and as the plane embarked on its way towards the runway, the trip ended, 12 days of enthralling, inexplicable fun comes to an unprecedented end as the big machine wheeze past the strip. From a place full of redolent aroma of fresh air we were back to a place fuelled with obnoxious mob, high rise buildings and hot and sultry weather which were all to their maxim. Welcome to Delhi i told myself. So here ends our 12 days indelible trip to Ladakh.
No matter where you travel in India, the sense of gallant feeling which a person gets when he proudly says ‘ i am going to Ladakh this summer ‘ is just incredible. You feel you’re visiting the most beautiful place in the world which is fuelled with the most beautiful and picturesque landscapes, enriched with steep mountain slopes, high passes and long never-ending serpentine roads which connects to the whole of region like a molecule.
Ladakh lies between the Kunlun mountain range in the far north and the great himalayas in the south. It is one of the most sparsely populated regions in jammu and kashmir( an indian state ) and its culture and history is closely related to Tibet.
As planned, our trip to ladakh was scheduled from 12th july 2014 to 23rd july 2014. The name ladakh was just enough to create a buzz around the corner, the news of me going to ladakh proliferated like a fire in dry woods ( credit goes to me ). The preparations started, the days rolled by, the itinerary was all set but nothing came up when it came to packing as we indians never feel a notch of worry till the eleventh hour. My excitement just doubled or even tripled as i was all set with my camera ( nikon d7000 18-105mm ), couple of lenses ( nikon 50mm, nikon 50- 200mm ), couple of sd cards and not to forget that rigid tripod which helped me a lot in those long exposure midnight shots at Pangong Tso lake. So the day finally arrived, as planned we would be boarding a morning flight from Delhi to Leh and would hire a bike from Leh itself to cover the major and most visited places of ladakh.
Things to be taken care of before you proceed:
- sleeping bag ( if you plan to set up your own camp )
- your very own camp
- medicine for AMS ( dimox or acetazolamide ), medical kit
- puncture kit
- air pump
- emergency lights, power bank, nylon ropes, jerry cans ( for petrol )
- proper riding gears, shoe covers ( for enroute streams )
- Government Id cards
Just two days left before my entourage to Leh commence. Nothing peculiar about this feeling, something like everyone does experience. I would be like on top of the world for those twelve days, away from the mob of the cities, away from my friends, parents and most importantly i would be out there rediscovering myself to full potential. To an extent visiting such a place is like a dream for those who love to take risk at every turn of life; the people who feel alive when they are amidst nature exploring the wild. Sitting in my room i ponder about this sedentary home life, each day passing away slowly as if its never gonna end, like the sun which shines its light on a summer day, hovering over your head as if there is no end to this day. Somewhere, somehow i just needed this long break, to get that adrenaline started in my body, pumping through my heart like fuel which drives an engine forward. In the end it was just like a dream, just few moments away now.
July 12th, 2014 was that day when our twelve day long sojourn to ladakh began. All flights to leh are scheduled before 11 am because of the presence of thick morning air in high altitudes which helps in take off and landing. I boarded my flight at 8:50 in morning. The excitement was immense to be very straight, it was like in one hour time i’ll be in a completely different place fuelled with a different aroma all together. The plane take off always brings goosebumps to ones stomach and that mere little fear is always there on the cards. After a few meek views outside, the scene just changed and it was like something unusual. As the plane came steady the people were seen hovering around from one side to another just to get an outside view. ” What the hell is that for” i pondered and as i shuffled up my skull a bit, i easily found out to be a blessing in disguise. It was something like
and suddenly the transmitter turned on ” hello, this is the captain calling, at present we are flying at the speed of 450km/hour at an altitude of 30000 feet above sea level, the temperature outside is -30 degree celsius “. This somewhere somehow circumscribed the whole situation as i could see the whole of horizon, down below there were those huge himalayas covered with snow, clouds floating below like smoke in water. Here amidst nowhere i saw the first glimpse of pan gong lake and now i can proudly say that i was not flying, i was seeing the heaven on earth with my own eyes. One alluring cliff followed by another, cluster of clouds covering the great himalayas and the sky was like a pot inked with a hue of blue. The bright morning sunshine just made the whole scene spectacular. My camera was placed firmly in my hand with shots getting reiterated, and amidst all this i noticed that the passenger sitting beside me was snoring out loud. Maybe she was tired and enjoying a quiet nap, maybe she was sound asleep placing herself in her fantasy land ,some beautiful dream must be preoccupying her mind but what dream could be better than this present moment; even the soul of a dream will fade away after seeing such a view. And as the time rolled we were all set for landing and within few moments the engines roared, the tires screeched down on the turf and the whole world came to a halt after an hour of loud music. Welcome to Leh.
The first view:
so from delhi to leh, from almost 0 feet altitude to an altitude of 11500 feet we finally arrived at Kushok Bakula Rimpochee airport, one of the highest airports in the world ( 10682 feet ). As we made an exit out, we were greeted with clear blue sky, not a little patch of cloud was there to spoil the wide blue sheet of nature above. Amid nowhere we found ourself encapsulated with large barren himalayas which just imparted some significant beauty to this place. Here you can see the mountain top with snow placed like some little ounce of cream on inverted chocolate cones. The vegetation was scarce and one could see large trees which stood spreading their green wings to proliferate oxygen around.
A little rest was just enough to refuel our tank as we were all set to explore this wonderful place. I was well aware of the fact that it takes some time for a person who is on a sojourn to this place to acclimatise under such high altitude conditions so i took some time off to explore the local monasteries and palaces while my body system works on its way to acclimatise itself better. ‘ Chang Spa ‘ road is the main boulevard where tourist attraction is at its paramount. It accommodates all sorts of tourist and their needs. From bike rental shops to exquisite league of cafes, from trekking equipments to daily needs store, it has it all. The chang spa road takes you straight to ‘The Shanti Stupa’ which holds the relics of the Buddha at its base. Shanti Stupa is a 10 minutes drive from ‘ Chang Spa’ road or if you prefer walking, it would take some beating out from you but in the end its worth it all, because you get a complete view of the beautiful Leh city from the top. When the sun sets down in Leh, it leaves behind the last of the mountain peak shining like a golden arcade which encloses the whole city like a mother shields her child. The view of Leh city from Shanti Stupa
so after much of the hiccups the previous day, we finally had our bikes ( royal enfield 350cc ) all set to roll on the roads of ladakh. The morning never came early for us as we all had a wont of getting up late, placing the other person beforehand to use the washroom and obviously struggling with AMS which was quite plausible. So, here we embarked towards Kargil when the sun was at its zenith. We fuelled up our tanks which was the prerequisite condition and after clearing the mob and the city traffic we entered NH1 ( national highway 1 ). As we were rolling past the highway, the beauty just ascended. Large barren mountains followed by the confluence of indus and zanskar rivers. At some places the roads seemed to merge into the mountains while in some we could see the whole horizon in front of us. The BRO ( border road organisation ) has done a tremendous work connecting ladakh region with the rest of india, leh- srinagar highway being one of the two routes, other being leh – manali highway. I couldn’t have felt more elated, it was like a dream come true for me with every single mile bringing forward some beautiful landscapes, whether being the moonscape pattern before lamayuru to the roads which were enveloped with mountains with river indus flowing on one side sounding like a lone horse marking its way toward the finish line galloping past the rocks with all the feet off the ground.
Just 30 kms ahead and we encountered our first stop, the famous magnetic hill. Sources say that if you position your car at the marked box and set it up on neutral, take your foot off the brake and you will experience the thrill of your car not only climbing the hill by itself, but gaining speed as it goes. Though we never tried it as we could not afford to succumb to our time limits, we did enjoy the beauty it resonated.
the time rolled, the kilometres burned and here we were in lamayuru monastery, situated 120 kms from Leh. Lamayuru is one of the largest and oldest gompas in Ladakh, with a population of around 150 permanent monks which reside there.
Just a few kilometres before Lamayuru, we saw the Moonscape – the topography of the place is said to almost resemble the moon’s surface which indeed was very unique in its characteristics. And as the obvious came, some photographs are meant to be taken irrespective of the time. This was something that i had never seen before and after trying some cheeky angles, i finally got it all on a single frame
as the dusk approached, we were on our way back to Leh. The road back held the feeling which was quite like the winter night full of mist and cold breeze and it seemed as if the last of the vehicles had gone by. As the night grew dark, the beautiful pleasant sound of birds was replaced by the screeching of owls marking their presence in the woods. Within the deep melancholy of night when the last hush has been casted lies the dark side of the jungle where the wild peeps out, glittering their eyes from a distant place, marking their presence with a strong word.
As we were racing past this dark side, the mountains became more visible, more highlighted and all of a sudden there was this great view of the moon, making its way past the two huge cliffs. It seemed as if the sky which was like a mat filled with gems had been replaced by some divine white light coming from a distance. The roads no longer seemed empty and the moonlight acted like some divine intervention which was guiding us home. Lost in the beauty which this night presented, we marked our way back contemplating what tomorrow has in store for us.
No matter if a person visits ladakh for a mere one week or one month, this place is always on the cards and quite plausibly so. Some credit does go to the blockbuster movie ( 3 idiots ) whose last scene was shot here. Maybe i was still in my infancy or early adolescence when i hit the theatres for this movie, i exactly can’t remember but yes after watching this movie and specially the last scene it was high up on my list to visit such a place ( if it ever existed ).
Pangong lake is situated about 160 kilometres from leh at an altitude of 14000 feet above sea level. It is 134 kilometres long and and perchance 5 kilometres wide as inked in the books. Almost 60 percent of lake is in Tibet ( annexed by China of course ) and remaining 40 percent comes in India which beyond doubts makes it a disputed territory.
After much of the acclimatisation done in leh we were all set for our first expedition of pan gong tso. The hopes were high, excitement at its paramount and not to forget that fervent feeling which our whole group experienced. As our itinerary stated we would be dedicating 3 days to this voyage. With our own camps and sleeping bag we had no problem of accommodation whatsoever. Remember, the only petrol pump before pan gong is at KARU which is just 30 kilometres from leh, so its better to get the fuel filled in the jerry cans( which are easily available in leh ) and tie them up in your bikes.
First 30 kilometres ( till karu ) is mostly less serpentine and packed with monasteries. First comes Shey monastery which is just 15 kilometers south of ladakh and was the summer capital of ladakh in the past. Climbing some few stairs at Shey and you can experience the panoramic outskirts of the city while the great mountains which are just incessant in whole of ladakh and as said, they make you believe that you’re away from the concrete jungles of the south to the northern most part of the country. The lap of the great himalayas which never ceases to pour their most alluring charm and spreading their vistas for the fellow travellers which seek sojourn out here, searching for some solitude, searching for their soul which is lost somewhere in deep hypocrisy of cities.
Our next stop was Karu where we had breakfast and did a regular check of our bikes. At this moment the weather at Chang la seemed quite inclement as it was already drizzling at Karu but we were just up for it as this was the only option left with us. Everyone just seemed so ready for this expedition and even the thought that we were underprepared never bothered anyone. So we proceeded on our journey leaving the signboard of ” pan gong tso: 160 Kms ” behind.
Initially the road seemed quite good like a boulevard, lined with trees on both sides standing valiantly as if exemplifying the true nature of brotherhood to the fellow travellers. It seemed as if our entourage was rigidly bound together like those trees standing tall as we traversing the road. The combined resonance formed by our bikes was enough to wake up even the newly born hatchling down in the woods as if forcing her to come out from the nest and greet us with a chirp. Even as i was driving i could feel that gallant vibe all over my body, it felt as if you are seizing this present moment, soaking the fresh air within till it touches your marrow at every single breathe, that feeling of being independent was definitely there.
The road was indeed quite narrow and the big heavy vehicles can sometime force you to off road. That seemed quite okay and natural as we were ascending the 17500 feet mark. Suddenly the roads began to change. Those long patch of asphalt roads was replaced by steep undulating turns as if you’ve caught the backside of a snake. As the temperature and air pressure dropped we began to feel that chill in our body and now every kilometre covered was like a little battle won. The ‘thumps up’ greeting from fellow bikers coming from the other side definitely proved as a morale booster. The peculiar part being, greetings were only exchanged to fellow ” royal enfield ” riders, which somewhat describes the situation. Now these little ” thumps up ” acted as if you’re there at the top, just miles before the worlds third highest motorable road and you have achieved something. The thought did left me in some sought of bewilderment and before i was close to understanding the meaning there came an ” IMPASSE “. A JCB was working right in the middle, excavating the road because loads of loose rocks just rolled down from the mountains, blocking it anyway. Perchance this is first of our unprecedented stops but definitely not the last. After much of the clearing work done we embarked on our journey and as we came near to Chang La pass, the excitement grew albeit the roads were full of loose mud and big stones. The bikes were constantly marking there way up in first gear with drift nothing more than 10 kmph. The colossus of mountains on the right and the fathomless excavation on the left was separated just by a non asphalt seven feet broad road which accommodates two way traffic. This is how the road looked like
On the left we could just see some leftovers of the vehicles cleanly recognised by there framework placing themselves firmly on some anomalous rocks. The rocks seemed as if they are placed there for years, suffering the deep inclemency of weather. The winters must bring that hushed silence to their life when only the dead peeps at night. When only some couple of vehicles are welcomed by these roads and their whistle penetrates the inner most particle after passing through inches of fresh snow resting on their body. When the only sound these rocks hear is of some wild bird sitting in the next rock as if you’re an aloof. When the day is doomed and the only thing that moves is a lone passerby, crunching the snow with his long boots making a squeaking little sound as if greeting the rocks which remain unmoved from years. The summer season would have been much gentle to them; as the layers of snow melts past them, these rocks would have acted as a guide to the upcoming streams. As the hush of winter morning is replaced by the sweet chattering of birds which welcomes the spring in full bloom, the roads gets filled with fellow tourist which burn their rubber past them and the resonance produced by the bikes is enough to vex the mountains and so they seek vengence by drifting the deep boulders in the middle, as if searching for some silence.
Finally, we reached chang la pass. Situated at an altitude of 17000 feet above see level it is the third highest motorable road in the world. The weather as expected was quite inclement and gloomy but the tourist presented an equal challenge. We were in the mountains; there was a heaven of snow, cool purple airs, red and muddy mountainsides, emerald pastures in valleys and transmuting clouds of gold. Now after clicking much of the photographs we made a move to a ‘TEA SHOP’ for a refreshing cup of tea and maggie. Imagine, miles away from your home in the lap of himalayas, traversing the third highest motorable road in the world and merely sipping a hot tea; trust me this feeling is better than any you can experience and no luxury of a grand style hotel can beat that.
and to our grief it suddenly started snowing. At one moment it seemed like this trip has loads in store for us which just proved correct as we had just completed some 30 percent of of journey towards Pangong. It took us almost 180 minutes to cover 40 kilometres of our journey and so without any further delay in play we made a descend from the pass. The journey down was equally adverse as the journey up; it was continuously snowing ( albeit slow ) but was just enough to break out our speed due to lack of visibility. The road was in quite bad shape as the snow was melting from one side and the only path water can traverse was from the centre of the road down to the fathomless slope. Much of our focus was on applying the brakes as controlling this hefty bike on slippery surface was an arduous task altogether. After literally crawling for about 8 kilometres our bikes were forced to stop as there was this huge gush of stream right in front of us. As this point we shifted our focus to not purchasing shoe covers from Leh. It would be rather plausible to carry shoe covers while making a move to pan gong as these streams can make your feet go numb if encountered with this ice cold water, straight from the higher peaks. Somehow after much of a delay we finally managed to clear the last of the streams and embarked on our journey forward.
Already behind our time, peevishnes was quite clearly visible on our faces; the roads never seemed to improve and time after time we were being stopped by either an impasse or a gush of water. Much to our respite we finally arrived at a military camp where we enquired, ‘ bhaiya, ye road kaha tak ase hai ‘? (till where we will experience such unacceptable road). Army guy: ‘ arey ab to bas chikni sadak hai, khrab to khatam ho gyi’ ( now the road is all good as you’ve covered much of the imperfect patch ). This was all i wanted to hear, setting the bike on fourth gear, with a sudden outburst of power we rolled past hoping to see the first view of pan gong lake which to our knowledge was another 90 kilometres ahead. Hearing that the road ahead is all level and polished we set out for yet another ordeal where we will experience some breathe taking views fuelled with vistas of endless mountains.
Now trust me when i say that the journey after crossing chang la till pan gong lake was one of the best rides taken by me in my entire life. It seemed like these 80 kilometres has it all. From frozen lakes to greenland, from the dazzling colour of mountain ranges to sudden outburst of floating clouds; its like at every instance you wanted to stop; first to have that view soaked up in your brain and then to capture it in your film forever. A few extra minutes just won’t matter in the end, what matters is whether you have lived up every moment as time passes by in this heavenly place. Whether you are living each and every breath, soaking in the most purest air which contains the freshness of fields, mountains, valleys, lakes, wild and just everything unsmoked. The purity of the road, the white line in the middle of the highway maintained by BRO unrolled and hugged our rear tyre as glued to our groove. It all seemed so natural, so untouched. The huge mountains under the presence of clouds were changing colours as we were scampering past them in our bikes, roaring our engines and telling the world that we are approaching. Much to our surprise few straight stretches of asphalt greeted us and we never missed an oppurtunity to open up our engine, snoring past at the speed of 90 kilometres an hour greeting our fellow riders with high’s and low’s. As dusk approached, the blazing light of the sun was replaced by a golden light of sunset, and the mountains which were clearly visible by now seemed to turn into gloomy brown colour as if an ice cream without sugar. Now the last of the light presented an arc shaped canvas acting as a borderline between day and the approaching night; it came down as if postulating to the last of the riders to reach there destination before the night arrives, leaving the roads empty as if the world is ending and will shred into darkness.
we reached lukung at 19:00 hours and saw the first view of pan gong lake and it was like ‘ oh my god, what on earth is that ‘. Sadly, the last of the light had already casted its magic on the lake and we missed the sunset but the view was just enough to cast its spell over me. I parked my bike somewhere and ran straight to the bank to touch the waters; don’t know from where i felt so much refreshed albeit i was driving from past seven hours. The air was so sweet in pan gong and it seemed to come in soft bandannas which the locals had placed all along the bank in order to spread the vibes of compassion. You could even smell the lake water and really smell the people, the sand, the stars above and it seemed as if every kind of summer exhalation was removed out in one single breath. After a few frantic shots of the evening sky i got back to my senses which were lost to the beauty which this place presented and we were back in business in setting up our camp for the first day.
As we were quite exhausted dealing with living our life and enjoying the beautiful landscapes the whole day, we hired a camp at merely 200 rupees/ person, which was quite reasonable going by the time we moved in and informing the local ‘ bhaiya ‘ at such short notice. Lets look at the place where we stayed the first night
now our hunger was at paramount and there were indeed few glutton present ( including me ). We ordered our dinner like some ‘ maharaja ‘ and stuffed up our belly to its full potential; chai and coffee was flowing like anything as we never cared about our bowel movement for the next day. The guys which were really tired never stepped out after entering the camp and slept while i was just setting up my tripod, feeling super exited about the upcoming night shots. It was all about envisaging the view, the mountains, the clouds, the stars and setting them all up on a single frame; i grabbed my camera and straight away went to the bank where i accompanied two of my friends who were already enjoying the cold breeze which was blowing. The wind blowing was indeed quite chilly and already i was suffering minor headache and was feeling nauseated because of lack of oxygen or whatever it was. I had my cap and gloves on and it was not helping. The army personal back in their camp told us that you have to drink at least 8 litres of water each day in order to get proper supply of oxygen into your system. We somehow managed 4 litres each day which did the trick for us. Three of us stood right in the embarkment of the lake and were enjoying the beauty that the night presented upon us. It was pitch dark ( as there was no electricity present in whole of the region ) and we couldn’t even seem to see each others face but still we were enjoying the hammering sound coming when the water was hitting the bank. We discussed about our days activities and how we somehow managed to reach our destination before dusk. We were just enjoying these light moments when all of a sudden something unusual happened.
Down from a distant there was a light approaching and it seemed as if it was coming right towards us as if a locomotive with its headlights on, ignoring all its signal was racing down the desolate track. One of my friend called, ‘ Can they be Chinese’ ? We galloped past the only land we saw racing towards our camps with our heart in our mouth. China is hardly 30 kms from here and the LOC passes right through the lake so this was a mere possibility and we were dead scared. Can it be the late night patrolling? Is there something to be scared of? But soon we realised it was just a bike, rolling past the road adjoining the lake but it nearly got goosebumps folded on our body and we mocked each other for being such a weakling, which later will turn out to be the significant topic of discussion.
Out of exasperation i just glided my head towards the night sky and it was like something inexplicable. We were completely enveloped with stars and it seemed as if even the gloomiest star was there to be noticed; some were arranged in clusters while some were just twinkling away their light as if asking for our attention. It seemed like these stars were filled with some divine power. The power which was driving them to lit up like a spread of diamonds in this black sheet as if participating with their fellow mates. There were constellations present and one could easily notice some shooting stars sliding in this vast sky like a projectile fired by God to please the other world. Peering at this night sky i found something peculiar which interested me; this huge chain of stars, passing right through the centre of the lake forming a trajectory; like an elliptical pattern. This can’t be clouds i pondered as the night was perfectly clear; neither was there any kind of smoke or smoulder in this sky. ‘ The Milky Way ‘ i shouted as if astounded with this view. I unpacked my tripod and caught some shots of it. My camera just turning the view i envisaged into a single frame, just swelling the stars after a 30 second shot.
Clicking about 10 plus shots, i got the perfect out of ‘ The Milky Way ‘ galaxy and i was much relieved. Then suddenly the sky started to lit up. The sky which was like a dark big domain with diamond like stars placed all over was now becoming more prominent with white light. ‘ There is a moonrise approaching ‘ i told my accomplices. The mountain peaks just got a bit more prominent as we could see even the snow placed atop. With the moon approaching we could now easily see the breath of the lake as this night was lighting up to its full potential. There we saw the big moon approaching, killing the space present between two great cliffs and rising up as if calling the dead to move to their shelter. In an instant the whole place became seeable. The place which was shredded with darkness a few moments ago was now filled with the moonlight as if waking the snow laden cliffs which were covered with darkness few moments ago. These barren and lonely cliffs now came to life with the guiding light of the night making the wild peep out from their respected quarters crying out loud in this open sky. Time for the stars to succumb to their light as they became dull with all their luminescence now absorbed by the moon. The moon inched its way forward as if to make itself more hefty when bonded with the light of the stars. And as it always happens, i kept on playing with my camera till i got the shots i wanted.
Next day came out slow for all of us. No one was up by early dawn to enjoy the beauty of the sunrise but all were in the camp planning out their voyage for this present day. Pangong Lake has loads in store for all of you, the only thing that matters is ‘ you should know how to enjoy life ‘. As i stepped out of the camp, the bright incessant sunshine welcomed me. It seemed as if it lies amid hills which rise from the water’s edge; for the water in which it is reflected not only makes the best possible foreground but with its winding shore, gives the most natural boundary to it which lays incessantly till a human eye can see. The lake perhaps is landscape’s most expressive feature. Its like an earths eye when viewed from the top. As i looked over the pond i felt a sense of obligation to employ both my hands to defend my eyes against the reflected as well as the true sun that was shining over the lake. If you survey the space in between it literally felt as a smooth piece of glass scattered over the whole of area producing the finest imaginable sparkle in between.
There in the distant i saw the bank fuelled with loads of tourist humming away their happiness. The place which held the numbness of the night the previous day now transformed completely into a spot where the tourist were enjoying in their own way. From clicking selfies to jogging leisurely along the bank soaking in the best of air into the system somewhere supporting the theory of transcendentalism. Few lamas were present near the bank, chanting there religious songs while encircling their praying flags. It seemed as if this whole place is surrounded by some blissful energy, a force which drives the people with an eternal realisation that perchance, this world is indeed a jovial place to reside.