Friday, October 21, 2016

Leh Ladakh Trip

Our quest to visit Leh Ladakh was sown in two years back.  In fact we want a combined trip either with our friends or a group travel.   But in June 2016 we went on the freeze the trip with Go-Holidays thinking that it was offered by the Airlines directly but alas it turned out to be third party with collateral parties involved.
We had heard various tales about how people found it hard to survive high altitudes since Leh itself is 11150 feet above sea level.  Other passes and places Khardungla Pass 18390, Tanglala Pass 17680, Changla Pass 16960,  Tsomori Lake ( T is silent ) 16100 & Pangong Lake 15600 are of high altitude. High altitudes means shortness of breath, Oxygen, disorientation, co-ordination or slur of speech too.   In order to prevent the same we had to seek medicos prescription

Diamox tablet tackles the high altitude side effects to a large extent, anti allergic tablet, Vomitting tab, Moisturizer, Sunscreen etc was essential part of our medi kit along with our regular dosage of medication.   Lip guard is another essential part which we discovered.  Camphor helped us to breathe ease at high altitudes.  The first 24 hours one is advised rest, but sitting or sleeping the room makes it worse one needs to move around and be active to get over the drowsiness.
As soon as we paid advance trouble erupted in the Srinagar valley, friends and well wishers advised us that trouble may spread to Leh Valley too, so drop or cancel or postpone the trip.  We were in a dilemma and wanted badly to make the trip because of our long cherished planning.   We just prayed to the Lord to let things be normal and after lot of thinking we finally paid up the full amount to the trip operator to go ahead with the trip come what may.
Monotony of travel might creep in when one undertakes Leh Ladakh trip since it is only full of landscape with blue skies,  mountains, small stretch of bad and dangerous roads, rivers flowing, nature, flora, fauna etc.  One should love travelling by vehicle whether it is bike or SUV for a full day and enjoy admiring and shooting pictures enroute.   In this context it is advisable to have company of four or more in a vehicle to pass one's time.   Custom made package however attractively designed will be a let down either due to drivers misguidance or covering mostly monasteries and palaces belong to Buddha.
Leh-Ladakh simply signifies land of high passes and ranges.  We find there are four mountain ranges interspersed the length and breadth of Ladakh.  They are Karakoram range, Ladakh range, Himalayan range & Zanskar range.   One does find a strong presence of military personnel in these areas to protect against the intrusions of Pakistan and China.  It naturally helps the tourist to feel safe with Indian army around in all strategic places.   One finds there is a border with POK a few miles away from Kargil and beyond Pangong lake one finds the Chinese border.   In 2/3rds of Pangong belongs to the Chinese.
One can get the complete overview of  Leh-Ladakh region by visiting the Hall of Fame museum enroute to the Nubra Valley. The museum is full of history with various pictorial depiction, equipment's, historical data, memorial, etc.  It is compulsory to visit and gain knowledge of the terrain before one ventures out.   In the Leh airport too one does get some brochures which gives one an idea of the geography and important monuments along with does and don t.
Leh Pal

Our first pit stop was Leh Palace on the first day evening.  It is a poor replica of Patola palace in Tibet.  It was probably built in mid 17th century by King Singe Namgyal as the royal residence.  It is basically a nine storied structure built on a hillock containing temple, living rooms, balconies, bedrooms, prayer hall etc.  Tibetian architecture is deployed to construct this palace.  The royalty was packed off to Stok Palace in 1846 by the British since bitter wars had damaged the edifice.  Cannon balls were shot at the palace by the enemies. A famous victory tower can be seen from the Leh palace above commemorating the brave Ladakhis who fought against the Balti Kashmiris.
Shanti stupa
Next stop was Shanti Stupa, which was built in 1991 by Japanese Bhikshu Gyomo Nakamura.  It signifies commemoration of 2500 years of Buddhism trying to promote peace and prosperity.  A perfect symbol of friendship between people of Japan and Ladakh. The construction was begun in 1983 under the supervision of the Japanese with a sanction of roadway to the stupa by the then PM Indira Gandhi.  It was inaugurated by the current Dalai Lama in August 1991.
On the second day we were en route to Shyam Valley via NH 1 which happens to be Srinagar Leh Manali Highway.  We witnessed the Hall of fame museum which was not open at 8.30 am which happened to be Independence celebration.  So we took some quick snaps and proceeded further promising to return next day.   It was really nostalgic to have a snap in front of armored tank which was my NCC Battalion in college days.  I had a total recall of 20 days camp at Ahmednagar during the winter of 1979 wherein I competed and came second in all round performance.

Alichi Monastery was our next destination.  Being one of the oldest monastery it is maintained by ASI, it is attributed to have been built by the scholar Rinchen Zangpo ( 958-1055 )  along with Lamaryu monastery.  Photography inside the temple is prohibited I had to delete some of the photos captured due to the objection by the monk.   Wondering what is wrong in photographing without a flashlight, even the world famous frescos of Ajanta photography is allowed without flash.
The monastery is ticketed and consists of three shrines one is Dukhang ( Assembly Hall ) Sumsteg ( three-storied temple ) & Manjushree temple which dates back to 1255 AD.  There are plenty of small edifices in the form of mini stupas which are known as Chortens in and around Alichi Monastery.   The entire monastery is strategically located on the south banks of river Indus.

The monastery is ticketed and consists of three shrines one is Dukhang ( Assembly Hall ) Sumsteg ( three-storied temple ) & Manjushree temple which dates back to 1255 AD.  There are plenty of small edifices in the form of mini stupas which are known as Chortens in and around Alichi Monastery.   The entire monastery is strategically located on the south banks of river Indus.
Namra Camp : There are almost 20 tents which are pitched close to each other for comfort forgetting privacy concerns.  The pathway to tents are not lit upto the end.  The only face saving feature is the land is filled with apricot trees, apple trees and some orchids.  There are hammocks and swings for tourist to relax.  A stream passes by the side of the campus.   Well the tent is primarily meant for backpackers who trek the monastery located on the hillock.  There is no charging unit, power backup, heated blankets, TV or calling bell.  One does get hot water in the noon without any guarantee.  The only plus point is that the package is for all  three veg meals. Lunch was served with fresh cabbages and rice and dhal.    Night dinner was nothing to brag about.   We were served a local bread in the morning along with omelets and traditional bread
Ladakhis are known for their hospitality which we experienced when we visited a home stay place close to Namra Camp.  The owner showed us the facilities which offered @ Rs 800 per pax with breakfast.  He has geyser thankfully for the tourist in common bathroom.  Apart from serving us tea, snacks and local butter biscuit he gave us a briefing on the Ladakhi culture.  He told us they grew fruit trees to feed the hungry and passerby and he served us with ripened apricot.  I believe the oil extracted from apricot seeds are good for curing knee pain.  He gave us 100ml of oil on the house and we returned his favour by paying him some currency.  Overall the experience of dealing with Ladakhis was really refreshing at Shyam Valley.
Somehow we had a feeling that our tour operator and the driver deputed by them will short circuit our full day sight seeing program we kept checking with the driver regarding the itinerary.  He started evasive answers which we knew was sign of trying to short change.   We the started the third day with a visit to the local monastery at Shyam Valley.  The main temple was luckily open, we had a quick visit and clicked some photographs of the valley.
Next we visited the Rizong Monastery which is a slight detour from our return route for approx. 10 kms from the Indus river.   This monastery is a huge complex with staying facility for foreign tourist.  Some the temples were closed due to the visit of Dalai Lama most monks had gone to witness his sermon.  We were dropped at the hillock and asked to cover the monastery from top.  We descended quickly after taking pictures at vantage points.  The ghat section leading to this monastery is literally dangerous anytime landslips can occur.  If we had listened to drivers advice we may have skipped this monastery.
En route we were shown the hillock which is supposed to be Magnetic hill.  This spot is nothing to rave about it is just plain valley.  We quickly took some snaps and proceeded to Hall of Fame Museum which we had skipped yesterday.  This is a ticketed destination with Rs 100 towards entry and camera.  This air conditioned museum is dedicated to the martyrs of Indo-Pak conflict.  The details of the various battles are depicted in pictures.  The sacrifices made by our soldiers in fighting at high altitudes are commendable.  Museum has a lunch break and one can visit the place after lunch with the same ticket and therefore we stayed back and had some tea in the restaurant.

This irked our driver and he started grumbling that we wasted his 3 hours.  What crap we have paid a premium for a full sight sightseeing and the driver was complaining.  We called up the tour operator after checking the itinerary Lamaryu monastery was skipped by the driver.  We got angry and called up the local agent Rinchen to our hotel.  My wife shouted at the driver and asked for change of driver.  Rinchen apologized and promised to refund the money, which we refused.  He promised to cover other uncovered monastery such as Spitik and Stok palace.    Guys need to be aware majority of the tour operators try to unleash this trick stating that we have covered the itinerary.  One should also plan the trip to begin early otherwise one would miss out on monuments and only keep travelling.  The entire residents of Kaal hotel witnessed our scolding the tour operator who was ashamed and felt humiliated.  The owner of the hotel happened to ACP which added insult to injury.
On the fourth day we had to travel towards Tsomiri Lake.  This is a beautiful 240 kms drive along the Indus river all the way.  Enroute we come across the 3 idiots bridge and hot springs of Chamtang.  The hot spring is nothing to rave about except it has some seating places to enjoy the Sulphur filled water flowing and joining the Indus river.  One can find hot spring at Vajreswari more appealing because of the organized pond structure.  The roads on the entire stretch is being doubled by Border Road Organisation.  In some places the road is so dangerous perched that the river is almost breaching it.  Luckily we need not have to return on this stretch.
We were welcomed at Lake View hotel like prisoners with no intimation or network to connect and confirm arrangements.  The food was almost prison quality with plain dhal, roti and rice.  We experienced one of the most hostile hospitality despite paying a bomb to the tour operator.  The rooms were ordinary type with attached bathroom.  There is no electricity till 7.30 pm and limited feed is prevalent upto 10.30 pm.
We quickly got ready and proceeded towards the lake view point which the driver reluctantly took us.  We took some snaps and the weather turned tornado type with dust storm striking us.  The weather being cloudy made the lake look brackish rather than usual sky blue.  A group of Japanese were enjoying the photoshoot, we watched it from safety.  From there we proceeded towards the nomadic village.  We gave drop to 8 members who were walking up to the village.  We were given Yak milk tea at their tent in return.  Luckily the weather opened up to bright sunshine.  We wanted to purchase monkey cap for which they erroneously quoted Rs 600 which was made of flimsy yarn.  We rejected the offer.
We returned to a shack and had some tea and visited the local monastery.  There was some festivity happening in the monastery  during daytime.  The monk wanted us to pay entry fee which we thought was fleecing since the ceremony and temple was closed for the day.
On the hillock we witnessed a bird's eye view of the Tsomiri Lake.  We met a Russian tourist who was managing the trip to Leh on hitch hiking basis. Suddenly Shailesh wanted a drop back to Leh on our return.  We agreed to drop him and asked him to tip the driver lest he has some misgivings of giving a free drop.  The next day lunch he sponsored too and refused to take money from us.  Normally charges for one way is supposed to be Rs 1000 per head a full vehicle can cost upto Rs 18000/- for a return.
On hindsight Tsomiri was an excellent location with full moon and cloud cover spoiling the photographers delight.  Anyways we enjoyed the destination with a pinch of salt literally and had to reboot our system with limited electric charge.  Luckily we had hot water supply early morning to freshen up, we quickly dressed up and got ready for early breakfast.
Enroute back to Leh we joined the Manali highway which had the Tanglala pass.  One of the finest designed ghat road, the road was winding like a smoothly drawn semi circle which is very rare engineering feat.  We witnessed marmuth and long necked black crane in the Chamtang fields along with Salt pans.  Luckily the cloud cover started vanishing to enable to take some snaps of the natural landscape.  Shailesh with his DSLR did take some wonderful snaps to stitch it later.

We visited the Hemis monastery and came to know they will be celebrating the 12th year Himalayan Kumbh Mela alongwith 1000 year anniversary of the monastery.  This monastery has a beautiful museum in its precincts which contains all antique items belonging to the monastery along with a souvenir shop.  Two temples are in its premises which has statue of Buddha and his followers displayed inside.  The monastery is supposed to have been renovated in 1672 by King Sengge Namgyal.  The Hemis festival is dedicated to Lord Padmasambhava ( Guru Rinpoche )  with dance performances.  Guru Rinpoche supposed to reincarnation of Lord Buddha.
After visiting Hemis we visited the Shey Palace which was built in 1655.  This palace was dedicated to King Singay Namgyal by his son Deldan Namgyal.  It was used as a summer retreat palace which is closed for the visitors.  The palace complex is surround by a fortress on the hillock and contains a golden statue of Shakyamuni Buddha.   We witnessed a pre wedding ceremony in the complex conducted by a Buddhist priest.  The palace verandah presents a lovely view of the landscape of Leh.
We were compelled by our hotel guys to go and fetch Mineral water from a petty shop just near the hotel because they charged Rs 55 instead of Rs 20 for a bottle of mineral water.  We asked the owner who happened to be a Buddhist whether he sells fruits such as apple and banana.  Surprisingly he asked to accompany him to his orchard and asked us to pluck apples right from the tree and suggested that smaller variety is tastier and sweeter.   In fact the next day too he gifted us some apples from his collection when we bought mineral water from him.  A prime example of hospitality.  We found out that the same apples were retailed at Rs 180 per kg and in the bazaar it was around Rs 80 per kg.   Local Buddhist seller at a right price.
Nubra Valley :  Enroute to Nubra Valley we find plenty of bikers passing by.  We were wondering how come so many bikers.  No wonder they want to ride across the highest motor able road in the world Khardungla pass located at 18380 feet above sea level.  There are plenty of tour operators based in Leh who offer a bike package mostly Bullet bikes.  Most these packages originate from Manali by bike and terminate either at Manali or Leh depending on one's plan.  Riding in the hilly terrain with graveled roads can be tricky, they are prone to puncture and skidding.  Many of the bike riders are well equipped with protection to their knee caps, elbow and tightly worn helmet, some of them have their Go-Pro cameras fitted on their helmet.   When they ride in groups they are like Modern Mad Max conquering one pass after another.  The roads leading to Pangong can give jitters with slushy ones and passing through water logged roads.  Majority of the bikers are youngsters and they like the call for adventure.  Mind it guys for a 10 to 12 trip it can cost more than 40 K depending on the tour operator.  One needs to read the fine print before venturing I suppose minor repairs are attended under the package and major repairs can be billed separately.
After one reaches the top of Nubra valley one gets to photograph the destination with a signage stating World's highest Motorable Road @ 18380 feet.  The thrill of conquering this road maybe equivalent to climbing mount Everest I suppose.  One travel advisory is not to spend more than 20 minutes on the view point since altitude sickness creeps in.  One is advised to quickly escape from this high altitude and many do adhere to this advisory.  We did feel slightly disoriented and managed to overcome once we started our downward journey towards Nubra Valley.
Nubra Valley is supposed to filled with wild flowers during June & July but they vanish during August and September.  The clouds start covering up the skies which maybe lend some succor to bikers due to less heat.  The valley is completely shut off after September due to onset of winter when temperatures start dropping to minus degrees.
The highlight of Nubra are the sand dunes and Bacterian double hunch camel ride.  A walk across the sand dunes, one does get to spend 2 hours and watching camel riders is fun.  For a 20 minute camel ride one is charged Rs 200.   We were told to avoid cascading sand dune point but some of them had real fun jumping into the sliding sand dunes.  Apart from Sand dunes one does have scooter rides across sand dunes and Ladakhi dances.
The Ethnic camp at Nubra Valley was once again a cramped affair.  We had some bachelors really enjoying the camp fire drink.   They had to cut short their celebration since dinner was closed to occupants by 9.30 pm.  Luckily satellite cable TV was installed at tents we were able to watch the Olympics live.  The match between Sindhu and Marin was engaging luckily she managed to clinch Silver Medal.
On our way back we visit the Dikshit Monastry and huge statue of Buddha. After clicking some snaps we proceeded to pass the Khardungla pass once again.  We asked our driver to quickly skip the visit and proceed towards the local market of Leh.  The market is under renovation, my wife made some purchase of earrings for gifting to her colleagues.  I made some purchase of dry fruits such as walnut, apricot and berries.
On our final leg we visited the Pangyong Lake traversing the Changla pass which is the third highest one in Ladakh region.  The winding ghat section at Changla pass was easily taken care of.  The Thiksay monastery was closed to visitors in lieu of monks being busy with Dalai Lama visit.  We visited Zorawar fort to begin our day, was a small enclosure which is currently occupied and maintained by the army personnel.
Pangong Lake was unimpressive with lesser quantum of water storage and its brackish outlook.  The entire lake area was looking dull due to cloud cover.  We were determined to stay in a room rather than tent.  But we changed two rooms and found it suffocating due to low roof and dusty environs in the room.  As it paucity of oxygen due to high altitude made it difficult to breathe but the rooms made it worse.  So we moved towards the tent at higher plateau and found it well ventilated and air circulation was good.  But in the night the situation was bad with cold wind and lesser oxygen.  We were hardly able to sleep.  With great difficulty few winks of sleep did occur.  We did not pack up Diamox which was probably our fault.  Next day after bathing we felt refreshed with bright sunshine blessing us.  We quickly packed up our baggage and proceeded back to Leh.  We were praying all the way that we should not be stuck in the slushy mud road and water logged areas.  However the driver skillfully managed to drive the Scorpio out of the danger zones.

We did visit the Rancho school which was impressive in terms of secured layout.  Next we visited Thiksay Monastery which was once again closed.  We quickly took a detour to Stok Palace which has an excellent Museum and private residence of the current royalty which is out of bounds.
Nearby Stok Palace there is a huge statue of Buddha recently inaugurated by Dalai Lama which happened to 9th Aug 2016.  The caretaker showed us the meditation hall created for the visitors below the statue just like Shanti Stupa.
Finally we wound up our trip by boarding an early morning flight of Go-Air via Srinagar to Mumbai.  We were lucky to get the vantage window seat wherein we had a glimpse of the Himalayan range.  Despite curfew lot of passenger deplaned and got in which was first early signs of Srinagar getting back to normalcy.
Overall Leh trip was really laid back experience when compared to other destinations in India.  Travel operators are just minting money without considering the comfort or expectations of the tourist.  Compared to other destinations in India one ends shelling out more than double the cost, particular for hiring cabs or vehicle for transportation.  Most of the accommodation outside Leh is definitely not worth except if one finds luxury tents.  The coinage of luxury means that one is provided TV and charging points.  Leh has the best of accomodation and most of the destination can be covered up & down such as Nubra Valley, Shyam Valley and Pangong Lake.    I would seriously suggest to avoid custom made package and go for group package to ensure one has the bargaining power.  Leh is not meant for people who don t enjoy nature and travelling long distance.

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Basically i am down to earth, take friendship to its logical end. It is my endeavour to create a wealth of co-operative ventures. Basically being a marketing man i have the acumen to spot winners. I am privileged to travel the length and breadth of the country, courtsey my father, who was with Indianoil, my employers such as Nutrine, Kurl-on, Hindustan Pencils, Prestige, Crystal, Bell Ceramics, Pentel, Sezal, Commander. Currently i am involved in Tourism, Booking Air Tickets, Agent for Jungle Lodges and Resorts Limited and Taj Group of Hotels and a numerous hotels across India. Depending on the needs of a traveller i would recommend the destination and accommodation best suited to their budget. Humour takes me on. Let us have a win win situation for all. I love travelling for sake of adventure, photography and discovering the heritage. Life is a journey and let us enjoy our drive. Come share your travel experience on indiabackpacker.