When Leh-ting go isn’t easy!

Posted by on Aug 8, 2022 in Featured Posts, Travel Tales | Comments Off on When Leh-ting go isn’t easy!

When Leh-ting go isn’t easy!

Second time in a row. A bunch of over-enthusiastic, over the age of four-O, crazy albeit, friends for 26 years decided to go on a high-altitude reunion! An overland exploratory trip for 12 days to the ‘land of the mystic lamas’- Ladakh! This time it was after a hiatus of three years, the previous one being at the Annapurna Base Camp in Nepal.

Destination: Ladakh.

Objective: Differed from person to person, ranging from ‘let’s run away from reality’ (me), ‘let’s test if my training was worth it’ , ‘let’s test my mental strength, since physically I am zilch prepped (me, again!)’ to ‘high time we had some undiluted fun and banter (all)!

In summary:

  • The Ladakhi landscape is spectacular! The stark, barren landscapes give way to lush meadows, Chinar forests, and apricot orchards, with slivers of glimmering sun illuminating the landscape every now and then, like a surprise present!
  • There’s something ridiculously calming about respecting your pace, decision, heart and mind, when it comes to physical endurance. Also, when you have an inspiring tribe, wonderful things can happen.
  • High up, so much closer to the open skies, the sky is like a museum for astro-lovers! If you ever get an opportunity to gaze at the Milky Way for the first time with your naked eyes, you will know exactly what I mean
  • Monks are everywhere and there’s an aura of mystery surrounding monasteries. Stunning monasteries dot the landscape – you can’t miss them, and it’s a feat to manage climbing all of them! And, there can be personal experiences attached to these, you will find out!
  • Impromptu experiences with real families in real houses, chatting with lamas inside their living quarters in a monastery, playing with the cheeky Changpa kids, can’t be compared to what a standard tourist itinerary can offer you

When you can almost hear soundlessness, get used to cobalt blue skies, barren yet beautiful granite citadels and glistening lakes  – that’s when you know you’ve arrived in one of the most spectacular places on this planet!

Day 1: Transferring to tranquility:
When I reached Leh, it was late afternoon. A bunch of us had already arrived, and due to a massive ( read: 4 hours) delay to our connecting flight from Delhi, credited to what I suppose were strong winds and rains in Leh- we reached much later than we were supposed to.

And, here we were – ten of us, from across the globe – who landed up in Leh, following directions and encouragement from our dear friend, Sahil Sharma – all roaring and enthusiastic to not only spend time in the mountains, but also with dearest of friends, whom we have known for 26 years now!

Sahil runs a company called First Light Adventure, and this description from their website truly brings to life what they do: “Himalayan Travel experiences, that take everyone along. i.e. think of everyone and everything that makes travelling to the Himalayas possible and worth the while.”

Something is always magical about twilight and nightfall in the mountains, isn’t it ? The streets of Leh were as immersive and inviting as ever! Discover what appeals to you, as you browse these captures

Day 2: The Shanti Stupa:

Being at Leh, we were at 3500 meters already, but we did need a bit of acclimatization. Lest some of us fall prey to Acute mountain Sickness (AMS), our first familiarization of the terrain and altitude was a planned walk up the Shanti Stupa to be aerobically comfortable with a few hundred meters more – which would allow us an aerobic acclimatization to about 3900 meters. The history of Shanti Stupa in Ladakh speaks a lot about the ideology behind its construction. 500 steps to reach the stupa, it was built in 1991 by Gyomyo Nakamura who was a Japanese Buddhist Bhikshu. Built to commemorate peace and harmony in the world and a symbol of humanity, it stands beautifully on a hilltop in the neighborhood of Changspa with some spectacular views of the surrounding Stok range. Its the same area where our hotel in Leh was – so merely an evening walk, per say!

Day 3: Thiksey Monastery:

Built around the 16th century, Thiksey is the main centre for a small sub-order of the Gelugpa sect with a resident Kushok (head lama) who runs the order with a firm hand, in strict accordance with the Vinaya texts. It houses about 80 monks on the premises and also holds one of the largest nunneries in Ladakh.

Rectilinear structures of various dimensions cascade down the south slope of a hill resembling a cubist collage. Thick black lines running along the roof, accentuate the dimensions of each structure. Small windows, framed with broad black bands, punctuate the overwhelming white of the buildings.

The whole set up- the monastery etched against the hill, the landscape around and the sky- it’s almost like a 3D painting. And, the sky opened up so beautifully – as if it knew that the contrast of this blue would have such a dramatic effect on the brazen brown mountains, the canary yellow and the beet root red walls- bringing it to life like a canvas bursting with colours!

It’s easy to spend hours at each monastery – whether its Thiksey (or any other)- exploring rooms, marveling at staircases, and talking to monks or simply watching people carry on their daily chores – fascinating! Seize that opportunity, when you are there and you get it.

That, winding up with a fabulous Tibetan dinner – and we called it a day!

Day 4: Trekking up an ancient observatory site:

Woke up to a beautiful view of ice capped mountains this morning, with not even the remotest clue that today I would let my mind rule over my heart.

With no excuse to cite, the fact was that I hadn’t trained for this trekking trip, except for a few days of walking around my neighborhood lake in Bangalore, and intermittent running/ rhythm walking on a borrowed treadmill that had hardly an incline to boast of.

The plan was to take an easier climb up a less steeper and lower hill – while the others were scheduled for a steep trek, through granite pathways and loose gravel, to a site of an ancient observatory. The observatory is not functional (or even around!) today, but was functional when the skies in Leh were much clearer and pristine than it is today. It’s a spot 4100 mts above sea level, with some devastating views of the landscape around.

‘Take it easy’- was my go-to mantra for the trip. Loosely translated, this would mean that I indulge in physical enduring activities only before a point where my brain thinks- ‘oh, this is something you definitely can’t do – skip it!’. But, something happened to me 15 mins before it was time for everyone else to leave for this trek. I suddenly had an uncanny urge to go along. And I did. Much to my own amusement and shock! That done and dusted (literally), I don’t think there have been too many such moments where I would say to my self “ You know what, there was nothing I would have done, than doing what I’m did right then!”.

The climb was not only exhilarating, with wondrous views of vistas between the 45 million years old granite rocks of Ladakh, it was very personal to me.

My pace, my way, my decision, my heart and my mind. With an average BPM of 82, this walk to acclimatize us to these high altitudes was a marvellous experience.

When you have a tribe that inspires you to do things that you are meant to do (or not), yet not be pushy for me to feel stuffy and agitated- wonderful things can happen.

More power to friendships like this, that has glued us together for 26 years!

Day 5: Dipping into the Nubra valley and exploring Diskit:

Nubra Valley is one of the most beautiful corners of Ladakh – perfect for hiking, discovering the cold desert, or just immersing in the views. The route from Leh to Nubra takes you over the spectacular Khardung La (Pass)– along the highest motorable road in the world – and up to heights of 5,600m. To say the views are breathtaking, would be an understatement.

The Khardungla Pass road descends down to the Nubra valley, where the Shyok river flows. Two thirds sand and soft mud and one third water, to the eye it can be hard to determine where the water in the Shyok begins and ends.

Nubra has two names – one Ladakhi and one Tibetan. While the former has a plainer meaning ( it means western). the latter, ( Dumra) from the Tibetan roots means “valley of flowers’.

Our rooms had glass bay windows through which you can directly stare at a snow capped conical mountain top. In a fairy- universe, I could have perhaps extended my arm out and touch it!

Later that afternoon, we hiked up to the Diskit monastery, where resides a gigantic idol of the Maitreyee Buddha. I had plonked on the stairs of the temple to catch a breath, while the others went inside. I lost myself in time, perhaps- because what I imagined to be just a few minutes, probably turned out to be enough for the others to finish a view of the temple inside and walk back towards the parked vehicles. As I was being called back and started walking, I saw the priest and a little boy monk through a window. I instinctively bowed, folded my hands in a namaste to him, and the priest raised one hand and blessed me with a smiling face – his wrinkled face and twinkling eyes breaking into a smile. In the background the sun was mellowing down with a honey hue, and a distant azaan filled the air. Priceless!

Soon after we were chasing the imminent sunset, driving through the cold desert of the Nubra valley. Stark, beautiful and remote, the neighboring Hunder Village is an oasis in the middle of the cold desert. On one hand it has patches of green, and in the other there are clusters of sand dunes along the courses of Nubra and Shyok Rivers.

These curvaceous sand dunes are made up of sand, that has a texture as soft as talcum powder. With the pristine Shyok River gently flowing along it, the snow-capped mammoth mountains on one side and barren hills and cliffs on the other caressing it, it is a sight to immerse in, behold and absorb. Almost spiritual, you can say!.

Now, for a second close your eyes, and imagine yourself standing amidst all this vastness. If infinity, was a feeling, that is how I felt standing on the ledge of a sand dune!

I don’t think my pictures do any justice. We perched ourselves on a stone mound / hill-face and watched the barren cliffs changing so many colours as it reflected the setting sun.

How extraordinary to see something from the outside, of which you are a part, inside!

Have you ever seen the Milky Way with your naked eyes ? I have ! And this is how it looks.

Till this moment, the most humbling thing I’ve ever been around were the mountains. But when you stand underneath this gazillion sheath of stars- the galaxy of which our solar system is a part- you will become dumbfounded!

If you are seeing these pictures now, you are vicariously witnessing something extraordinary! Yes, thank me!

Day 6: A beautiful hike along a lost trail, to Hunder Dok

Hunder Dok is a tiny hamlet, precious and pristine, almost hidden between the barren Ladakhi mountains in Nubra Valley.

From Hunder, an hour or about 10 kms of off- roading on a precarious dirt track takes you to Hunder Dok. Once you reach a point where vehicles can go no more, is where the hiking trail begins. Going past the gurgling turquoise waters of the Dok Tokpo ( village stream) is a trail that takes you through river boulders, loose gravel, alpine meadows, wild rose plants, pretty patches of mountain flowers and wheat fields. The landscape around you is still stark, but when the green patches of wheat sway with the river breeze and form waves with their happy dance, it is an unforgettable and incredible sight.

We stopped for lunch at Dolma didi’s house who opened not just her house but her heart to us and fed us some delicious rural fare. Her house is traditional, made of wild willow and poplar tree trunk. Gobar gas is the main source of fuel, especially helpful when winter temperatures touch sun zero and there’s no water. I couldn’t spot any shops/ convenience stores or even any other mode of communication.

It’s that ‘hidden’!

I’m increasingly seeing while trekking/ hiking is such a personal thing. Because my aerobic timing is quite slow, I usually trail behind everyone else and walk slow yet without any distress. It makes me thoroughly enjoy my trail. This algorithm works best for me: space it out, contemplate, stay still when you need to, and restore and revitalize yourself, even while on the trail!

Day 7: The precious Balti villages of Turtuk and Tyakshi!

Excerpts taken from the Loculars blog-

“Since 1971, Turtuk lies a mere 6 miles on the Indian side of the border, which some argue, is the most dangerous in the world. Yet, in such perilous proximity lies an astounding landscape, warm welcomes, sweet apricots, pulsating buckwheat infused greenery, and the alluring Balti people. The beauty of this oasis, cocooned within barren mountains and the affection of its Balti community undeniably etches one’s mind!”

Today, we drove 80 kms from Diskit( Nubra valley) along the Shyok river, to visit these little Balti villages.

“A stroll through Turtuk and Tyakshi is nothing short of invigorating as shy children greet you with innocuous smiles on rosy cheeks. Women casually dry apricots, mulberries and nuts, and cordially greet outsiders but withdraw swiftly at the prospect of a photo.”

Mesmerising sceneries and ancient Balti houses aside, their simplicity, hospitality, humility and innocence were the most endearing part.

We plucked apricots, spent a lovely afternoon chatting with the principal of the local government school in Tyakshi, whose family opened their hearts and home to us.

When we stepped out of that household, the feeling was a mix of being grounded, educated and invigorated!

“This stretch of Ladakh, including villages like Tyakshi, Thang, Chalunka and Turtuk had gone to bed in Pakistan on a December night in 1971, and woken up in India the next morning, right after 17 year old Major Rinchen took out four villages from Pakistan’s territory- following the partition that resulted in India / East Pakistan and Bangladesh.”

Mohammed Ali’s family house overlooks Pakistani mountain ranges. He opened up and shared about how he’s now got his passport and will eventually visit his brother and their families who are left behind in Pakistan.

Behind him, his daughter, with rosy apricot cheeks and a melancholic twinkle in her eyes spoke a thousand unsaid words. If there was a contest for eyes that can speak silently about one’s heart- the Balti eyes would be winning that contest, hands down!

The water they served us, their hospitality and warmth, the tea and the abundant dry fruits – I’ll never be able to decide which was sweeter.

Day 8: Climbing up a mountain on Khardungla – been there, (partially) done that!

Our next adventure was hiking up 5040 mts to summit an unknown mountain near North Pullu at Khardungla. I took it slower and climbed about 4700mts, instead.

Yet another time, when pushing boundaries or battling physical capacity with the strength of my mind wasn’t my priority. At the end of day, all that matters is what YOU get out of each act that you do, each decision that you make and each personal milestone you conquer.

And, then just for the sake of conversation, attaining a 93% score isn’t bad at all, eh?

Sitting alone at 4700 meters has its own basket of activities to complete, you know! Basking in the sun with the cloud cover and wind chills at that altitude isn’t easy. Nor is being mesmerized by the vastness ahead and soaking in the beautiful view of the Karakoram range. And, sitting still on a rock in a trance staring at more rocks – try that, at that altitude!

A tribe ( like mine) never judges one another. And that’s the best part of this trekking trip with First Light Adventure. There’s no pressure. Instead there’s always a pat on your back for achieving a personal milestone. And, yesterday all 4700mts was mine ! And a big proud moment for me to see so many of my friends achieve theirs – at 5050 mts!

So amazing, isn’t it?

Day 9: Try finding Temisgam on a map!

Another beautiful experience today visiting a little hamlet on the mighty Indus River, called Temisgam.

Angmo is a member of the local crew for First Light Adventure, and she is the sweetest to invite us to her home for a home cooked Ladakhi meal and a day out! Untouched, pristine and uber beautiful, this village has a monastery, remains of an old fort ( ramparts to be precise) and the warmest possible people under the Ladakhi sun!

This was a special invitation and Angmo’s mother cooked up a storm to feed us.

Their backyard opens up to to verdant green fields of wheat and vegetables- so one shouldn’t be surprised that all the meals are farm-to-table!

What was supposed to be a “walk” around the village, ended up being a 2 hour climb to the local village monastery and temple- giving way to some spectacular scenery.

Everyone in the village of course, knows Angmo. So when we walked down with her, the warmth almost multiplied exponentially. A group of her elderly neighbours were sorting apricots- and when I asked them if I could click them.. she gracefully offered the the ripest, sweetest fruits from her basket.

When we travel, often planned itineraries often don’t give us this much joy as these experiences do.

I live for moments like this to take back with me… and fill them in my memory basket.

Do you?

Day 11: Towards Tso Moriri:

The drive from Leh to Tso Moriri took us across some stunning landscapes. Stark and brown as the mountains were, the green meadow carpets, wild yellow mountain flowers and unnamed streams and brooks made the contrast extraordinary.

And then there were the special touches that no one but only First Light Adventure can think of – like a packed- lunch picnic stop on the way, surrounded by tall rugged mountains, seated in a carpet of green that’s interspersed with tiny canary coloured flowers, and a brook running around us. We weren’t the only ones – we had the most innocent looking alpine cows and donkeys, beautiful sheep dogs, to give us company!

Most people rush to the Pangong lake, made famous by a couple of Bollywood productions. But, Tso Moriri is equally, if not more, beautiful and can ferociously give a run for money to any international alpine tourist spot across the globe. The shades of blue, ranging from the cobalt of ink, to the cyan and cerulean of the neighbourhood swimming pool, to the brilliance of sapphire were hard not to get addicted to!

At 4522 mts, this untouched, not tarnished by commercialisation yet, lake district of Ladakh can soothe anyone’s soul and senses!

No mobile network, too! Just another day in Ladakh.

Day 12: A day with the Chang-pa nomads in Tso Moriri:

Flanked by lofty mountains, Tso Moriri is the largest high altitude lake in India that is entirely in Indian Territory.

The morning was kept aside to visit a ‘phey’ or a grassland/ meadow where nomads build their shelter, graze their sheep and create an environment that can help them survive till they move to the next pasture. These are the Changpa nomads, who originally migrated from Tibet. The Changpas are nomadic pastoralists who predominantly rear sheep and goats. They also herd a variety of livestock like yaks for meat, milk and transportation, horses for riding, carrying loads and even ploughing agricultural fields.

So, these are the people behind the “pashmina goat”. The Changpa nomads have been shepherding their world-class pashmina goats (or cashmere goats) for centuries and these goats are one of their main source of income. The famous pashmina wool is from the goats they herd!

Over the years, the Changpas have learned to live in harmony with nature and its surroundings. They do not fear the cold-winds, the rough terrain, and the harsh climate. They transmigrate with their makeshift tents in search of green pastures for their livestocks in the valleys of Rupshu, Kharnak, Tso Moriri, and Mudh.

Fortunately for us, we were allowed a peek into one of their octagonal tents, by an old lady who refused to be photographed! These tents are called ‘rebo’.

A rebo is made out of yak wool and is held together by stone walls. Each rebo invariably accommodates places to sleep, kitchen ware, a makeshift stove to cook and the presence of a family deity- a picture of their spiritual head, in most cases the Dalai Lama.

The Changpas migrate four times a year with their belongings in the hope of finding better living conditions for themselves and their animals and also to trade their butter, meat, and wool.

Fascinating to hear their stories – it’s a whole new world that will mesmerise you with their resilience, adaptability, simplicity and pride. The children of this generation are sent to school ( and speak a mean English, too!) but earlier it wasn’t even thought about.

Later, the same morning we went on a short hike around the lake. And simple as that may sound- hiking on loose gravel and sand isn’t a mean feat at all! No ascend perhaps, but mighty trying, I can say.

Some of these frames don’t even describe how pretty the lake is.

But take a look – it may soothe your senses that way it did to ours ! And, of course, I had to wear a saree with my hiking boots to make a point!

The mystery of the monasteries!

I’ve always been very intrigued with Buddhist monasteries and what makes it one – how do monks live in there, what do they do apart from conducting religious rituals, how does a slice of life in their lives look like?

Do monasteries nestle in remote valleys or sit high on rocky cliffs for any other reason, other than providing breathtaking views of the surrounding area, allowing Buddhist monks to stay close to nature and detach themselves from anything else?

People of Tibetan descent make up the majority of Ladakh’s population, resulting in a strong Buddhist culture. Monasteries in Ladakh preserve a piece of the Buddha’s architectural and historical heritage. Many monasteries are centuries old, passed down from monk to monk for generations. These monasteries are more than just buildings; they are places of worship and study, where monks live and work. They are called “gompas”.

This trip provided me with so many answers, and with every opportunity I got, I exchanged a dialogue or two with a lama, or watched them as they carried out their daily chores.

One such was an evening I spent at the Korzok Gompa while we were exploring Tso Moriri.

Korzok is a tiny village on the banks of the Tso Moriri with a revered monastery that is 300 years old. The Tso Moriri Lake below it is also held in reverence, and considered equally sacred by the local people.

That evening as I stepped into the Gompa, with gongs and chants reverberating from inside, I witnessed a slice of life that had till then, seemed a mystery to me always! Here were the monks rehearsing for the Korzok Gu-stor festival that would be held at the monastery in a few days. Young monks leaped and pranced in choreographed stances- some portions of the dance still being choreographed. These rehearsals were a sight to watch. Not all were monks in there. There were Korzok villagers and also folks who seemed like Chang-pa, the Tibetan plateau nomadic herdsmen, that live in the ‘phey’ nearby.

The Gompa, and the periphery area around it, I deciphered, was a place of camaraderie every evening. The old, the new, the elder and the youth come together every evening, sipping tea, munching a snack or exchanging gossip! The men smoke, the women chatter and the kids play. It’s like a community center.

Inside the monastery- the dance, I was told by a young lama I spoke to, is choreographed to represent the Dharmapalas (guardian divinities of the Buddhist pantheon), and the patron divinities of the Drukpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism. I missed the actual festival by a few days, but if I was there I would have witnessed the nomadic tribes fervently participating in the rituals!

Across other floors of the Gompa, other monks carried out with their chores- some washing their robes, some the ritual utensils and some reading a book or praying with rosary beads.

The young nomadic kids that I suppose come by every evening to play in the courtyard, pranced around all the levels of the monastery, up and down the stairs, often imitating the monks! So cheeky and mischievous- exactly how kids should be! And, they were natural posers too!

Bribing them into staying still was a task, for sure! A few fruit juices and candies did the trick, and before long we were “friends”!

Life can pull you down with the everyday mundane so easily- but moments like this levitate you and take you where the mind and soul feel so cleansed!

With every trip to the mountains there’s always an yearning to revisit. To create new memories, to relive old ones, and perhaps share them with new people. It does sound cliched but trips like these really constitute what we popularly call as ‘a trip of a lifetime’. Finally, let me wind up with a list of ‘must always do’, touristy rituals, I had in mind for this trip to Ladakh-

  1. pose with a Leh milestone
  2. sit on the middle of a road to nowhere
  3. buy pashmina
  4. share the only permissible alcoholic drink with the bestie on the last evening of the trip!

Hey, sometimes even the touristy things are worth it! Till we meet again… Julley, Ladakh!