I’m not sure what triggered my fascination with Ladakh. In the era when Doordarshan used to be the only source of information on the outside world, a fleeting memory of a movie on Ladakhi traditions may have sown the seeds of a love that’s continued to grow. Add to it the mystique of the Himalayas and you get a combination that’s hard to get anywhere else. Anywhere else apart from Tibet that is.
Ladakh is not called Little Tibet without a reason. Stark mountains with patches of green along the river Indus or Zanskar present a dramatic landscape not different from that of “The Roof of the World”. Culturally too, the two regions share an affinity that is remarkable. Monasteries or gompas as they’re called abound by the dozen in Ladakh. Shey, Thiksey, Stok, Hemis, Likir, Alchi, Lamayuru are just some of the more renowned ones on the tourist circuit close to Leh. The exterior of Thiksey looks like a cluttered and miniature version of the Potala.
Alchi is one of the oldest monasteries in Ladakh and it is evident in the intricate paintings housed in the various temples. For me though, the highlight was the rain of apricots we got every time the wind blew. Bored with the endless rounds of monasteries in other parts of India and Nepal, Panu and I decided to do only a quick round of the monastery at Likir, only to regret it later. We missed the human skull lamp and tame mouse in one of the inner chambers!
We also stopped at Saspol enroute to Likir monastery, to explore some caves with ancient paintings. It wasn’t on our original itinerary. However, the British family we were sharing the cab with, was keen to look in on the caves. As I came to know later, Kate had worked in UNESCO earlier and hence was quite interested in paintings and everything to do with heritage. While it had seemed like an easy walk from the road, the actual hike turned out to be much steeper. In fact, Kate and I had almost given up, but a sudden adrenalin rush got us all pumped to do the climb. It turned out to be fine except for a few stretches which had me navigating the path with all my limbs. While, the paintings were worn out and in some cases barely perceptible, the scenery from the top was beautiful and that made the climb and the equally tricky descent completely worth it!
There are only so many monasteries you can really enjoy in a day. After a point they become another check mark on your itinerary. Determined to escape that routine, we decided to go rafting in the Zanskar River instead. In the three hour of battling the rapids, we escaped whirlpools, marvelled at kayakers disappearing in the water only to re-surface with a flourish and saw a raft toppling. Until then, everyone had been doing well and taken the rapids in their stride. However, the bobbing heads in the water threw everyone into a panic. The rescue was done within minutes though, and we were back on track after some time. Ironically, this happened at the last turbulent stretch of the river.
Having heard so much about Pangong Tso, there was no way I was missing it. Picturise shimmering blue water, the yellow sun in an azure sky and you get the Pangong Lake. The sky unfortunately was overcast the day we visited, and my vision of a clear sky with flecks of clouds reflected in the aquamarine and turquoise water was shattered. The lake was beautiful though and even with a dull grey sky, I managed to get some great shots of the lake. On our way back we saw several marmots within touching distance. While most of them were shy, there was a spot where they were obviously used to visitors and came forward sniffing for food. Sweet!
Nubra valley is in a way what epitomizes Ladakh in my mind even though it is warmer and the terrain is different from the rest of the region. The road from Leh is oh-so-beautiful and did I mention that you cross the highest motorable pass in the world -Khardung La? There are more monasteries in the valley and the one at Diskit dates back to the 14th century. You get acquainted with the word ‘quaint’ after sometime. Hunder in the valley is where you get to see the Bactrian camels that came from Central Asia when the silk route for trade was open. The entire experience is surreal and it feels like you’re in another time and another place.
My holiday was coming to an end. Like all my previous vacations, I wasn’t completely satiated with the place. But I had another country to explore. That cheered me up a little. So I’ll close with LG’s tagline: Life is good!