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India: Jammu and Kashmir: Hunder, Leh, Pangong Lake, Thiksey
Leh, Ladakh, India: Beautiful beast
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief
Rugged can indeed be beautiful too. The district of Ladakh is a fine example. Ladakh, literally means ‘The Land of High Passes’. It is the highest plateau of state of Jammu & Kashmir with much of it being over 3,000 metres. It spans the Himalayan and Karakoram mountain ranges and the upper Indus River valley.
Leh, with a population of just over 250,000 is the largest town of Ladakh and is the only place (save for Kargil – the second largest town of Ladakh) were one can see humanity in reasonable numbers. Otherwise, Ladakh which also happens to be the second largest district of India (the first being Kutch in Gujarat) is a terrain of rocky mountains, snowy peaks, serpentine hill roads, monasteries and chortens.
I was leading a group of family and friends. Our group’s 6-day mission was to soak in the experience the beautiful land offers. When people have time on hand (about 2 weeks) and are also adventurous they would prefer driving all the way up. The typical route will be from Chandigarh then passing through the valleys and slopes of Himachal Pradesh and finally into Jammu & Kashmir.
Since time was a constraint to many of our group members, the next best thing to do was to land in Leh. The town has a functional airport (given the terrain’s strategic location, the airport is under the strict control of the Indian defense force) and is well connected with New Delhi.
People travelling by road automatically get acclimatized by the time they reach Leh. Those flying directly need to rest for at least a day before indulging in any activities. Lack of oxygen at high altitude may not go well with many. Of course, there are medicines that are advised to combat Acute Mountain Sickness. The drug Diamox is highly recommended. A tablet each day for a couple of days before landing and a couple of days thereafter is advisable. Then of course, there are typical dos and don’ts which travelers need to take heed.
We landed in Leh at 10AM. Ground services were arranged by Vconnect Travel and Holidays, my business associates. They are based in Pune and did a wonderful job for us. At our disposal were Innova MU vehicles. To keep ourselves comfortable, we opted for only 4 (as against the standard 5) in each vehicle. We were 20 of us. 5 vehicles did the trick. The vehicles were very well maintained. I am specially making this point because the conditions of most of the roads have the ability to ruin the happiness of vehicles. The drivers need a special mention too. Each of the 5 drivers were absolute experts. My driver’s name was Tashi. He had a great sense of humour and better skills at driving. Despite the treacherous (and sometimes dangerous culverts) road, we were always at peace. The exchange of road courtesy between drivers of passing vehicles was good to see.
For the next 2 nights we were booked at Hotel Grand Himalaya. This is a very nice property with excellent views. Above all, the service was very good. Food was delicious too. The hotel’s owner, Dr Zia Darokhan took extra efforts in making us all very comfortable. Be aware that hotels in the region don’t have air conditioners and fans – they are not needed. But of course there are heaters. We were there in the month of July. Being summers, we actually would have welcomed fans. So be it.
My room on the 3rd floor offered views of Khardungla Top on one side and the Stok Peak from the other. Not to forget the view of Leh Palace. I couldn’t have asked for more. After lunch we all rested. That was the advise in any case. Since all were feeling comfortable, at 5PM we ventured out. Our first stop was Shanti Stupa.
Shanti Stupa is a Buddhist white-domed stupa (chorten) on a hilltop in Chanspa near Leh. It was built in 1991 by Japanese Buddhist Bhikshu Gyomyo Nakamura . The Shanti Stupa holds the relics of the Buddha at its base, enshrined by the 14th Dalai Lama himself. The stupa has become a tourist attraction not only due to its religious significance but also due to its location which provides panoramic views of the surrounding landscape.
Up there is a little restaurant that offers excellent iced-tea. Do give it a try. Sipping the magic, overlooking the landscape around is a great experience. So engaged were we at the location that we decided to skip our visit to Leh Palace that evening. Instead, we immersed into the beautiful sunset that was pouring gold over the snow-capped peaks. I was so fascinated with the view, that I made it a point to capture the sunrise the next morning. That meant, setting the alarms for 4:30 AM!
From Shanti Stupa we visited the Leh market. While folks were busy shopping souvenirs and apricots (fresh and dried) I was busy walking the tiny by-lanes in the old town. It indeed had character. By 8PM we were at the hotel. It was dinner and early to bed.
While rest of my group snored, my son Anuj and I were in our cars at 5AM the next morning. By 5:15 we were at Shanti Stupa… waiting for the sun to show up. It did in full majesty. The next one hour was picture taking. By the time we reached our hotel it was 7. Time to get ready, finish breakfast and leave for Sangam (confluence of River Indus and River Zanskar).
Sangam falls on national highway 1 that connects Leh with Srinagar. It’s an hour’s drive to the confluence. From the confluence, we drove for about 17 kms along River Zanskar. From here we had the option to river raft all the way down to the confluence. Almost everyone in our group decided to raft barring me. Photography was my objective and I had no intentions to drown my equipment.
The cost per person for rafting was Rs 1200. It included the rafting gear and a working lunch at the end of the 60-minute adventure.
Post rafting and lunch we turned back to Leh. On the way we made stops to explore Hall of Fame (museum constructed by the Indian army); Gurudwara Pathar Sahib; the gravity-defying magnetic hill (so strong is the magnetic force that the vehicle gets pulled up on its own; trust me, I tried it); the Spituk Manastery and the Leh Palace.
About 1km beyond the airport terminal on the Spituk–Kargil road, the Hall of Fame museum has exhibits on display on Ladakhi culture and the war with Pakistan over the disputed Siachen Glacier. There’s an entry fee of just Rs 10 per person. Visitors get the opportunity to see a film on various battles and the heroics and the supreme sacrifices made by the Indian army. Very well built and maintained, a visit is highly recommended. There’s a souvenir shop too.
Spituk Monastery, also known as Spituk Gompa or Pethup Gompa, is a Buddhist monastery about 8 kms from Leh. The site of Spituk was blessed by the Arhat Nyimagung. It was founded by Od-de, the elder brother of Lha Lama Changchub Od when he came to Maryul in the 11th Century. He introduced the monastic community. When Lotsewa Rinchen Zangpo (translator) came to that place he said that an exemplary religious community would arise there and so the monastery was called Spituk. During the time of Dharma raja Gragspa Bum-Ide the monastery was restored by Lama Lhawang Lodos and the stainless order of Tsonkhapa was introduced and it has remained intact since then. Founded as a Red Hat institution, the monastery was taken over by the Yellow Hat sect in the 15th century. The monastery houses 100 monks and a giant statue of Goddess Kali which is unveiled during the annual Spitok festival.
Leh Palace overlooks town of Leh - quite like its guardian. Modelled on the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, the palace was built by King Sengge Namgyal in the 17th century, but was later abandoned when Dogra forces took control of Ladakh in the mid-19th century. The royal family moved to Stok Palace. Leh Palace is nine storeys high; the upper floors accommodated the royal family. The stables and store rooms were in the lower floors. The palace, a ruin, is currently being restored by the Archaeological Survey of India. The palace is open to the public and the roof provides panoramic views of Leh and the surrounding areas. There's an entry fee of Rs 5 for Indian nationals and Rs 100 for foreigners.
A day well spent called for a good night’s sleep. After an early breakfast we would leave for Pangong Lake the next morning. Enroute, we made stops at the Rancho School (made famous in the movie 3 idiots) and Shey Palace.
The Shey Monastery or Gompa and the Shey Palace complex are structures located on a hillock in Shey, 15 kilometres to the south of Leh on Leh-Manali road. Shey was the summer capital of Ladakh in the past. The palace, mostly in ruins now, was built first in 1655, near Shey village, by the king of Ladakh, Deldan Namgyal, also known as Lhachen Palgyigon. It was used as a summer retreat by the kings of Ladakh. The Shey Monastery was also built in 1655 on the instructions of Deldon Namgyal, in the memory of his late father, Singay Namgyal, within the palace complex. The monastery is noted for its giant copper with gilded gold statue of a seated Shakyamuni Buddha. Shakyamuni Buddha is so named since Buddha was the sage of the Sakya people who resided in the Himalayan foothills and their capital was Kapilvastu. It is said to be the second largest such statue in Ladakh.
Leh Image Gallery Photo viewer
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