Monday, July 23, 2007

Pangong Tso : SO blue!

Days 5 & 6: Pangong Lake through Chang La

After our adventure to Nubra and back, we felt like homegrown Ladakhi lads and lasses and bravely decided to travel to Pangong lake the very next day. To get to Pangong, we traveled through Chang-la - the third highest motorable road (in the world, I think!). Ladakh is a region of extremes - if the weather is bad, it is horrendous, but if it is good, you wonder why you'd ever want to go back to Bombay. The colours are unimaginable - vivid greens, bright yellows, sparkling lapis lazuli blue, shades of burnt sienna - made brighter and more dazzling by the pure, crisp mountain air. The weather gods bestowed their heartiest blessings on us as we set off for Pangong.

After Khardung-la, Chang-la was a breeze. We stopped, took some pics and hurried towards Pangong. We took packed lunches with us - quaint lunches! Cardboard boxes with cucumber sandwiches, two biscuits packed in foil, a boiled egg (which of course I traded), a boiled potato (I got in return) and a kit-kat. Howzzat? We had lunch by a lovely bubbling brook an hour or so before Pangong (which is about 6 hours drive from Leh, at least). Military has a really strong presence en-route. It is heartening to see how the lives of the local villages there have been enhanced by military presence - regular supplies of essentials, primary health centres and a strong sense of security.

We were busy taking pictures of tall mountains and the bubbling brook that gave us company till we turned a corner - we were knocked out, I was speechless (an immense feat if you know me even slightly!) A lake with every imaginable shade of blue. Light blue,Sky Blue, Electric blue, Lapis Lazuli, Royal Blue, Indigo, Turquoise, Sapphire (any other variations?) What makes the entire picture even more striking is the range of mountains that create the border in the deepest shade of brown. The lake stretches a long way, parts of it are inaccessible except to local Ladakhis and the military. I was moved to tears by the pristine beauty. Felt I was in a calendar picture.

Pangong-Tso is a salty lake (Tso means lake in Ladakhi) About 80% of the water of the lake belongs to China and the remaining 20% to India (thank God we get to see atleast the 20%) From the banks of the lake one can see mountains and peaks in Tibet (which China now claims as part of its territory) We stayed in a JKTDC run resort (a fancy term to use for the basic acco) It has about 8 rooms and 6 tents and no running water in any loo(!!), also musty sheets and just 2 staff to run the show entirely. But every room has a huge window overlooking the lake and the staff (esp Mr.Raj Mukherjee) are REALLY courteous (the Hiltons of the world could learn some warmth and hospitality from him) We took a long walk alongside the shore. Its hard to describe how the beauty affected me, but for once I really forgot to carry the sorrows of my existence with me - I was filled with a deep happiness for the world and esp my partner. All that mattered was “us” and the blue lake. Felt invincible and strong, but insignificant and tearful at the same time (my Libran scales see-sawed wildly, you can see!)

The blue of the lake was scientifically explained to the distracted-me. Something about Raman's effect - thin air and the position of the sun causing the shades of blue. The three men in our group were excited about the physics and science behind it, and the two of us non-engg people (both women as well!) were mooning over such a lovely creation and ecology and the need to preserve it for the future generations. Differences, differences! Dinner there was a simple affair. The beauty of the night sky was another glorious sight. I wonder if you have really see the milky way, replete with cosmic dust? We actually saw it stretching into the distance. "Ten million saw I at a glance" (to misquote Mr.W's verse and reference) Every inch of the sky hosted a thousand stars. Our excitement levels crossed all previous limits.

We barely slept (mostly excitement, partly musty sheets) Were up and about in time to catch the sunrise. Then the other lady(G1) fell sick - violently. Food poisoning accentuated by lack of sleep. Another mis-adventure. We rushed to the nearby PHC. Got her some medicine and proceeded to Leh immediately. She got quickly better en-route; so we decided to gate crash at a village fair held in honour of His Holiness the Dalai Lama's b'day on the 6th of July. The entire area congregates at a grassy knoll on the banks of a stream (water from the Indus), pitches tents and sing, dance, make merry. They bring stoves to cook food as well. Men and women were dressed in traditional attire. Our guide added tongue-in-cheek that it was the best way to meet the most gorgeous women (for him!)

All in all we were feeling upto more Ladakh more than ever before. The next day was spent in traveling to local monasteries. We got a chance to take a peek into local life - but more on that on another day!

Spirituality is belief in recognizing and appreciating beauty, its creation and existence. We need to do our bit to preserve what has been handed over to us. Reduce using plastic.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Nubra Valley: Camel Humping!

Days 3 and 4: Khardung-La - Onward to Hunder and Deskit

After two days of lazing around, we mustered enough courage and energy to drag our backsides to our ever-ready Qualis to conquer the highest motorable road in the world. Yeah, you read it right, in the WORLD at 18,385 feet (when you realize you are not more than 6 ft tall, imagine where we were headed!) It was a pleasant morning. Slightly cloudy. The guide gazed up at the sky worried, but before he could say anything, I sneezed. If you are the least bit superstitious, you should know it is unlucky. We bundled ourselves in woolens (all the woolens we possessed in our sunny days at Chennai and Bombay!) The Qualis set off. As it wound its way up several mountains inexorably towards Khardungla, one of my friends fell prey to Altitude Sickness. He quickly popped several pills, fell asleep and missed what was to come next. Bad weather? You guessed right. But did you guess SNOW? In July??? Yeah, it snowed so much that we could barely see half a foot ahead of us. The roads were bumpy and not fully laid out either. We prayed to all the Gods, Sub-Gods and even the Asuras. Suddenly in the swirling white mass, the guide announced that we were at the pass. ('La' means 'pass' in Ladakhi. Therefore Khardung-La, and later Chang-La and Tanglang-La) We stumbled outta of the jeep to be hit by a fierce wind whipping off our woolens and chilling our very bones, even our thoughts. We rushed into the vehicle again, only to be assaulted by a wave of breathlessness again. Sped towards our destination.

After an hour, the scenery changed completely. The hills moved from white to brown again, and in the next thirty minutes even to green. The sun rushed out quickly to welcome us to Nubra valley and we gladly stripped outta our top two layers. We stopped at Panamik, where some natural hot springs attract tourists. Had HOT black tea, ah! Ambrosia, after the cold ride. Proceeded to Hunder. To get to Hunder, we drove across a river bed(imagine!) Hunder is the last civilian stop before Siachen glacier. We felt totally patriotic coming this far, almost to the borders. :) I even sang all the national-integrations songs I knew(and that is a good number, I am a Kendriya Vidyalaya alumnus!)

The Hunder area is famous for its sand dunes and Bactrian camels. Sand dunes like the kind you would see on a sea-shore. Geographically, India as a subcontinent moved away from southern landmass called Gondwana to attach itself to Laurasia, squeezing a sea called Tethys in the process. The sea folded up to create Himalayas, and left behind sea-shells in Nubra (amazing, right?) Okay, my facts may be a bit skewed, but was stunned to see the sand dunes in Ladakh (the last time I had uninhibitedly played in similar sand dunes was two decades ago, in my home town Kalpakkam, which boasted of a virgin beach those days) We had the pleasure of riding two humped camels, peculiar to this area. These camels were once part of the great silk route, and originated at Turkistan (now Turkey). Nomads left behind the ailing and old camels, which mated and miraculously thrived in Nubra. Their great-great-great-grandchildren now provided me with the ride of my life!

We stayed overnight at a lovely camp, with a bubbling brook running thro' its boundaries. It was an organic resort with lovely flowers and green veggies. We had the pleasure of meeting and talking with some bikers from Bangalore who literally had to plunge their feet into boiling water to save their toes from frostbite(they had ridden thro' the snowstorm previously described) What was even more pleasant was the presence of a WorldSpace radio. Guiltily ignoring the one non-tam in the group, we tuned into KL Tamil radio and listened to Ilayaraja's hits. Black tea. Tall trees. Bubbling brook. Bliss.

The next morning, we proceeded to Deskit. A lovely monastery with a gory tale. Apparently an intruder's head and arm were chopped off and reposed in a statue of a protector deity. Gory! We saw a unique Tibetan lock for the first time. The lock has an ornate key and has a unique locking mechanism with a piece of metal sliding into close it. Difficult to explain. Figure it out yourselves from the pic!

This time on our way back, in excellent sunny weather, we stopped at the pass. To our relief saw tonnes of army personnel. Jai Jawan! Measured our oxygen levels (mine was low!) Took pics. Bought a souvenir cap. Drank tea. The men peed over the hillside (vicarious pleasures... men!!) Felt 'on top of the world' :) How do firangs keep themselves so fit? I felt like a winner when I managed to walk twenty steps from my jeep on top of the pass without stopping once, only to feel sorely like a BIG loser when I spotted two firangs riding up a bike (I mean a bicycle) They had come all the way from Leh. They stopped on top of the pass for a minute, drank water, gave high-fives to each other and rode back. Well, who wants to dope and ride a bicycle? (yeah, I am maligning them! Sore, oops, sour grapes!)

Drove past the Khardungla frog (a rock shaped like a frog) Returned to our hotel in Leh, happy, satisfied with our first trip, and in hindsight, feeling good about our snowy adventure.

Little did we know about our next adventure to Pangong lake!

In the difficult ride, I remembered all the apologies I hand't made, the loved ones I had lost touch with and cursed my cell phone for no coverage.

Monday, July 16, 2007


Days 1 and 2: Leh bound.

We arrived at Leh, all excited and raring to go. Me, my better half(P), his best friend (G), best friend's gal (G1) and my dear friend R. Even the runway is different at Leh, short, leading into the mountains and heavily fortified on all directions by the military. The first glimpse is raw, shocking, breathtaking. Bare-as-your-backside brown mountains, some wearing white snow hats, brown ground, harsh, stretching into the horizon with nary a river and suddenly a green patch, houses, a runway and boom! you are at Leh.

We were met by our extremely helpful guide Stanzin and the impish, young-but-really safe driver, Punzo. Our luggage arrived and we headed towards our hotel Namgyal Palace, craning our necks outside the Qualis for our first fill of the city. Prayer wheels (called Manes, pronounced muh-nay) in any direction we turned, also low arrangement of stones shaped like a low wall (creatively called mane walls!).The 'manays' have religious significance. So, much like the Hindu 'pradakshinam' concept, the correct way to go around the manay is clockwise. 'Manays' dot even the centre of the roads (quite like temples in the middle of the road in South India), the driver always drove past on the left side! The Ladakhi people seemed friendly, with tiny crinkly wide-set eyes, a smiling mouth, petite build and cheerful and hardy countenance, going about their daily business - school, shops, office et al.

We reached our hotel - new, painted a pista green, on Fort Road, checked in, sat at the window taking in the clean air, the brilliant mountain view and telling each other that altitude sickness is a silly concept, written in books for paranoid people. A couple of hours of jumping around and wow! altitude sickness (alternately called mountain sickness) hit us, and badly. Headaches, nausea and breathlessness. As it is, none of us would fit into size 32 jeans, even remotely, so you can imagine the amount of oxygen our bodies would need... so cursing the heights, we all hit the sack.

And stayed there for the next 48 hours.

Ventured out on day 2 evening to the bazaar. Couldn't walk uphill (a bare 15 metres) without stopping thrice. When we made it finally, we felt as though Mt.Everest would be an easy conquest ( a feeling that visited us regularly over the next few days) Walked 'down' one street, decided we were not acclimatized enough.

Came back to the warm confines of our hotel rooms and slept again.
Breathing cool CLEAN air (after mad Mumbai), air that smelt of the snow, the freshness and curiously of Glad Mountain room freshener!
Dreaming of our next day's trip to Nubra Valley.

Travel opens ur mind to worlds that are different - you learn about the place, about yourselves and about your companions.