Ladakh has never been part of my plan that year. Things happen spontaneously but somehow inspired by those photos in Kashmir that I saw on facebook. Without thinking much, I booked flight ticket to Delhi and gave few days to spend in Srinagar, Kashmir in September. At that time, I noticed that old wound at my heel was giving me intermittent pain. The wound was caused by broken glass 2 years earlier but why was it not healed? I did an x-ray and found a tiny piece of shattered glass still stuck in the flesh. So, I set my surgery right after my trip to India. Soon after that in October, I would be going to Mecca. The timing was so tight but I would make it happen anyhow.
Travelling to India has never been in my bucket list let alone Kashmir. Even though Srinagar in Kashmir is beautiful and frequently visited by Malaysians, I do not keen to visit the region. However, Ladakh is the place I wanted to go. As a passionate geologist, I would love to visit the Himalayan region. Ladakh is probably the best for it without having to hike for days like Everest Base Camp or Annapurna Base Camp. Besides, Ladakh is less visited by Malaysians so I have a responsibility to make it know to Malaysians or maybe the world. Those thoughts convinced me to change my trip from Srinagar to Ladakh. I booked a tour with ToLadakh for 5 days trip starting from Leh. I was very nervous thinking about this area and the travel agent that I found on Facebook. I do not know anyone around me who has travelled there before to recommend and advice. Moreover, the information regarding thin air due to high elevation seems worrying. The terrains are rugged and dangerous because they are built at the cliff of hilly terrains.Day 1
I was awestruck by the view of the mountainous regions along the flight. They were incredible because most of them were covered by glaciers. The geography around Leh airport was awesome too. While landing, the flight went in a circle to avoid the mountains. It was nerve wrecking but I was definitely more amazed with the beautiful outcrops and terrains. When we finally landed, I noticed the air was much drier and probably fresher and definitely cooler than New Delhi. The sun was bright and gave burning sensation which unsurprising because we were now 3500m above sea level. When the driver who introduced himself as Igoo arrived to pick us up, I felt relieved and mark the beginning of the road trip adventure.
On the first day, we were adviced to just rest at our homestay (Green Villa). Green Villa was located 3km away from town center and it was a simple house in the middle of green grass and small farm. The view around the house is pretty and the environment was tranquil. We were told to stay rest for a day but not sleeping. This is very important for those travelling to high latitude like Ladakh to avoid from having Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). By late afternoon when we thought we had enough rest, we went to Shanti Stupa, located on a hill overlooking breath taking view of Leh town. After Shanti Stupa, we were brought to mysterious Leh Palace (built by Sengge Namgyal which was the son of Buddhist ruler and a muslim princess). Great for photo.
It was quite uncomfortable last night. I got bad headaches probably due to AMS and it was so cold, it made me shiver in the morning. As someone coming from tropical region and haven’t had any winter experience for 6 years, my tolerance level had significantly lowered. Since it was still early autumn, the owner did not turn on the heater. Sigh. I better get used to this climate or else I would not be enjoying the adventure. Nonetheless, I was very looking forward to the long road trip to Sham Valley and the famous Magnetic Hill using Srinagar-Leh Highway. I had been seeing at the photographs shared by people around the globe at the Magnetic Hill and this would be my moment. Last night, we met Shioho Miura, a Japanese guy visiting Ladakh for his study in becoming the Buddhist monk. He went all the way here by himself to visit all the monasteries so we let him joined us for the first day trip. At first, we stopped at Hall of Fame Museum where the history of war in this region was displayed. Thankfully today, Ladakh is very peaceful. In fact it is even way safer than Srinagar which is located near the Pakistan border.
Then, we continued the journey to the first monastery located at the hill side looking like castles in Lord of the Rings called Spituk Gompa (I would be seeing monastery which looks like Minas Tirith soon at Nubra Valley). Since Shioho followed us, we stopped at this monastery longer than anticipated. It was a long wait and we wasted more time later when the road to this monastery was blocked by the road construction worker. It was quite unpleasant with the direct heat from the sun.
The journey continued to Gurudwara Pathar Sahib which is a Sikh Temple. It was surreal and awkward at the same time because for the first time ever, I entered a Sikh Temple and witnessed the religious ceremony. I would have not done this in Malaysia but when you become a traveler, you would experience the unexpected situation. For, Shoho, he seemed to be appreciating the moment but on my mind, I only wanted to see Magnetic Hill. Soon afterwards, we continued the journey down the road and finally stopped at the picturesque view near Magnetic Hill. I was speechless looking at the hill but was not impressed with the magnetic experiment that they claimed. We tried few times with the car to prove the magnetic and I was expecting the car to move upward the slope without pressing the gas pedal but instead, the car went downhill which I didn’t really get why it was such a fuss. Nonetheless the view was amazing and for the next miles until Sham Valley, the view was damn amazing especially near Indus River. I was already satisfied on the first day. I wonder what it would be like for the next 3 days.
We were all ready with jacket and all, thinking it would be cold since we would be passing the highest motor-able road, Khardung La at 5500m above sea level and 10 hours journey to Nubra Valley. The journey was quite smooth at the beginning but we immediately ascending. Since there were not much plants, let alone tall trees, we were able to see the view of the road which was extremely windy and definitely not for the faint hearted. As we went up higher, Leh was becoming more distant and the elevation got higher. The oxygen got thinner at this point and you could feel your heartbeat slightly increased. If you have fear of height, avoid sitting near to the window because it was an abrupt drop from the road.
In the distance, I could see the view of Karakoram Mountains in Pakistan covered by glaciers. It was so beautiful and mesmerizing. Sometimes, we would stop at a checkpoint and remember to bring your passport. The good thing about booking in advance with agent is; the agent would manage all the permits. There were environmental permits, rescue fees and national parks permit. Sometimes, you would have panic attack when there was a lorry or bus coming from the opposite side. The drivers here were definitely expert at maneuvering on narrow road like this. Sometimes, I could not see any land next to me while Igoo giving way for lorry to pass through. The car was probably at the edge of the road. It was thrilling yet amazing!
Finally at elevation of 4000m, there were ice covering the road cut. We would stop at many area to take photographs. It was quite cold and you would have frequent urge to pee but never ever skip the water because you will get dehydrated in this climate. When we reached the snow point, the road was not paved. This was when things got messy and very uncomfortable for almost an hour until we reached Khardung La Pass the highest motor able road in the world. There was snow all over the place and it was very cold but it was worth it. We were already 3 hours on the road but only just halfway through. The road above snowline was really painful and annoying to bear. Imagine having to go through it for an hour. I wonder how the motorcyclist went through this.
Eventually, we managed to escape the unpaved road and returned to the paved road. We could rarely see any cars near us. This area looked really isolated. We did occasionally passed small villages like Khardung with probably less than 10 houses. It was also quite windy here compare to the other side of the mountain range and probably drier and warmer. The landscape was amazing. It felt like I was in fantasy minus the long and bumpy car ride. The night before when I looked at Google Map, it didn’t seem to be that far but when you were on this narrow and windy road, it felt so long. We did not ask him to turn the A/C because we heard it is chargeable but we never confirm about it. Anyhow, bravo to Igoo for driving us the whole day without ever complaining.
I did not sleep throughout the journey because I didn’t want to miss the view. Especially when we reached the Shyok River valley and the car went along the valley. The valley was huge and there were tiny braided bluish streams of Shyok River flowing in the valley. Words could not express how beautiful it was. I hope the photos were enough to serve little justice to my claim. Some of the villages like Diskit was built on alluvial fan. For your information, alluvial fan is formed by movement of soil rocks carried by streams from upland to lowland that eventually formed triangular shape or ‘fan’ shape. Imagine how active it could be especially in desert like Ladakh. I noticed like some of the houses in Diskit was destroyed completely. Looking at the aftermath, I felt thankful we did not have to face rainy weather because it was sunny throughout the day. I would be scared to be on the road in this condition. Along the road, there were worker removing the rocks fell on the road. Since there were no trees covering the slopes, the rocks kept falling. Some of the huge rocks were just next to the road but managed to stay intact. It was nerve wrecking experience, to be honest.
And finally, we reached Hunder where we would sleep for a night. If we were to continue the journey, we would be crossing the disputed border of India and Pakistan. Anyhow, Hunder is a small village located in Nubra Valley. At first, I wondered why we would be going to this area but as we were approaching the village, there was a sand dunes field next to the village. When we arrived at Edel Weiss Camp, I was surprised to see that it was actually a campsite except that there was a toilet in the tent. Electricity would only be available after 7 pm. They only served vegetarian food that means we did not have to worry about what was being served to us. We were informed that we were the last guest before the camp closed in October for winter. After a short rest, we went to the sand dunes for a camel ride. At first, I did not want to ride on camel for that long thinking about the deseases carried by camel and how they had to work throughout the day by carrying many people. Unlike elephant, camel is designed with humps and strong back bone to carry loads. So, I discarded my ego and climbed on sitting camel. For 30 minutes, we only need to pay Rs 300. Hopefully with the fees, the owner would treat these camels well.
Unfortunately for photo enthusiast, this side of desert would be covered by mountain shadow by afternoon. It was quite difficult to get good photo at this time. It was also darker than the sky due to the shadow. Right after the camel ride, we were brought to watch cultural show. Since the electricity is supported by generator, we could only watch in the dim light so, with my current camera, I could not record the whole performance (time to change the camera I suppose). The culture was completely different than what we had seen before. The songs have monotonous melody probably less influenced by other region due to the nature of this high altitude isolated desert (we would be seeing more cultural performance 2 days later which have more melody).
At the camp, electricity was already turned on. Time to get a nice shower but wait! It was so cold. Thankfully, they provided warm water but we had to wait for an hour in order for the water to be heated. While resting in the camp, I noticed that the original itinerary was not convenient. The original plan was to return to Leh and spend more time there and restart the journey to Pangong Lake on the next day. Based on the map, there is actually a road going from Nubra Valley to Pangong Lake straight ahead without needing to return to Leh as per original plan. I would rather spend 10 hours journey a day then going through 5 hours ride every day. Igoo had to call Mr Gyalson who was in charged for the agency and he eventually agreed with my proposal. For your information, only postpaid phone is allowed to be used in Ladakh. Since my phone was using prepaid plan that I bought in Delhi, I was not able to make a call or send any text. We were highly dependent on wifi connection. Unfortunately since yesterday, there was a shutdown of internet throughout Ladakh. We were trapped here without any news from outside world! Basically if anything happen, I would not be able to make a call back home. So lesson learn for all. Please purchase a postpaid plan if you plan to visit Ladakh orr before setting out for any long journey, inform your love ones.
That night, the tent was intruded by a mice that ran amok. We spent few hours to get rid of the mice with the help from camp staff. The reason why the mice entered was due to faulty zip line at the tent entrance. To make it worse, I did see some spiders tried to enter the tent through the holes from the tent windows. It was a night to remember in this high altitude desert.
The 10 hours journey from Hunder to Pangong and to Leh began. Today, we were mentally prepared for it but apparently not prepared enough for this tiring long journey. The total distance was only 164km but the road condition would make it slower for us to move. The road would go along Shyok River all the way to Pangong Lake where many scenes from Bollywood movies were shot, notably 3 Idiots. This time around, the small road was totally isolated. I thought there were only less than 10 cars that we encountered until Durbuk. However, the geography and the land form of this valley was just amazing. Once again, I did not sleep throughout the journey. Why would I want to miss this? Along the path, there were many parts damaged due to the landslide or running stream on alluvial fans. Sometimes along the road, I would see text book example of alluvial fan (if you are into geology you would understand this).
The road was very isolated especially when the valley got narrower. I felt scared at times especially when passing through wall of rocks. What if bad things happen? If thing happen, we were definitely stuck out here with no possible communications from the outside world. I hope Igoo brought a satellite phone with him. Even though I felt the isolation of this region, there were actually many workers living along the road who worked very hard to pave the road. Uniquely, they melt the tar themselves and manually mixed them with crushed rocks. At this area, it would be difficult to carry the material from larger town so they had to make small production. They would migrate along the road and their presence at one area could be traced by the burnt mark from the former campsite they built. Since the road is closed in the winter and damaged by snow and avalanches, I was pretty sure they had been working throughout summer to fix the road. I felt grateful for their hard work if not I would not be able to explore this region. Sometimes, we would see the sign board mentioning their hard work with abbreviation BRO which stands for Border Roads Organisation. At one point we were stuck for an hour for the road work. It was hot at that time but I was used to that situation when I was out during geology field camp especially when surrounded by beautiful outcrops.
After a long and very tiring journey and many army camps that we passed, we finally arrived at Pangong Lake. Yes! I made it! This was a dream location for me to take many photographs. I almost gave up the day before thinking of the long and windy road that we had to go through. But the view of bluish Pangong Lake was totally worth all the sacrifices. If we were to continue our journey straight along the lake, we would be passing China border. Pangong Lake became so popular after 3 Idiots shot the scene where Kareena Kapoor riding on a scooter to meet Amir Khan. I just watched the film on the flight from Kuala Lumpur to New Delhi. My apologies for not knowing about the movie but proved my genuine purpose of visiting the lake and not influenced by 3 Idiots.
The journey continued for another 4 hours to Leh. At this time, we were very tired and I had swallowed many painkillers to get rid of the headache. The long bumpy journey combined with high altitude and sun exposure causing me to experience consistent headache. It was also becoming more uncomfortable sitting in the car for this long. At this point of time, I did not feel anything when a bus or lorry coming from the opposite end and had to pass this narrow road. We did arrive at Chang La which is the third highest motorable road in the world but did not appreciate it that much because I was very lethargic. It was only when we reached larger Leh-Manali Highway, we sighed with relief. No more unpaved horrible terrain only wide and paved road. Nevertheless, the sunset was so pretty along Indus River. This moment in time will be the story of my life. I made it!
This was the last day in Leh and it would be a free and easy day for us. Thankfully we were here at the right time. On this day, Leh town hosted Ladakh Festival where all tribes gathered here to perform cultural performance. I learn a good deal of information about the culture of Ladakh. Different tribes have different way of expressing themselves especially in their clothes and their songs. One of them would have monotonous song and the other would have Middle East influence. Ladakh was part of Silk Road that span throughout Central Asia. So, it was not surprising to see many cultural influence. In fact, based on the history, Ladakh was invaded by Ali Sher Khan Anchan who was a Muslims from Baltistan Dynasty. When Mughal Empire occupied Kashmir and Baltistan, Deldan Namgyal (son of Sengge Namgyal) had to placate the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb (Shah and Mumtaz Mahal’s son) by building a mosque in Leh. That is why you would see a mosque (Jama Masjid) in the middle of Leh Town. Today, Buddhist is still the majority of the population even though many muslim missionaries came to Leh during that period. According to Wikipedia, the religion of Leh consists of 44% Buddhist, 35% Hindu, 15% Muslims and 2.7% Sikh.
We did some shopping at Leh City Market and bought pashmina cloths. If you are looking for winter and mountain gears, you may bought them here at reasonable price. Before I left Leh, I tried to send some postcards back home but it never reached Malaysia. I think because the operator did not understand the instruction. Somehow probably the stamp was not intended for international mails. Probably.
In the end, I had a lot of fun and most importantly gained many experience and unique adventures. I would love to return to this area probably on the road from New Delhi-Manali-Leh-Kargill-Srinagar. I need to save some money for it and find the best time to take a long leave.