Friday, September 30, 2011

Ladakh trip day 13 and 14: In Kashmir valley

12, 13th July 2011

We had very little distance to cover today but a major bottleneck of the journey was Zozila Pass. Due to very narrow road, vehicles are allowed in only direction at a time. Hence we had to start as early as 5AM from Drass. The first rays of sun were falling on the Himalayan Mountains as we left Drass. Unlike the parts of Ladakh we had seen, the area around Drass was filled with greenery. The streams were numerous and looked “clean”. The amount of snow was also high.

On the way we saw Zozila war memorial. This is built in memory of the soldiers who captured Zozila from Pakistani intruders in 1948.

The road so far was good which made me wonder why Zozila is so hyped. I didn’t find any necessity of allowing vehicles from only one side. And then came the most dramatic part of the trip. Everything changed when we crossed one bend. We were now seeing the beautiful valley of Kashmir!! The barren lands were no more. The change was so sudden and unexpected. I had heard that Kashmir is great but to believe you need to see. Indeed it was so beautiful!!

And down in the valley we were seeing a huge township consisting of tents. We were wondering why people in Kashmir are staying at tents!! Until we realized that it was the Baltal camp of Amarnath Yatra!! I never thought that Amarnath Yatra is held in such a grand scale. It was a real bird eye view of the camp. The tents, vehicles, Helicopters taking off and the yatris walking towards Amarnath could be clearly seen.

And then we realized why Zozila is called a dangerous pass. The road down to Kashmir valley was extremely steep with vertical cliffs. It was the scariest journey of the entire trip. I could hear my heart beat each time the vehicle went to the edge of the road!! The photos here don’t give justice at all for this place. One has to experience to get the feel of Zozila. It was the last pass that we would cross in our trip!! As we got down from Zozila the road from Baltal joined the main road. We were now moving along Amarnath Yatris.

Sonamarg was the first town in Kashmir valley. At about 8000+ft it is famous for meadows. In fact the word Sonamarg means “Meadow of gold”!! A popular tourist destination in Kashmir. Right now we were looking for a good place to have breakfast. We found one pure vegetarian hotel run by Punjabis and promptly had food there.

One can sense the overwhelming presence of Army in Kashmir. For the safety of Amarnath yatris, army was deployed all along the way. The presence of Army gives lot of confidence to people like us. Militancy is at low in Kashmir but not yet completely eliminated. And more importantly Kashmiri Pandits are not yet back in valley. So, the situation is not still perfectly fine. But attacks on tourists are rare but one must be prepared for sudden strikes and hartals called by local people.

The journey from Sonamarg was slow due to heavy rush of Amarnath Yatra vehicles. But we were not complaining as we could enjoy the beauty around. Two decades of militancy has stopped all “developments” in Kashmir. Hence unlike Himachal or Uttaranchal, the area looks fresh and pristine. In Manali, at each direction you see a hotel or a resort. It is not so in Kashmir (At least the places we visited). And “Article 370” makes it impossible for outsiders to “invest” in the state.

We passed though the towns of Kangan, Gund and Ganderbal to reach Srinagar. We had not still decided about the place to stay. Our travel agent in Ladakh had given us a contact of a house boat owner. We called him up and got directions to reach. Srinagar seemed to be a much bigger town than we had thought of. Driver refused to take us to Dal lake instead he stopped at Srinagar taxi stand and asked us to take an auto. There is a strange rule that Ladakh taxis cannot roam in Srinagar. It is very strange considering that Ladakh is in the state of J&K.

We took an auto reach Shikara point. Shabaan our host was waiting for us. We went onto a boat and started towards the house boat. The life seemed to be relaxed looking at the slow of the boats there!! After about 10 minutes of boat journey, we were at the house boat. We never imagined that the house boat could be so luxurious and grand. Having bargained for everything in Ladakh, we were thinking of doing the same for house boat. But looking at its grandeur we decided not to do so!! At Rs 3000/- for 3 people (including food) per day was a good offer. I am sure that the same boat would cost 3-4 times more in Kerala!!

Just sitting at the verandah of the house boat and watching the surroundings was a nice time pass. Dal Lake was also house to several species of birds. We decided to do an hour long tour of Shikara ride on the lake. A great experience just to sit (or sleep!!) and enjoy the silent waters of the lake. The lake itself is like a township. People come on the boat and sell fruits, vegetables, clothes, food and even ornaments!! The boatman said that about 15,000 people stay in Dal lake. There were moving gardens, houses and shops on the lake.

After Shikaara ride, we decided to visit Mogul gardens. Having experienced the looting spree of auto guys, we had asked our host to arrange a nice driver for our tour. He was waiting for us at the Shikaara stand. We visited Shalimar, Nishat and Chashma Shahi gardens. Having seen Brindavan gardens in Mysore, I did not feel anything special in these gardens. A stream flowing in Chashma Shahi is believed to heal lot of diseases and hence people throng to collect the water. While in other gardens people take bath under the fountains!!

It was almost dark by the time we finished with gardens. There is also Shankaracharya Temple on top of a hill but unfortunately we could not see it. That was sad.

We had quiet dinner followed with a photography session on Dal Lake.

Last day:

Today would our last day of the trip. Since our flight from Srinagar was at 2PM, there was no hurry to get up early. At about 10:30AM our host came hurriedly and announced that there was a hartal called in Srinagar. He wanted us to quickly start to avoid any trouble. We quickly called for a boatman and left the house boat. Big thanks for our host who took complete care of us during our stay in Srinagar. He made sure that we get a taxi to airport and promptly called us later to make sure that we safely reached the airport.

We went through the empty streets of Srinagar. It was a complete bundh with not a single shop being opened. There were protestors on some streets but luckily we did not meet them!!

The security at Srinagar airport was unprecedented!! Never in my life had I seen such multiple levels of security. One needs to be present 2 hours before departure to cross the security checkups.

- Two km before the airport, we pass through a gated locality where all the luggage’s are scanned, people need to pass through metal detectors and vehicles checked completely (sometimes even by opening the bonnet!!).

- Again the baggage is scanned before entering into the main building. This causes long queue in front of the airport. This can be exhaustive as passengers need to stand in open sun. We had to wait for 45 minutes before our turn came up.

- Carry-on baggage is not allowed. Only exception is camera and laptops. Rest of the luggage must be checked-in.

- After collecting boarding pass one must go near the tarmac and identify his/her bags.

- Whatever we carry into the aircraft is checked. Unlike other places where they just do for formality sake, the checking in Srinagar is thorough. They open each and every zip of the bag, remove every time and make sure that it is genuine. They even clicked my camera to check that it was indeed a camera!!

- And just before boarding the flight, airlines themselves do a check on passengers!!

Finally, the moment had come to say goodbye to the great place!! It was a mixed feeling considering the great time we had in Ladakh and that we are going to our Homes after so long. This was my longest trip ever I made.

Ladakh hangover remains for long.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Ladakh Day 12: Gurudwara, Monasteries, Statue, two passes, War memorial and a nasty driver!!

11th July 2011

We had a long distance to cover to reach our destination. Hence we got ready at 6 in the morning. Our hosts of the Rainbow guest house had also woken up early to wish us a nice journey. An emotional moment for us considering the hospitality they extended throughout our stay. We could not have asked for anything more. It is rare to get such treatment during travel.

Our destination of the day was Drass on Leh-Srinagar highway. As the Scorpio we travelled earlier did not have permits to enter into Kashmir valley, we were provided with a new vehicle and the driver. Very soon we were out of Leh and were cruising on smooth roads of Leh-Srinagar highway. The drive would be along Indus River for most of the journey.

The first point we stopped was at magnetic hill. Lot of people says it as just hype and it was so. It is said that cars get pulled due to magnetic interference but we did not experience any such thing. Our next stop was at Gurudwara Pathar Sahib. Situated next to the highway, it built in memory of Guru Nanak. Legend says that when Guru Nanak was meditating, a demon pushed a large boulder towards Guru Nanak. But when the boulder touched Guru’s body, it softened like warm wax. The demon on realizing Guru’s spiritual power gave up its evil deeds. The same boulder is now worshipped in Gurudwara.

We crossed Nimmo, the confluence of Zanskar and Indus River. We had our breakfast at a hotel nearby and continued our journey. We had three monasteries to visit in our itinerary. The first was Likir which was five km from the main road. Situated on a high hill it was built in 9th century. The major attraction here is a 25ft Buddha statue.

Alchi Monastery was next in the way. Unlike other monasteries, Alchi is situated on a plain land. What I liked was the Indus River flowing behind the monastery. Like many monasteries in Ladakh Alchi has an entrance fee. While we were just looking around the place, a monk questioned why we haven’t yet paid the money!! We had not even entered the monastery!! Those monks seemed to be infected by commercialization.

At one place, we were moving along a narrow road along Indus River with gigantic mountains on our left. The landscape (or moonscape!!) at this location was amazing. So far in our journey, we had not encountered such a scene. And it was for the same reason we were trying out various locations in Ladakh!! Every place and location offered something new!!

We passed though the town of Lamayuru famous for its monastery. We spent very little time there as we had a long distance to cover. The monastery is just next to the road.

The road after Lamayuru turned bad. The journey was rough and dusty. Adding to our woes, the sun was blazingly hot. We crossed two small passes of Fotu La and Namikha La. After covering the mighty passes, these looked extremely simple!!

At about two in the afternoon, we reached the dusty village of Mulbek. A giant rock statue of Buddha is this village. But strangely the statue did not look anywhere close to Buddha. It was more resembling Vishnu or Shiva!! But not surprising considering our history full of such stuff.

We had our lunch at a bad hotel in Mulbek. There was no other option. Kargil was still 35km away.

The landscape changed a bit as we neared Kargil. More greenery was visible!! The driver found that one of the tyre was punctured and lot of time wasted in a filthy repair shop. The driver seemed to be a difficult person to handle. He wanted to stay in Kargil and start at 1AM in the night. That was an outrageous demand. Couple of calls with our travel agent made the driver to obey us!! Finally, we started from Kargil at 5PM.

The road after Kargil passes very near to Pakistan border. The boards like “You are under enemy observation” started to appear. All this brought the Kargil war memories back. At one point walls were erected next to the road so that the Pakistanis do not see the light of moving vehicle in the night. During war, lot of army people died due to shelling on this highway. But I could not see all these things in details as there an altercation with the driver.

Kargil to Drass is about 60km. We had a major place to cover on this route and that was the main reason was pushing the driver to reach Drass. It was Kargil war memorial. The memorial opened in 2009 is next to the highway in Tololing ranges. It houses the memorial for 527 brave soldiers who lost their lives in the conflict. The memorial has all the names of the martyrs written on the wall.

The memorial touches the heart in many ways. Just a decade back we have seen our army men sacrificing their lives for the nation and their names are still fresh in our minds. Captial Vikram Bhatra, Lieutenant Manoj Kumar Pandey, Captian Anuj Nayyar, Major Padmapani Acharya…. The list is long. The photos of men who have won gallantry awards are in display and many of them are not with us. As I silently looked at these real heroes, my eyes were wet. A similar feeling has engulfed me in Rezang La memorial.

Behind the memorial are the hill ranges that were in invaded by Pakistan. Tiger Hill where the most horrific and decisive battle was fought was seen. Looking at the sheer size and shape of the hill, the difficulty of the battle can be imagined.

It was already dark by the time we came out of the memorial. It took about 15 minutes to reach the Drass town. We were warned about the accommodation in the town but luckily we got room in J&K tourist guest house. At Rs 100/- per head it was the cheapest accommodation of our trip. Drass is said to the second coldest inhabited place on the earth. In winter temperatures drop as low as -40°C!!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Ladakh day 10 and 11: Shopping and Rafting!!

July 9, 10th

We had a buffer day in our plan to mitigate any delays arising due to bad weather and road conditions. Even though we made few changes to our original plan on the go, we were very much on schedule. We decided to spend this buffer day at Leh itself. It is a beautiful town and we wanted to explore Leh.

Leh is a town bustling with tourists. We brought some souvenirs, T-Shirts, Shawls and Saffron. While shopping, I found that few people (Tibetans) understood Kannada!! All due to their association with Bylakuppe and Mundagod camps.

We needed some money and ended up in standing in the queue for 30 minutes in front of SBI ATM!!

White water rafting in Zanskar River was our plan for the next day. While discussing the same with our travel agent, he gave us the news that there was a festival at Hemis Monastery. It was a big event in Ladakh and our travel agent asked us whether we were interested in that. I was bit worried on hearing this news. I am not a big fan of these festivals no matter how famous it is. Spending a day in crowd watching people was not my cup of tea.

After a little round of discussion, we decided to resolve our differences though voting!! It was 2-1 vote for Rafting!!


Large sections of Zanskar and Indus River in Ladakh are fit for rafting. We chose to raft on Zanskar River from Chilling and end at the confluence of Zanskar and Indus River at Nimmo. This distance of about 26km consists of class 2 and 3 rapids flowing in narrow gorges. Chilling is at the distance of about 60km from Leh.

White water rafting was not new to us. My previous experience was in Kali River at Dandeli. But conditions in Zanskar were different from Dandeli. The water in Zanskar was ice cold but the weather was extremely hot!! There was no change of getting into water (unless we accidently fall off from the raft!!). Contrary to my belief, the rafting at Zanskar was not really dangerous. Most of the rapids were class 2 and only a few were of class 3. Rafting in Himalayas is altogether a different experience.

We only went for 18km as the next 8km to Nimmo was just on plains. There is no fun in just going on a raft on placid water after experiencing rapids!! We had our late lunch at Nimmo and headed to Leh. We had one last work at Leh!!

From the day we landed in Leh, Shanti Stupa was clearly visible. Built on a high hill, it has one of the big Buddha statues. We had been postponing the visit to Stupa but now since it was our last day in Leh, we decided to visit the place. A steep climb of about 15 minutes on well maintained steps led us to the top of the Stupa. There is also a road till the top.

A large number of photographers had assembled in the Stupa hoping to take good snaps of sunset and Leh landscape. It was a nice place with great views.

It was our last day in Leh. But our trip had not yet ended. We still had few more days and great places to see!!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ladakh day 9: Tso Kar

8th July 2011

The night at Tso Moriri was a long one. Even though rooms were cozy, we had trouble in sleeping. Surprising that we had already spent few days at 14,000+ ft. And in the morning the hotel guys gave a “shock treatment” with their bill. Furious with this, we asked our driver not to bring any passengers to this hotel. Anyways, he was not to be blamed as we were the ones who choose this!!

With last few shots of the lake, we bid adieu to Tso Moriri. A person interested in birding can easily spend a 2-3 days on this lake. But we had little time to relax and go!!

The drive was back on the same road that we took on the previous day. We again passed through Kiagar Tso Lake and crossed Namshang La. The journey would have been eventless but for a “race” between two vehicles near Kiagar Tso. Our driver tried to give him a chase for some distance but the other driver was too much to handle. He quickly took detours on that barren land and managed to keep ahead!!

Few km before Mahe Bridge, we took the diversion to Tso Kar. The road to Tso Kar was bad with no trace of asphalt. We found lot of small water springs all along the way!!

After about 2.5 hours of journey we got the first glimpse of the lake. Unlike Pangong and Tso Moriri, Tso Kar has large tracts of marshy land and salt deposits. Birds are seen aplenty but are hard to take snaps. Thanks to marshy area, it is difficult to get near the birds. We tried to go near the water but our efforts proved futile.

We had our lunch at Tso Kar. We were thinking of staying at Tso Kar but the poor conditions of accommodation deterred us to do so. The other choice was to stay at expensive luxury tents. But we decided to spend few hours at lake and continue further.

30 minutes of journey brought us to Morey plains on Manali-Leh highway. For people planning to return via Manali, it would be ideal to plan Tso Moriri and Tso Kar at the end of the visit. The Morey plains were as dusty as before and we longed to get out of it. Mighty Tanglang La proved to be milder this time as we did not face any signs of AMS unlike a week before on this road. A proof of how acclimatization helps in this high altitude.

Salt deposits at Tso Kar lake

It was refreshing to be back in Leh after five event filled days. We promptly went to the same guest house that we stayed before. A hot water bath there was rejuvenating!!