Sunday, August 10, 2014

A six day trip to Leh-Ladakh


When you go back, tell your near and dear ones,
That we gave our today,
for your tomorrow.
                   
- from the Hall of Fame (war memorial) in Leh


Related Links
Birding in Leh
  Itinerary (25th July - 31st July)
      Day 1: Fly from Delhi to Leh early morning. Rest and acclimatize in Leh. 
Day 2: Visit Nubra Valley - Diskit and Hunder via Khardung La. 
Day 3: Return from Nubra to Leh. 
Day 4: Visit Pangong Lake via Chang La. 
Day 5: Return from Pangong Lake. In the evening, visit Leh Palace and Shanti Stupa. 
Day 6: Rafting at Indus-Zanskar river (sangam). As part of local sightseeing, visit Magnetic Hill, Gurdwara Pathar Sahib, Kalamata Mandir, Hall of Fame (Army museum/ war memorial). 
Day 7: Return flight to Delhi.


Planning process and booking

While planning a trip to Leh which is one of the most popular tourist destinations in India, one option is to delegate everything to a tour operator, who will no doubt ensure that one has a successful trip, albeit charging a few thousand extra as premium. We however, chose to research and do all bookings on our own.

There are multiple ways to visit Leh. Either reach Leh directly via flight, or travel via the Srinagar-Leh highway (the famous NH1a, for which the Kargil war was fought) or the Manali - Leh highway. Due to paucity of time, we chose the flight option. Though flights to Srinagar were cheaper, the cost of road journey from Srinagar to Leh would have eaten into the savings.

The key takeaway while booking flights was that the flight tickets were more expensive on Fridays and weekends; due to which we moved our entire trip earlier by a day starting on Friday morning, and returned on Thursday morning.

With enough data available on the web, the rest of the bookings were easy. Four bookings in all - stay at Leh (four nights, but not continuous, which is not a problem as most hotels will willingly keep your unneeded luggage when you're travelling to Nubra/Pangong), one night's stay at Nubra, one night's stay at Pangong, and finally cab booking.

Despite our belief about this being the peak season, the stays were not full and it seemed possible to not book anything and still comfortably bargain and book on the spot, although that always leaves a degree of uncertainty.


Day 1: Leh (11562 feet)
 

A flight from Delhi to Leh is just an hour and a half long but the last half an hour is an experience to remember. Ensure that you get a window seat at whatever cost. As one cruises over at a height of 35000 feet above sea level; the peaks of the giant Himalayas begin to show up just underneath us. They leave one with a truly incredible feeling of smallness as they stare back at us from an imposing height.

View from the flight, before landing at Leh
The first sighting of Leh is on the backdrop of mighty barren mountains sheltering a small city. The second impression of the city is that it is full of travelers, and tourism drives this city. A bunch of non-Indians tourists also hog the city with all kinds of folks - youngsters traveling around the world, school kids on a foreign trip, honeymoon couples, families - all genres were spotted in Leh.

First view of Leh

In the summer season, days are hot up to 30 degrees and nights are pleasant to cold in Leh. The sun feels about five degrees hotter due to the altitude and hurt the eyes unless you've shades.

As we rested during the day, and went out for lunch, the highlight was where we ordered some cold butter milk in the hope of beating the heat and instead got sizzling hot milk with yellow butter floating on top!


Day 2: Nubra Valley (Diskit/Hunder) (10000 feet) via Khardung La (18380 feet)
Leh - South Pullu - Khardung La - North Pullu - Khalsar - Diskit - Hunder - (Turtuk)
 

Khardung La is famous for being the highest motorable road in the world. At 18000 feet, it stands imposingly connecting two giant mountains and full credit to the BRO (Border Roads Organization) who have made it usable. The road is full of twists and turns and it takes a couple of hours to cover the distance of 35 kms from Leh. We left at 7am and appropriately reached the pass by around 9am.

Khardung La (18380 feet)
At Khardung La's height, the altitude hits you either knowingly or unknowingly. Although we planned to stop at the pass only while returning and not while going (to allow more time for acclimatization); things were taken out of our hands by a road block which caused a traffic jam and caused us to wait at the pass for a couple of hours.

Whilst the BRO folks cleared the road (something that happens often on these hills); we suffered from AMS across different degrees, the worst being one of us feeling nauseated and vomiting.

However things took a turn for the better as we crossed the pass and went downhill; and we felt much better once we had maggi to eat at a place named North Pullu.

Road conditions for the entire route to Nubra valley were good except for a 10-12km stretch around the pass from South Pullu to North Pullu.

Two points of caution for the pass - keep your ears covered as the winds hit you even though you don't realize it. Spend as less time as possible there while going and more time on return by which you're better acclimatized.

After the imposing snow-clad Khardung La (the only place in our trip where we saw relatively fresh snow); the scenery transformed to the murky Shyok river flowing alongside from Khalsar. The thin picturesque stream that flowed alongside transformed into a giant wide river flowing at a great speed around the village of Khalsar.

The beautiful Shyok river flowing alongside on the way to Nubra valley
We continued on until we had our first sight of sand dunes, huge gigantic mounds of sand all over the place near the dusty and barren mountains. Somehow, they didn't seem out of place at all, their presence felt almost natural because by that time we had seen almost everything - huge snow-clad mountains, barren and dusty mountains, clear streams, murky rivers, and sand-dunes seemed almost inevitable.

Sand dunes of Nubra Valley

Fatigued by the travel and enchanted by the towns of Diskit and Hunder (which is really what one refers to when the phrase Nubra Valley is used); we had a tough decision to make. Having started at 7am, it was already 1.30pm owing to traffic jam at Khardung La; and our stay was booked at Turtuk. We took a tough call, and let go of Turtuk (the northernmost village in India, on the Pakistan border); and decided to look for a place to stay in Hunder. Turtuk is around 80 kms from Hunder, and it would have been evening by the time we reached there, hence the decision to stop at Hunder.

We found a nice friendly place - "Royal Camp, Hunder"; there was a stream flowing within the camp, it was full of apricot trees and lots of birds had made their homes. It seemed an ideal place to stay for the night.

Driving a hard bargain since it was sparsely populated, we put up shop there and relaxed for a bit before stepping out for the famous camel rides on the sand dunes of Hunder.

The sand dunes were like a picnic spot with numerous activities for children and adults, the highlight being a ride on the two-humped camel which are famous in that region. Charges were steep at around Rs 200 for a fifteen minute ride; but everyone acquiesced by it.

The camel ride was fun, except for the queasy thought about how those poor animals might have been trained, all went well.

Camel ride, Nubra Valley

We camped for the night, had a good dinner and woke up fresh next morning ready for our sojourn back to Leh.


Day 3: Return to Leh
 

The only intent on our return trip was to stop and travel as leisurely as possible on the route back to Leh. We visited the famous Diskit monastery which is around 600 years old and quietly attempted to grasp why people all the way from Eastern Europe (Czech Republic, Slovakia etc) had come over there as part of a program to help in renovation and painting of some of the monastery objects. The monastery area had a huge statue of Buddha nearby and also had a school and other facilities nearby along its premises.
A large Buddha statue near the famous monastery of Diskit

We leisurely moved on stopping for photographs at multiple places; and also stopped for lunch again at North Pullu. The Khardung La visit on return was much more pleasant with us stopping for a brief bit and joining some other tourists playing on fresh snow.

Fresh snow at Khardung La

The other eventful incident when we stopped at the pass was encountering a hail shower, which continued till we descended from that height.

Tired and exhausted, yet happy we reached Leh around 3pm and rested until evening after which the time was spent in shopping and walking in the neaby Changspa market.


Day 4: Pangong Lake (14270 feet) via Chang La (17688 feet)
Leh - Karu - Serthi - Chang La - Tangtse - Pangong Lake
 

Pangong Lake was always going to be the highlight of our trip. Any Himalayan lake changes colour with the sun; and the crystal blue purity that is visible during the peak afternoon hours was something we were all eager to see. That apart, Pangong was the biggest lake we knew of; and the excitement to visit the same was palpable.

We left at 8am and crossed Karu and Serthi - towns outside Leh before ascending to reach Chang La around 11am. Our health stayed better this time around; as we were better equipped with smelling camphor, well protected; and didn't spend much time at the pass.

Greenery on the way to Pangong
The road conditions were much better for Pangong with only a small stretch around the pass in slightly poor condition. The rest was almost level plains like a state highway and we swiftly made our way at a consistent altitude of 14000 feet before reaching the military training area of Tangtse. We saw multiple army camps therein and were left impressed by the dedication of these army personnel who stayed in such remote areas in all kinds of inclement weather.

Stopping for maggi, and proceeding on we reached Pangong Tso around 1pm. The first sight of the delightfully blue lake was around 4kms before we actually reached there and it left us with a further sense of anticipation.

No amount of visits to Himalayan lakes can make one indifferent to this vast shimmering blue beauty. The afternoon sun showed it up in fantastic light; an absolute crystal blue, a sight to behold. We went on and on along side the lake, our eyes thirsty for more of this blue expanse till we reached the "Three Idiots point" where the shooting at the end of the movie was undertaken. With a large number of tourists and also a few birds for company we spent some time there before finally returning to the start of the lake and our camp - Martsemik for rest and lunch. For those whose stays are in the village of Spangmik, that is a short distance further from the Three Idiots' point and around 7kms from Martsemik camp. The lake which was visible directly from the camp itself was at a distance of around 200 metres from the camp.

Pangong Lake
Pangong Lake

After a maggi lunch and a short rest at our camp (which had exquisite accommodation and facilities); we stepped forth for the lake again in the evening. After our eyes had drunk enough of the lake which turned different shades of green and gray as the sunset; we returned to our camp; satisfied yet willing for more. We also had the foolish idea of taking a short dip and swim in the lake; which we accomplished albeit for all of less than one minute subsequent to which we came shivering out.

An excellent dinner at the camp awaited us, subsequent to which we stepped out to gaze at the millions of stars visible and were fortunate enough not only to spot the milky way (a stream of white which flows amongst the stars visible only in hills); but were also able to capture the same.

Thousands of star; and the Milky Way (stream of white in the center)

With chilly winds hitting us, eventually we scampered for the warmth of the tents and dropped off keen to see the sunrise at the lake on the next morning.


Day 5: Return to Leh, local sight-seeing (Leh Palace and Shanti Stupa)
 

The sun rises at early morning 5am by which time we were up and ready. However, we were in for a disappointment as it turned out to be a cloudy morning. We waited, and the sun rose, and the clouds also rose alongwith continuing to play tricks with us and hide the sun; and by the time the sun shrugged off the cloud cover, it was well and truly up, past 6am.

Cloud capped mountains at Pangong.

We spent some more time walking around the lake; and absorbing the cool morning breeze and watching a family of ducks effortlessly swimming in the cold water. The morning breeze also caused the lake to appear really turbulent and grey; replacing the calm blue of the previous evening.

But all good things come to an end; and with regret we soon made our way back to the city of Leh by around 9am.

A leisurely journey back was made eventful by spotting a number of birds and Himalayan Marmots en route - friendly creatures they are; however it is still recommended not to feed them.
 

Turbulent morning waves at Pangong; compared to previous evening's contrasting calm
A Himalayan Marmot

We reached back at Leh by afternoon subsequent to which we decided to cover part of the local sightseeing (out the way) that evening.

Leh Palace was a dilapidated old building more like a maze, however its location was exquisite overseeing the entire city. One could imaging the king in those days keeping a close watch on his city and subjects. However there wasn't a lot to be done there, and we soon made way for the stupa.

The Shanti Stupa is a gregarious large status of Buddha and again provides an excellent view of the city. This was a much more picturesque and beautiful spot with many tourists around. An evening cup of 'shahi qewa' was on offer at a nearby restaurant maintained by Tibetan refugees who had fled their country following Dalai Lama's footsteps. They also maintained a few books defending themselves and denouncing the Chinese rule in Tibet.


Shanti Stupa inLeh
At the end of a long day, we indulged in some shopping and dinner with the key part of our trip accomplished.


Day 6: Rafting (Scorpoche to Sangam - near Nimmu), local sight-seeing (Magnetic Hill, Gurdwara Pathar Sahib, Kalamata Mandir, Hall of Fame)

 
With different options and operators available for rafting; we chose a relatively lower risk option as some of us were first timers. We chose a grade 2 option for rafting from Scorpoche to Sangam (Indus - Zanskar merger). The next best option was rafting from Chilling to Sangam with Chilling being further upstream (28kms).

The route to Sangam crossed all the local sight seeing places which we planned to do on return; and eventually we reached the beautiful point where the two rivers (clearly distinguishable of different turgid colours) met.
 

The confluence of Indus-Zanskar river, Sangam near Nimmu.
Indus is the one flowing left to right; while Zanskar is coming vertically; together going right.

From there on, we went further along Zanskar to Scorpoche which was further 17kms upstream from therein.

The rafting experience was fun; as the raft made its way towards the rapids; water ebbed and flowed throughout with a mind of its own, sometimes drenching us with a big turbulent wave, at other times calm and peaceful. There were two or three big rapids along the entire route all in all comprising of a successful rafting experience.

Rafting in the Zanskar river. The route was scenic with hills on either side and the river (and us) flowing through a narrow alley in between.
After lunch (maggi) at a restaurant at Sangam, we proceeded back stopping at different sight seeing points.

Magnetic Hill: we couldn't understand what the fuss was about, frankly. The slope of the road caused it to go backwards (in neutral); and putting a little bit of water also indicated the same, so not sure why this place was famous. Anyways we spent ten minutes there and moved on.

Gurdwara Pathar Sahib: A gurdwara always leaves one with a feeling of peace, and this one was no different. Totally maintained by the army, we spent half an hour or so in those premises, also reading about the different Sikh Gurus as were written there on different inscriptions. Multiple army folk were also present there for lunch most likely; as we were also served a small portion of plain but good daal chaval.

Kali mata Mandir: Another monastery and a temple with statue of Goddess Kali combined; we spent a while there but not being of particularly religious disposition, we moved on in the searing heat.


Day 6b - Hall of Fame (deserves a mention on its own)


Hall of Fame: The Army museum (or war memorial) in Leh was our last stopover, and though my initial reaction was one of indifference towards a museum; that changed dramatically once I entered the same.

The first line of this blog has been taken from therein. The museum was a treasure trove of information, with a complete model of the map of Leh and nearby borders with Pakistan and China.

For us civilians, reading about a war (or remembering one as Kargil 99) is more or less equivalent to a statistical piece of information. It is only after such a trip when one sees at close quarters the weather conditions and the harsh climate in which our borders are defended, one salutes them mentally. The ever-hard working people of the Border Roads Organization (BRO) who are ever present to clear off any road blocks (which happen often) is also noteworthy.

The Hall of Fame talks about each war in detail, about different problems that had arisen during each war, and how they had been overcome.

The museum talked about different acts of bravery during each war; even ones that we lost such as 1962; and the other ones in 71, 84, 99. It told of stories during Kargil' 99 - about how and why Tiger Hill and Kargil were important to the famous NH 1a; about the battle at Drass and Turtuk and so on.

Apart from the wars, there were many other stories of peace-time operations such as the Leh flash floods which destroyed the city in 2010; and how the army stepped in immediately to construct broken bridges within a day; to rescue and take injured civilians to hospitals and so on.

There were souvenirs and letters; one by a 22-year old writing his last letter to his parents in 99; making it hard to keep one's eyes dry.

Outside the museum there is a memorial to all soldiers with numerous names from different battalions engraved on the wall besides; and the national flag is also raised from 5-6.30pm.

The only regret in hindsight was we should have taken our camera inside (which was paid); as there were numerous stories inside which we could have talked about here.

We entered the museum, fatigued and weary with the intention of spending fifteen minutes or thereabouts and came out full two hours later with nary a trace of fatigue.


Day 7


We flew back to Delhi early morning amidst a full crowd of people in the small airport.



Tips for travellers-
  • The first day should be fully spent in rest and acclimatization. That is non-negotiable.
  • For most other itineraries, second day is spent in local sight seeing, however due to our requirement to combine rafting with the same, we chose to push it for later. Eventually, despite a few problems at Khardung La, our trip went well. Hence, this itinerary is something that can definitely be followed.
  • Not sure why, but camphor helps at higher altitudes. Smelling camphor as you reach the passes and cross the same helped us and we avoided nausea and vomit related problems once we used the same.
  • One can try for a stay that is closer to the local market in Leh.
  • Please do ensure in keeping the mountains, lakes etc clean without littering as would treat your own home.
 
Our stays, bookings and their experience-

·         Stay in Leh - Asia Guest House in Changspa. The location was right in an area where there were more foreigners. The place was pleasant; however we could have chosen a location closer to the market (this was around 20-25 minutes walk from the same). The rooms were decent at best; however the food was pretty average (this despite us having only breakfast in the same).

·         Cab booking: A person named Chamba - 09906999808. He no longer drives himself but instead arranges for other drivers. A very friendly and helpful person, who dumps a truckload of information about himself on whatsapp, he met us regularly during the trip to ensure all was well wrt transportation. Felt he was reliable and trustworthy. Was fair and charged as per Leh taxi rates.

·         Stay at Hunder (Nubra Valley): Royal Camp, Hunder. This was a gem of a place which we found impromptu, and was extremely nature-friendly, with lots of trees, birds and a river stream running right through the camp. The staff were also helpful and prepared an excellent dinner and breakfast. The tents were also good with attached toilets etc.

·         Stay at Pangong: Martsemik Camp. Excellent place. Exotic tents with attached toilets, night lamps and very friendly staff with good food. Chairs placed overseeing the lake. The first camp on reaching Pangong. A small downside of a distance of 200 meters from the lake, as we later saw that some camps like Watermark in the village of Spangmik (7kms further) were closer to the lake around 50 meters.


Costs (rough approximation):
  • Flight - 15K per person (to-and-fro from Delhi) = 60K
  • Cab (Innova/Xylo) - around 20-22K with our itinerary and current taxi rates.
  • Stay in Leh - 1.5K per room per night = 12K for four nights and two rooms.
  • Stay in Hunder - approximately 4K for two tents for one night (though that was because we reached there and bargained directly, booking directly might cost upto 6K).
  • Stay in Pangong - 7K for two tents for one night including dinner and breakfast.
  • Rafting - 1K per person = 4K
  • Food and miscellaneous: 10-12K maybe.
So a total of 120K for 4 people ~ 30K per person (from Delhi).


Photo Credits:
Raunak, me (Arun), Shruti


Map



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  2. Excellent travelouge. I enjoyed reading your account of the trip to Ladakh. The pictures added to the vicarious pleasure.

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