Ladakh Diaries: Leh, Nubra and the drive in between !

23rd Sep 2017
Photo of Ladakh Diaries: Leh, Nubra and the drive in between ! by Raj Abhishek

It was a bit of a chilly mid-September evening by the time we arrived in Leh from Manali. We had seen drastic changes in weather that day, from waking up to witness snow clad peaks in Sarchu and the ensuing cloudy weather that continued for the most part, to witnessing perfectly sunny weather at Upshi, our lunch stop just as we were about to enter Leh.

It started raining once again soon after we left Upshi. It was as if to welcome our arrival, but even otherwise the slight greenery that could now be seen was a welcome breather from the desolation and minimal vegetation that we had been seeing for the past 2 days. Those views were magnificent in their own right, but when the setting sun casts it’s golden glow on the greens below, it’s a pleasing sight altogether, and more so if a river ( the Indus here ) joins in to complete the view !

Day 1

On the way from Upshi to Leh; an awesome view that you can photograph in leisure, and in better light too hopefully !

Photo of Upshi by Raj Abhishek

Abruptly changing weather is nothing new in this part of the world. We just have to be ready and sufficiently clothed for all the adventures that mother nature affords us here ! Don’t forget to spend a day or two in your hotel if you fly to Leh, just to acclimatize to the weather ( read oxygen level ).

We sped past the gargantuan Thikse monastery and the ‘Rancho’ school made so famous by the 3 idiots movie ( real name: Druk White Lotus School ). We were in Leh only for the next day, after which we were to drive out exploring some of this region’s well known gems. Our drive back to Leh at the end of it all was reserved for Thikse at the least, should time permit.

We reached Leh not long after and after a bit of searching around with our co-operative driver ( much to our surprise, given his impatient behavior throughout the drive from Manali ), we settled in on the Zaltak Guest House ( #9622998182, 9797507201 ). It’s a nice bungalow property with spacious/warm rooms and good breakfast on offer. The garden lawn in front of the bungalow is full of colorful flowers and affords a decent morning sit-out, especially if it’s sunny. This is where you are served breakfast as well. An apple orchard lies just outside ! The main market area is a little over a kilometer from this place, which means you can walk down if you choose to. A quiet neighborhood for the most part.

Mobile Data is quite a rarity even in Leh, so we used the hotel wi-fi as much as we could here, which is not that great either. About mobile networks, either your postpaid connection or BSNL works in these parts ( don’t bank on any ), so be ready to get cut off from technology and enjoy the company of your friends and environs the good old way !

The rains started yet again as we bid adieu to our driver for good ! We settled in our cozy rooms for the evening but decided to venture out later in search for a grand dinner fare, given that our food was mostly basic for the last 2 days.

We were ready soon and walked down to the Leh market which seems like a center point for tourists and locals alike. Shops selling Pashmina shawls and all things woolen to keep you comfortable are quite a few, so are all the eating choices on offer. ATMs and anything else of use that you may find it hard to find somewhere else, can all be found here. Basically, if you are in Leh and have some time to kill or if you are looking for some decent food/shopping options, this is the place for you. There are 2 cobble stoned streets running perpendicular to each other, around which are a plethora of shops.

At this point in the evening, all we were looking for was a descent place for our dinner. We asked around for a place famed for it’s Kashmiri food, and were guided towards a restaurant named after Wazwan. I found the food oily, spicy and the chicken a bit hard for my taste, so I will not recommend the place at all. However, I have read good reviews about this place online, so I leave it on you guys to try it out if you so wish. We didn’t go there again for sure. There’s a similarly named ‘Wazwan Planet’ around 2 kms from the main market, which is more famous.

There’s plenty of online literature about famous restaurants in Leh, so take your pick.

Done with dinner and a little bit of loitering around thereafter, we settled down in our guest house even as the cold started to pick up. Winter wasn’t far behind. With a buffer day ahead of us before we would venture out of Leh, we decided to do a little bit of Leh-seeing on the next day, while at the same time deciding about our onward travel vehicle/driver. Point to be noted: Outside cabs and self-drive vehicles are not allowed in Ladakh, and you have to move around with local vehicles only, or your own. Rules may change from time to time so it’s best to do a check before you go, but this one rule seems highly unlikely to be tweaked.

Next day started off with some morning photography in the lawn gardens of our guest house and then in the apple orchard outside, followed by a decent breakfast spread during which we talked about and chalked out our plans for the day.

Day 2

Ready to be plucked and packed up; we decided to partake some of these for ourselves !

Photo of Zaltak Guest House, Changspa Road, Leh by Raj Abhishek

Sun was a bit high up in the sky by the time we got ready to venture out, and we could not help but notice the contrast with the cool weather in the morning. It didn’t start to pinch yet, but it was now harsh for sure. We walked the same path to the market again, but this time we had a photographic subject accompanying us for most of the way. Something that got missed out in the darkness last evening.

The Namgyal Tsemo Gompa sits prettily perched atop one of the hills that dot the landscape all around the city. Harsh light yes, but pretty still !

Photo of Namgyal Tsemo, Leh by Raj Abhishek

The market was once again busy as usual, with tourists and locals alike. We were not that late after all as we saw restaurants and shops still opening up, the start of a busy day yet again. We met our tour operator and finalized details with him, after which we were free to loiter around. Some of us got busy photographing the locals, while some of us checked out shops nearby for our needs further on in the trip. Quite some souvenirs can be had from the street shops that abound, and then there’s a nice Tibetan market not far off with all sorts of woolens on sale. It’s a big one with lots and lots of variety to choose from; a must visit if you need some !

This one’s for the ladies !

Photo of Leh Main Bazaar, Leh by Raj Abhishek

Lunch was a pretty decent affair after the disaster of last night ( at least for me ! ). We chose a restaurant serving North Indian food near the post office in the main bazaar, and it turned out pretty well. The food was awesome and it even has a terrace area to lounge about in the evenings. We were to return there again later, and I am pretty sorry for not jotting down it’s name. It’s in that lane beside the post-office, on one of the top-floors of a building on the left side.

While lunch was on it’s way ; view from the restaurant terrace. Leh Palace and the Namgyal Tsemo Gompa up ahead !

Photo of Leh Main Bazaar, Leh by Raj Abhishek

Our palates satiated, it was now time for some actual photography in the golden glow of the setting sun. We chose a tourist spot high up in the hills around Ladakh, the Shanti Stupa. A van was fixed and all of us bundled in it along with our photography gears. A 10 minute drive from behind our guest house led us on the winding road up towards the Stupa.

Once there, we enjoyed the view, the wind and our photography to the fullest, all the way till after the sunset. A decently crowded place, but not too packed up. End of the tourist season may have contributed to the same as well, but I’m not sure really.

Here’s all that we saw and shot to our heart’s content !

The Namgyal Tsemo once again, in the light of the setting sun !

Photo of Shanti Stupa, Shanti Stupa Road, Leh by Raj Abhishek

When the sun cast it’s glow on the last of the mountains on the other side ! Somewhere up there is the road leading towards Khardung La and the Nubra Valley, the road that we were to take the next day.

Photo of Shanti Stupa, Shanti Stupa Road, Leh by Raj Abhishek

The peaks yonder !

Photo of Shanti Stupa, Shanti Stupa Road, Leh by Raj Abhishek

Uniform light on the entire city, when the sun went down behind one of the hills, but had not set yet ! The Namgyal Gompa again, and the Leh Place inconspicuously down below on the same hill.

Photo of Shanti Stupa, Shanti Stupa Road, Leh by Raj Abhishek

A final adieu to the Shanti Stupa after the sun-set, when we were about to leave too !

Photo of Shanti Stupa, Shanti Stupa Road, Leh by Raj Abhishek

Content with our evening outing, we now got back to the main bazaar for dinner, this time at an Italian restaurant called Il Forno. It’s a rooftop place which affords a decent view of the market, and serves up some decent pizzas as well. Nothing much to boast about, but nothing much to complain about either !

In the meantime, we had got our permits made during the day through our travel agent. You need the same for your drives in the region, so make sure to carry at least one original address and ID proof along with you.

Tucked up in our beds yet again as the cold wind swept through outside, we were now ready for the journey ahead to the Nubra Valley the very next morning; the first leg of our Ladakh adventures !

Next day, it was a bright sunny morning yet again with clear blue skies. We bid adieu to our very affable hosts at the guest house and jumped inside our Toyota Innova, a very comfortable and preferred choice for drives in these parts. No sooner had we left Leh, did we start climbing our way to the Khardung La, a 1.5-2 hours drive, depending on your stopovers. Notwithstanding the bright sun outside, the wind was chilly and we had to keep our windows rolled up for the most part. The road was a bit dusty as well at intervals.

Chit-chats, laughter and some in-house music rang in the vacation fervor, even as we were constantly on the lookout for views outside. We didn’t have to wait for long !

Day 3

Just as we started to climb outside Leh !

Photo of Khardung La Road, Leh by Raj Abhishek

Further higher !

Photo of Khardung La Road, Leh by Raj Abhishek

Pretty close to Khardung La now !

Photo of Khardung La Road, Leh by Raj Abhishek

That distant mountain range was with us all the while !

Photo of Khardung La Road, Leh by Raj Abhishek

The road was quite a nice one for the most part at least. Even though not concrete at intervals, it is pretty drive-able and pothole free.

Khardung La was a revelation of sorts. So many people and a little bit of a traffic jam is something that you would least expect at such heights; the place has become like a picnic spot. But we were not complaining, at least not much. We got down from our vehicle while our driver looked out for a decent parking spot, and made our way through the menagerie. It was a party atmosphere out there, more like a carnival ! Some calling out to their loved ones … some getting their mandatory pics clicked at the spot … while some just trying to indulge in some snow throwing ! People had gone crazy, and it’s not like you have a large area for so much crowd; it’s a mountain top after all !

We were enjoying the frenzy too, and we did what everybody else was doing ! It was fun, and I’d have wished for some carnival music to complete the feel, but then you can’t stay there for long either. Quite cold and windy of course, even the oxygen content is not up to the mark at 18,380 feet. It’s not called the top of the world for nothing !

The view yonder from the pass. At the bottom left is the road onward to Nubra that we were to take.

Photo of Khardung La by Raj Abhishek

We left all the happy tourists to themselves, and waved our good-byes to some of them who were still trying to play in the hard snow ( ice rather ) even a bit further down from the pass ! Off we rode ahead with beautiful memories from that place; unlike anything that I had witnessed in any of the passes before !

Just as we were descending down from Khardung La; the pass can be seen here almost in the middle of the pic, that tower giving it’s location away. The road coming down from there cannot be mistaken either !

Photo of Khardung La by Raj Abhishek

and when we descended much further under the bright sun; one can still see the pass here.

Photo of Khardung La by Raj Abhishek

With no dearth of good views in these parts, let’s go where the road does !

Photo of Khardung La by Raj Abhishek

Time flew by during the rest of the drive, wherein distant mountain peaks became a regular feature to watch out for. We kept on moving on the winding road, and were soon joined by the river Shyok by our side. Light grey waters looked equally winding from the top; the river finding it’s way through the mountains that abound in these parts. Lunch was a pretty good fare a little distance from the river itself, at a place called the Shyok Point. Highly recommended.

One of our first views of the river Shyok below ! That ‘civilized’ valley cannot be missed either !

Photo of Ladakh Diaries: Leh, Nubra and the drive in between ! by Raj Abhishek

The drive post lunch was beginning to feel a bit heavy on our person, and we were now eager to reach Hunder soon to capture it during sunset. The sun was pretty high up still, but we had some distance to cover as well. With post lunch sleepiness weighing us down, all was quiet within our vehicle and we let the scenery outside seem like a lullaby to our sleepy heads ! All of a sudden our ever cooperative driver announced that a beautiful photography spot was around the corner. We were listening ! And then when we turned around another of those bends, he pointed us to the reflection nearby !

We had to stop !

That reflection in the river ! Shyok it is once again. This spot is somewhere a little before Diskit on your way to Hunder. Quite a few taxis stopped here, so your taxi driver should know this spot if he is a regular on the route.

Photo of Diskit by Raj Abhishek

Couldn’t get enough !

Photo of Diskit by Raj Abhishek

We spent a good few minutes at that locale, and then moved on towards Hunder yet again. The majestic Diskit monastery ( an attraction in itself ) was crossed and soon enough, the sand dunes came into view. They were astonishing; we knew Ladakh is a cold desert, but to see the dunes intermixed with snow peaks not very far off, is a very different and a unique sight in itself; something you don’t get to see as commonly.

And then there is this Bactrian ( a.k.a double humped ) Camel safari, which is the one and only activity to be done here; apart from photography that is ! We were game for the latter at least. The camel safari is more like a ride on the dunes which lasts for 5 to 10 minutes; a very touristy stuff. Nothing against it, but we decided to stick to photography.

Hunder it is !

Just as the camels were being brought in for the safari.

Photo of Hunder by Raj Abhishek

A little bit of rest before the safari would begin.

Photo of Hunder by Raj Abhishek

and there you go !

Photo of Hunder by Raj Abhishek

The sand dust up ahead in the distance !

Photo of Hunder by Raj Abhishek

The landscape !

Photo of Hunder by Raj Abhishek

A silhouette shot against the setting sun; For me, this was more like some cowboys riding away in the distance !

Photo of Hunder by Raj Abhishek

Sunset gave way to doing nothing apart from looking for a decent place for 2 nights. We looked around a few expensive ones before deciding to settle down for the beautiful and quaint ( and also economical ) Lamjing Guest House. We got a room on the first floor which was pretty big and cozy, and also bang opposite to the common dining area. A co-operative and warm owner, she was always available for all that we needed, so no complaints as regards the service. Food was a decent fare as well, and there is a nice garden area where you can sit by, walk around, or simply enjoy the morning sun. I would like to recommend this place.

Day 4

The Guest House pictured in the early morning sun. Our host was equally warm and affable. Pic Courtesy: My friend and trip-mate Senthil.

Photo of Lamjing Guest House, Hunder by Raj Abhishek

Next morning was an early one as we had to leave for another of this region’s tourist spots: Turtuk. A beautiful village located right next to the Shyok river, it has been popular with the tourist circuit here and is worth a visit to see the life of people in these parts. You need to trek through the village to reach a monastery and a waterfall nearby, but it depends really on the time you have at hand. We could not go to either as we were constrained by our photography which was equally time consuming. We did see the monastery though, not far up on one of the hills nearby.

Turtuk is a good 2+ hours drive from Hunder, and if you need to get back, you need to do so before sunset. The drive post that is dangerous as the route has certain areas wherein loose rocks tumble down from above. Our driver was on the lookout constantly during our drive to and fro, and yeah it made us a bit jittery too ! All in all, it’s better to start early if you are to get back to Hunder the very same day. There are, of course, quite a few options in Turtuk village as well if you wanna stay put for the night, and probably cover the monastery and the waterfall in leisure.

An interesting fact about this village is that it was once part of Pakistan and was seized by India after the 1971 war, after which it became one of the last villages on this side of the border, at least for tourist activity. POK is not very far off.

The region is Baltistan, majority of which is in present day Pakistan.

That bridge leading us to the Shyok Valley.

Photo of Turtuk by Raj Abhishek

The village sits pretty among these flower fields. These flowers are an integral part of Balti cuisine we were told, and yes we did taste some of it later !

Photo of Turtuk by Raj Abhishek

We crossed a bridge over a narrow stream and entered into the green confines of the village. We kept moving ahead and crossed fields like the one above, thereby entering the narrow lanes of the village proper. An opening led on to a school wherein we got busy capturing few shots.

A break in school time is always an opportunity to catch up with friends !

Photo of Turtuk by Raj Abhishek

Abdul was catching up on some football during the school break, when he posed for me for a bit !

Photo of Turtuk by Raj Abhishek

We asked for directions for the waterfall and the monastery, and walked further ahead from the school. The confines were green and a beautiful bird got us busy. The monastery could now be seen on top of a hill nearby, but this was already lunch time. Some other tourists returning back had not been able to reach the waterfall either. Lack of time as well as that of proper information/directions made us decide against trying to explore more and we started getting back.

We met Sana, Abida and quite a few other school girls getting back from their ‘daily grind’, so to say ! The opportunity was not to be missed !

The deal that was struck for a few chocolate packs could not hold them for long !

Photo of Turtuk by Raj Abhishek

Shy yes, but confident still, some of the girls were really enjoying this unexpected shoot time !

Photo of Turtuk by Raj Abhishek

An elderly woman up on a terrace nearby was clearly disapproving of all that the girls were enjoying, so we decided not to garner more attention than we could handle either ! We parted with our chocolate/dry fruit hampers and bade them all good-bye ! Off we moved ahead, our hunger pangs now getting the better of us. We had seen this eatery called ‘Balti Kitchen’ on our way into the village. It seemed like a decent sit-out place, so we dropped our bags there.

I vouch for having food at this place, what with a decent selection of local well as regular Indian dishes to choose from. From the variety of tea on offer, it looked like the inhabitants here do take their tea seriously !

What would you like to order may I ask ?

Photo of Turtuk by Raj Abhishek

Food was ordered and conversation struck with the owner of the kitchen, a very affable and soft spoken person. He told us about the region, how life was under Pakistan, and then suddenly how it was when they found themselves on the Indian side after the 1971 war. He didn’t seem to have any complaints, what with the tourist season bringing in good revenue for the entire community. We were also given a short talk on the cuisine of the region, and how flowers that were so conspicuous in the fields nearby, played a major part in it. We were offered to taste some of the enticing apricots, which we no doubt did to the best of our efforts !

Our palates satiated, we spent a few moments photographing this person even as the evening light started illuminating the kitchen doorway.

Photo of Turtuk by Raj Abhishek

It was time to leave now, and so the bridge was crossed again, but not before photographing the stream below in slow shutter.

Old from the new: this is a shot of what looks like the old bridge, from below the new one.

Photo of Turtuk by Raj Abhishek

We clicked a few more quick portraits of children who were playing nearby, and with the driver now exhorting us to get inside and get moving, we made our move. Leaving the slow and steady village life behind, we sped away with utmost urgency to cross the danger zones before it got totally dark.

Rest of the evening was just chilling out with some fellow travelers in the guest house and settling down to some well laid out dinner. We retired early, for we had to start early as well the next morning. The legendary Pangong Lake was to be the next one on the list, but not before a brief visit to the Diskit monastery that we had passed on our way in to Hunder. The Great Buddha statue nearby was to be the largest that we would see anywhere in this region.

Day 5

Our first visit was to this Great Buddha statue atop a hill close to the monastery. The sun was rising from directly behind the statue, so I guess this would be a nice capture during sunset instead.

Photo of Diskit by Raj Abhishek

The Diskit Gompa as viewed from the statue.

Photo of Diskit Gompa, Diskit by Raj Abhishek

The Nubra Valley, as viewed from the statue again. A magnificent view alright, with the dunes visible in the distance.

Photo of Diskit by Raj Abhishek

and once at the monastery, the statue looked equally appealing ! What a pic if there were good light on the statue itself; it was already a bit of harsh light by now though. Again, possibly a good sunset shot.

Photo of Diskit Gompa, Diskit by Raj Abhishek

The monastery is a good one for a bit of a strenuous climb up it’s precincts and for some leisurely wanders once you are up there, chatting up with monks and feasting your eyes with pleasing sights of it’s colorful study/meditation/prayer rooms, some of which were yet to open when we arrived. You are not allowed to click inside any of the rooms, so I can only try to describe what I experienced.

Almost all of the rooms had long colorful curtains hanging down from the ceilings, what with exquisite designs. There are quite a few of them and not only one or two, on your right as well as on your left even as you enter the room. Fluttering in the wind and glowing in the morning light coming in from the windows that were quite many, they offered quite a colorful sight. There were colorfully draped small desks to be used for reading while the monks would sit on comfortable cushions on the ground below. All the while I was walking in the rooms, it felt quite warmish inside with all the sunlight coming in.

To top it all, there is this room wherein is kept a rather worn out head of a Mongol warrior from at least a few hundred years back; a part of the marauding Mongol army which had tried to attack the monastery back in those times. The hand holding the head is that of a statue of one of their spiritual gurus I was told. The head is kept without any protection whatsoever, and is still pretty intact; I guess the climate of the region played it’s part in the same. This certainly is one of the highlights of visiting the monastery. Spending a good more than an hour inside it’s walls, I clicked up a few more pics even as we all started descending now.

Them prayer wheels. Om Mani Padme Hum ?

Photo of Diskit Gompa, Diskit by Raj Abhishek

Our driver was waiting, and we had a decent 4+ hours drive to cover that day. Pangong was next on our list, and off we went !

A pretty long article this, rest of our journey ( Pangong and Tso Moriri, and then back to Leh ) shall be documented in the next one. So Long people !

The Essentials:

1) Stay in Leh: Zaltak Guest House ( #9622998182, 9797507201 ).

2) Lunch between Leh and Nubra can be had at Shyok Point. Highly recommended. Lot of people do stop there so your driver should know. It is probably an hour’s drive after Khardung La, and may be a little more.

3) Stay in Hunder: Lamjing Guest House ( ) #9419961401. Very affable hosts, and it’s more like a homestay.

4) Turtuk can be done in a day from Hunder, but you may want to stay back for a night to make it more leisurely if you have the time. You can spend some time in the monastery there and try to find the waterfall :-), but otherwise it’s just a walk through the village. A leisurely stay may be more apt for people doing a video or indulging in photography; you may wake up to a beautiful morning view from atop the monastery, and spend some time capturing those beautiful flower fields in leisure.

5) And finally, our tour operator Mr. Jigmet Wangchuk ( #9596818107, 9469815656 ) offered us a very good rate ( Rs. 30,000+ for the entire trip from Leh to Hunder to Turtuk to Pangong to Tso Moriri to Leh; Innova vehicle; stay and food not included; 5 days drive in total ). More importantly, he offered us a very co-operative driver Mr. Rigzen ( #9419534931) for the entire journey, so you may ask for the same too ! Who knows, he may take you to some offbeat places as well, should you have the time. May be Tso Kar, or may be Hanle !

Jigmet has a rather stately looking Hotel Om Ladakh in Leh, and a new cottage in Pangong as well. Can’t vouch for any of these as I have not been to either ( it has been an year since this trip ). The hotel in Leh certainly looks genuinely good in pictures.

Bon Voyage !

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