If there’s one place that I was nervous to travel to; it was Ladakh. While it is definitely in every traveller’s bucket list, the acclimatisation and the stories that one hears about AMS or Acute Mountain Sickness can make a first timer unsure of a trip to the “land of passes.” As soon as we stacked our suitcases in the jeep waiting for us, the first question asked by the driver was “Are you ok? No difficulty breathing?” Thankfully we could give him a big thumbs up. The beauty of the snow peaks in contrast to the brown, barren, undulating land and the clear blue skies can take anyone’s breath away. Two days of advisory rest in Lha Ri Sa hotel had me restless and I wanted to head out and experience this wonderland. The following week involved a lot of travelling- Khardungla Pass, Nubra Valley, Pangong Tso, Moonland and the many monasteries that we visited.
For photographers, the shutterbugs in Ladakh work non-stop. The region of Ladakh is picturesque and the landscapes intriguing and magical. While there will be loads written and information shared in my upcoming posts, these 7 moments will remain etched in my mind.
At an altitude of 5,359 meters and 39.7 km from Leh, the road to Khardungla is often interrupted by landslides and avalanches. Termed as the ‘highest motorable pass in the world’ by many, the thinning of oxygen levels at this altitude is a major concern and one is not advised more than a few minutes to halt here. Being in the army, Dad had spent many months in the area. I had seen his photos at the landmark and I remember his stories about Leh and Khardungla. Would I ever go? I had wondered as a child. To be finally there was a thrilling moment. I leapt with joy. I had done it!
My tip: The toilets in Khardungla are rather messy and should be avoided. If you are approaching from Leh, stop at South Pullu or if you are approaching from Nubra/Pangong, halt at North Pullu. These army check posts have ‘pay and use’ toilets. They are clean and have ample water.
Located on top of a mountain, the Gompa is a twelve storey complex. With less than an hour to closing time, I ran up the stairs, taking two at a time. By the time I reached the courtyard of the temple, I was breathless and not one person was in sight. A flight of stairs beckoned me to walk further up. Two storeys high, 15 metres tall, the most beautiful statue of Maitreya Buddha was seated in the lotus position. I stood mesmerised. The spectacular view of Leh could be seen outside the huge glass windows of the temple. The vistas and the magnificence of the statue left me enthralled and the words that spilt out were “Is this heaven?”
My tip: If you want to enjoy unique prayer rituals in the monastery, make sure to visit it early morning.
Meeting the mountain goats
The terrain from Nubra Valley to Pangong Lake is very rough. Somewhere along the route, we had a flat tyre. As Sam and our driver, Sonam were changing the tyre, I headed out on a stroll of my own. A whole flock of mountain goat came running towards me. “Sonammmm! Look!” I shouted.”No worry madam. They’re all friendly.” Assured, I sat down and laughed and played with them.
My Tip: One comes across wildlife such as marmots, fox, mountain goats, bison and yaks while making the road trip in Ladakh. Be on the lookout as you enjoy the scenic views.
The Beauty of Pangong Tso
The azure stretch of Pangong Lake offers ever changing hues of the mountain ranges in the deep blue still waters. Unforgettable moments come when you least expect them. Such is the overwhelming experience of Pangong. The looming mountains have a calming effect and the shimmer in the water leaves you guessing whether its colour is blue or green. As you walk along the lake the cool breeze caresses your face and you can feel the pebbles under your feet. It’s no wonder that Bollywood movies are shot here. The views in Pangong are breathtaking. I love wearing sarees and had my share of filmy fun when I went Bollywood ishtyle and got myself clicked in a saree at Pangong Tso.
My Tip: It’s advisable to carry a portable oxygen cylinder, easily available at the chemists, with you. Since Pangong Tso is at a higher altitude and the closest army camp is about 15 km away, it’s better to be safe. Keep yourself hydrated at all times.
The Dromedary or the one-humped camel are found in the deserts like Rajasthan while the Bactria two-humped camel inhabits high altitude, cold desert regions. The highest population of Bactrian camels is found in Hunder region and camel safari is a main tourist attraction. After a long, solitary drive from Leh to Nubra, we stopped to ride these beautiful camels.
My Tip : Another fun activity is the ATV ride in Khalsar, Nubra. While in the Valley, don’t miss the 106 feet tall Maitreya statue in the Diskit Monastery. The Diskit Monastery is the largest and the oldest surviving monastery in Nubra Valley.
Meeting the Lamas in Hemis Monastery
The Hemis Monastery, built in 1630, is the biggest gompa in Ladakh and known for its grand architectural style. Within the monastery there are gold statues, a temple devoted to Padmasambhava, the incarnation of Lord Buddha, stupas decorated with precious stones and a huge collection of sacred thankas. About 45 km from Leh, as we reached closer to the monastery we crossed a group of lamas walking on the road. “Stop Sonam! I want to meet them.” I shouted excitedly. As soon as the car screeched to a halt, jumped out and ran towards them. Shy smiles and big hugs is what I received from each one of them and they were just too happy with the photoshoot we had thereafter.
My Tip: The annual Hemis Festival is celebrated in the monastery in June/ July for two days where the dancers wear mystic masks and beautiful handicrafts of the region are showcased. It must not be missed.
Moonland / Lamayuru
Similar to the lunar terrain, the landscape at Lamayuru is surreal. According to the local legend, the mountains we see were once at the bottom of a lake. With time, the lake dried up. The receeding water and erosion from the winds have created unusual patterns on the slopes resembling the craters on the moon. Hence, it is also known as Moonland.
My Tip: Lamayuru is a favourite jaunt for photographers and trekkers. A perfect bird’s eye view of the Moonland can be viewed from the Meditation Hill near Lamayuru Monastery.
These are my seven moments. Have you been to Ladakh? What are your most memorable moments? Are there any special pointers you have to share? Please drop a line and let us know.