Never had I imagined that I’d be going back to the Land of Lama again in consecutive years. Ladakh is just like Vaishno devi visit… no one knows ki kab bulava aa jaaye…Last time, I had missed exploring Pangong Lake but this time, I was determined to explore this beauty. Since I was going to Ladakh with my kid, I decided to keep the base as Leh and travel back every night to the hotel instead of staying at Pangong.
Now the plan was to spend a day exploring local attractions, visit Lamayuru and Alchi on second day, enjoy at Pangong Lake on the third day and finally conquer the mighty Khardungla on the fourth day. The plan was reasonable well spread, though it involved a lot of travelling. I was more concerned about AMS hitting us than travel or bad weather.
The accommodation was booked at Hotel Dragon which is on Fort Road at Leh, quite close to the airport. I had asked my last year’s cab driver Stanzin to accompany us on this trip. Unfortunately, he was busy but he had asked his cousin to come along with us. The Inner Line Permits were all taken care. I got to know that kids younger than 12 years do not need any permit. This in turn saves money as well. Among other things, I had kept a full box of camphor in case we needed it in distress. For those who don’t know, they say that camphor helps in easing out breathing. I had kept lots of woollens to be utilized at Pangong and Khardungla, oblivious of the fact that none of them would even be opened, let alone use them.
01-Aug: As the clock struck 03.00 hrs, I knew it was time to say good bye to the bed and get ready. Leaving bed is a bad decision, always. Nothing beats the coziness, the warmth of the bed and embracing sleep. By the time clock showed 04.00 hrs, we were ready to book Uber to the airport. Our flight Go Air departed from Terminal-2 which was inaugurated recently. This terminal was newer & bigger than T-1 but still lacked the finesse and the swift check-in. Slowly and gradually we moved along with the serpentine queue. Fortunately, the boarding was announced early and we got seated about 30 mins before the scheduled departure.
Go-air is ‘actually’ a no frill airlines. The bus which took us to the aircraft was rickety. The seats and magazine compartment were dingy too. Nevertheless, since it was on time, I didn’t bother. The flight took off soon and in a jiffy we were flying above the white mountains of Himachal. By the time we clicked a few pics of the scenery below, our flight captain announced that we’re flying above Tso Moriri Lake, which meant we were already in Ladakh region and soon would be descending.
It hardly took us 1 hr 10 mins to reach Leh airport. With 360° mountain view, Leh airport resembled a small cricket pitch with huge stands all around. In an hour, we had ascended from an elevation of 750 ft (New Delhi) to 11450 ft (Leh). Soon, AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) would kick in, I thought. The key was to stay hydrated and avoid all physical activity. We plan, God laughs. As soon I lifted our luggage from the conveyor belt, I felt I had lost my breath. Pushing the trolley seemed a herculean task. My kid came to my rescue. Not only he pushed the trolley confidently, he lead our way out. Wow! he has really grown up, was all I could mutter under a gasp of quick breath. Our cab driver Nangsal owned an Innova which was impeccably maintained. Soon, he drove us to Hotel Dragon, our abode for next four days.
The check-in was a breeze though the room with a view was on third floor. And there was no elevator. Fortunately, the ushers took care of our luggage. I wish there was someone who could carry me too. Climbing three floors in one go made me realize that I was getting older at a faster rate than I should. To solace myself, I thought it was AMS playing the tricks. Soon, a faint headache pushed the sides of my head. After unsuccessfully trying to regain my breath for an hour, I gave up and got ready to go for local sight seeing. Time read 11.30 am.
The plan was to cover Hemis Monastery, Thiksey Monastery, Rancho school and Shey Palace. All these attractions were on Leh Manali highway about an hour away from Leh city. The road was good and the weather was comfortable. My kid enjoyed this muddy topography and colorful prayer flags all around. We clicked a lot of pics.
All those memories of 3 idiots movie flashed across when we visited Rancho school. The Rancho cafe served delicious chocolate sandwich and cold coffee. We had our lunch at Cafe Cloud near Thiksey Monastery. The food was amazing though it was damn pricey. Finally, we reached hotel around 17.00 hrs. The day seemed hectic and coupled with AMS, I was dead tired and decided to sleep early. My prepaid Jio sim was dead already.
02-Aug: I woke up around 06.00 hrs with headache. It was a constant companion since yesterday. The plans for today were to visit Lamayuru Monastery, Alchi Monastery, Confluence of Zanskar & Indus, Magnetic Hill, Hall of Fame and Patthar Sahib Gurudwara. Post breakfast, we left around 08.00 am. Our first stop was confluence point of the two rivers. Usually, Zanskar is blue and Indus is green but the colors we saw were shades of grey. The difference in colors was notable but we could not replicate the magic of internet photos.
Nevertheless, we did not stop after this and headed straight to Lamayuru. The scenery on the way was fascinating and we made a few beautiful videos. Lamayuru Monastery had a great view but it was quite sunny and sun rays were literally piercing our skin. Time read 12.00 noon. Along with my family, persistent headache accompanied me. Niranjan restaurant next to the monastery served tasty food, though service was slow. Last time, we had lunch at Tharpaling restaurant which served sandy maggi, which I had flushed down with coke. Post lunch, we moved to our next stop – Alchi Monastery. It was an okay place about 4-5 km away from Srinagar-Leh highway. More than the monastery, I loved the view of Indus river. It was very hot though. We quickly clicked a few pics and moved ahead to Patthar Sahib. By the time we reached there, it was around 15.00 hrs. Time for langar (community lunch) was already over. However, we were lucky to have a cup of tea and rusks there. After offering our prayers at Gurudwara, we moved on to Magnetic Hill, which as per me, was a dampener. We clicked a few mandatory pics there and moved on.
It was then when I remembered that last time, we had clicked a few pics at a milestone marked Leh-18 km. Just to rekindle those memories, we stopped the car and again clicked a few pics at the same spot. Nothing had changed, neither the distance, nor the place. Life of a milestone marker is so mundane. It is lifeless actually. Same view, same road, regular vacillation of army trucks and tourist vehicles . Occasionally, people like me stop there to reignite a few memories. It is just like visiting an old age home where old people (read milestone) gain some joy when someone visits them. The joy is momentary though and life goes back to monotony once the visitor goes back. This endless infinite loop continues.
By the time we reached back hotel, it was close to 18.00 hrs. The next day was going to be long and most awaited one… Pangong Lake.
03-Aug: The excitement of visiting Pangong Lake woke me up before the birds perched and confirmed its dawn. The morning view of the mountains in the backdrop was mesmerizing. We had planned to skip breakfast at hotel and stop mid-way at Karu, which was about an hour away. This is the place where the diversion for Pangong is located on the Leh-Manali highway. Time read 08.00 hrs when we started from Karu for Pangong.
The moment we took the diversion from Karu, we knew the road ahead lay in shambles. The climb to the mighty Chang La pass wasn’t going to be easy. Soon we spotted the long Army trucks convey. Around 40 of them going ahead of us slowing us down. One by one, we overtook all the trucks. We did not stop at Chang La top as we feared that the trucks would get ahead of us and again slow us down. Once we got down the other side to Tsoltak, we stopped for a quick washroom break. Washroom is a sheer luxury in Ladakh where all we see are lonely stretches on mountains without a living soul around for miles. However, at Tsoltak, Indian Army maintains pay and use washrooms which are impeccably clean at 16,500 ft.
We continued our journey post Changla pass. Soon, the topography changed from naked mountains to sandy terrain, just as in Nubra.
Soon, we got our first glimpse of Pangong Lake. It was stunning blue lake standing in absolute glory. The lake was huge and a tiny portion of it was being flocked by tourists. This was the place where Ladakh was actually discovered by the movie 3 idiots and since its release in 2009, its mad rush always. After clicking umpteen pics and boomerangs, we had ubiquitous maggi at a dhaba named as Highland Camp and Cottage.
By 14.00 hrs, we started our journey back to Leh. It was a tiring day as we had got up early but the thought of stopping over at Changla pass kept us awake. By the time we reached Changla top it was almost 16.30 hrs. The wind was cold at the top and I felt the need for a light jacket. There is a small temple of Changla baba at the top. I quickly climbed the temple steps to seek blessings. The staircases were cold and damp which quickly numb my feet. Staying at this height for long without proper shoes is inviting frostbite, I thought. By the time I reached the car, tea was already ordered from nearby dhaba. Cold weather, chilly wind and hot tea… beat that!
We resumed our journey and by the time we reached Hotel, the sun had already set. The day was hectic but the natural beauty we saw was unparalleled. Not only the lake, but the entire route was scenic. Next day, we’d climb even greater heights… Khardungla…as I thought about it, last year’s dreaded memories of avalanche at Khardungla engulfed me. The tiredness of today didn’t allow me to stay awake, whereas the nightmares of Khardungla didn’t let me sleep. Amidst all this confusion, I collapsed on bed.
04-Aug: I got up around 06.30 hrs with severe headache. This was our last day for sightseeing and hopefully, for headaches too. Four days had gone but it looked AMS had become my best friend in Ladakh, always with me. We left for Khardungla by 09.00 hrs. As we climbed up the mountains, neither we saw any snow, nor any army convoys. It looked different this time.
The rays of the sun were penetrating deep under the skin. It was getting hotter. By 11.00 hrs we were at Khardungla top, which is located at an altitude of 18380 ft. It was a disappointment. No snow… couldn’t even imagine the place without it. The only similarity I could notice were the rocks on the cliff, ever ready to fall on slightest provocation…just like roadrage of our cities…which is always on short fuse.
The only good experience this time at Khardungla was that the restaurant at the top was empty and the guy took the food order from the seat. Last time, one had to elbow his way to order food, grab the food before someone else picks it and jostle his way back to seat.
We clicked a few pics but the view didn’t look as scenic as last time. Snow does make a lot of difference. The sun rays were unforgiving and soon forced us to leave for Leh. On the way back, we stopped at Shanti Stupa for a quick darshan but we couldn’t stand for long in sun.
Soon, we were back to hotel by 14.30 hrs. I wish I could have explored more of Ladakh but I felt my energy being drained out. I crashed on the bed and got up by dinner time. Headache, being my buddy in Ladakh was still by my side. It didn’t leave me even for a min and was ready to give me company till my stay lasted in Ladakh. All I wished now was a quick flight back home.
05-Aug: It was our anniversary. We just got up, packed our bags and came down for breakfast and checkout, oblivious of the fact that a surprise was waiting for us. Our friend, Pramanshu had ordered a delicious cake that was waiting for us at the reception. It was a gracious gesture which humbled me. Let me take this opportunity on my blog to thank you Pramanshu for all the efforts you took.
We were back home by lunch leaving Ladakh and my headache behind. It was a trip which taught me a few things…AMS can strike anytime, so be prepared, unlike me…August is a not to go season for Ladakh…no snow, very hot weather…and this air trip reemphasized my faith in road trips. They are much better indeed, though it takes longer.