For those of us who travel often, every now and then comes a journey experience that we can’t wait to share once we return. This particular one, right here, is certainly one of those, not because it was different, which it was, but because it kind of changed my perspective towards travelling forever…
So, this Kashmir and Ladakh trip, we had been planning for almost 2 years and by we, I mean my friend Lipika and I. And when by the end of 2015, the flight ticket fares from Delhi to Srinagar dropped down considerably; we jumped with joy and got them booked immediately. July was the chosen month and July 8 was the day. Our return flight tickets from Leh to Delhi were purchased quite late, somewhere in mid May 2016 and certainly cost us a bomb or maybe not as this was one of the right decisions out of the many during this trip; it saved us from a problem I don’t even want to think that we could have landed ourselves into.
You know how they say that ‘Everything Happens for a Reason’, I kind of started believing into it even more now…
Our flight was early in the morning, somewhere around 5:40AM and we were scheduled to reach at 7:00AM in Srinagar. Excited, though a bit drowsy (reaching airport at 4:00AM meant leaving home by 3:00AM and waking up for it by 2-2:30AM), we took our seats near the emergency exit of the plane; boy these seats have some decent leg room on a cost-efficient flight! We were happy. Since I was on the seat on aisle and there was no view from here, I had made up my mind to take a nap as soon as this plane takes off. So, once the plane started to speed up on the runway and was about to take off, before I could close my eyes, I heard a man saying ‘Bum’ (bomb in hindi) in a loud voice and I swear on my life, his word made my heart skip a beat or two, in a fraction of a second, my whole life revolved around my eyes, and I was about to go unconscious from fear when he said ‘Bum’ another time; only this time couple of people responded to him with the word ‘Bhole’(Shiva). Lipika, her husband, Mohit and I exchanged looks and we laughed, I realized they had become just as sacred as I. Turned out this large group onboard was heading out to Amarnath for performing pilgrimage. God, I still cannot forget how for the first time the man said ‘Bum’ literally scared me to death. Not to mention, he did the same thing while we were landing, only this time three of us giggled when he said it.
The Srinagar Airport is pretty. It has the famed walnut wood carved decor, giving one the right feeling of being in Kashmir.
We took a prepaid taxi from Srinagar Airport to our houseboat at Dal Lake on Ghat No.17, Queen Elizabeth. The route was short but we made sure to get detailed ideas for sightseeing in Srinagar. We were dropped at Ghat 17, where a Shikarawala was waiting for us.
It was a cloudy rather a misty day in Srinagar and visibility was quite low, although the warmth of the sun could be felt but the surrounding mountains hid under an opaque cover of fog. We sat in our Shikara and set out to sail on the legendary Dal Lake.
Our Houseboat, Queen Elizabeth had prominent blue staircase that could be spotted from a distance. The houseboat enjoys a lovely location with a view to die for. As we arrived at the stairs of the houseboat, happiness could be seen on our faces. Our luggage was taken care of and after leaving our shoes on the porch outside, we were assisted to our room. Walking through a short passageway that had large windows, we made it to our room, which was spacious enough for three people and was done in the traditional Kashmiri style. They say the last room in the houseboat is always the biggest. Good for us!
The young care taker who assisted us, asked what we would like to have in breakfast. He must be 23-24 years tall lad, with a deep tone of voice and a sweet face. Mohit engaged him in conversation and asked where and how we can go for sightseeing in Srinagar. In his deep tone, he named few places. I prompted Jama Masjid, to which he said, “Haan wo bhi, par Old City nahi jana hai, wo sahi nahi hai” (You should not go to Old City, it is not a safe place), that kind made my eyes grow bigger. I did not respond to it though. We asked him for his name, ‘Faisal’, he said. Mohit then asked if WiFi was available here, to which he replied, ‘WiFi hain na, main deta hu password (There is WiFi, let me give you the password)… One, Two, Sikkis’, Mohit looked at him to confirm and he repeated ‘One, Two, Sikkis’, Lipika in a hushed tone said to Mohit, he means ‘Six’. We all smiled softly, without having him to notice us. Mohit asked him to repeat the password and Faisal again said, ‘One, Two, Sikkis, Manzoor, One, Two, Sikkis’. He further asked us to make use of the ‘Hawwt (Hot) Water’ in the washroom, also he advised us to ‘Mikkis’ (Mix) some cold water in it. Oh, I can’t tell how sweet he looked talking like that, he reminded me of Shraddha Kapoor from the movie Haider. As he exited the room after his valuable inputs, we all chuckled and repeated ‘One, Two, Sikkis’.
Our houseboat was a traditional one, done with the walnut wood interior. It looked quite elegant, a place where I can live forever. After we were done with breakfast, Lipika and I sat outside in the porch area and looked at the beautiful Dal Lake. There were more Shikaras now and ferries could also be spotted. Some of the Shikarawalas were selling packaged food and a few were offering fresh fruit salad. A gentleman on our boat arrived and offered to show us some jewellery pieces. Lipika was interested, so he quickly went and got his suitcase and in the living room of the houseboat, we enjoyed at looking at some of the most pretty jewellery. I really liked how this man spoke, he had etiquettes and he had a way of saying words, which would make anyone pay attention to what he said instantly. Another gentleman that we happened to meet on the boat was the owner Munna Bhai (when I introduced him to Mohit and Lipika, Mohit jokingly addressed him as Munna Bhai MBBS, in response to it he promptly said ‘No, illiterate!’) who offered us the taxi to Ladakh at a reasonable price.
After spending some time and enjoying a small session of houseboat shopping, we got ready and left for the sightseeing tour of Srinagar. We were dropped at Ghat No 17, from where we booked an auto for the day. For sightseeing in Srinagar, auto would be the best idea if there are three people. Cab would be too expensive of an affair. Our first destination was Shankaracharya Temple that was perched on top of a mountain and offered spectacular view of Srinagar city. There are about 240 stairs which lead to a stone-made temple dedicated to Shankarcharya. It was a hot day and we sweated heavily but with little efforts made it up there. The view from the entrance gate is lovely. Cameras and phones are not allowed here and so are the bags and leather belts.
While we were returning, our auto driver stopped at a place that he called View Point. He said you should take pictures from here, after all ‘People should know how beautiful our city Srinagar is’ and I couldn’t agree more. The view was absolutely scenic from the point.
Our next destination was Pari Mahal, which offered equally spectacular views of Srinagar City. We had visited Srinagar two days after the Eid and it seemed as if everybody was still in the festive mood as all the places we visited were packed with people – young, old and middle aged. We visited the two of the Mughal Gardens, Shalimar and Chashm-e-Shahi and decided to skip Nishat as it was too crowded. Chashm-e-Shahi was an amazing place, we had no clue what it was about unless we saw a spring that people were surrounding and getting pictures clicked with. We were told the water has medicinal properties and is drinkable. We managed to get a bottle filled from the spring, turns out the water was ice cold and was sweet in taste. After enjoying a decent lunch near Shalimar Bagh, we visited Hazratbal Shrine. Gleaming in white marble, it looked quite fascinating to me.
While we were returning from the shrine, we stopped at a cyber cafe to get the tickets done for the Gondola Ride in Gulmarg, which was the plan for Day 2 in Kashmir. It is advised to book Gondola Ride tickets a day in advance as it keeps things hassle-free. On the way back, we requested our auto driver to take us to a restaurant in Srinagar that is famous for its food. He took us to Shamyana Restaurant that looked quite promising. We got Gushtaba (meatball in white yogurt gravy) and seekh kebabs packed and returned to our houseboat by 7:00PM to our houseboat, where we decided to have a small celebration in our room. It was Faisal who told us that we could even get the barbeque kebabs on the houseboat as a particular shikarawala in the evening offers fresh barbeque delicacies. Oh, how I still remember the aroma of the meat that was charred over slow fire by him.
It was a bit breezy in the night, so we decided to sit in the porch area, there were two men on the boat who were discussing something in a low tone. One of them noticing us, asked where are we visiting from and for how many days would we be staying in Srinagar. We told him that we would be going to Gulmarg tomorrow and then the next day to Kargil. He looked poised and then in a soft tone, he said did you know that it is likely that there will be a curfew imposed in Srinagar tomorrow…
We couldn’t believe our ears. The man who has paused for a moment said a militant has been killed in the evening today and people have already started protesting against it. Keeping in view the possibility of protest and stone pelting, curfew will be imposed from tomorrow. Silence took over the place, broken only when Faisal came to us to inform dinner was on the table. Although, I did not see Faisal smiling even once in the entire day, however, he looked sad and that I could tell. We confirmed about the curfew and incident happened and he said, it was true. He told us, he is worried about the other two guests and their families as they are stuck somewhere en route Pahalgam because of the violent protest. He further said that he had advised them to leave early in the morning and return to Srinagar by 7:00PM but they gave his advice a deaf ear. He sweetly said, “bhaut tension ho rahi hai madam, waha bhaut RIKKIS (risk) hai.”(I am worried madam, the place is risky). We couldn’t help smile on ‘Rikkis’ but truth was that we were scared now. It started to rain by the time we finished dinner. Faisal said to us, pray that the downpour continues, this is the only way that can control the protest tomorrow. We went to our room, only to lie on our beds as sleep has somehow abandoned us on this stormy night.
May be sleep did manage a few hours of our troubled night. As I realized we were woken up by a knock on our door. My heart pounded faster, as Lipika went to answer the door. It was the Shikarawala arranged by Faisal to take us to the Vegetable Floating Market.
‘Ready Madam’, he asked Lipika.
Lipika was a bit surprised to see him as we had forgotten all about it. She asked him to give us sometime, to which he agreed. ‘Do you think it is a good idea’, I asked her. ‘I don’t know’, she said and we started to get dressed.
It was still slightly dark when we set out on Dal Lake. And because it rained last night, the weather was little cold as well. Lipika asked the Shikarawala about the curfew to which he pretended as if he didn’t know anything about it. He questioned us back, asking who told us about the curfew. We told him that the houseboat staff informed us about it and advised us to drop our plan to go to Gulmarg today. He said, he didn’t know much about it, and there is certainly no curfew in the area from where he lives. We three looked at each other, didn’t know what to tell him.
Dawn is probably the best time to visit Dal Lake. The sun was on the rise and now we could clearly see the mountains that hid in the thick sheet of fog yesterday. The lake was quiet and so were we. We observed the landscape and houseboats, there were few birds to look at as well. Suddenly, the Shikarawala asked us, do you know what happened last night?
‘Some militant was killed’, we said.
‘Burhan Wani, one of the commanders of Hizbul Mujahideen was killed yesterday’, he informed. ‘He was a young guy of about 22-23 years of age,’ he further stated. Now we paid him attention. He showed us a picture of the deceased body of Burhan on Facebook and trust me it was not something any of us would have liked to see right in the morning. He then said, Burhan had recently became famous when one of his videos of playing cricket in the woods was released on TV. We had to give our discussion a pause as we had reached the Floating Vegetable Market.
This place looked amazing, with several shikaras replete with fresh veggies and flowers. There were also in-boat confectionaries, seriously no kidding, people were selling dry cakes, cookies and desserts on the Shikaras. We did try some because they looked delicious! There were number of tourists, mostly from other countries to visit this unique market in Srinagar, we interacted with few and observed and smiled at many.
Once done taking pictures, we asked the Shikarawala to take us to have some Kahwa (Kashmiri Tea). We stopped at one of the shops at the place that was the Floating Market of Dal Lake. After having some refreshing Kahwa, we started out for our houseboat. On the way we saw the houseboat on which the shooting for Bollywood movie Mission Kashmir was done; also we noticed the snow-clad mountains, in the distance, which our Shikarawala told us was of Gulmarg. We three again looked at each other, we felt sad that we were unable to pay a visit there.
As it was still early in the morning and we had nowehere to go the entire day, we decided to catch up on some sleep. This time, we really slept. When I woke up, I was alone in the room, I freshned up and headed out and saw one of the guests (who was stuck in Pahalgam last night ) sitting with Lipika and Mohit. I joined them. The man looked tired but relieved. He said, it was a terrible night, they saw people throwing stones and someone nearly attacked their car but realizing it is a tourist taxi, they spared it. He told us how a local family helped them with food and milk for the kids. The family even helped them escape from Pahalgam when they found the right opportunity. He also praised the owner of the houseboat for making bookings at a good hotel in Srinagar at such a short notice. We bid him good bye and then worry took a toll over us. ‘How would we go to Ladakh?’, ‘Are we safe?’, ‘What will happen to our trip?’ all these thoughts were haunting us now. We did not disclose the conditions of here to our families but we knew they would soon find out through news on TV.
Faisal served us breakfast. After which we sat out on the porch, talking to Munna Bhai’s brother and other staff members. Number of facts were told about the ongoing protest in Kashmir, which made us more afraid. What we realized is that there are indeed two faces of a coin. Faisal shared some of his stories from his college time when he was asked to be part of such protests and on refusing he was twice beaten up (bad). Another gentleman that we met a day before, who even sold us jewellery items had some stories to tell as well. He said the military/police personnels never laid their hands on him ever. Never was he asked to walk in a queue nor was asked to show his Identity Card. They even told us that this kind of protest happened after 10 years, although small ones keep on occurring from time to time.
‘After 10 years, and it had to happen only when we were here,’ I said to myself while trying to maintain my poise.
We watched news after every 2 hours to take a follow up, each time there was more bad news. We started to get worried about how we will be able to get out of this place as everyone predicted that this protest will extend longer. To divert my mind, I read the book I carried with me ‘The Diary of the Young Girl, Anne Frank’ and for the first time ever, I could relate how Anne must have felt being stuck in an Annexe in a bookshop during WWII. I sat in the porch and tried to concentrate on the novel, I would look at the lake from time to time, because lets face it, it wasn’t easy to concentrate. There were these two young boys of 8-10 years of age rowing a Shikara and singing ‘Janam Janam Janam Saath Chalna Yuhi’ (song from Dilwale), it immediately brought a smile on my face and the whole day, this song lingered in my head.
By evening, we were assured by Munna Bhai that we will be able to go to Ladakh, only now we have to pay a bit more for the cab and that we need to leave early by 2:00AM so that we can cross the Ganderbal District before 4:00AM. We agreed to both the conditions, you see ‘Beggars cannot be choosers’. We thanked Munna Bhai for his great help and packed our stuff and waited for it to be 2’o clock. Faisal said he would inform when our Shikara arrives. It was 1.45AM and we were all set to leave, we thought it would be better to wait in the living area instead of the room. We found Faisal asleep, with a textbook on this chest and remote of the switched on television in the hand. We called out to him but he seemed to be in deep sleep. When we looked closely to the book on his chest, it appeared to be the preparation material for some examination. We again called out to him, this time he woke up. He apologized saying he did not sleep last night worrying about the guests. We could understand his condition, we just passed a smile at him before he hastily went in to our room to carry our luggage to the boat. As we approached the ghat, we noticed other boats filled with tourists as well. Our Shikarawala informed that all these people are also heading to Ladakh, there were two, three tempo travellers waiting for them. Our driver Bilal Bhai reached after we arrived but the waiting time was not more than 5 minutes, although those were the longest 5 minutes of my life.
We crossed Srinagar and entered Ganderbal District, where on a check post we were signalled to stop by CRPF. For some reason our driver did not stop immediately but a few millimetres ahead. A CRPF personnel ordered the driver to get down from the car, he instantely obeyed. As soon he got down the personnel slapped him, ‘Gaadi roki kyu nahi, gaadi mein militants le jaa raha hai?’ (Why did you not stop the car, are there militants inside?). Then he looked inside our car and said to us, ‘kaisa driver le jaa rahe ho aap, marwa deta ye aapko, thodi si gaadi aur aage le jata ye, hum peechhe se shoot kar dete’ (What kind of a driver are you taking with you, he could have got you killed, if he had stopped a few meters away than this, we would have fired at the car). We just couldn’t answer, nor did we dare to move a muscle. Our driver got back to the car and for few minutes we all remained silent. The man with Bilal Bhai (our driver) finally broke the silence and informed we would soon be at Zoji La. And in order to remove the odd silence, we inquired more about Zoji La and Sonmarg. Bilal Bhai finally spoke up and added to the information.
The only drawback of starting early from Srinagar was that we were unable to enjoy any views . We couldn’t see a thing while crossing Zoji La nor did we see any of the beauty of Sonmarg. However, somewhere around 4:00AM, we were at Zero Point, a place that you must stop by to take pictures. For the first time in two days of our trip, we felt extremely happy; may be it was the unparalleled beauty of this place or the fact that we were finally out of danger. It was quite cold, must have been around 6-7 Degree Celsius, there was snow on the surrounding mountains and it was drizzling…the feeling of being there was something I can never forget. Around 5:00AM we reached Toll of Kargil. Then we stopped at Drass for tea, actually others stopped for the tea, whereas I took a small tour of this second coldest inhabited place in the world. There were houses made of mud, a small stream criss crossed and then disappeared somewhere in the town. A few houses had a small kitchen yard, while some had a garden fenced by barbed wire. It all looked quiet and peaceful, since it was early morning, people were performing their daily chores. The moment you would take off your eyes from all this, the snow capped mountains in the distance will catch your attention. God, the place looked just like it has beem conjured from the fairytale. Since, we were there on a foggy day, it looked even more surreal. If you are a mountain goat like me, you would surely have ideas to settle down there.
We had made our online bookings at Hotel Rangyul in advance and it was a decent place for a budget accommodation in Kargil. The room was spacious and so was the washroom but the USP of the place was it dinning area, which had an amazing view. The staff including the manager were the most cordial people that I have met anywhere.
Since we did not sleep the entire last night, we decided to quickly get to the bed and keep sightseeing of Kargil for the evening. We must have gone to bed at 9:00AM and when we woke up it was 4:00PM. Boy, that was some sleep for sure. Lipika was not feeling well, so we had to take her to the doctor and that was all we did in the evening at Kargil. Although, we did have some tea at the dining area, where we also met other tourists, most of them were supposed to go to Srinagar to catch their flights home. But now they were stuck; and since we were the only people who were coming from Srinagar, so we gave them a fair idea of how bad things have turned there. After we returned from the doctor’s, we had dinner and just like everything else, the food was also fantastic. The manager also made taste Phating (Whole dried apricots soaked in hot water and sugar), which was absolutely delicious. We asked him to book us a cab for morning sightseeing in Kargil (In Kargil, in fact in the entire Ladakh Region, commercial vehicles other states and even from other parts of the state are not allowed for local sightseeing) after which we would leave for Leh.
Our driver for the sightseeing was a knowledgable man and needless to say well-mannered and humble as well. All through the route, he explained the places we saw and gave facts about them. It was a great experience to be in the place that once witnessed a crucial war between India and Pakistan. The driver showed us the bunkers built right on top of sky-kissing mountains where the armymen stayed during the war. We even sighted a village of Pakistan on LOC and it must have been only 30-35kms from where we were. River Drass originating from India flew through to Pakistan from here.
So, that’s how close Pakistan is to India, sad that the distance in our hearts have made the two neighbours so far apart…
We thanked the driver for such a nice tour around and then we got ready to leave for Leh, which was some 210kms from Kargil.
After a few kilometeres of dusty and under construction roads between Kargil and Leh, we had an encounter with some of the finest roads in India. I know everyone has said it but it is worth saying again: these BRO people are the best and so are their staffed writers who have come up with witty road signs like “Don’t Be a Gama in the Land of Lama”, I mean wow!
The roads are beautiful, they can give roads in the foreign countries abroad a run for money. I really liked the thought in Lipika’s head, ‘How are we ascending if all the roads are either plain or descending?’ Well that is the magic of the BRO (Himank) guys, I guess that’s how they roll. Oh did I tell you that the views were spectacular as well? Yes they were! It was something that I will never be able to describe in the world, may be I am not that kind of writer who can dare to. All I know is that driving down these roads actually made me think of what Gustave Flaubert quoted once:
“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”
Indeed it was true for this place!
On the way we saw the beautiful Lamayuru Monastery. We even stopped at few places only to get pictures. It was a bright sunny day, which was ideal for taking some good pictures.
I don’t know if Lipika, Mohit felt the same but Leh City, which we arrived by 3:00PM was everything I did not expect. It was busy yes, that I had imagined but it had views and market areas and food variety that I had not expected. Our guest house, Dolma was situated in the market area. When I called the owner for the directions, nor did he only send his men to take our luggage but himself came and greeted us. In this Land of Lama, hospitality walked an extra mile. We were offered a big room on the ground floor and it was beautifully done with traditional Ladakhi way.
We settled payments with Bilal Bhai, who also made us talk to Munna Bhai in Srinagar and then bid him good bye. So we were finally in Ladakh, all safe and very much alive… could we be more thankful?
You must have been told that acclimatization is important when you reach Leh. It is because the oxygen level is less and you do feel tired even if you walk 200m. I dealt with dry nose and blood clots, whereas Mohit and Lipika did get minor headaches and of course dry nose. They opted for Diamox, whereas I felt I could go without it here and compensate for it by drinking lots of water.
We asked the owner of Dolma Guest House to arrange a cab for Local sightseeing in Leh. The drivers here choose to go by the Rate Card their union has prepared (although, you can bargain a little).
Our driver here as well was a humble man, who bargained a bit but we thought it was fair enough on his part. So he chalked out Sangam (confluence of Indus and Zanskar River near Nimmu), Magnetic Hill (whatever you have heard about the place is true! You can check out our amateur video here), Gurudwara Patthar Sahib, Hall of Fame, Leh Palace and Shanti Stupa for our visit today.
The views from both Leh Palace and Shanti Stupa are incredible. Gurudwara Patthar Sahib is as peaceful as it is expected and the Sangam is one of its kind. You can clearly differentiate in the colour of Indus and Zanskar Rivers and in anyway cannot take your eyes away from this beautiful location. Rafting is one of the best things to do in Leh and doing it here on the Sangam is certainly an experience you would remember forever.
Our sightseeing ended somewhere around 6:00 in the evening and we thought of enjoying some delicious food at one of the restaurants in Leh called Lamayuru. The restaurant just like others in Leh served Indian, Italian, German and Israeli cuisines and not only served it but nailed it! After our early dinner, we enquired about a sharing cab for Nubra Valley, which we could luckily find with little efforts.
At 7:00AM we headed out for Nubra Valley. Two other gentlemen from Delhi joined us for this ride which was pretty much the adventure itself. I was excited to be at Khardung La, the world’s highest motorable pass and then to see the Bactrian Camels (double hump camels) and the gigantic statue of Maitreya Buddha at Disket. Like everyone told us the roads were bumpy, if you ask me, you can’t even term them as ‘Roads’, they were trails that need to get a makeover as early as possible.
The two gentlemen (Shan and Mohit) had visited Pangong Lake a day earlier and said the roads were worse than these. THAT kind of gave me scary thoughts but you know how good I am with maintaining the poise, I just nailed it again. What one would particularly notice on this route are the small streams that originate somewhere in the mountains and then flow through the roads. Interesting Right? You can encounter such streams after every 20 minutes.
We stopped at a place called South Pullu to have Tea and Maggi (I think this should be declared as the staple food in the hills, eh?). The view from the place where we stopped was once again unbeatable. On one side, one could see the snow-capped mountain range, on the other side a thin stream flowed; and eating Maggi at this kind of a place is truly an experience that can only be enjoyed in Ladakh.
Khardung La was exactly how I imagined it to be, crowded with people. I did get a minor headache there because of the altitude. Our driver all through the way asked us to fight mountain sickness by drinking water at short intervals, which obviously meant frequent toilet breaks! So, we stopped at yet another place for loo break and it was called North Pullu. It was basically an army camp and looked quite a place (the toilets around shops were horrible though). There flowed a beautiful stream and the lofty mountains fringing it gave it a run for money. The water in the handpump near the stream was cold like ice and for few seconds after I washed my hands the feel of their existence vanished. We stayed here for sometime and observed the beauty of this place.
We reached Hunder around the 2:00PM, unfortunately the camel safari between 2PM and 4PM is closed. Our driver was adamant to take us back to the Disket Village which we left 7kms behind and where the famous Disket monastery and Maitreya Buddha are situated. So, we had to linger in the small green area that had a thin stream flowing through it. We sat with our feet in the clear water and clicked pictures of the surrounding.
There isn’t anything like it… to be just there in the lap of the most surreal landscape and do nothing, not even talk…
I have often dreamed about doing something like this, I know many of us do but we never let these small dreams come true…
Since we had to return the same day, we told our driver that we were not interested in camel rides and that we want to visit Disket now. So we drove back to Disket Village, where we first enjoyed lunch and then visited the place where the statue of Maitreya Buddha is situated (opposite Disket Monastery). Trust me, the statue looks far more stunning than its photographs. The view from the point is also something that you cannot forget. We even visited the Buddhist temple in the basement of the place where the statue is erected.
It was around 4:30PM, when we headed for Leh from here. Again on the bumpy roads we drove and came to a place where a wide stream from the mountain was flowing through the road. A hatchback seem to have got stuck here. Our driver and other car/ truck drivers pulled over to help these fellas from Haryana/Delhi. After a whole lot of strength showing and brain storming, the car could be rescued.
*Hatchback Drivers please don’t put your cars into trouble like these, they are simply not made for such roads.
Before entering Leh, we again stopped at South Pullu, yes, the same place we had tea and maggi in the morning. There was a group of bikers enjoying tea over here. Lipika even requested one to allow her to get a picture with his bike. The number plate said they were visiting from Maharashtra. Mohit interacted with the biker asking if one should be trained to take up trails like these, to which he said ‘Boss one should have passion’, ‘Do you see those two guys over there?’, he pointed up at the road towards a group of men. ‘They made it to Khardung La on their bicycles’. We had nothing more to say, ‘Wow’ was the only word that came out of mouths.
We finished having tea here and then headed to Leh. The next day we had planned to visit Hemis Monastery, where the annual Hemis Festival was supposed to take place.
One should remember that few things can never be reversed. So, we woke up on July 14 at our convenience, got ready and then went for a lovely breakfast at Gesmo Restaurant. When we returned, we thought it was a convenient time for us to visit Hemis; and thus we looked for a taxi. So we headed to the agent who helped us with finding taxis to Nubra Valley. They asked us why we want to go so late to Hemis as the function (Cham Dance) would have got over by 10:00AM. We looked at other because we thought that the Festival takes place the entire day. The agent told us that timing of prayer and showing of ancient painting is between 8:00 – 10:00AM and now we would have nothing to look forward to. Let me tell you, the information broke my heart. It really did, we couldn’t reverse things, so we asked him to book us the cab for Pangong Lake and Hemis for tomorrow. Today, we shall linger in Leh.
It was a hot day in Leh, so we decided to stay in the Guest House in the afternoon and then visit Leh Market in the evening. There is something about the weather of Leh, it offers a comfortable sleep. Since we were to stay in guest house in the daytime, we chose to take a nap. In the evening, we visited the Leh Market. It is a lovely place to hang around, though a bit crowded. One can buy carpets to antiques in this market and there are many cafes and eatries where one can spend time at. The ambiance all around the market is quite interesting.
We left for Hemis Monastery at 6:30AM. Our driver today had funny bones. He joked around most of the time keeping the long journey quite interesting. En route we saw Shey Palace and Thiksey Monastery along with the sighting of Chemrey Monastery from a distance.
We reached Hemis about 7:40AM and decided to have some breakfast at a small canteen. We were told that the event will begin by 9:00AM. So, after finishing the meal, we visited the museum inside Hemis Monastery. No cameras, phones or bags are allowed in here and not even shoes can be worn inside. The museum has a decent size and has a good collection of artifacts relating to the culture of Ladakh and its religious history. The highlight of the museum is the mummified Vulture Pup that looked more like a litter of a dog.
Hemis was all decked up for the festival. Before the start of the event, we could manage to see the buddhist temples inside the monastery. One had a huge statue of Sakyamuni Buddha and the main temple had the statue of Guru Rimpoche or Padmasambhava. The interesting thing in the main temple was the bottle of liquor offered to the deity.
We found ourself some place near to the ropes that kind of separated the area for assigned for the dance performance. First, the age old traditional painting or Thangka was shown. The painting is huge in size and is hanged from the top of the roof of the monastery for everyone to see it. While the Thangka is being unrolled, a band of musicians (monks) sings and plays traditional music instruments. After this, a group of men dressed in traditional attire perform the dance inside the rink. Absolutely a must-see in Ladakh!
The road to Pangong for some odd 50kms is rough but for some reason I found them better than the roads to Nubra Valley. The major pass en route is Chang La, which is considered to be the third highest motorable pass in the world. Well, I don’t if it is a geographical fact but that’s what the signboard here said. Like the roads of Nubra, you can find several streams originating from the mountain and flowing through the roads.
The view is again something to die for! Especially when one drives between two mountains that are very close to each other and yes the Indus River stays with you everywhere through out the journey, may be hiding at some places occasionally. The Changthang Plateau is green, unlike other places in Ladakh. One can witness yaks, sheeps and horses along with pashmina goats in this area. The Himalayan Marmot is a species that you would want to look out for here. These large squirrel like animals look so adorable that you might want to take them home.
‘There it is, that’s Pangong Lake’, our driver said. He had been saying that for couple of times often pointing out to muddy puddles. We thought this was his another bluff but this one looked something familiar. Yes, it was Pangong! It was blue as ever and looked like a dream. We couldn’t wait to get closer to it!
Now I know why people are obessessed with it. This large lake spreading between India and China is seriously a dreamlike destination. Ignore the crowd around it, which is not that difficult to do as the scenic views will overtake all your senses; AND you will be transported to a different world. Since a scene from the famous movie, 3 Idiots was shot here, you would find number of Dhabas here with the banner of the same film. We spent sometime at the Lake and then drove to our camp, which was a short distance away.
We encountered a wide stream that rushed through the road, scaring us like hell. You should watch this video to understand what I mean!
It gave me a few seconds of chill down my spine but our driver was quite an expert. We reached our camp Whispering Waves. The view from the place was just what I wished for. It had started to drizzle a bit, which kind of made it a bit cold in Pangong. We entered the camp alloted to us, it was a neat place with enough space for three beds and a table. Our driver, Hussein informed that homestays for accommodation in Pangong and they are quite reasonable in price as well. After resting for sometime, we enjoyed some light yet delicious meal at the camp. Oh did I tell you, Whispering Waves is the same camp where Shahrukh Khan and Anushka Sharma along with the team of Jab Tak Hai Jaan stayed?! These people are too proud of this fact and have pictures of the stars in the dining area. We enjoyed a good sleep at the camp, where the light goes off by 10:00PM.
Next day by 9:00AM we left for spending more time on Pangong Lake. Hussein took us to the ‘Shooting Point’ of 3 Idiots, where there stands a yellow scooter, a replica of the one Kareena Kapoor rides to this place. You can get the picture with this scooter at Rs. 50.
After spending some good time clicking pictures, observing other visitors and the brown head gulls and of course the majestic lake, we headed for Leh. We reached somewhere around 6:00PM and decided to rest for a while before have our last meal in Leh as early next morning was our flight to Delhi. We again chose Lamayuru for the dinner and as usual it did not disappoint us.
So this was my journey to one of the most beautiful states in India. I would never forget this sojourn as it taught me that it is not merely the beauty of the place that matters the most, it is its people. The world might be heading towards war and violence but there still exist humanity and humbleness that certainly bring hope. And so what if there are militants and terrorists, there are also people like Faisal…