The highest inhabited land in the world, Ladakh, the Land of High Passes is a dream destination for any tourist. Located at an altitude of over 10,000 ft, Ladakh boasts unparalleled beauty that allures any traveler. Ladakh is a landscape of the extreme; A land where the sand dunes meets the glaciers, a place where the scorching sun burns you and the cold winds freezes you, where the snow falls and sandstorms swirl around you. The isolated barren wilderness of this place with the snow-capped Himalayas mountains in the backdrop, bright blue water lakes, ever-changing sand dunes and the omnipresent cool breeze reminds you that you are on the “Roof of the World”.
It was a dream come true for us when the Air India flight landed in Leh’s Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport, after a short 25 minute flight over the majestic Himalayas, from Srinagar. The drastic change in the landscape reminded us that Ladakh is indeed a place like no other. The month of May is ideal to visit Ladakh as the weather is calm and the temperature lies mostly in the positive region. The high altitude and sparse vegetation at Ladakh means, less oxygen to breath. The oxygen and the atmospheric pressure level in Ladakh is only about 65% as in the sea level. Since we arrived by air, we were asked to take rest for a day to acclimatize before venturing to explore the grandeur of Leh. The acclimatization period can be avoided if you arrive Leh by road. Our hosts, Project Himank of the Indian Army, was very generous and provided us with cozy 2 bedroom guest house and our food. The effect of altitude transcended on us in the form of headaches and the arid terrain caused our skin to dry up. It can also cause nausea and breathing difficulties in some tourists.
Our driver cum guide was a young Ladakhi by the name Rigzin and he drove us around for the duration of our stay in Leh. Though Indian constitution grants unrestricted access across India , a tourist to Leh has to obtain a permit from the District Magistrate to stay in Leh. We started off with the Army Hall of Fame that meticulously portrayed the acts of valor of the brave and patriotic sons of India, during various wars since independence. Like all Buddhist locations, Leh also flaunts a Shanti Stupa located atop a hill. The wind up there is so strong that it nearly blew away our shawls and mufflers. The Buddhist monasteries in Leh are constructed in the Tibetan architecture and are flamboyant. We visited the Hemis monastery and the Thiksey Monastery the next day and the mural paintings are absolutely beautiful. Built on the hill slope, these monasteries offer a splendid view of the Ladakh valley. The Leh Palace and the Stok Palace are fine examples of the Ladakhi Royalty. The 9 storey Leh Palace located right above the city of Leh was the tallest building when it was built in the early 19th century. One interesting observation about the Palace is that, the doors are too short and I’d say, “Watch your head”, even if you are just 5 ft tall. The royal ornaments are made from beautifully polished colorful semi-precious stones, and they are really heavy. Our visit to a Heritage house depicted the life of the natives. Once the winter kicks in, they lock themselves up in their houses for about 4 months surviving on the resource stock they collected during the summer. The Ladakhi people are very peaceful, friendly and humble. The Tibetan Tea (also called as butter tea) is a must try item in Ladakh and its made with black tea and butter. And its salty too. The homemade Ladakhi beer is worth a shot too.
Once we were satisfied with our trips around Leh city, we decided to set out to Nubra Valley which is about 200 km from Leh. The most remarkable feature of this journey was that it passes through the highest road on the planet – Khardungla Pass which is located at an altitude of 18,380 ft (5,600 m). This is the highest point on earth that you can reach if you are not a mountaineer. And a brewing tea from the world’s highest tea shop, was refreshing. The twists and turns and the upward with the snow by your side, the hairpin bends bordered with freshly formed snow gave us an outlandish experience. And the long icicles formed by melting ice lets you play with ice crest swords. The roads, built by Project Himank of Indian Army, is in itself an engineering marvel. And to top it all, the taunting and thought-provoking road signs made this trip memorable (Impatient on road, Patient in Hospital). The terrain changes considerably after every mile and from snow, we passed by the desert, deep gorges, meandering rivers and seasonal waterfalls. We decided to spend the night at Diskit, a small village near Nubra Valley. In Nubra Valley, the sand dunes surrounded by snow-capped peaks mesmerized us. Now, what is a desert without a camel. Nubra valley and the Tibetan plateau is the home of the two-humped Bactrian camel and a trip to Nubra will be incomplete without a ride on these marvelous animals. We were also able to experience a mild sandstorm in Nubra. The vast expanse untouched terrain, wild yaks and horses grazing on the sparse vegetation, the shepherd with his flock of Pashmina goats are welcome sights around Ladakh. The hot springs and the rocky brooks add to the charm of Ladakh.
Our last trip in Ladakh was to the famous Pangong Lake, regarded as one of the most beautiful lakes on earth. You’ll remember seeing this place, if I tell you that, Pangong lake is the location of the last scene in the movie 3 idiots. Yeah, the Phenshuk Wangdu one. The road was similar to the Nubra valley journey, but the difference this time was that the roads were covered with snow. The Xylo had to put chains around its tyres to negotiate through the slippery snow and the mild snow fall took the temperature below -6oC. The road passed through the Chang La pass (17,586 ft or 5,360 m) which is the world’s 3rd highest pass. It also provided us with a glimpse of the Ladakhi wildlife, with the Marmot’s, a cute furry animal, happily munching the biscuits we gave. The Pangong lake was unlike any other lake I’ve ever seen. Different hues of blue and the fleet of birds amplified the beauty of this magnificent lake. Located at an altitude of 14,270 ft (4,350 m), the brackish water Pangong lake extends to China.
Words cannot describe what Ladakh has to offer. One has to experience it. I have tried my best to describe the enchanting and enticing beauty of Ladakh, but I cannot find sufficient adjectives to describe this magical land.
Did you know, Ladakh landscape holds the most resemblance to the Lunar landscape than any other location on Earth? If you have not visited Ladakh, then you have not done justice to yourself as a traveler. Pack your bags – Ladakh is calling!
End of Ladakh Series!!
PS : This article was published in Siblink, the corporate magazine of South Indian Bank in the 1st edition of 2013.