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Old 3rd August 2015, 11:55   #16
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The facade of Castle Tsemo
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The walkway to Castle Tsemo
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A view of Leh town
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Another view of the facade of Castle Tsemo
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Leh town
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Castle Tsemo and Leh Palace from Leh Market
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Castle Tsemo in shadows - from Shanti Stupa
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Shanti Stupa from Castle Tsemo
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Shanti Stupa - facade
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Shanti Stupa - closeup
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Various reliefs - poetry in stone depicting various aspects of Buddhism.
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The circular road to the Stupa
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A Chorten outside Leh gate
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At the Tibetan Market
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A Swiss Howitzer Cannon
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The infamous swiss howitzer cannon- that played a very stellar role in the Kargil War. Part of the munitions display at the Hall of Fame (34.139181, 77.541069)

The Kargil War Theater
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Photos of intrepid soldiers in action
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The battle of Tololing
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The battle of Pt 4875
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This is where Captain Vikram Batra , PVC made the supreme sacrifice on 7th July 1999.

The battle of Tiger Hill
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A decorative Chorten at Leh town.
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The Leh friendship gate a.k.a. the Main gate (34.157986, 77.585681)
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Old 3rd August 2015, 22:20   #17
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About Leh.

The following is about Leh as we perceived it - using lenses brought from a metro.

It' also true , that to truly enjoy Leh, one must spend time here, and stop judging life through the prism of big city life.

Staying options
A variety of staying options are available - from budget options on Fort road to mid market options on Changspa Road.

We preferred Hotel Asia - as it is probably the closest hotel to Shanti Stupa that also features a substantial parking lot. BTW - dedicated parking is probably the most important facility one should look for when staying at Leh in season.

Most hotels offer street parking (including the budget hotels) - and this is often misrepresented as dedicated parking on MMT and other travel sites. So it's important to check - before you put your money down.

Eating options
There are plenty. From traditional north Indian to Tibetan to continental to middle eastern/israeli - take your pick. Most places would be within easy walking distance of the hotel - and in no case should be more than 2 km away from where you are staying. Here's our perspective of five places we tried.

Tibetan Kitchen ( 34.163716, 77.581900) on Fort Rd, Leh - an easy walk from the JKTDC information center.
Full service restaurant with outdoor and indoor service.
Yummy Tibetan fare - sadly without the traditional Chhang.
Go for the catch of the day - which may include trout caught from the nearby Indus.
Best seats - outside - under the shade.
Very popular with the Army/Air Force personnel/families.
Offers dedicated parking.
Service - depends on the time of day. If you are unlucky to reach at peak hour, you will have a long wait.

Summer Harvest ( 34.163507, 77.583180) also on Fort Road - very easy walk from the JKTDC information center.
Full service restaurant , with indoor service only.
Average Tibetan fare. Average North Indian fare. Did not try the continental dishes.
Street Parking is non-existent.
Service - pretty quick. Speaks of a well-tuned operation.

Il Forno ( 34.164718, 77.584130) on Old Fort Road, an easy walk from the JKTDC Information Center
Cafe offering service indoors and outdoors on the 3rd floor.
Really nice Tibetan fare , italian & salads. Fantastic views of Leh Palace and Castle Tse Mo.
As it's on the 3rd floor - little or no traffic noise will disrupt your meals. Indoor seating is quirky - no tables and chairs here. Just recline on the cushions spread on the floors.
Street parking may take you some time.
Service - pretty quick.

La Piazetta (34.167010, 77.582265) on Changspa road, near the Moravian Mission School.
Best known for its paper thin pizzas - and other Italian delicacies. Fresh ingredients go a long way to bring customers back. Nice ambience. Ideal for youngsters and for the young at heart!
Street Parking is non-existent.
Service - pretty quick.

Wonderland Restaurant & Coffee House ( 34.169127, 77.579807) on Changspa Road.
The menu is really really thick. Offers outdoor and indoor seating , on the 2nd floor. Traffic noise from Changspa road is suitably faded.
The food quality was average. We tried middle eastern , Italian and Tibetan. Main Course was nothing to write home about. Experience with Desserts was mixed. Brownie was average, lemon cake was a poor attempt, but apple cinnamon crumb was pretty good.
Street Parking is non-existent.
Service - like molasses!

Wifi spots exist at every corner. Your mobile phone's 3G data plan will also be available for use - intermittently.
And believe me, getting a data connection that works , is like looking for a needle in a haystack.
We tried every possibility. Mobile Wifi, Hotel Wifi , Internet Cafe Wifi - but after a while , we realised getting a ping from across the world is a bit like a game of chance. So don't depend on it.
It's best that you ensure all emails contain only text or at best with light attachments. Keep outgoing emails in the outbox on your mobile - and hope - that when you return at the end of the day, your inbox would have replicated.
Due to the large influx of tourists at Leh, it's possible that the demand for connectivity far outstrips the available bandwidth. While we were at Leh, we heard that the fibre link between Leh and Srinagar may have been disrupted due to landslides at Zojila - but that may have been just a rumour.

The only ATM that worked for us, was the Axis Bank ATM ( 34.164874, 77.585484) next to the Jamia Masjid on the Main Bazar Road. All other private bank ATMs either had no money or did not recognize our other private bank card.
SBI ATMs are known to work sometimes - and there's one opposite JKTDC tourist center - that's a bit temperamental a the best of times.
Don't even try JK Bank ATMs. They won't work for most people who are used to their cards being accepted everywhere.

The Tibetan Bazar for knick knacks and handicrafts. This looks diminutive - but thats deceptive - as there are plenty of narrow alleys to get lost in.

There's a nice roadside spice market that's set up on most mornings at Sankar road. On offer are regular Indian spices and dry fruits, as well as the more exotic kind.

Leh Main Market - is spread between Changspa Road and Old Leh Road , and is famous for handicrafts, clothes, bakeries and groceries. Be sure to bargain.

Local Transportation
Taxi services are available on call at hotels, and also available from the Taxi Union at Leh Taxi stand. Rates are astronomically high. If you are looking for local transportation options - you are better off with hiring point to point taxi service (usually omni). For example we took a drop from Old Fort Road to our hotel near Shanti Stupa for a more reasonable Rs 250. These point to point taxi services may not be available at points of tourist interest.

We had the good fortune to make acquaintances with a couple of good taxi drivers - who ferried us within Leh town. That way we could really spend time at the places we wanted to be at, rather than spending time walking between points, or looking for parking.

Our plan for the next days were a trip to Hunder (over the mighty Khardungla ) and to Pangong Tso (over the Chang La).

Last edited by joybhowmik : 4th August 2015 at 16:24. Reason: continuing the narrative!
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Old 4th August 2015, 16:39   #18
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June 17,
This was to be our "rest day" at Leh , and it was anything but. Despite the trials and tribulations of the night before, even my BIL, mustered up courage to accompany us for a sumptuous lunch at the Tibetan Kitchen. The evening had been spent chit chatting followed by a leisurely walk over to Wonderland for a late dinner.
However, he was still not up to bracing himself for the climb to Khardung La - and I fully understood. My SIL, decided to stay with him - otherwise he would be alone in the hotel.
But the impact to plans was elsewhere. My wife, who had been banking on our BIL accompanying us ( sense of security - in a what-of scenario) , started getting worried. She told me to check with our taxi driver for the day - if it was possible for him to go. The rate quoted by him was Rs 10k if he takes us in his Aria, and Rs 2.5 k if he takes us in our car. Despite my reluctance, I asked him to confirm if he would be willing to chauffeur us in the Innova. It was with some Joy, that I received his decline at night. Apparently, he had a more profitable fare the next day. That news left my wife's peace of mind in tatters. I was completely beside myself in glee, but I did not show it.

Our plans were to leave for Hunder the next morning. We had been advised to leave early, so as to avoid bumper to bumper traffic not unlike what we had seen at Zojila. This was to be avoided under any circumstance, as without momentum it's difficult for a 2WD to pass difficult patches.

The rest of the evening was spent in archiving the photos from our memory card into our laptop. And with the promise of sights to be seen, I could not afford to be out of memory!

June 18.
I woke up at 5:30 AM IIRC. The room was in pin-drop silence. Kids and wife were in deep slumber. I made a few final checks, repacked some stuff. After our experience at Zojila , I had decided to leave most of our luggage behind at the hotel. It helped that our BIL/SIL had retained their room. So all we would really take would be a small backpack with a day's clothes, our camera gear , various small pouches containing snacks and medicines for the way. And of course 1 crate of Bisleri!

We had collected forms from the hotel reception the night before. These were duly filled up, and were to be deposited at South Pullu (before Khardung La) and at North Pullu (after Khardung La) checkposts.

We started at 6:30 AM.

Khardung La Road, the highest motorable road in the World! And here we come!
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For some , this is the most important road in this region of the country. That's because this is the artery that supplies the high mountain battlefield of Siachen.

A view of the mighty Karakorams, with Castle Tsemo in the foreground, as we start ascending towards Khardung La.
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Another view.
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Can you spot Shanti Stupa - in the distance?

South Pullu checkpost. ( 34.248939, 77.619893).
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The grazing Yak was the only thing of interest in this otherwise barren area.
A small army camp exists here with rudimentary medical facilities. If you feel short of breath , or start to develop AMS symptoms, it may be a good idea to stop at this place for help.
Also a small police checkpost where one deposits the first of the two visitor forms when ascending Khardung La. On return, one is required to ask the police man to strike off the name in the register.

The invincible!
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The road surface changes from black top to this, a few meters after South Pullu.
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From this point on, the climb really gets steep.

Innova posing!
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We stopped to listen to silence.
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The Khardung La road snakes its way up and up.
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Here we paused for a brief moment.

Kids playing in the snow... and there's lots of it!
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Traditional Silk Route
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Maybe 3 km before reaching the Khardung La top, we came across this sign. A sign pointing to times when it was not so easy to surmount the high passes.

"You are driving up the highest motorable road in the world, and NOT a shortcut to Heaven. Drive Safe!"
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A message left by BRO.

Finally at Khardung La top (34.27866, 77.60468)
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Can you believe Siachen is still 164 km away - and higher up?
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Word has it, that finally supplies have to be broken up into smaller parts, and ferried by human or animal power.

The obligatory snap at Khardung La. Now my wife was really enjoying the adventure!
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The descent towards Hunder was trecherous.

Snowbanks threaten to fall onto the road.
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But won't - notice the icicles forming here ?
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This snow had been here for a while and had compacted- and if we were lucky would not be obstructing us by falling down anytime soon.

A warning sign - "Avalanche Area"
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As we look back at the road just traveled.
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Bikers , stuck on the difficult stretch near Khardung La top.
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Little did we imagine a similar plight would befall us!
This is the story of a spot, where our fears of an avalanche causing problems - came true. On our return journey, at this very spot , was a small patch of maybe 20 metres, which rendered driving difficult , as it was full of slush, powdered snow, and water.

What happenned?
Well, to put it simply, when we encountered this patch, I attempted to try going through it by using my right tyres on the snow bank, and my left on the track (through the slush).
Speed was low, as I did not want to end up sitting like an upturned turtle on a snowdrift.

Within seconds, as the left rear tyre went into slush, it started spinning. The right one was stationary. As can be expected on an open differential.

The driver behind me tried helping, and my family got off, and all tried pushing the car out of the muck. But to no avail. It's at least 2 tons -and I was blocking an artery that cannot be choked.

I could see traffic backed up ahead of me, as people waited for me to clamber out of the situation I was in. Soon, an army jeep approached CO (Commanding Officer) emblazoned on its plates. The officer (a Colonel-no less) got off, assessed the situation, and called on his jawans, and around 8-10 soldiers and locals man-handled Innova out of the mess.

He then left instructions to call the BRO - so they could come and put some earth and rocks on the spot, shook hands and left.

While waiting the local drivers , started gathering whatever few rocks were left to fill up the worst spots. This way at least some of the traffic from the opposite direction (and headed down), could disperse.

We kept waiting for the BRO to arrive for close to 1.5 hours . In the interim, I tried to help, by carrying a few rocks myself. Bad Idea! For a non-local, unused to prolonged stay at heights exceeding 17.5k feet, AMS strikes and it strikes fast and hard!
I stopped, gulped down some Coca mother tincture, drank two bottles of Bisleri, and just waited.
If the worst case of endless nausea happened, I reasoned, I would turn back towards Hunder (at 9000 feet).
Luckily the BRO guys arrived in a few minutes, and I was spared of further discomfort.
Luckily my wife and kids were okay.

The drive back to Khardung La the next day, to the point we got stuck.

The view as we descend from the snow-line.
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A marmot peeks out at the snow-line
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The North Pullu Checkpost ( 34.328968, 77.643069)
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Here's where one's supposed to drop off the second form.

A sign-board at North Pullu - with interesting statistics!
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Looking back at Khardung La road.
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We were in the way!
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A herd of Kiang walked out , and neighed rather belligerently!

Last edited by joybhowmik : 15th August 2015 at 13:58. Reason: continuing the narrative!
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Old 5th August 2015, 15:40   #19
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A sign-board that proclaims - if you've reached this far - then "All is well!"
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The magnificent Shyok valley!
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An arrow straight road cuts through Shyok valley!

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A Durga Mandir on the way
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A waterfall where we stopped, to freshen up.

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Our first sight of Bactrian camel in the wild
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The hotel we stayed at in Disket.
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Hotel Olthang (call 01980 220 025, and reach at 34.54673, 77.55731)

The picturesque road to Disket Gompa.

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Chortens atop a hill.
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The Disket Gompa - the largest monastery of the Shyok valley.
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And yours sincerely, heaves a sigh of relief , after ordering lunch!
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Last edited by joybhowmik : 15th August 2015 at 14:02. Reason: continuing the narrative!
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Old 5th August 2015, 16:08   #20
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No travelog to Ladakh would be complete, without reference to the beautiful monasteries in the region. To that end, unlike other travelers , we had to wait till we reached Disket to really explore a typical monastery.

While the kids were clamoring for a camel ride, the view of the monastery from our hotel room balcony was mesmerizing. So mesmerizing indeed, that we thought we must first visit this , before moving on to the camel rides etc at nearby Hunder.

Disket Monastery (Ganden Tashi Chosling Gompa) , like many others is set atop a hill. It belongs to the Gelukpa school of Buddhism and was dedicated in the 1400s, after being converted from a royal palace.

A view of the monastery from our hotel.
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This view shows the length of the sprawling monastery.
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The history of the Gompa

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The monastery map.
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Note it does not mention "stairs". But the long and winding black path is really a looong staircase!

The looooong staircase - and staring up at doing the impossible!
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The main entrance gate...
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Facade of white brick - somewhat similar to Castle Tsemo
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The central courtyard that offers outstanding views of the countryside.

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Houses for the Lamas - many centuries ago, these were probably used as quarters by the staff employed by royalty
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Centuries old fresco art.
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One had to be careful clicking this without flash.

Inside the main prayer hall.
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Photographs of Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama are prominently displayed.

Intricate art work
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The super - awesome view from the rooftop!
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The Giant Maitreya Buddha statue that dominates the Shyok river valley, for miles in every direction.

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Getting closer...
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and closer...
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still closer...

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and now really close - but not close enough!
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So we drove right up to the statue.

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There's a circular road that one takes to get there. Or one can just walk.

Disket Gompa - just magical at night
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Last edited by joybhowmik : 15th August 2015 at 14:06. Reason: continuing the narrative!
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Old 5th August 2015, 19:27   #21
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No visit to the magnificent Shyok valley could ever be complete, without a visit to its famed dunes at Hunder. Dunes @ 9900 feet above m.s.l. with snow capped peaks around! Quite a sight - and unlike anything one is likely to see.

The dunes of Hunder
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Made of a dark riverbank sand - quite unlike the sands of Jaisalmer, these are the results of eons of erosion by the river and winds.

Innova - parked at Hunder.

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The atmosphere was quite like a Diwali mela - with thronging crowds of people from the plains. Not the deserted desert that I wanted to see.

Dipping feet in the cool waters of Shyok
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After hours and hours of climbing stairs at Disket monastery, tired feet get welcome relief in the cool waters of the Shyok river.

A Bactrian camel ride!
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I felt sorry for the poor animal having to bear my weight!

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But I had to stay close by the kids.

And off we went!

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The dunes and the mountains bid us goodbye!
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And thus ended our sightseeing of Hunder. I so wished to go on to Turtuk, but we had not planned this , neither did I have the ILP required to make the trip. Maybe some other time.

Last edited by joybhowmik : 15th August 2015 at 14:09. Reason: continuing the narrative!
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Old 5th August 2015, 23:02   #22
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Continuing on the subject of monasteries, what really caught our eye on our way to Pangong, was the beautiful architecture of the Thiksey monastery , framed by Chortens and standing tall.

The Thiksey Monastery

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However, a visit to Hemis monastery was the highlight of our return from Pangong. A monastery of Drukpa lineage, it probably is the most important monastery in the region.

Here's the famous gilted statue of Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) that overlooks the Hemis monastery.
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There's plenty of parking, and I would recommend driving up to the upper level.
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A background of Hemis monastery.
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Facade of the main building
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The huge courtyard is surrounded by quarters used by the Lamas.
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Prayer wheels - intricately carved on bronze.
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The facade framed by an intricate wooden doorway
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Kids posing together! It's amazing how they mixed up - coming as they did from very diverse backgrounds!
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A drum was keeping beat for...
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A dozen or so lamas , practicing their steps for the festival of Hemis Tse-Chu.
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This festival, commemorates the birth of the patron saint (Guru Padmasambhava)

My daughter- turning a giant prayer wheel!
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The main prayer hall.

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Apologies for the darkness. No flash was allowed.

A close up of the altar here.
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There was another prayer hall, in active use. Thus no photography was allowed there.
It was interesting to see the different kinds of offerings placed at the altar. They ranged from biscuits to cooking oil to the odd bottle of Kingfisher beer!

Paintings in the main prayer hall - depicting various deities of the Buddhist pantheon
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The Maha Kali- a goddess that transcended two religions.
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Socio cultural history indicates that people from the lower castes of Hinduism, that were primarily drawn to Buddhism in the early years immediately following 4th century B.C. , may have brought the idea of Goddess Kali with them into their new found faith. Kali was the patron Goddess of large swathes of population born into Hindu lower castes, and therefore probably represented a tenuous link to their past. Subsequently the idea of Kali - the great destroyer , took on its own shape and destiny , as Buddhism flourished. It's interesting that whereas Hinduism eulogizes Kali as the Great destroyer of Evil, Buddhism celebrates Her as the the Great destroyer of Ignorance. Evil and Ignorance - perhaps two sides of the same coin.

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Old 6th August 2015, 00:10   #23
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No account of the monasteries of leh can near completion, without mention of the rather quaint Alchi monastery.

Alchi bridge festooned with colourful prayer flags

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Alchi is near the Srinagar - Leh highway, about 65 km west of Leh and is reached by this picturesque bridge over the Indus. Instantly recognizable by the multitude of prayer flags adorning it.

Artifacts on sale!
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And horribly expensive - perhaps meant for the rich and famous phoren consumer out to buy an antique.

A history of the Alchi monastery.
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The main courtyard, suitably adorned with prayer flags
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Carvings in wood in the doorway to the Sumtsek temple
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There is a small entrance fees. And by the way photography inside the temples is not allowed. But one can buy picture postcards, at the museum.

The following are scanned images of the various deities here.
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364 manifestations of the Bodhisattva Manjushri (the God of Wisdom)
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Mandala of the diamond sphere
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Bodhisattva Vajra Sandhi
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A royal drinking scene
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The Shakyamuni Buddha
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Ratnavajarini Vajraguhya Mandala
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Bodhisattva Manjushri - the God of Wisdom
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The Amitabha and His entourage
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The Amitabha Buddha
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Goddess Tara - The Saviouress
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The Maitreya Buddha
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The Akshobhaya Buddha
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The green Goddess Tara
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The Bodhisattva Valokiteshvara - The God of Compassion
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Sitting by the Indus - and drinking in the cool breeze , at the Alchi monastery.
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A must-have experience!

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Old 10th August 2015, 10:48   #24
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June 19th
Our return from Khardungla after the run in with AMS had been a little overwhelming for some.

My BIL, had somewhat recovered from the initial shock of high altitudes. However, duty called, and he had to advance his departure from Leh, choosing to fly back to Kolkata on June 21st.

That left my SIL, still wanted to eke out as much as possible from the trip, and as plans called for our departure for Spangmik (Pangong Tso) the very next day, was really looking forward to the journey.

My wife had sufficiently recovered from the trials and tribulations of Khardung La, and in fact had gone out of her way to look for the famous Delhi-Srinagar-Leh-Manali-Delhi route imprinted T-Shirts for everyone in the family. Truly , driving hard bargains and intense negotiations, at at the local Leh Bazaars , proved to be an amazing restorative!

The kids were having the time of their lives. With fond BILs and SILs offering them stories , great food, video games on demand, and no studies - this had to be better than the best vacation ever!

And so, unlike our trip to Khardung La , and Hunder, this was actually one trip, which everyone wanted to do! Despite , all kinds of departure times, we figured out, BIL could not make his flight at Leh on the 21st if he accompanied us to Spangmik.

Thus there was nothing to do, but to leave him behind at Leh, in Hotel Asia. Where I guess he whiled his time away.

June 20th
Everyone was super excited. We had planned to leave after a light breakfast around 8 AM, but eventually made it to the Innova at 9.

Arrow straight roads after leaving Leh behind on the Leh-Manali road
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So deserted, and utterly devoid of traffic, that for a few minutes it seemed like we were the only people for miles and miles

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We left the Leh-Manali road , and turned left on Pangong Lake road at Karu (33.9216435, 77.7380660).
At the fork, a group of locals waved us to a stop. It was not the J&K police check post I could see the barricade for that building a little ways away. Anyway, I rolled down the window, and they asked for Innova's registration.
Not wanting any trouble with the locals of the area, I gave it to them. They inspected it, and requested for identification of the owner, which too was provided. I guess they were trying to verify that the car was not in commercial use. And they were probably people from the taxi-union, out to discourage out-of-region commercial vehicles. But they were helpful enough to ask us, if we had the requisite form to turn in at the checkpost in Karu and the other near Tsol Tak (34.047269, 77.930238).
We turned around, and at one of the photocopier shops bought a pair of forms for Rs 20 and moved on.

A glance back towards Leh Manali road and the dust bowl that surrounds it.
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Looking down at least a thousand feet below us towards the small mountain village of Chemrey
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With a huge zig - zag, the Pangong road creeps up the mountain face
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We reach Zingral, a small army encampment (34.0135598, 77.9011014)
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All that water, that one ingests to avoid AMS , has to have an outlet. Zingral provides portable toilets. A welcome relief for the ladies!

Crossing the snow line , on way to Chang La (the third highest motorable mountain pass)

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A short break at Chang La was called for. Posing for snaps at the milestone.
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Perhaps the prettiest traffic island in India, is to be found at Chang La top.
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It's really dirty at Chang La -courtesy of the bus loads of tourists that flock Pangong lake. Nevertheless, if one manages to reach after a snow fall, one may be spared the discomfort of dirt, slush, mud and putrid stench.
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Snow fun... yet again!
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I also paid a visit to the shrine of Chang La Baba - a mythical godman's abode.
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As the picture shows, the altar houses religious figurines of Buddhism and Hinduism - an odd amalgamation

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Old 10th August 2015, 10:57   #25
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The descent from Chang La to Changthang plateau - now the Changthang Wild Life Sanctuary, is quick.
On a lucky day, one may get to see the local fauna. No such luck for us though, when we were there.

But the views are mesmerizing....

A small partially frozen lake

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Some glimpses of the enchanting Hindu Kush range
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And then we were finally there!

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The obligatory snap of my better half!
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and the gentleman who brought her there!
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The vistas after the first view of Pangong were equally mesmerizing
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The Pagal Nullah (wild river ) has been bypassed - and tamed with a small bridge. IIRC, it was quite narrow , and a bit flimsy- so we did not stop for pictures.

And then we were at Lukung by Pangong Tso (33.9664448, 78.4168911)
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We spent a few minutes here, and moved on. Our destination was the Nature's Nest campsite at Spangmik about 10 km away.

It was a bit difficult to find, amongst the many campsites that have sprung up in the area. Besides, we could not call to ask for directions, as telcos are not allowed to install/operate their towers here.
But eventually , a bit of asking around got us to our camp

The Nature's Nest (33.908656, 78.463202), (+91- 96222 84414,+91-9419243495)
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And then we saw this...Can one believe we are still on this earth?
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My son and my other son! Both were jubilant!
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The dining tent.
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Apologies for the red cast - it was a red tent , and I did not have an appropriate filter.

A huge shout out to the team behind Nature's Nest. It's not easy to cart supplies all the way from Leh , each day, to take care of the few guests who stay at the Nature's Nest. It's even more difficult to run an operation that provides electricity and running water , in the middle of nowhere. And that too by leaving zero footprint on the shore!

It's difficult for some people to understand just how much trouble that can prove to be. So guys - many many thanks!

My better half and I!
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Father and son duo - with the equipment setup!
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Our few vain and feeble attempts to capture what's arguably one of the most beautiful places on this Earth!
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The photographers sans their equipment - for once we were photographed together!

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The Resplendent Night Sky!
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Old 14th August 2015, 14:00   #26
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June 21
Our return from Pangong was largely uneventful - save for an unfortunate event. As we exited the camp, my TPMS started beeping - the pressure in the LR tyre was down to 20 psi, the others were at 30 psi - as against the manufacturer recommended 35 PSI. I had not topped up the air since I had left the plains. A decision that was partly intentional , considering the bad patches that one might come across. A little bit of under inflation actually helps-or so I had thought. However, the flip side to that is a puncture - which had unfortunately happened to me.

A good samaritan of a taxi driver came up and immediately got down to helping me - by changing the tyre himself. He would have repaired it , had I carried the puncture repair kit!
I was grateful for his help. At that altitude, for someone not used to the heights, the slightest amount of exertion, can cause shortness of breath , tiredness and in extreme cases is the perfect cocktail for AMS. Spare tyre fitted, and profuse thanks being given, we moved on.

Everything seemed fine. Except an irritating squeak, from the rear of Innova. It was probably the spare tyre well. After all before the tyre swap there had been no noises.
At Karu, we had the opportunity to get the punctured tyre seen to , and swapped the spare back in its place. Lunch done, we moved on to the nearby Hemis monastery, where we spent a couple of very interesting hours , browsing through the museum, and admiring the place.

All the way back to Leh, the intermittent squeak kept butting into our conversations or thoughts. It was a bit unsettling, so after we reached our hotel, I got on all fours, and inspected the underbody. Nothing seemed amiss. No leaks. No broken bits. Absolutely nothing.

Relieved, we went ahead to have our dinner at Summer Harvest. Being the last night we would spend at Leh, we partied , and how!

The next day, our SIL would leave for Kolkata, by flight. Whilst we had plans to complete the circuit by finally going past Karu to Tso Kar, where we would stop for the night, and thereon to Jispa for two nights and then Manali and the plains of Punjab.
That was the general plan. All reservations were complete. We just had to show up!

June 22
The day started early enough , we had finished packing our stuff, and were on our way as the clock struck 8 AM. While leaving Leh, we discovered we were short of cash, so spent a good hour , trying to locate an ATM that actually had cash. Then just before leaving Leh town, we stopped by the petrol bunk, to fill up the tank, and the spare cans. We would need every ounce of diesel - as there were no bunks to be found till Keylong.

That's where a group of bikers and I started chatting. I was informed that the road at Baralacha La (beyond Sarchu) was not so good, due to deep water crossings. With some misgivings, I moved on.
We made it to Karu in good time. We stopped at the place we had lunch the previous day for some snacks, and then we were on our way again.
Beyond Karu, the Leh Manali road was absolutely deserted, but a joy to drive. We continued for about an hour, and after we crossed the small bridge past Upshi , the squeak came back, with a companion rattle. Both from the rear. Very irritating.
Earlier misgivings about bad roads ahead, with a less than 100% car to drive us through these preyed on our minds. After all the road was deserted for 95% of the time, and there was no mobile signal in large swathes. If we got stuck anywhere, God only knew , how long it could take till help chanced on our plight.

We made the decision to turn back just after Upshi (33.823646,77.818857) , and get Innova inspected at Toyota Service center in Leh. It was evident this would take time, so there was no way we could make it back to Tso Kar that night.
As soon as we were past Karu, and mobile phones started working, a call to Toyota confirmed that the Service Center in Leh was operational. A call was placed there, and we were given helpful directions, and then we reached. It was past 2 PM.
The kids were hungry - and understandably not at their best.
So , I quickly called our friendly taxi driver, who arrived soon and ferried wifey and kids to the Piazzetta on Changspa Road, whilst I awaited my turn.
A test drive was carried out, and the mechanic acknowledged the squeak and rattle. He suspected a stone in the brake drum, and said the only way it could be verified would be to put it on a lift and take the wheel off.
That would take time, and while I waited, I chatted with some taxi drivers (with Innovas) who were from HP. They cautioned me about Zing Zing Bar and Baralacha La. It was pretty bad, but that with some caution - I could make it- just be sure to protect the tank above all else. Grimly I acknowledged the advise.
By 5 PM, Innova was up in the air, and its LR wheel was off. The brake drum was inspected. Nothing. Next the prop-shaft. Again nothing. Next the suspension arms. Nothing. Forget a stone. Not even a pebble. There was nothing wrong with Innova.

Glad that the inspection had brought nothing up, I went back and picked up the family from Piazzetta. While she was there, wifey had gotten the changes done to our reservations. We went back to the hotel Asia, and checked in. The staff were surprised to see us back!

Explanations over, we went ahead with dinner. Our plan was to try Il Forno at Leh Bazaar. A spectacular view awaited us on the top floor, and with live music playing nice country songs, and really tasty food - it was a great experience!

June 23
So the day finally dawned. We were all prepared to finally start the return leg of our journey. The car had been declared fit. Our reservations had been adjusted. We just had to show up.

The day began with wifey's misgivings about the planned journey. Her sense of dread due to days of travelling over inhospitable terrain, deserted, and devoid of life, was beginning to have its effect on the kids. They too were skeptical about what lay ahead. No amount of reasoning can deal with paranoia, and so, I kept my thoughts to myself.

At the breakfast table, as we chatted, the misgivings of the poor roads ahead dwelled heavier on our minds. Even though the car was at a 100% - were we mentally prepared to go through with our plan? That was the question that simmered behind the smiles.

A part of me wanted to go through with it. But the overwhelming opinion at the table was to avoid the Leh Manali road. Impasse. A very normal domestic unmeeting of the minds. At this point, the waiter, who had become quite friendly with us , since he was from Jharkhand, decided to play his hand. Saab, aap Leh - Manali road se mat jaiyye. Leh Srinagar road behter hai. Army bhi hai. Log-Baag bhi hain. Koi Musibat mein sahara ban jayega.

That was it. That tilted the opinion of the family towards Leh Srinagar route. It's funny, how people one has known throughout their lives, will take advise from a total stranger, perhaps even an ignorant, in preference to one's own. At this point it was all down to the selection of the Project Team.

With a heavy heart I acquiesced my agreement. Somewhere a part of my heart, wanted to complete the circuit, but my head said, that it would not bode well if I met another rough patch - as I did not have a 4x4. Besides, by forcing my decision on them, it would cease to be a vacation for them - they may not enjoy it. The safety and happiness of my family was after all of paramount importance. And that I would be foolish to not take cognizance of this simple fact, and obstinately move ahead with my plans.

So the die was cast. And as they say, the journey was unfinished, even as we packed our last few things and started towards Srinagar and eventually Delhi.

We checked out at 9 AM from our hotel. I drove fast- this time. It was a reaction-against my disappointment. I was disappointed at not fully realizing my dream, and probably the frustration preying on my mind, made me become less than gentle on the curves. As we passed Alchi at 10 AM, I thought to stop by - after all I may not have a chance to visit the place for a long long time. So we spent an hour exploring Alchi monastery.
At 11 AM we were back on the Leh Srinagar highway. Lamayuru flashed by and then a lady waved us down. She wanted a lift to Kargil. We happily obliged. We did not stop for lunch - we just kept driving. The kids munched on cakes and biscuits, so they were okay. At 2:30 PM we were at Kargil, where we dropped the lady off.
When we had exited Alchi, my objective was to break journey at Kargil. But considering that we were past Kargil at 3:00 PM, and considering there was considerable daylight left, I decided to push on and reach Drass and stop for the night at one of the hotels on the main road.

4 PM - and we were at Drass. Still the blistering pace. It was as if Innova was equally frustrated, and perhaps a bit guilty of not inspiring enough confidence in the morning and the day before.
I figured, if we were at Drass , at 4 PM, and Sonamarg was but 60 odd kilometers away. Zoji La was the only obstruction. If the guard at the checkpost let me through , I would attempt reaching Sonamarg, if not I could retrace my steps back to Drass.
The elderly man at Drass checkpost, waved us on, but did tell us to watch out for oncoming heavy traffic due to Army convoy movement. Advise acknowledged, and we moved on. True to his word, an incessant stream of Army Lorries kept coming at us. We would stop every few minutes , and give them the right of way.

Eventually at 6 PM we reached Zoji La. And it was a completely different Zoji La to the one we had seen earlier. It was no longer the fierce pass we had crossed on our way to Ladakh. It was bereft of snow. Just a mud track, with gaping potholes, and slush.

We reach Zoji La
Catharsis of the soul: Ladakh!-2015062318h00m06dsc_1495.jpg

At 6:20 PM. we were in Sonamarg. Unbelievable but true. That's because the mud track from Zoji La towards Sonamarg is at best 2 to 3 km. And past Baltatal, the road was tarred. There was zero traffic- all the taxi drivers had retired from the activity of ferrying tourists to Zero point. We had the entire stretch to ourselves!

In fact the only hold up, was this flock of sheep, that engulfed us,
Catharsis of the soul: Ladakh!-2015062318h14m22dsc_1498.jpg

Although the light was failing by now, the roads were good. I decided, it would be best to press on and reach Srinagar. We would have a lot more options to stay compared to the overpriced Sonamarg. By 8:30 PM, we had covered the 80 km to the Dal Lake.

Out came our mobiles, and MMT app to the rescue. We quickly searched for a cheap place to stop for the night, and stumbled on Gulab Resort ( 34.114594, 74.885131, 099064 24124) . Quick calls, to the hotel, and a room was secured for the princely sum of Rs 1300/- that included breakfast for the four of us. It's close to Syed Rahman Sahib's shrine at Brien Road on Water Works Road. It has gated parking for one car, which we thankfully occupied. It has about 7 to 8 rooms, and is single-handedly but passionately run by a sole proprietor. A quick dinner was ordered, and we retired for the night. We left instructions for breakfast to be served at 6 AM. I had plans to start the run back from Srinagar at 7 AM.

June 24
We were awakened at 6 AM, by steaming cups of tea , and parathas. Breakfast over, we packed, freshened up, and headed out. It was 7 AM.
It was raining heavily, and the ominous clouds promised of continued rains for a very long time.
Qazigund passed by in a flash, and then we were on the hills. Jawahar tunnel was up next, and by 11 AM we were on the Jammu side of Kashmir. Although the day's pace was no scorcher, we made good time.
At Udhampur, we decided not to stop for lunch, until we got off the mountains. There was continuous traffic , and the rain was really pouring by the bucket load at the time, and I felt the sooner we were out of the mess, the better it would be ( it was only later that we realised this was the infamous inclement weather that was the cause for so much flood damage in J&K).
We decided not to take the Udhampur Samba short cut, and instead stuck to NH -1A, that took us past Jammu. Infinitely better.
We crossed Lakhanpur at 5 PM, and then before we knew it, we had crossed the Pathankot toll, and were in Punjab.

At 6:30 PM, after a drive of 11.5 hours where we covered approximately 500 km - most of it on the mountains, we halted at a highway motel, past Tanda, Punjab, about 40 km north of Jalandhar.
The Great Punjab Celebration (31.650195, 75.640249) , is a little more than a motel actually. It's really a banquet hall, cum resort, cum wayside rest area, and comes replete with a Cafe Coffee Day outlet, and a Park Balluchi on its grounds. The kids were happy, wifey was finally out of the mountains and peace prevailed.

June 25
We were finally in the plains. And back to the blistering sun of North India.
Ensconced in the cool air-conditioning, we made rapid time towards Delhi. We stopped twice.

First for breakfast at the rest stop in Doraha, Punjab (30.784069, 76.049956) with it's McD, Subway, and CCD outlet,

And next at Ambala's one and only original Puran Singh ka Dhaba ( 30.340306, 76.828620) for some delicious Keema curry. Here's a photo of the place, in case one is misled into entering the imitation restaurants surrounding it.

Puran Singh ka Mashoor Vishal Dhaba

Catharsis of the soul: Ladakh!-2015062513h48m21dsc_0046.jpg

At 6 PM, we were home. Our vacation was over.

We had:
Covered a Total distance of : 3350 km
Paid in tolls: Rs 1605
Consumed diesel : 380 L
that costed : Rs 20,680/-

But I was not satisfied - to me this had been a compromise. In hindsight, could I have succeeded? I believe the answer to that is how did I choose to view the glass- "half-empty" or "half-full"?
As GTO says, "Retrospect is always the genius; it's foresight that really counts."

I am thankful for the experiences I had with family, and of the wonderful people of Ladakh, who were always helpful. I am thankful that nothing went wrong with the car, despite the scare at Upshi.

I also think I could have planned this better.

1) The loneliness was a stark reminder , of that dreaded what if?
We finished our journey just days before the kids got back to school. Due to the school calendar, we could not delay this trip, just to be a part of the convoys of HVK, or other Adventure clubs, that organize driving tours. In hindsight, had we been part of the convoy, that sense of isolation may not have hit us. But, then again, we could not have our kids bunk exams and be with us, neither could we have left them back at Delhi to tackle school year by themselves. That's just not us.
In today's day and age, physical proximity to the centers of society is a small thing, when one considers , that modern communications technology have brought the world and family closer than ever before.
However, even in the best weather, electronic communications with the outside world is a chancy affair - even at Ladakh's capital - Leh. In certain areas like Pangong, communications in any electronic form is impossible due to the strategic importance of the region. In others such as Pang and beyond - it just does not exist. And being cut-off from the world - just adds to the sense of loneliness.

2) The starkness of bare mountains and snow without a blade of grass is depressing after a while
Which brings me to the point-> that maybe, this trip needs to be looked at through the lens of my family's eyes. They had a good time. That's undoubtedly true. And perhaps for them - the typical sights of Leh, Alchi, Hemis, Thiksey, Hunder , Pangong are more precious than the wild Turtuk, Tso Moriri, or the Gata Loops. And while I loved the starkness of Khardung La and Changthang more than the others, I cannot impose my likes on them. One must respect the fact that each one of us is different. Ladakh is huge, and to each his/her own.

3) The altitudes affect the physical and psychological well-being
While none other than my BIL were violently ill, his brush with AMS, had preyed on wifey's mind. And we all know, when something preys on one's minds, it's but a short step from that point to a situation of "flight or fight".

4) It's all about setting the right expectations
My trip had been impeccably researched & planned. Down to the T. The best hotels with the best rooms in each. The best restaurants, and the best food that my money could buy. The calendar had been planned after repeated consultations within the family, and without. And yet, after a point , these cease to matter, when one judges a place - as a destination one would repeatedly visit, or not at all. For us sadly, we may not ever go there as a family again.
Why? It's because when the reality about a place such as Ladakh (it's altitudes, its starkness, its loneliness) sinks in , some suddenly discover an old Ladakhi proverb 'Our land is so barren and the passes are so high that only best friends or fiercest enemies would want to visit us.'

5) Better equipment would have inspired confidence in everyone.
Taking a 2WD to Khardung La, and getting stuck there, or getting stuck at Zoji La - may have been the seeding point of the dread that formed in the first place.
I decided to get a 4x4, and as I write this, one is being made for me to my specifications. I believe this is how it will look.
Source: mahindrascorpio.com
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So, our vacation is over. We have joined back into the humdrum of daily city strife.

But the journey remains unfinished. And while a vehicle is on it's way... a team has to be organized, and a trip has to be planned.

For come what may , I will visit again...
Catharsis of the soul: Ladakh!-imag0186.jpg

Last edited by joybhowmik : 15th August 2015 at 17:09. Reason: End game
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Old 16th August 2015, 09:08   #27
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Mod note: Thread moved from Assembly Line to Travelogues. Thanks for sharing.
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Old 16th August 2015, 10:51   #28
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Extremely well written article Joy! Very detailed observations and would be a great help for any first timer there.
Originally Posted by joybhowmik View Post
And perhaps for them - the typical sights of Leh, Alchi, Hemis, Thiksey, Hunder , Pangong are more precious than the wild Turtuk, Tso Moriri, or the Gata Loops. And while I loved the starkness of Khardung La and Changthang more than the others, I cannot impose my likes on them. One must respect the fact that each one of us is different. Ladakh is huge, and to each his/her own.
Fully agree. This is not a typical tourist zone having enough options to take breaks. Hours and hours of stark landscapes bound to generate fatigue.

One question - Some of your images are very dark. Why?
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Old 16th August 2015, 11:09   #29
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Originally Posted by Rudra Sen View Post
Extremely well written article Joy! Very detailed observations and would be a great help for any first timer there.
Fully agree. This is not a typical tourist zone having enough options to take breaks. Hours and hours of stark landscapes bound to generate fatigue.

One question - Some of your images are very dark. Why?
Thanks Rudra. I hope this first time visit for me, is of help to others.

Some of the images are dark, due to the ambient lighting. So some shots - particularly against the sun (due to no other angle available) or inside monasteries, where flash was not allowed, have remained darker, than what they could have been. I did not want to extensively PS such images... as that would take away from the originality. My apologies!
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Old 16th August 2015, 11:20   #30
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Thanks for posting this. Wonderful write up and good pictures as well. Definitely a good guide for someone planning a trip there. I have bookmarked this thread for future reference (a matter of when rather than if).
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