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Into Ladakh’s secret regions

As a Flight Lieutenant of Indian Airforce, I had been to Ladakh first time in early 1970s. Then only government officials especially members of the armed forces traveled to Ladakh. On my very first visit I had fallen in love with this rugged land. Though call of duty had taken me to northern Ladakh later and once had to trek from Kargil along frozen Suru River to Padum in Zanskar valley due to heavy snowfall, I could not see much of once forbidden Zanskar, Nubra Valley and Pongong Lake circuit. In, June 2004, we came to Ladakh and decided to see ‘once forbidden northern Ladakh’ that is open to tourists today.

Ladies of the Nubra Valley

We had arrived at Leh (3521m/11,551ft) by Indian Airlies flight from Delhi. After a day’s total rest for acclimatization at Leh we hired a Gypsy to take us around Ladakh. And next morning we were heading for Zanskar. Half way to Zanskar’s headquarters Padum is Kargil. Once a sleepy second town of Ladakh, now a tourist destination since Indian and Pakistani guns had boomed in 1999. We had our lunch at a roadside eatery at Kargil. Kargil located on Suru River, is a beautiful town with basic amenities including Tourist Bungalow of J&K Tourism. The town is within the shelling range of Pakistani guns and still carries scars of shelling in 1999. Many in Kargil told us “ Insallah, phir shelling na shuru ho jai (God willing, shelling should not begin again)”, making it clear that they lived in the shadow of death and destructions. Next we were racing towards Padum along the highway.

A word of caution for intending tourists, northern Ladakh is not exactly a picnic spot. Due to acute shortage of motorable roads, one has to hike a lot and sleep under starlit skies, if required. Our party comprised of Dr Dipak Ghosh, Tapan, Dipu and me. When we reached Padum, the first thing that caught our eyes was crystal blue sky and treeless gray mountains standing guard over Padum (3,500m/11,480ft). It was a full moon day and we trekked to Singumfa Monastery to witness Lama dance in accompaniment with Tibetan musical instruments. Next day we visited Karsha monastery of Tibetan architecture. Though Karsha is the largest monastery in Zanskar, we found the collections of artifacts and manuscripts are more varied at Burdan monastery. We visited two more brilliant monasteries at Phugtal and Zong-khul. We stayed at Tourist GuestHouse of J & K Tourism.

Natural scenery of Zanskar is splendid with snow-capped Twin Peaks of Nun and Kun guarding it. The great Himalayas and the Zanskar range stand on three sides while we saw the Indus flowing through the village of Nimo and meeting the Zanskar River. The view is simply great. Here we met some European trekkers who had crossed Shingola pass (5,500m/18,044ft). They told us that they had trekked in the Alps and Rockies but found that Manali-Padum trek was the best.

Maitreyi Buddha statue at Tikse Monastery

Again we came back to Leh and now our destination was Nubra Valley at the foot of the Karakoram Range, this northern part of Ladakh is very close to the Siachen glacier, the largest and most closely guarded glacier in the world. Here between the crevasses and this snowy giant, men have traced international lines that have become border of tension, prohibiting visits to this place. The Siachen meets the Shayok in Ladakh and gives rise to a valley that is astoundingly green where the landscape is generally of the colour of the desert.

We slowly climbed up the Nubra Valley from Leh. The journey was a memorable one. The Beacon Highway continues along the side of the mountain, tracing fine curves in an immensity of rock where, at around 4,600-4,800m (15,092-15,748ft) height, one comes upon specimens of alpine flora: carpets of moss dotted with pink and blue, edelweiss, gentians and wild mint. And higher up is just the mountain alone, of ice and granite. This is Khardong La, the highest mountain pass in the world at (5,603m/18382ft). This is the highest road in the world. In this desolate, ice bound freezing area Indian soldiers and engineers of army keep the road in perfect shape while we view the gigantic doorway, this border between the domain of the Indus and the Nubra Valley.

Nomads near Tso Moriri Lake

In Nubra valley villages houses are not massed together as we had seen along the Indus. As irrigation is simpler and soil is friendlier, we saw fields of rye and kitchen gardens of all types of vegetables. Apple, walnut, apricot and even some rare almond trees are grown. The paths run along high walls of greenery in which the predominant trees are the Kabulis, imported centuries ago from Afghanistan. In the Nubra villages, we took the first step and every door opened with Ladakhi hospitality.

In olden days caravans traveling towards Central Asia and Kashmir always made a halt at Nubra. Hot spring at Pamanic gave them chance for bathing and they could get fresh supplies before confronting the Sasun and Karakoram passes. A few one-humped Arabian camels of Kazakhstan origin still spend the summer in the shady pasturelands. We saw them trailing around close to Diskit. Walking with suppleness on this soil and as if they wanted to go out of the valley, and cross the pass to travel once again along the age old spice and silk route.

We reached Diskit, the seat of the Government in the valley. The monastery is situated overlooking the rivers meeting in confluence. The monastery or gompa of Diskit is perched on the rock over hanging the stream. It overlooks an impressive cliff where the monks still move around every day to gather drinking water. The monastery is rich, full of tangkas (silk paintings) and magnificent giant statues, effigies of the Buddha and old beautiful mural paintings. Our night halt at Diskit was in tent as no other accommodation was available.

Nun and Kun peaks

Opposite Diskit is the “village of three rivers” on the other side of the mountain stream.  We were walking along the paths of Sumur (“3 rivers”). A perfect peace and calmness of the local residents overcame us. We could see the happiness among them and its source was the stream that provided them with rich soil and easy irrigation. They are not dependent on outside help for their day to day life.
It was the end of the day and the sun was playing with the mountains. Sitting in our tents, we saw inhabitants of Nubra returning home after a day’s work in their fields and while walking back home they were singing a tune that conveyed their spirit of freedom among some of the loftiest mountains in the world. By the side of the road a river flows gently. A woman carried her baby in a wicker basket. We watched the colourfully dressed men and women passing by, their faces bathed in peace. 

Back at Leh, we drove out for Pongong- Tso (4,267m/14,000ft), the largest brackish water lake in Asia. Tso in Ladakhi means a lake. We drove past the lovely villages of Shey and Thikse. Then crossed the Ladakh range by the Chang la (5,475m/17,962ft). We saw an ancient temple at the foot of the hills with an image of an unknown god.. The first glimpse of the bluest Pongong-Tso is gorgeous. The lake is seven kilometer in width but its length is 130km. It is bisected by international border between India and China. We saw the glamorous view of Changchenmo Range, their reflection shimmering in the ever-changing blues and greens of the lake water. We saw some horses belonging to nomads grazing by the lake. Spangmik is the furthest point foreigners are allowed. Above Spangmik were the glaciers and snow-capped peaks of the Pongong Range. Beauty lured us to take out our tents and set up our camp near the banks of the lake, though not planned originally. Night by the Pongong-Tso was mysterious and when the half moon rose it was mystical as if the Apsaras (Heavenly dancers according to Indian epics) would come to dance in such beautiful a stage. We were afraid to sleep in such surroundings lest we become Rip Van Winkle.

Pangong Lake

Once back in Leh, we planned our trip to Tso-Moriri Lake and after spending a quiet day at Leh, we left for Tso-Moriri early in the morning. We drove 140km in 4 hours to reach Chunthang (3,965m/13,008ft). Chumthang is known for its medicinal hot spring. We had initially planned to spend the night at Chumthang but as it was too early to stop driving to Tso-Moriri, we decided to carry on and on our way we crossed Maya Bridge. We were driving along Puga Valley to Tso-Moriri Lake (4,555m/14,945ft). We covered 80km in 3 hours. Entire drive was through barren landscape with high snow capped peaks. By the time we had set up our tents and had the first cup of tea, the sun was setting in the west. Temperature was dropping fast. We warmed tinned vegetable curry and soup in Butane stove and finished dinner with bread.

Next morning we began exploring Tso-Moriri Lake and its surrounding areas. Tso-Moriri is one of the largest lakes in Ladakh, in fact we felt it was an inland sea by itself. The lake stretches 22km and has a width varying from 5 to 7 km and a sounding more than 30m or 34 ft at the deepest point. We could see beautiful peaks of Mt. Mentok and Mt. Khurlang on the right side and Mt. Kurchu and Mt. Lungser on the left. Tso-Moriri is well known for birdlife. We saw rare black-necked cranes and a few Bar Headed Gooses while a Graet Crested Grebe flew in. There were a few Brahmini ducks, too. The area is rich in wildlife including “kyang” or wild ass, red fox and highly endangered snow leopard. Surrounding Rupsha Valley is beautiful with surrounding peaks as high as 6,000m or over 19,500ft. We saw “Changpas”, a nomadic shepherd attending their yaks. As the sun went down and darkness engulfed the Tso-Moriri Lake we retired in our tents after dinner.

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