A week in Ladakh
Life is hard. As a certain Mr. Murphy would say, anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. No matter how much you plan and try to accommodate something, rarely anything happens smoothly. Such is the nature of our lives. But, there is a feature in modern video games, where if you are stuck at a certain place for some time, the game will give you some slack. The enemies bullets will go off target, the obstacles will be a little lower, you will run a little faster and jump a little higher, and get past that stage. Rarely, very rarely, life follows the same principle. This trip was one such case. We faced so many obstacles before or during this trip, but somehow they were crossed by the tiniest of margins, and at the end we all were back home, safe and sound. Thank you, life, for the break. We really needed it.
I am a chronic canceller. Most of the plans I make end up being not executed. Sunday morning car meet? Ah, let me catch a few hours of sleep instead. A plan to have lunch with a friend is in town? Man, can we do it next time? I'm sure you'll understand, I had a tough week. Movie night? What's Netflix there for? You get the vibe.
It's not like I don't love traveling. The plans I make with my wife or my mother, they have taken me to Sikkim, Delhi, Vizag and other places, and they were planned in a very short time. Give me time to think and I'll end up cancelling it.
This time when I said yes for the Ladakh trip, even the trip mates were sure I'll drop out. And I can't blame them when last time I even made the payments for a Borong trip, and then something else came up. We had a pre-trip family lunch session to appease our family members, some of whom had the legal ownership of the cars we intended to take to the trip. So, you know, oiling and buttering was in order. Even in that lunch I was asked, over and over, was I sure? Was I really going? Well, I wasn't. But the chips fell in place this time, and ultimately, one day, it was the day to start the trip!
Let me take a short break here to introduce you all avid readers to the characters who undertook this trip.
We had Debojyoti (DJ, team bhp handle DJR), working in IT, from Kolkata, recently back from USA as he would remind us multiple times through the trip.
Then there was Debdeep (DD, team bhp handle dip27in), an engineer and entrepreneur, who is my go to guy for car problems. You can call him and give him your best reproduction of the sound your car is making ("kat kat sound from bottom left at potholes and turns"), and he will give you the part number, ordering link, mechanic's contact number, and addresses of nice places to have pork chops while you wait for your car to be fixed.
Basudeb (BB, team bhp handle JKDS), a lawyer from Kolkata who is presently based out of Delhi. Get in touch if you are in legal trouble, but you are more likely to come away with a modified front bumper and a led bar for your car. He is a constant tinkerer with a knack of offroading.
Mithun (EB, team bhp handle mi2n), who never divulges what he does. Somewhat like Barney Stintson from How I met your mother. Shady sort of fellow, but with immense amount of joviality and energy. That's where he gets his acronym from, he was our energizer bunny. (pro tip: if he is getting slow and tired, get him a red bull. He is good for another 300 kms at wheel).
And then there's me, another IT guy, who talks, eats and likes to laugh a lot.
BB, DJ, EB, yours truly and DD
Well then, there you go. You have met the characters and now we can start on the actual trip.
We started from EB's house at about 8 in the night, after loading up his TUV with luggage, we set off for Delhi. The Kolkata Delhi route was done by each of us before, so we were pretty confident of making it without any incident or a lot of fatigue.
Decided to stop for dinner at Roy's hotel near Burdwan, and DJ called one of his friends from college over who stayed near there. That person, over the lip-smacking chicken curry, casually asked where we guys were headed do. I guess he expected some answer like Benares or Lucknow, but DJ, with the swag of James Bond, replied "Ladakh". The guy was bowled over. Driving to Ladakh is a pretty regular phenomenon we read about on these hallowed pages, but for a person who is not a driving enthusiast this was big news. More impressed was the driver of DJ's friend (who was also dining with us). I guess he would have quit his job right away had we offered him to come with us, but we didn't, so he gave us detailed road directions and intricate checkpoints till Bengal Bihar border. I guess that's how far he has driven.
It was a moment that really touched me. One could feel that the person was a wanderer at heart, but somehow he was not blessed with the opportunities and means that we had. We are not always thankful for what we have, but moments like these make you realize how fortunate you are, to be able to do a trip like this.
Bidding goodbye to them, we started our overnight journey with the hope that we will touch Benares by daybreak. The road conditions in around Jharkhand has taken a dip, most likely due to the monsoon season, and the silk smooth roads I encountered last December during my Delhi trip were filled with minor potholes. EB was piloting the TUV with a lot of care and though our speed dropped, we were not slowing down considerably. DD was fast asleep and I also tried to catch a few winks, but around 4 in the morning EB was in a "to hell with potholes" mood and charged through trying to make up lost time. That was a bumpy wake up call.
Our target of reaching Benares by daybreak was lost, and we crossed the bridge over Ganges at around 9 in the morning. The last hundred kilometers or so were marked with numerous diversions where flyovers were being made over large junctions. It was funny, to me it felt like it was in the same state of completion like back in December. Maybe they had slowed down so they could showcase these improvements closer to an election or something. Crossing Benares, we all were hopeful of roads better and speeds faster, but sadly that was not to be.
Kanwar Yatra was at its fag end of the season, so the number of pilgrims had come down by quite some amount, but they still managed to set up a nice 40 kms long traffic jam comprising of trucks after Benares. We all were irked. We were all religious to some degree but this mayhem was something none of us could comprehend. Your God is good and powerful, so his network must be strong enough to reach your home, right? Why have you got to go down to his office? To link your aadhaar number? Anyway, this is India and we didn't want to be lynched, so we kept the choice expletives to ourselves and drove on.
Seeing local drivers cross the median and drive along the opposite flank, we followed suit. This got us through most of the bad stretch, except a few choke points. At one point we were sent back from a junction by a local cop, citing there were traffic cams active, and he could not let us pass. However, minor incidents aside, we soon were on better roads, bypassing Allahabad and Kanpur, and got to the Yamuna Expressway sometime around 4 in the afternoon. Delhi was within touching distance now.
We freshened up in one of the USA style rest stops (DJ's eyes watered at the familiar sight, he won't admit this though) and moved on to Delhi.
We merged to Delhi traffic at the worst time possible, around 6 in the evening. It was constipated to say the least. We reached BB's house close to 8, and called it a day. Tomorrow we shall see the hills!
Our trusted steeds!
BHPian mi2n has written his account about this trip. Read it here.
Re: A week in Ladakh
19th August - Reaching Manali
The day was supposed to start at 5. It didn't. In typical "Bangaali" style, we woke up, had coffee, started chatting, with someone mentioning at every ten minutes that we should start now. We finally left BB's house at around 8.30,with the TUV and BB's bolero.
A few words about THE bolero here. Are you familiar with the Sagrada Familia? It's a famous chapel designed by Anton Gaudi, which even after years of his death is still in development. It's a stunning structure to look at from some angles, and then from others it's just unfinished and in progress. BB's bolero is somewhat like that. It had custom rear bumpers, with numerous led lights fit all around, a CB radio antenna on the bonnet, a snorkel, additional fuel carriers and a roof rack. I'm sure there's a small nuclear reactor somewhere under the rear seat powering all this, but I couldn't find it. It was also stuffed with everything one may need for an African safari for a few months. Obviously, there was no space left in the boot or the rear seats, but boy was it prepared for everything! We could see a rampaging zombie apocalypse, and BB driving through all that merrily munching on a wafers. But it didn't have one thing, a front bumper. We didn't want to get stopped at check posts for such frivolous reasons, so BB had one custom front bumper fabricated and ready at metalsmith garage, Chandigarh. We would stop there for fifteen minutes en route Manali, and get it fitted. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. Except it was not so. Apparently Mahindra is hell bent on giving you a customized ride whenever you buy from them, so no two cars are of same dimension. The bumper was a straight fit on a template bolero at the garage, but it took close to two hours and grinding down BB's bolero's (I'll call it BBB from now on) chassis to get it fitted.
BBB and BB
That done, we set off for Manali once again, only to get stopped by the (in)famous Chandigarh cops at the city exit. They had stopped the TUV noticing the out of state number plate, but at soon as BBB stopped behind us, it stole the show. The cop saw the lights, he saw the mini gas cylinder tied with bungee rope on top of the car, he went to talk to BB and saw the array of switches on the dashboard. The guy couldn't keep his hands to himself and pushed quite a few buttons, a la Mozart, according to DJ who was riding with BB at that point. They were so excited that we had to give them some minor contribution to calm them down, and as expected, things were in order. We finally (finally) set off for Manali.
The Manali ride was bumpy, dusty, full of potholes and tiring. Roads were worsened due to rains, so the number of tourist vehicles were less, but there were no shortage of trucks. We were delayed by quite some hours from our schedule, and reached Manali at around 10.30 in the night, and put up at the HPTDC hotel there. It was almost closing time for their kitchen, but thankfully we had ordered our dinners over phone. After dinner, BB and DJ retired, while EB and me followed DD for some late night low light photography session. We were done in about half an hour, and retired for the night.
20th August - Getting to Jispa
No matter how tired you are and how late you went to sleep the night before, you always wake up early on a trip. Maybe it's the excitement of the trip that wakes you up. Despite driving almost two and a half days straight, we were awake by 6.30 in the morning. Manali was empty, owing to out of season rain and bad road conditions, and it suit us perfect. BB, EB and me went off to the Hidimba mandir, temple of the monster goddess, wife of Bheema. I expected a regular brick and mortar thing and wasn't interested much, but was pleasantly surprised. It was an wooden temple, shaded by corrugated sheets, a pagoda-ish structure. There were intricate woodwork arts around the walls, and the sanctum sanctorum is a natural cave, inside the structure. It had a very rustic and native feel to it. As it was early morning, very few people there. The mist moving between pines and poplars, occasional ring of the temple bell, and the overall serenity around the place was something I thoroughly enjoyed.
The temple grounds
After half an hour or so we went back to our hotel, had breakfast. Soon it was time to check out and start our drive to Jispa. Both cars started off and the road was very nice. There were a few bad spots at places, which is normal in mountains, but 90% of the roads were quite OK. Chenab river was flowing beside the road most of the times, and there were numerous photo stops along the way to capture the scenery from all angles, elevations and directions possible.
One pain point here was motorcycles. I have nothing against motorcycles, before graduating to cars I have ridden a motorcycle for close to three years, but bad riders around can really have an effect on your nerves. If you are riding in a group, you should keep the shape intact, and not split it with a few cars between and then keep overtaking and falling back multiple times. Most of these motorcycles were yellow plates. I shall not comment about the riding skills of these riders, as I lack the credentials to do so, but they did leave a lot to be desired in the road manners department. Not only here, this continued all the way through the trip.
Anyway, what's a four and a half hour trip according to Google maps, ended up taking close to 7 hours, thanks to photo stops only. DD carries a huge and heavy camera with him. Handling it is a real workout. I'm sure my biceps are more defined, given the number of times I've passed the camera over to him. But he's such an intrepid shooter, even at high altitude low oxygen scenarios he didn't let one single opportunity of clicking go. We were satisfied with mobile clicks, first getting down from the car, then leaning out from the windows, then just sitting at our seats. After one point I didn't bother at all and decided to watch it all and try to take it all in. Not DD, he did every photo, multiple times, with camera and mobile. Hats off to him, we have the precious moments stored digitally.
We reached Jispa around 3.30 in the afternoon, crossing Rohtang pass along the way. Lunch was ready and boy did we eat like starved pigs. After that a short rest, and four of us were out to catch the setting sun on the mountains. BB stayed back to sort out the LED's on his newly fitted bumper. The dusk and evening shots came out really well, along with some photographic knowledge sharing session from DD. EB was a keen listener, with tripod and all, while DJ and I just nodded along and clicked with our cell phones. But I got to say, the sunset was so good, even the cell shots came out really well.
Blue hour at Jispa
Another session of stuffing our bellies on a early dinner, and off we were to bed. Tomorrow was going to be long, and hard on both cars and our in built suspensions.
Jispa at night
Re: A week in Ladakh
21st August - On the way to Leh
Today, we started really early. The hotel staff were not even awake. However, one kind soul among them packed some sandwiches for us, we grabbed those and went off. We were supposed to pass multiple famed waypoints, high mountain passed, low river beds and arrow straight roads through valleys.
First came Deepak Tal, a pristine waterbody beside the Leh Manali highway, where the water was so clear the rocks beneath were visible. We saw a few boats tied to the bank, but nobody to operate them. We were taking a long stop there, to enjoy the serenity of the scene, until a few lorries came up and brought us back to reality with diesel fumes and noisy engines.
Up next was Zing Zing Bar. It's a point where a mountain rapid comes down a slope and meets a river (whose name I did not get). The point is notorious for flash floods and prohibitively high water levels, and it was the main reason we had decided to start early in the day. As the day passes, frozen ice melts high up on mountains and strengthens the rapids, in turn getting the water levels up at the crossings. However, when we reached there around 9 in the morning it was a timid scene with ankle high water and numerous boulders. It was not really a test for the tough Mahindras we were riding, and we crossed without any drama. Not without any sacrifice, though. DJ was forced to get down and capture our "conquering" of the mighty Zing Zing Bar, and nobody bothered to go back to pick him up (tough love, you see). So his shoes were all wet from "crossing the bar" on foot.
Crossing Zing Zing Bar
Then we faced our first pass of the day, Baralacha La. At 16K ish feet height, the low oxygen content of the air was starting to take a toll on us, and the cars as well. Every stoppage to get down from the car to take photos were leaving us short of breath, and the cars lost some power according to the people on the wheel. However, the scenes around us were changing at such pace and each of them brought so much beauty, we rarely did get any time to concentrate on physical discomforts. I can not speak of other people in our group, but, to me, the scenes were completely new! I mean, we all have seen mountains and barren lands and riverbeds, but somehow this was all different, even alien!
The thin line of civilization
After a while we got to Gata loops, where 21 hairpins would take us up to almost 15K feet, and then on to Nakee la, which was just short of 16K feet. The road up the loops was narrow, but the tarmac was pristine. There were a few times when we had to stop and roll back a few feet to let oncoming trucks pass, but other than that it was not very eventful. We did not come across the ghost of Gata loop, nor did we see the memorial where people offer bottles of water to him. We were short of a few bottles of water so maybe the ghost kept to himself, fearing we might snag a bottle or two off him.
Up the Gata loops
After Nakee La came Lachulung La, which is almost 17K feet. I was riding with BB at this point and we arrived there with some time in hand, the other car had fallen back a bit as they were taking photos. When we stopped there, we came across one army personnel who was painting the signboard marking the pass and it's height. His helping hand, a contract worker was sitting beside on some paint cans. The guy started to talk to us with friendliness and joviality only an army person can come up with at that altitude.
Somewhere before the Pang view point
The pang river was flowing beside the road for quite some kilometers after this, and in an hour or so we came to the Pang view point. It was basically looking at the huge river bend from high up a mountainside. The place really made me feel small, such was the grandiose and expanse! The rolling clouds not so far off and rains at distance added to the beauty. It was ethereal. DJ was not feeling very good due to AMS at this point, but DD told him "Even if you die here, you come down from the car and take this in". That really sums up the place, the sight was to die for.
Pang view point
Little did we know more such scenes were in store for us. It was as if the scenery was building up slowly to a crescendo, and it came in the form of the More plains. It's a 40 kilometer stretch through a valley, almost straight, and with no habitation at all. Once again BB and me were in the lead, so we decided to stop here for some time to let the others catch up. BB turned the car off, and the silence hit us. Other than the gentle swooshing of the breeze, there was not a single sound to be heard. As I walked up and down the path, my own heartbeat was audible at my eardrums. On both sides of the roads, tens of kilometers away, the mountains rose up gently. If you looked forward you could see the mountain range which held the last pass of the day. And the sky, it was almost as if it has come down upon you. Scattered clouds covered the scene, and where they were not present, sunlight was hitting the plains, creating a patchwork of light and shadow, which was constantly changing. At this point, my eyes literally watered up. I had never, ever, come face to face with such beauty.
The ethereal More plains
More plains, the boundary of human intervention
After a while we started for Tanglang La, which is around 17500 feet, and beyond it lies the Ladakh valley. When we crossed it, the sun was slowly going down. It was around 4.30 in the afternoon. We were relieved as the rest of the roads will be downward, or through plains. Saw some beautiful sunset above the mountaintops, while driving along the Indus river. We checked in to our hotel at around 7 in the evening.
Re: A week in Ladakh
22nd August - Leh and around, Day 1
Last day was hard on us, so we decided to take it slow. Also, BB was down with slight cold. We took the whole morning to rest and recuperate, lazing around, backing up photos and videos to laptops, pulling each other’s legs. By noon, we had worked up an appetite, so decided to visit Tibetan Kitchen for lunch.
After lunch we went up to the Shanti Stupa, which is at the edge of the Leh city, and one can get a bird's eye view of the city below. Late afternoon and there were bus loads of tourists. What saddened me is that instead of taking in the beauty and calmness of the place, people were busy taking selfies and video calling others from that place. I have a feeling most things these days are done for the sake of ticking them off a checklist of achievements, and not for the actual value of doing those things. So with these sort of philosophical thoughts in mind I roamed around the stupa and the upper level, cursing people and walking into other people's frames. At this point I realize it was a bit sociopathic, but it was pretty fun at that point. DD and EB were setting up their tripods for the night shots, and DJ was clicking around with his iPhone. BB, was not doing well. His runny nose started getting pretty bad, and he didn't have the option of going back to the hotel as we only had brought one car with us. He went back to the car to take cover from the cold winds, and to lie down a bit. Evening set in, and the number of tourists went down considerably. A brilliant moon came up, it was just 2 days to full moon, and Leh was lit up in all its glory. The only dampener was the multi-color LED strips the authorities had decked up the stupa with.
The Shanti Stupa in moonlight
Leh city at night
After DD and EB were content with their shots, we left for dinner. Dinner was done at a continental place called The apple tree in the market area, where four of us (BB retired) dined on chicken cordon bleu, thai curry and a delicious local apple drink.
23rd August - Leh and around, Day 2
BB was really down with his cold, and his temperature was around 102-103 all night. We decided that self medication was not the way any more, and made some calls to dbhpian SS-traveler who is based out of Delhi. Listening to the symptoms he suggested taking BB to army hospital, where he had a professional contact. The doctor did a thorough checkup and opined that BB was on his way to recovery, but he needed a day or two to become completely fit. Our further plans included Nubra and Pangong, and he suggested that BB should take it slow. That day we had planned to see the sights at Leh, so we dropped BB at the hotel so he could rest for the day.
First stop was the Shey palace. It's around 20 kms outside Leh, and not something that comes to your mind when you think of the word “palace”. It stands right beside the main road but about 5 floor up, and one has to walk up some ramps and stairs to reach there. Once you are at the palace gate, turn around and you'll be able to see why the palace was made there. A mini valley opens up before your eyes, covered with green grass and with some trees spread here and there. You see a river meandering at the end of it, a mountain range beyond, and a blue sky framing it all at top.
View from the Shey palace entrance
The palace is a maze of stairs and closed doors, not much around to see and no directions at all, but the I really loved the earthly feel I got there. Yes, this was a palace, but the terrain was so harsh even the royalty couldn't escape its cruel clutches. The walls were cold stone, door made of heavy wood to keep the cold winds at bay. At the top there is a monastery, not a separate building but a part of the palace itself. As usual with a lot of Ladakh monasteries, you go in at the top level where you are eye to eye with a massive Buddha statue, with its torso starting a level below. Air heavy with incense and sunlight filtering in through the narrow windows, these rooms always calm you down. We wanted to spend some more time, but we had other places to be too, so we moved on.
Next on the cards was Thiksey monastery, another 5 kilometers down the road and it was a lot more happening place. You could sense this from the wide parking lot, the monastery restaurant and the smooth two lane road going up the small hill to the monastery. Being an active (and well funded, I presume) monastery it was full with tourists and monks, well maintained and painted, and direction boards all around. We spent some time up there and came down to have lunch at the restaurant. Once again, along with some food we had the local fruit drink, as we were quite hooked to it by then! With our belly full and energy replenished, it was time to move back to Leh, for the Leh palace.
Thiksey monastery - interior
Leh palace, situated almost on top of a cliff, is another place where you can have the whole city spread below you. This place and the shanti stupa stands like two sentinels over the valley floor. This place was a lot more palace-ey, with eight levels to it! Our breath ran out just going up all the levels, so it left me wondering at the level of tenacity and energy of the people who had built this with their own hands. You can't really go up the last level as it's closed for maintenance, and effectively it's two rooms at roof level, kind of like the sub-4m “sedan"s we have. (You see, how I ended up offending both the Leh royal family and sub-4m sedan owners in one statement? That's my specialty. Kudos to people who tolerate me). The palace has many rooms, some with galleries in them, and some with nothing but bat poop, but it was a great place to be. Definitely gives you the Game of Thrones kind of feel. There were more selfie zombie crowd here, and I thought off kicking them off the roof screaming “Valar Morghulis”, but decided against it. I ate a Snickers instead.
Happy faces at Leh palace
The city from the palace courtyard
Leh palace roof
Dinner, once again was at the apple tree, which all of us had taken a liking to. After dinner we retired for the day. BB was still not well, and his temperature was above 100. With unsure minds about our next plans, we went to bed.
Re: A week in Ladakh
24th August - Nubra and Hunder
Time had come to take a call on BB. We talked to ss-traveler again, and he produced another contact from his sleeve, Mr. Dorjee. He was a localite, an ex-airman, and a gem of a person. We called him around 7 in the morning and he came by within 45 minutes. Immediately taking charge, he said we should move on to Nubra and he shall shift BB to his hotel where he could provide better care. This was way more that we expected. His energy and optimism was like a shot in the arm to BB, who was completely bedridden the day before. We were sad to leave BB back, but told ourselves this was for the best.
We started towards Nubra. There was only one pass in our way, the famous Khardung La. We were held up for some time as an overnight high altitude marathon was going on. Yes, you read that right. The altitude at which we were struggling to get up two flights of stairs, people were doing a marathon, which started midnight and was about to finish 9 in the morning. At one end of the spectrum there were people who were duckfacing at Shanti Stupa, and at the other end there are these people. The human rainbow continues to amaze me, as I comfortably sit in the middle. Few kilometers down (or should I say up) the road EB was not feeling very well, so I took over the wheels. I mention this specifically as I managed to do two things which EB was not able to do with his own car.
1. Scrape the bottom
2. Drive through Khardung La
As he had some choice words for me after achieving point 1, I wanted to rub point 2 in his face, but at that point he was really not feeling well, so I let it go.
Team TUV at K-top
Sometime after Khardung La came Khardung village. DD had done this circuit back in 2008, exactly ten years back so he was acting as the expert local guide. At Khardung, over a delicious plate of Maggi, DD gave us a detailed account of which houses were not there last time he had passed through this point. And we all believed him. Pinky swear.
Food, camera, shelter, view and mountains. The hierarchy of needs, fulfilled!
Rest of the drive was scenic, but couldn't hold a candle to what we had seen on the day we came into Leh. DD differed. He (being the expert local guide from 2008) predicted Nubra will blow us away, and at Pangong we might even die of the natural beauty. Boy was he right.
Just before Nubra
We reached Nubra quite late, say 3 in the afternoon. One glance around the place and DD commented, “this isn't it”. Nubra is famous for the sand dunes and bactrian (two-humped) camels, but none of them were visible around. Another pain point for us was the food scene. We had asked what would be available for dinner, and the owner made a wide arc with his hand pointing at the garden and mentioned whatever we want from there would be cooked for us. The only thing that caught my eye was a cow tied at a stake, but I didn't dare suggest that to the owner. We settled for taking us with him to the nearest market area, where he could buy some chicken for dinner. You see, if we have veg food for two meals straight, we get a bit unhinged. EB decided to opt out of the afternoon trip, so off went three of us in search of camels and dunes. Where we had to go was Hunder.
The river Shyok forms an Y at this place, two tributaries joining forces and continuing as one flow. We were at one arm at the Y and Hunder was at the other arm. And the only bridge to cross Shyok was at the bottom of the letter Y. So the distance was maybe ten kilometers as the crow files, but almost 40 kilometers by road. Daylight was receding fast, so it was a race against time to reach the Hunder sand dunes. We reached the place with about 20 minutes in hand till sundown, but it was the best 20 minutes of sunset. There were sand all around us, remnant of the Tethys sea which rose up as the Indian tectonic plate collided with the Eurasian plate eons back in time. Wind had shaped the sands in beautiful dunes, though they could be enjoyed more from the highway. Standing on top of them did not give you much of an idea how things were, and the camel safari done over and over had eroded much of them. Still, the river Shyok at the far end and mountains all around us was creating a grand stage. Splintered clouds all around us, and crepuscular rays (commonly called God rays) through them created a magical ambience.
The dunes from a distance
God rays at Hunder
The Hunder sand dunes
The drive back was silent. We were worried about BB and EB, and the sunset was quite heavy as well. We reached our hotel at 8 in the evening. We had a long chat with BB that night, and the decision was that he will stay back at Leh for one more day. Pangong weather was to be even more straining, and it would be foolhardy for BB to go there. Hoping that tomorrow EB will be back to form, we went to bed.
Re: A week in Ladakh
25th August - To Pangong
Last night we let EB sleep alone in one room as we were afraid that the infection might spread. So I went to check on him in the morning with some apprehension. He was sitting at the open window, in his vests and shorts, having a smoke. I didn't have to ask him anything, he was back.
Happy, we went to breakfast. We had around eleven eggs between the four of us, multiple cups of tea, poha to celebrate. Then we set off for Pangong. To reach pangong from nubra, there are two roads. One takes you back to Leh (almost) and then move to Pangong. The other way is shorter, but will go across Shyok river bed. The shorter road is riskier, as the water level might be up. However, we started early in the day and were confident of the abilities of TUV. We took the shorter way. After a detour to Hunder, as EB had missed the scenes the day before, we tanked up at one of the most odd petrol pumps I have ever seen. It was literally two pumps sticking out from a pile of rocks, with no building whatsoever around them. One person was sitting beside them in a plastic chair, that's it. We were apprehensive of the fuel quality but decided to go on with it as we might not had a chance to refuel till we reached leh the day after tomorrow.
Fuel pump of the year 2018
We crossed the actual riverbed pretty soon, and without much drama. There was hardly any water, just large boulders all around, so other than a bumpy ride it was not really scary. However, the real challenge came a little along the way. Just like zing zing bar, a mountain rapid came down from our right and joined Shyok on the left, crossing the road. It was all small rocks and maybe six inches of water. DD was at the wheel and he was trying to take the car over with extra care and not nick anything at the bottom, but suddenly we lost power at wheels. The rear wheels were stuck in loose rocks and was rotating freely. All of us got down, and tried pushing the car, but it was no use. The attempt to power out from the spot was useless, it got us even more into the stones. Thankfully, a tourist mini bus soon came through and they had to help us. We were stuck in such a manner that no other four wheeler would be able to pass that point. We screwed in the rear tow hook and hooked up the tow rope to the bus, and the driver pulled us out within five seconds. We asked him how to take the car over, and he preferred to show us how. Took the wheel of the TUV, rolled back ten feet or so, second gear and splash, bump, splash, bump, and he was out at the other end. We were enlightened. The rocks were not large enough to hit anything. Gauge the path you intend to take, have a long enough run up and power through it, that's the trick!
Stuck, but in style!
Surely enough, the next few water crossing were handled with ease in a similar manner. At the last one of the day (though we didn't know it was the last one at that point), we had a brain fade. DD was not confident enough of the path through, and we all got down to see it. EB said he has got it, and got on the wheel. But sadly, we didn't. Only after we had cheered him through to the other side, we realized we were stuck at this end with thirty feet of ice cold ankle high water between us and the car. To make matters worse, EB was closely inspecting the car and the tires at the other end and didn't think of coming back. DJ had spare shoes so he went over shoes and all, but the way me and DD crossed was pure circus. Shoes and socks off and in our hands, sharp rocks poking at the sole of our feet, through chilling water, we were moving hand in hand. The only thing missing was “Pakde rehna! Chhodna nahi!” from the old fevicol ad.
Anyway, like all bad things this came to an end too, and we were on the final stretch to pangong. The scenery was changing ever so slightly, the valley floor was getting more and more grassy, giving the indication that we were nearing a water body. Soon enough there were sheeps and horses grazing the fields. And a few bends down the road we finally saw the waters of pangong. The water was the same shade of brilliant sapphire as the sky. The clouds were almost on top of it. And it was finally within our reach.
Love at first sight
Coming close to the lake, we had a shocking realization. We were expecting an empty lakeside, but what we saw was scores of tents, makeshift structures and even a few wooden huts. Most of the restaurants were named like “three idiots cafe”, “rancho restaurant”. It was almost a small town. The movie had put this place on the tourist map and it was uncontrolled chaos to cater to the influx of tourists. We crossed the first cluster of settlements, at Spangmik, and moved on further along the bank of pangong. The next cluster of settlement had our tent stay, and we reached there around 4.
The cold winds were strong, and it was getting stronger and colder with the receding sun. There were people along the bank, if you could just shut your eyes and drown the chatter a little bit, what you saw was enough to drown you in awe. I am not sure what the others were doing, but I sat there, alone for a long time and saw the moon come up. It was not planned that way, but it was full moon night. My vocabulary doesn't have a word potent enough word do describe what I saw. I am no poet but I try to string up a few words from time to time, and here's what I felt at that point.
Azure waves meet the bank of stone,
And opposite stand the mountains tall,
The blue sky wears clouds silky white,
Like a lady for her wedding ball..
The sunrays softly touch the land,
And deck the earth in godly glow,
And here I sit, one tiny man,
At the edge of mighty Pangong Tso..
Who set this stage? Who planned all this?
Whose work is this grand design?
There may be God, there may be not,
But our Earth surely is divine..
Pangong in moonlight
Re: A week in Ladakh
26th August - To Dras
The day started with brilliant sunshine and clear view of Pangong in all her glory, but the mood was sad. Today was the day we start moving back towards home. We had to go a long way, but it would be taking us back to the mundane and routine of our daily lives. But then again, it would be taking us back to our families. DD and EB had little ones back at their homes, and they were really longing to see them again.
We contacted BB over phone with some effort, as network at Pangong was next to nil, and asked him to start for Kargil. We wanted him to take it slow as he was recovering and would have longer drives the next day. We would also reach Kargil that day, traveling some 150 kilometers extra, which was the distance from Pangong to Leh. The drive till Leh was usual, some bad roads but mostly proper blacktop. After 9 am, we faced a lot of oncoming traffic as the Leh-Pangong day trippers were coming through. But mountain drivers have a code of their own, and even on narrow roads it was never a problem.
We tanked up at Leh, and moved on towards Kargil. The road was beautiful, wide, metaled and with very few surface anomalies. The only things slowing us down were the occasional switchbacks. If one took them at speeds above 40,the passengers in back seat were getting their innards churned like anything. Moving at a steady pace, we soon noticed that the scenes were changing. The outdoors were becoming less “Ladakh"ish and more ”Kashmir” type. The barren rock formations were less and less frequent, and the road got down from tops of mountains to canyons. A river flowed beside us with quite some greenery on either sides. We also started encountering more and more human settlements.
Leh Srinagar Highway
Even with very few photo breaks and a short lunch we reached the Kargil war memorial as the sun was setting. We asked the the army personnel if we could still go in and pay our respect to the martyrs, and they obliged. We spend maybe ten minutes at the grounds, and it was sundown. We had to leave, but caught the last documentary show of the day. It was not a very polished or a well made film, but the content was of such gravity and supreme sacrifices, it touched all of us.
Kargil war memorial
We had decided to move on to Dras that day, as Kargil was having some district level election and spot booking of hotels were not allowed. Reached Dras at 8 in the night, where BB had booked two rooms for us. We had met after two days and had a lot of stories to share, and we had a long chat over dinner. We had one bad news from BB, that there was a massive landslide at Ramban, on the Srinagar Jammu highway, almost at Patnitop where we had decided to stay the next night. However, going back via the Manali route was also not an option as we had news of Zing Zing bar being flooded as well. We decided to stick to the Jammu route, and called it a night.
27th August - Patnitop? Jammu? Delhi??
Today, we would cross our last pass of the trip, the Zozi La. We started early, sharp by 6 in the morning as we had the landslide in mind. Apparently 3 days worth of truck traffic was piled up at either end of the route. We crossed Zozi La by 8 in the morning, and had our breakfast at Sonamarg. It was typical Kashmir landscape, green meadows with jagged ridges jutting out of them, morning mist and clouds flowing through the towering Chinar trees, localities going about their daily chores in long and heavy tunics and the constant and vigilant presence of army at every few hundred meters. Remembering the sights and places we have been through in the last few days, we understood this army presence. Some things are really worth fighting over.
Life in the mountains
Srinagar was reached by noon, and bypassed, though we could not escape the traffic completely. A congested stretch of 5 kilometers easily added 50 minutes to our trip time. Beyond Srinagar we were on a divided six lane highway, through plains, which we assume was laid down very recently, as google maps detected that we were going through fields and jungles. It was suggesting taking a u turn or a right turn every kilometers, but the road signs showed that we were on the right track. Making good speed, we soon were through the Jawahar tunnel. After this tunnel we were again mountain roads. This gives one an idea of the dimension of the Kashmir Valley. We had left mountain roads some three hours back and were moving through plain roads, with mountains visible very very far in our line of vision. I was fooled in believing that we were down in plains, but apparently that was not the case.
With mountain roads, we were approaching Ramban, the place near which the landslide had occurred. We hit slow moving, and then standstill traffic pretty soon. Asking one of the army personnel who were in charge of traffic (really, these guys do everything!), we got to know that the congestion had reduced and we would cross the 20 km stretch in about one and a half hour. Well, moving slow is better that standing still, and we inched along the road along with other vehicles. True to the impeccable estimate by the soldier, we were through the stretch in one hour and forty minutes and moved to Patnitop. Patnitop was reached by 5, and having daylight on our side we decided to push through. We took the Chenani Nashri tunnel, almost ten kilometers long, and then hit another cluster of truck traffic.
On this stretch, Srinagar to Jammu, we faced some of the worst drivers in our lives. Everyone was taking blind turns and attempting aggressive overtakes, cutting in front with inches to spare, taking the opposite flank with no concern for oncoming traffic. And this all was done in vehicles which are long out of production by manufacturer, or the manufacturers who have shut shop (e.g. Numerous Chevy Taveras). The only sane explanation of the driving pattern was that the drivers are assigned to these duties as punishment, and have to drive until their cars are totaled. It was stressful for the ones at wheel, and also the passengers. When the hellish traffic ended, it was almost 8.30 in the evening and all of us were drained. We decided to stop at Jammu for the night.
At the hotel we randomly selected while driving along the fringes of the city, we were solemnly informed that they could only serve veg food. DD, doubly solemn, informed that he had orders to have non veg, so either they can make some arrangement from some outside restaurant or we were taking our business elsewhere. The man at reception didn't dare ask whose orders DD was on, but made some arrangements and soon we were dining like the barbaric carnivores we were. Nerves relaxed, home almost within reach, we went to bed.
Re: A week in Ladakh
28th August - Back to Delhi
The day was fairly routine, drive along nice roads, listen to music, reminisce about the hell of a week you just had.
Only one thing of note happened, we had breakfast at a burger King. Looking at the familiar structure after so long, once again, DJ was overjoyed. If you could listen closely you could faintly hear “God bless America” playing in his head.
The burger kings!
We reached Delhi in the evening. I had a flight back to Kolkata next day, as I was going to start a new job the day after. Had the option of driving back with the rest of the team (they also refused to give me my suitcase for some time) but could not take the risk of being stuck somewhere for some unforeseen reason. DJ, BB and EB took a little rest, and started for Kolkata that night itself around 10.30. They reached around 1 in the morning at 30th, and there was no major setback or incidents in their drive back. And I wasn't with them, so it must have been boring as hell.
So that's the story of our ladakh trip, when five family men took a bachelor trip all of us would remember for a long time. Plans for further trips were made, like it is usually done on the closing phases of one trip. But only future will tell if we shall have such trips again, and if it would be this good. As the famous saying goes, there's nothing like the first time.
DJ, BB, DD, EB, I want to take this opportunity to thank you all for bearing with my constant chattering. As people have noted before I have a lot of pent up energy within me, and talking is how I blow off steam. This was a dream come true for me, visiting Ladakh and driving there, and I am sure I could not have better trip mates. I also hope my wife somehow misses the last line.
And thank you all for going through this loooong travelogue. I hope you just didn't scroll through the pictures. If you did, go back, there is a contact number to a beautiful lady (or a man, whatever floats your boat) from Leh somewhere in there.
Signing off, Anindya.
Re: A week in Ladakh
Thread moved from the Assembly Line to the Travelogues Section. Thanks for sharing!
Re: A week in Ladakh
Aah.. here comes the most awaited travelogue. Awesome writing.. and superb pictures.. getting tempted to do the terrain ASAP..
Re: A week in Ladakh
Amazing write up, looks like you guys had fun. Nice photo work too. August may not offer snow scapes but the valleys turn into pallets of striking colors. Your photos are inviting.
The Rohtang pass looks empty, is that due to the recent rains. Did you face any issues with road connectivity.
Re: A week in Ladakh
However, the Jispa to Leh route was really really bad at places. But at no point it was impassable. Hard on your bones, but doable.
Re: A week in Ladakh
At this point, my eyes literally watered up. I had never, ever, come face to face with such beauty
This is the final hammer strike to our dicey Ladhakh plans,
Amazing travelogue mate,
You have a way with words (saw the mini poem)
Re: A week in Ladakh
The purpose of including Anindya was purely initial funding. We always wanted to include him in our road trips since as a " chornic canceller", at the penultimate moment, he would come out with plethora of reasons which can turn best of reasons, to ashes. Cut short, it took sometime for me atleast, to soak that he is there in this trip.
I am grateful to EB, DJ and Anindya, for stopping on all requests. Most of the time, it felt, as if I am on a Ladakh walk, with the TUV following me. It surely made me feel special and guilty at the same time. We lost many worldly comforts, time, schedule but that's how the trip was meant to be. The initial plan was to take my civic from Kolkata, but with various inputs from BB and his sources and few other fellow veterans of the region, the plan of taking the civic was dropped. I am sure after this trip, the car wouldnt have made it under the present road condition, blame it to my skill or love for my car. This helped me to focus on irritating my co-passengers more than they expected out of me.
I have been to Ladakh before also but this time two things felt weird, the growth of hotels near the Pangong and the weird use of LED in Shanti Stupa. I had to rely heavily on filters to cancel the LED light under the present setup, else I couldn't think of a single presentable frame.
Apart from the few of photographs which Anindya has already shared, adding few more from my side. I will keep on updating this thread once more, as soon as I finish up with few more photographs.
That's how Leh greeted us after the terrific ride from Jispa.
TUV standing at Parking area at Nubra Valley.
A lone traveller, near Jispa
Somewhere before Pangong
The Magical landscape at Shayok river
The sunset at Nubra
Sunset at Pangong
Early morning scene near Jozilla ( probably)
The Only accomodation at Pangong ( Circa 2008)
Shanti Stupa in 2008 after sunset
Clean Pangong in 2008
Re: A week in Ladakh
Superlative write-up. There are Ladakh travelogues and Ladakh travelogues, this is the latter :D
Usually Ladakh pictures are better than the write-ups, but not this one! Rated 5 stars.
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