One sees great things from the valley, but only small things from the peak!Gilbert K. Chesterton
Not quite the context in which the above quote was said, but it certainly fits the bill when we’re talking about India’s crown jewel of the north, Ladakh. No discussion about travel in India is complete without a mention of Ladakh, and I just knew that I had to tick this picturesque valley off my list as soon as I could, and from the very first minute, I wasn’t disappointed.
The first notable incident of the trip happened during the flight to Leh itself. As our airplane crossed into the Himalayas, magnificent views of snow-clad Kashmiri mountains beheld us, and it is the first and only time I have seen so many passengers standing at the same time in an airplane mid-flight, it was that stunning. As we landed, the first colour I noticed was blue. The sky. It was quite possibly the bluest sky I’ve ever seen, and coming from a polluted metropolis where even sunny skies have a whiteness about them, seeing the sheer resplendence of blue amazed me. The light brown landscape and the bright blue sky served as a magnificent backdrop in all directions as we made our way off the flight and stood on the airport asphalt just spellbound for a few seconds, before being ushered off as it’s not permitted to loiter around on an airport which primarily serves as an Indian Air Force Base.
It is usually recommended that one spend the first day in Leh resting or sight-seeing without too much physical activity, to get to grips with the low oxygen levels at high altitudes, especially for those who arrive by flight rather than by road. And hence, our first day in Leh was reserved for a few local visits. The first of those was Spituk Gompa, a Buddhist monastery, one of the many such in Ladakh, which is referred to as Little Tibet as it bears several semblances to archaic Buddhist Tibetan culture. On the way to the monastery, we enjoyed some typical Tibetan fare from a local restaurant; Momos and Thukpa. Authentic, and delicious. It was here where I remember asking one of the locals ‘Do you play cricket or football in Ladakh?’ and he cheekily answered ‘Ice Hockey!’. I don’t know why I remember this but it is a funny anecdote nonetheless, and I read much after the trip that the people of Ladakh do in fact play Ice Hockey a lot and he wasn’t just joking around with me! The monastery was as calm as it gets, with a stark contrast in the Buddhist monks inside and outside the premises. Inside, they were the epitome of peacefulness, meditating without a care of what is happening around them. Outside, we kept watching monks come and go, dressed in their traditional buddhist attire but accessorized by the latest top-end Nike sneakers and the newest iPhone model with music blaring through their earphones as they made their way to their place of meditation in Hyundai Santros. It was really nice to see that even Monks love to enjoy their lives outside of their spiritual realm. Afterwards, we headed to yet another Buddhist monument, the Shanti Stupa. The Shanti Stupa was built in 1991 with a view to resurrect Buddhism in India, but serves multiple purposes. It isn’t just a religious monument, it is also built in such a place from where you can get panoramic views of the land of Ladakh.
Day two, and a long journey awaits. We’re off to visit a location that gained immense popularity due to being the backdrop for the final scene of Bollywood movie ‘3 Idiots’. Lake Pangong Tso. About 200km of mountainous highway east of Leh, we buckled up for a good 5-6 hour journey, but every bit of it saw us looking out the window at the mountains, the sky and the sheer barrenness around us. The odd macabre view of a truck fallen down the road into the valley also graced us a couple of times. Ladakh gets its name from the Tibetan word ‘La-dwags’ which translates to ‘The Land of High Passes’, and that’s exactly what was in store for us on the way to Pangong Tso. Our views of light brown barren mountains suddenly transitioned into white snow-clad ones, as we made our way through the many passes that took us through to Pangong. One such pass was ‘Chang La Pass’ where we stopped for a while to enjoy the snow, take a few pictures and just have a look around really. It is recommended to not spend more than 15-20 minutes at this place due to the lack of oxygen, and on we went. A few more hours later, we were lakeside. Pangong is one of the most beautiful lakes I’ve ever laid eyes upon, a huge but tranquil carpet of water that reaches points far beyond your eyesight. The area around the lake has seen an upturn in restaurants named after the movie that made the lake famous where you’d find a nice cup of hot coffee to sip and a steamy plate of momos to down as you enjoy the view of the lake. The lake makes for some photo, and seeing people try innovative poses for their next Instagram post isn’t an uncommon sight. You can also ride a Yak here if you want to, something different to remember the place by. As Pangong is quite a distance away from Leh, some people even choose to pack their sleeping bags and tents to set up camp by the lake for the night. Although we did not do this, I can only imagine how amazing stargazing lakeside on a night of clear sky (which often is the case in Ladakh) would be! We sat by the lake for almost three hours, so mesmerized by the sights before us that we didn’t even realise how time flew.
The next day, and we are off on a journey again through the meandering Ladakhi roads. On the agenda today is to scale Khardung La Pass, which holds the distinction of being the highest motorable road in the world. The pass is only a short distance from Leh, however it takes a considerable amount of time to reach due to the sheer altitude and the frequency of avalanches in the region. The view at Khardung La isn’t that special, it is after all a small pass. There is a milestone that signifies that you are at the highest motorable point in the world, and a café next to it. Having a bowl of hot Maggi at the highest café in the world was quite the novelty (Added to the fact that Maggi was controversially banned in India at the time we visited but shh don’t tell anyone!). The main selling point of Khardung La Pass is the journey. It is a biker’s paradise. For hardcore biking enthusiasts to show off to their friends that they have biked to the highest road in the world must be something. Some time of playing in the snow and a brunch at the café is all you can do here, as again low oxygen levels prompt you to only stay for a short while. Plus its better to get yourself to a secure area as soon as possible to prevent the possibility of being stuck up there due to an avalanche obstructing the road.
We spent the evening loitering about the town of Leh, mainly in the markets where you’ll find local handicraft articles aplenty. From buddhist souvenirs to authentic Pashmina shawls and the typical Tibetan Prayer Flags that you see attached to every car/bike that has been here, everything can be found in the bustling markets of Leh’s Fort Road. Another product I would say is an absolute must-buy from Leh is their Apricots. From the fruit to dried Apricots to Apricot Jam, you can rest assured that you’ll find the absolute zenith of quality of apricot in Leh. Make sure you’ve brushed up on your bargaining skills and put them to good use in these markets. We got ourselves a good night’s sleep as next day was yet another long journey, but this time it was less sight-seeing, more historical.
The Srinagar-Leh highway, NH1 is the Northernmost National Highway in the country. On this highway, lies a town on the banks of the Suru River. A town which isn’t the largest in size, but one which has tremendous historical significance that has shaped the country. I’m talking about none other than Kargil, the second largest town in Ladakh after Leh, a district that saw tremendous amount of bloodshed during the 1999 war between neighbours India and Pakistan. We set out early morning from Leh along the NH1 and I have to say that the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) has done a tremendous job in constructing such a magnificent highway in the harshest of terrains. The NH1 is as scenic as it gets, you just need to take your phone out of your pockets and click away, it’ll still yield a good picture, that’s how beautiful this route is. On the way we stopped by the confluence of two very important rivers, the first of which is the Zanskar which is the hotbed (more like cold bed) of the Chadar trek which sees enthusiasts hiking from Chiling to Padum in winter along a frozen sheet of the Zanskar. The Zanskar river also serves its summer purpose by being a rafting spot, and a beautiful one at that. At the confluence, the Zanskar meets the mighty Indus river, the birthplace of one of the earliest civilizations and the origin of over a billion people that walk the planet today.
Kargil is located on another river, the Suru river which typically flows with full force through the town. When we joked with a local about swimming in the river, he calmly said to us ‘Jump in and you will reach Pakistan in no time!’. Exhausted from the journey, our evening was spent on the banks of the river, white noise from the flowing water and a soft breeze as we unwound. Doesn’t sound like a warzone town does it? The next morning we headed over to Dras, where the Kargil War memorial is located. The memorial serves as a tribute to many a brave soldier who laid down their lives for the nation, with each of their names etched in sandstone as they live on forever through their noble sacrifice. The battlegrounds of Tiger Hill, Tololing and Batra Top are all visible from the memorial. With the mountains surrounding the memorial being as beautiful as they are, it is hard to imagine that this place was once ravaged by war, a truly humbling thought that puts a lot of things into perspective. I request you to do your bit and buy a souvenir when you visit, all purchases go towards the Indian Army.
As I said earlier, no trip you take in India will quite be like Ladakh. The sheer natural beauty, spirituality and historical significance truly makes it unique. It is a trip that will change you. And although Ladakh gets more are more commercial by the day, it still is a place that is well worth the visit. It truly is, India’s crown jewel.
Read about the hidden jewels in Ladakh: Ladakh Unseen – An Arcane Adventure.