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Kashmir Part II: Kargil - Leh - Khardung La - Diskit - Nubra valley - Leh trip in August 2013

I always had grant plans for a Leh / Ladakh visit - right from the days I started doing bike trips way back in 2001. But, is it not true for anybody who loves travelling? The problem for me was that the plans were too grant. Firstly, I could not think of any ways to visit Leh / Ladakh other than riding a bike all the way from Bangalore! Surely, I would have needed a lot of leaves and even more of planning to do this and needless to say it never happened!

Taking a flight and hiring a cab (with driver) from the airport was not considered an acceptable way to visit any place within India until recently - till I did a few trips which followed this model (including a Jaipur / Udaipur trip in November 2010). In May 2012, we had our first Himalaya trek (to Saurkundi) which piqued a lot of interest in revisiting those snow covered mountain ranges. We decided to do more of Himalayan visits in the coming years, come what may.

A Leh / Ladakh trip was naturally a must-do and Amit / Priya suggested that we hire a taxi and do this. Preethu and me had apprehensions about hiring a vehicle for this as we always had this mental picture of driving up this terrain! But, eventually, we decided to be practical and visit Leh / Ladakh in whatever way possible, rather than keep dreaming about a road trip which may not happen easily.

Amit, Preethu and Priya took care of planning the itinerary as I always wanted to 'discover' new places on the go (hmmmm ... nice excuse :)!). We decided on a two week plan and Amit managed to get direct flight tickets to Chandigarh for all four of us. He also contacted some travel agents and booked a Xylo to ferry us around. Leaves were also taken well in advance and soon we were counting days!

A full itinerary was chalked up, which began with visits to Amritsar for the golden temple and a day each around Srinagar and Kargil, before reaching Leh. At Leh, we had plans to do seperate day trips to Khardung La / Nubra valley, Pangong and Tso Moriri. The later two may possibly be on our way to Rohtang, from where we will head to Manali and then to Chandigarh. Accomodation was also booked in some of the places and we were carrying tents as well, in case it was not available at the rest of the places!

We met up at the Bangalore airport on a saturday morning and went through the usual last minute hurry burry. This time, we had a few kgs extra luggage and had to pay for that. Also, everybody forgot the print-out of e-ticket and we had to get it printed again. But, things generally went well for us after that - we were picked up by the Xylo soon after landing in Chandigarh. The Xylo and our driver - Sriram - managed to negotiate the mountainous terrain without much trouble. The first leg of our Kashmir trip went as planned and we stayed over at Amritsar, Srinagar (two nights) and Sankoo (near Kargil), before heading towards Leh on NH1D.

Kargil town
A glance back at Kargil

Past Kargil town, we were soon at the ghat section, gaining altitude as we started snaking our way up the ghat section. On our one side was river Indus and a green patch around it. As we took one of the hair-pin bends, we got a good view of the Kargil town, with a few barren mountains in the back-drop. A few more turns later, the view was lost - all we could see now was the endless layers of mountains aheda of us.

Dry and barren land
Parched and barren land

It was a warm and sunny day, complete with "bright blue skies and the cotton clouds" - pardon the expression that I keep using, but is there a better way of summarizing this! As the day progressed though, the "warm" switched to "hot". Let us make no mistakes about this - we were already in Ladakh region often listed among the most beautiful places on earth. The endless layers of mountains all around us, some of them snow-capped, coupled with the "bright blue skies and the cotton clouds" would surely qualify as amazing landscape. The only problem is that when you look closely at most of the mountains, they were barren, covered with dry brown soil and devoid of any greenery - more like a desert. Having come from a state which is mostly verdant green, I could not help thinking "what-might-be" if these mountains were covered in a layer of green!

We had enough time to reach Leh - which meant that there were frequent photo stops as well. The mountain-scape, even though barren, was quite interesting with varying shades of brown and unique shapes of the hills. Most of the mountains in this area looked like eroding, thus forming sharp structures atop.

The Kargil - Leh highway (the NH1D) cuts through the Zanskar ranges via the two mountain passes: Namika La and Fotu La. The first to come was Namika La - at about 3700m altitude, after which the winding roads started descending for a while. There was some more ascend soon, eventually taking us to the highest point of Fotu La - at about 4100m.

Sand columns before Fotu La
Through years of carving ...

Soon after Namika La, a tributary of Indus river joined the NH1D and the landscape changed dramatically. It was quite a spectacle to see the river carving its way through the mountains, forming deep canyons and ravines. Something that particularly caught my eye was the column-like sedimentary rock formations. They looked like the cone-shaped sand columns which forms underneath stones, when water seeps through a pile of sand. But, in reality, they were made of rock formed through thousands of years of weathering process! I could not help remembering the saying "Water is mightier than rocks!". A small stream hardly affects the rocks, but years and years of persistence flow will ensure that water always win in the end.

near Fotu La
A break near the mountains!

The road left the river for a while as we snaked around a mountain near Fotu La. As we gained altitude, layers and layers of mountains showed up all around us. The mountains, once again, looked barren with the road snaking around it. Past Fotu La, we descended back towards the river, through a series of hairpin bends. As we approached the river, there were signs of a landslide and a newly constructed bridge across it.

The river had eked out a narrow ravine in between the mountains and the road followed its left banks. As we gradually descended down from the high-lands, the color of the rocks changed from brownish to slight pinkish. This was reflected in the color of the river, as it eroded these rocks and deposited pink-hued mud along the banks. As the river snaked its way around the mountains and we followed it along this ravine, the color of the rocks kept changing - dark red, yellow ... etc etc - and the river eventually settled down to a reddish brown hue.

Through most of the journey, we had encountered roads in very good condition and it will be a crime not to acknowledge the wonderful work by our Border Roads Organization (BRO). Even with generous help from nature carving a way through those mountains, it would be some effort to keep those roads motorable. Land slides and flash floods being a frequent occurance, keeping these roads in near-pristine state could not be an easy task.

Eventually, we reached a 'seemingly-level' ground, with mountains all around us. It was past 3 by then and all this while, we had not seen any eateries. Just when the hunger was becoming unbearable, we spotted a small 'dhaba', serving yummy phulkas and a good choice of curries. Amit, Priya and Sriram were particularly happy as they had a welcome relief from the extremely non-veg restaurants we had encountered in Kargil - Srinagar areas.

Next to the 'dhaba', there was another newly constructed bridge (marked as Sanjai bridge) and we crossed over to the right side of the river. A little more ahead, the river joined the Indus, carrying cleaner water from the north. One more bridge followed and we crossed over again to the left side of the river, after taking a short break to dip our feets in Indus. We continued along the river side for some more time before going away to be back amidst mountains.

Preethu and Priya en route Leh
Black tops, brown mountains and blue sky

I dozed off a bit and woke up by about 5, to find ourselves moving on a smooth black-top road amidst the dark-brown hued mountain ranges. We were near the famed magnetic hill and soon spotted a board which marks the exact location where the vehicles are believed to be pulled uphill! We stopped by there and kept the vehicle in neutral and noticed it starting to move. But, we were not very convinced that the Xylo was indeed going uphill! I later read that this was nothing but an optical illusion as the horizon is blocked here affecting our sense of slope[1].

Indus valley
Deserts of Indus valley!

The Indus river made a re-appearance as we were approaching Leh and looked much more voluminous than what we saw earlier. It was more of a far-away view, but still made a majestic spectacle with streams carving the faces of most of the nearby mountains. Combined with the evening light, it formed beautiful shadows resembling a desert landscape.

Soon, we were in Leh town, searching for our accomodation. Amit called up the hotel he had booked and got the directions to reach the hotel, located at Upper Changspa. There was some confusion with our booking but Amit finally managed to get two good rooms at the Solpon guest house.

The lady who managed the place asked us to provide details about the places we were planning to visit around Leh. She arranged for a person to go to the Leh DC office next day morning itself and get us the Inner Line Permit required to visit most places around Leh[2]. But, we were told that this could happen only by 11 at the earliest, thus delaying our start for the next day.

Our plan was to visit Khardung La and Nubra valley on the following day, before reaching back to Leh on the next day. After this, we wanted to go to Pangong and Tso Moriri lakes before heading back to Chandigarh via Manali. Our host advised us to spend a day in Leh to ensure that we are acclimatized before venturing out to higher altitude regions like Khardung La. But, we did not have enough days for this and decided to take our chances.

In the night, we walked around the Leh town before getting in to a random restaurant for a good dinner. While walking around the town, Amit talked to a travel agent who promised to get the permit done in the night itself. But, this turned out to be a bogus promise in the end and we decided to stick with the person arranged by the host.

Next day, we started late and picked yet another random hotel for breakfast. But, there was too much delay and we ended up waiting in the restaurant for almost an hour, without getting anything. By then, we got a call with the news that the Inner Line Permit is ready - we eventually cancelled the order and rushed to the DC office.

Before heading to Khardung La road, we managed to have some juice for breakfast. Since, there are hardly any main towns towards Nubra valley, we had to ensure that all required items were acquired. First, we managed to get some parathas and noodles packed for lunch. Next in the list was some medicines for high altitude sickness - considering the high altitude passes that we were going to go through and the lack of acclimatization at Leh, this was heavily recommended by many. I still had my doubts and decided to stay away from it, but the rest of the gang decided not to take any chances!

We were also looking for an ATM, but soon realized that there were very few ATMs in Leh and all of them were either out of cash or crowded! Even though we had some money, getting some more cash was important to ensure that we dont end up with empty wallets en route. Finally, we found a working ATM and persisted with a long queue. Just before our turn, a lady cut the queue and jumped ahead of us claiming that she was in 'ladies-queue', which was separate! Hmmm... why did I not ask Preethu to take the money then!

The last stop was at a HP outlet just outside Leh. We had to get a fill of diesel as well and the outlet was totally packed with vehicles. Filling diesel at Leh was a must as there were no other fuel stations ahead - although diesel is available in cans at some of the small towns, it may not be a good idea to depend on it. So, a long wait at the fuel station could not be avoided at all. Finally, by the time we headed out, it was past 12.

Khardung La road
Boulders all around us

Road to Khardung La was barren - typical of the Ladakhi terrain. In this area though, the hills looked more eroded, with piles of small boulders on either side of the road. It looked like land slides were a common occurances here. As we snaked up the hill, the entire mountain slopes were strewn with boulders of different sizes. Once again we had to thank BRO as a lot of maintenance effort seems to be going to keeping the road motorable.

Xylo at Khardung La
Heading to Khardung La

The thrill in riding to Khardung La is from the claim that the mountain pass is the highest motorable pass in the world at an elevation of ~5600m (~18380ft)[3]. The pass is only open for about 6 months (usually May to October) and covered by snow in the remaining months. Even during the time when the pass is open, incidents of landslides and long road blocks were quite common. A long delay at Khardung La would mean that we may not be able to make it to Nubra valley by night fall. Especially since we did not have any accomodation booked for the night, this was not a very nice thought. We did have a tent packed for emergency, but it was best not to let it come to that.

Road to Khardung
Winding up the hills

By about 2.30 we were close to Kardung La top and joined a long line of vehicles waiting for traffic to clear. Amit and I stepped out of the Xylo to take a few pictures, when the traffic started moving slowly. We were right behind the Xylo and followed the vehicle for a while hoping to catch up at some point of time. But, traffic kept moving and we had to speed up as it was tough to stop the Xylo and wait for us, which could have caused a traffic jam. This went on for almost half a km - jogging at this altitude was not so easy as we figured out the hard way :) - and I was panting heavily by the time we managed to catch up with the Xylo!

As we were running out of time, we did not stop at Khardung La top - but I did manage to note down the sign boards saying "Khardung La top - World's highest motorable road 18380ft". But, the GPS instrument I was carrying showed a lower altitude (about 300m less). At that point, I believed that it was an instrument error, but later realized that the correct altitude of Khardung La is closer to what the GPS showed and the claim of 'highest motorable road' is disputed[3].

Already late, we had to cut out all the stops and try to reach Nubra valley before dark. In the next hour or so, we descended down the hill towards Khardung / North Pullu. Preethu fell a bit ill - possibly the high altitude sickness we were warned about, causing head ache and vomitting - and started saying that she wanted to go back home! It took me a while to console her and eventually she slept off for a while. Even when we stopped to open up the lunch packets, she refused to eat anything. I was just hoping that she will be better after waking up.

Tsolding Buddha park
Valley of Tsolding

While negotiating the last few hair pin bends, we could see the Tsolding Buddha Park - a small lake with a small building at the centre hosting a Buddha statue on top of it. The landscape changed totally with a few streams leading up to this lake and a good amount of greenery to go with it.

As we approached the lake, we spotted a cat-sized animal around this area, which I suspected to be beavers. These animals looked quite chubby with a yellowish-brown fur which turns a darker shade around the face. Later, we realized that these were Himalayan Marmots, a member of the Rhodent family and a relative of Beavers. Just past the lake there was a stream and a herd of Yaks. Due to the presence of the lake and the stream, the valley around it looked quite green, explaining the presence of the fauna.

Canyons near Khardung
Grand canyon of Khardung!

The greenery was more pronounced and pleasing as we approached the Khardung village, after which, the road started descending again, with a stream towards our right. The mountains started looking barren again, with many a small streams carving creases on them. This stream would eventually descend towards the Shyok / Nubra valley, formed by the silt and sand deposited by the numerous tributaries of Shyok river (including the Nubra river) through centuries of erosion.

We passed by the Shyok river before reaching a 3-way junction with sign boards pointing to Diskit and Hunder towards our left and Terith and Panamic to the right. We decided to go to Diskit, which had the best chance of finding an accomodation. The road towards Panamic, follows the Nubra river upstream towards the Siachen glacier and the Karakoram ranges which hosts some of the tallest mountain peaks in the world (including K2, Gasherbrum I, Broad Peak and Gasherbrum II).

On the other hand, the road to Diskit continues towards Turtuk, a village just south of the LoC. This road cuts right through the banks of Shyok, with the silt and sand deposited by the river all around us. I was lost looking at the varying shades seen at the mountain ranges all around us. Hues ranging from yellowish brown to a dark shade of red and even shades of purple were visible here. With a deep blue sky and the golden rays of evening sun playing hide and seek through the clouds, this place looked quite magical!

Soon, we headed towards higher ground and it was getting darker now. In about 20 minutes, we were in Diskit town and looking for possible accomodation. Without much of an effort, we landed in front of 'Mantok Guest House' and were told that the guest house is available for tonight! The owner of the house and family was staying in his ancestral house right next to the guest house. The guest house was a new construction and beautifully built - more than what we could ask for!

Preethu was sleeping for most of the time and was still not feeling well. So, she quickly headed to the room and the bed, while the rest of us assembled back at the hall where the dinner was getting ready. I picked up a few items back to the room for Preethu to have an early dinner and had to force-feed her something before she hit the bed again.

Back in the hall, our host overwhelmed us with his hospitality. The food was nice, home-made and hot - just what we wanted. He also explained us about the places to see around Diskit. As we had to get back to Leh on the next day, we could not have travelled much and Turtuk was out of question. We could just go to Hunder to get a feel of the sand dunes of Nubra valley and head back. Our host also recommended a visit to the Diskit Gompa, which hosted a 100ft tall Buddha statue at the top (known as the Maithreya Buddha).

The chat became very interesting when he took us around the house and showed us some of his ancestral collections, including some vintage crockery and knives. He explained that the guest house was named after his elder daughter Mantok (which means rose), who studies at a boarding school in Leh. He looked especially proud and dotting while showing us a cabinet full of medals - all won by Mantok.

Morning was beautiful as we got ready before 8. Preethu was much better after a good night's sleep and we walked around the guest house, adorned with flowers and even an apple tree ready for picking. A few pictures were taken and we soon said goodbye to our wonderful host. At Diskit town, we picked up a small restaurant, which served us parathas for breakfast. A little later, we were back on Diskit - Turtuk highway heading towards Hunder.

Just outside Diskit, the river valley and the sand dunes were visible to our right. Technically, the river flowing by Hunder is Shyok, but the confluence of Nubra (also called Siachen river) and Shyok rivers is surrounded by sand dunes and Hunder is right next to this. The multi-hued mountains all around us and the sand dunes forming varying patterns combined for a very interesting landscape.

@ Nubra valley
Reflections everywhere!

Preethu @ Nubra valley
Desert rose ;)

We got down towards Hunder, parked the Xylo at the river bank and walked towards the sand dunes. There were numerous small rivulets - all part of Shyok - making their way through the sand dunes. Water was all around us in the form of beautiful puddles reflecting the brigh blue skies and the awesome cotton clouds. I was soon engrossed with the camera, trying to capture some of this awesomeness.

Bactrian Camels
Would you like a ride?

A little far away we could see a herd of domesticated Bactrian Camels, offering short rides for the tourists. These species of camels are quite rare and unique due to its double-hump. Though we were not much interested in taking a ride, a photo session with the herd was an absolute must!

Maithreya Buddha
Majestic Buddha & the majestic hills

By the time we headed back, it was past 11. As suggested by our host at Mantok guest house, we took a detour to visit the Maithreya Buddha at Diskit Gompa. The Gompa was situated at the top of a hill, with typically winding roads leading up to it. The giant statue of Maithreya Buddha was colorful and the place also offered a good view of the surroundings.

Preethu and Priya at Shyok river banks
Modelling at the banks of Shyok

Post 12, we were back on the highway and leisurely heading back towards Khardung La. We took a few breaks en route, including a long one at the road passing through the sandy banks of Shyok. Since Preethu was not well on our way to Diskit, she was all wide-eyed looking at the various colors adorning the rocks here.

By about 1.30 we were at Khalsar, where we crossed a stream tumbling through a path strewn with round stones. It looked like a tributary of Shyok on its way to the Shyok valley. There were a few restaurants on the road side and we picked up one of them. As expected, there were not too many options - but Amit and Priya managed to get some plain parathas and vegetable curry, Preethu opted for noodles and I decided to go for a Thupka (a Ladakhi noodle soup).

By 2.30, we were back on the road winding up a hill and moving away from the Shyok river. At the 2nd hairpin bend, there was a road going straight ahead marked with directions to Diskit. It looked like we may have missed a shorter road to Diskit. But, we could not have complained as the road we took was definitely a very scenic choice.

Road near Khardung
Cut through the rocks!

Soon, we were back in the canyon land winding around the hills. I could not help wondering how strong are the rocks which forms this landscape. It looked as simple as the creases created by water flowing through loose soil. We did get an answer as we crossed over to the valley hosting the Khardung village. A road carved through the hill had a pillar shaped rock on one side. We did stop by and realized that the pillar, which looked pretty much like a pile of mud and boulders from a distance, was infact a very hard structure. The creases on the other side of the hill definitely looked much harder than this - only years and years of silent force by running water could erode these hills and carve them the way it looked.

The greenery of Khardung village followed and then came the streams and the valley hosting Yaks, Marmots and the Tsolding Buddha park. Just after the the Buddha park, we spotted a large herd of Marmots and ventured out hoping to get some photographs. We followed the herd down the slope only to scare them away. On our way back towards the Xylo, we got one more reminder on how tough it is to walk up the hills at these altitudes!

@ Khardung La top
Striking a pose :)

By 5, we were at Khardung La top and this time there were no traffic blocks. It was time to pose for a few pictures at the top of "World's highest motorable road"[3]. We also met a biker gang from Chennai, which made Priya particularly happy - she had worked in Chennai for a while and was excited to check out her Tamil skills ;-)

Not much traffic was seen as we descended down the hills to reach South Pullu by 6. A little later, we could spot the Shanti Stupa at the top of Changspa, where we stayed the previous day. Our driver suggested that we could reach Changspa without going through the Leh town and took a detour towards Shanti Stupa. We followed the Shanti Stupa road till Yurthung road and then turned left towards Changspa road to eventually reach Solpon guest house before 7.

A relaxed evening at Leh followed as we were getting ready for the last leg of our trip towards Pangong Tso and Tso Moriri. It was unfortunate that we had only a few days in hand and so many places to see. Exploring either Nubra or Zanskar valley could take atleast a week and the time we had was nowhere near enough! But, I was glad that we finally managed to make it to Ladakh, irrespective of the mode of transport - even the few days we had here was a gift!

References:
  1. There were a few sources mentioning that the Magnetic Hill is just an optical illusion, including a WiKi article, but this one sounded most convincing to me.
  2. Effective 1st May 2014, Inner Line Permit is NOT required for Indian nationals to visit the usual tourist places near Leh (Khardung La, Nubra Valley, Pangong Tso and Tso Moriri). Please note that it is still required to carry a photo ID card and the permit is still required for places like Chushul, Marsimik La ... etc. See this link for detailed information.
  3. Most of the sources (see WiKi article) place Khardung La at an altitude of about 17580ft (~5360m). It looked like 5600m is the height of the peak adjascent to Khardung La, whose ridge we cross at the heighest point of the pass. Even with the assumption that the altitude of 5600m is correct, an Indian military road at Sino - Indian border near Mana pass is reported to be at a higher altitude.



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