Day One: The Mountains changed their colours; from browns to greens to snow-whites to pale yellows as the tandoori heat Shiwaliks gave way to cools of Ladakh in less than an hour. The rivers meandered deep below. First muddy, then glacial, then deep-blue. Vegetation diminished. Density reduced. Mesmerizing beauty enhanced with every inch. The sun was nearer, and it gave a striking welcome. Ju-ley. There was a chill in the air and it swayed the silk-soft Khatak. Ladakh has always intrigued me.
An acclimatising languid walk in the winding alleys of Leh old town was fresh to the core. The mud-brick dwarf houses resemble the traditional houses of the Pir-Panjal region. The intricate roof too. Satranj. Kadhi .Everything covered in soot. There are stupas, almost at every nook. A mosque, built on the order of Aurangzeb, dates back to 1666-67. The Central Asian Museum right beside. A gonpa in the main bazaar, Jokhang. The Leh Palace at the end of steep labyrinth of stairways gives an aerial view of Leh. The nine-storied building still stands majestically since 17th century. A ten-minute hike and the Tsemo monastery gives a better bird-eye view.
All about monasteries. Passing Choglamsar, the Shey village is located on the left roadside of Leh-Manali highway. It houses the Shey Palace which was once the summer home to the Kings of Ladakh and also the monastery. Few kilometres ahead, on a hilltop the Thiksey monastery gives Tibetan vibes. From Kharu on the banks of Indus River, the road turned right to Hemis monastery, nestled beautifully in the barren mountains. Distanced 45 kms away from Leh, this largest monastery of Ladakh is the most-beautiful one. So very peaceful. In the evening, the brightly-lit Leh town slugged while the Shanti Stupa appealed for world peace, from not very far away.
Leh is just a trailer. The Ladakh movie releases as soon as the town is left behind. Travelling north, the post at South Pullu promises of hidden natural treasures, beyond. The road winds up, gaining height till snow-covered Khardungla. Perched at 17,582 ft above sea level, it is the highest motorable pass in the world. There was a snowy welcome. Hot steaming tea made the picture perfect. The maze of mountains all around amazes you.
The road then descends to the famed Nubra valley, stopping briefly at South Pullu check post. A little ahead of Khalsar, the road diverges into two; one extending more northwards, to Sumur and ultimately turns left to reach the base camp of Siachin Glacier, the other turns left and snakes along the Shyok river. The fine-grained sands give a cue of why it is the cold desert. In the shadows of Diskit monastery, the villagers continued with their daily rural chores, not vary of the tourists-rush in their not-very-small village.
Not very far away, is Hundar, coated in off-white sand dunes. The double humped Bactrian camel safari in the dunes of Hundar takes you back to history. You feel like a silk-route trader. Save the fallen-humps of the camels that dismay you, the place does not fail to create an impression. A light breeze and the sands begin to fly, showering a sandy welcome.
From the hotel room at Diskit, the mountains across the Shyok river and behind which must be nestled somewhere Ensa, made a perfect view.
As we crossed Thoise, few kilometres to the east of Diskit, the large military airfield at Thoise came as a surprise. In return to the locals’ contribution to the construction of air-field, Indian army ferries locals in winters at subsidized fare. The road dug deep eastwards, opening up beautiful places, most of the times constricted on the edge of towering mountains. The archaic trails appear broken far and near, being no longer in use.
The barren mountains gives way to a small green patch, as the road descends to reach Skuru, a bowl-shaped village. From there, the road is pretty much at a comparatively lesser altitude. Crossing Changmar, at a distance of about half an hour, is a Muslim-dominated village, Bogdong. Beautiful little girls draped in white scarves present a visual treat even as the village is labelled as being orthodox. Locals do not allow themselves to get photographed and their interaction with tourists is minimal. Absence of eateries in this village is the confirmatory proof.
Then there comes a group of restaurants at Garari, named after Garari. The air smelled of Kehwa. The air smelled of Turtuk. A refreshing Balti welcome. The beautiful village, so beautiful that it defies all wordy descriptions. The narrow village lanes lined with apricot trees opened to vast wheat fields. A stream joyously gurgled. The royal house of Yabgo dynasty in shambles pleads for help. The beautiful mountains give a promising glance.
Further towards east, there is Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. The road turns from bad to worse, ruing the cross-border tensions. From Turtuk, the road takes a north-eastern bend and reaches Tyakshi village, located in the flood-plains of Shyok. The very-bumpy almost-no-road struggles hard to reach Thang, the northernmost village of India. The river carelessly makes way into POK, seeking no permissions even as the army-pickets, ours and theirs, carefully watch Thang and the handful visitors, from the towering mountains.
The mountains watched in unison as we reached Diskit at dusk.
It takes two hours from Diskit to reach Khalsar. From Khalsar, following the Shyok, the road takes a gigantic south-eastern meander to reach Aghyam. At Aghyam, another two routes from Leh join in; one via Digar La, the other via Wari La. Ours was the route, less travelled by. From Aghyam, the road begins to ascend. The valley begins to widen and the village Shyok greets with a gentler green-smile.
At Durbuk, the traffic increases manifold. It is here, that another route joins in from Kharu via Chang La. Few kilometres ahead; the road turns very dangerous, hanging from rock-strewn mountains. The Shyok goes out of picture. The road continuously gains height and cross Tangtse and Mugleb and Lukhung. Once you cross these villages, you get the first view of the world-famous Pangong Lake. It astonishes you and you fall in love at the very first sight.
It is huge and it is beautiful, defying the popular belief that small is beautiful. It shone in moonlight, as two pair of eyes watched it in utter silence, from a hotel in Spangmik village.
The road follows the length of the enormous Pangong Lake to reach Maan village and further follows the glacial bowl to reach Merak village. From Merak, the road crosses Khaktat Village to reach Chushul. It is the route less trodden by. And the roads or no-roads witness to this fact. The Red Dragon watches you from a mountain that the nature decided to colour differently. The Ringzan La memorial and the famous Taratop near the Tsaka Loma pass testify to the danger. Yaks graze fearlessly.
At Tsaga and Khuril, the mountain goats Pashmina nibble at the sparse grass, enclosed. The river Indus makes a sneak peek and then disappears. From the Loma checkpoint, not much far away is the world’s highest hospital at Mudh. The road abruptly takes a north-western turn and reaches Nyoma, dictated by the topographies.
At Mahe, the road meets the main route from Leh to Tsomoriri and turns south. The rolling vast meadows are welcoming with the ascent. The fleet of goats led by Changpas shepherds remind you of Bakarwals and becomes a common sight after Sumdo. Lakes Thatsang Kuru and Kyagal appear scattered like humongous water-droplets. Tsomoriri appears at Korzok village and extends to infinity. Like Pangong. As beautiful, but not as popular. At night, Chumar village across the lake flickered dimly.
Bidding adieu to the sleeping lake, the sight of Nepali women labourers with infants on their backs, working on road at Upper Sumdo distracts you. From Lower Sumdo, the left turn takes you westwards towards Puga. The air smells of borax and sulphur and hot water springs burble, adding music.
Not very far away, is Polokongka La. This route looks deserted. Not a single soul, save the few bikers. The remains of dhara like structures are haunting. These structures house Samad-Rokchen nomadic community. The valley opens up and there appears a tray full of salt. It is the Tsokar lake. Thukje and Tsokar are the two villages settled on the shores. The road meets the Manali-Leh highway at Depring.
Another world opens up once you cross Takglang La. Ladakhi women clearing snow, greet you with a charming Ju-ley. The mountains turn steeper, stonier and darker as the road crosses a volley of villages Rumtse in Rupshu valley, Sasoma, Gya on the banks of river Gya and Salsal. At Miru, not-very-vast mustard fields add colour to the otherwise monotonous picture.
At Upshi, it meets Leh-Mahe-Tsomoriri road. Ahead of Upshi, at Kharu, the right turn takes you to Pangong via Chang La and left turn ends at Hemis monastery. Straight ahead, in northwest, is Leh.
At dawn, we bade byes to Leh. Crossing Phyang and stopping briefly at Magnetic Hill, the sight of Zanskar meeting Indus at Nimmu knocks away your sleepiness. The mountains basked in early-morning sunlight as Basgo, Saspol, Likir Ulitopo and Nurla gave way to one another in far-east.
From Khaltsi, the road on the right takes to Kargil via Batalik, the left via Lamayuru and Mulbekh. Taking the less-followed route and following the swollen Indus river, we passed through apricot-laden villages of Takmachay, Domkhar, Scrubuchan, Lehdo, and Thang. Further ahead, Hanu Yokma on the right and Hanu Rong on the left. The 16th-century Chiktan castle waves from a mountain cliff on the left. Baima, Dha Hanu and Darchik are the Aryan villages. Brokpas dressed in colourful attires confirm it.
Hardly a kilometre away from Gharkhun bridge, on the right side, is Batalik. The infamous Batalik sector. Once Batalik is left behind, there is a new world. Minarets of mosques begin to appear. The ascent from Batalik covers Silmor and Lalung villages and ends at Hamboting La. As the road begins to descend, Kargil looks not very far. Villages begin to appear, far and near. Barche. Akchamal.
At Poyen, Suru river ferociously flows. Kargil settles on its shores.
Leaving Zanskar and more of Kargil for another time, the road crossed Kharbu. The Tiger Hill peeks out from here and there. The coldest place in India Drass was not as cold. It was July. Crossing Matain and Gumri, the road exits Ladakh and enters Kashmir at Zoji-La. Baltal brims with Amarnath pilgrims. The pony-wallahs await tourists at Sonmarg, which still is as beautiful as the golden meadows. Sind river accompanies the road from Sonmarg to Kangan. The road turns left from Ganderbal towards Srinagar, the river goes north.
Home is Pir-Panjal away.