Ladakh, a place on earth which seems to have been both cursed and blessed by the creator. Cursed because the fruits of modernization and advanced communications have not reached there fully yet, and blessed for the same reason. It is a cold desert situated in northern India spotted with beautiful mountain passes, rivers, sand dunes, snow capped peaks and roads and magnanimous landscapes, which can make someone feel humble about their existence. It feels like mountains rule this land, and are arrogant about it, choosing to open or close paths in their wake as and when they like. It is a trip of a lifetime that will take you away from your life’s hustle and bustle and will show you a totally different face of earth. The long roads going through the spectacular valleys can make you think: “Do I really want to reach somewhere? I can ride along this path forever”
Day 2-3: Pangong Tso, Chang La
We rented bikes and started on our way to Pangong Tso lake. It is a 150kms ride and takes up to 5-6 hours. There are no petrol pumps around the lake, so the bikes are fitted with additional petrol cans on an iron frame to make it last the distance. The roads in Leh are good but when you travel out to the other destinations, you might have to find the road in between big pebbles, streams of water and dirt. If you are not confident of riding bikes on rough terrains, it’s better to hire a taxi, sit back and enjoy the views while being driven. After riding for 45 minutes, it starts to feel like there are giant and magnificent wallpapers on both sides of the road, which make you forget about anything else in the world. I just wanted to ride on that road for a long time and wished that it never ended. There are hardly any vehicles on the road and still nobody wants to speed up. Everybody is cruising at a gentle pace, awed by the vastness of the landscapes. After every few minutes, bike riders are seen who give a thumbs up, wishing you a safe and great journey ahead. I followed the unwritten rule of the road and gave back a thumbs up every time. It’s a great feeling. We saw giant valleys in the shape of a flowing river between two mountains, cows grazing with no worry in the world and snow covered peaks. The only sound I could hear was the sound of two Royal Enfield engines. After couple of hours we reached Zingral army post from where the steep and rough climb starts. Army personnel are very helpful there and try to help you with oxygen if you are experience problems in breathing. Once we started uphill from Zingral, it is a good 25 kms ride marked by steep and narrow climbs, landslides and streams of water guzzling down the road from the mountains. The pass that has to be crossed is Chang La. It is not advised to stay at the pass for more than 15-20 minutes as these are high mountain passes and air is very thin there. After crossing Chang La pass, the road is downhill till Tsoltak army post. Sadly, by the time we reached there, my bike broke down and it was dark, so we had to stay in a local town for the night. (Remember to start early in the day while travelling in Ladakh. Have breakfast max by 9AM and hit the road). Next morning we started for Pangong Lake and reached there in an hour. It might be hard to believe the eyes when someone reaches there. What lies in front is a blue lake, watchfully guarded by the brown mountains, which lend their color to the lake in their reflection on it during the day. It is a salt-water lake, around 35% of which lies in India and the rest in China. There are a lot of cafes and camps where you can have nice food and make yourself comfortable. Boating is not allowed in the river, probably due to its proximity to the border but you can surely role your jeans up and go in the lake for couple of meters. The water is chill and I think there are fewer places in world this picturesque. After having lunch, we started our way back to Leh and reached there by evening.
Day 1: Leh local Sightseing
We took an early morning flight from Delhi and were on the skies of Ladakh in no time. Normally I prefer aisle seats on flights but this was one place where you really want to make best use of your sense of sight. It feels exciting to be able to absorb and drink the beauty of the stunning canvas lying down there. We could see brown mountains and blue skies as far as the eyes can go. At times, our pilot had to maneuver the plane between two giant mountains. Soon after we landed at the Kushok Bakula Rinpoche Terminal at Leh first thing I realized after landing was that my phone had no network. Prepaid SIMs do not work in J&K. I swore at my network operator for not switching my connection to postpaid but by the end of the trip, I was happy that the calls never bothered me. We took a taxi and made ourselves comfortable in our hotel. You might feel the thinness in air after landing in Leh from North Indian plains. It is advisable to at least have a place to stay reserved on the first day, so that you can feel home soon as you land and take some rest. Normally it is advised to take rest on the first day and stay in Leh for the second day to avoid AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness), but we felt fine after 3 hours of sleep and started in late afternoon to explore the local sightseeing spots in Leh. We explored Shanti Stupa, which is a Buddhist stupa not far from city and the old Royal palace, which is in its ruins now. After that we wandered around the markets and had a nice Ladakhi dinner and Thukpa (a Tibeten noodle dish). There are a lot of cafes in Leh where you can go and chill while enjoying the star studded sky and local cuisines.
Day 5-6: Khardung La, Nubra Valley, Diskit, Sumur, Hunder
While Pangong Tso lies on the China border, Nubra valley lies towards Pakistan. The distance between Leh and Nubra valley is around 140 kms. We started on our bikes early morning towards our next destination. In contrast to the Pangong way, where the steep climb towards the mountain pass starts after around 70 kms ride, in case of Nubra, the climb starts right after you exit the Leh city. But as compared to the former, the roads are wider and not that steep. The road overlooks the Leh city for a few kilometers, after which it makes it way into the mountains. After about an hour’s ride, there is an army post called South Pullu where the permit papers are checked to go across. Once we crossed the post, the roads are in a bad condition (although the construction work was going on that time). After making our way for about an hour, we reached Khardung La pass, which is a popular spot for clicking pictures, as it is the highest motorable road in the world. There is snow everywhere around and you can sip a cup of tea in the small cafe there. After spending some time on the top, we started our downhill ride towards North Pullu, which is the army post towards the other side of the pass. The roads after North Pullu are very good. From there, it is further 2 hour ride to Diskit, which is a town situated in Nubra valley. The views are mesmerizing with massive mountains and green valleys. The journey is so tranquil and quiet that one can hear himself thinking. After riding few more kilometers downhill, Shyok river is visible along the road, proudly flowing like it commands this part of the world, having disciplined mountains by its course over a long period of time. There are 2-3 small towns in Nubra valley where you can find a place to stay. One of them is Sumur, which is a small town and has many hotels. The more popular one is Diskit, which has a small market and the famous Diskit monastery. We found a cozy guesthouse in Diskit and relaxed after the journey, which seemed to have got into our minds.
In morning, we headed towards Hunder, which is a popular spot for camel riding on sand dunes. The camels here are double humped camels also called Bactrian camels and are a rare species. These ones are not as tall as their Rajasthan counterparts. We thoroughly enjoyed the bumpy ride on these camels. After that, it was time to again head back to Leh. I was excited to ride on those roads again but sad because I did not know when I would visit back this amazing place. We reached Leh in evening. There is another beautiful lake on the Manali highway called Tso Moriri, which is not as popular as Pangong Tso, but according to locals is more beautiful out of the two. Unfortunately, we could not visit this lake due to lack of time. After having explored Ladakh, it was time to see another paradise on earth: Kashmir. We booked a taxi and decided to head towards Srinagar. It takes around 12 hours by road and it is another ravishing road filled with breathtaking views.
Day 7: Leh to Srinagar
After crossing 3 mountain passes: Namki La, Fotu La and the notorious Zozi La, we reached Srinagar around 7AM. I woke up with my still sleepy eyes and saw us descending on relatively plain roads. After some time, we saw the serene Dal lake and hundreds of houseboats on its one end. Luckily, it was the month of August, which is not a peak tourist time, and we found a swanky houseboat at very reasonable price. Crossing over from Ladakh to Kashmir, one can see the change in culture, food, language and landscapes. After getting some hours of sleep, we started to explore the city. We had the mouth watering Mughlai food and went for shopping. Apart from its pleasing views, Srinagar is also a paradise for shoppers. You can find winter clothes at unbelievable prices here. We explored Shalimar gardens, Chashma Shahi and Nishat Gardens. My personal favourite was Nishat. In evening, we came back to our houseboat and sat on the deck, listening to the music the air of Kashmir sings and seeing some lamp lit Shikaras gently rowing in the lake.
Day 4: Magnetic Hill, Confluence point, Hemis Monastery
Travelling to Pangong can be a bit tiring, especially if your bike breaks down. So we decided to explore some nearby places that day. We went to Hemis Monastery which is around 30 kms from Leh. It is a beautiful Monastery which is I think intentionally built in the quietest of places. After that, we went along the National Highway-1 (the road to Srinagar) to see the magnetic hill and the confluence. NH1 should be called the CH-1 (captivating highway number 1) for it presents such delightful sights along its length. After a few kilometers, Indus river will join you on the journey, flowing quietly in between the mountains. Further 10 kilometers or so lies the confluence point of Indus and Zanskar rivers. Blue waters merge peacefully with a green looking stream. After this, river Indus absorbs Zanskar and moves on its way. It is a splendid sight.
Ladakh – Srinagar (8 days)
Places to see – Leh city, Shanti Stupa, the ruined Royal Palace, Hemis Monastery, Magnetic Hill, Indus-Zanskar confluence point, Pangong Tso, Nubra Valley, Diskit, Hunder sand dunes, Tso Moriri and the beautiful and picturesque journeys.
Best time to visit: May-September
Things to keep in mind:
Day 8: Srinagar
The next morning, we took our awaited Shikara ride. Shikara is a small boat, which has very comfortable mattress and is designed to be able to row in a shallow lake. It was a 2 hour ride where our guide showed us the historical sights along the lake, took us to a floating market and played Kashmiri music for us. The Shikara ride is a must do activity in Srinagar, especially after coming from the rough terrains of Ladakh. The ride is very soothing with only sound being the sound coming from the oars while pushing back the gentle waters of Dal lake. By the afternoon, it was time to pack our bags with some souvenirs for friends and lots of memories and head back to Delhi. We boarded the flight from Srinagar airport, with eyes in disbelief, mind in denial and ears filled with local music. It was a trip of a lifetime.