LADAKH – Enchanting and Mesmerizing !!

THE INCEPTION :
The travelogue of any avid Indian traveler is incomplete until he/she visits – LADAKH !! The northern most part of India, situated well over 10,000 ft. above sea-level, this was one place I had my eyes on for a long, long time. But somehow the plans didn’t materialize until Karan reminded me it would be his lasting posting in the region and also my last BEST chance to visit !!! I just couldn’t afford to miss this opportunity !!

Dhruv had recently become the proud owner of the Mahindra XUV500 and the moment I said Ladakh, he declared that we are DRIVING down all the way from Pune to Ladakh !! Travel to Ladakh is not just about the destination but also about the mode of transport – motorcycles, SUVs, bicycles (off late) in that order !! So when he said we will drive down all the way, it was more than just adventurous – it was a shot of adrenaline of the highest order !! We simply nodded in agreement as if we were completely hypnotized – that was until Kulbhushan woke us up !! He made some very important points in favor of spending more time exploring Ladakh instead of driving on the road, especially since this was going to be our first visit to Ladakh !! And so, much to the dismay of Dhruv, we were now flying into Leh instead of driving into !!!!

FLYING IN :
Riding high on the experience of our travel to Bhutan, this time around as well, we chose the red-eye flights!! Shailendra – Nandita had to travel an extra 130 kms. this time around since they were now posted out of Pune. But everything worked to precision and by day break we were airborne from New Delhi towards Leh !!

Watching the “first rays of the day”  from the sky is probably the best way to start the day and a long tour !!

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The entire cabin was filled with the refreshing hues of the rising sun…..
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I dozed-off soaking in the bliss of the early morning only to be woken up by the Captain’s announcement about an hour later that we were preparing to land at the Kushok Bakula Rimpoche Airport. Still half-asleep, I glanced towards the window as an almost involuntary action. What I saw was just so, so beautiful that I now wish I could wake up to such scenes every single morning – the first view of the mighty, arid and ice-topped HIMALAYAS….

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The first view of Leh town and the airport amidst the mountains …..

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As the aircraft kept reducing altitude, it was our excitement that was reaching new heights !! The fresh, cold breeze of the early morning was the best possible welcome we could ever get after stepping out of the aircraft !!! But we had to keep our excitement in check. Though on the ground, we were still at 11,000 ft. above sea-level. It was time to get “acclimatized” to the oxygen levels at this height and so we headed straight to the home-stay Karan had booked for us.

DAY 1 : ACCLIMATIZATION :

A beautiful place on the outskirts of the town with a view that was more than perfect for the acclimatization was all I could have asked for….

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No place seems unfamiliar as soon as we meet our old friends there. Karan, Dhanashree and the little champ – Veer were there to join us for lunch and it was the best possible way to acclimatize – sit back, relax and catch-up from where we last left !!!

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We visited the Shanti Stupa in the evening – our first sight seeing spot in Leh. Coincidentally, we reached the stupa at the best possible (and my favorite) time – dusk – and were glued to the beautiful hues of the setting sun and rising moon !!

DAY 2 : LEH and AROUND :

The next day was slightly more packed with quite a few local sight seeing spots. After getting our inner line permits done, we headed to the Shey Palace. Though not much remains of the palace now but the sights it offers from its vantage points are simply gorgeous !!

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Next we headed to the Thiksey monastery and the Sindhu Ghat – both very unique, beautiful and soothing places. We returned to Leh town and visited the Hall Of Fame – a museum set up and operated by the Indian Army which actually is a time lapse of everything that has happened in the Ladakh region till date – especially all the wars that the Indian Defence Forces have fought. Thanks to the timely suggestion by Karan, we decided to stay put and witness the thrilling and heart-touching light-and-sound show depicting the highlights of the Kargil war. I quite literally had a lump in my throat throughout the show !!

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But the day wasn’t over as yet. In fact it was going to be a very special moment for all us as we were about to catch-up with our senior from military school. We had trained together back in 2001-02 and then met briefly in Pune about 6-7 years back. Catching up with Daulat Sir and that too at such a far flung place was priceless to say the least !!
Obviously the meeting went on past midnight; until it was closing time for the restaurant!!

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DAY 3 : KHARDUNG LA —> PARTAPUR :

Having spent two full days getting used to the oxygen levels at this altitude, we were finally ready to begin traveling !! This is what we had planned to do:

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That’s how our itinerary looked like on the map :

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So straight up, we were headed north of Leh to the mighty KHARDUNG LA – one of the highest motor-able roads in the world and arguably the biggest attraction of this trip!!

We were excited but nervous – about how our bodies will react to the rising altitude, in spite of being sufficiently rested and reasonably fit. Thankfully the weather was absolutely perfect – bright, sunny, warm and pleasant. As we started climbing,we passed quite a few biker groups, some cyclists and still some who were on foot !! Quite obviously we were in the most comfortable mode of transport and that kind of made me feel guilty. But I quickly reminded myself why exactly we were doing what we were doing – it was our first time here in Ladakh !! In fact as we got closer to the top, I realized it was a good decision to not drive on these roads – it was indeed tricky !!

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After the customary photo-shoot at the top, we quickly headed towards North Pullu as we were advised to not spend too much time at the top. As we were climbing down, we could sense the first signs of physical discomfort. Thankfully, it was nothing serious and after a brief stopover to get some fresh air, we were back on the road.

We were now in the Nubra valley and the landscape was refreshingly fresh and new. Being in the river basin, it did have some green pastures amidst the arid and dry mountain slopes. The white sand dunes of Hundar were indeed as beautiful and unique as I had read and heard about.

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The after-effects of the late night with Daulat Sir were now evident in the form of fatigue and hence we quickly checked into the resort for our night stay.

DAY 4 : THOISE –> PANGONG –> MERAK :

A good night’s sleep ensured we were up early and fresh next morning and so we set out towards THOISE – an important military location which I personally was very keen on seeing.

This sign-board was the second refreshing thing we had seen in the morning :

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We returned to the resort for breakfast. Moments after we cleared our bill, the manager asked us to stand-by. He went inside and returned with a few white scrafs. They were called Khata and considered very special amongst the Ladakhis – gifted only to special guests. It was truly a very touching and heart-warming gesture.

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Feeling humbled, we set off towards the next destination – PANGONG LAKE – another landmark made famous by the climax scene of the superhit movie 3 Idiots !! However, in Ladakh, its never just about the destination, the journey is always equally scenic and exciting. Slowly but steadily, I was falling in love with the refreshing landscapes !!

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That’s Daulat Sir’s workplace….

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The sight of the cute Himalayan Marmot was like a refreshing cup of tea in the early evening…

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After negotiating some very narrow roads and tight hair-pin bends, we had the first sight of the serene PANGONG TSO or LUKUNG as it is locally called !!

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It was around 1700 hrs. when we reached Pangong. We spent about half an hour capturing the vast expanse of the lake that’s only 30% in India and 70% in China!!

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Since our stay was arranged at a village called Merak – about 30 kms. from Pangong, we still had some distance to travel. We and our driver were pretty confident that we would make it in time before dark and so were treading leisurely enjoying the drive and the landscape……….

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….. until Hussein Sahab, our driver, got a bit jittery. It was getting dark and we were still nowhere close to Merak. To add to it, we were passing under a hill where the BRO (Border Roads Organization) was building a new road. As per Hussein Sahab, the BRO worked only in the nights which meant we might have rolling debris coming onto our road. His tension became extremely evident when he subtly blamed us for the delay. That’s when we realized that the situation was delicate. We quickly assured Hussein Sahab that we were absolutely in no hurry to reach Merak and were completely with him in case we hit any blockages on the road. He was pretty much part of our team and we would have each other’s back all along. That’s when he felt completely relived and there was cheer back in the cabin !!

And to pacify the tense situation further, we had this beautiful sight of the full moon looking over the mountains into the deep, blue Pangong Lake – something we were pleasantly surprised to see….

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We finally made it to our home stay in Merak at around 1930 hrs. A humble abode of the locals which had three extra rooms for the five of us was ready to host us for the night. Having traveled the treacherous roads – especially in the last 30 kms., we knew what we had got was more than a luxury.

Being just a few hundred meters away from the massive lake with a pretty strong wind flowing across, it was getting a lot colder. However the alluring sight of the entire expanse of the lake lit in the milky white moon-light was too precious to miss and hence we decided to walk up to the lake – in the dark – while dinner was getting ready.

Ohh what a sight it was !! The first few minutes was all our chatter – each one describing how special and unique a feeling it was – until Nandita asked everyone to maintain silence just so that we could soak in not just the sight but also the soothing sound of the water rippled by the strong wind. It was the kind of bliss none of us had experienced ever before !! Very reluctantly, we dragged our feet away from the lake!!

A sumptuous dinner later, we pushed off to rest. Although we were on a plain, this plain was a good 13,000 ft. above sea-level. And hence we started feeling the absence of oxygen in the night. Coupled with the fatigue of the day long travel and our mini adventure to the lake meant that none of us slept well that night. And this was just the first of the three days we were going spend in the most isolated region of our itinerary !!

DAY 5 : CHUSHUL –> HANLE

Subdued and a little fatigued, we started off the next day a bit early. Thankfully we still had the Pangong lake to our left for company. Even in broad day light, it was very much a gorgeous and refreshing sight…

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The terrain was completely isolated now. There was not a soul either ahead or behind us!! With no network connection, it was isolation in its entirety and for a change nobody was complaining !!

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We reached the Rezang La War memorial around noon. Built quite literally in the middle of nowhere, this memorial honors the heroics of Maj. Shaitan Singh and 114 of his brave men who fought the Chinese until their last breath in 1962 !! Visiting a war memorial built exactly where the actual battle was fought was indeed very, very humbling. It quickly put into perspective what bravery and valor exactly means !!

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We continued our journey towards Hanley appreciating and admiring everything the locals and the brave soldiers were doing in this terrain on a daily basis. Not having the network connection ensured we introspected and put ourselves and our lives into perspective as well!!

Hanley is a beautiful little village which is famous for two things – the Hanley Observatory and the Hanley Monastery. We decided to see the Observatory – something none of us had seen earlier.

After a nervous wait for about 45 mins, we were allowed to enter the observatory premises. The guard sitting there was almost ready to finish off his day and suggested we go back since there’s nothing worth seeing in the observatory. When we refused to relent, he ushered us into the giant telescope.

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He was a changed man inside the observatory and very graciously gave us a full briefing of what the observatory and telescope was all about. As naive as we could be, we asked him where the eye-piece of the telescope was – hoping to catch a glimpse of some stars in the evening sky. He enlightened us that telescopes of this size don’t have a conventional eye-piece and that this particular one was controlled from a remote location more than a thousand kilometers away, through a computer.

This was a revelation of sorts for all us. We were in an isolated village, with bare minimum network coverage and it was precisely here that we were witnessing a monument of our country’s technological leap !! The admiration we had for the locals and the soldiers until now was automatically extended to the super brains of the country as well !!
And that’s precisely why travel is a great learning and humbling experience !!

DAY 6 : TSO MORIRI —> KARU

We left Hanley for Tso Moriri – an isolated but beautiful lake – visited only by a few tourists like us. In addition, we had to skip our stay at Tso Moriri and head straight to Karu. We had quite a lot of distance to travel today and hence Hussein Sahab was cruising a bit faster.

This was going to be our final day in the isolated yet beautiful part of Ladakh and I had mixed feelings about it. A part of me still didn’t want to return to civilization and everything that it brings along !! I kept myself occupied capturing the beautiful scenes knowing they wouldn’t last for very long now…

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Tso Moriri was indeed serene, peaceful and unique in its own way.

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Driving through last patch of this beautiful terrain close to the end of the day gave us a feeling of coming out of a slumber. As we hit the Manali – Leh highway, I actually felt like I’ve come out from meditation !!

Karu was strategically put into the itinerary as an interval before we moved onto the next phase of our travel. Karan and Dhanashree had ensured we had everything to relax and unwind.

DAY 7 :  HOLIDAY on a VACATION !!

We decided we wouldn’t do any sight seeing and rather spend time with Karan, Dhanashree and Daulat Sir who was generous enough to spend some more time with us.

We spent the entire day catching up on everything right from the days in the military school up to the present day. There was no dearth of fun, laughter and candid memories…

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DAY 8 : MAGNETIC HILL —> PATTAR SAHIB —> KHALSI

With Vishal, Ketaki and their chirpy little Reva joining in, it was a rare get-together high up in the mountains of Ladakh. But amidst all this fun, it was the poor Veer who had to go to school….

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All 5 of us showered Vishal and Ketaki with all the gyaan (know how) about the terrain and the corresponding do’s and dont’s, ignoring the fact that they had already done their home-work quite well !!

We set course only after capturing a truly KODAK moment…

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We were now traveling in the western region of Ladakh, on the Srinagar – Leh highway. Enroute we stopped over at the moonland near the Lamayuru monastery and then at Gurudwara Pattar Sahib. After the Golden Temple in Amristsar, this was the second Gurudwara I was visiting and I must admit, this is exactly what a place of worship should be like – peaceful, clean and organized !! After having the delicious langar food, we headed to our stopover for the night – Khalsi.

It’s not a place you’d find on any of the itineraries but it HAD to be on our’s !! After all it was where our friend and another course-mate from the military school, Jay, was posted!! Except for his recent visit to Pune, we had not met him properly for quite a long, long time!! There was no way we could pass through “his area” and not meet him.

But he wasn’t the only reason to stop by. There was another senior of us who was posted with him. We had last met Aniruddha Sir in the Natioanl Defence Academy in Pune about 18 years back. But thanks to the great legacy of our military school, any time gap is not capable of wiping off memories. It was yet another evening of reliving all the candid memories that we all were part of. I was definitely not going to complain being back to this part of civilization!!

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 Meanwhile Jay had also set up a very, very special dinner for us in an even more special place…

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DAY 9 : KARGIL —> DRASS

This was going to be the last destination in our itinerary and definitely the most special one. We were going to visit the Kargil War memorial – the war which all of us had witnessed, the war which was one of the biggest triggers for each one of us to join the military school.

And we were still not done catching up with our friends. There was yet another course-mate, whom we had lost touch with for a long, long time, waiting for us at Drass. Mayur had ensured he was going to make-up for all the lost time at once – having made some very, very elaborate arrangements.

Thanks to Mayur, we were specially looked after at the Kargil War Memorial. The memorial is built precisely where the most crucial part of the Kargil War was fought, also the place where our forces suffered the maximum number of casualties. Listening to the very precise yet heart-wrenching briefing presented by the soldier, we couldn’t help but bow our heads in the deepest of respect and gratitude for every soldier out there – including our own seniors and friends !!

As I offered my homage to the brave, I realized the only place of worship every Indian should ever visit is a WAR MEMORIAL and the only God every Indian should ever worship is the SOLDIER – who bravely defies all the odds to protect us!!

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DAY 10 : BACK To LEH :

The next day, before we headed back to Leh, Mayur had arranged yet another small briefing for us. We were taken to a place from where we could see all the important peaks which witnessed the Kargil War including Tiger Hill and the Batra Top. We also got a chance to interact very closely with the soldiers who were guarding the borders in the present day. It was yet another humbling experience to get up and close with the REAL HEROES of the country at their work-place

Just a futile “thank you” and “Tagda Raho” from the most common citizens like us made their chest swell with pride and josh. We didn’t realize it was so easy to please this GOD !!

DAY 11 : FLYING OUT :

Travel does strange things to people. Of the many things, it helps develop some very special and rare friendships – one such was with our driver Hussein Sahab who had been with us throughout this enchanting and mesmerizing journey. While we thanked him for his services all along, he indebted us with the khata!! We knew what that meant and felt obliged by his gesture.

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Being seated in the aircraft, waiting to fly out of Leh, I was going through each day of this memorable trip. As I sent out my thanks to Mayur, Jay, Karan and Dhanashree for everything they had done for us in these 10 days, it was they who were instead thanking us for visiting them all way in Ladakh.

Apparently, there’s a saying amongst the soldiers serving in the high altitudes – Only the best of friends and worst of enemies visit us here !!!

I hope and wish each of us can be that best friend who visits our brothers serving on the borders and tells them…….. “TAGDA RAHO” !!!

It truly was an amazing, amazing experience, one which enlightened and humbled me in more ways than one. As eager and excited as always, looking forward to the next destination…. !!

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