Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Ladakh July 2010: Part 1 (Updated with travel tips)

In Ladakhi language, “La” means pass and “Dakh” means land. Ladakh, thus, means land of passes. It is easy to see why. There's hardly any 2 places in Ladakh that don't have a pass between them! But Ladakh is much more than just that.

Ladakh is a land of seemingly never-ending valleys, punctuated with streams and rivers, and the patches of greenery they bring about.
Ladakh is a land of snow-capped mountain peaks, mountains which are often completely barren.
Ladakh is a land of yaks and ibex, wild asses and horses, marmots and double humped camels, of migratory birds.
Ladakh is a land of lakes that seem to change colour and shade according to their mood.
Ladakh is a land of deserts and pastures, of nomads and tourists, of Gompas and monks.
Ladakh is the ultimate get-away destination, a magical land sure to linger in your psyche long after you've returned to your normal life.

After obsessing myself over Ladakh for over 5 years now, I finally visited this dream destination, with 2 of my college buddies. Here is an account of the trip. Since it was a long trip, I split the travelog into parts.

The Itinerary
It was a 12-day trip (Bangalore to Bangalore), during the second half of July 2010. We did Delhi-Leh by flight on the onward leg and by road on the return.

Day 0: Fly Bangalore-Delhi
Day 1: Fly Delhi-Leh. Acclimatize.
Day 2: Leh local sight seeing.
Day 3,4: Trip to Pangong lake and back to Leh, including stay overnight at a camp on the shores of Pangong.
Day 5,6: Trip to Nubra valley and back to Leh, including stay at Diskit.
Day 7: Leh-TsoMoriri lake. Camp overnight
Day 8: TsoKar lake. Camp overnight
Day 9,10: Drive to Manali (halt on the way at Keylong)
Day 11,12: Overnight bus from Manali to Delhi; Flight back to Bangalore.

Day 0: Fri, 16th July 2010 – Bangalore-Delhi
It was late afternoon on this Friday that three over-enthusiastic friends embarked on this journey with mile-wide smiles on their faces, excitement oozing out of every expression. There was lot of shouting and merry-making during the hour-plus long taxi ride to Bangalore International Airport. The flight to Delhi was on time but as usual, congestion over IGI ensured our landing was delayed. To add to it, we taxied for like half an hour before finally arriving at our parking bay.

We weren't complaining though. You see, we had an entire night to kill at Delhi airport. Our Delhi-Leh flight was at 6 the following morning and it dint make sense to exit the airport and check into a hotel just for a few hours. So yes, we huddled into Terminal 1D close to midnight, and slept in the waiting area, checked in (and completed security check) somewhere around 2 am and then again went to sleep.

Day 1: Sat, 17th July 2010 – Leh
Delhi-Leh takes an hour and a half. When you begin the descent into Leh airport, you start seeing mind-blowing scenery down below. You see the snow-capped Himalayas from a height and that sets you in “I don't believe this view” mode – a mode which you will be in for the remainder of the trip.

Leh airport is a small one – only 2-3 baggage belts and it took some time for our luggage to come by. It was past 8 am when we exited the airport. To say it was sunny was an understatement. The temperature was already closing in on 30 Celsius! Our ride was waiting outside the airport.

Within 15 minutes, we were at our Guest House – a brand new one right below Shanti Stupa. Our cameras had been slotted into overdrive already – clicking the view from, of, around and above the Guest House. After freshening up, we ventured out for some sight seeing on foot.

We could hear water flowing somewhere nearby and sure enough, found a stream flowing within a 5 minute walk from our guest house. We spent a good half hour there before we returned to our guest house and took some rest. Lunch was at the guest house.

This was supposed to be a “rest” day, for us to acclimatize. Yeah right. As if we were going to “waste” an entire day resting. By 4, we had decided we'd climb up to Shanti Stupa. We took the steps. What seems like a relatively easy climb turned out to be .. err .. gruelling, with us puffing and catching our breath every now and then. That's when we started realizing that altitude sickness is for real. We took our time clicking snaps, checking out the panoramic view of Leh from the Stupa, sipping tea and finally back down via the steps. We again went to the stream. By now the snow that had melted during the afternoon had turned the stream into a gushing muddy flow.

It was close to half past 7 when we walked into our guest house, but the light would make you believe it was just half past 5! My body protested about the lack of oxygen at this altitude by threatening me with a nauseating sensation for the rest of the evening. This ensured I had a very light dinner and turned in early for the night.

Day 2: Sunday 18th July – Local monastery tour
We left leisurely for the local tour. From today, we would be joined by our guide and driver – Trashi. Like most Ladakhis, he is an extremely polite and helpful fellow. You'll be reading a lot more about him in the rest of the travelog :-)

So yes, we sat in the comforts of the Toyota Innova and headed off for the monastery circuit. We had Ladakhi bread on the way. We first stopped ate Shay palace which was the capital of ancient Ladakh. There's not much to see here – it is a place of historical importance – that's all.

From Shay, a short 10 minute drive took us to Thiksay Gompa. Here, we got to know what a monk's life is like. We saw their study rooms, their dining halls, libraries and the like. The landscape seen from up above (both at Shay and Thiksay) was intriguing. You could see the road divide the “green” area from the “dry” area. We spent quite some time at Thiksay, clicking snaps and then headed to Hemis.

This is more than a half hour drive from Thiksay. Hemis is the largest of the monasteries. There is also a museum here. Like many monasteries, Hemis is set into a mountain wall. The color of the monastery, the blue sky with the odd cloud, the green fields with mustard patches below the monastery, the mountains with snowed out peaks – it was quite a colour riot I tell you.

We were done by 1 pm and returned to Leh by 2. We had lunch in the town, got back to guest house, took some rest and then ventured out for souvenir shopping. Souvenirs are pretty expensive here. Since majority of the tourists here are foreigners, there's nothing you can do about it. Bargaining is limited.

What else then? After shopping and eating at a rooftop restaurant with breath-taking views, we were back at our guest house. We were brimming with anticipation regarding the trip to Pangong the next day. To know how that went, you'll have to wait for Part 2 of the travelog.

Travel Tips

  • Leh is the only sizeable town in Ladakh. It is an hour and a half by flight from New Delhi. At 12 thousand plus feet, the air is noticeably thinner. Leh was hot during the daytime (~30 deg Celsius) but would get pretty cool at night. The wind adds to the chill once the sun goes down.
  • There are plenty of options to stay at Leh – hotels, guest houses. And the options suit every type of budget. Our guest house was very reasonably priced.
  • There's lots of eating joints all over the place too – with all types of cuisines available. All kinds of amenities (ATM's, banks, medical shops, electronics etc) are in Leh.
  • Souvenir shopping is pretty expensive in Leh – but you don't have a choice.
  • Altitude sickness is for real and I would strongly advise against ignoring it. If you travel to Leh by road from Manali, you'd have got adjusted, but if you fly in, a good day's rest is advised. No strenuous activity like climbing on the first day.
  • Do pack in sunscreen, moisturisers and lip balms.
  • Getting around is pretty easy too. You don't have to have booked transport in advance. You can just drop in at any of the hazaar tours and travels and see if any “share rides” are available to wherever you are going. Getting permits to the popular places is also pretty easy at these tours and travels.


Deepak said...

Nice travelog Kiran.
Waiting to read the remaining parts.
I hope, I also get to visit this heaven soon, have been waiting for a looong to go there.

PC said...

I couldn't control bookmarking this article in my Travel > Best Place on Earth Category. (Believe me, I created this category just now).

After seeing those pictures you posted, You have no idea how much I blamed myself for missing the opportunity to go to Himalayas. I had my tickets booked and was to cancel last minute. Thanks to my job.

Article, Nicely done. I am glad you guys had a lot of fun and 'Once in life time' opportunity. Love to read more, waiting for your next leg.

Abhijith said...

Hi Kiran...good write up. could you tell me, what was the tariff at the water camp tent at pangong lake? are there any other accomodation options surrounding the lake?

Kiran said...

@Abhijith: The tarriff was about Rs1,500 per head for a day (includes everything - breakfast, lunch, dinner). That is a bit steep - but well worth it.

There are other camps out there, but there is also another option - a village where there is one BIG family (really big - a few dozen people!). They rent out some rooms as guest houses. I suggest you enquire about this.