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Kashmir Part IV: Chushul - Tso Moriri - Gata Loops - Rohtang - Manali trip in August 2013

If there is heaven on earth ... wait, I may have told that already a few times! Not just me, a lot of people may have told that a lot of times. So, let us just say that Kashmir trip was way more amazing than I had expected. I had imagined many grant ways of exploring Srinagar, Leh and surroundings, but even the back-seat of a hired Xylo turned out to be grant enough!

We had started our trip from Amritsar, Srinagar and Kargil, passing by Zojila. Later, we passed by more high altitude passes at Namika La, Fotu La and Khardung La and spent a few days at Leh and Nubra valley. After that, we headed towards the magnificient Pangong Tso, via Chang La, reaching Chushul in the end. Next day, we had our breakfast from the local tea shop at Chushul and were back on the road by 9, heading to Tso Moriri.

This stretch of the road passes very close to the line of actual control between India and China. As expected, we did see a few helicopters and army trucks en route. The road itself was non-existent, it was more like a firm strip of land marked amidst a vast barren valley. We passed by sign boards indicating Rezang La war memorial ahead of us, but hardly any other sign boards after that. A group of children were seen in the midst of no-where, they looked famished and were quite happy when Priya offered them some biscuits. Apart from these children and the occassional military presence, we hardly saw any one else for almost an hour.

fields near Loma en route Tso Moriri
Green fields near Loma

Amit, Priya and Preetha near Loma
Happy to pose!

Eventually, we reached the Tsaga village, from where we had tarmac roads and the landscape was relatively green, with a few brownish hills thrown around for variety! The road turned towards our right and continued till we hit a bridge with a military checkpost. This was the Loma bridge and we had to show the Inner Line Permit [1] here, which was taken from Leh. A road forked off towards our left, with a sign post next to it saying "LOC - KM.1.45"! It sounded like we are going away from the line of actual control from here.

We passed by the river for another hour or so - Nyoma and Mahe villages - before hitting a bit of mountainous terrain once again. By 1, we were at Sumdo, with a few settlements all around. Not having seen anything remotely looking like a eatery all this while, we hoped to find something here. Eventually, we were pointed towards a house, with a lady answering our call and offering noodles. Amit and Priya went ahead and chatted with her for some more time before getting permission to use the kitchen and prepare Parathas - something both of them had been sorely missing for a while now!

After some yummy food, the trip resumed at about 2.30. Within an hour, we reached Karzok, at the banks of Tso Moriri and found an accomodation, right next to the lake. The stretch of the lake we could see from here was seperated from us by a small area covered with muddy water. But, a short walk along a jeep track going by the lake, took us close to Tso Moriri.

Situated at an altitude of 4522m, Tso Moriri is one of the highest fresh water lakes in the world. Comparisons are usually drawn between Tso Moriri and Pangong Tso, with the later being a saline lake, located at a lower altitude and a lot bigger in terms of area. Tso Moriri also happens to be completely within India, while Pangong Tso has a major portion across the border.

Boulders and Clouds @ Tso Moriri
Clouds and Boulders!

Unlike Pangong Tso, which had a sandy shore at many places, the shores of Tso Moriri we encountered was rocky. Even at places were the boulders were missing, the ground was covered with stones, instead of sand. At the banks, the water was still and we could see the stones under water very clearly, indicating how clean the water is. But, the lake looked deep blue towards the center with a steady share of ripples. Colorful mountains on the other side gave the lake a nice background, with hues varying from red to purple and the taller ones adorned with a snow cap. An abundant supply of cotton clouds hovering above the mountains and a deep blue sky completed the beautiful landscape.

cove @ Tso Moriri
By the lake ... towards the cove

Preetha in a cove @ Tso Moriri
Lets stay here!

We came back to our accomodation by evening, by when the temperature had dropped very low. After a peaceful dinner, good sleep and breakfast, we were back strolling along the lake on next day. This time, we managed to walk quite a distance along the shore, encountering a rocky cove. A granite hill bordering the lake stopped us from exploring further on feet. But, we did have a good time boulder-hoping, looking for good points to relax and just sitting there day-dreaming!

Bar-headed Goose @ Tso Moriri
Three is company

Hoopoe pair @ Tso Moriri
The "rock"ing couple

As it was approaching noon, we headed back towards the hotel room. We spotted a good amount of avian life along the lake shore. There were a few ducks - which I later identified as Bar-headed Goose - in the lake and a pair of Common Hoopoes, which made interesting subjects for pictures. We also met our driver Sriram on the way, who was washing the Xylo and offered to take us on the jeep track along the lake shore. We went looking for a vantage point, but did not manage to find any - eventually returning back to the hotel room, in time for lunch.

Boulders and Clouds @ Tso Moriri
Clouds and Reflections

Evening @ Tso Moriri
Evening glow

Most of the afternoon was wasted as I was feeling tired after a long trip and chose to take a break in the room. We headed out again later in the evening, taking another stroll along the lake shore. The shallow waters near the hotel created beautiful reflection of the clouds and sky. As we walked further, the lake looked gorgeous in the evening sun, with a bevy of birds forming their silhouettes in the lake.

Priya and Amit @ Tso Moriri
Chilly and breezy evening

Preetha and Sandeep @ Tso Moriri
Cuddling the winds ...

We spent some time making pictures of ourselves against the beautiful lake. The evening was chilly with a nice breeze blowing across making it feel cooler. Soon, the sun disappeared behind the hills and the light faded - it was time to say good bye to Tso Moriri and head back towards the hotel.

Herd @ Tso Moriri
Lets head home now ...

While walking back, at the top of a hill, we could see a herd returning back after grazing. A trio of elderly men - one of them holding a camera - were walking ahead of us and we started wondering which part of India they are from. Eventually, Amit said "hi" to them and had a small chat to figure out that they are from Kolkota.

Preethu had figured out a place near the hotel to make phone calls and we managed to call back home. Around dinner time, Amit talked to the person-in-charge, who promised to arrange some diesel for Xylo, by next day. Xylo had a fill from Leh and we had travelled quite a distance since then - not to mention the tyre-lifting adventures in Pangong Tso shores when they went under the sand! Sriram was still confident that we do not need any fill for one more day, but we did not know where diesel will be available after this and ecided not to take any chances.

Next day, we were ready as early as 7 and the diesel was arranged by our host as promised to ensure that we had enough in the tank before hitting the highway again. The plan was to cover as much as possible and reach somewhere close to Jispa / Keylong by evening. We had a long drive ahead of us and it sounded sad as we were nearing the end of the trip.

By 8, we passed by Sumdo and saw the Tso Kar lake by 9.30. Frankly, after having seen so much of beautiful places and two of the most beautiful lakes in India - Pangong Tso and Tso Moriri - during the last few days, I was too tired to even get out and look around.

@ Tso Kar
Brief stop at Tso Kar

The Tso Kar did look interesting from a distance with clear reflections of the sky, but I was too lazy to go near and get a good picture. Amit and Priya went out for a stroll as I clicked a few pics from the road side. We were soon back on the road and joined the Leh - Manali highway before 11, but ended up heading towards Leh by mistake. On seeing the sign boards showing a decreasing distance towards Leh, we were totally confused and drew around in circles - thanks to a real moment of stupidity. It took us a while before we realized the mistake and headed back to the highway in the right direction!

Preetha and Sandeep @ More plains
More fun @ More plains

Soon, we found ourselves in a flat valley with endless roads and mountains all around us - the More plains. The roads were not so good in the beginning, but, by about 12, we reached a stretch of newly laid road after which the travel was smooth for some time. A little later, we were at the edge of the More plains, with a beautiful view of the Pang valley ahead of us, surrounded by mountains all around.

Sand and Rock formations near Sumkhel Lungpa
Sand and Rock formations

The most interesting aspect of the landscape here is the sand and rock formations along the banks of Sumkhel Lungpa river. These formations were similar to what we saw around Namika La and Khardung, but the structures we saw here were much more finer, compared to the coarse surface of the sand and rock formations we saw earlier.

Gata Loops towards Tsarap river
Looping towards Tsarap river

For the next one hour or so, we descended along a winding road leading us towards the Sumkhel Lungpa river and passed by Pang. The road continued to be winding and followed a path carved by the river amidst of mountain ranges on all sides. We passed by two more mountain passes - Nakee La and Lachulung La - before descending down the Gata Loops by about 2.30. The Gata Loops are 22 continuous hairpin bends, descending which we lost about 500m in altitude! Eventually, the road reached near the Tsarap river and continued on a mostly level - yet winding - stretch along side the river, decorated with more sand and rock formations.

Sand and Rock formations at Tsarap river
More sand and rock formations ...

at Sarchu valley
near Sarchu valley

We were quite hungry by now, but managed to spot a dhaba near Sarchu only by about 3.30. Post lunch, we were at the Sarchu valley and the road was mostly straight and level. The J&K state also ends here as we entered Himachal Pradesh. Post Sarchu plains, we passed one more mountain pass - Baralacha La - and the landscape was covered with boulders here. We also passed by the Suraj Tal lake, but it was already getting dark by now, not giving us any time near the lake.

It was quite dark as we negotiated Baralacha La pass and Jispa - our closest pit stop - felt further away than we thought. Infact, we were beginning to wonder if we took a wrong decision to try and cover the whole stretch in a day! By the time we reached Darcha valley, it was pitch dark and it looked ominous passing by this trecherous terrain this late. But, we did manage to cross over Bhaga river and reach Jispa unscathed.

At Jispa, we could find accomodation for the day at Padma lodge. The hotel had a nice-looking buffet dinner, but it turned out to be not so interesting quality wise, even with the fact that we were all hungry and tired. In any case, the room was comfortable and we had a peaceful night of sleep.

Next day, we were out of Jispa by 7.30 and reached Keylong in less than an hours time. We stopped at the town, found a good restaurant and ordered parathas for breakfast. It took a while to come, but the wait was worth it as we were served some yummy food.

Chenab river valley
Chenab river valley

We were soon back on the winding roads going around green mist covered mountains, heading towards the Rohtang pass. The road followed the Bhag river, which eventually joined Chenab. We went along Chenab river for some more time, before hitting a ghat section again. The mountains were covered in mist as the road started climbing away from the Chenab valley in a zig-zag path.

descending Rohtang La
descending Rohtang La

Priya and Amit at Rohtang La
At a place above the clouds ...

By 1 pm, we reached the Rohtang top, which was crowded with the flow of tourists from Manali side. But the place still looked beautiful, thanks to the greenery, the mist cover and the fleeting views in between. We also had to negotiate a few herds of sheeps and hoards of people walking around, before starting our descend towards Manali.

flowers at Rohtang La
adding a red tinge to the green

Rahela falls at Rohtang La
Tumbling down the valley

In the next few hours we descended down the winding roads of Rohtang pass, taking enough time to sink in the vews. We had occassional views of the valley behind - whenever the mist cleared. A few turns later, we also got a beautiful view of the Rehala falls behind us. We took a few breaks to get a few pictures done with the green valley in the background.

Preetha and Sandeep at Rohtang La
Tug-of-war time!

As we descended, we spotted a few para gliders making their way towards the valley. By 3.30, we were near Kothi and saw a restaurant for a very late lunch. The restaurant had a notice talking about para gliding and to our queries on the same, we were told that it can be arranged. With enough time to spare, we decided to take it. Post lunch, we were in their jeep heading up the hills once again!

The gliding was expected to start a few kms uphill, but unfortunately, by the time we reached the location, it was fully misty with a hint of rain. With almost zero visibility, we could not do para gliding and we decided to wait for some time to see if our luck would change. Even after an hour so, it was not to be and the on and off drizzle only seem to be increasing in frequency. Eventually, by 5.30, it started getting darker and we had to head back.

In about half an hours time, we were at the banks of Beas, entering Manali town. We found our accomodation at the Himachal Inn and had a good nights stay. The Manali town - though a nice hill station by any standard, felt much warmer after the temperatures we had seen in the last few days. During the night, we roamed around the "crowded" streets of Manali, managed to do some shopping and a good dinner after that. Getting back to civilization after such a beautiful trip is always hard! But, I should say we did take it well and managed the "low-altitudes-of-manali" really well :)

The next day we headed to Chandigarh, which was also an eventful drive. We stopped near Mandi to buy a crate of apples and had an interesting visit to a store house stocked with piles of fresh apples. A ghat section towards Chandigarh and a very full Sutlej river enroute made for a few interesting vista en route. We reached Chandigarh by evening, left the Xylo and thanked Sriram for his services. The rest of the evening was spent at Amit's cousins house and we were made to feel at-home. Next day, we had a few shopping tours, as well as a visit to Ambala [2], before boarding our return flight to Bangalore.

Tso Moriri and Rohtang pass provided a fitting climax to our amazing Kashmir trip. But, I had to say that I was a bit too jaded to enjoy spectacles post Tso Moriri. What else can be expected after the unbelievable vistas we were lucky to witness in the days running up to this climax.

References:
  1. 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 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.
  2. This visit to Ambala to meet Gayathry was the trigger for a Meesapulimala trek later on.



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