Sunday, September 25, 2011

Ladakh, Landscapes

3 years of planning and every time seeing it jinxed in one or other way, the Ladakh Trip had remained as a dream until 16th Aug 2011, when we entered the nature's pristine creation after our relentless efforts to get there. As I wrote in the my earlier post, Destination Leh,  we had to beat a series of uncertainties and had to make the best decisions. After overcoming all the hurdles for 5 long days finally the Leh trip was taking a good shape. Though we had covered more than 1200 KMs of road journey, we were elated when we reached Leh. We just had  more than 2 days of time and wanted to make best use of it. Weather didn't disappoint us, instead it was extra nice to us. Some times clear skies, some times a slight drizzle, and a couple of times snowfall on the way to Pangong Lake and Nubra valley. It was a perfect show displayed by the weather to the desperate people who wanted to get there at any cost. 

On the first day, we visited Pangong Lake (one day trip). We had hired a Scorpio and an Innova as there were no Tempos available. So the gang of 9 was split into two groups. The Pangong Lake is roughly about 5 hours drive from Leh and the way towards it is beautiful with some amazing landscapes. The lake is at a height of about 14270 ft; it is 134 KM long and spread across India and China, with only 40% of it in India. In the winter the entire lake freezes. When we visited the lake, the atmosphere was just perfect. The play of clouds along with the sun light created magical scenes as we walked along the lake. The lake with crystal clear water, reflecting somewhat bluish color provided breathtaking view against the backdrop of few snow-capped mountains, few sun-drenched hills and few hills covered with the clouds. The joy, obviously was immense, watching such picturesque landscape. We spent few hours walking around the lake and obviously had some photo shoot. Few pictures of the landscapes between Leh and Pangong Lake are posted below.

The Nubra Valley is a high altitude desert in the Ladakh region, which is at a height of around 10000 ft above the sea level, with scant vegetation. It is roughly around 150 KMs from Leh. On the way to Nubra Valley, we crossed Kardung La pass which is known to be the highest motorable pass in the world (at a height of about 17,582 ft) At Kardung La it had snowed heavily, which was unusual in the month of August it seems. Again, the landscapes along the way to Nubra Valley are picturesque. At Nubra valley there is a small group of Bactrian Camels and camera ride will be available. Again, we hardly had any time and hence spent very few hours in Nubra Valley. I guess it had rained a day earlier, and there were some lovely reflections that we got to see out of standing water. We headed back to Leh after a satisfying visit to an amazing valley. Once we got back to Leh, it was almost an end to the eventful journey for last 9 days. We arranged a taxi to Srinagar from where our flight was scheduled on 20th Aug to Delhi. In the wee hours again, we started another long journey but this time back home.

It was a very short visit with plenty of beautiful things to be registered in mind for a longer time; those high altitude roads, rivers and water streams meandering through the snow-capped mountains, the yaks gazing in the valleys, the Himalayan Marmots playing with the visitors, delicately standing villages on the hillocks,  versatile landscapes from barren lands to vivid green lands, surprising snow fall at Kardungla Pass, the military convoys in plenty of numbers hovering between the camps on the roads carved through the high altitude desert, a short distance Camel ride and the list goes on. Some things one can only experience, words fail me. It was not such a great feeling knowing that we were heading back, away from all these things but that's how it is. By evening we had reached Srinagar, and though there were two more days left as per the itinerary, it seemed like an end of this long trip. However another awesome experience was waiting for few of us. Look forward for the next post to know what it is and trust me it is really worth watching :-)

Few of the photographs (23) from the two days spent in Leh:

1. Roads carved on the hills and the clouds and the play of light producing magical scenes, on the way to Pangong Lake from Leh
2. A village delicately balanced on a small hill near Leh
3. A tent at Changla pass, on the way to Pangong Lake, Ladakh
4.  Landscape around Ladakh
5. Landscapes around Ladakh
6. A tourist lady entertains a Himalayan Marmot while the Marmot  thought the lady was holding some eatable in her hands; the man tries to capture that moment in his camera. ( My personal favorite from the trip) :) 
7. My friends, Lawrence and Beverly sit along the Pangong Lake to pose for a photograph
8. Shadows, light and people create a scene, Pangong Lake, Ladakh
9. A family stands at the edge of the lake to experience an unforgettable evening, Pangong Lake, Ladakh
10. Brown-headed Seagull in flight, Pangong Lake, Ladakh
11. Brown-headed Seagull in flight, Pangong Lake, Ladakh
12. Soldiers watch me curiously as I click their photograph, near Pangong Lake, Ladakh
13. Calm and Serene, Pangong Lake spread across India and China, Ladakh
14. While heading from Leh to Nubra Valley, it snowed a lot and the trucks halted till the roads were cleared
15. Ladies with contrasting colors walk on the sand at Nubra Valley Ladakh
16. Reflection produced due to the rain water at Nubra Valley Ladakh
17. A Cow came real close to me while I was shooting the reflections near Nubra Valley, Ladakh
18. A water stream,  villages, snow covered mountains, the clouds hovering over the village, green patches and dry lands all in one frame
19. Military Convoys cross the road at the Nubra Valley (desert) as the play of clouds produce a magical background
20. One of our vehicles, while heading back to Leh from Nubra Valley
21. Another Village near Diskit, Ladakh
22. A village on the way back from Nubra Valley to Leh
23. Himalayan Marmot usually found in Himalayas at a height of 980 to 14,800 ft; I believe they are found only in Ladakh in India.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Destination Leh

Just as the sky got clearer, the sun shone brighter; as the breezy wind cruised through the mountains around Dharmshala,  there was a sense of satisfaction that we were finally heading to our destination through a safer and probably a better route. The tempo picked up the speed; the music was a pure bliss; Pear fruit tasted heavenly; numerous water streams and falls running through the giant hills provided breathtaking views; curvy roads through the mountains and the lush green fields along the route appeared drenched in the golden light of a beautiful sunset; all in all, feeling of a perfect travel. The eye lids felt heavy as the vehicle moved smoothly and just before I could close my eyes for a nap, I could see a small stone skipped off from the vehicle on the opposite direction rushing down and the only direction it could find was the windshield of an unfortunate vehicle with even more unfortunate travelers in it. The silence was broken with the sound of the stone smashing the windshield. Another inch of drive could have brought down the pieces of glass on the driver; the tempo halted so was our travel. Short-lived, the feeling of a perfect travel! People in the tempo left in dismay, once again, for the 4th day of  our trip called "Destination Leh".

A gang of 9 people who left Bangalore on Aug 11 2011, towards Delhi to make a trip to Ladakh from there, never imagined what was waiting for them for the next week. Unlike last year's North India trip, this time we had a "plan", a neat plan indeed. The plan was to reach Manali on 12th morning. Start to Leh on 13th Aug and reach Leh by 14th Aug evening. Then visit places in and around Leh for next 3 days. Travel back to Bangalore through Srinagar->Delhi>Bangalore route. Perfect as it appeared on the paper.

On the 13th of Aug, we could travel towards Leh for only about 50 KMs just to see the Rohatang pass  blocked because of the landslide. The whole day was spent at a Dhaba in Marhi waiting for the landslide to be cleared. The day turned into dusk and there was nothing much for us other than heading back to Manali. The next day too didn't have good signs as no vehicles crossed either side of the Rohatang Pass. Adding to that,  heavy snowfall at Baralacha La kept the travel agents and tourists anxious as to when the roads would be cleared. It appeared it would take indefinite time, because of the bad weather. We thought of heading back to Delhi to take a flight from Delhi to Srinagar and travel to Leh. The bad luck followed us wherever we went and whatever we thought of. A bridge or pool had broken down due to heavy rains on the road to Delhi and the road was blocked indefinitely. The only way that was left with us was to travel to Leh through a longer route. From Manali -> Mandi -> Jammu -> Srinagar -> Leh, a gigantic stretch of close to 1200 kms. Otherwise it would have been a 9 days stint at Manali where there is nothing much to do other than shopping (during rains at least). The only thing that we were happy with at that point of time was that, we had our favorite driver Vijay ( who took us around Lahul and Spiti last year) with us. Vijay drove us through the scenic routes of the Himachal Pradesh towards Srinagar. Just when we thought everything was going fine, a small pebble had some other plans for us.

It was a moment of despair, helplessness and frustration. We didn't even know which state and which part of it we were in. Late in the evening under the moon light, with not many houses around; so many thoughts running in the mind - "will this trip happen?", "Should we just go back?", "What else is left?" We thought of possibly everyone who might have cursed us or felt really jealous of our trip to Leh. I remember tweeting "Buri nazar wale tera muh kaala". Meanwhile, Vijay was trying to arrange something to get us to our ultimate destination. The repeated attempts to arrange another vehicle from that remote place failed. Meanwhile, he met his cousin Rinku, a driver with Innova, who was heading back to Himachal. Both of them tried their best with no use in the end. We could have either got the windshield fixed by next day in which case we would have lost another day, or we could have gone with some other driver and in some other tempo. We were left with limited and difficult options once again. The group had a good spirit and there was still a lot of excitement. When I cracked a joke to Rinku, that we can manage to sit in Innova, he said he doesn't have any problem if we manage to squeeze in. I readily agreed and asked others to dump the luggage in Innova; and we somehow managed to fix ourselves inside. Imagine 9 people plus a driver sitting in an Innova with their luggage. Rinku, who was heading to his house after a month of travel had to turn the wheels back towards Leh again and was really unhappy though he said he would drop us to Leh. 

All the excitement was broken into pieces, when the Innova appeared to have lost it's suspension because of the heavy weight. Forget about the vehicle, the body parts lost their senses as we couldn't sit properly (obviously not possible!). On top of that Rinku's discouraging stories of misfortunes added to our frustration. "Apka luck bahut kharab hai sir, ek baar door check karlo, khul gaya hoga" - he was making fun of our situation and scaring us that a lot more can come our way. The pain and agony continued. Nevertheless there were quite a few jokes that happened during this short travel in Innova which were ROFL moments. When we realized that we might lose our limbs with numbness, we decided to drop this plan and get back to the old one. That is to call Vijay back, fix a new windshield the next morning (doesn't matter if we lose a day) and then go with Vijay, comfortably in the tempo. We came to know that we were close to a place called Pathankot, which is a meeting point for the 3 northern states of Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir; and a major travel hub for the 3 states. Never in dreams had we imagined that Pathankot would make it's way into our travel plan. We made a night stay at some guest house and the mood in the group was terrible as we didn't know where the trip was leading to. The next day morning we saw our tempo standing outside the lodging with windshield pieces cleared completely. We traveled 20+ kms till the city without the windshield. Surprisingly all the faces were glowing with joy again; a new day and a new hope.

On a Monday morning tempo woes were fixed in a garage. With patriotic slogans, since we realized it was 15th Aug, once again we started our broken journey towards Srinagar. It took a whole day to reach Srinagar. Way towards Srinagar was pleasant and the roads were in a very good condition. I had always heard and read about Jammu & Kashmir, mostly about violence, through news since childhood. But for the first time I was actually traveling in the J&K state itself, it was kind of a different feeling. There were plenty of check points and we were asked questions like from where we were coming from and where we were heading to along with the purpose of the visit. We reached Srinagar, pretty late in the evening. We made a night stay at Srinagar. We paid hefty tariff for just 4 hours of stay in the hotel.

The next morning , in the wee hours, we headed to Leh through the scenic and heavenly roads of Kashmir. We were all set to experience a wonderful drive. Bad lucks and misfortunes were the forgotten stories. We were woken up for breakfast when we reached Sonamarg, Kashmir. That Tuesday morning was really pleasant as the Sun was raising up to provide another delightful day. The place is really heaven on the earth. As we climbed higher through the mountains the drive became very risky on the muddy road but the vast landscapes from that height provided a majestic view of undoubtedly the most beautiful place on the earth, the Kashmir. You feel as though you are in the lap of the nature of supreme quality. Though the military troops appear annoying or odd things in that place but the fact that they are there for a reason, to save this  pristine place from the infiltrators, must be appreciated. The beautifully lined up mountains with numerous herds of sheep on the green patches, the river flowing with crystal clear water with the horses grazing along the river provided perfect scenes that one can enjoy on such a travel.

Along the way, we spent some time walking on the street of Dras, often called as "The Gateway to Ladakh",  the second coldest inhabited place on the earth. It is this place where the major Kargil War happened during 1999, in which India successful captured the base back from the infiltrators. We crossed Kargil, however didn't spend any time roaming around in Kargil. On the way to Leh we visited a place called Mulbek where we found a huge statue called Chamba Statue. The view of Lamayur was just  exquisite with the sunlight lighting up the sand dunes behind it. The terrain kept changing from barren lands, to snow covered mountains to the green hills throughout the journey. Finally when we were just about 50 odd KMs away from Leh, the excitement was getting higher and higher. People who were ready to visit Leh, even if it was for a breakfast, had something better than that waiting for them. All the frustration seemed to be vanishing as soon as we got on to the plane roads at a height of ~12000 ft. Everyone's cheer of reaching Leh still reverberates in my mind. It was a great feeling. As they say it's not just the destination that matters but the journey itself. We really had one such awesome journey towards our destination.

Whatever happened was all blessing in disguise as we had escaped heavy rains in Himachal Pradesh and possibly escaped getting stuck between Jispa and Rohantang Pass forever. Yet another north India trip yielded yet another memorable experience. Further trip account and pictures will be uploaded separately in the next few posts. Meanwhile few pictures from Manali ->Srinagar -> Leh.

1. A dam near Mandi, Manali, Himachal Pradesh
2. We had a narrow escape from getting stuck on a broken road due the cloud burst and water fall

3. Windshield being fixed at a garage near Pathankot, Punjab

4. Girish enjoys a view on the way to Srinagar from Jammu

5. Roads appear risky as we climb higher and higher, Sonamarg, Jammu and Kashmir

6. Horses run along the road, Drass, Jammu and Kashmir

7. Sheep resting along the green patches of the hill, Drass, Jammu and Kashmir

8. Military Camps along the Drass roads, Jammu and Kashmir

9. Chamba Statue, Mulbek, near Kargil - You can see the rock carved Statue of Matriya Buddha 

10. Exquisite view of Lamayur; it has drizzled earlier, sun rays were lighting up the sand dunes

11. Another view of Lamayur

12. Mountain Goats  look at the other herd curiously, a big herd crossed the road in front of our vehicle

13. A candid moment; Vijay, a cool headed driver who took us through safely overcoming all the obstacles during our trip last year and this year. 
Must thank him a lot. (Caution: Cigarette Smoking is injurious to health)
14. What an awesome feeling it was when we were nearing Leh, everyone cheered  "oooohoooo!!!!"