'A trip to Ladakh is about the journey not the destination' - Aanandita Datta
My wife and I love travelling. She's normally the planner who I suspect loves planning more than the travelling itself. In our jobs, we almost always have to plan our holidays ages in advance as there is the usual handing over etc which needs to be done but this time we realised we had a week when both of us could get 3 days off and so we decided, let's head to the hills and decided Srinagar was the place to visit. As we sat in the evening trying to plan an itinerary, book tickets etc, we chanced upon this blog of a person writing about his visit to Leh, Ladakh and we were floored.
For the completely uninitiated, Ladakh is probably one of the most beautiful and distinct geographies in the world, however the sheer height of the place can also be a worry. Oblivious to this and regular mountain travellers, we very happily booked our tickets especially happy that there is a direct flight from Mumbai to Leh, the capital of Ladakh.
Our 6 day itinerary
Day 1: Mumbai to Leh and acclimatisation
Day 2: Leh Hall of fame, Magnetic hill, Confluence of Indus and Zanskar, Ladakh palace and Leh monasteries
Day 3: Travel to Nubra Valley via Khardung La and camel ride on the sands of Nubra.
Day 4: Turtuk on the India Pakistan border*
Day 5: Visit to Pangong lake via Chang La and back to LehDay 6: Leh to Mumbai
*originally we had planned an overnight stay at Pangong, but the greed of seeing Turtuk a relatively unvisited part of Ladakh plus night temperatures touching 0 deg caused a change in plan
Pre -preparation - We started our Diamox 2 days before the trip, starting with one tablet per day which would then become 2 (Please ask your doctor).
Necessities: We also carried ORS cartons and electral (Hydration is very important to avoid AMS) and a host of medicines. Leh market itself is well stocked, but the rest of Ladakh might not stock some meds. We also carried our winter wear. Leh can also get quite warm and there is the bright sun. Always carry a strong sunscreen, preferably one which moisturises too. Plan to wear layered clothing as you can get snow on the passes and extreme heat when you travel down. Also the temperature difference between a cloudy day and a sunny day is huge. Please also carry battery chargers and some form of a torch as electricity can be an issue in most hotels and the ones in Nubra and Pangong almost always have power issues.
Permit: You need a special permit to travel to many of these places including Pangong and the Indo - Pak border near Turtuk. The Indo Pak border here may not be accessible to foreigners. The permit just needs a copy of your Aadhar card or equivalent national id card. Visit this site for details regarding the permit which can be obtained online . Since most of you would acclimatise for a day at least that would be sufficient time for your hotel to get you the permit. Please remember some areas you visit like Pangong lie near the international border and are sensitive areas. Click here for more details.
Connectivity: Your existing telephone will not work in Leh unless it is BSNL and in some areas Airtel. Vodafone didn't work anywhere there for both of us. Internet is terribly slow and keeps going down, including broadband at the best hotels.
Places to visit: Besides Pangong lake which is a must visit, do try to fit in Turtuk. Local Leh in itself doesn't need much time. Kargil could be an addition if you are coming via Srinagar. You have to go through Khardung La and Chang La if you travel to Nubra valley
Leh to Hunder (Nubra Valley) via Khardung La - Hunder - Turtuk - Hunder - Chang La - Pangong - Leh (665 km)
Then we began to read a bit more in depth to understand places to visit when we chanced upon AMS - Acute mountain sickness. AMS is what happens when the body operates at altitudes above 10,000 ft. This usually is an issue for mountaineers, however Leh is unique in that the entire city is situated around 11,500 ft (3524 m) above sea level which is just 1,500 feet lesser than the average height of the Alps. Now the jury is out on what best helps you operate in such conditions but there is agreement that the best route to reach Leh which gives you opportunity to acclimatise is the Srinagar - Kargil - Leh route as you climb gradually and spend a night at a high altitude before reaching Leh.
Now broadly AMS happens due to the scarcity of oxygen at higher altitudes (the reason flights are pressurised), therefore there are a few things that can cause it. They are poor fitness , pre-existing conditions(bad asthma), lack of acclimatisation. Basically if you wheeze climbing up a few floors at sea level, suggest you avoid Leh. Incidentally Sonam, the owner of this guesthouse we stayed at said that AMS has happened even to locals. It is curable basis getting the person to an army hospital and rarely fatal. So be prepared. One way to prepare is diamox, which basically increases your rate of breathing and therefore allows for more oxygen in the body. However this is a salt that may have side effects, so please consult your doctor. Starting your diamox before you leave for Leh is suggested and that's what we did. I had a minor tingling sensation in my hands and feet, my wife Aanandita didn't. There are countless people who don't have diamox and are absolutely fine however being a once in a lifetime journey we didn't want to take any chances.
Day 1: Travel to Leh and acclimatisation
Anyway post a bout of a combination of Flus last year and courtesy the increasing pollution, my last health checkup showed up possible mild asthma basis my peak flow test. Apparently Asthma is getting common in Urban India said the tester, (more reason for you to visit Leh now while your lungs are not full of soot). As per the suggested thing, I went to my GP who certified me fit to travel . Weight also matters here as the more weight you carry, the more effort which with lesser oxygen in Ladakh makes life difficult. My wife meanwhile had planned out an itinerary which factored visiting every beautiful place in Ladakh in 6 days
We boarded our Go Air flight from Mumbai at some unearthly hour (Tip: Book a seat near the window as the view before landing is amazing). We did not have a window seat but I got a view of the mountains below courtesy a slightly empty plane. My wife Ditta slept through the landing. I was awake both with excitement and a little fear about AMS. With asthma and being overweight I was a prime candidate to get AMS. I have fallen sick once on holiday in Vietnam (actually fallen sick each time I visited Vietnam even on work) and trust me it's not a good feeling.
Leh airport is beautiful (Military airport so no photography allowed). Surrounded by hills we liked what Leh looked like. I gingerly stepped down the steps, and entered an airport stuck in the 70's (Leh's infrastructure was further impacted by the floods in 2010). Leh for all it has is propped up by the army who work hard to keep it working. We pick up our luggage and waited for the cab.
Anyway after waiting for 5 min and feeling a little helpless with no phone or internet connectivity, our driver arrived and said Juley, which was weird because it was October. Juley is your one word initiation to Ladakh. It is the word for greeting in Ladakh. It can be used in greeting and in farewell. We were packed into a minivan and driven to our hotel