LADAKH – the land of high passes – had always mesmerized me. Ever since I went to Kashmir in 2013 I knew that Ladakh had to be next on my wanderlust list. The pictures on my Facebook feed from numerous friends amidst the most rugged mountains and the bluest lakes made it even tougher to resist planning this trip.
In spite of my desire to be one, I am not an impulsive traveler. I am one of those people who meticulously plan every single thing in advance. I even make and circulate pre-trip documents by putting google map screenshots outlining the planned route or the alternate route and what not. So yes I am an obsessive planner and I love to work out each and every detail of any trip I take. So what I did for the Ladakh trip was absolutely unimaginable for me. In mid 2014, I found an extremely attractive offer on return trip fares from Delhi to Leh and without consulting with my family I booked a trip for four of us on the best-suited long weekend in September. The dirt-cheap offer stood since this is the so called “off-season”. But I’ve never liked “the season” anyway as I hate appreciating nature or exploring a new place with the crowds. I booked these non-refundable tickets well in advance and also took it upon myself to educate my family about the beauty that is Ladakh. I used to flood our Whatsapp group with Ladakh photos titled “Imagine! We’d be here in September :)”.
One of my friends who visited Ladakh one year before my trip told me how stupid I was to book direct flights to and from Leh. According to her the Manali-Leh highway was the highlight of the entire trip (I realized later that she was absolutely right !!) and a road trip from Manali to Leh is a definite must. I listened to her advice but couldn’t do anything as I already had the tickets in hand. And then the worst happened. My brother announced that he would not be able to join us due to an important training at work. And with this even my parents backed out. I was heart-broken as I was really looking forward to the trip. But as they say, when God closes one door, he opens a window somewhere. Around the same time, my best friend (now husband) was in the process of planning a 2 week bike trip to Ladakh in September. Eventually he could not take up the bike trip as he realized he wouldn’t be able to take that many leaves. He let go of that idea and planned a week long trip with his friends from office. I couldn’t resist and jumped in this plan with them. We decided to book with a tour planner after judging that self bookings would be much more cumbersome and probably more expensive as well.
We zeroed in on “A Lifetime Trip” and booked the package tour for 8 of us. The package included Delhi to Manali by Volvo bus, Manali to Leh by road with one night hault at Jispa, sight seeing in and around Leh and overnight trips to Nubra Valley and Pangong Tso. Accomodation on twin sharing basis and food (breakfast and dinner) were also part of the package. All bookings were made on phone. We had a personal tempo traveller from Manali to Leh and another one that took us for trips in and around Leh. They even gave us options to choose our accommodation and the executives were very cooperative and made the changes we asked for without any extra costs.
Our itinerary looked something like this :
Day 1 – Manali to Jispa – Night at Jispa
Day 2 – Jispa to Leh – Night at Leh
Day 3 – Leh sight seeing – Night at Leh
Day 4 – Leh to Nubra Valley – Night at Hunder
Day 5 – Nubra Valley to Leh – Night at Leh
Day 6 – Leh to Pangong Tso – Night at Pangong Tso
Day 7 – Pangong to Leh – Night at Leh
Day 8 – Leh Srinagar highway and Leh sight seeing – Night at Leh
Day 9 – Flight back to Delhi
Words are not enough to describe the amount of awesomeness this trip was packed with. The unmissable natural beauty of the Himalayas is a fascinating spectacle. I was absolutely awe-struck as soon as the journey started in Manali and went click-crazy throughout the trip. It was interesting to note the transformation of the landscape throughout the 473 km long Manali-Leh Highway. A few hours of green, then white, then green again, then brown, then white, then green etc. etc. etc. The journey was a burst of colour and every scenery surpassed the previous one in awesomeness. There was one stretch, near Pang, that almost looked like a scene from a sci-fi movie. It was totally extra-terrestrial with giant sized hills and castles and gates made of sand.
The two-day long journey was tiring indeed, but one look out the window and my whole life was sorted. Some may think I am exaggerating but every single worry or any ounce of tiredness would just vanish as I gasped in awe while witnessing nature at its best. We had our own personal tempo traveller so it was great having the freedom to stop anywhere we wished to and we took numerous breaks. While we were on the go, our staple diet became Maggi, Thukpa and Momos. After reaching Ladakh, I definitely missed the varied landscapes of the heavenly highway but the sand dunes at Nubra valley and the enchanting blues of Pangong Tso were a welcome change from all the brown rugged rocky mountains. Needless to say, the scenery throughout was so alluring that it will forever be etched in my heart and my memories.
Coming to the people of Ladakh, well they were very friendly and helpful. Almost everyone there was called Stanzin. Our homestay hosts, driver and other people around were extremely welcoming. September 2014 was the time when Kashmir was hit with the infamous floods caused due to torrential rains in the region. The weather in Ladakh region was also not very clear and on keeping account of the flights leaving Leh we came to know that the flights were disrupted for almost the entire week that we were there. But I guess that the weather Gods were kind with us and cleared the skies the day we were leaving. We went in Early September and didn’t expect much cold but we got rain, snow, closed roads and what not but there was no change of plan and we could visit and see all the places that we had intended to. The mountain roads were not very good and I would advise self-drive only for those who are well accustomed to hill-driving. The amusing road signs from BRO (Border Roads Organisation) were cool and witty and BRO does an amazing job in managing and maintaining the hilly roads there.
Leh is at an altitude of 11,500 ft. To put things into perspective, the elevation of Manali is 6,700 ft. and that of Delhi is a mere 700 ft. Before taking the trip I had read at a lot of places about AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) and how low levels of Oxygen at these high altitudes can make one uneasy. In fact I also read that taking the road trip from Manali to Leh for gradually gaining altitude would be better as compared to directly flying from Delhi to Leh. We took the former plan but unfortunately, one of our friends fell sick after Tanglang La which at 17,500 ft. elevation is much higher than Leh. As soon as we reached Leh, he had to be admitted to the hospital because of breathlessness and high altitude sickness. At the end, everything was OK but we learnt it the hard way that even the healthiest person can have a tough time there so AMS must be taken seriously. We then decided to carry portable oxygen cylinders as a precautionary measure when we went to Nubra Valley and Pangong Tso.
Now that I fondly look back at the memories of this wonderful week, I can hardly pick out an experience that was my personal favorite. The road trip from Manali to Leh, the excitement of passing the high passes, the night at a riverside camp in Jispa, the awesome food and chilled out luncheon in Leh Market, the quiet evening stroll at Pangong Tso, eating the apples and apricots plucked from trees at our camp, the time with the cutest and most innocent Ladakhi children, playing midnight UNO with my new-found friends and the feeling of immense national pride at Indian Army’s Hall of Fame museum. Every experience was unique and remarkable in its own way.
The trip cost ~ INR 25K per person including the travel, accommodation, flight, food etc. In the following section I have given a detailed break up of our journey.
We started our journey from Delhi at 6 in the evening in an overnight bus to Manali. We stopped at Chandigarh on the way and had a sumptuous meal at a Punjabi dhaba. We reached at about 9 AM next morning and met the tour representative at the bus station who took us to our hotel. We deliberately did not plan a rest day at Manali as we were eager to start the journey without wasting any time. The weather here was perfect and sunny and there were apple trees all around. We went to a hotel to get fresh and after breakfast, started our journey of many ups and downs on the epic Manali-Leh highway which is only open for about 4-5 months in the year (Mid May to September End) .
After a heavy breakfast we started around 11 AM. We were informed by our driver that we would need to cover about 140 km on that day to reach Jispa and must therefore control our emotions and resist the growing temptation to stop at every other nook and corner of this scenic journey. We crossed Solang Valley to reach Rohtang Pass which is about 50 km away from the town of Manali and is at an elevation of 13,060 ft. I have read accounts of people getting stuck in crazy traffic jams (lasting days) and sleeping in their cars while crossing Rohtang Pass in June or July. We crossed Rohtang Pass without any trouble and that is precisely why I love travelling in the off-season. This was the first of five high mountain passes that we crossed on the Manali-Leh highway
The highway then continued along the Chandra river and we entered the Lahaul region. The valley views were breathtaking and we could see the Sissu waterfall on the mountain in front.
Next came Tandi where we took a halt for a few minutes to witness the confluence of Chandra River and Bhaga River which continue further as River Chandrabhaga. Tandi is also famous for having the last petrol pump on the Manali-Leh highway until Upshi or Leh. There is a board reading “Next filling station 365 km ahead !!” so everyone stocks up on fuel here.
Our next stop was the town of Keylong where we stopped for tea and snacks. I do not remember the name of the restaurant/dhaba but the view it offered of the valley beneath was outstanding.
We finally reached our destination for the day, Jispa (11,000 ft.) at about 5 PM in the evening. According to the itinerary handed to us, we knew that we were staying in a camp but we were absolutely thrilled to see that it was adjacent to the bank of the Chandrabhaga river. We dumped our bags in the tents and went running to river bank which was just about a minute away from the camp. It was the greenest and cutest little riverside camp and we thoroughly enjoyed our stay there. It was almost sun-down when we reached here so the sky was very dramatic. At night we enjoyed campfire under the clearest night with a billion stars shining bright. This was probably the maximum number of stars that I had ever seen and undoubtedly the most beautiful night sky that I had ever witnessed. The post dinner session involved chatting with many other interesting travellers from different parts of the world and also with our driver who warned us of the hardships that Day 2 had in store for us. Since we had to cover a mammoth distance of ~340 km the next day to reach Leh, we decided to leave the camp at 6 in the morning. In the morning, getting out of bed was a traumatic experience. It was technically the first morning of our trip and it was back-breaking cold. We somehow gathered the courage and started by 6 AM. The staff was very kind and sweet and they had packed us sandwiches for breakfast.
After the mandatory registration at Darcha police checkpoint, we came across this tiny lake called Deepak Tal. We stopped here for a few minutes and had our sandwiches. The green scenery of Himachal visibly reduced after Darcha and the mountains became more and more barren. After this lake we stopped for tea at a dhaba in Zinzingbar and then began the ascent to Baralacha La.
Before reaching the Baralacha La pass we passed Suraj Tal. This aqua coloured lake shone beautifully amidst the surrounding mountains and we just couldn’t resist stopping here for a few clicks.
Baralacha La Pass
After a steep ascent we finally reached the second out of five mountain passes. Baralacha La pass at an elevation of 16,500 ft. connects Lahaul and Ladakh. There were a number of colourful prayer flags here (just like all other passes) and also many stacks of stones. On enquiring, our driver informed that this practice is done for good luck and fortune.
After descending from Baralacha La and driving another hour through the mountains we reached Sarchu which lies at the border of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir.
Gata loops are a series of 21 non-stop hairpin bends which increase the altitude by about 500 m. Although the zigzag drive made me dizzy but the view outside was fantastic. It was like a picture postcard – mountain, valley, meandering river, blue sky.
At an elevation of 15,547 ft. this was the third of five high mountain passes. By now, vegetation was non-existent and we could only see rugged mountains all around.
Next came the fourth out of five high passes – Lachalung La at an elevation of ~16,616 ft.
Pang, at an elevation of 15,000 ft., is moon-like. The unique sand structures standing mighty tall looked amazing and we stopped here at a dhaba for tea and food.
Moore plains are unique in the sense that its a long flat road of about 30 km in this high mountain region. Like all other drivers, our driver also sped through this stretch and it became unbearable with all the dust and loose soil coming in.
Finally we reached the fifth and final pass. Tanglang La is at an elevation of 17,500 ft and is the highest mountain pass on the Manali-Leh highway. There is no vegetation at this place and very low levels of oxygen in the air. By this time, most of the people in our group were feeling dizzy with the ascending descending journey. A few of us dared to get out of the vehicle to click a few pics but the air was so thin and wind was so chilly that even 2 minutes there made my head spin. Tanglang La also marked the first point of the trip where I promised myself that I would never ever return to Ladakh so I must endure and fight the chill and the headaches and the breathlessness and see everything I can once and for all. I had to do the same at a few other places, but more on that later.
We quickly started our descent from Tanglang La and reached Rumtse where the feeling of breathlessness reduced. At Rumtse we got the first view of River Indus and the highway runs parallel to it. It was also pleasant to see some greenery in the surroundings and my mood became better with the amazing panoramic views. We stopped here for tea and then started the last leg of our journey to Leh.
Finally we were welcomed to the valley of Leh after entering the Julley Gate and crossing the police check post at Upshi.
Leh is at an elevation of 11,500 ft and it was surprisingly greener than I had imagined. We reached Leh at about 6 in the evening.
We were dropped at the Gangba homestay by our driver and were told that another vehicle with J&K registration would take us in and around Leh. We were welcomed by our host Stanzin and his brother Stanzin who informed us that our driver Stanzin (who’s son was also named Stanzin !!!!) would come to pick us up in the morning and take us for sight seeing around Leh. The rooms were nice and clean and the staff was very friendly . The breakfast and dinner was served at the living room where we all sat together for hours, talked about the present day and planned for the next day, met other fellow travellers and played UNO. The host also helped us when one of our friends had to be taken to the hospital due to low levels of oxygen. On the last day of the trip, I picked out fresh apples from the trees in their backyard and took them to Delhi for my family. Overall our stay at Gangba with Stanzin and family was very pleasant and I would highly recommend this place for a nice homely experience.
This was our first stop on Day 1 in Leh. Its an old Buddhist monastery situated at a hillock in the outskirts of Leh.
This monastery and palace complex is situated at a hill near Leh. There is a massive Buddha statue in the building and the surroundings were very peaceful to witness. After visiting Thiksey and Shey, we went to Leh Market for lunch and some shopping. It was raining in the afternoon but the weather cleared by evening.
The Shanti Stupa was visible on the mountain just in front of our homestay. It was also lit at night in white-green light. We went to Shanti Stupa on Day 1 in Leh and reached around sunset. This place is definitely worth a visit, not only for its religious and spiritual significance but more so for the panoramic views it offers. Since it is situated on a hill, it overlooks the city of Leh and also offers 360 degree clear views of the mountains around Leh valley like Stok Kangri. After sunset it became extremely cold here but I loved the views all around.
Hall of Fame
This is a wonderful museum constructed and maintained by the Indian Army and is located near the Leh Airfield. We visited Hall of Fame on Day 1 and also on the last day again. It also has a war memorial and lots of information about the day-to-day lives of the heroes that guard our Motherland. They also play a documentary on the Kargil War which fills your heart with a lot of respect and national pride.
On Day 2 after reaching Leh, we started our journey to Nubra valley around noon. We had to cover about 140 km which would take roughly 4-5 hours. I was excited as we were going to cross Khardung La on the way, which is claimed to be the ‘Highest Motorable Road in the World’. It is about 40 km from Leh city and situated at an elevation of 17,582 ft. This was the highest place we witnessed during the entire trip and in life. Immediately after stepping out of the vehicle I felt a bit of headache. We took a few pics with the famous sign board and also had Maggi and Tea at the restaurant there. We hardly stayed there for 10-15 minutes and within that short time itself I could feel the headache grow in intensity. As expected, after descending a little, the headache vanished as the air became thicker.
Shyok Valley Road
After a few hours on the road we came across the Shyok River flowing parallel to the road. The surroundings became dusty and sandy and it seemed like we came far away from the familiar rocky terrain of Ladakh. I was spell-bound with views of huge mountains of sand and rock with the Shyok river flowing in the valley.
We reached our destination around sunset. The drive culminated with huge sand dunes on the roadside surrounded by mighty mountains all around It was extremely cold at this mountainous desert and we enjoyed playing in the sand. Apart from being famous for its sand dunes, Hunder is also famous for double humped camel safari. Our stay was arranged at a camp near by. As soon as we reached there, it started raining. The camp was full of apple and apricot trees and the caretaker was kind enough to pluck a few for us. After an early dinner, we enjoyed playing UNO in our tents upto late night. In the morning we enjoyed breakfast and chats with the owner’s children who loved Bollywood songs and also gave us a live performance.
On Day 3 in Ladakh, we started our return journey to Leh. Our first stop in the morning was at the Diskit Gompa. We stopped here for a few minutes only and enjoyed the panoramic views from this hill shrine.
Panamik Hot Spring
Next we made a quick stop at Panamik village which lies close to the Siachen glacier. Panamik is famous for hot sulphur springs and for some reason unknown to me, people came in huge numbers to take a dip in this water. We just had coffee and Maggi and started on our way back to Leh.
While returning we crossed the Khardung La pass again and it was covered in white. We were sad that we missed snowfall but in a way it was ok as we didn’t get closed roads due to snow.
Before reaching Leh, we stopped at North Pullu for snacks and tea.
Chang La Pass
On Day 4 in Ladakh, we set out for the ever-so-pretty Pangong Tso after crossing the mighty Chang La pass (at an elevation of 17,600 ft). On our return we witnessed snowfall at Chang La and were elated to cross it off the list.
We traveled through the lush greens of the Changthang wildlife sanctuary and could see Yaks and Horses grazing around. We stopped for tea and maggi at Tangste.
Spangmik is a small village on the bank of Pangong lake where our camp was located.
We reached Pangong just before sun set. The aqua blue-green lake is massive and is surrounded by high mountains on all sides. The shades of blue and brown were absolutely marvelous. I stared into the limitless horizon but the end of the lake was nowhere near. This natural marvel is located at an elevation of 14,300 ft and is 134 km long. 60 % of the lake lies in China and at its broadest point, it is 5 km wide !! Woah .. That is VAST. We left our luggage in the vehicle and came to the shore to enjoy the dance of colours and click some awesome frame-worthy pictures. We then drove all the way along the lake to reach our camp. By the time we dumped our luggage and came out, it was already a bit dark. So we walked to the nearest point of the lake from our camp about 2 minutes away. There are some things which cannot be described in words. I quietly sat there, staring into the vast nothingness of the lake and enjoying the cool breeze from the lake. At this point I reminded myself, I may never come to Ladakh again and I was already sad that the trip was nearing its end. After dinner we gathered again in one of the tents and thoroughly enjoyed Uno and Bluff. The next morning on Day 5 we started our return journey to Leh and reached around evening.
Gurudwara Pathar Sahib
On Day 6 in Ladakh we ventured to the Leh-Srinagar Highway (National Highway 1D) and our first stop was Gurudwara Pathar Sahib. It is built in the honor of Guru Nanak and is very well maintained by the Indian Army.
Next we stopped at Magnetic Hill, a point which claims to defy gravity and all that. In reality it is only an optical illusion and only due to the surroundings it seems as is your car is rolling uphill with ignition off. Nevertheless, we thoroughly enjoyed the time we spent here.
Confluence of Indus and Zanskar
Next we saw the beautiful confluence of River Indus and River Zanskar.
On Day 7 in Ladakh, with a heavy heart we said goodbye to Paradise and flew back to Delhi. I got a window seat and couldn’t stop staring at the awesome views.