One of the annoyances of travel in Ladakh is the uncertainty due to bad weather. But it can be a great opportunity to explore newer routes. So, when making a return journey from Nubra Valley back to Leh, we were informed that the Khardungla is closed, we decided to pitch in our luck and go to Pangong Tso through the mostly dirt track from Khalsar via Agyam, Shyok and Dubruk. The road, initially as good as one can find in Ladakh, runs just beside the Shyok river. Sometimes whirling to climb up the mountains abutting the narrow valley and at other times snaking along the river bed. Agyam advertises itself on many milestones prior to its arrival and one can be excused for thinking that it is a major town. It boasts of a narrow steel bridge decked with multiple tibetan prayer flags and a tea stall. Also, there is a bifurcating road that connects it to Shakti on the Leh Manali highway. Beyond Agyam, the road leaves all pretentions of being one, mostly a dirt track and later on just a desire path on the stones of the riverbed. For dozens of kilometres there is no sign of human activity. One just has the river and the bare brown intimidating mountains for company. Once in a while the mandatory BRO road signs appear with their peculiar mischievious humour. It is possibly one of the most desolate drives. An occasional biker appears with a SUV support vehicle. The biker veers dangerously on the slippery dust laden stones of the river bed. One just waits for Shyok to appear. It must be a big town, after all it gives its name to this major river. It turns out that Shyok is half a dozen houses, a few Chortens and a restaurant with a makeshift toilet. But it is kind of relieving to see some human presence in what is otherwise just a lonely drive. Beyond Shyok, the scenery changes, the mountains grow taller and somewhat less intimidating and one hits the military town of Dubrok & Tang tse. It boasts of a reasonably metalled road and curious road signs ... "Only the best of friends and the worst of enemies visit us" and more ominously "It is perhaps the only place where one can suffer heat stroke and frost bite simultaneously". It has a small bazaar where one can buy bottled water, biscuits and Maggi. The road to Pangong Tso from here moves in a narrow green valley where one can spot timid looking yaks, occasional herds of the critically endangered wild ass and sometimes a bus full of tourists. The first sight of Pangong Tso as a crystalline blue lake against the ochre brown mountians seems surreal. Soon one encounters the inimitable black headed gulls and numerous restaurants featuring photos of the Aamir Khan's bollywood blockbuster, 3 Idiots. We stop and have hot Maggi. Seems like redemption for the long drive. The altitude is much higher than Nubra and Leh, so it is better to catch one's breath before moving on.
19 June 2017
18 June 2017
Hemis is a little way off from the highway, near Leh. The long winding road up the monastery prepares you for the magnificent sights that one greets at what is the largest monastery in Ladakh. The ticket costs ₹50 and includes the visit to the museum of the Monastery. Photography, inside the monastery is predictably, prohibited. A short climb up the stairs carries one to the roughly rectangular courtyard that faces the main shrines. There are two main shrines, both massive, ancient and brilliantly decorated with tangkha and paintings. The budhha statue inside is nearly two storeys high and is truly an overwhelming spectacle to behold. A long series of prayer wheels are embedded on the left side of the outside wall of the main shrine. Just outside, on the left is a rather small entry to the museum. The small entry belies the huge collection inside. The small door ooens into a shop selling buddhist stuff. Deeper inside the main museum entrace is there. One has to deposit cameras and mobiles in a neat small locker. The entry leads into a massive staircase which moves into a subterranean huge vault like room. Here the precious, rare and ancient collections of various objects of the monastery are displayed. Old paintings, tanghas, reproduction of photographs, masks, statues, utensils, religious objects, decrees of the Namgyal kings of Ladakh, ancient wooden prayer wheels, weapons and what not is neatly displayed in here. Sketches of the Ladakhi dances by early English explorers and their descriptions are particularly interesting. One can easily spend the better part of the days here understanding the various forms of budhhas and other gurus of Tibetan Budhhism. The objects are remarkably well preserved. It reflects the massive collection and heritage of what is not just a monastery but an integral part of the Ladakhi culture and heritage. Once done, the courtyard outside greets one with vantage views all around. A little distance up hill, one can see a recently installed massive golden statue of Buddha. If one has to visit just one monastery in Ladakh, it has to be Hemis, in view of its size, heritage, antiquity and beauty.
15 June 2017
Leh, in summers, is a town seething with plane loads of package group tourists, bikers and trekkers. They are all planning to go somewhere else. Trekking to Stok Kangri, biking up the Khardungla, driving to Pangong Tso or perhaps even going back to Srinagar to catch a flight home. Few are here to see Leh itself. There's not much to see, a nine storey high Potala replica like Palace and a Shanti Stupa is all one can count on. Its more of a logistics base. Even if one is forced to stay on here, one goes to Hemis, Thiksey or Nimmu, all a short drive away. Or go shopping from the expensive Kashmiri or Tibetan shops.
But that doesnt mean it lacks character. The narrow streets of the main bazaar have seen much history here. The Leh Palace has had more than its fair share of intrigue and succession battles. The main iconic Leh Mosque stands tall like a gargantuan. Its atmospheric roads are filled with bikers of all sorts and bike shops display notices desperately seeking companions and co-riders to Zanskar or Tso Moriri.
Leh boasts of some the most authentic Tibetan cuisine outside of Lhasa.It also hosts a sporadic music fest, that may not be much, but is a beginning.The main street in market is cobbledstoned and is closed for traffic, making it one of the most pleasant strolls one can have with quaint antique stores, a massive bookshop and restaurants. Its roads are lined with neat freshly painted simple white houses (that are now incresingly doubling up as homestays). One can count more birds in its backyards and gardens than the Salim Ali lists.
Ofcourse, one cannot do a live post on Instagram, Periscope, Snapchat or Facebook here. That, it doesn't have a reliable internet connectivity is more of an advantage here, as it remains one of the few places which is beyond the ubiquitous dragnet of Whatsapp, Facebook and Instagram. And most of all, as one walks on the roads of Leh, one is invariably greeted with cheerful faces shouting Jullay! Certainly, Leh has more character that its weary tourists are ready to grant it!