On a lazy Sunday afternoon, I was glancing through itineraries posted by a travel group. Felt like someone sifting through the nostalgia of their childhood memories from an album found in the cellar. It had been 20 months since I had seen an airport. 20 long months that had changed a lot of perspective, 20 months which felt like a lifetime being lost. Suddenly a Facebook message popped up. Someone was curating a trip to Ladakh and had posted it in one of my Facebook groups. Ladakh, that had been on the cards for many years for me but somehow never worked out. It was nearly the end of the season for Ladakh but my longing to be there since long made me click on that button to express interest and before I knew it, I was making the payment for the bookings and blocking my flights.
Before we get into details of my itinerary and experiences, let’s start with the basics first, you need to know your own threshold for weather and pack accordingly. While the temperature says 11-12 degrees Celsius, the winds can be chilly. One moment you might have bright sunshine and the next moment it would be the cold winds so layering up is important for Ladakh. Since I wasn’t going on a backpacking trip, I utilised all the 15 kgs of luggage capacity the domestic flight allowed me and packed my layers of woollens, medicines, eatables for a quick snack and other important things like masks, sanitizers, sunscreen, lip-gloss etc. Well, no amount of reading could prepare me for the experience.
It took me a while to get reoriented to the airport. Blame it on the social distancing and isolation of the last 20 months but all my sharing, caring went for a toss and I wanted to sit many feet away from anything that walked on two legs when I took my mask off to sip my coffee. If Arthur Hailey was to write a new version of Airport- I am sure it would be a horrifying thriller on the pandemic. But then we are humans, and we adjust. So did I. By the time I got into the flight, I was pacified. Now this is when I made the mistake of taking Diamox. A lot of people recommend Diamox to deal with Altitude Mountain Sickness. It is available over the counter and the chemists do not explain how to take the dosage. Diamox should be taken under medical supervision and at least 24-48 hours as it can have many side effects which happened in my case.
Anyways, my flight was uneventful, and I was glad I had the window seat. Would surely recommend getting a window seat so you can some lovely aerial views of Ladakh before landing. You can also see the melting snow on top of the mountains and the blue sky is a very pleasant respite from the smoggy horizon of Delhi.
The first day at Leh was just intended to lie low, rest in my room and acclimatize. Do note that the impact of the thin air hits as you walk out of the airport. Even walking up to the parking can leave you panting. Thankfully we were staying at the Grand Dragon Ladakh and the hotel was well equipped with Oxygen cylinders and also a doctor on call if required. While I just rested, guzzled in bottles and bottles of water as my throat felt parched due to the dryness all the time, by evening I began to feel very hot, had a splitting headache and started feeling very anxious. Some of it could have been the Diamox. Thankfully I had only taken half a tablet but when I contacted our group coordinator, they advised me to not to take any more of it. I also asked for oxygen that the hotel promptly provided me at no additional cost. It was really a relief to get some oxygen support that evening. The Grand Dragon served buffet breakfast and dinner which was a pretty good spread and had a something to cater to all taste buds. I had a beautiful view of the mountains from my room, and one could enjoy similar views at the restaurant too.
While still a bit under the weather, I decided to join the group for a visit to Alchi monastery. Alchi was at a lower altitude to Leh and the drive down actually did wonders in helping me acclimatize. The views on the way were beautiful. We crossed the Sangam (confluence) where the Indus and the Zanskar river meet. That is the starting point for the much esteemed and difficult Chadar trek. In Ladakh one truly begins to understand the meaning of the journey being more important than the destination. There was so much to see and enjoy on the way.
The Alchi Monastery dates to the 10th Century and I was awe struck to see the paintings on the walls of the temple from that era. However, was also disappointed that some of the walls in the temples had been spoilt with soot from the incense sticks burnt there every day. No photography was allowed inside the monastery, and we had to leave our bags and cameras outside in a locker room prior to entering the temple area.
The Alchi monastery has a restaurant as well where we had a delicious cup of tea. One our way back we had lunch at a restaurant in Lamayuru, also known as the Moonland of Ladakh due to the crater like formations. The lunch was simple, homely yet a very tasty buffet lunch. We then headed to the Lamayuru monastery enjoying a scenic drive on the way. The Mani walls (Walls made with Buddhist carved prayer stones) and the prayer wheels of the monasteries, make the whole ambience very peaceful. We came back to our hotel in Leh feeling thrilled with our journey so far and looking forward to an even more exciting one the next day.
The next day we made an early start from our hotel to attend the early morning prayer at the Thiksey monastery. It is one of the bigger and most well-maintained monasteries with one of the most beautiful roof top views. However, the monastery is built over 12 storeys so be ready for long haul to get to the rooftop. The Thiksey monastery is also well known for the Maitreya temple which houses a 49 ft high statue of Maitreya, the tallest in Ladakh. It was mesmerizing to hear the monks chanting the morning prayers. The little monks trying hard to remember their lines were a delight to see. They also served us heavenly butter tea which you should try when in Ladakh. The Thiksey monastery has a restaurant as well as washrooms with a beautiful view of the mountains. We had carried packed breakfast from our hotel which we could have there. The service there was quite slow as the kitchen also caters to the meals at the monastery and they had limited utensils.
From there we drove to the Stakna Monastery, the only Bhutanese monastery in Ladakh. While it looked isolated, the views from Stakna monastery were very beautiful. The monastery is a on a hilltop next to the river and different shades of nature you see from there through the prayer flags all around you is astonishing. After a long stop and taking pictures to our heart’s content, we headed to the Hemis monastery which is the biggest monastery in Ladakh.
The Hemis Monastery is hidden behind the mountains which as legend goes has protected it from the various invasions. It dates to the 16th century and houses a fascinating museum with a wide display of Tibetan relics, Thangkas, gold statues and Stupas embedded with precious stones, weapons, and carriers. Having had an early start, we retired early that day, spending a little time in the local markets at Leh. Do check out the Yak wool and camel wool shawls and stoles.
The next part of our itinerary was to visit Nubra Valley. We started early the next day to get to Nubra by lunch time. The drive was a bit tough as we crossed the KhardungLa pass which is the highest motorable road in the world. The air is thin and there are strict instructions not to spend more than a few minutes there to avoid oxygen deficiency. The instructions were not in vain, and we could feel the pressure just after a few minutes. I would recommend not to spend too much time at the actual top as you hardly get any great views from there. It is better to stop a few kilometres ahead and soak in the beautiful scenic beauty. One is mesmerized at the hues and variety of colors one can see.
We reached Sumur village in Nubra Valley by lunch and checked into Lchang Nang Retreat which was a treat. The retreat is completely managed on solar energy and the cottages provide a perfect place to wind down and enjoy oneself in the peace and beauty of the valley. The rooms have no televisions and are stocked with a lot of books to make you spend more time with nature and yourself. We had to pre-order lunch as last-minute orders were not possible to cater to in the small village. In the evening, we took a walk through the village and were greeted at a traditional Ladakhi home where we were served butter tea by the women of the house who also shared some of their life stories with us. They were kind enough to also wear traditional attire when they were informed about our coming. It was enchanting to walk through the valley on the historic Silk Route that brought traders from Central Asia. Dinner at the retreat was a fixed buffet menu with a live Thukpa counter which tasted heavenly after the long walk. The retreat also offers to set up a bonfire on chargeable basis.
Our second day at Nubra valley took us on a drive to the lesser explored Charasa village and monastery. While it seemed like the monastery was just across where we were, we had the Shyok river in between and had to take a long drive along the Silk route to get to the other side of the valley. We even stopped midway at a Ladakhi home, and they were kind enough to help us cook Maggi for lunch. They added some of their own farm vegetables to it. On our return we also stopped by to look at some of the petroglyphs dating back to thousands of years. Petroglyphs are rock arts found strewn all over Ladakh along river beds on shinny rocks, leaving historical facts and important signs that made great sense in those days. Another highlight of the evening was to gaze at stars in the clear sky of Nubra Valley. The retreat had set up a telescope for star gazing and we were able to see the planets Jupiter and Saturn as well as get up close and observe the craters on the moon.
It was really tough to drag ourselves away from Nubra Valley. I could have surely spent a few more days just lounging around in the Lchang Nang Retreat and being at peace with myself. However, all good things come to and end and we packed our bags to get back to Leh. Some of my group members were leaving the next day and we wanted to have a great evening chatting over the memorable trip we had had so far. But before we got back to Leh, we had a little bit of a surprise on the way as we drove to Hunder, the hub of the Bactrian camels. The Bactrian camels were brought by traders from Central Asia taking the Silk Route. These double hemped camels are the most patient animals I have seen. They were furry and very cute and absolutely oblivious to the people swooning over them and clicking pictures. While you can take a camel ride at Hunder, just the sight of these very lovable camels made our day.
That evening as we chilled out over a bonfire reminiscing our journey together, I hadn’t thought that the highlight of my trip was yet to come!
My last day at Ladakh started early in the morning as a couple of us made the long trip to the much heard about Pangong Lake. The drive to Pangong is about 5 hours from Leh. We could have stayed back in Nubra Valley and gone to Pangong from there too, but we didn’t want to miss the good times with the rest of our group members. We were told that the drive to Pangong Lake is difficult and not beautiful. Well truly we did cross dry rocky mountains for 3/4th of our journey but the last hour was a surprise. It was a very different kind of landscape and we quite enjoyed that drive till we reached the view that took our breath away!!
True to its reputation, the variety of shades of blue as the lake reflects the sky on a bright sunny day is mesmerizing. We could have just stopped our car and stayed there with a gaping mouth for a few hours but were soon shooed away by the soldiers who asked us to stop at the designated parking. The Pangong Lake is under the security of the Army so one must follow the rules diligently. We went right up to the point where cars could be parked, and we could go down to touch the water of the lake. It was an eye sore to see the yellow scooter photobooths created after the success of the 3 Idiots movie, but one can ignore that area and move ahead to get some peaceful space to gaze at and enjoy the beauty of the lake.
There were some eating joints and accommodation available, but they were very basic so no wonder most people return on the same day. Washrooms are not easy to find so be prepared to walk a bit and do not expect any written instructions. Well back to the beauty of the lake, wherever you see it from, it is breath-taking. The weather was sunny, so we did not need our warm jackets there. There is no point going there on a cloudy day as you wouldn’t see as beautiful hues of blue.
I don’t even remember most of my return journey from Pangong as I was so happy reminiscing the sight I had seen. My reverie was broken only when our driver said he was feeling sleepy, and my co-passenger was also blissfully nodding off on the front seat. That last hour became an adventure ride as I had to think of all possible non-sensical stuff to discuss with the driver to keep him awake and keep shaking my group member from falling over him! But what’s a trip without some adventure. It just added to my delightful and interesting Ladakh memories. As I packed my bags for my flight the next morning, I couldn’t help smiling and saying to myself “Ladakh nahin dekha to kya dekha!”
Some tips for travellers:
- Acclimatization is very important for Ladakh and try to keep your itinerary in a way that you don’t have to shift hotels every day. The thin air made us much more exhausted so adding more activities like packing and moving everyday can only make it more difficult.
- Markets in Leh had ATMs so we could easily withdraw cash. However, in other places cards may not work so do carry some cash. Our hotels accepted cards.
- There are no fancy restaurants on the way so be prepared for basic meals. Additionally, the local eating joints are small and run out of food very soon and we also saw them turning down customers or cancelling the order after making customers wait so carry sufficient snacks and water for long journeys.
- While washrooms are available on the way, they are mostly pits with no signs so better to ask your driver in advance as they know where to stop vs waiting to see a sign board. Do carry ample water and hand sanitiser
- Most monasteries did not allow pictures to be taken inside temples so carry a bag that you can tuck your phones and cameras in and we also needed to take our shoes off so wear comfortable shoes that can be slipped on and off easily
- Airtel network worked almost everywhere 😊.