Sunday, July 20, 2008

Breathless in Ladakh

Full set of photos here

And so everyone said; be careful when you get there. Don't move at all on the first day, don't do this, don't do that.... some even went to the extent of saying that you'll start feeling breathless just as you land at the airport. The wife promptly had dreams of collapsing just when she got off the airplane's ladder... clutching her throat and dying like the villain's henchmen in C grade Bollywood movies when exposed to mustard gas.

But you know what? They were somewhat right... I was breathless even before we got off the plane. It started just as we broke through the dense cloud which stretched all the way from Delhi and I had the first glimpse of the land they call Ladakh - the name literally means 'The land of high passes' and over the next week or so, this land took our breath away.

Day 1 & 2

Making our way through the cutest airport terminal I'd ever seen, we got ourselves a taxi to takes us to our hotel - Omasila. A pretty hotel nestled in the Changspa area of Ladakh, we were greeted to some of the most stunning views of the Stok sub-range of the Himalayas. The Stok Kangri peak towered over the Leh valley, with most of the higher reaches covered with a generous helping of snow.

My own experience in high altitude climbing had taught me to take it easy always on the first couple of days, so the entire group basically chilled out in the hotel playing Taboo & Teen Patti.

The next day, we headed out after lunch and our first objective was the Stok Palace, across the river Indus. The Palace along with the adjoining Gompa (monastery) were built in the early 19th century by the Ladakhi King Tsedap Namgyal. The descendants of the Ladakhi Royal family including the former Queen of Ladakh reside here, having moved out of the main palace built on a cliff above Leh. Part of the palace complex has been converted in to a museum displaying artefacts from the history of Ladakh.

There is a small cafeteria with open seating overlooking the Indus valley and Leh town - but it wasn't operational while we were there. A burly dog was sunning himself on one of the palace walls and he proved to be a wonderful model for our photography session. A series of small stupas dot the landscape behind the palace, permanently disfigured by the hideous TV mast erected by Doordarshan.

We drove back to Leh, and headed for the Shanti Stupa. A modern structure, it was built in the 80s in co-ordination with a Japanese Buddhist organization and inaugurated by the Dalai Lama. Of more interest would be the small temple just below the Stupa where we spent a surreal 15 minutes with the resident monk carrying out the evening prayers. His deep baritone resonated along with the slow throbbing of the dream, literally elevating us to another level as we sat there with our eyes closed.

Having skipped lunch, we stuffed our faces with obscene amounts of Maggi served by the small canteen near the temple and then went up to the Stupa. The building itself is very unremarkable, and stands out as an aberration in this ancient land. However, the views from the Stupa as best described as stunning. The entire Leh valley, with the Indus flowing by quietly is visible from here. Hordes of tourists were simply sitting there, legs dangling across a 300 foot drop, drinking in the view. We spent more than a few hours up there ourselves, until it got really cold and windy so decided to head back to the hotel for a warm cuppa chai.

On this first day itself, I had run out of adjectives to describe the ethereal beauty of this place. Usually I am never at a loss of words, but Ladakh had silenced me. That day itself I had been convinced that no words or photos could ever do justice to that place unless you saw it for yourself.

But two things stood out more than anything else. One was the amazing palette of colors, that had been used by the Creator while painting this place. Colors I had never seen before, colors I never knew existed. For someone used to the drab colors of Delhi and its dull grey skies, Ladakh felt as if someone used to wash it with Surf each morning before everyone else got up.

The other was the play of light and shadow across the countryside. Clouds moving across the sun created created a dramatic effect across the rows of hills - it felt as if the Painter up there used to draw a masterpiece but grew dissatisfied with it five minutes later. So he recolored it to draw another masterpiece, and another and another all day long. We kept talking about it late into the night and each day to follow and never get bored of it.

Day 3
The destination for the next day was the Khardung La pass. 'La' is the Ladakhi word for a mountain pass and Khardung La is reputed to be highest stretch of a motorable road in the world at 18380 ft. While many dispute this height & record, I don't care too much about it. The fact that a road exists across these extremely inhospitable mountains and that there is someone to offer you hot Kehva when you reach the top is good enough. This road is the lifeline for the residents of the Nubra Valley and specially for the brave Indian soldiers up in the Siachen Glacier. The previous day we had seen a long column of army trucks come down this road and their sheer numbers suggested the importance of this road.

Just as we got there, a howling wind grew into a minor snowstorm and drove perfectly formed snowflakes inside my collar. The temperature was nearing -10 Celcius and the wind chill made it worse.... or was it? In fact it was super fun !! I was dressed in a just a fleece sweatshirt and was plodding through 6 inches of powdery snow in sandal clad feed with the abandon of a hippopotamus in a river, when I was summarily dragged to the souvenir store by the wife and made to wear a wool cap, muffler and gloves too, had the shop not run out of them. The visit to the souvenir shop was worth it as now I also possess a t-shirt which says 'Khardung-la' 18380ft - I was there!'.

With the storm getting worse, our driver decided it wasn't really a great idea for us to be cavorting around there for too long. Pretty soon, we were packed in our car trying to make our way downhill in the blinding snow. With everything around us white - the road looked even narrower than it was. For some weird reason, all I could of think of was the scene from Lord of the Rings - 1, where the fellowship is trying to get across Mt. Caradhras and the snow storm generated by Saruman foils them. In fact I was pricking my ear to try and discern any evil spells being read underneath the howling of the wind.

Fantasies apart, things improved once we got below snow-line as the snow storm petered out into a drizzle. Back in Leh, we had lunch at a restaurant called Wonderland, down the street from our hotel. Pretty decent food, but the hummus & pita sucked !! It was much better the previous day at Cafe Jeevan a little but up from Omasila. Overall, food in Leh would not get more than a 4.5/10 from me. The items in the menu are almost the same as the one's I have seen on a beach shack in Goa (minus the sea food) or any cafe in McLeodganj or Pushkar. I guess it makes the typical tourist who does the India (the Agra / Delhi / Jaipur, Dharamsala / Manali, Leh, Goa, Hampi) tour happy and at home :-)

Dinner too would have been unremarkable, had it not been for the boys at the Nepali Kitchen restaurant right opposite our hotel. On special request, they prepared a really mean Dal Tadka & Jeera Aloo while a bunch of foreigners chatted about their adventures in the plains to the tune of a guitar strumming companion.

Day 4
Morning broke as out kitchen manager arranged for boxes upon boxes of sandwiches for his guest groups heading for the highlight of the day - the Tsechu Festival. The festival is held in the Hemis gompa which lies about 35 km South East from Leh.

The Tsechu festival is celebrated in reverence to Padmasambhava. Held in the main courtyard of the monastery. - the festival begins with an early morning ritual atop the Gompa where, a large portrait of Dadmokarpo Rinpoche is unveiled. This is followed by number of elaborate Tantric rituals (Hemis is one of the prominent centres of Vajrayana Buddhism) inside the sanctum sanctorum. Then comes the highlight, a series of dance performances also known as 'Cham'. The Cham performance is essentially a part of Tantric tradition, performed only in those gompas which follow the Tantric Vajrayana.

The dance performances were fascinating, a veritable riot of colors. Hordes of photographers with cameras and lenses of all shapes and sizes had assembled. R and I had literally front row seats to the performance and the 4 cameras that we were carrying went mad as we shot off frame after frame after frame. Intermittent rain did not dampen any of of the festive mood as the crowed huddled under umbrellas, raincoats or whatever other cover they could find.

After the performances, we left for Leh. The road runs parallel to the Indus (Sindhu) river and a couple of white water rafts were also spotted bobbing along the stream. We stopped on the way at the Thiksey Gompa. It is amongst the largest & most famous monasteries in Ladakh & certainly one of the grandest. Standing atop a small hill - the 12 storey building is impressive in size and scale. Legend is that its design mimics that of the Potala Palace in Lhasa. The monastery belongs to the Gelugpa (Yellow Hat) school of Buddhism. The Dalai Lama is also from this school so the monastery currently enjoys an elevated status.

Politics apart, the monastery is really worth half a day's visit. Apart from the numerous little prayer rooms - the main hall has impressive thangkas & frescoes on its walls. A small ante-room has amazing statues of Sakya Muni & an amazing statue of the eleven headed Avalokiteshwara. However, the centre of attraction is the 20ft high statue of Maitreya - the Buddha to come. The views from the Gompa are no less amazing.

Very close to Thiksey a smaller but equally pretty Gompa of Stakhna. Situated on the right bank of the Indus River, the name 'Stakhna' literally means 'tiger's nose'. The monastery was so named because it was built on a hill, which is shaped just like a tiger's nose. The roots of the monastery lie in faraway Bhutan and like Hemis, it too belongs to the Drukpa (Red Hat) school of Buddhism. However, Stakhna predates the 17th century Hemis Gompa and is one of the earliest Drukpa monasteries in Ladakh.

Moving on, we made at stop at the Shey Palace as well. Shey is the old capital of Ladakh, before Leh took over. Occupied by the Namgyals till the 16th century, it is now almost totally deserted. Not much except ruins of the palace and gompa remain. The Palace sits on a ridge below the fort. om prayer lamps, the paintings in gold and bright colours are amongst the finest in this region. Shey was once considered an auspicious place for cremations. Vast grounds to the east of the gompa are scattered with numerous stupas, which contain ashes of prominent monks, members of the royal family and others.

Our last stop for the day was on the banks of the Indus river at a pretty spot called Sindhu Darshan. Inaugurated by LK Advani of all people, this place serves as a camping ground and also provides pretty views of the Indus flowing through the pretty Leh valley.

Day 5
It was time for us to head to one of the most spectacular & popular destinations in Ladakh, the Pangong Tso. Tso is the Ladakhi word for 'lake' and and Pangong is as amazing as they come. The road to Pangong is no less spectacular. Turning off from Leh - Manali highway at Karu, one needs to head up to the village of Sakti. Here the road starts climbing stepply towards Chang La pass. Chang La is reputed to be the third highest motorable road in the world after Khardung La & Tanglang La. For me, the climb was much more dramatic than the one to Khardung a 2 days ago. There was snow here too in the higher reaches and light flakes kept drifting in the wind as we stopped at the Army outpost at the summit. After some photos and snowball fights with the fresh snow, we pressed on.

Our driver kept stressing on the need to reach Pangong quickly as the summer sun quickly melts any overnight snow and by late afternoon, some of the streams that cross the road may swell and make our crossing difficult. If we had any doubts, they were soon dispelled when we came across a massive traffic pile up. A stream had washed away a large portion of the road and an Innova had gotten stuck among the rocks in almost shin deep water. All of the collective efforts of the drivers only mired the vehicle deeper and the situation was getting hopeless.

Just then, a big fat bulldozer operated by the BRO turned up and shoved a huge pile of rocks across the stream in a jiffy which created an alternate path for the vehicles to cross. Then it proceeded across the stream and towed the 2 tonne Innova out as if it were a toy car. An awesome display in clinically applied brute force, displaying the often unheralded efficiency of the BRO people who keep the roads open in this inhospitable terrain.

It was short sprint to Pangong thereon and soon we were at the banks of perhaps the most spectacular water body I have seen(It got relegated to #2 a few weeks later, but that's another story). It was crystal blue water ringed by mountains spread far in to the horizon. It was the bluest of blue waters that I ever set my sights upon and I could count 5-7 shades of blue within it. The lake is about 134km long and two thirds of it lies in Tibet. For the same reason, boating is not permitted.
Sharp winds and a biting drizzle that had been following us since Chang La, caught up with us and forced us to abandon our frolicking by the lake side and seek shelter in one of the tents set up by the lake side that also offered food and drink. Cooped up inside the warm & cosy tent, we devoured bowls of Maggi & Dal Chawal along with piping hot chai. The rain abated a bit, and we took some more photos and then it was time to head back as our driver was getting jittery looking at the weather.

The ride back was uneventful, save for the fact that the 6 inch deep snow at Chang La had mostly melted leaving an icy slush. We had another cuppa chai served free by the Army officers and paid our obeisance at the Chang La Baba temple before heading down to Leh. We saw lots of Himalayan Marmots on the way as well, scurrying around the meadows looking for food while the sun shone. Marmots hibernate in winter, so a large part of the summer is spent stocking up on food.
We were extremely tired after the 300km ride so dinner was early, though sleep was hard to come by. For some weird reason, breathing indoors continued to be a chore, even after 5 days at high altitudes. Outdoors were fine, even at heights above 17,000ft - but inside the room was sheer discomfort. Sleep was even more difficult and I used to wake up gasping many a time in the night thinking someone was throttling me !! Any idea why that happens?

Day 6
It was our last day for sightseeing in Ladakh and we chose to take it easy. Our plan for the day was to head to the oldest monastery in Ladakh at Alchi. From there on, we were due to Lamayuru. Halfway through the drive, we decided that we weren't up to another 300 km ride, so decide to stick to Alchi only. Heading down the highway to Srinagar we stopped by the confluence of the Indus and the Zanskar rivers. Later, we crossed the Indus and climbed towards Alchi village. The monastery itself is situated high above the banks of the river. Having been set up somewhere in the 12th century. Some sources predate the origin of the monastery but not many details are known.

The complex itself is home to three temples and two stupas. Unlike, other most monasteries in Ladakh it is not a very high building, except for the three story temple or Sumtseg. Alchi is home to some complex Mandalas. The Sumtseg has large statues of Maitreya flanked by those of Manjushri & Avalokiteshwara. The third temple is dedicated to Manjushri and has perhaps one of the most amazing statues you could ever come across. It is a four faced statue standing nearly 10 ft. tall. The four images of Manjushri are seated back to back in an elaborate common frame featuring a multiplicity of animals, gods and symbols and topped by the decorative scrolls deriving. The four images and their frames have been completely repainted in recent times. Photography however is strictly prohibited inside the temples.

We had lunch in the cafe cum camping site next door and then headed to the village for some shopping. Once inside the shops, we went overboard stuffing our backpacks with masks, brassware, khukris and other 'traditional' Ladakhi artefacts. What surprised me the most was the revelation that most of the stuff was made in Nepal !! There was another irony that I noticed throughout the bazaars in Ladakh - practically every shop has signs & stickers urging China to free Tibet - and the very same shops were selling a multitude of Chinese manufactured goods !! Perhaps trade & politics are not to be mixed....

We returned to our hotel and spent to night partying and packing as the next morning, was our flight to Delhi. While heading back, we felt it was an injustice to Ladakh that we'd spent very little time there and hardly got to explore it amazing beauty. Perhaps it was okay though... after all we had run out of adjectives to describe the place so we needed to learn a few more, before we could return.


chandni said...

fantastic post. You've gone in to great detail I see :)

and as usual, you're a great photographer!

Nitika said...

I took a boat ride in Pangong Tso :)
And went further upto Chushul :)

Helps if ur dad is in the Army and posted at Karu :p

Suki said...

Amazing pics...
You two are really, really tempting me to ditch everything and take my next holiday in Ladakh!

Sidhusaaheb said...

Thanks for the marvellous Photo-Essay-cum-Travelogue!


Kamini said...

I came here from Desipundit.
What a fabulous travelogue! Thank you - I enjoyed reading this, loved the pictures.

Babel said...

was sauntering around in this virtual space and your post made my drab day at work colourful...
With an attention span of just 5 mins, my attention remained glued to this wonderful piece

nomad said...

* chandu - thanks hon :)

* nitika - I'm so J !!

* suki - what are you waiting for?

* ss - shukriya janab

* kamini - thanks :)

* babel - that's a great compliment .. thx

Jairam said...

Hey there,

This post reminded me of my trip to Leh Ladakh around 3 yrs ago.

Some related links are -


ani said...

holey moley!!! this one is brilliant!!! :)

Sriram said...

Awesome set of pics, Shanx... fantastic post!

nomad said...

* jairam - thanks :-) your post was enjoyable as well

* ani & sriram - thx :)

Saad Akhtar said...

Desk job, my ass! You're a nomad who'se been to Ladakh. I'm sure the desk job doesn't seem so bad now :)

Swaran said...

As usual a gr8 travelogue again... I remember the earlier one's too... Keep it up shanx