Nothing could have possibly prepared me enough to intake the vast contrast of geography of Ladakh to the “Jannat” that Kashmir offers. With just a pocket of fertile land in an otherwise dry and arid region the small town of Leh has settled its life. And yet its starkness has a beauty in itself. The valley with mini farmlands were surrounded with shades of mountainous brown peaked by the snow-capped ranges. The Himalayas provided them shelter with the paradox of isolation.
Much against the advice of our previously travelled friends we decided to fly into Leh directly from Delhi, instead of travelling by car via Manali which would have helped us get acclimatized with the thinning air pressure and low levels of oxygen. Coming from Mumbai at sea level, the high altitudes of 10,000 feet plus wee a challenge in itself. And so we began our tryst with Leh.
Hotel Grand Dragon is the only luxury Hotel there….so we set camp there, well warned that no overt exploration of the city should be done on day 1 , as we might suffer from severe headaches or nose bleeds due to exertion. However, me and my family are the forever enthusiasts carrying the thrill of life in a bagpack permanently. So post a filling lunch of yummy “Momos”(staple food) we set off to see what Leh was all about.
As typical, the small town had all the touristy shops in one lane with different wares decorated in their mini windows while the owner themselves were in the street outside soliciting business. From silver n brass trinkets to warm fur coats, lovely buddhist statues to tiny teacupsâ€¦and ofcourse everything was touristy priced so we made sure we had a local with us to help us bargain a good price. But keeping the shopping for another day we decided to visit Leh’s most scenic piece of architecture, the Shanti Stupa. Itâ€™s the climb to the monumentous structure that made us realize why we were told to rest it out. The otherwise regular uphill climb seemed like a task as we had to stop for breath a couple of times. Fortunately, there was this little tea place that served buttered toasts and the most amazing lemon tea with just the right amount of honey to prep us up.
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The view from the top was amazing as was the peace n silence. You could hear yourself breathe. The grand white stupa kept spotlessly clean had stairs leading up to its dome where from we could take in the panoramic landscape. The dome had vivid colorful paintings on its sides depicting the life of Buddha. Enveloped in serenity it was a place one could sit and absorb the inner tranquility. It was the effect of the place Iâ€™m sure because 15mins after sitting in total silence, my daughter â€˜whisperedâ€™ all her questions in my ears.
“What do the people do here for a living ?”
“How do they spend their time ?”
“What happens in winter…when there is no vegetation…where do they get their food from ?”
In all honesty I wondered all that too because Leh didn’t have any factories,nor major farmlands(the produce was barely enough to them to be self-sufficient), nor was there peaking tourism that could earn them their yearly bread….indeed it was a tough life for the locals. However it amazed me that no matter the hardship the people were always full of smiles.
Our next tourist attraction was the old Palace. Built in the 17th century by King Singe Namgyal it had an old world charm in its Tibetian architecture and murals that survived many a wars but in the little left ruins the Palace really had nothing to write home about but the fact that its nine stories overlook the entire township of Leh.
Right next to the Palace is the Namgyal Tsemo Gompa from where long strings of prayer flags reach to the Peak of Victory. The colorful flags are always tied only on auspicious days. It’s a prayer of askance to God I thought, but I was mistaken. Prayer flags have chants and blessings that are supposed to be good wishes, sent out to all by the blowing wind. What a beautiful thought indeed. No wonder the people here were always smiling, they felt satisfied…always in a position to bless and wish well for others. Yes! the barren land had more precious yield than we could have imagined….love for all. No wonder then that the tranquility and peace were significant in the various buddhist monastries that dotted the region of Ladakh.
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In direct contrast to this was what we were to experience the next day. We were invited by the DIG to see the military establishment and mingle with the soldiers who were looking forward to hear some tales of the silver screen from me. Little did they know that I was more fascinated by them. We had merely heard tales about the Siachen glacier and Kargil but to be able to hear the narrative from the real heroes. Now that was an experience I was looking forward to.
Next morning we as requested we were given a detailed tour of the Hall of Fame, the museum dedicated to the martyrs. The museum had at the entrance itself, the 3D model of the Himalayas laid out with all its peaks, valleys, passes and glaciers. That by itself made us feel miniscule as we stood infront of its daunting hugeness and to imagine how these brave soldiers scaled those heights, lived for months at their posts braving the vagaries of nature. I felt humbled by their achievements as I listened intently to our guide, absorbing the intensity of the events. Salute to those heroes indeed !
We reached the BSF camp in complete awe of their life, while they surprisingly were fascinated by mine. So I sat amongst them having coffee and posing for pictures while the others readied to show us a demonstration of an attack. The AK 47’s, the grenades, the rocket missiles, sniper rifles, sub machineguns and carbines, recoiless rifles like the Carl Gustaf…. I added another dimension to my vocabulary. The sheer weight of this ammunition is astounding and then to imagine these bravehearts trekking through the snow in absolute preparedness for a strike is mindbloggling. We were shown how in event of an enemy threat, the soldiers at post react, how when the Chinese soldiers had infiltrated the borders, we had counter attacked. We sat there completely mesmerized and over whelmed. I donâ€™t think Leh would ever be complete for me without having lived this experience.
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The next morning, the waiters from Grand Dragon packed us some sandwiches insisting that we take them along with us as we left for river rafting on the Zanskar river. My kids kept insisting that we should not bother as they wanted to indulge in the local cuisine they had much enjoyed the previous night. However, we were more than thankful for those bites, once we realized that to reach any tourist spot it takes a minimum of 4/5 hours and unlike rest of touristy Indiaâ€¦and we wonâ€™t even find a “Dhabba”. Once on our way I wished they had also provided adult diapers….because there is no place to go…. Not even a single tree that can possible provide some assistance to saturated. Surprisingly not a single travelblog, travel site or even any of my friends warned me of that. Well now readers, consider it done, “U are warned.”
Zanskar river is silt laden and muddy not anything like clear waters of the Ganges at Rishikesh but for an adventure sport it provided us with the thrill of the rapids and the gorgeous view of the mountains changing colors with the variant of every rock ….sometimes ochre yellow to violet mauve to ferrous redâ€¦this was something we could never witness anywhere in the world. All suited in our orange gears a total of 8 in a boat we set across the rapids, screaming in exhilaration at every turn. At last Zanskar meandered its way slowly to converge with its sister, the River Indus having clear blue waters. A perfect photo op for the 2 dramatically different rivers meeting.
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The next morning was another adventure. The highest motorable road in the world! Wowâ€¦this I felt I had to accomplish , no matter what it took. The Khardungla Pass at 18300ft was a must do for sure. The catch was that one couldnâ€™t be there more than 20mins as the thinning air could cause extreme discomfort to those not used to it. By now we were starting to get a hang of this â€œroughing it outâ€ lifestyleâ€¦lets do it we decided in unision. So we packed some eatables as we were told it would take about 5/7 hrs to reach there and took off. There were several instances while climbing the steep ghats that the traffic was stalled as there wasnâ€™t enough place for 2 motorvehicals to cross each otherâ€¦but we finally made it. It was just enough time to say that we accomplished it when the problem startedâ€¦.My hubby started breathing heavy and my son had a nose bleed which just wouldnâ€™t stop. We were carrying oxygen cylinders thankfully and the â€œgaramâ€ chai with bowls of Maggie that we polished off in a minute helped too. But after this any thought of seeing the Nubra Valley or the Lake Pangong of the 3 idiots fame was put on the backburner. Maybe sometime someday.
A holiday in Leh is not one of luxury, interesting as it may seem, it is definitely not for the faint-hearted. One would have to have their physical parameters at optimum level if one is to enjoy Ladakh in all its beauty. So get fit if you want to see Leh and bring on the sense of adventure.