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Wednesday, 8 July 2015

To the Top of the World, and Beyond: Ladakh Trip Part 1

Nestled between the lofty ranges of the Kunlun to the north and Himalayas to the south, Ladakh, in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, is one of the highest plateaus in the world. Owing to its strategic location at the juncture of three international borders - those of India, Pakistan and China - the region has had its share of a tumultuous past. Notwithstanding its long volatile history of political conflicts, Ladakh is today one of the most scenic and breathtakingly beautiful places that one can visit in India, and possibly, the world.

The pink region is Ladakh.

The best season to visit Ladakh is either during the months of May-June or just after the monsoons, in August-October. During the monsoons, the rains wreak havoc on an already unstable geography and the snowfalls and blizzards during the winter prove to be a massive impedance.

The two most iconic places to see in Ladakh are the Nubra valley, which requires you to cross the world's highest motorable pass - the draconian Khardung La - at an eye-watering 18300 feet above sea level; and two, the Pangong Tso, which is, till date, the most beautiful water body I've seen in my life.

The journey to Nubra Valley is pretty straight-forward but exhausting. You can land at Leh airport and then take a car or a motorcycle across the epic pass, and on to the valley. Or, you take one of the legendary road-trips from either Manali or Srinagar to Leh, cross Khardung la and then reach the valley. Inclement weather conditions can cause the pass to be closed off at any time, so in case you are attempting the trip, be prepared for setbacks and disappointments.

From the moment you land at Leh airport, the natural beauty of Ladakh dazzles you. From the air, it looks, at first, like a barren wasteland, which quickly gives way to a smattering of greenery. When you get off the aircraft and enter the town of Leh, the first thing you notice is how ubiquitous the snow-peaks are. You stand in the middle of the bazaar and look around - and you'll find snow peaks in every direction.

Just before touchdown at Leh airport

Leh isn't the cleanest of towns, but it does have a number of wonderful restaurants - from German bakeries and pizza joints to tandoor corners and coffee shops.

Thiksey monastery, near Leh

Downtown Leh, after sunset

The trip from Leh to Nubra valley takes around 4-5 hours, provided the pass isn't closed. If it gets closed, which is often the case, the travel time could go up to upwards of 10 hours. In the worst case, you may have to turn around and head back to Leh again.

If you're fortunate, the Leh-Nubra journey can prove to be one of the most memorable journeys of your life. The road, which is, in parts smooth, and in other parts woeful, gives you chills every time your car goes round a blind corner. The amount of snow around you increases steadily, till at the very top of the pass, the road looks like nothing more than clearances that are made through blankets of snow. Once you've crossed Khardung la, the snow reduces and by the time you reach Nubra valley, you'll only be treated to distant snowy peaks in the horizon again.

The roads were treacherous, and the snow kept increasing...

... till...

... it was...

...all around us!

At the very top.

Roads carved out through a blanket of snow!
Nubra Valley is a sight to behold. It's picturesque in every sense of the word. You click a picture anywhere around you, and you might feel deceived by your own photography skills. It's beautiful. It's stupendous. And in the morning sunshine, when you creep out of your tent in the near-freezing temperatures, the sunlight glistening off the tops of the snow capped mountains, and their reflections in the water bodies in front of you simply take your breath away. The brilliant blue of the sky, with the sparkling peaks propped against it seems surreal. Almost like an artificial set for some fantasy movie.

It is advisable to spend at least one night at Nubra Valley - because a return trip on the same day, which would involve traversing the treacherous pass twice on the same day, could prove to be too arduous for most people. Also, the morning beauty of the valley is something that you definitely shouldn't miss.

Pretty ...
.. picturesque, ..

... and pristine.

The trip back isn't routine, because it involves a short detour through Hunder - famous for its rocky desert scape and the rather unusual, twin-humped and woolly camels. You can opt to go on a camel ride, but it will cost you - more so than monetarily - physically. You'll be left clutching your poor buttocks for quite some time after the ride.

sand dunes of the cold desert at Hunder

sparse vegetation. See how quickly the landscape changed from snowy mountains to a shrubby desert?

twin-humped woolly camel rides!

The most amazing aspect of the trip to and from Nubra is how smoothly and beautifully, the landscape changes. Mountains, snow, valleys, rocks, deserts and so on. The fact that human intervention in these areas is still tightly controlled by the fine folks of the Indian Army and the Border Roads Organization, has managed to keep it in the pristine state that it is at the moment. My fear is that such good conditions won't last, and it's best to plan a trip early, if you intend to enjoy the sheer, unspoilt beauty of the region.

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Part 2 : The Amazing Pangong Tso in the next post.

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All pictures clicked on a OnePlus One camera. 

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