Wednesday, October 19, 2011

We Visited Leh, Ladhak – Part I

Travel to Leh


Ladakh is a part of Jammu & and Kashmir State in North of India consisting of two districts Leh and Kargil. Leh, with an area of 45110 Sq Km, is the largest district in the country in terms of area. It lies between 32 to 36 degree North latitude and 75 degree to 80 degree East longitude. The district is bounded by Pakistan occupied Kashmir in the West and China in the North and Eastern part and Lahul Spiti of Himachal Pradesh in the South East.

It is at a distance of 434 Kms from Srinagar and 474 Kms from Manali. Leh district comprises of Leh town and 112 inhabited villages and one un-inhabited village. The total population of Leh district is 1.17 lacs.

A simple map of Leh, Ladhak in relation to Pakistan, China and Tibet

It is governed by an Autonomous Hill Development Council under the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The capital of Ladakh is the beautiful city of Leh. Geographically, Ladakh is uniquely placed between the massive Himalayas and the Karakoram mountains. The Himalayas lie to its south while the Karakoram lie to its North. The historic Indus River runs through the terrain of Ladakh. During the winters, the valley remains cut off from the rest of the world. With an average bottom altitude of 4000m, it is one of the highest inhabited regions of the world

Ladhak ("land of high passes") is an extremely strategic part of India with Pakistan and China as neighbours. This area has suffered many wars and probably the most highly defended border in the world. The over powering but essential presence of the Indian Army is very evident in the entire area.

I made up my mind long ago to visit Leh and enjoy the beauty of the Himalayas. In 1982, as a part of ‘Defence Services Staff College- Wellington – Forward Area Tour programme, to understand the working of the Indian Army in High altitude, we visited Bombdila, Tawang, Tenge, Gangtok, Nathula and reached an altitude of 14790 ft . It was a great experience and I was then all of 33 years young. Having tasted the beauty of the Himalayas, it was then that I decided to visit Leh at least once in my life time. Even though I was posted to Naval Headquarters New Delhi from 1982 to 1985 and again from 1990 to 1995, I was unable to visit Leh due to a variety of reasons.

Somewhere in the month of August 2011, I started planning the ‘Leh visit’. Our dear friends - Kataria and Navin were to join us, but unfortunately they had to back out at the last moment. My dear friend Nair with his very vast network of friends was able to arrange our stay in Leh with the 603 EME Battalion. Kataria and Pahwa had taken care of our stay at Manali. Finally our sambhandi – Poonam Chadda and niece Nivedita – Chitti for short (‘butterfly’ in Telegu) very readily agreed to join us.

After carrying out research on the net we decided to approach Leh by road via Manali. Our daughter and S in L had done the same route some two years back and were all praises for it. Also, it would give us enough opportunity to get acclimatized on the way. Our original plan was to spend a night in Manali thereafter in Jispa and finally at Sarchu before making a landfall at Leh. Our decision to visit Leh in Sep/Oct was influenced by two important factors – Jai’s school closing on 26th September for the Dussehra holidays and more
importantly the monsoon retreating. At this time of the year, the sky over this area would be clear and chances of landslides and road blocks would be the least. As predicted, we had uninterrupted right of way throughout our journey.

We reached Delhi by air on 26th Sep and spent a night and day at Kats and
Naveen’s place, catching up with the usual stuff. Post breakfast we went to Ashok and Push for a bit of charge and lunch. Push dropped us at the bus stand and we departed at 1830 hrs for Manali in a Volvo bus. On hind sight I feel it would have been better to hire a comfortable car and take the journey in day light. This would have given us a glimpse of the country side of Haryana and Punjab, more flexibility in terms of where and when to stop and a good night’s rest.

Figure 1 - The gang with Kataria, Naveen and Tripti

Figure 2 – Dinner stop short of Ambala

Figure 3 - Sardar on his way to Ambala to deliver milk – 2AM

Manali - 28th and 29th Sep 

We finally reached Manali at 0830 hrs (14 hours in the Volvo) on 28th Sep. We were welcomed by our Inova driver ‘Sunny’ and taken to the Army transit camp at ‘Palchan’ which had a commanding view of the mountains.

Figure 4 - Army transit camp - Palchan

Manali, at the northern end of the Kulu Valley in Himachal Pradesh, is a hill station situated at a height of 2050 m (6398 ft) in the Himalayas. Situated on the Beas river (Vyaas in Hindi) and near its source, it is a popular tourist spot for Indians and International tourists in summer and a magical, snow-covered place in winter. A staging point for a number of treks (Beas Kund, Chandrakhani Pass) and with sports such as white-water rafting, Manali is also on the road to Ladakh via the valley of Lahaul and Spiti and Rohtang pass which is the main attraction near Manali.

The city is generally clean and well maintained. The valley is surrounded by imposing mountains and the view is simply grand. A sense of peace and tranquility descends on you and changes your character and makes you calm, quiet and patient. The motorist in the hill town – be it a car, lorry or tanker, so willingly give way to the uphill traffic – it’s really gratifying to watch this graceful behavior. There is a lot for city dwellers to learn from these simple hill folk. The only negative point I noticed, was the way in which cement structures have been allowed to come up in this hilly terrain - totally incongruous. Architectural styles, in conformity with the fabulous backdrop that nature has to offer, are totally absent and what one sees is haphazard growth. This phenomenon is not restricted to Manali alone – similar is the fate of Shimla, Musoorie, Darjeeling and Dehradun to name a few. Nature-friendly buildings in hill stations will evade India for a long time to come.

Figure 5 - Beas flowing next to the transit camp

The first sight of the snow capped White Mountains reminded me of Anna Hazare with his white cap – a symbol of purity, unlimited strength and standing tall amongst dwarfs.

Figure 6 - Anna Hazare’s White cap

Unfortunately we were not able to pluck apples straight from the tree as the last pick of the season was done by early September.
Seeing the sky full of bright parachutes, all the girls unanimously decided to ‘paraglide’. We went to the Himalayan Institute of Paragliding and did gliding with experienced pilots. The experience is exhilarating and leaves you with a sense of achievement. Once in the air, you feel like a bird – free to soar high, plunge down, drift or just float. Make up your mind and go ahead – an unforgettable experience. I must acknowledge the spirit of adventure of the girls, especially that of Jai and Poonam. At their age to go ‘Para Gliding’ is really a remarkable feat. Long live the brave. 

Figure 7 - Children practicing gliding at the base level

Figure 8 - Going up to the launch point by a rope way

Figure 9 - Jai about to land

Figure 10 - Words cannot explain the feeling

Figure 11 – Self - free floating - high on high

Figure 12 - Pilot executing a sharp maneuver


Figure 13 - A very bad and scary landing – walking back

Figure 14 - Poonam in the air

Figure 15 - Taking a ride in the motor buggy

Figure 16 - A glimpse of the town

Figure 17 - A Kulbi woman on a daily chore

The food in Manali is simple, yet tasty and good. We had a Punjabi meal in Gozy Resturaunt – I think it is Cozy with a local spelling. Came back to the camp for a bit of zzzzz. The girls went back to the town to pick up a few knick knacks to take back home. After a good rest and a hot bath, we all proceeded to the mess for dinner. We were fast asleep by 9.20 PM.

Figure 18 -Jai and Poonam watching Sunny prepare for the long drive

Manali – Jispa 29th Sep

A word of caution to all the readers of my blog, from now on it’s going to rain photographs. The beauty of the Himalayas is simply fascinating – compelling every traveler to shoot as many photographs as possible. The unique aspect of this terrain is the changing texture of the mountains. As we go winding up, the mountains change their face, colour, shape and size. Every time you look out of the window one sees a different rock face.

We decided to skip breakfast and left the transit camp by 0730 hrs. By end September, the foot fall decreases and the NH 21 is generally devoid of traffic.

Figure 19 - Off Manali. Last of the vegetation

Figure 20 - Shadows at play

Figure 21 - The climb starts

Figure 22 - In case your are stranded – bhel puri to your rescue

Figure 23 - Road block due to slush formed by landslides

Marhi onwards the roads are in a terrible shape. We got caught in a traffic jam – forcing our driver Sunny to remark that the ‘Border Roads Organization’ (BRO) is a corrupt and useless organization. He went on to claim that the BRO lets stream water flow onto the road on purpose and takes Rs 5000/=  from the drivers to push the vehicles. For the last 5 years the roads have not been maintained, forcing the tourist to use the ‘Srinagar – Kargil – Leh’ route instead. I understand that the locals went on a strike as their agri products were not reaching Manali on time due to bad roads. All this seems to have fallen on deaf ears and the road continues to be a nightmare. Considering the strategic importance of the road – this is certainly dereliction of duty on the part of BRO and the central government. I believe the Chinese on the other hand have an excellent 4 way road connecting their hinterland to the border and is open to the public.

Figure 24 - A daunting task - takes anywhere from 2 to 4 hours to clear the road.

Figure 25 - A BRO officer on task

Figure 26 - Trees and vegetation have given way to moss like growth on rock face

Figure 27 - An imposing rock

Figure 28 - Rohtang La camp

On the way to Jispa we passed through ‘Rohtang La’ situated at 13,500 ft.Thereafter we checked in at the Border Police outpost and surprisingly ours was the only car making it to Jispa for that day- A scary thought indeed.

Figure 29 - The gang at Rohtang La

Figure 30 - Yet another fascinating view from Rohtang La

Figure 31 - Shrine at the pass

Figure 32 - A shrine at Marhi

Within a short time we reached the settlement of Marhi and gorged ourselves on ‘Tandoor Alu Paratha’ ‘Desi Butter’ and ‘Curd’ at the ‘Manasrover Dhaba’. There was masala dosa, vada pau and bhel on the menu – that is national integration for you. The toilets, kitchen and the surroundings are clean – with abundance of running water from a nearby stream.

Figure 33 - Photo op with owner of Mansrover restaurant

Figure 34 - Yaks make their appearance

Figure 35 - Notice the gradual change in landscape

Figure 36 - Heavenly abode

Figure 37 - The road we traversed

Figure 38 - The winding loops

Figure 39 - Stop at Khoksar for tea

Figure 40 – Jai pleased with herself

Figure 41 - A local with her child

Figure 42 - Momos in the making

Figure 42 A - Poonam refreshed after momo and hot cup of tea

We stopped at Khoksar for tea. River Chandra, a tributary of the Indus, runs parallel to the road for a long distance. All through Khoksar, Kelong and up to Jispa, the locals grow potatoes and peas. The potatoes are a seed yielding variety and fetch Rs 1000/- for a bag of 25 Kgs. The Potatoes are sent mainly to Punjab. The indifferent attitude of the government towards maintenance of good roads, angers the otherwise calm and cool locals. After a brief halt at Kelong, we reached Jispa at 3.30 PM.

Figure 43 - A settlement at Khoksar

Figure 44 - Potato fields

Figure 45 - Incredibly fascinating

Figure 46 - Growing purple cabbage

Figure 47 - Apple orchards

Figure 48 – Mules- a common sight

Figure 49 - Brilliant shades of brown, red, green and white

Figure 50 - Desolately beautiful

Figure 51 - Settlement at Keylong

Figure 52 - Enjoying photography

Figure 53 - A hidden Shrine

Figure 54 - Greenery returns near Keylong

Figure 55 - River Bhaga running parallel to the road

Figure 56 - An imposing view of the mountain range

Figure 57 - Workers from Bihar - They are all over (not only in amchi Mumbai)

Figure 58 - Impossible to skip this view

Figure 59 - Chitty at peace with nature 

Jispa, located at 10.500 ft, is a small village along the Manali – Leh highway and the Bhaga River – another tributary of the Indus. The village has a medical centre (the doc was not there), helipad – the locals get to fly to Manali in any emergency for Rs 800/= a subsidized rate, a post office and a monastery. Travelers often stop here for the night to get acclimatized; the village has a hotel, a mountaineers' hut, and a campground. In all there are around 350 people in the village. A small and quaint village with imposing mountains all around and Bhaga River to add more charm.

We checked into Ibex hotel (always ask for rooms facing the river)– had lunch and slept for a while. In the evening I went for a small walk with my niece Chitty to explore the village. Met bikers from Delhi named ‘GODS’ - Group of Delhi Super bikers – rallying from Delhi to Leh. They do it on motor bikes over 1000cc, sponsored by Honda. Amongst them they had a doctor – our saving grace. Had a bottle of beer and a good dinner and went to sleep.

Figure 60 - As the sun sets

Figure 61 - A view of Bhaga from Ibex

Figure 62 - Chits with a local family

Figure 63 - After a hard day’s work

Around 1 pm, I suddenly woke up sweating and feeling hot all over and breathless. I had to sit up for nearly an hour to regain composure, before sleeping again. It was a difficult night and Jai had to also keep awake – in all, we did not sleep for long, as we had to get up at 5 AM. May be the 1 km walk or the solitary beer or the closed windows – whatever the reason – it was a cause for concern. It is reported that interrupted breathing happens whilst sleeping. Next morning I heard from Poonam and Chits that they also felt warm and had a disturbed sleep. The nose becomes extremely dry and becomes over sensitive. Jai and I also had heart burn throughout our trip – especially when climbing to a high altitude and also descending to lower heights. 

Wikitravel notes - At 6000 feet above sea level, you exhale and perspire twice as much moisture as you do at sea level. Over the course of a day, that is a lot of water, and can make a difference of a quart or more a day. At higher altitudes, it gets even more pronounced. Higher altitude means lower air pressure. This results in more rapid evaporation of moisture from skin surface, and from your lungs. Most high altitude areas are also very low in humidity, which means evaporation is further accelerated. The combination of those two factors means that the higher up you are, the more water you need to keep your body functioning.
Because of the disruption to oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in your blood due to the body chemistry changes and hyperventilation that occurs at altitude, your body's "when to breathe" chemical signals become confused. While you're awake you will remember to breathe, but when you sleep it is common to have interrupted breathing: holding your breath for up to fifteen seconds and then breathing very rapidly when you start breathing again. This can be very alarming when you wake up knowing that you weren't breathing or were short of breath; or when you notice someone else has stopped breathing. But it is a normal response to altitude, and happens to almost everyone. Acclimatization only improves it a little.

You need to drink a lot of water at high altitudes. We nominated Poonam to be the ‘Water Announcer’ every 30 min and all of us drank without fail. This procedure helped us a lot. You should have one person to keep reminding others to drink water as you don’t feel thirsty in cold weather.

The route we took from Manali to Leh via Jispa (Short of Dharcha)

Jispa to Leh – 30 Sep

We left Ibex at 0630 hrs as planned. We spoke to the GODS doctor prior to departure. He recommended that all of us take one tablet of ‘Diamox’ after lunch to help us cross the high passes without any problem. In any case they were also proceeding to Leh and would be in a position to provide assistance when required.

Another essential requirement when you undertake this leg of the journey is to carry one spare meal,biscut packets,chocolates,lots of water and a few packets of electrolyte solution.All this will come extremely handy in the event of a road block.  

We passed through Baralacha La (15255 ft), Nakila Pass (15547ft), Lachulung La (16,462 ft) and Tanglung La (17,071 ft - the third highest motorable road in the world) on the way to Leh.

The whole journey is one endless time travel in God’s own art gallery. The mountains continuously change their colour, with different hues of brown and grey, with an occasional White Mountain top. The air is extremely dry and the sky is crystal clear and deep blue. Nilgiris and the Western Ghats look like toys in comparison. One has to see the mountains to absorb their beauty – no amount of photographs or verbal explanation does any justice to their grandeur. The sun plays hide and seek as you travel and the shadow cast their own special effect on the mountains. As you drive along you realize that you are alone, surrounded by huge mountains, never ending stretch of winding and narrow roads, steep turns and gorges. The car ride from Sarchu to Leh is a unique experience, which I believe everyone must go through at least once in their life time.

Figure 64 - early morning at Ibex – Jispa

Jispa to Bharatpur

Figure 65 - Deepak Tal (Lake)

Figure 66 - River Bhaga continues

Figure 67 - Army workshop

Figure 68 - Sun starts its shadow play

Figure 69 - The clear sky and the brown mountains

Figure 70 – God’s artwork

Figure 71 - The red shrubs give a new meaning to the mountains

Figure 72 - BRO at work

Figure 73 – Clear blue on mountain high

Figure 74 - Another angle

Figure 75 - Snow in the distance

Figure 76 - Sudden change in the mountain terrain

Figure 77 - The road winding its way through the brown

Figure 78 - A different composition

Figure 79 - Yet another view

Figure 80 - A series of ranges

Figure 81 - Suraj Tal

Figure 82 - Suddenly snow from nowhere

Figure 83 - The best of browns

Figure 84 - It never ends

Figure 85 - yet another one

Figure 86 - The landscape gradually changing

Figure 87 - Brown with shades of grey

Figure 88 - Baralacha La (15255 ft)

Figure 89 - Stone formations at the pass

Figure 90 - The gang

We stopped at Bharatpur for breakfast in ‘Tasitile Dhabha’ located in a tent, which also serves as accommodation. For Rs 100/= you get a clean bed, pillows and a warm razai; the downside being   the open loo next to the river Beas.  These tents are well equipped with gas, kerosene burners and provide hot breakfast, lunch and dinner. The ground temperature was 0 deg and one could see traces of frost. After passing Baralacha La (15255 ft) we crossed Sarchu (13,850 ft) at 10 AM. After Sarchu, the state of Jammu and Kashmir starts and soon the Gata Loops happen - a succession of 21 hair pin bends - a remarkable sight.

Figure 91 - Inside the cozy tent

Figure 92 - Jai and Poonam after a good Breakfast

Figure 93 - With the Nepali owners

Bharatpur to Nakeela

Figure 94 - Back to the Browns

Figure 95 - The landscape becomes drier

Figure 96 - Totally different view - The Blue is mesmerising

Figure 97 - Some parts do have good roads

Figure 98 - Natural formation in the rocks near Khalse en route to Hundar

Figure 99 – Natural formations-looks like an ancient excavation site

Figure 100 – Shrines dot the terrain throughout the trip

Figure 101 -  River Bhaga takes a different hue due to white sand

Figure 102 - The formations continue

Figure 103 - Another view of the river

Figure 104 - The dynamics of mountain and river

Figure 105 - A very lonely stretch

Figure 106 - Simply amazing – so many colours

Figure 107 - Finally the Ibex

Figure 108 - The 21 Gata loops

Figure 109 - One cannot ask for more from nature

Figure 110 - At the loops

Figure 111 - An idea called 'Road"

We then passed through Nakeela Pass (15547ft). I suddenly developed slight head pain – the gums start aching a bit – slight throb in the temple region – the nose dries up very fast – and you begin to breathe heavily. Both Jai and I used to develop ‘heart burn’ while climbing and also when descending to lower heights. As we had taken ‘Diamox’ we had to alight from the car very often to urinate – this in itself was an arduous task. None of the girls seemed to like Diamox.

Figure 112 - At Nakeela – No one wanted to get down

Figure 113 - At 16,616 - Lachulung La

Figure 114 - Very desolate and barren

Figure 115 - Where is the road?

Figure 116 – Practically non-existent roads- a frightening and chilling part of the journey

Figure 117 - Glaciers starting to form

Figure 118 – Another scary patch

Figure 119 –just us and the mountains

Another important facet of travelling in high altitude is its effect on speech. At 11,000 ft I could hear the girls talk endlessly, gossip, debate, sing songs, narrate jokes and the rest. As one climbs higher the decibel level slowly drops and at 14,000 ft one hears only grunts and monosyllabic replies and at 18,000 ft there is total silence – you hear nothing but the constant whining of the car engine. One does not require an ‘altimeter’ to indicate the height.
We thereafter stopped at ‘Pang’ for lunch. Some had hot Maggie – a very popular dish in these parts. I had hot and tasty rice, dal, chapatti and sabzi. Fortunately appetite is not affected due to high altitude. All these tent settlements were preparing to wind up and shift to Manali for the winter – we were probably the last of the tourists to make use of their facility.

Figure 120 - With the locals outside the tent – Pang

The Indian Army is present in a big way in Pang. They also have a helipad and an MI Room. 
After Pang we crossed More Plains, a 40Km stretch of absolutely flat plateau. The plains are really awesome to drive through – a unique geographical phenomenon – wonderful but scary – the desolate look of the plains is enough to give you goose pimples.

Figure 121 –The incredible 'More Plains'

Figure 122 – Tanglung La (17,071 ft) Nobody wanted to step out of the car

Figure 123 - A clearer view from Tanglung La (17,071 ft)

The overall journey was interesting and tiresome – by air to Delhi, 14 hrs in a Volvo to Manali, 8 hrs to Jispa and finally another 13 hrs to Leh in an Inova was indeed a very tight schedule. The journey from Jispa to Leh was a unique experience - something I will cherish for a very long time to come. The imposing mountains, the ever changing landscape, crystal clear rivers, and an omnipresent deep blue sky makes the travel even more fascinating.

Driving in these parts requires special skills and our driver 'Sunny' had it in good measure.One cannot afford to make the slightest of mistakes - any deviation means certain disaster.Sitting next to the driver I could not have a shut eye even for a second - I did some continuous small talk with Sunny throughout the journey.The more plains was god send and i told Jai to keep awake and did some serious ZZzzzz for an hour. Inova was very comfortable for the four of us - avoid having more than five passengers.

We reached our new home - 603 EME Battalion, located 35 KM from Leh – Lt Col Alok and Maj Nagendra received us at the officer’s mess and ensured, we quickly settled down in our cabins. Brig Sanjay Prasad from the HQ welcomed us to Leh and asked us to spend the next day acclimatizing ourselves to the high altitude. After a hot bath and a lovely dinner we retired for the night.

Figure 124 - Finally the 603 EME Battalion Officers’ Mess Karu Leh – Indian Army

Figure 125 - The sun sets on the camp

1st Oct – At Karu

We spent the entire day in the mess – sat outside and soaked in vitamin D and read PG Wodehouse ‘Clicking of Cuthbert’. All of us took it easy and did nothing more strenuous than operating the TV remote.

If you’re planning a trip, please read about Leh from the net– its weather,
climate, roads, do’s and don’ts and especially about high altitude sickness. You
are also advised to read- - the “Official Website of Ladakh 
Autonomous Hill Development Council, Leh”. The site is extremely useful and informative.

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