:20   #6
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Chang-La @17,590 ft & Pangong-Tso:

Did I say Nubra Valley was the most beautiful landscape we'd ever laid eyes on? If so, then Pangong-Tso, the landlocked, salt-water sea that starts in Ladakh and extends well into Chinese (Tibetan) territory is surely the single-most beautiful place I've ever visited in my life.

No wonder they left this for last. Our tour guide told me blithely that he expected people to stay ther for 30 mins to an hour. I looked at him like he was crazy. So, while most of the other tourists made the mandatory noises ("Arre, three idiots wala lake!"), took the mandatory pictures and headed out for the mandatory lunch, we (the missus and me, plus 2 other intrepid young couples we shared our vehicle with) spent more than 2 hours here: clicking pictures, feeding the birds or just gazing in delighted abandon at the sheer beauty that surrounded us.

And boy were we rewarded. There was a sudden storm of some kind, accompanied by blustery winds, a swirling, overcast sky and-would you believe it- SNOWFALL! We rushed to the Qualis to get our gloves and wet jackets. It was over in less than 10 minutes, but quite possibly the most amazing experience ever.

As things worked out, we didn't miss the lunch either. It was set up in a village about 30 km away and we were so starved when we got there that we dug into the hot dal and rice like it was a gourmet feast!

But who needs food when you can see sights like this?

En route Chang-la:
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Easily the best snow we got to play in: at Chang-la pass:
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A warm welcome to the coldest cafe on Earth?
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Descending again, en route Pangong Lake
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First glimpse of the Pangong Lake! There is a sign put up just before this spot that I missed photographing:
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The lake, at last!
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We spotted a lot of these noisy birds, not shy at all to come and grab whatever morsels we offered them. They don't seem to be either brahminy ducks or bar-headed geese that Wikipedia says are common at the lake. Help from wildlife enthusiasts please?
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More views of the lake:
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You can see the difference as the skies darken:
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After the storm, the calm: took this final snap after all the vehicles had driven off from the banks of the lake.
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Last edited by noopster : 18th May 2011 at 15:33.
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Old 18th May 2011, 15:53   #7
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Our Ride:
No travelogue on T-BHP is complete without pictures of one's ride, as I realised with alarm when I posted my Auranagabad TL a couple of months ago without accompanying pics of the Vento .

Our trusty companion through this week in Ladakh was a maroon coloured Toyota Qualis FS. Its 2.4 litre naturally-aspirated diesel engine delivers 75 BHP and the ride quality offered is ideal for the rocky and treacherous mountain roads of Ladakh.
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I'd never taken too much of a liking to this vehicle before but I was totally bowled over by its rugged simplicity and no-nonsense performance: to the extent that I am now seriously thinking of trading in the Swift for a good used Qualis! Though the stock shoes look puny for the sheer size of this beast, they served us well and we did not suffer any tyre failures on the trip- nor, in fact did any of the 4 other Qualises in the tour company.

I spent most of the time in the third row and did not encounter too many problems. Body roll was fine, probably because we didn't exceed 70 kmph at any point, though a grabrail for the last row is sorely missed.

At Gurdwara Pathar Sahib:
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On the Thiksey-Leh road:
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Outside Shey Palace:
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At Khardung-la, the highest it'll ever drive to!
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Traffic jam at 18,000 feet:
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Crossing a bridge in Nubra Valley:
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Making friends: en route Chang-la:
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Our Man Friday, Getso: it was his his first tour of duty in the Himalayas but what he lacked in experience, he made up for in good cheer. He will surely miss us!
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Last edited by noopster : 18th May 2011 at 16:11.
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Old 18th May 2011, 16:21   #8
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Closing Credits:

Travel Partner: Makemytrip.com
Flight partner: Kingfisher Airways
Accomodation partners: Hotel Mansarover, Fort Road, Leh * Tirith Camp, Nubra Valley
Thanks to: the staff and management of the hotels and the travel agencies in Leh and Tirith, especially Achok Piyok of Wisdom Travels, Leh and Getso, our young driver.
Special Thanks to: my wonderful parents, sister and mother-in-law, who gladly took care of our little one while we were away- Ladakh is a tough vacation and I would not recommend it for children under 10.
Very very special thanks to: The Indian Army and its offshoot the Border Roads Organisation- your presence is all-encompassing and reassuring throughout Ladakh and it is only thanks to your untiring, cheerful and relelentless efforts that people like us are able to enjoy our vacations in the safety and comfort that we do.
Fittingly, this travelogue ends with a few pictures dedicated to you.
Last-minute Ladakh: My early summer travelogue-dsc02517.jpg
Last-minute Ladakh: My early summer travelogue-dsc02516.jpg
Last-minute Ladakh: My early summer travelogue-dsc02988.jpg
Last-minute Ladakh: My early summer travelogue-dsc02856.jpg

The hall of fame in Leh adjoining the Air Force Base is a must-see:Last-minute Ladakh: My early summer travelogue-dsc02458.jpg
Last-minute Ladakh: My early summer travelogue-dsc02461.jpg
Last-minute Ladakh: My early summer travelogue-dsc02477.jpg
Last-minute Ladakh: My early summer travelogue-dsc02478.jpg
Last-minute Ladakh: My early summer travelogue-dsc02463.jpg

The BRO hard at work and ever-visible through their quirky and funny motivational signboards that pepper every mountain road:
Last-minute Ladakh: My early summer travelogue-dsc02852.jpg
Last-minute Ladakh: My early summer travelogue-dsc02973.jpg

When you're hungry, cold and miserable from acute mountain sickness, a sign like this can really make your day. Consider that the army does not discriminate between its own and tourists, especially when it comes to medical facilities and free treatment of those in need.
Last-minute Ladakh: My early summer travelogue-dsc02855.jpg

Last-minute Ladakh: My early summer travelogue-dsc02481.jpg
Jai Hind!

Last edited by noopster : 18th May 2011 at 16:48.
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Old 18th May 2011, 20:31   #9
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Default Re: Last-minute Ladakh: My early summer travelogue

Bumping this gently to feature in the 'new posts' listings!

Thanks Moderator @Technocrat for publishing this.
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Old 18th May 2011, 21:14   #10
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Default Re: Last-minute Ladakh: My early summer travelogue

Wonderful, wonderful TL!

It is indeed an amazing effort by the Army to ensure the place remains so beautiful and accessible to the avergae Indian.

Thanks for the detailed TL - encompassing almost everything related to the trip.

I long for the day I set off for that place!
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Old 18th May 2011, 21:43   #11
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Hi Noopster,

Excellent write up and pics. I rekindled our memories of Ladakh trip we did last year.

Nice to see that you happenned to visit the Gurudwara and Armed forces museaum which very few do. You could have visited the secluded world heritage site of Basgo with its Chamba Gompa famous for specatcular murals as you had travelled all the way to of confluenece of Indus and Zanskar.

No doubt that Border Roads and Armed forces are to be saluted for their amazing work in the region.

Last edited by Fauji : 18th May 2011 at 21:47.
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Old 18th May 2011, 21:59   #12
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Default Re: Last-minute Ladakh: My early summer travelogue

Wonderful travelogue noopster. The snaps were great! Loved the place and the
spirit shown by you guys.

Rgds
VW
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Old 19th May 2011, 04:04   #13
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Default Re: Last-minute Ladakh: My early summer travelogue

Wonderful writeup noopster, and matching photos!!
If you don't mind, can you share the agent/package you took? I have a feeling its Yatra!
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Old 19th May 2011, 07:31   #14
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Default Re: Last-minute Ladakh: My early summer travelogue

Thanks for the nice comments people!
Quote:
Originally Posted by libranof1987 View Post
Wonderful, wonderful TL!

It is indeed an amazing effort by the Army to ensure the place remains so beautiful and accessible to the avergae Indian.

Thanks for the detailed TL - encompassing almost everything related to the trip.

I long for the day I set off for that place!
Trust me- it's an experience like you've never had before. Ladakh is quite unique!


Quote:
Originally Posted by Fauji View Post
Hi Noopster,

Excellent write up and pics. I rekindled our memories of Ladakh trip we did last year.

Nice to see that you happenned to visit the Gurudwara and Armed forces museaum which very few do. You could have visited the secluded world heritage site of Basgo with its Chamba Gompa famous for specatcular murals as you had travelled all the way to of confluenece of Indus and Zanskar.

No doubt that Border Roads and Armed forces are to be saluted for their amazing work in the region.
Thanks Fauji. Will keep these in mind for the next trip

Quote:
Originally Posted by VindyWheels View Post
Wonderful travelogue noopster. The snaps were great! Loved the place and the
spirit shown by you guys.

Rgds
VW
Thanks VW! The thing is, with a place like Ladakh, you really need to embrace the spirit and go with the flow! There are enough people who spend their time their griping about the cold, whining about the food and saying inane things like "Itnaa duur hum kya oont dekhney ko aaye? Juhu mein miltay!" (Did we come all this way to watch camels? We have those at Juhu beach!" Suffice to say- am glad I am not one of them nor married to one

Quote:
Originally Posted by Dry Ice View Post
Wonderful writeup noopster, and matching photos!!
If you don't mind, can you share the agent/package you took? I have a feeling its Yatra!
Thanks Dry Ice. I did check out Yatra as well, but in the end went with Makemytrip. There was a small difference (1-2K) in the package cost but more importantly MMT showed a lot of initiative and repeatedly followed up with various options on phone and email till I was satisfied. The package is called "Amazing Ladakh"- you should be able to find it on their website. Be sure to negotiate!
I was a little worried about the photos, to be honest. My friend virtually threw his DSLR at me but I resisted and stuck with the Sony H55 which I think is much simpler to use on the run. Glad that they seem to have come out well.
Please keep posting- will be glad to answer whatever queries I can as well!
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Old 19th May 2011, 08:55   #15
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Dry Ice View Post
Wonderful writeup noopster, and matching photos!!
If you don't mind, can you share the agent/package you took? I have a feeling its Yatra!
Dry Ice,

We used Ladakh Safari for the complete trip and they were excellent. We also did Manali - Leh by road which was arranged by them. If you want details look at their website www.ladakhsafari.com and call Deleks Nomgyal who is very helpful.
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