Ladakh : My second reckoning

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My thoughts and visuals, is a travel diary in which photographs and expressionistic narrative attempt to dwell upon the frame that Ladakh is; a world which is unfamiliar to the traveler but never strange. Travelling through this countryside nestled in the towering mountain ranges, often many a wanderer to this land passes from being an outsider to a participant.

The real journey to Ladakh and not the touristic variety becomes not only a crossing of physical and social boundaries, but a passage across another boundary that renders defunct the traditions of city life which has been acquired and shared.

What is Ladakh, where is this fabled place that has mystified people across the world. Nestled high up among the Himalayan Ranges reached through narrow passes, with each passing day the region is opening up to those willing to make the effort to come out here, braving physical discomfort and banking on their mental will in order to experience something that still is different from what they would have seen till date. It is my personal belief that no one can see Ladakh only once and not make the resolve to see it again. Many succeed in this endeavor while for some it remains a resolve that is yet to be fulfilled. Then there are those who do the journey by road starting from all corners of the sub-continent braving diverse conditions and passing through the length and breadth of the county till they reach the base of the region from where the far boundaries of this region actually begin to manifest in the visuals that are presented. I guess I belong to this cadre, for me to come to this place it has to be by the Road imbibing all that the journey presents and covers me with. With each passing mile, a portion of my thought and soul gets uncovered so that by the time I reached Leh, I had been lain bare. My soul and thoughts were open to be covered with experiences that would find a place in my sub consciousness molding me, influencing me at those time when I have returned back and found myself surrounded by humdrum of city life and its trappings.

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This is a visual expression of journey to Leh and beyond, my second homecoming if I may say so. I know there will be many more, for each visit I leave a bit of myself behind or shall I say that with each visit a bit of my conscious being is permanently taken over by the mountain and its radiance and eventually I will become a part of it, till such time it happens completely I will keep coming back.

DAY I

This time the journey began from the hills of the Western Ghats where I was based and I motored along though the twisties of the Western Ghats before finally rolling into and merging with the giant network of fantastic highways that now criss cross quite a bit of the subcontinent.NH52/AH47(Asian Highway 47) twisted themselves through places like Idgundi,Yellapur,Dharwad while  NH 48 thereafter surged ahead through the towns of Sankeswar,Nipaani,Kolhapur,Karad,Satara merging onto Pune  offering me the opportunity to cruise at decent speeds bypassing majority of the towns/cities of Maharashtra till I reached my destination for the day; the vibrant alive metropolis Mumbai, an epitome of what I meant by the humdrum of city life. Mumbai traffic showed me how much out of touch I had become when it came to navigating through the opportunistic hordes of vehicles moving along in the late evening rush hour. Thoroughly exhausted by the effort I gratefully parked the Indomitable at the end of a long tiring day when I had reached my stay for the night.

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Hotels dotted along the highway reminded me of something that I had read written by an author called Conn Iggulden on the legendary conqueror Genghis Khan who had by the force of his personality conquered vast swathes of lands from Chinese territories to the middle Asia including parts of Russia and Mongolia had established something unique known as Yam Stations, which were small way points which provided a hot meal as well as fresh horses for dispatch riders who were on business of the State. These interlinking stations stretched into the conquered lands in desolate regions forging links in a chain for those who ventured ahead. For me small hotels on the big and obscure highways in the sub-continent represent the Yam Station providing a small relief to the weary traveler.

DAY II

The skies had opened up by the time I was ready to depart and NH8 was the epitome of bleakness. The grey vistas and the concrete structures all around made me realize how much I had moved away from this kind of a habitat. My spirits ebbed seeing the frames all around me and it felt that even the humans living here were caught in a web of close confined alternate universe, the real earth was somewhere else.

Thoughts moving around in my sub conscious I eased the Indomitable on the busy NH 8 and turned Northwards, wipers clearing away the oncoming sleets of rain, eyes staring into the distance while the mind subdivided into two compartments, one involved in the business of driving whilst the other opened itself to the various thoughts that drifted in and out. As the Kms sped by the rain too was left behind and soon Gujrat welcomed me. The NH 8 traverses through the entire length of the state of Gujrat moving along famous and historic cities like Surat, Ankleswar, Barauch, Vadodara, Ahmedabad and then finishing at Himmatnagar where the traveler then enters Rajasthan.

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Moving along the Indian Highways offers the traveler an insight into the myriad life that grows and thrives along the Highway , its future so intrinsically linked to the wellbeing of the highway itself , right from the old huge banyan  trees  that grew along the highway spreading its branches in a knowing  way that they did not obstruct the vehicles that passed underneath  to the various tea stalls and lunch houses that mirrored their existence to the tunes of those who transversed these highways.

My destination for the day was the Lake city of Udaipur but the dynamic circumstances of road travel meant that by late evening I had just crossed Ahmedabad and a long drive of around 260 kms was still remaining. It is important to have a plan but then it is more important to be flexible and hence the journey was shortened till the busy town of Himmatnagar, the last big town prior to leaving Gujrat and entering Rajasthan . A well maintained highway hotel catered to my needs which were as it is few in number and I slipped into a deep sleep waiting for the commencement of the next day.

DAY III

The early morning chai as the world slowly awoke, whisps of fumes from the hot cup rose upwards making abstract patterns before finally blending into the vast atmosphere, while the fingers warmed themselves by the touch of the cup itself. A cup of tea in the morning is a ritual in itself of many out here and I am no exception to this.

Soon the time to roll was upon and the I’LE was as ready as ever. The target set for the day was a forgotten town called Behror, forgotten because earlier its call to fame was eminent personalities through the ages who were instrumental in participating in monumental events like the fight against the British in the year 1857  but now it is a highway town catering to the needs of a floating world, waiting and longing for the good old days to come back in a hope that fades ever so slowly.

As the town of Udaipur was crossed and then NH8 was left behind as the journey took us into the network of National Highways venturing inside the Rajasthan countryside. The route involved way points of Chittorgarh , Bhilwara,Nasirabad,Kisangarh,Jaipur bypass and finally Behror. The network of highways involved the NH 76 followed by the NH 79 and finally we meet up the faithful NH 8 again at Jaipur bypass.

Behror was eventually reached by 2000 hrs and the RTDC Guest House was a very welcome sight indeed. Bookings had been done online but the staff, steeped in age old customs opened up a huge bound register which probably had the name of every guest who had stayed in the premises since the first day. There is a lot of stories in that register, mute testimony to the multitude of identities that have their names etched in its yellow pages. Mine too were added along with the requisite booking form and was then given he key of the room.

Long road trip on road generally follow these patterns which involve covering immense distances during the day light hours and then letting the body and machine rest for the night prior to commencing the next day. The goal remains the final destination and all the intervening are just way points in the effort to culminate in the final destination.

DAY IV

The harshness of the land hid its richness, yes the lands of Rewari, Kurukshetra, Bhiwadi are icons upon themselves, these names have been there since time immemorial and they will remain long after the memories of my foot print on this earth too wither away. As I made my way through the National Highways bypassing Gurgaon and Delhi in totality I was surrounded by lush fields and wide Highways, cutting through the land moving Northward which would then eventually meet GT Road (Grand Trunk Road)

I was reminded about a thought that had formed some time ago, it goes something like this; the journey through a familiar/unfamiliar world is sustained by the pause, and the pause is sustained by such a journey.

Travelling solo on long wide roads presents a void of silence which yields an experience of loss of presence and also yields a need for a meaning of presence. At times such as these, the absence of others frees me to be spatially suspended, no monitoring of speed or coordination and above all no spoken words release me to “drift in my thoughts “

As I moved ahead, by lunchtime I took a diversion towards Anandpur sahib, for this one has to take a right turn from the Sambhu Barrier , after Ambala on NH 44. Eventually one would reach the township of Mohali and then moving ahead we would reach the holy towns of Kiratpur and then Anandpur .

After checking into the hotel at Anandpur, I wanted to visit the gurudwara at Kiratpur Sahib known as Gurudwara Patal Puri, as in my last visit I had arrived late and could not visit it. The weather was heavy, still in a peculiar manner and it was the indication that heavy showers were on the way as the earth prepared to receive the onslaught and deluge. No wonder by the time I started the skies had opened up and the roads were flooded by swift moving water. Somehow this deluge made me feel lighter within as though the heaviness of the uncertainty and listless had been washed away. It was a warm heart that reached the abode of belief, Kiratpur Sahib gurudwara glistened in the after showers and beckoned me with open arms.

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Kiratpur Sahib established in 1627 on the banks of the Sutlej, was founded by the sixth Guru Sri Hargobind Sahib. It is a revered gurudwara as many of the Sikh gurus had visited here as well were born. There is also the Gurudwara Sri Keshgarh Sahib, nearby at Anandpur sahib which is very revered in the Sikh community. This is the place where the “Khalsa” was born and is one of the five holy takths of Sikhism. These two places are in my opinion a must visit for all those who travel through these towns.

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What is the meaning of Khalsa.If we dig deeper, the tale goes like these , the tenth Guru  Gobind Singh addressed a congregation of his followers out here wearing a naked sword and demanded that the sword needed blood and asked for volunteers. One by one five people volunteered who were one by one taken inside a tent turn by turn each time the sword coming out red with blood. After the fifth person had gone gone inside , the Guru bough five Sikhs from the same tent dressed in blue turbans , long yellow shirts, a waistband and loose knickers with swords dangling on their side. There were then known to the Sikh community all over as the “Panj Pyaaras “and offered them immortality. These five panj pyaaras embraced the five symbols of Sikhism, the kes, the Kangha , the kara , the Kacha , the Kirpan. The place which this incident occurred on Baisakhi day is the Gurudwara at Anandpur Sahib, where was born the “Khalsa”.

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By the time I was returning it was dinner time and night has descended, tomorrow was the start of the mountains and somehow I knew within myself I was ready, I was open to meet them.

DAY V

The morning after, I eased the I’LE out through the gates of the property. The mist still hung in the air and the world was awakening ever so slowly. I was going into the mountains and an early morning start was the best way to pay my respects. The destination was dreamy eyed vibrant Manali, 258 km away and the NH 154 was going to get me there. The famous National Highway covered key way points that included Swarghat , Bilaspur,Surendernagar,Mandi,Kullu.

Over the years the condition of the highway has improved. Performing the role of a crucial lifeline, it has taken all that has been thrown at it, by Nature as well as Man emerging battered but strong. My second journey on it and I was amazed by its resilience.

On the way came the diversion to Maa Naina devi temple (one of the 51 Shakti Peeths) , beckoning me like it did the last time but then I had said to myself on that day someday I will and this is what I said this time too , “Someday I Will”.

The highway snaked and made its way and as the mountains enveloped me, my thoughts were lost in the familiar feeling of being in their midst and the thought came again n again “This is where I belong “.

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If each twist and turn of the Highway is not thoughtfully done, the Highway will chew one up , I was aware of it yet somehow instead of feeling overwhelmed , I was more affected by its warmth . It was homecoming.

Road trips shape you, this is what I believe in. The long journeys, silent pauses in between, the ever changing visuals outside strike a chord in the sub consciousness which impart motion to a train of thoughts. Decisions that needed clarity of thought, perspective are thrashed and debated inside the head and a sense to the outcome is achieved.

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By 1530 hrs  I was cruising alongside the Beas and the multitude of sign boards proclaiming the adventure that white water rafting is were in full strength all along the road , Manali was just on the horizon as I had reached the outskirts. The approach to Manali is very scenic and one must take out time to spend some time on the banks of the Beas prior to rushing into the city and that’s what I did, soaking in the feeling of a destination reached and the sight of the mountains and the sprinkling oyster blue colour of the Beas completed the frame both inside my head as well as outside visually. For those interested the white water rafting is a specialty out here and is worth participating in at economical pricing.

Manali is like any other developing mountain city, choc a bloc with hotels and resturants. There as soon as one enters the limits , there will be agents offering a best price place to stay , my suggestion  do a pre booking rather than searching for a place on location for that gives one the opportunity to relaxe and unwind without the hassle of trying to find a place to stay as the day draws to a close.

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In case one needs to enjoy Manali, then definitely spend time in this town and go beyond Mall road. Do visit Hidimba Temple , Solang Valley , Vasistha Baths to name a few. Go for a coffee evening to old Manali, walk in the narrow lanes and take in the free spirit living atmosphere that old Manali is famous for. Do not forget to take home the specialty of Manali, the apple jam and the pickles made from green apples.  I have not been able to do this till date because for me the town serves as a staging post for prior to going into the mountains. Hence there is nothing much that I can seek about this town but someday I hope to spend some quality time out here.

DAY VI

An early start, the requisite Rohtang Permit in possession and I was rolling. The road twisted and turning as we went past the sleepy quiet villages of Kothi, Gulaba, Palchan. The occasional individual was up and about starting his day as i swept past, my sights on the rays of the morning sun as they came down and illuminated the peaks of the Rohtang family. I realized how narrow the single carriageway road was, especially till reaching Marhi a steep drop on one side and a smooth rock face on the other, it is a blessing to move on this in the early hours of the morning for every single Km soothes the nerves of one who drives and instils in him the confidence to take on what is going to come ahead.

Breakfast was at Marhi, at one of the many dhabas which enthusiastically beckon each vehicle that stops, business is competitive and booming. After the passable breakfast I moved ahead. Rohtnag lies up ahead.

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Rohtang La, visited by many but still independent and tamed only as long as it wants. The roads are still broken, the descent steep and the spirit of the pass when the winter comes is still wild, it really does not matter that hundreds visit it, it still remains ROHTANG LA.

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Koksar was reached pretty quickly as we ambled along, the destination for the day was Jispa which was just around the corner and with no traffic chaos it was reached by midafternoon. The stay was at Padma Lodge and the sun was bright overhead as I shut down the Indomitable and prepared to just relax for the reminder of the day.

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After a cup of tea in the evening I went for a long walk to the Bhaga River and to the village, Jispa is in the Lahul district and Buddhism is the main religion out here, the village people are simple and friendly. The houses are alongside the highway as well a little beyond the highway in case one wishes to venture.

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The village still clings to a simple life yet I was happy to note that education is given a high impetus out here, there are small general stores that cater to the requirements of the village folks and it stirred deep memories in me of my childhood. A stroll in the village can be full of sights and sounds in itself. There is a small Buddhist monastery too. The evening passed and dusk settled in by the time I was back, there were other travelers who had arrived by this time and everyone was looking to have a good time in the evening by the camp fire and hot dinner. For me though, the lure of the night sky and astrophotography was too great to pass.

DAY VII

An early start, this was the schedule most of the days and for many city dwellers, this is a detoxification phase wherein the body follows a sanctified schedule. The shade of the incoming dawn was blue, this was a period before the golden rays of the sun are visual wherein the shade of blue dominates just everything. By the time we crossed the check post of Darcha and thereafter the diversion to Shingo La, the visibility had crept in and at Deepak Taal, the Sun rays were kissing the peak tops. The still waters of the lake reflect the image of the surrounding peak and the glacier that feeds this lake. During the months of May-Aug, this lake wows everyone with its greenery and reflective visual The temperature was biting cold and warmth of the car was comforting. IOC tankers were on the move, amongst many legends of the Manali –Leh Highway they have carved their own niche.

They are those who have seen Ladakh and the highway grow, they have seen the travelers transiting increasingly over the years but they have been there from the early beginning braving the Highway on machines that give their heart out to pull themselves through this unforgiving terrain. Kilometer by kilometer they serve the region earning an honest pay for all their efforts. After Deepak Taal we were on our way to the Lake of the Sun, Suraaj Taal. As we were still in Himachal, the lakes were called Taal instead of the Tibetan word Tso. The road went on and on twisting and turning as we climbed higher and higher into the Pir Panjal, a red Logan in a world of brown mountains and white snow beneath the electric blue sky. The vistas were spectacular desolate and often breathtaking

 

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As I moved on, zing zing bar appeared though this time the tea hut by the GREF camp was missing while I was looking forward for a tea break out here. I like the view that the landscape offers from Zing Zing bar with streamrunning down below and a gorgeous eyelevel view of the distant snowcapped peaks, it is one of my prominent landscape location.

Suraaj Taal came and once again I had a break out here for some photography, the road is quite narrow out here so parking of vehicle is not very advisable.  . Welcome to Suraaj Taal, the second highest lake in India at an altitude of 4883 mts. The beauty of the lake and its sudden appearance surprises the traveler and leaves a long lasting impression. Do pause for some visuals however caution that the road is constructed on the mountain slope and is very narrow hence a stationary vehicle can create problems for those coming from ahead or behind. The lake is the source of Baga river which flows and unites with the Chandra river to eventually form the Chenab river as it passes through Kashmir Soon after we were at Baralacha La, our second pass of the trip situated at a height of 16040 ft. Baralacha La was totally empty, devoid of any human presence other than us and the Indomitable. It shimmered in the morning sunlight as the sunrays reflected off it and the towering peaks of snow all around. A extremely lonely and lovely place it definitely leaves its mark on all those who visit. This pass decides the fate of this highway and the closing time of the highway for any particular year. Not one to be taken lightly at an altitude of 4890 mts, this pass stands tall and mighty overseeing the entire landscape

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Next up post Baracha La was Sarchu, an iconic settlement, harsh in the night but mellow in the mornings, this season the narrow bridge prior to Sarchu was weak and hence constantly under repair leading to waiting time out there, I experienced this on both occasions on this trip.

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A quick tea at Sarchu and then we were zooming off for the landscape ahead of Sarchu is apt for some great landscape visuals, the Tsarap Chu in her turquoise color winding her way towards the Zanskar region mesmerizes the traveler who reaches this point after the harsh roads that he has travelled on. The quirky yet iconic bridges of this section like Twin Twin Bridge and the bridges on Whisky and Brandy nullah ae steeped in folklore and tales woven around their existence. The section from Sarchu till Gata Loops is landscape at its widest frame and leaves a deep impact on to the traveler for till the time this section has not been reached, the highway has wound its way through steep narrow and pinched landscape.

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Post travelling few Kms the loops of Gata show themselves and here the Tsarap Chu is seeing departing to the Zanskar The 21 hair pin loops make the traveler gain an altitude of 1500 feet. In the early days there were a number of enthusiastic off roaders who used to cut thru the loops making their path but thankfully with the betterment of the road, that has reduced. It is interesting to note that even the truckers do not hesitate to use the short cuts while ascending down and rumble downwards at a precarious angle. It is quite a sight to see a truck rumbling down at a steep angle with its rear end bouncing all over the place and a dust cloud being generated ominously behind it .

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After the Gata Loops comes the second Pass of the day –  Nakee La, at a height of 4750 mts . We were now in the area surrounded by high mountain peaks on all sides. The terrain and the roads were dusty and harsh with the winter sun beating down and the wind speed substantial. After 22 km one approaches Lachung La the third pass of the day at a height of 16000 ft.

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The terrain deteriorates substantially after this section and it leaves the vehicle rattling and one proceeds at a slow pace till Pang which is reached after 23 km. This sector in my opinion is the most taxing and extracts a toll on each rider. Pang situated at an attitude of 4600 mts is a welcome sight for sore eyes and is a compulsory rest stop for almost all. The state buses also have a substantial halt here and so do the taxis and riders. For me this is the default late lunch stop and I take a magnanimous break out here to recharge myself post the long drive since morning.

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What comes next is an absolute reversal of the terrain that one has been driving through the last two hours or so. Pang is one of the highest transit camps of the Indian Army. The high altitude 4600 mts makes the soldiers acclimatize very well, for the Army believes in acclimatization and does it very gradually and methodically unlike the travelers who just move ahead.

So as soon as one crosses the settlement of Pang, the road curves upwards and after a continuous climb, one lays sight on the smooth tarmac stretching all the way into the horizon with a huge plain on the right side. The MORE Plains, stuff of legend itself; many term it a runway in the middle of nowhere, in the early years it was not so, there was no proper tar road hence the vehicles used to move on mud trails billowing huge clouds of dust as they reached fantastic speeds, and now with the advent of the highway, many let go on the throttle and zoom ahead, on the roughly 40 km road flatlands of MORE. One has to remember that the road does dip suddenly and in case the vehicle loses control, there is serious risk of damage and injury, hence one has to be cautious.

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It is so easy to imagine and lose sight of the worlds from where we have come when we enter places like these. I paused out here, among the steps of my journey, I became witness to images brought about by solitude and distance, created by passion and stillness.

It is amazing to realize that I was the only person out there in the fading afternoon, there was just space and nothing, just me and then there was nature. It is a totally different feeling. My culture, people everything became totally irrelevant, there comes a different way of relating to the earth.

As the afternoon sped by, I moved ahead towards the grand old man of all … Tanglang La, my fourth pass of the day.  It has been a long journey and I have transversed through mountain ranges on a spectacular and magnificent highway, have seen marvels and an earth like no other and then I reach the door step of Tanglang La, at that height of 5328 mts, I can see a long way way in the distance end I realize that I would go way beyond what I can see and when I look back I cannot even see where I started and this realization hits me so deep and makes me look at this different perspective.

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After the decent of Tanglang La, I sped towards the villages of Rumtse , Sasoma, Gia,Nato, Miru  as the darkness came fast , my thoughts were flying in front of me as outriders guiding me as I moved ahead to reach the gates of Leh City , which were reached by 1930 hrs  , a good four hours  from Tanglang La.

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DAY VIII

Leh, (latitude :34.00 North Longitude : 77.00 East ) a city all too easy to fall in love with , the easy going manner of the inhabitants and the proximity of the mountains all around somehow have a calming effect on all this who visit . The fragrance of the incense in the prayer halls of the Gompas, the serenity of the evening sunset leaves a profound impact on everyone who gets connected to them.

 

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The city is dotted with brick houses and prayer flags, the old town is dominated by Leh Palace and the Namgyal Gompa situated on a high ridge, the lighted palace in the night presents a very powerful impact on all those who pause and look at it.

There is a lot to do in Leh and one should spend at least three days out here, divide the time between taking adequate rests to acclimatize your body for the high altitude and also pay a visit to the spiritual monasteries known as Gompa. The recommendation is to visit Thiksey, Hemis, Phyang Gompas.These are some of the most famous and revered monasteries in Ladakh dating back hundreds of years.

Thiksey Gompa is one of the largest and resembles the Potala Palace of Tibet, it houses the largest Maitrey Buddha statue in Ladakh. Visiting it takes a considerable amount of time. Do also visit the Tara temple out there. There is a coffee shop and souvenir cum book shop which houses some delightful merchandise. Phyang Gompa is an off the tourist path monastery and houses some delightful thangkas and scripture books. There is touristic element out here and the atmosphere is more serene and rustic. Hemis once again is one of the most revered monasteries and receives thousands of visitors each year. Do visit the museum in addition to the main temple as well as the souvenir shop. The monastery has many different shrines including one dedicated to Maa Kali too.

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 Take an evening sunset serenade at Shanti stupa built by the Japanese architects and people of Ladakh is a must visit and watch the city come alive as the sun sets. Spend some time at the Hall of Fame maintained by the Indian Army. Take a stroll in the main market and savor a hot steaming bowl of Thupka in the cold winter evening. Leh has something for generally everybody and one visit is never sufficient. Once one has done all the above it is time to move in to the vast expanse of 38000 sq miles that compose the state of Ladakh which will strike a chord deep down inside your subconscious.

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DAY IX

As this was my second visit to the city, I decided to alter my itinerary and to lose myself in the wild lands of the Changthang plateaus. The plateau is characterized by high altitude grasslands and giant lakes bordered by the towering mountain ranges of the Zanskar on one side. It was here that i was headed to and on a cold day I moved ahead , taking the Leh –Manali Highway all the way crossing Tanglang La once again till I reached Debring from where I turned left  into the single narrow carriageway metaled path broken down in many places . The grey clouds had been left behind on the other side of Tanglang la and out here the golden grass of autumn welcomed me. The path cut through the low mountains as they welcomed me into their midst, far ahead I could see the path twisting towards the settlement of Tso Kar village which was on the marshy banks of the giant Tso Kar Lake.

It was late afternoon when i reached the deserted settlement of Tso Kar with hardly anyone loitering around. My first agenda was to find a place to stay for the night. After a few enquires I got a small room for the night as well as food thrown into the deal. Thukje Gompa looked down upon me as I stood on the main road passing thru the hamlet and the wind was a living being out here.

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As I made my way into the kitchen cum dining hall of my host, I greeted my host and his wife with the traditional Julley greeting. They were immersed in small tasks of the home including taking care of their small child infant. As I sat in the kitchen for some time I was aware of an aural presence that did not possess a single source within that moment. Within that small space of room, I was aware of a confluence of auras separate yet together. This familiarity of the unknown, it is felt only in specific places I think and Ladakh for me is one such place. The kitchen is the central part of any household in Ladakh especially the homestays. The kitchens also extend into the dining hall and are adorned with all the wealth of the house in terms of silver cutlery, various kinds of flasks and traditional ladakhi utensils. The floors as well as the walls are covered with carpets having bright, bold Tibetan symbol and depictions.

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There is so much to explore out here, I knew I was only scrapping the surface of the it, after a while I went out, drawn by the magnificence of Tso Kar Lake. The lake situated at an altitude of over 14700 feet in the Rupshu valley where I stood, returned my gaze as the white shimmered off its banks. The salt that was deposited on its marshy banks dissuades many a traveler from reaching till its banks, however I made the effort drawn by the cachous cries of the birds that had made this lake their home. Tso Kar is a bird watchers’ paradise and is home to Brahmni ducks, bar headed geese and the elusive black necked cranes.

Standing out there all alone, in the shadow of the mountains I could not help but feel that time stood still out here. There was no need to look at the mobile or the watch, the void of silence yielded an experience of loss of presence but at the same time it also yielded an outline for a meaning of presence. In my silence was a discovery of form. I was made aware of facets which otherwise are so fleeting that we never register, as our thoughts are dominated by the vagaries of everyday existence.

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Tso Kar left profound experience on me, as I spent the entire afternoon and evening in its presence, without any urgency to go someplace else, calming me down within in a way that was strangely very reassuring.

DAY X

The morning saw the I’LE covered with fresh frost indicative of winter coming as the month of October approached. I was entering into the wild lands now and hence wanted to be on the road as early as possible . The trail was metaled for the next ten kms or so and then finally it just disintegrated into a dusty trail as we approached PoloKang La . The pass was not in the league of the high ones but at 17000 feet it did command respect. The sun was shining brightly as we crossed the Kiangs grazing peacefully in the shadow of the towering ranges that rose in the vicinity..

From PoloKang La we moved ahead towards Puga Hot springs and out there before the village I saw the Pugh Residential School and I felt pride at my country and those  in the administration who made this possible . Schooling for everyone irrespective of where they are born , I liked this thought and after spending some time out here I moved ahead towards the village of Sumdo which was fast approaching .

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The true Ladakhi village, Sumdo is a throwback to the yester years and offers a glimpse into the village infrastructure in Ladakh. The mud houses dotted on the hill slopes present the viewer with an insight into the realm of existence prevalent in these regions before the advent of tourism and modernization. I stopped for a cup of tea at the local tea house and on the porch sat a young lad. As I stood there and we both looked at each other, I found something reassuring, his look neither took nor gave. It made me wonder about my own look.

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Sumdo lies at the junction of the path to the villages of Loma, Mahe and even towards the city of Leh and then there is another path that moves the traveler to the famed village of Korzok nestled in the foothills of the Zanskar ranges. This path further moves towards the ancient village of Chumur, tucked away in seclusion amongst the yellow grazing grass of the horses. It was this path that I was drawn to and moved ahead.

The path narrowed down as I moved ahead. The broken down road spoke tales of this place. I was in the Changthang wild lands,vast and  imposing. These lands have a deep history of their own. After leaving the village of Sumdo and travelling around  kms , I stood at Namshamg La , this gentler of the passes in this terrain , playing the role of the seasoned anchor in an army of wild generals .

As I descended down the pass, the vistas opened up ahead for me. A world that seemed more real than real. All I saw was the earth spread out, all directions that I gazed, all I saw was nature and my presence. It is a different feeling itself, an alternate way to relate to the earth.

The words of Lama Govinda sprang up in my mind seeing what lay ahead, “Just as a white cloud, in harmony with heaven and earth freely floats in the blue sky from horizon to horizon following the breath of the atmosphere; in the same way a pilgrim abandons himself to the breath of the greater life “, I was the pilgrim here and the creation was to what I had given myself up at that point of time.

The sound of the wind and the swaying of the brown grass in its passage, the steady sound of the I’LE as it stood watching along with me, there was this vastness but then I felt it complete from within. Kiagar Tso shimmered in front of me in the distance. It waited for me or rather I had been waiting for this meeting since five years now.

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Kiagar Tso, a beauty in itself, not much is spoken and it loses when tourists go ga ga over talk about Pan gong and Tso moriri in the same breath. But ask the discerning traveler and he will go quiet for a moment and his eyes will attain that glassy look as he transports his soul back to his moment spent by Kiagr Tso. Such is the beauty of this lake, it is a hidden beauty and only reveals when you pay attention to it The taxis carrying the tourists hurl pass it intent on reaching Tso Moriri in time for lunch or maybe dinner depending upon the time but my suggestion have a packed lunch by this lake and you will relish it whenever you think about it for all the years to come by . Trip advisor reviews can never convey what this lake is all about for they cater to the tourists and not to the traveler. Come out here to understand what the words I have written mean.

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As I moved ahead, the road deteriorated soon enough and was replaced with the constant mind numbing shake that each vehicle is subjected to when one travels on paths cut into the mountains , yes the path is clear but then it is a path and not a road and every bolt , every rivet , joint in the car and man within is shaken and banged about constantly .

After crossing a rickety bridge and then travelling for about —- kms , one reached a signboard , on the left is a magical full metaled road leading in to the horizon while on the right , the nightmarish road deteriorates even further. Korzok lies to the right and that is where one has to move , the pace decreased even more as I drove real slow without hurrying up , The I’LE needed to be cared about when on such long trips. Tso Moriri, in Tibetan language it translated into mountain lake, is nestled amongst the Zanskar ranges at an altitude of 14800 ft above sea level.

The lake is held sacred by the Buddhists and the inhabitants of Ladakh. It holds the distinction of being the largest fresh water lake in India but then it wears this achievement and many more lightly on its sleeve. Its history pales the glories that men heap on it. The “Changspas “ nomadic migratory shepherds of yak ,sheep and goats and horses of Tibetan origin are the main inhabitants of this lake and they have for decades ranged far and wide along its shores striking deep into the Changthang plateau .

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The villaeg of Korzok is the only permanent settlement in close vicinity and offers a place to those  who are willing to stay out here. For those travelling at any point of the year the cold and wind is definitely significant however for those visiting this place in extreme winter or post October has to be prepared for the brutal harshness that is evident out here. The incredible beauty matched the ruthless harshness of the region and Korzok is a beacon of hope for those select few who come in off season to this place. Korzok by itself has only the Ladakhi way of life to offer to the outsider and to experience that one has to stay out here in an unhurried manner. Most of all who come here have only Tso Moriri on mind but there is a world beyond Tso Moriri too in Korzok.

I found myself here in the early onset of winter and the sun was still bright enough to make me feel its heat in the middle of the day, things were still very much in control, winter looked from the mountain peaks and waited , confident that soon circumstances will shift in its favor.

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Reaching the entry of the village, I went and announced myself to the ITBP post out there. I submitted the self-declaration forms and entered the personnel details in the register. Soon moved ahead and scouted for a place to stay in this ancient village. There were two luxury camps but the steep rate quoted in off season made me retrace my path and move ahead to stay in the rustic homestays that the villagers offered. Mentok GH was what I finally selected and Stanzing , the aged caretaker was more than happy to have some company.

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The evening was spent in exploring the trails above the Korzok Gompa . As the sun moved towards the other part of the globe, the temperature dropped steadily and while the travelers shivered , the local children were having gala time playing a game of street football , all noisy and boisterous. I stayed for the entire evening high above the village watching the spectacle of the sun setting and thereafter made my way back slowly.

There was an option to stay the next day out here but then I decided to move head to attempt something audacious and hence I needed the spare day. Tso Moriri will be again said Hello in the years to come, I felt that in my bones as I bid my silent good bye to the quiet lake under the million stars.

DAY  XI

The sun shimmered as I moved ahead retracing the path of the previous day, my mind was in a whirlwind of thoughts egging for me to try something audacious but at the same time caution whispering me down and like a master mariner who rides his vessel in the midst of a tropical monsoon I was trying to find that fine line between audaciousness and fool hardiness.

The battle was whether to take that elusive path from Mahe towards Chushul which would take me to dizzying heights of close to 18000 feet in a region that still was stuck in the time wrap of the early 2000s. While the majority of Ladakh had moved on towards 2016, this place took one back to the sights of the early years that used to greet the few hardy ones who braved the quest to reach the magical kingdom of Ladakh.

This path would make me cross three passes and allow me to gaze upon two magical lakes and the remnants of a lost glacier and I was hungering to give in to the desire as the struggle was happening internally within while slowly the point where the decision had to be made approached. Eventually reached the check post of Mahe and the time for the decision was upon. After crossing the check post, I reached the Y junction wherein a right would take me to Mahe and the town of Nyoma while left …. Ahhh that was the source of the desire and I turned left. Surprisingly the decision was so smooth and yet I had tempered the desire and told myself that the first sign of trouble would turn back.

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This path that I had taken was definitely not a 2WD drive territory and the I’LE was definitely trespassing into firmly held territories of the big boys of the 4WD club. We moved on, the wind had picked up and the loneliness of the path was knocking hard into my subconscious. The road was surprisingly good however immediately it climbed up steeply using a series of hair pin turns. I drove sedately conserving the I’LE, not allowing any parameter to cross the cruising limits. Soon was way up as the road started getting narrower by the passing meter. Eventually after some time, at a height of 16900 feet  was at the first pass, the wind was ugly out here, a living being as it sensed and swirled all around me. Hor La, that’s where I stood with the I’LE, marveling at the raw scenic landscape spread out ahead of me. It was desolate Ladakh at its best and it gave an indication to what was coming ahead.

After a few customary shots I moved ahead and soon came upon the first of the Lakes, the sedate Yaye Tso, it beckoned me from distance nestled at the base of a huge mountain. I could feel the aura of peace that it radiated. I wished somehow one could walk till that the lake however it that would take more than anhour which I did not have. It was close to 1130 hrs as I moved ahead.

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The path now was cluttered with loose smaller rock pieces that had rolled down the adjoining mountain slope as I continued ahead and soon the path degenerated in to a rocky affair and thought to myself, the ordeal begins but kept moving ahead, things are still in control. After a few kms I stopped and looked around and realized that I had come way ahead, had driven deeper into the chasm from which the path of no return was somehow not visible that easily. Sure I could turn back but even that was possible at very few locations for such narrow was the path cut into the mountains.

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The route is just a rough cut made on the mountain, zing zag moving ahead at an incline all the while, the cut has been levelled at many places by laying down big size quarry stones that are supposed to form the base layer for a metaled road but then after this, no work has been done hence the path is of a kind what I have seen anywhere and definitely suitable for only the army stallion class of vehicles.

The thought of taking picture somehow did not register and by now was totally immersed in moving ahead in a controlled manner. I must say that this path made the best come out of the I’LE as it crossed rocks, rough cut stones, gravel, mud which not even a 4WD would attempt willingly without some kind of a backup in a normal scenario. The second pass beckoned to me after some hours which were filled with doubts and misgivings for there were no road signs or a path or GPS to tell where I was. The incline was my only indicator that I was on the correct path for I had to climb up to reach the mighty elusive of all; Kakasnag La. Finally, I was there, one of the least visited places in the entire Ladakh, the weather was a rugged as the landscape and the roughness of the entire scenario made me feel goosebumps. After some evidence shots (yea that how I call the pics that I clicked) moved ahead on the same tortuous path that was ripping into the I’LE but then there was no way other than going ahead. By this time, I could not even think of the thought of turning back.

I was the only individual as far as the eye could see and for the last six hours had not encountered any living soul whether man or anything else. The absolute remoteness of the location matched the temperature that I was feeling, there was no escape from mother nature’s close hand. But the absolute discomfort was made up by the absolute breathtaking landscape of the location.

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As I descended I glimpsed something blue and it made me realize I was looking at Mirpal Tso, an elusive lake seen in pictures of those very few who had come here. Slow meter by meter I moved ahead and yes meant it when I say metre by mete Every few meters I used to stop and lie down to inspect the underneath of the I’LE as well as the condition of the tires, so brutal was the punishment. But thankfully the Michelins held strong, a testimony to the quality of them.

Mirpal Tso was bewitching as she shimmered beneath snow covered peaks. I cannot relate the feeling, one has to be here to experience it and words can never do justice. The rawness, the beauty, the absolute solitude, .it was mesmerizing as well as frightening.

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The day seemed shorter out here, with each passing hour as a different shade of bleakness sets in. Any warmth that I hoped quickly retreated. By now I was openly fighting for the chance to leave this place with the I’LE intact.

After leaving Mirpal Tso behind I finally reached SATHTO La( 16600 feet ), my third pass on this trail and now I was growing confident that I had made it. There is so much to explore out here , I knew that I had only scrapped the surface of endless possibilities and the possibility of a return was both enthralling as well as filled with foreboding.

After some time as I stopped high in the mountains, I saw a blue within the brown mountains and then I realized that was I seeing was the Pangong, a first sight of the mighty lake seen from a totally new angle and location. the lake seen from the highest possible driven path possible. Mesmerizing it was, and still continued ahead maneuvering a series of sharp hair pin bends as I quickly descended in altitude and raced on the narrow path towards Chushul , there was this sense of accomplishment that I wanted to jump in the air and share it what I had achieved , something  totally monumental. Eventually I reached the outskirts of Chushul and took first significant break. The path to Tsaga La was on my right as the soldiers at the check post wondered from where had I conjured up, but I kept my silence.

Crossing over the mountains took energy and time but yielded a comfort, not the feeling that u have when u are in the middle of nowhere but the feeling that u have when u are in the center of something. Crossing the landscape reminded me that I had formed something intimate out here, I had been with something that will always have a link now with me no matter how far I drive way from here.

It was pretty late in the afternoon as I stood at Chushul , The path from here was pretty straightforward as I went towards the Kondu La and thereafter the Harong Wetlands which would eventually take me to Tang Tse . The distance was definitely a long drive; I knew it was not easy but then somehow assured that the I’LE had the grit to cover it. Soon moved ahead, there were 90 kms to cover in these early days of October when the sun said goodbye quite quickly.

The single track kept moving ahead as I made steady progress crossing Parma TCP in the bargain. I have not heard about this TCP in any of the TL but on both occasions that I have taken this route, the TCP does stop you, enquires and notes down particulars. The path is a broken down version manageable definitely but then speed is one thing that cannot be achieved. The other option to reach Panging is to take the bumpy route via Merak , Maan and spangmik villages along the shores of the Pangong . That is a definitely shorter part, almost by 30  kms however I still put my faith on the route through which I was travelling which though broken in places guaranteed that progress still could be made even if the darkness fell. By 1900 hours I reached Tangtse and stopped for the night. The homestay was Chang La GH, the same in which I had stayed two years back. The owners have constructed a hotel itself and now are not very enthusiastic of filling up the Homestay however seeing my tired condition, the lady offered me a room which amply met my needs.

DAY XII :

The agenda for the day was a visit to the famed ancient Tang Tse monastery followed by a day spent on the banks of the Pangong. Accordingly had an early start for in this region an early morning ride when the sun has just cleared the mountain peaks showcases the traveler the beauty of the landscape. Immediately after one has left the village of Tang Tse, there are streams running next to the road with a green carpet of lush grass creating undulating small patterns in the ground.

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So returning to Tang Tse Monastery, firstly Tang Tse village is nestled in a valley floor though which flows the Harong stream. The mountains tower on all sides and this area is slowly opening up to visitors but does have a large army presence. Tang Tse Monastery has been reconstructed by the villagers and the statue of Jigshten Gonbo stands beautifully inside the main prayer hall. Once definitely cannot clicks pictures out here else they would provide a fascinating insight. I would recommend everyone to visit this fortress monastery for its in-depth visuals on the thangkas as well as architecture.

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From here, I proceeded towards the Pangong Tso “the long and narrow goose lake “located at an average altitude of 14200 feet, having a physical dimension of 134km length and 5 km width. The uniqueness of this lake is that it flows across the international border into Tibet, thereby straddling two countries. Out there is goes by the name “Bangong Co”.

The lake is noted for its crystal clear blue brackish water which keeps playing tricks and changes colors in seven distinct shades of blue, green, purple, turquoise, violet depending on the angle of view. The shores of the lake are white with salt deposits while in extreme winter, the entire lake just freezes and presents a mesmerizing sight. The panorama of the golden mountains is reflected on the lake surface and presents an exquisite sight indeed. It is said that in the Chinese controlled part there exists a small lake which is a popular birding area for hundreds of migratory birds.

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So we reached the lake soon enough and as I had been here previously we drove towards the village of Spangmik, for the homestays/camps are all located out there. Spangmik has been totally taken over by tourism was my impression. There are numerous homestays and luxury camps out here. For the non-tourist traveler, I would recommend that he keeps continuing till he reaches the village of Maan / merak and there in the absolute solitude he can feel the presence of the lake.

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I just spent my afternoon and evening hours in the stretch beyond spangmik village and between the Lukung and spangmik sector watching the lake mesmerize me with its bewitching beauty. Someday I nurture a desire to travel to the opposite shore of the lake and travel into the bends in order to see the alternate visual of pangong tso. Let me see if this desire gets culminated some day or not.

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DAY XIII

Today I had to move , Chang La had called and when the call comes , it’s time to go . Hence the I’LE turned towards the heights as we ascended towards the icy domains of Chang La Baba, situated at a height of 17550 feet. The whims of this pass dictates whether the eastern part of Ladakh can be accessed or not by the defence forces mandated to protect the area towards Depsang Plains, Chushsul sector and Demchock sector. To overcome the eccentric Chang La, Kakasang La was bought into existence. But today was a warm day as we moved ahead, the out of turn snow indicating the change in season and the coming of winter was scattered at the very height of the pass however today was a day of sun and blue sky. By later afternoon I had crossed over and reached back to Leh city.

 Tomorrow I would be exiting the magical region of Ladakh and take the Leh- Manali highway which would deposit me back to Manali and thereafter would cruise onwards to Delhi, Ahmedabad, Mumbai before finally arriving back to the shores of the Arabian Ocean, a world far away and apart from where I stood on this afternoon next to my INDOMITABLE looking back at the last few days of supreme glory and fulfilment.

 

2 comments on “Ladakh : My second reckoning”

  1. I spent this early humid morning reading your beautiful travel diary imagining the feelings in your head as you drove through those high and mighty terrains. The rugged beauty of nature that you have written about and captured for immortality. The dazzling shining lakes. The high snow peaks. If this is not heaven what is?

    Liked by 1 person

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