Nubra Valley – Forging our own path

Khardung La is not for the thin blooded. Although its an easy, winding climb up but its the sheer altitude  which ensures that you don’t take it lightly. One minute you can be fine, posing in front of the 18,380 feet board, feeling giddy to be on top of the world & the next minute the “on top of the world” giddy feeling gets real & acute & you are slightly sick.Fortunately help is at hand & after some pure oxygen & piping hot tea, you make sure you get down to the lower reaches of mother earth ASAP!But it seems the lack of oxygen has addled our brains a bit because we can’t resist stopping again ,some way down, to have an “icicle  battle”.The melting snow has exposed them right along the road.

The descent on the other side seems lesser till we realize that the slope has plateaued before falling down into the serene valley & the turquoise Shyok winds its way at the bottom.Its a sunny, warm valley with the mighty Karakoram mountains flanking one side.Wow!One had only read about them in school books & now here we are…across the last range of the Himalayas & knocking on the doors of the next great range…Fantastic!One leg of the valley heads off towards Siachen & the other towards Turtuk. Due to paucity of time(darn that factor again!) we make pit-stops nearby only. At the hot spring in Panamik, which is en route to Siachen, there is a basic structure with clean men’s & women’s sections.Its deserted & the water is hot & thankfully not smelly at all.

In the warm haze we see whirlwinds dancing across the valley floor near Diskit. The monastery seems to have grown organically from the mountainside.The imposing  statue of Maitreya Buddha near it looms large as it looks benignly westwards.The monastery houses,apart from statues of some pretty  fierce looking deities, a mummified head & an arm of a medieval soldier.It takes a little searching in that room full of ancient relics.

 

The  popular touristy thing to do is to go to the  dunes at  Hundar & take a ride on a Bactrian camel,which looks quite pitiful while molting .

Turtuk sounds inviting.(The name as much as the place!)I just love the name but I keep confusing it with Tobruk..which is just a continent away..!Any how , we head in the opposite direction the next morning. As with all worthwhile places the journey is as alluring as the destination.The road runs initially in a seemingly straight line in the valley.Suddenly it all curves to one side & the road ceases to be one.Its not only that there is not a soul in sight but one can feel the isolation.

We make a picnic breakfast halt by the river & we spy this low small cloud at some distance in the valley & it seems to be raining in that teensy patch.Its a clear day otherwise.We keep a wary eye out ,ready to make a dash back to the car.Other than the odd boulder there is no shelter. After some time on the move again the path gives up any pretensions of being one ,sort of saying,”figure out your way!”At one place we navigate over a fresh mud slide,rocks, silt & all .Slipping & sliding, bumping over the half buried boulders I can say that we did figure out our own way! In the warmer months this route along the Shyok becomes impassable with landslides & higher water levels.

I’ve been craning my neck & looking all over the mountain sides trying to catch a glimpse of some wildlife & finally I am rewarded with a fat Chukar partridge…right on the road!So much for making all that effort! Suddenly we swerve off the main road (Yes, it has magically appeared again.) into this gully & reach Tangsey in a bit.I try to imagine the Shyok’s  journey upstream between those lofty peaks,heading towards Daulat Beg Oldie.Now that is again a name which sounds inviting!

Batalik – A tribute to the human spirit

 

Kargil is a regular trading town,slightly ramshackle,surrounded by apricot orchards.It is nestled at the base of this massive mountain which looks more pronounced as we climb up the gently winding road to Humbotingla.

The setting of the drive is dramatic with this almost black rock feature rising up  along like a Grand Canyon wall…rugged & wild. The pass itself looks desolate with these snow covered peaks stretching out in all directions.On the other side,not far down is this village.Still reeling under the wind chill factor which hit us full on when we hopped out of the warm confines of the vehicle,freezing our grins semi-permanently on our faces like everything around, in the warm vehicle once again I can only wonder at the hows & whys of the people living in that village.

 

The road then descends through this steep narrow ravine,hurtling along a mountain stream & criss-crossing it & a village or two, clinging onto the steep sides & suddenly ,the road swerves to a side!Thank god!There is the Indus,far far below, in a gorge nearly vertical in places.So deep,so silent yet relentless as it moves on,out of India. There in this seemingly end of the earth rugged place,nestled into a craggy outcrop, is this tiny oasis.This little’ Asterix-Obelix’  meet ‘Lord of the Ring’ elf’s village of the Brokpas. The village of Darchik.

It looks like its been pulled out of an Albert Uderzo comic. Its a hamlet of handsome people.Their origins a mystery. One can’t help but marvel at the human spirit. Why, of of all  the places in this whole wide world, would anyone come & carve out (literally it seems) a life in this isolated narrow deep gorge?But these people came & now have this fairy tale place  complete with green fields, apricot trees , pretty houses, crystal clear little water falls & streams rushing  to meet the mighty river down below.

On the drive back towards Khalatse we crossed the other village of the Brokpas, Hanu. Got a fleeting glimpse of the most startling pair of green eyes  full of mischief on this tiny tot running to these village elders sitting along the road.The drive back  to Leh along the Indus out of Batalik was,thankfully,  less vertigo -inducing than our route in & we saw a massive rock in the river which, according to the driver, has Buddha’s ear carved into it.Our driver being a local of this valley had turned his nose up at the dried apricots available in Kargil.  He insisted that the Batalik ones were the  melt – in -the -mouth kind, which they were.We also picked up some ‘shilajit’ which is found in the upper regions of the valley.I couldn’t get myself to have it finally,having heard so much of its …ahem,uses. I had visions of myself running around with either topped up testosterone levels or/and hot flushes!! Some aspects of the human ‘spirit’ are valued only in the mountains I guess!

Dras – Highway through heaven

Setting out early on a clear crisp morning on the highway to Dras we hit Pathar Sahib soon enough.Like we were to discover,everything in Ladakh is larger than life & incredible is the norm,we bowed our heads in front of the rock bearing the indention of Guru Nanak’s silhouette & the demon’s foot. Guru Nanak seems to be  the original intrepid traveler.

On the road again we crossed the’ Magnetic’ hill.We sped past it as it held no such ‘magnetic’ attraction for us.The confluence of the two mighty rivers the Indus & the Zanskar showed the latter in much muddy light.

The highway was a dream run & we sped past tiny villages,the surrounding fields showing a hint of luminescent green.The road alignment seemed to have changed since the last time I had traveled on it & we passed through the much photographed ‘moonland’ & not above it.We wound our way around the Lamayuru monastery which had been a bit of a blip way down there on a side last time.So there were none of the hair-raising ‘jalebi mors’ up to Fotu La where, the last time ,our teenage (or so he looked) bus driver in all his youthful exuberance had taken a wide turn on the first bend down & so, had these two shrieking women nearly jump across the engine onto him.(I plead guilty to being one of them.) But to our credit  we dint! We just held onto each other & prayed.Not daring to look down from  the nearly 13,000 feet we were at.I guess our reaction just ensured he drove at a more staid pace & took tighter turns thereafter!The pass itself was windy & there was a hint of falling snow this time.The vista on the other side was stunning with this snow-crested massif on the left looking like a ‘I’ve- been- here- forever’ implacable chunk of giant rock.

At Mulbekh,right next to the main road,carved on the face of a giant rock face, stands the Maitreya Buddha ,its base hidden inside a tiny temple.

Kargil seemed to be warmer than Leh going by the greener fields & orchards of flowering apricots.Their pale beauty frustrating my efforts to vividly capture  their beauty on camera.After Kargil there were frozen streams of snow melting into the river flowing along the road.At one place the path had been cleared through  this huge muddy mound of  snow.Ponies grazed contentedly on patches of green along the snow in the fading light. Winter giving way to spring.

 

Dras was still frozen in most bits.A village on the far side of the stream was still snow bound.The entire geography of the place seemed to have altered since my last trip, it seemed.Given it was too early in the year there were none of the rolling grassy meadows & wild flowers that we had enjoyed that time.The War Memorial is a must-visit.The last letters making me want to bawl buckets . There is a ‘Draupadi Kund’,a fathomless spring ahead of Dras on the road to Zoji La pass.The Pandavas have supposed to have come this way on their last journey….It seems to have been the last journey of many a  braveheart .

This visit -of the buds of May & making our own way

This time we decided to fly to Leh. Driving up,I feel,is better though.The places enroute,both from the Srinagar & Manali side,have their own beauty & not to mention the acclimatization is taken care of.But time…oh dear!Its always such a fight..for time,against time!

We went early in the tourist season.At the beginning of May the passes hadn’t opened & the schools hadn’t shut in the north & so we managed to beat most of the crowd.Each month of the tourist season has something to offer.May has the pale beauty of the apricot blossoms & snow,July is a riot of colours with the wild flowers blooming & then there are the festivals spread over various months & with the accompanying hordes! Take your pick.We made trips to Dras, Batalik, the Nubra valley, Pangong Tso & Chumathang. Tso Moriri would have required more time & for some obscure reason Zanskar didn’t feature on the itinerary.

So at the end of this visit I have worked out the itinerary for the next!Will begin with Tso Moriri & take it from there. I’ve heard so much about the Chadar trek too but the one piece I did read about it,ironically,was about why we should NOT be doing it.It made total sense & as it is for someone like me who can turn blue, even south of the Vindhyas in winter,I’ll pass & hope global warming doesn’t get to it before I do!

The first visit

Ladakh cannot be captured in words.The pictures rarely capture the essence no matter how stunning.It has to be experienced.Then again & again.It still will not be enough!A land like no other & if one can imagine a land untouched,at its soul,by time,its Ladakh.

On the road to Leh for the first time from Srinagar,in a state transport bus,on the second day when we were climbing towards Fotu La,time had lost its meaning.The landscape was stark,the mountains rolling endlessly into the horizon,barren.One could just imagine the drawn out twang of a guitar & the scene would be complete,right out of some artsy movie.Suddenly there was a donkey.Out of the blue!& then.. another.It broke the reverie & I excitedly thought I”d seen genuine wildlife-The Kiang!(Till I saw one finally on a recent trip & realized the only ass had been me…)I still wonder if I imagined them,lack of oxygen & all.

It was all surreal,like much of the land.I vowed to come back again at the end of that trip.I did so again…at the end of this trip.