About Me

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Hyderabad, AP, India
I used to be a bit of a drifter, still am partly, but life is getting more and more organized recently due to a special someone. I love playing and watching cricket, I have recently realised that I have a very big interest in wildlife and birding. I work for a blue chip company. I am well and truly blessed! No complaints there :)

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Ladakh - the land of high passes...

Pictures at roadlesstaken.in/landscapes

Its been a long-pending dream of Shaon’s and mine to visit the surreal land of high passes and updates from colleague Rohit, marathoner extraordinaire who ran an half marathon in Leh as part of the La Ultra, only reinforced the urge to pay a visit to this extraordinary land before the end of the year. With Diwali just around the corner and the opportunity to squeeze in some time off during that period, we finally decided to take the plunge and head to Leh in what was to be the beginning of winter up north.

A quick peek into our itinerary:
Day 1 - travel to Delhi, overnight at Delhi
Day 2 - early morning flight in to Leh, acclimatization to the high altitudes and rarefied oxygen (O/N @ Leh)
Day 3 - continue acclimatization, easy tour to Shey and Thiksey (O/N @ Leh)
Day 4 - Drive to Alchi and back via Sangam, Magnetic Hill, Nimoo (O/N @ Leh)
Day 5 - Drive to Nubra valley via Khardung-La (O/N @ Diskit)
Day 6 - Drive back to Leh (O/N @ Leh)
Day 7 - Drive to Pangong Tso via Shakthi, Khar (O/N @ Leh)
Day 8 - early morning flight to Delhi

Pictures at roadlesstaken.in/landscapes

We landed early on a Saturday morning in Leh at the spectacular Kushok Bakula Rinpoche airport. After a quick struggle into warm clothes to keep the all pervading cold at bay (-1 deg. C), we proceeded to the beautiful Oriental Guest House at Changspa, a bit away from the noise and bustle of downtown Leh. After settling into a heater-less room, but one provided with ample blankets, we decided to rest for the entire day to help with the acclimatization process.

On Sunday, while continuing to take it relatively easy, we also took a short drive to Shey marshes with the hope of spotting and photographing some endemic avifauna. Apart from the ubiquitous Black-billed Magpie, not much was on show and as the weather also threatened to play spoilsport we decided to head back to Leh. The only highlight was getting relatively close to Stok Kangri, the tallest mountain in the Stok range of the Himalayas. On returning back to the hotel, we ran into a set of friendly blokes from Chennai and Delhi with whom we decided to travel over the next few days.

With no connectivity on my phone, Monday dawned with loads of promise ;)
The plan was to drive on NH 1D all the way to Alchi and back the same day (a total distance of ~140 kms). We started on our journey at 8.30 and our first stop was outside the village of Spituk to photograph these beautiful reflections

From Spituk we proceeded onwards to Nimmo and crossed some of the best lunar landscape I have ever seen. There are sections where the NH is arrow straight and one can literally lie down on them to shot the amazing vista. On this road one also reaches ‘Sangam’ where the Indus and the Zanskar rivers meet. The views are beyond words and a landscape photographers dream...
This is also the spot where a scene from the movie 3 Idiots was filmed.
Past Sangam is the village of Nimmoo, its a small nondescript village which has a beautiful monastery on top of a hill and one gets a glorious view of the same from a few vantage points along the road

At Nimmoo we stopped for a short tea/snack break and then proceeded onwards to Alchi, which has probably the only monastery which is ‘not’ a knee breaker in Ladakh. Its slightly downhill from the main village and is relatively old but reasonably well-maintained

While returning back from Alchi, we made a brief detour to Likir, another beautiful monastery. The ride was eventful in that we got our first sightings of the Chukar partridge on the trip, but could not photograph them as they were acting very jittery. I requested for me to be dropped before my monastery so that I could resume the search for the Chukar on my own. I started walking back only to realize that I was probably the only soul on the road for miles together. The feeling of loneliness was definitely overwhelming and was compounded by the fact that the Chukars were nowhere to be found... all told, was an unique experience!

The rest the journey in to Leh was uneventful and ended with some successful pics of the black-billed magpie. For now I had to be content with these photos and wait another day for the Chukars!

Pictures at roadlesstaken.in/landscapes

The next day was an early morning start as we had to get to Khardung La as early as we could do avoid the long military convoys enroute. Khardung La has the reputation of being the highest motorable road in the world and is considered to be every motorbike enthusiasts’ challenge. The distance from Leh is ~40 kms with the last 15 of them being very treacherous due to the quality of the road and the layer of ice on the road. But first, the view of Leh from the Khardung La road

When we reached Khardung La, the weather was below 0C and the mountain air was crisp. Pulling on all our warm clothes, we got down to enjoy the hospitality of the Indian Army up there with a hot cup of tea. After photographing the vista from atop the highest motorable road in the world, I noticed some bird activity at that altitude. There was a group of Yellow-billed choughs foraging on the mountain top right beside the army outpost presenting an opportunity to photograph them in flight. However, this was easier said than done due to the rarefied oxygen in the air and the freezing temperature. Holding the camera steady was a challenge. Did manage to get a couple of shots and also photographed a Juvenile Golden Eagle, the biggest raptor in the world!

The drive from Khardung La to the next army checkpost at North Pullu was equally treacherous and we almost skidded off the road a couple of times. The entire way down was filled with ‘hearth in the mouth’ moments and matters weren't helped by the view of a transport vehicle lying upside down in the valley... However, we reach North Pullu without any incident and briefly stopped to photograph a few wild yaks enjoying the winter sun.

Pictures at roadlesstaken.in/landscapes

Onwards we proceeded towards the Shyok river and valley which houses the villages of Diskit and Hunder. The first view of the Shyok river was no less stunning than the earlier vistas we had seen and every turn brought with it a surprise in terms of landscape!

The journey up to this point was fairly long and tiring, a few even throwing up along the way. It is advisable to travel on a light stomach as the winding roads and the high altitudes do not make matters any easier.

Diskit was a good break in the journey and we checked in to a small hotel at the outskirts of the village. After a hearty meal, a few of us opted to head towards the famed sand dunes of Hunder and also go on a bactrian, double-humped camel ride!

Since Diskit is at a relatively lower altitude when compared to Leh, sleeping at night was easier and the temperature was not as cold as at Leh. After an early morning breakfast at the hotel, which some of us gave up, due to the long journey ahead of us back to Leh, we first climbed upwards to the the Diskit monastery. The beauty was awe-inspiring and we could see miles across the valley due to the clear visibility.

Our original plan was to go up to the village of Turtok on the line of control, but with distances and motion sickness not helping our case, we instead decided to head to Panamik, a small village along the valley known for its hot springs. This place is ~50 kms from Diskit and not as extraordinary as claimed, folks can definitely give this as pass if you are short on time.
On the way back to Leh, we stopped near the sand dunes of Deskit to photograph the landscape... and as luck would have it, my first reasonable shots of the Chukar!

We reached Leh by around 5 PM in the evening after a long journey of ~6 hours. After the back-breaking drive, none of us really had any energy left to grab something to eat, so we went straight to bed with a promising visit to Pangong Tso planned for the next day...

Pangong Tso is an endorheic lake located ~140 kms from Leh and can be paid a visit to in a day. The elevation for Pangong is higher than Leh and the road passes through the mighty Chang La, the third highest motorable road in the world.

Chang La was colder than Khardung La and it was difficult to remain outside of the vehicle for too long. After having the customary tea provided by the Indian Army (the army also offers free health check-up and oxygen for people suffering from AMS), we proceeded to Pangong Tso via Taktok and Darbuk. The landscape, as is the case wherever you go in Ladakh, turned out to be more unique than what we had seen before and we kept a close lookout for any wildlife as our driver Shabbir mentioned that he had seen a Snow Leopard on this very same road a couple of years back. Though we did not come across a Snow Leopard, Shabbir’s sharp eyes did find a group of Bharal (blue sheep) grazing about a kilometer away on top a hillock. The Bharal are the snow leopard’s prey and they are as rare as the cat itself! After photographing to our heart’s content, we proceeded to Pangong Tso through the customary Indian Army post along the lake bed.

Pangong Tso has been made popular in recent times due to the filming of the popular Hindi movie “3 Idiots”. Its probably the place to visit in all of Ladakh if you find yourself short of time!

After spending close to an hour at Pangong Tso, a couple of our fellow travelers started complaining about breathlessness and feeling giddy. So, without wanting to take any further risks, we started our return journey back to Leh through Chang La with brief stopovers for some photography and lots of throwing up!

We reached Leh late in the evening and the rest of the evening was blur as we had to pack up for the early morning flight next day.

Have uploaded all the pics from this trip on my website (roadlesstaken.in). I will be thrilled if you could take a minute to leave your comment there!!

Pictures at roadlesstaken.in/landscapes

Travel Tips:
Call and confirm your hotel room’s availability before you fly in.
Check with them on availability of heater, hot water before you check-in - pipes do get frozen in the winter and there is a regulation in Leh against using non-electrical heaters!
Good warm clothes are a must, do not plan to procure them locally if you do not want to be assaulted by the cold as soon as you land, we almost did . . .
Check with your travel agent on the type of vehicle they would be providing you with. Ensure that you get a Innova or a Scorpio. They seem to be handling the mountain roads much better
Ensure that you procure Inner Line permits before heading towards Nubra Valley or Pangong Tso
Ensure that your vehicle comes with at least 2 portable oxygen cylinders. This is absolutely essential when traversing the high passes.
Do not spend more than ½ hour at high passes like Khardung-La and Chang-La

Do reach out if you have any questions before planning your trip to Leh!

National Geographic Photos