Ladakh Unseen: An Arcane Adventure – Part 1

Places covered in this article: Tso Moriri Lake, Hanle village. To read about our travel to Pangong Tso lake, Chang La pass and in and around Leh city, read this article. To read our next travelogue in this series covering Khardungla pass, Diskit, Hunder, Turtuk, Tyakshi and Thang, check this.

Ladakh finds its place in poems, lores, bucket-lists and hearts. In one of our previous article (Ladakh, The Crown Jewel of India), we have covered several stunning destinations in Ladakh. However a majority of Ladakh still remains hidden – desolate and out of easy reach for many. And that, dear readers, depicts the real ardour of Ladakh.

Anywhere you look, Ladakh presents some breathtaking views!

When it comes to the uncharted side of Ladakh, it is impossible for anyone to not appreciate the sheer grandeur of the Tso Moriri lake. The crystal clear skies of Hanle village will take your breath away. The isolation and outright beauty of the Aryan valley will sooth you and the astonishing history of Turtuk will awaken the patriotism of any Indian! And this goes without saying, the unmitigated magnanimity of the mountains and their stunning views will leave you astounded. In this series of articles, I wish to take you to see the ‘other side’ of Ladakh. These are the places which receive comparatively less crowds and deserve more love than any place out there. Welcome to Ladakh unseen, indeed, an arcane adventure!

In this article, we will visit the surreal Tso Moriri lake and Hanle village. In part 2 of this series, we will take a look at the legendary Aryan valley and the village of Turtuk, placed on the western edge of Nubra valley along the Indo-Pak border.

Tso Moriri Lake

Barren lands around, a tiny village besides and the brackish blue waters of Tso Moriri lake.

Tso Moriri lake is a hidden chef-d’oeuvre of Ladakh! Located nearly fifteen thousand feet above sea level, the altitude and temperature of Tso Moriri can be trying. Even when I visited this mountain lake in August, the dry cold at night can get into your bones! The roads here are dusty and unpaved in some parts, the weather is unpredictable and temperatures go well below the freezing point for most part of the year. But when you get through all this, the pleasure of being in arcadia is immense!

What makes Tso Moriri special?

From whichever angle you look, Tso Moriri lake looks absolutely stunning!

The surreal scenery of the Tso Moriri lake makes up for the inhospitable weather and thin air. We arrived here quite late at night. Now, this is something I would not encourage anyone to do. Tso Moriri is not a touristy town by any means. A limited options for staying and only handful convenience centres are available here. Even medical facilities, if needed, are available at military checkpoints. As the day comes to an end, these few options become even onerous to find! However, being in a group, we were still able to find a decent place to stay and eat. You can even find few places to pitch your tents and even rent them.

What to do in Tso Moriri?

Wandering around the lake

Walking around the crystal clear lake, one is blessed with brilliant views all along!

The daybreak is when this clandestine little burg starts to show off! One thing I would encourage everyone is to take a quiet, lull walk around the plains surrounding the lake. I woke up early in the morning to spend a desultory few hours wandering around the lake and becoming acquainted with its cold, stark beauty. The brackish waters here are fed by small springs and glacial melt, bringing life to the Tso Moriri Wetland Conservation Reserve. Like many places in the upper Himalayas, this place too, is inhospitable in winters and availability of any kind of facilities after November up until April is almost impossible to find. In August, however, we could see a handful of travellers here making their way from Leh and surrounding areas.

Korzok Monastery

The Korzok Monastery is a Tibetan Buddhist monastery that was built along the banks of the Tso Moriri river. It is almost a century and half old and is situated in the Korzok village near Tso Moriri. Located at a high altitude of about 14,960 feet, it is a unique gompa with Shakyamuni Buddha statues.

The Korzok Monastery is perhaps one of the most isolated and reticent gompa I have seen!

The name ‘Korzok’ means ‘acquired by unfair means’. The monastery is named in the memorial of the changpas, who were the nomadic herdsmen. These inhabitants were exploited back in the day by the monastery by paying them an unfairly amount for their services. Later, as the reigns changed, the locals still remember this monastery for its history. About 70 monks still live in the gompa. We were lucky to have gotten a chance to visit this place in its prime season – Korzok mostly attracts travellers during the ‘Korzok Gustor’ festival which is held in July/August. The festival ends with an interesting ritual, the dismemberment of the ‘storma’, a sacrificial cake. The ritual, known as ‘argham’ (or killing), symbolises the destruction of evil and is a tradition going on since decades!

Wildlife excursion and bird spotting

Tso Moriri is notorious for its wild life. The area surrounding the lake is declared as wild life reserve. One can spot numerous rare animals like the Tibetan wild ass (Kiang), red foxes and a multitude of migratory birds.

Ladakh is rich in local flora and fauna, especially around mountain lakes and wetlands.

Despite the dry landscapes and high mountain peaks amidst which it is located, Tso Moriri is an ideal birding destination for nature lovers, photographers, and bird watchers. It is one of the best bird-watching spots in Ladakh. Area surrounding the lake is also known for being a breeding spot for ‘Bar-headed Geese’ and ‘Black-necked Crane’, a rare species of birds. The lake is home to several more species of birds not found anywhere else in the country. One can gather tremendous information about the way these birds live by watching their activities closely. The lake and its banks covers a vast topography, covering a myriad of terrains – wetlands, dry lands and stretches of grazing grasslands. On a good day, one can spend hours on bird-watching activity and studying the local ecosystem!

One can spot many wild life photographers and bird watchers in and around Tso Moriri.

The surrounding areas of the Tso Moriri lake have plethora of wild animals, including the blue sheep, Ladakhi bharal, and Ibex. You will have a great time exploring the Himalayan wildlife in the high plateaus as high altitude arid plains are rich in unique wildlife and despite the infertile land, possess a plush ecosystem. Recently, population of these animals has been increasing due to improved breeding techniques.

Life in Tso Moriri

Life here may be a little rough, but the Ladakhi people around here live quite happily in goatskin and yak hair tents. The changpas (meaning the nomadic migratory herders) of the region raise yak, sheep, horses and goats. They often graze on rough terrain dotted with the effects of permafrost. When the Sun goes down, the village, people and life in general here comes to a halt. All that life of the Himalayas gives way to stygian nights that are black, cold, and, in our case, crystal clear skies with a million stars above! It is a common sight to see the handful travelers huddle together for food and conversations and then try to catch some sleep through the freezing night (and at times, the nagging altitude sickness).

People in Tso Moriri live in closely-knit communities. They worship to traditional temples like this one.

One thing which struck me about this pristine village is the simplicity of its people and their lifestyle. Now-a-days, many families in Tso Moriri solely depend on tourism – providing camping equipment, places to station the travellers; others still rely heavily on animal husbandry. The environment here is hostile and weather is harsh, however, they are some of the most friendly, grateful and ecstatic people I have met! The villagers here often move to Leh and other settlements nearby in winters. After the winters, they move back to their villages.

Despite the tricky weather and terrain, a selected few travelers still make their way up to this lake in the clouds. It is especially popular with motorcyclists, just like a majority of Ladakh! Due to its status as a protected area and wetland, the lake has no infrastructure for tourists, and on an endless Himalayan expanse, it’s hard to imagine what man-made feature could possibly improve it. The almost twenty thousand feet plus mountain ranges in the backdrop provide a stunning view. The terrain surrounding the lake is barren and life-less for the most part, but that is what makes this lake unique and magnificent!

How to reach Tso Moriri?

Road map for Leh to Tso Moriri and Hanle route. © Cobblestone Chronicles

Like us, a majority of people plan a trip to Tso Moriri and Hanle together. You may also try to include Tso Kar in list itinerary. Before you plan any trip in Ladakh, always check the Ladakh administration website to make sure whether tourists are allowed in those places or not. Being close to the border, the areas are sensitive and the access is often restricted for tourists.

A majority of road from Leh to Mahe is a treat to drive!

We did a 3 day trip in this case. On the first day, we travelled from Leh to Tso Moriri. The journey takes around 6 to 7 hours and the road till Mahe is a well paved one, baring few stretches of unpaved road in the middle. At Mahe, you would have to show your inner line tourist permit to proceed further to Hanle and Tso Moriri. After this check post, turn right on an old wooden bridge and your adventure to Tso Moriri begins! The road ahead is not as good as the one before, but you won’t have any issue in finding the road ahead.

Below content is a video – click or tap on it to play.

Despite the road being in bad shape in few patches, you certainly can’t complain when the scenery around is heavenly!

Tso Moriri lies about 65 kilometre from Mahe, and you will see the turquoise blue waters of the lake in the distance within an hour and a half of leaving Mahe. On the second day, we started from Tso Moriri and made our way to Hanle via Mahe, more on that later. Because of the extreme weather and hostile conditions, the conditions of roads are never the same for multiple seasons. Hence, try to get some prior information on the route beforehand.

Hanle Village

A quaint, peaceful village in Ladakh, Hanle should definitely be on the itinerary of any intrepid traveller. It is home to some of the most unique attractions, both traditional and technological! I visited Hanle immediately after Tso Moriri, and I believe our route was the most efficient one if you would just want to visit Tso Moriri and Hanle. It is approximately 95 kilometre from Mahe. Hanle is accessible by road through Nyoma and Loma as well, if that is your route of choice. This entire landscape is frozen and inhospitable for the most part during winters. Since Hanle is located close to the Indo-China border, you would need a special inner-line permit to visit this place. All said and done, Hanle is a paradise for those seeking peace and quietude, away from the maddening pace of the current age cities. 

What to do in Hanle?

Hanle Monastery

Built approximately 20km from the LAC (Line of Actual Control) between India and Tibet, Hanle Monastery is a unique specimen of Tibetan, Chinese and Indian architectural style. In the 16th century, a Ladakhi king named Sengge Namgyal built this stunning gompa along a Tibetan lama named Taktsang Repa Ngakwang Gyatso. This monastery is one of the largest and well-known monasteries in Ladakh.

While its architecture is typical of other monasteries found in Ladakh, what sets it apart is the setting of the monastery amidst the sparse surroundings. Located at a steep height, visitors can either walk or travel by road in a clockwise direction. High set, white walls are visually broken with splashes of bright color seen on the flags, temple entrances and painted roofs. Currently, the monastery is home to about a dozen or so monks while many others too come regularly for prayers. Atop the monastery, one can experience the scintillating and unique terrain of the Hanle river basin. In the distance, you can see the soft green grass blanketing the spread-out banks and small streams of water pervading through the barren rocky mural.

The Hanle river basin as seen from Hanle monastery.

Indian Astronomical Observatory

Hanle is ideal for observing and studying the skies. A high altitude, low ambient temperature, low humidity, less concentration of atmospheric aerosols and unpolluted air is a perfect recipe for observing the stars above and beyond. In 2001, the Indian Astronomical Observatory was built in Hanle, which is the highest observatory of its kind. The observatory is at an altitude of 14,764 feet above sea level. It has two active telescopes – a 6.5 feet tall Himalayan Chandra Telescope, and the High Altitude Gamma Ray Telescope. The observatory is on a hill top closer just besides Hanle village. You would need a prior permission to visit this place. The technical official available there will then give you a brief tour and explain the functioning of the giant telescope observatory.

One can even walk up to upper deck and see the machines. It is genuinely fascinating to see and hear everything about this place. It houses infrared, optical and gamma-ray observation technologies, which are entirely controlled (remotely, from Bangalore) by the Indian Institute of Astrophysics. 

Star gazing

Just a year ago (in 2021), administration of the union territory of Ladakh (in association with the Indian Institute of Astrophysics) promoted astro-tourism in the village. They declared Hanle as a ‘dark sky sanctuary’ – a place that could offer tourists an unprecedented experience of star gazing.

Like many villages in and around the Ladakh union territory, the Indian army immensely supports the local and tourist activities, including making Hanle a dark-sky sanctuary. Amid the emptiness of the village ringed by mountains, you can sit quietly and gaze upon the magical, illuminated sky for hours!

It can become relatively difficult for a first time traveller to gauge the serene beauty of this place. The remoteness of the village and lack of information also becomes a decisive factor on whether a visit would be worthwhile or not. However, mark my words, this place is completely worth it. Hanle is a dazzling combination of plains and mountains; and if you are lucky (if there are no clouds), you will learn a new definition of ‘crystal clear skies’ here!

How to reach Hanle?

Once you reach Mahe, both Hanle and Tso Moriri are easily accessible. The road to Hanle from Mahe is comparatively better than the route to Tso Moriri. Travelling through Nyoma, Loma and Rhongo, you would reach Hanle is about 3 hours from Mahe. As mentioned previously, you would have to verify your permit at Mahe to proceed to Hanle.

Leh to Mahe is a scintillating road measuring about 160 kilometre. On a good day (when weather is good and traffic is minimum), it would take you around 3 hours to cover this distance, This road is in great shape for most parts; and at times, it’s better than expected!

What is the best time to visit Tso Moriri and Hanle?

The best time to visit Tso Moriri is during June to September. During these days, the temperature remains comfortable and is apt for sightseeing and travelling in the barren lands of Ladakh. This place rarely is rarely affected in the rainy season, being at a very high altitude. Travel here starts some time around mid-May.

Summer brings out the best in Ladakh! The roads are spectacular and the destinations, even better!

Winters approach Tso Moriri as October comes to an end and lasts till March and some part of April. During this time, try to avoid casual travel to Tso Moriri and Hanle (actually, Ladakh, in general) unless you are planning extreme weather treks and travel. The temperatures here drop well below -30°C. Most local tribes and inhabitants move to Leh and other citified areas in the region to subsist through the harsh winters.

Prepare wisely before you travel

  • Tso Moriri and Hanle are extremely remote places. The weather is unpredictable, mobile network is unreliable, and in case of any mishap, assistance can be miles away.
  • At both places, there are hardly any food joints and cafes. As a result, eating at your guest house or homestay would be your only option. If you are going out to venture, make sure to pack ample food and water with you.
  • There are no ATMs in Hanle and Tso Moriri (as of June 2022). Carrying ample cash is a necessity.
  • You can find basic medicines at the army settlement camps, but both Tso Moriri and Hanle have only one pharmacy each.
  • The nearest petrol pump is located at Karu, which is about 130 km from Mahe. It falls in between Leh and Upshi. If you are driving on your own, make sure you fill up your tank at Karu.
  • The roads are unpaved at many places. Drive with utmost caution and ensure you carry a puncture kit, spare wheel and avoid travelling in bad weather.
  • Before starting any long journey, make sure you go through the notifications (weather, entry and permit related) provided by the government.
  • Lastly, respect the nature, local culture and the army. Clean up after yourself and encourage local and sustainable tourism.

Being in Ladakh is similar to being in heaven, as most travellers often say. As Gita Ashok rightly put it –

A nature lover’s paradise,
a photographer’s obsession,
an artist’s inspiration,
a traveller’s cynosure,
Ladakh is all these and more.
Ladakh is truly a heaven on Earth.

Gita Ashok.

4 responses to “Ladakh Unseen: An Arcane Adventure – Part 1”

  1. What a beautiful magnificent landscape this is! Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks Anna! Hope you get a chance to visit Ladakh. The monasteries are rich in history and mountains and lakes are surreal!

  2. Superb pics… 👌🏻👌🏻

  3. […] This article is a continuation of our previous travelogue – Ladakh Unseen: An Arcane Adventure – Part 1. […]

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: