Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The valley of illusion

Three-storey-high Buddha statues, stupas and monasteries that look like they have been cut out from fairytale books and yaks with floor-sweeping hair are some of the unusual sights you see when you visit Ladakh, says Swetha Amit


We had an early start as we had a long drive up the mountains ahead of us. It was a sunny day. We noticed something unusual; the mountains seemed to change colour as we drove along. As we climbed the steep passes, we realised how difficult it would be for bikers who were passionate about exploring these steep mountain paths. Approximately four hours later, we reached the Khardungla Pass.

On top of the world: A cold gust of wind greeted us as we got out of our vehicles. It was about 18,380 feet above sea level. We were on the highest motorable road in the world. The signboard was decorated by little flags which symbolised the Buddhist culture. We were awed by the magnificent view. All around us were snow-capped mountains, which looked even more beautiful in the bright sunlight. It was fascinating to see the interplay between sun and snow. We walked around a bit, drinking in the 'on top of the world' feeling. Nearby was a small temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. Tea stalls serving hot beverages, biscuits and Maggi were comforting in the cold weather. We met a few bikers who were exhilarated after a wonderful ride from Kargil.


Bon appetite: After a couple of hours, we stopped for lunch at a small place tucked away in the mountains. Run by the Ladakhis, they served piping hot momos - a famous Tibetan dish made out of corn flour, steamed vegetables and meat. This is a local delicacy which is eaten as the main course. They served Maggi and Tibetan soup which were very welcome in the cold, making us realise that it was the simplest things in life that gave us the greatest pleasure.


Mountains, sand dunes and streams: As we descended from the pass, the beautiful Karakorum Range came into view. The Khardung village fields were lush with crops. Further ahead, the stunning view of the Shyok Valley soon gave way to a glimpse of the Shyok River. When water levels are low, the river appears like small streams that run parallel to one another. The banks were covered with dense bushes offering us tantalising glimpses of the river. We drove past the Diskit Gompa which we were scheduled to visit the next day. We passed several other villages, and were soon rewarded with a spectacular view of sand dunes. It was fascinating to see sand dunes, mountains and streams together.


A bumper ride on the double humps: As we walked amidst the dunes, the silence was disturbed by the sound of bells. Turning around, our jaws dropped in amazement. A herd of Bactrian double-humped camels were trotting towards us. The camels had a double hump, were shorter in structure and had broader legs than regular camels, and had abundant hair on the neck and knees. We mounted the camels and were taken around for an hour. We soon got into an animated conversation with our camel tender who said that these species were exclusive to Ladakh. After the ride, we walked to our camps.


In nature's lap: Strolling down a pebbled pathway we were pleasantly surprised to see bright white tents, one of which was reserved for us. The secluded tent overlooked a garden of fresh vegetables and sunflowers. The entire place was well maintained. Meals were cooked with vegetables plucked off the camp vegetable garden.
It was around five in the evening and the chill set in. Grabbing our jackets, we decided to take a stroll around the village escorted by a guide. We learnt that the India-Pakistan border was about 70km away and that there was an army base camp in the vicinity. We were told about the numerous trekking trails, which would require a minimum of three days. The village appeared deserted. However, the main road found us in the company of a few school children returning home. They were sweet enough to oblige us with a few photographs. It was getting dark and we headed back to our camp. Our cosy tents were well equipped with warm beds and attached rest rooms. After dinner, we were lulled to sleep by chirping insects outside our tent.


Gompa on a rocky ridge: After a good night's sleep, we drove back to Leh. En route we stopped to visit the Diskit Gompa. This is the oldest and largest Gompa in the Nubra region. The statue of Maitreya Buddha is majestically seated on the ridge of a mountain that overlooks the valley below. Steps lead to the entrance of the Gompa, which pass through the monks' living quarters.


Dashing through the snow: The cloudy weather that morning was in stark contrast to the sunny skies that smiled the day before. As we drove along the winding roads, we spotted fresh snow on rocks. Delighted at seeing snow at such close quarters, we got out of our cars to play. As we finished our lunch of momos, we saw drops of water on the windshield. To our delight, we were told that they were snowflakes. We stepped out to feel the soft flakes of snow, a novelty for seashore dwellers like us. Continuing our drive through snow flurries, we reached our hotel by dusk. We were scheduled to visit the mystical Pangong Lake the next day.


Cost
The cost for a camel safari is Rs150 per person for 15 minutes.
Camping in Nubra Valley would cost Rs3,000-4,000 per person, meals included.

Essentials and guidelines
Remember to take sufficient warm clothing as the temperature dips unexpectedly.
A torch is essential with the high frequency of power cuts.
Carry necessary medication. The high altitude and bumpy roads can make you sick.
One can go to Zanskar instead of camping overnight in Nubra Valley. It offers an exciting river rafting experience. The cost is Rs2,200 per person.

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