Sunday, August 21, 2011

Ladakh day 8: Tso Moriri

7th July 2011

The night at Hanley was peaceful. We tried doing some night photography as the sky was very clear. The room was cozy and hence sleep was not an issue.

Bathing was out of question in Hanley. After breakfast of “Maggie noodles” we departed from Hanley. Our destination was Tso Moriri Lake. There are two ways to reach the lake from Hanley. One is the road via Loma, Nyoma and Mahe Bridge. The other route is via Chimur. The second route is more desolate and almost takes double the time. And a 4X4 is required. So, we opted for the first route.

We will be going on the same road till Loma. This time we stop at several places for photographs. We spotted a herd of wild ass crossing the road. Birds of many types were seen all along. But a good spot was a hare. Fortunately, we could get some good close-up shots.

Back at ITBP check post at Loma, we exchanged pleasantries with our Army friend from Chikkodi. The beauty of Changtang plain is that the journey will never be monotonous. The scenery changes every 15-20 minutes. And one can spot come animals or birds at regular intervals (if one is observant). Army establishments are seen everywhere. An airfield is also location next to the road. At many places, army jawans are trained for shooting.

We cross a small hamlet of Nyoma and reach Mahe. The road straight goes to Leh while a left turn leads to Tso Moriri Lake. Our permits were checked here. After crossing the bridge at Mahe, we were on the way to Tso Moriri Lake. Shortly we were ascending Namshang La, a relatively easily pass. I call it a flower pass considering the flowers that bloom here.

As we were climbing down Namshang La, a blue lake was visible. It was Kiagar Tso Lake. The asphalted road disappeared as we neared this beautiful and pristine lake.

Half an hour later, we were at Tso Moriri Lake. Situated at an altitude of about 15,00ft, it is the second biggest lake in Ladakh after Pangong Tso. It is about 22km long and 5-6km in wide. The lake is entirely in India, this is also a breeding ground for several species of birds like Bar headed Goose. The lake was fenced at many places. Our driver told that people coming on Jeeps drive along the lake just for fun damaging the breeding ground of the birds. To stop this menace, the lake was fenced at few places.

We drove along the lake for another 10-15 minutes to reach the village of Karzok. An ITBP camp is located here. Permits were checked here before letting us into the village. At the entrance of the village, we found a nice looking hotel called Nomadic Life. Unlike other tented places, this was a proper hotel. We immediately liked the rooms. Having found that there were fewer tourists, we bargained hard. We congratulated ourselves for this deal. But we were outsmarted by the hotel people. They charged heavily for the lunch we had (which we came to know only during checkout). There are cheaper alternatives on the other side of Karzok.

We visited ITBP camp to make a phone call. Again here we were told to pay Rs 10 per minute which we felt was quite steep. (At all other places, it was three rupees per minute).

After some rest, we headed to the lake. We roamed around the Lake for a long time. I just sat on the banks of the lake silently enjoying the beauty. I was ready to sit in that mode for any amount of time. My companions thought this as an act of laziness and asked me to walk back!! The wind was blowing fast and the temperature was dropping.

We then climbed a small hillock in Karzok village that provided nice view of the Lake. Unlike Pangong Tso, the snow capped mountains appeared nearer.

I needed to make a call to my Home. This time I went to a public booth situated near the Monastery. They also charged Rs 10 per minute!! To check whether they were looting tourists, I silently watched the money paid by locals. To my surprise, they were also paying the same amount!!

I did not like Karzok village, dominated by nomads. The smell in the village was something odd which I did not like. Anyway, I was glad that we stayed in the outskirts of the village.

There is nothing much to do in Karzok after sunset. We talked about various topics, looked at the pictures that we had taken and then went for dinner. We were the only guests in the hotel!! Quite surprising July being a peak season.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Ladakh day 7: Lake, plains, War memorials, Festival and an Astrophysics observatory!!

6th July 2011

The night at Pangong Lake will be memorable for long time. It was cold, windy and above all we were in a tent. We had to drop our plan of night photography thanks to weather conditions. But we still wanted to experience sun rise on the banks of Pangong Lake. With great difficulty we got up at 5AM and headed towards lake. The sunrise was different than we had expected. Difficult to say whether we were satisfied or not!!

The conditions at Spangmik were not favorable to take bath. Anyway, we had prepared for that and did not give much importance to such hygiene factors. After a quick breakfast, we said goodbye to Spangmik village. Not for Pangong Lake as we be along the lake for few more hours!!

From Spangmik, we continued our journey along the Lake. We would not be finding asphalted roads for most of the stretch today. But this would be turning into the best place in our entire trip. The road meandered on the side of Pangong Lake providing great scenes that we never witnessed. The scene was different at each turn. And we stopped at every place to enjoy the scenery and take snaps. We were fortunate enough to be on this place.

When I provided Ladakh plan with all these shortcuts and less travelled routes, every travel agent ignored it complete. Theirs was a standard itinerary with exorbitant prices. Drivers were not enthusiastic to drive on those short cut roads. They were less maintained and bad stretches. One agent even claimed that places in our list were out of bounds for civilians. I was asked to get permission from Army top ranks and Home secretary!! But now we were there with a permit issued by DC Office at Leh (that is sufficient!!). But foreigners are not allowed on this road.

We crossed the villages of Man and Merek situated on the Lake side. It was near Merek we sighted “Cha Tung Tung” (called as Black necked crane). Listed as “vulnerable”, it is an endangered species of bird found in Tibetan plateau. Pangong Lake is also home to several species of birds like brown headed gull, bar headed goose and Ruddy shelduck to name a few.

At Merek village, our permits were checked. We were now nearing China border. The lake now bends towards left where the Chinese control starts. The India map still shows these places in Indian side but in reality China controls about 38,000 sq km of land known as Aksai Chin. We lost this land much before the 1962 war. China silently took control of it and built a highway connecting Tibet with Xinjiang province (In 1956-57). India discovered it only later. This was also one of the reasons for Indo China war in 1962.

Wiki says “Sovereignty over two separated pieces of territory was contested during the Sino-Indian War. One is Aksai Chin is located either in the Indian province of Kashmir or the Chinese province of Xinjiang in the west. It is a virtually uninhabited high-altitude wasteland crossed by the Xinjiang-Tibet Highway. The other disputed area lies to the east is referred to as Arunachal Pradesh by India and South Tibet by China. It is a sparsely inhabited area with numerous local tribes.”

One must be careful while driving on this road. The road is nothing but just a track containing tyre marks. Several deviations exist all along the road. Any mistake might take us right into the Chinese territory. Signboards or an indication does not exist here. The general principle is to keep right (to stay in Indian Territory!!). An ITBP post was visible at the far end of the Lake. We cannot go there and had to say good bye to this beautiful lake.

The ITBP establishment was visible all along the road. A small pass was crossed (name unknown) to reach the small town of Chushul. At was 9:30AM. Just before Chushul, we faced a major bottleneck. A bridge across a stream was damaged. The stream crossing was filled with slush. Ours was not a 4X4 vehicle and if struck in the slush, we would be in bad situation. We were not expecting any vehicles to pass by and the nearest help was Chushul still a few km away. After scanning the area for some minutes, we decided to get down and the driver alone would cross it. To our luck, things went fine and the vehicle reaches the other side safely.

Chushul turned out to be a bigger village than we anticipated. Driver asked us to have lunch here (at 9:30AM!!). “We will not find any places to eat further” was his words. The only available food item was “Maggie noodles” and we consumed it!! We would be eating our next food only at 8PM.

At Chushul, our permits were checked again. On the outskirts of Chushul was “Chushul war memorial”. Chushul was the site of attack by Chinese during 1962 war. The memorial is for the martyrs from 8th Gorkha rifles and 13 field regiment who laid down their life for our Motherland. The names of all the martyrs are written down on the wall. All we could do was silently respect these great guys who performed the supreme sacrifice to save our land.

We were now in the great plains of Changtang. The Morey plains that we saw during Manali-Leh journey looks dwarfed in front of Changtang. The China border was just 1-2 km away. We could see bunkers very close by. We were now closely watched by ITBP (and may be Chinese!!). We were thrilled to be so close to the border.

14km from Chushul is Rezang La memorial. It’s located in the most isolated place. The most horrific battle of 1962 was fought here. In the early hours of 18th November 1962 witnessed a fierce battle at Rezang La. The “Charlie” company 123 soldiers of 13 Kumoan led by Major Shaitan Singh had a choice of fleeing from the battle scene. But they chose to hold on by fighting against Chinese who came in several thousands. Out of 123 soldiers, 114 laid their life, 5 of them captured and only 4 could survive the bloody battle. But this was not before killing nearly 1000 Chinese soldiers. Major Shaitan Singh was awarded Param Vir Chakra posthumously.

“When Rezang La was later revisited dead jawans were found in the trenches still holding on to their weapons... every single man of this company was found dead in his trench with several bullet or splinter wounds. The 2-inch mortar man died with a bomb still in his hand. The medical orderly had a syringe and bandage in his hands when the Chinese bullet hit him... Of the thousand mortar bombs with the defenders all but seven had been fired and the rest were ready to be fired when the (mortar) section was overrun”.

The memorial reads “How can a Man die better than facing Fearful Odds,

For the Ashes of His Fathers and the Temples of His Gods, To the sacred memory of the Heroes of Rezang La, 114 Martyrs of 13 Kumaon who fought to the Last Man, Last Round, Against Hordes of Chinese on 18 November 1962. Built by All Ranks 13th Battalion, The Kumaon Regiment.

Majority of soldiers were Ahirs from Rewari district of Haryana, where a Rezang La memorial has been placed in their memory in Gudiani village.

With heavy hearts, we departed from Rezang La memorial. The plains continued and stream crossings were frequent. Wild ass were seen everywhere. We crossed a Tsaga La, a small pass to reach a small village of Tsaga. Here was an ITBP check post where our permits were checked. The asphalted road starts few km after Tsaga. Shortly later, we were driving along Indus River.

At Loma, we had to cross the Indus River. Our permits were checked again. Here we met ITBP soldier from Chikkodi from Karnataka. Seeing us, he was overjoyed and we had a short conversation. The road splits into two after Loma Bridge. The road to left goes along the Chinese border to Dungti. Civilians are not allowed on this road. The road to right leads to Hanley which was our destination. Hanley is 50km from Loma. The entire drive is along the plains. The road is in a very good condition.

Since the weather was hot, the number of stops was less. This last stretch was covered in just one hour. Hanley is not in regular tourist circuit. Less than 1% of tourists visiting Ladakh go to this place. Hanley is known for Indian Astronomical Observatory. Being very close to Tibet, Hanley is more of a Tibetan culture than Ladakki. There is also a moanstery.

When we entered Hanley village, it looked deserted. The time was 2PM and not a soul was seen. We directly headed towards the observatory. The person in charged asked us to come during evening. Observatory had a guest house but only reserved for research people. He suggested us to stay at a Home stay in the village. He showed us a two storey building and asked us to go there. But he cautioned that we would not find anyone there as entire village had gone for a festival held nearby. It was Dalai Lama’s birthday and festivals were held at many places in Ladakh.

We reached Home Stay and as expected did not find anyone. The festival would last till 6PM. Driver was excited about the festival and wanted to see it. The festival was held on plains behind a hill in Hanley. We could see people and celebrations on the other side of the plain. But we could not find a way to reach there. Driver went out and got some directions from a shepherd. But we could go a long distance as there were major stream crossings. But the driver was not ready to give up so easily. He again went to shepherds and found an alternate path. It was long path but it took us to the place of festival.

At festival seemed to going at full swing. Girls were dancing, gents were talking, and kids were playing with whatever they could find. A cricket match was drawing some crowds. People from Army were also participated. A horse race was also held. There were small shops selling all sorts of things. But we could not anything that we could eat.

We were the only three people from outside and looked like aliens!! Horse race was interesting but it was over in few minutes. We were lost in the crowd. Even our driver who was enthusiastic seemed to be in a lost state. An attempt to search for owner of the Home stay was done. We were not successful. It was extremely hot and standing outside seemed difficult. And so we decided to depart from the place.

Back again in Hanley it was a long wait for the owner. After 5:30PM, people started arriving. The owner was not still seen. His daughter had arrived and we informed her to keep a room for us and headed towards the observatory.

The observatory is situated on a hill. This site was chosen as it provided maximum clear days in a year. The scientists from Indian Institute of AstroPhysics remotely take control of the telescope from Bangalore and perform studies. It is one of the highest astronomical observatories in the world.

The person at the observatory explained us about the equipments and how studies are done. He also showed us few samples of images of various stars taken at the observatory. One interesting point was liquid Nitrogen used for telescopes. It was maintained at -170 °C!!

By the time we reached the village, the owner of the Home stay had arrived. The rooms were ok but food was great!!

And last point. Only vehicle we found during our drive from Pangong Lake to Hanley was a military truck carrying water!!

Friday, August 12, 2011

Ladakh day 6: Two mighty passes and a blue lake!!

5th July 2011

Our destination of the day was Pangong Tso Lake. We had to start early as the journey was expected to be long. By 7:30AM, we were all ready and promptly departed from Deskit. New day and new destination!!

There are three routes from Nubra valley to Pangong:

1. Via Leh: Go back to Leh via Khardungla. Then take the road via Karu->Shakti->Chang La->Thangtse->Pangong Tso. Most of the travelers use this route and requires one night stay at Leh.

2. Via Shyok. A road goes along Shyok River (Diversion after Khalasar on the way to Leh). The route is Deskit->Agham->Shyok->Durbuk->Thangtse->Pangong Tso. This is the shortest route opened just a couple of years ago. But last year’s flood has washed out most of the road between Agham and Shyok. It is not yet repaired.

3. Via Wari La. This route goes to Agham where we need take deviation to Wari La. This finally reaches Shakti village on Leh->Pangong road.

We wanted to avoid travelling on the same road and hence route 1 was ruled out. Route 2 was closed and hence we opted for route 3. This was very less travelled road. Even our driver mentioned that he would be travelling on this route for the first time!! A surprise considering that he has been driving for past 6 years.

The drive till the deviation of Agham was uneventful. The beginning stretch of Agham road was bad. At few places, it was drive on river bed. It is at this bad stretch we saw a red fox. We could have got a good photo if we had a fast lens. Anyway, that was the only fox we found during our entire Ladakh trip.

After initial bad stretch, it was a plain drive till Agham village. The road was perfect black and fun to drive. Number of photo stops was increased and the progress was slow.

Agham turned out to be a very small village with just couple of houses. Near Agham, we had to cross several streams. It would be a daunting task to cross if the streams are in full flow. That is one of the reasons for fewer vehicles on this road. Luckily for us, the streams were all manageable. On the way we confirmed with a villager whether Wari La was fine for travel. He reply was affirmative.

We reached a small village called Tangyar. The climb to Wari La starts from here. Until now, we had not even seen a single vehicle on this stretch. Sometimes, no traffic also causes worry!! The worst part is vehicle breakdown at such places.

The climb to Wari La was very steep. Even the Scorpio found it difficult at some places. At one place, the vehicle slipped a bit while it was on a sheet of ice. But our competent driver managed it well. Just before Wari La, we encountered a group of Nomads who were grazing Yaks. One of them was on his way to Shakti village. We picked him up.

Wari La is at a height of about 17,200 ft. Shakti village is 29km from the summit of the pass. The road was completely downwards and annoyingly curvy. Even our driver lost patience and took short cuts between hairpin bends!!

Finally, at 11PM we had reached Shakti village. For the stretch of 87 km from Agham deviation, we had seen only one vehicle!! That was a BRO truck. Indeed, a very less travelled road.

Shakti is a big village spanning over couple of valleys. The climb to Chang La begins after Shakti. The road was superb thanks to tar put recently. But then we had to wait for more than 30 minutes as the tar was being laid. The weather was hot!!

As we started ascend to Chang La, troubles arose with the vehicle. Some strange sound coming from the front tire. Driver stops the vehicle, puts the jack and removes the tire. A piece of tar was struck in the wheel base producing such a sound!! We were relieved as it was a simple issue. Driver did it all in a jiffy.

The road turned worse as we neared top of the pass. The hot weather compounded by bad roads made us extremely tired. We were all hungry and waiting for a break. Finally at about 1:30PM, we are on top of Chang La. Chang La at the height of 17, 590 ft is said to be the third highest pass in the region. We silently had our lunch of “Maggie noodles” at a restaurant!! You can survive in Ladakh if you can eat Maggie noodles!!!!

As expected, it was all downhill roads from Chang La. The brown and dry mountains looked monotonous. At Thangtse village, our permits were checked.

During previous years, people had a harrowing time in crossing a stream called “Pagal nallah”. After noon, the stream would rise thanks to melting snows. This was a major hurdle before reaching Pangong Tso. But now there is a new bridge constructed!!

And then we had the first view of Pangong Tso!! Wow!!!! What a sight. We were waiting for this moment for many years and here was it!! A blue lake in the middle of nowhere at an altitude of 14,000 ft. The tiredness was gone and our joy knew no bounds.

Pangong Tso is a lake that is about 150km long and 5 km wide. About 40% (or less) lies in India and the rest in China (that includes Aksai Chin, area annexed by China from India). Being a sensitive area, it is closely guarded by Army.

The climax scene of “3 idiots” was shot at this lake. In a Bollywood crazy country, such a move increases the popularity of the place!! And hence number of visitors has shot up in recent years. So, I was expecting a huge crowd at the lake. But I was surprised to see very less people at Lukong village on the banks of the lake. Most of the people visiting this lake are day visitors from Leh. It was 4PM and all of them had departed. Good for us!!

We spent few minutes photographing the late and then proceeded to Spangmik village 7km away. On the way, we spent few minutes at “3 idiots” spot. They had chosen the best spot!!

We took a tented accommodation very near to lake at Spangmik. Without wasting much time, we headed towards the lake. It was the most beautiful lake I had ever seen. If there are some places that one should not miss, Pangong Tso stands at the top of it.

The temperature dropped dramatically after sunset and we had to head towards our tents. It was quite windy. A satellite phone was available which I used to make a call to my Home. Later, tent people served us nice dinner. We also heard stories from an old Tibetan refugee. He was extremely happy that we were from Karnataka. He has stayed at Bylakukke camp for many years before settling at Pangong Lake.

I had a peaceful sleep during the night but other had some issues with that. 14,000 ft was quite a high altitude for stay.

What an exciting day!! And an equally great day awaited us!!!!