In the lap of nature. – Part II – Mesmerizing Leh-Ladakh.5 Aug, 2015, by Seema Bhatnagar
This is in continuation to, In the lap of nature. – Part I – Paradise on Earth, Kashmir, which was about journey of Srinagar and nearby towns. Our second half of journey was to explore Leh and Ladakh region to the highest possible point.
Our trip from Srinagar to Leh was a real adventure on tough terrain and height. Some four of us, including me also, had no previous experience of going by road on rough terrains. I was well prepared to experience any sickness on height and really wanted to experience the lack of oxygen and how my body would respond to it.
Before I share more, I must introduce our driver. The very day I saw our driver who took us to Leh and further, I had a very pleasant feeling. He was looking like a lama, which means, a "high priest" in Tibetan Buddhism. He had a very contented face with equal intensity of enthusiasm and joy. On talking to him further, came to know about his name, Taschi, and the place he belongs to (Leh). He was above 50 years of age with an expertise in driving on rough terrains. One of our close friends from Leh told us that he is one of the best drivers from Leh. Well, what more we could ask for, a comfortable ride with reliable driver.
On the way he was narrating us stories of how many accidents he has seen on the Zoji La pass, one of the very narrow passes on the Himalayan range. In his language, Zoji La is a kind of monster who ate up many. We just burst out laughing when he expressed it with facial and hand expressions. And it became our lingo to enjoy throughout the trip.
To enter different Himalayan ranges there are passes built on the mountains. The first one that we had to cross was Zoji La, at the height 3,528 meters, located on a National Highway 1D between Srinagar and Leh in the western section of the Himalayan mountain range. It connects Srinagar to Leh region.
Within an hour of crossing the Sonamarg, a small town on the way towards Leh while coming from Srinagar, just on the entrance of Zoji La pass, there was a long queue of cars stranded on the highway. Nobody knew the exact reason except for the fact that it happens everyday, probably for controlling the traffic or probably by the hawkers to make money by selling products to stranded passengers.
Sonamarg, on the way from Srinagar to Kargil.
We spent almost four hours there, we simply chatted and took a stroll and then finally settled down near our car. We sat on the ground near the edge of the hill with our driver and few other drivers. We were just asking them about the reason and how they manage everyday with this nuisance. On this, our driver told us, how once he got stuck in the snow on this pass and had survived only by eating onions.
Top view, from where we got stuck near Zoji La pass.
By this time we became quite friendly with our driver, Taschi. To spend a good time together, we asked him to dance and with little coaxing he agreed to dance. He put his car music on full blast and started dancing on the street and we all joined him as well. All started looking at us and were capturing video. It was an absolute entertainment for everybody there and we spent almost half an hour in enjoying this.
Our driver, our lama, Taschi, on right.
Took the advantage of this opportunity and gave a social message to all drivers there that do not allow passengers to litter around with plastic bags as it is spoiling your beautiful valley. We suggested them to put a bin in their car to collect all plastic garbage and charge extra from passengers if you find them littering from your car. Though they all pledged together but not sure how much they would be able to follow.
Personally, I really felt sad by the sight of littered plastics bottles of mineral water and soft-drinks, empty bags of chips etc. on the hills, on the glacier. I was thinking, isn’t it enough to invite Mother Nature’s fury. How mindlessly we are spoiling nature’s gift. The fundamental reason behind this attitude is that we humans think only about our own convenience and throw anything anywhere without a thought, isn’t it a selfish act. I strongly feel, here also it is the spirituality rather than the rule or law that can help.
Zo Jila Pass
While crossing the Zo Jila pass, I could feel, how dangerous it is to drive there, it was a narrow way and not concreted, with mud on the way created due to dripping water from melting glaciers. I wanted to drive but didn’t want to risk the other eight lives, in fact all of us who could drive wanted to but our driver refused to hand over. If not driving then I started enjoying clicking peaks, glacier and narrow way. It was really a feast for eyes, got this site after long years, the last I saw when I was in Switzerland.
Zo Jila Pass, look at the narrowness and muddy road. Water dripping from glaciers.
Our next destination was Kargil, which is a stopover between Srinagar and Leh. Driving straight to Leh would mean travelling for 16 hours at a stretch, so Kargil is the best halt after a drive of 10 hours (including jam hours of Zo Jila).
Kargil is a historic place for India, it is the place from where Pakistan army infiltrated in Indian region crossing the LOC (Line of Control), which divides India and Pakistan. In the year 1999, the Kargil war was fought and Pakistan forces were repulsed.
Kargil peaks in Drass sector.
After seeing the steep peaks and rough terrain of Kargil, I realized how difficult it must been for soldiers to fight the battle. Our driver told us how risky it was to drive through the highway, at any time missile could be fired from Pakistan forces from across the border. During night, all traffic moved without headlights on dark streets. He was trained by Indian army to supply food to local people and army soldiers on height during days of war.
Kargil is a small town with well equipped hotels and decent stays. One of our friends knew somebody in the army so we got our stay confirmed at Indian Army guest house. I spoke to one of the army men posted there, he said, on a daily basis we (Indian and Pakistani army men) are good friends near the LoC, since we speak same language and share similar culture, we hardly see any difference standing on the border except when we see fence. This statement made me to think, the war is only between countries and nations and not between people but unfortunately it is fought on the name of people for vested interests.
Due to shortage of time we could not visit Kargil war memorial. It is about commemorating martyrs of Kargil war. We also had a plan to visit LoC but did not get permission in time (from our friend’s contact) to visit there. There was also a memorial, which we could not visit, for Captain Vikarm Batra, officer from Indian army who demonstrated extraordinary courage and valour during Kargil war, he was posthumously awarded with the Param Vir Chakra, India’s highest and prestigious award for valour.
Kargil is an entry point for Ladhak region, Leh is 4 hours drive from here. The highway roads are just flawless and smooth right from Kargil to Leh. My mouth was watering at the sight of such a silky road on a mountain region. BRO (Boder Roads Organisation) has really done an excellent job.
Brown dessert, on the way between Kargil and Leh.
The whole journey of 5 hours was filled with wonder at the sight of magnanimous peaks and mountains. The nature and looks of mountains were quite unusual. There was no trace of any vegetation, for kilometres there is no habitation, it was truly a dessert of mountains. Somewhere the mountain peaks were snow clad with combination of black and brown, somewhere only with the topping of brown or black. Mountains developed some dune like structures giving an illusion of sculptures created by some artists.
Snow peaks in brown dessert.
Illusion of sculptures.
Though it was something new sight for me and enjoyed it too but somewhere I felt a bit depressing on not finding any life there, no water, no plants and no humans or animals, it was as if I have come on a different planet.
If by any chance one is left behind because of malfunctioning of car or any other reason, there is no assistance for miles and miles and then I was thinking if somebody develops some sickness on the way there is no medical help for kilometres.
Deserted look behind.
There were many bikers riding from Kargil to Leh, found few of them stuck on the way due to bike malfunctioning. I asked one of them about overcoming such problems, he said we prefer to drive in a group and keep lot of spare parts but definitely there are situations when we have to resort to taking help from army or BRO.
Fotula pass on way from Srinagar to Leh.
Testing myself for cold tolerance. Didn't wear any sweater or jacket, just shawl. Stood out for 10 mins in cold chilly air, bravo,...I passed the test.
It was a good decision that we planned to travel by road, had we opted for flight to Leh, we would have missed the privilege of enjoying the panoramic landscapes on the way between Kargil and Leh. Tourist generally go directly to Leh and then to Pangong and further, and unknowingly they miss the real beauty of Leh region.
While on the way, we visited Shey monastery. All lamas were getting ready to welcome some senior lama of monastery. The whole environment turned into a festival, with musics from instruments and everybody was in a special attire. It was a very old monastery, we could see some old ruins on the sides.
Shey Monastery on the way to Leh.
Welcoming Lama at monastery.
On reaching Leh, we already reached to the height of 3524 meters (11, 562 ft). Reached there in the evening, after having dinner, we went out for a stroll, it was only then I realized my palpitations and uneasiness while walking there. It was cold outside so I loaded myself with heavy jacket, sweater and shawl, just thought that it could be because of my woollens but when I lied down on bed to sleep, I could feel the palpitations without any movement of body. I said to myself, not sure if tomorrow morning I would see the Sun or God, ?…then I left everything to God and slept. Next day it was better but we left in the morning for our next destination Pangong Tso, (Pangong lake).
On the way to Pangong, we had to cross snow covered mountains, for which Changla pass is built. It was amazing how brown mountains gradually wore snow on them.
Changla pass on way to Pangong Tso.
Pangong Lake is a highest salt water lake in the world situated at the height of 4,350 m (14,270 ft). This is a lake which falls on the LoC with it's one part in India and the other in China. The highway from Leh to Pangong is partially concreted and majority part is pebbled.
Our stay at Pangong lake was a homestay and really there was no address except the name “Marzi homestay”. On speaking to the owner, he described how it is off main road and a journey of extra 40 km from the main road. It was only our driver who knew the location and we were just enjoying the panoramic view of lake. It was falling evening and we were completely clueless of the way and direction, we were just following the bank of lake which was rocky and pebbled.
It was a breathtaking view of lake, colours were changing one by one, blue, deep green, deep blue and sea green. In the evening there was a shadow of clouds falling in the lake, it was such a beauty to see. The low currents were touching the banks as if it was a smaller version of sea. It was hard to stop clicking. The silence with a sweet voice of water currents were adding a zing to the landscape. It was a perfect place to mediate and experience silence.
Picture perfect Pangong Tso.
While I was enjoying the beauty of the lake, my body already started fighting with the height sickness, I started puking and was feeling headache. Except two of us, rest all felt the same. It was hard to speak and I literally started praying that we should reach to our destination as soon as possible.
Play of colors at Pangong Tso.
Finally after spending one hour travelling on a pebbled road, we could reach to our destination. It was almost 5:30 pm by the time we reached our homestay. We 6 of us were in a bad condition and were looking for bed to sleep. I did not sleep rather freshened up myself and had a cup of tea. My definition of tea which I used to relish earlier is already forgotten so any tea is fine but it has to be without sugar, so I have no tantrums anymore about tea, actually, it is another type of freedom.
I and my friend Ch, who was perfectly ok, decided to go for an evening meditation near the lake. We went with our yoga mat and spent some 45 minutes in meditation. The experience was awesome, in the silence of lake, loaded with woolens sat on the ground and inhaled the freshest oxygen.
With chubby cheeks, sitting in evening meditation near bank of Pangong Lake. Loaded with woollens, it wasn't possible otherwise. Cellphone was only for pics as there was no network.
I experienced that even activity of inhaling and exhaling during pranayams was a burden on body and it was just demanding total silence and rest to make the best use of low levels of oxygen in the atmosphere. Our driver was instructing us again and again to keep eating and munching to avoid any acidity setting in and avoid talking much. I puked whatever I ate on the way and I didn’t feel like eating much.
To ensure we eat right, our driver entered kitchen with family of homestay owner and cooked the food which was suitable for us given the health conditions. He cooked mix vegetables and lentil with rice and chapatti (Indian bread). It was a light dinner. I ate less with the fear that I might vomit again. I was thinking, how hard their life is, getting food stock at this height is not so easy and that is a reason they opt for non-vegetarian diet. For miles and miles I did not find any tree or any greenery, you can imagine how difficult it would have been getting vegetables and other food items to home. We all made sure that we don’t waste even a single grain of food.
Taschi in action in kitchen.
Enjoyed our friendship with their kids.
During bedtime it was hard for me to lie down, if I was bending my head I was experiencing unbearable headache and the whole night I spent sitting. It was only in the morning when my friend convinced me to have a pill to get rid of this annoying headache, I could feel some relief. Usually, I avoid taking pills and prefer to bear the pain, but that was going beyond my tolerance and there was no alternative home treatment so I decided to pop the pill.
I would really never forget that night and that unbearable headache. After 3-4 hours of rest I could feel better. Because of sickness of group members, we decided to drop our program for Nubra valley which is on further height. Nubra valley, is another fabulous place to see, generally it is on itinerary for Leh trip.
While on return journey from Pangong, we clicked few pics, because of last night sickness we were not in a condition to enjoy much. In the pic below, I am partially recovered from sickness, my headache was still persisting and was not feeling normal at all. I did not take shower and could not perform morning yoga and meditation, as for every activity my body had to exert. This is really a memorable experience of reaction from my body towards lack of oxygen. We were all silently sitting in the car while coming back after realizing the advice of Taschi of keeping quite.
In the backdrop of magnificence.
We landed in this condition only for the fact that we did not acclimatize our body properly. We should have spent at least two days at Leh and then should have started for Pangong lake. It’s a learning for next trip.
Was thinking that if you want to travel, you must travel in the age when your body can take strain and stress, travelling after 50 or in 60s is not advisable at all especially to hilly areas. There were days when we travelled for 11-12 hours a day at a stretch. Incidentally, I met one lady who must be in her early 60s, was palpitating and all family members were worried about her deteriorating condition. Our driver told us that many people fall sick on the way and have to come down from midway and some of them died on the way due to cardiac arrest.
On returning to Leh we spent a day at city sightseeing which included visit to Hall of Fame, Shanti Stoopa and an ancient palace. After recovering from sickness, I observed how the bridge of my nose turned blue and dry due to low temperature, I was looking like a native of Leh..:-), the same was true for all of us in the group.
Hall of Fame is a monument and museum dedicated to martyrs of Kargil war. They have created a place, sought of adventure park, where one can experience how army people are trained. I tried few activities like rope walking, crossing a bridge using a pulley on a rope, archery etc..
Hall of fame - A tribute to martyrs of Kargil war.
Rope walking at Hall of Fame.
For lunch we tried few delicacies from Tibeten kitchen, one very popular dish is Thukpa, it is a type of soup prepared with noodles and vegetables.
Thukpa, at a special restaurant.
Since we all bonded well with driver Taschi, he took us to his home, where we met his family and had tea in traditional Leh style, on floor. They were all filled with warmth and joy like Taschi.
After spending a day at Leh, we started our return journey, following the same route, Leh, Kargil and Srinagar. We visited Pahalgam on return journey, the account I have already shared previously.
Experience and Growth
Questioning Divine about my existence.
It has been an exciting and exhilarating trip for all of us. Personally, I experienced the limitations of my body and experienced closely how our body is transacting with atmosphere, the fact that we all know but realize the weight only when even a single component of atmosphere is altered slightly.
I find water bodies very attractive and on doing meditation near them gives realization of their energy and power. Actually, it is very rejuvenating doing meditation near water bodies as they are store house of energy. The meditation session that I did at Pahalgam was very soothing to senses, sitting just near the strong torrents, with just the sound of water and nothing else, was so pleasing to ears.
The second round of meditation that I did at Pangong was more engaging and soothing sitting in a complete silence. These are the experiences which cannot be so easily expressed, they must be felt.
Was happy to see the improved condition of Kashmir, at least, people are visible on street and tourists are enjoying fearlessly. Some decade ago visiting Kashmir was just impossible due to terrorism and regular disturbance between locals and army. Though army is still seen everywhere but there is no fear as such. Wishing, may peace and harmony continue there and may everyone prospers.
For miles and miles there were no toilet facilities except you wait for some restaurant on the way. For ladies especially, it is inconvenient to use open toilets, but going by the need and compulsion of the moment we had to ease ourselves in nature. Making toilets on the beautiful landscapes is definitely not a good solution, going by the proportion of vast area of land and number of visitors, I feel using open toilet is a better solution. So, I am happy using the nature’s roof to welcome nature’s call. :-)
As a group, we all had a great time together, whether it was food, talks, cracking jokes or pulling each other for idiosyncrasies. Since no experience goes waste in life, this trip also taught me an important thing, how people living with bare minimum essentials at places which are completely inhabitable as per standards of people staying in cities, are happy and wearing a smile on their face. It is not that they don’t have cellphones or tvs at their home, it is simply that they are untouched and uninfluenced by the snobbery of big cities.
On seeing the abundance of nature, every moment I was realizing, how humans are ripping apart nature for personal comfort and convenience. The plush hotels, conveniences at such a height are nothing more than a nuisance. It might be an economic prosperity and increase in the percentage of economic growth but definitely it is nothing lesser than piercing the body of Mother Earth. Anybody who has some respect for nature will think about how human intervention to such heights can be minimized to maintain the pristine panoramas.
While I was passing through the breathtaking landscapes of magnanimous mountains, I was thinking myself completely insignificant, probably just a speck of dust. Again and again I was questioning myself what could be the reason for my existence when nature has such beautiful and magnanimous entities standing tall and wide. Each and every landscape was looking like a piece of art by some great artist. Again and again my curiosity and feeling of insignificance were compelling me to think how this would have been created or who would have created all this. I might not get quenched of my inquisitiveness but my heart will always remain filled with admiration for the creativity and magnanimity of creator.
In the lap of nature. – Part I – Paradise on Earth, Kashmir
My trip down South of India - Kerala
A journey to magnificence - Khajuraho
Royal indulgence - Udaipur