Ladakh is an exotic, high altitude, cold desert of India, with lofty, snow-capped Himalayan peaks, rocky ridges, deep valleys, dry plains, mountainous landscapes, crystal clear lakes, and gurgling unpolluted rivers!This paradise on earth mesmerised us months prior to our trip. There were five of us, struggling to regularise our fitness regime to ensure that we are able to delightfully face the challenge the high mountain ranges and dry desert offer. While exercising is necessary, we were sure that it is our enthusiasm that would take us through the highest peaks and deepest valleys!The journey begins

Finally the day arrived, and at 5 am, we were chirping excitedly at the New Delhi airport. At 6 am, our plane took off to take us to the highest motorable road in the world. As the plane swirled and cruised near Leh city, the aura of the snowcapped Himalayan ranges peeking through the clouds left us spellbound. The fact that we were cruising above them was even more exhilarating. Our cameras struggled to capture this pristine beauty.The Leh airport surrounded by stark brown snowcapped peaks, welcomed us warmly. The first day was spent acclimatising ourselves within the resort that was a fine example of Ladakhi architecture.The evening was spent at the marketplace at Leh, which glittered with Tibetan curios and shimmering gem stones embedded in silver. The gemstone-studded, exquisitely designed silver jewellery, is a ‘must buy’ at Leh.Khardungla – the highest motorable road

Dawn approached sooner than we expected and all of us were excited as we left bravely for Khardungla – the highest motorable road in the world!

We were on our way to Nubra Valley, which is the valley of contrasts – a stark dry desert on one hand and green vegetation on the other. But to reach Nubra valley, we had to first cross Khardungla.

A sturdy Tavera took us away from Leh city on the way to our destination. Mountain ranges seemingly joining hands guided us along the way. Anywhere you looked, the view was seamless – beauty in its purest form enveloping everything. The ascent up the mountain ranges brought us closer to the snow-capped mountain tops. As we glided higher, we saw high-spirited, and energised bicyclers, cycling away merrily (actually, with loads of effort) to reach Khardungla. They put our fitness regime back home to shame. At around 17,000 ft, where the oxygen level had begun to drop, one of our crew members started feeling uneasy. Distracting her helped. We were driving shoulder to shoulder with snow covered mountain peaks, and some snow was being ruthlessly crushed beneath the sturdy tyres of our car.

Khardungla stood at 18,380 ft, making us feel breathless, (figuratively and actually). A yellow board proudly advertised the spectacular feat the Indian armed forces have achieved by building the highest motorable road in the world. The black tea served by the army tasted like “manna dew” (heavenly drops)!Nubra – the valley of contrasts

The descent to Nubra valley is rough with snow trickling down the road. As we descended to 12,000 ft, the landscape changed entirely. Instead of the snow-capped peaks we were crossing stark barren land, earth torn apart with a wild parched look leaving us in no doubt that we were in the dry cold desert of India. We were heading to Sumur village in the valley.

Sumur is home to Nubra valley’s most important monastery – the Sam-stem Ling Gompa. A 40-minute walk behind the village takes you to the monastery. Built in 1841, the Gompa is home to over a 100 Gelugpa monks, aged between seven and 70.

Another 20 km further, the landscape starts contradicting itself. Ripples of streams can be seen coming dancing from nowhere, and some trees, and there are farms growing crops. On closer look we found that there were apricots growing freely in the wilderness. We ate a handful of apricots and drove further into the arms of nature. The Silk Route Cottages here are vividly crafted and its entire property is flooded with apricot trees. After a siesta, we walked up to the Sumur monastery. The walk is as enchanting the entire trip to Ladakh. All along the way, are apple and apricot trees, and golden mountain peaks surrounding the village. At the monastery, on one side, Buddhist monks practised their lectures loudly; and towards the centre is the colour-fully decorated prayer room with Lord Buddha’s portrait. The place is unusually serene.

On our arrival back at the Silk Route Cottages, we were served delicious vegetables grown at their farm. Our excitement defied the law of diminishing marginal utility – the more we experienced Ladakh, the more we wanted to explore it. The next day we set out for Hunder village and Diskit monastry.Double-humped camels and Diskit Gompa

The Hunder village is famous for its white sand dunes and double-humped camels, and the Diskit Gompa monas-try. The Diskit Gompa of Leh-Ladakh dates back to the 14th century. It has an interesting legend to it. It is believed that a Mongol demon once lived here and was considered to be a sworn enemy of Buddhism. He was annihilated near the monastery. However, even after his death, his body kept coming back to the monastery again and again. It is said that even today the wrinkled head and hand of the demon lie inside a temple here, filled with fierce gods and goddesses.

After our double-humped camel ride and the visit to the Diskit Gompa, we started our journey back to Leh, crossing once again the contrasting landscape and the mighty Khardungla. Before we reached our resort, we visited the Shanti stupa located at Changspa, on a hilltop, which was inaugurated by the Dalai Lama in 1985.

The evening was spent relaxing and preparing for an early morning trip to Pangong Lake.

Pangong Tso

Pangong Tso (or Pangong Lake – Tso is Ladakhi for lake) in the Himalayas is situated at a height of about 13,900 ft, and extends from India to China. Two-thirds of the length of the lake lies in China. En route to Pangong Lake we visited the famous Shrey and Thicksey monastery. Shrey was once the capital of Ladakh and the Shrey monastery is one of the oldest with the highest statue of Buddha. To reach Pangong Lake, we crossed the third highest pass in the world – the Changla Pass at 17586 ft.

On the way we met herds of yaks and surprisingly, farming lands with farmers industriously harvesting their crops. The winter season is a huge challenge for the people in this region and they store grains for the season.

The Pangong Lake with its striking blue and green water stood inviting us to dip our feet in. The water was freezing cold and caused the blood in our veins to rush from our toes to our heads. Since the sun was shining brilliantly, we had not expected such a contrast.At the confluence of Zanskar and Indus

It was evening by the time we returned to our resort. The entire group was melancholic since the next day was our last day in Ladakh. The next day, a 30-km rafting expedition in Zanskar lake up to the confluence of Zanskar and the Indus river, took away our gloom.

The Indus River, locally known as the Singhe Khababs (out of the lion’s mouth), flows across the north-west to the south-east, passing through Ladakh, and flowing into Pakistan where it joins Shayok and Suru and becomes the historical Indus River.

The way to Zanskar Lake up to Chilling Point, is as pictographic as the rest of Ladakh. We crossed the Magnetic Hill, which is alleged to have magnetic properties strong enough to pull cars uphill and force passing aircraft to increase their altitude in order to escape magnetic interference; in reality, the effect is an optical illusion.

Our group of eight in the raft included a French lady, and a Dutch lady, and a German gentleman. We were one of five teams out rafting that day. The four-and-a-half-hour rafting experience was incredible, with the raft being endlessly challenged by rapids and whirlpools – an experience we will cherish all our lives.Leh’s Gurudwara

As we drove back to our resort in the evening, we also visited the Pather Sahib Gurudwara. Legend has it that many centuries ago a demon had terrorised the people of Leh. Baba Guru Nanak, who visited the region around 1516 AD, helped the people get rid of the demon.

Ladakh is one of the most beautiful places I have seen so far. The natural and pure magnificence of the place fills one with an enduring spirit to live life to the fullest and appreciate the untainted experience the simple local people and nature offer.

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