Time for a family vacation! This time we decided to explore the North, or more specifically the northmost India – the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Often quoted as “Jannat” which in English translates to “heaven”, J&K has been on our list for a long time.
In this 6 night 7 day trip, we covered Leh and the Srinagar valley. Leh is a popular destination amongst bikers and enthusiasts travel from all parts of India on their Royal Enfields to this cold desert. While Khardung La pass (not very far from Leh) is believed to be the highest motorable road in India, a banner of “Welcome to the Highest Motorable Road” is ornamenting every other road in Leh. This being our first trip to the state, we wished to cover as many destinations as possible and postponed a self-drive plan for our next visit. The beautiful deserted mountains do rekindle a desire to hop on a bike and ride along their soft curves. After all the bikers aren’t misled to this valley!
We took an early morning flight from Delhi to Leh on the 5th of July, 2015. I must mention here that it’s worthwhile to spend some time in choosing seats for this flight as it offers a mesmerising aerial view of the majestic Himalayas. Taking into account the direction of the flight and the Sun’s position in the sky, one can request for a seat in the left seat panel (A, B and C) for a morning flight or the right seat panel (D, E and F) for an afternoon flight (prominent aircraft carriers in this sector are Airbus 319, 320 and 321). The Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport of Leh is situated at an altitude of 3256 m above sea-level and is the highest of its kind in India. Owing to the militancy concerns in the valley, the airport is highly secured and there are security checks at every stage of arrival and departure. A not-to-be-ignored medical advice to spend the first day acclimatizing plays on-loop at the airport.
After spending a few hours acclimatising to Leh climate, we headed for our day visit. Our ride for the next 3 days in Leh was going to be a Toyota Innova. The seven of us adjusted ourselves to the comfort of Innova with motion-sickness-passengers getting their preferred seats, followed by tall passengers and so on. Our driver, Murtuza, evidenced his driving skills with seamless control over the twist and turns of the mountains. His driving skills were highlighted in the light of what we faced in Kashmir (phew, that anarchist Srinagar traffic!)
The first destination for the day was Shanti Stupa. Located on a small peak surrounded by valley on 350 degrees, the Stupa provided a spectral view of the Leh valley. A pair of binoculars can come in handy for a view of the Indus river. The subtle blue hue of the Indus river adds to the beauty of the otherwise barren Leh valley as the river cuts through the mountains.
The stupa is surrounded by a wide platform which renders an even more majestic look to the stupa. Scriptures depicting the birth of Buddha, wheel of dharma etc can be seen on the walls of the Stupa. For the interested few, there are also stairs which stretch from the bottom of the hill to the Stupa. Devotees on their regular errands of the Stupa usually prefer this route. (risk climbing only if you’re well acclimatised).
The second destination of the day was Leh Palace. The access road to the palace sets a perfect tone of desert with its dusty terrain. The palace has an entry ticket of Rs. 5 per person (Indian citizen). The interior of the palace consists of 9 levels, most of which are easily accessible except the last one to which you can climb to with some aid. Level 8 offers a view of the valley similar to that from the Stupa. With a dusty landscape on one side and the contrasting green-ish patch at the bottom, level 8 offers a view of the valley similar to that from the Stupa. An array of snow peaked mountains barren without a pixel of green patch over the horizon in the north. On close observation one might notice a clear demarcation of altitude above which the snow exists and below which there are only rocks and stones. The interior of the place are mostly abandoned and empty and are not half as charming as the exteriors. Although there is a old Buddhist temple in the palace, reminiscent of the old Tibetian culture.
Although Leh offers an oozing scenic beauty with the rich blue colors and majestic valleys, the best moments of Leh are witnessed at nights. I ended up spending 3 hrs each night just admiring the numerous constellations and stars embedded in the night sky. Over the course of my stay I was lucky to observe the celestial extravaganza when Jupiter and Venus were in close proximity in the night sky. Perhaps the most striking feature of the night sky, owing to the pollution-free atmosphere is the faintly shimmering Milky Way. Of course the sky is a delight for those who wish to carry their telescopes for observing the plethora of messier objects and star clusters some of which can even be spotted by naked eyes. Nevertheless, the sky won’t disappoint naked eye observers with the numerous constellations, planets and stars at their disposal. To count a few, I was lucky to spot the following constellations – Deneb, Draco, Hercules, Sagittarius, Scorpius, Libra, Virgo, Cepheus, Cassiopeia, Lupus, Lyra and Bootes.
While pigeons and sparrow dominate the pool of Leh’s bird population, birds like Red-Start, Black-billed Magpie and Shirikes can be easily spotted.
After a successful local sightseeing on day 1, we headed to Pangong Lake on our second day. The lake is situated at a distance of 130 km from Leh which can be covered in around 5 hours. Although many people make one day trips to the lake, there is a provision of booking tents beside the lake. Spending a night beside the lake is highly recommended especially if travellers wish for a respite from the humdrums of metropolitan chaos and sink in the serenity of the pristine lake. You might get an impression of the closely packed shacks like that of Goa, but fortunately the tents here are quite widespread and do not in any way tarnish the picturesque landscape.
The route to Pengong is laid out with a variety of different landscapes. In the initial part, the road moves along the river Indus and is more or less flat. The gradient gets steeper after you cross Sakti and continues to rise till the highest point of the path – Chang La. Guarding this important pass is a small temple of Changla baba. Changla Pass is situated at an altitude of 5480 m and is the second highest motorable road of India. The mountains around the pass are covered with snow at all times of the year and man tourists stop to indulge in a snowfight with their friends and family.
Unlike most mountain roads in north India where you cross a small town every 20-30 kilometers, the routes in this particular region are uninhabited. Owing to the harsh living conditions of this, the valley is sparsely populated and the only sight of civilizations are the army base camps. After the Changla pass the valleys broadened and the road became rocky-ier. A BRO caution sign of “Active Landslide and Avalanche Zone” succinctly indicated at the severity of living conditions in these uninviting mountains.
The first sight of the lake leaves you in awe with its rich blue colors. The picturesque landscape of cloud shadows draping the bleak and barren mountains can turn even the most dullest of minds into a poet. The lake has become a prominent attraction for tourists after the release of the movies “3 Idiots” and “Jab Tak Hai Jaan”. In fact the Druk White Locus School, popularly referred to as Rancho’s school gets a mention in most itineraries.
On our way back to Leh we visited the Thiskey monastery. The monastery houses a two-storey tall statue of Maitrey Buddha which is the main attraction of the place.
While the boundless beauty of Leh offers a near-perfect respite from the mundane life, it made me question the authenticity of thoughts I incurred in its silence. Self-reflection strikes you naturally all you see is nature, all you hear is air and perhaps your only struggle is to gather all oxygen for the next breathing cycle. But whether I was merely ensnared by the hynotizing beauty or was I speaking the sounds of silence, I am not enturely sure.