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Old 11th August 2015, 19:25   #1
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Default Ladakh Diaries - Unforgiving challenges lead to awe-inspiring beauty

Disclaimer - This is my first travelogue on this forum so apologies if I don't meet the right expectations by readers here. I am not blessed with excellent writing skills but I will try and do the best I can. To be honest, I am a bit nervous as I am writing this as I have read some fantastic travelogues here. So here it goes:

Preface

It was a mid-May evening in Ghaziabad. The summers as always were at peak and the conditions were hot and sultry. My wife suggested to look for a weekend getaway from the heat and I started exploring places on this very forum. All the places/hill stations I checked around Delhi were reporting mid to late 30s in terms of temperature. Disappointed, I stopped looking. A couple of days went past. I was getting thoroughly bored. When you are home for 28 days with absolutely nothing to do, the mind starts wandering. I opened my laptop and started doing what I always do when I am free - browse Team-BHP. I stumble across the Ladakh Guide by Tanveer. Reading the description and looking at the pictures, I was so inspired that I made up my mind that I will go to this place.
What about the wife though? How do you convince someone to accompany you on a 15 day road trip who hates spending 2 hours in the car. Simple - You show them some of the pictures of the destination! It took me 10 photos for her to get excited and readily agree for the trip.
I wanted to get a 3rd person as well for the trip in case we needed a driver. I asked my cousin and he readily agreed.
Now that we had the touring party finalised, we had to agree on a date. After going through several iterations, the travel period was decided to be from the 16th of July to the 31st of July. Little did we know what was in store for us.

I am attaching a couple of pictures here and will continue the travelogue subsequently.
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Old 11th August 2015, 20:06   #2
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Planning and Preparation
I read and re-read most if not all the travelogues about Leh on this forum. The thing that jumped out from all of them was this trip needs to be planned. You have got to prepare yourself and your car for the journey.

Itinerary
I prepared a tentative itinerary following the maps provided in Tanveer's guide. The circuit planned was Ghaziabad --> Srinagar --> Leh --> Manali --> Ghaziabad.

Accommodation
I researched all accommodation options available at places where we were scheduled to stop. Just as I was about to start booking the places, a second thought sprung to mind. What if we did not reach the place on that given day? I would end up losing more than some additional premium I would be paying for a walk-in reservation. There was a risk of not finding suitable accommodation but the likelihood of that happening was minimal. I decided to travel with this flexibility and did not book accommodation anywhere.

Shopping
1. Coido 3301 12V Tyre Inflator: Used it a few times on the trip and it does the job brilliantly.
2. Car 500 AMP Jumper Lead Cables: Not used
3. 5 Ton 4M Steel wire tow: Not used
4. Philips Ojas Rechargeable Emergency Light: Not used
5. Tarp: Not used
6. HERE Maps by Nokia: Not used
7. Medicine Kit that conatined essential medication for the region and travel
8. 20 ltrs of Bisleri drinking water
9. Several packs of chips, biscuits etc.

Car
Our Ecosport which was going to be our home for the next 15 days was serviced at 20,000 kms. The ODO before the journey read 23,642.

Here she is standing proud!
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Old 11th August 2015, 21:05   #3
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Day 1

The original plan was to leave home early and try and make our way up to Patnitop. But as with most things on this trip, the original plan had to be dumped. I am a stickler for detail and I wanted to get the car checked along with wheel balancing and alignment even though the car was serviced recently.

I had to wait until 10 AM for this. Car wash, wheel alignment and miscellaneous food shopping took nearly 2 hours. It was 1300 hrs by the time we left Ghaziabad.

One of the things we agreed upon was no driving at night. We decided that we can either make Pathankot or Jalandhar on Day 1. We finalized Jalandhar as Pathankot did not show up any decent accommodation options.

The journey from Ghaziabad to Jalandhar was uneventful with nothing to report apart from good roads with a few traffic spots. We had a quick bite to eat near Ambala and carried on. We reached Jalandhar at 2000 hrs and checked in at Sarovar Portico. A bit of bargaining got us a suite for Rs.6000 all inclusive. Dinner was good at the hotel restaurant and we called it a day subsequently.
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Old 11th August 2015, 21:20   #4
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Day 2
The destination for the day was Patnitop. We started from Jalandhar at 1000 hrs. Crossing Jalandhar and Pathankot took a bit of time because of traffic. Roads till Udhampur are really good.

Once you cross Udhampur, there are patches of bad road. Now this might have been because of the incessant rains this season. Anyway, we got up to Patnitop without any dramas at around 1700 hrs.

We stayed at Hotel Samson which is a decent accommodation with excellent views and location. A deluxe room with triple accommodation costed us Rs.4500 all inclusive. They had a bonfire in the evening. The food was good although the service was slow.
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Old 11th August 2015, 21:49   #5
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Day 3

The destination for the day was Srinagar. My wife always wanted to visit Srinagar whereas I was focused on getting to Sonamarg as suggested by Tanveer. But as with everything, she had the final say and the decision was made to stay at Srinagar. We started from Patnitop at 0800 hrs. The drive from Patnitop to Srinagar is enjoyable with beautiful vistas and serpentine roads. However, rain again took its tool and some sections of the roads were pretty bad. You will hit traffic after Qazigund all the way to Srinagar.

You also need to be careful of the truckers. These guys have absolutely no regard to any safety or traffic norms. We had a couple of close calls on this leg of our journey.

Another interesting part of this Journey is the Jawahar Tunnel and the Titanic Point.

We reached Srinagar at about 1500 hrs. The first reaction of my wife was, "Is this really Srinagar?" The maddening traffic, dust, rubbish piles didn't exactly welcome us as "Paradise on Earth". We stopped at a fuel station and deliberated long and hard on what to do next. All of us agreed that Srinagar wasn't worth staying the night at and we should proceed to Sonamarg after lunch.

I looked up Mughal Darbar to have authentic Kashmiri lunch. The experience at the restaurant was underwhelming. The place is run down and the staff are not the most courteous you will come across. Given that we arrived a day before Eid, most of the staff was on leave. Anyway, we ordered Wazwan which was "unique". We were done with lunch at 1600 hrs and started proceeding towards Sonamarg. Just as we were about to leave Srinagar, we were stopped by J&K Police and some army personnel and were informed that there has been a cloudburst at Baltal and the highway is closed until further notice. Bumped!

We loitered around for a bit hoping that we might be allowed to proceed but they were adamant on not letting us through. Disappointed we returned back to Srinagar and checked in at Hotel Heemal at Dal lake. Hotel Heemal is a JKTDC hotel and is decent. A triple occupancy deluxe room costed us Rs.3500 all inclusive. A couple of other traveling parties were returned to the same establishment and upon speaking to local drivers, I had some hope that traffic would be allowed the next day.

Had our dinner at the hotel itself and called it a night.
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Old 11th August 2015, 22:09   #6
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Day 4

We woke up late as we knew that we will have to wait until afternoon before we would be allowed to proceed to Sonamarg as per the information we received the day before. Had our breakfast at the hotel and then tried to gather information about the highway. We learnt that the highway would remain closed for another day. Thoroughly disappointed, we decided to explore Srinagar itself. We went to Nishat Gardens and did a boat ride on Dal Lake.

Given that it was Eid, Srinagar was heaving with people from nearby villages. Kids were creating a nuisance at Nishat and were openly littering, lighting fire crackers and generally being rowdy. We did not enjoy the gardens and quickly moved to Dal lake. However, it was too hot for us to even enjoy the Shikara ride. Got done with these two and got back to the hotel at around 1600 hrs.

As it was a disappointing day and all of us were feeling a bit down, I decided to treat everyone with a dinner at The Lalit. Although expensive, the dinner was lovely and got everyone in an upbeat mood.

We returned back to the hotel at 2200 hrs and slept praying for some positive news the next day.

Some pictures from our Srinagar excursions follow:
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Old 11th August 2015, 22:33   #7
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Day 5

We woke up at 0800 hrs with optimism. Came down for breakfast and were informed by the hotel guys that the highway is open. With a sigh of relief, we enjoyed our breakfast at the hotel, got ready and checked out of the hotel at 1000 hrs.

As we started proceeding towards Sonamarg, we were again stopped just as we were leaving Srinagar. We were asked to turn back and told that the highway remains closed for traffic proceeding towards Sonamarg. It opened for traffic coming to Srinagar as there was huge pile-up of Yatris.

It came as a massive shock to us and we turned back and stopped near the taxi stand. We met a bunch of fellow travelers who hired a local taxi to take them to Leh. Upon speaking to the taxi guy, he agreed to take us via an alternative route towards Sonamarg as he insisted that the highway is open and there is no reason for the local police to stop us. We promptly agreed as we wanted to get out of Srinagar at all costs.

We bypassed our way across the place we were stopped and as we left Srinagar we again started being optimistic. However, we saw all traffic being stopped at Ganderbal. We were told that traffic would be allowed in a couple of hours.

We were finally allowed to proceed further at 1400 hrs only to be stopped again after 5 kms. This was in the middle of nowhere and within an hour we had a queue of about a 1000 vehicles. We waited at this stop for the next 8 hours. The local tapri wallas saw this as a perfect opportunity to extort money and started selling essentials at unbelievable prices.

A bottle of water was sold for Rs.200, aloo paratha for Rs.100 and tea for Rs. 50.

After a long 8 hour wait, we were asked to proceed further. We were again stopped at Gund. Everyone in the car was frustrated, disappointed and generally downbeat by this time. It was getting difficult for my wife as there were no facilities present. We did not have a proper meal since breakfast. This jam lasted 18 hrs. We slept in the car that night.
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Old 12th August 2015, 17:17   #8
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Day 6

There wasn't much sleep as we were still in the car. It was a bit scary the night before as it rained heavily with the occasional thunder. Anyway, it was dawn on Day 6 with no sign of progress towards Sonamarg.

Most of the people got busy with the morning chores and we followed suit. We kept looking at the clock, kept asking updates from the J&K Police and generally kept praying and hoping that we move forward. By this time, all the family members back home got the news of cloudbursts around Sonamarg. This caused a spate of phone calls from everyone that kind of added to the frustration. We were told to update our location every hour by the parents.

1000 hrs went past, 1200 hrs went past, 1400 hrs went past; the car did not move an inch. It really started playing on our nerves now. We saw quite a few people turned back and headed towards Srinagar giving up on their travel plans. Although frustrated, we stood firm.

The Army guys set up a temporary camp and provided "Khichdi" for the travellers. We completely devoured it and I can safely say it tasted better than any 5 star meal I have ever had.

Finally at 1600 hrs, traffic moved. However, this movement did not last long and we again encountered a traffic stop at Gund. Now this I believe is the last stop before Sonamarg where hundreds of trucks were parked on the left. I duly stopped in queue on the left and waited for another couple of hours. No movement.

A Tata Safari carrying a mid-aged couple stood in front of us. We got down to have a chat with the occupants and the driver about the state of the road ahead. Remember that what we had ahead was the treacherous "fish point" where the cloudbursts washed away the entire track. The couple were also on a Leh trip. While speaking to the driver, I noticed quite a few local taxis whiz past on the right lane (ideally meant for oncoming traffic). A few private cars followed suit.

By this time, all the patience we had wilted away. I got in my car and followed the Safari (He was fed up too I guess). Apologies as I broke the "safe driving" norm but under the circumstances, I didn't see any other option.

Slowly but surely, we were able to navigate right up to the start of the checkpoint where traffic was being held. The distance we covered was almost 3 kms and all of those 3 kms were lined up with trucks a few cars sandwiched between.

It was 2000 hrs when we reached the barriers. We could see from the distance, that the army personnel were approaching each car one by one, directing them on how to navigate the road ahead.

We waited anxiously. I could sense the nervousness around me. Finally it was our turn. I don't have any pictures to show what I saw but I will try and narrate the best I can.

What lay ahead of us was 500 meters of rocky road with water crossings. Now these were similar to ones you see when you travel from Nubra to Pangong via Aghom Shyok. Past that was 500 meters of slush. Heavy, deep slush. Slush that hit my Ecosport's under-body.

I of course was unaware of all this when I started. All I was told by the Army guy was "Keep left, keep a constant acceleration and DON'T STOP". The car skidded on the slush and I kept fighting with the steering to keep it on the left. Several under-body hits but we managed to come through.

Sigh of relief from everyone in the car was evident. Immediately after crossing this section, butter smooth road welcomes you. I stopped and checked the under-body for any damages. Given that it was 2200 hrs, I couldn't see much.

I proceeded further looking for the hotel we researched for staying in Sonamarg. It was called "Ahsan Mount Resort". As I was driving towards the resort, I could hear the roaring river. It was pitch black and the entire atmosphere spooked everyone in the car. We finally managed to check-in at Ahsan Resort around 2230 hrs.

We were one step closer to Leh!
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Old 12th August 2015, 18:05   #9
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Day 7

Ahsan Mount Resort is about 5 kms from main Sonamarg. The resort is all about location as you will see from the pictures below! It is on the expensive side (Rs. 10000) for triple occupancy but well worth it. The tents are luxury tents and very well put out. The tents are lined up right next to the river. They too have bonfires in the evening and you can expect great food. Highly rated!!

When we checked-in the hotel the night before, I found the same Safari present there. The travelling party recognised me and after the formalities, they became our "local guardian" for the entire trip. I can safely say that this trip gave us some new friends for life.

Anyway, the plan was to start early, cross the dreaded Zoji La and stop at Leh. I was a bit apprehensive about Zoji La and its state given that I saw numerous videos on-line some showing how dangerous it could be. Having another travelling vehicle did add some assurance but it wasn't enough to completely calm my nerves. One of the taxi drivers I spoke to about Zoji La said "Pehli baar ja rahe ho to zindagi bhar yaad rakhoge!!"

We started from Ahsan at about 1000 hrs and made our way through Sonamarg and Baltal. Baltal was heaving with several thousand Amarnath Yatris. We stopped for a quick morning tea and enquired about the state of the pass. We were told that there are two tracks now and we need to take the "neeche waala" track.

In our excitement and nervousness, we did not realise when we crossed the checkpoint controlling traffic for Zoji La. Once the gravel track starts, we came across two roads. One going straight ahead and another was a hairpin bend. Both were going upwards as opposed to "neeche". Confused we stopped and asked a random guy standing right at that point. He directed us towards the hairpin. Little did we know that we have ended up taking the difficult track to traverse Zoji La.

This is a really narrow track made worse with rains, landslides and slush. Halfway up, I was stopped by an oncoming Ertiga. He said the road ahead is too dangerous and hence he is returning. The fear factor doubled. However, the Safari carried on and I followed. Again, no video evidence present here as we were too nervous to film but there are at least 4 sections on this track which would seem too dangerous and impossible to cross. Ecosport did well, I did well and my co-passengers did well.

Seeing all the videos made me realise that once the semi-pukka road starts between snow, the torture is deemed over. As soon as I reached there, I stopped the car, stepped out and kissed my car! I was elated. Everybody was!

After a quick stopover at the Zoji La War Memorial we proceeded further crossing Dras and Kargil. We stopped in Kargil for lunch and proceeded further.

Namik La, Fotu La, Lamayuru went past like a breeze with dream roads and even better scenery. Suddenly every bit of trouble we went through, seemed worthwhile. Put simply, it was breathtaking! I have travelled around Europe, been to Thailand, but they don't even come close to what I experienced here.

Once I reached Khaltse, I noticed that the rear left tyre was nearly flat. Out comes the Codio and it inflated the tyre in around 3-4 minutes back to 32 PSI.

At Khaltse, we decided it will be quite late when we reach Leh so it might be a good idea to stop before. We looked up a nice resort in a small village Uletopo. The resort was called "Uley Ethenic Resort". This became our destination for the night as we arrived here at around 2000 hrs. A triple occupancy hut costed Rs. 8000 all inclusive. Food and accommodation was good.
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Old 12th August 2015, 19:31   #10
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Day 8

We were within touching distance of Leh. It took us 8 days but we were there. Well almost!

We woke up at 0900 hrs next day and went for breakfast. It was there we came to know that the Leh Taxi Union had called for a "Chakka Jam" to protest on the issues of self drive rentals and taxis from other states plying in Leh. The "Chakka Jam" called on from 0700 hrs to 1800 hrs.

My wife remarked "Everything that could possibly go wrong is going wrong with us!" And she was true to an extent. A journey which normally would take 3 days already took us 8 days and we were yet to reach our final destination.

I was also advised by the local taxi guys arriving at the hotel that I need to remove my cherished "Live to Drive" sticker as it gives the car a "taxi" look and it would be safe for us to do so. With a heavy heart, I removed the sticker. I actually had a very detailed conversation with a few of them at the resort to understand their side of the story.

Anyway, disappointed we returned to our huts. The "local guardians" decided to make good use of the time and we planned to visit the Alchi Monastery which was about 15 mins drive away from the resort.

After killing time at the resort, we had our lunch and started towards Alchi. The roads were deserted owing to the bandh and the monastery parking was nearly empty. We parked our cars and started proceeding towards the monastery. Within 5 minutes, the driver of the safari comes running and informs us that he has been threatened by the taxi guys with dire consequences ("Tumhari gaadi bhi jala denge aur tumko bhi jala denge") if we didn't return immediately.

We all panicked and returned to the resort immediately. This incident really set a bad taste in everybody's mouth. We started thinking - "Did we just go through all the trouble of getting to a place where we are not welcome at all?"

We waited at the resort until 1900 hrs and started our journey to Leh only after confirming that the bandh was called off and other taxis were plying towards the city.

We reached Leh around 2030 hrs and checked into a hotel called "Singge Palace". This is a recently refurbished hotel located on the Old Leh Road. We bargained on the price and ended up paying Rs. 8000 all inclusive for a triple occupancy deluxe room.

After having dinner at the hotel, all of us went to bed. There was one thought on everybody's mind - Was it worth it?
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Old 13th August 2015, 13:14   #11
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Day 9

The planning for Day 9 was done when we arrived at the hotel on Day 8. There was no way I was risking my car and more importantly my family by taking my car out for local Leh excursions. We arranged for a Scorpio taxi through the hotel to cover Nubra and Pangong. The price quoted was approximately Rs.9500 for each destination.

The plan for Day 9 was to leave Leh at around 1000 hrs and reach Nubra, stay the night and come back the next day. This excursion would take us via Khardung La aka "The highest motorable road in the world" (allegedly).
The reason why we were returning to Leh was because both the routes between Nubra and Pangong were closed due to landslides and rain.

In some ways, I was gutted that I would not be driving myself. Crossing Zoji La gave me oodles of confidence and I was itching to have a go at the other passes. In the end, it wasn't to be as the risk was too high. We were travelling with our taxi driver "Tashi". He was really warm and polite which was a welcome change for us. Add to that, he was an expert at the wheel. There is a new found respect for two things after I have completed my trip:

1. The Scorpio and the ease with which is gobbles up the terrain deemed rough for several other cars

2. The skills of the Leh drivers. Say what you want about them being rowdy and rash, but you have to acknowledge their driving skills.

Coming back to Day 9, we started on time and encountered butter smooth roads up until the ascent point to Khardung La. From here, it gets bumpy and dangerous. There were at least three points which were tricky to cross. We stopped at the top for the customary photo shoot.

The thing that came out at the top was that "it was dirty and crowded". People were jostling for space under the signboard to get the picture taken often being rude to others. We quickly moved on. The descent was easier than the ascent and we reached Nubra at 1400 hrs. Checked into a camp called "Himalayan Eco Resort and Camp". A decent place and the tents costed us Rs. 8000 for a triple occupancy all included.

After checking in the hotel, we went to see the monastery and subsequently the sand dunes. Now, I for one am not a fan of riding any animal be it camel or an elephant so I skipped that part but others in the travelling party had a crack at it. I just loitered around. It was piping hot and I was not amused with the weather! We returned to the resort at around 1900 hrs and crashed after dinner.

Some pictures follow
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Old 13th August 2015, 13:52   #12
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Day 10

After staying the night in Nubra, we had to return back to Leh the next day. This day was a relatively easy day for us as we did not have anything else planned. We woke up at 0900 hrs and had our breakfast at the resort. We started our journey back at about 1030 hrs and reached Leh around 1500 hrs.

Post lunch in Leh, we decided to take a stroll outside checking out the local market. To be honest, there was nothing special to see/buy. Most of the stuff was over-priced. A pointer I would like to give you is if you do decide to buy some stuff, better do it at the monastery shops. You get reasonable prices without haggling.

The roads/traffic is bad in and around the old city.

Got done with the customary shopping, had dinner and went back to sleep. A pretty uneventful day.
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Old 13th August 2015, 16:52   #13
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Day 11

The plan for today was to do a day trip to Pangong. I wanted to camp and stay the night at Pangong but the wife was reluctant hence decided against it. We started early from Leh at 0800 hrs.

The journey to Pangong was easier than the journey to Nubra. Chang La was relatively easy and I was cursing myself not being able to drive.

Anyway, we reached Pangong at around 1400 hrs. Now this goes down as one of the most scenic places I have ever visited in my life. The colours were unbelievable! Spent a good few hours at the lake and had a quick lunch before heading back.

"3 idiots" were everywhere! Shops, restaurants, people's photo ops. It kind of undermined the identity of the place in my opinion.

We reached Leh at around 2100 hrs. And then the deliberation started. Our "local guardians" were going back via Srinagar and I wanted to take the Leh Manali route back. Over the course of the trip, the wife got pretty attached to the folks and vice versa. She urged me to follow them back via Srinagar. The information about the Leh Manali roads being pretty dangerous added weight to her arguments. I was still hesitant and tried to convince her that we can do Leh Manali without issues. My plea went down the drain and it was decided that we would return through Srinagar.

A twist in tale awaited us at this point. Just as we were done with the dinner, we got the information that the Srinagar Leh road was closed yet again due to further landslides and cloudbursts! Could this be my opportunity to convince everyone to take the Leh Manali road? Nopes. It was decided it is safer to wait for a day or so and then take the Srinagar route.

Yet again, we were stuck and had to re-plan the next day. Cursing our lucks, we went back to sleep.
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Old 13th August 2015, 17:13   #14
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Day 12

The original plan for Day 12 was to start our journey back to Ghaziabad via Srinagar. However, given that we received the news of the Srinagar Leh higway closure yet again, we decided to see\explore the Leh city.

Day started pretty late as we were in no rush. Our first stop was Thiksey monastery. We spent a couple of hours at the monastery and moved on to the Shey Palace and subsequently to Shanti Stupa.

We were in our own cars for today and I did get some uncomfortable looks for taxi drivers at each of these places.

Returning back, I again found my rear left to be nearly flat and inflated it using Codio Tyre inflator.

By the time we returned back to out hotels in the evening, we got the news that the highway has been re-opened.

In preparation of an early morning departure, we went to bed after a quick dinner.
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Old 13th August 2015, 17:28   #15
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Default Re: Ladakh Diaries - Unforgiving challenges lead to awe-inspiring beauty

Day 13, 14 and 15

These were going to be tough days for man and machine as we aimed to reach home as quickly as possible.

We started from Leh at around 0800 hrs and the target was Srinagar. Zoji La was easy thanks to us following the "neeche waala" road. Now this track is pretty wide and caters for two-way traffic. The only trouble is when you have a convoy of 10-15 trucks coming your way. They will not slow down/stop to allow you to reach a point where you can station the car so that oncoming traffic can go past without scraping you. Your best bet is to judge the situation and act accordingly or reverse if your judgement fails.

Anyway, we made good progress and reached Srinagar at around 2100 hrs after a long and tiring drive. Road conditions were far worse than the before.

We checked into a hotel "Solar Residency". Pretty decent hotel but a bit out of the way in my opinion. Rooms were nice and food was decent. The damages were Rs. 7000 all inclusive.

Next morning, we left Srinagar around 1000 hrs and reached Jalandhar at 2300 hrs. Checked into Country Inn and Suites Jalandhar. This was right opposite Sarovar Portico. A triple occupancy deluxe room costed us around Rs. 5000.

Day 15 was an easy sprint from Jalandhar to Ghaziabad.

As you can see, if you push yourself and luck is by your side, you can get to Leh in 3 days from Ghaziabad. However, if you are not destiny's favourite child, you end up getting to Leh in 9 days!!!
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