Around the monasteries in Ladakh, you often come across notices about and faded, worn pictures of a young child.
At first glance, we thought someone’s child was missing, but upon inquiring, we learnt that the boy is the Panchen Lama – in Tibetan belief, the monk in charge of finding the successor of the Dalai Lama and has been spirited away, along with his family, in 1995 by the Chinese when he was 6 years old.
The reason why the Chinese did this, is kind of obvious (China, you may want to cover your ears for this) – if they control the Panchen Lama, they control who becomes the next Dalai Lama. The topic is extremely sensitive for Tibetans and they have been raising their voices in futility for the last 20 years to ask for his freedom. China, meanwhile, has appointed a ‘faux’ Panchen Lama in place of the real one but the Tibetan people refuse to accept him, believing that the real Panchen Lama is still alive, even though they worry about his state and well-being.
Theirs has been a long and fruitless battle in trying to reclaim their lost country, lost independence and spending generations in exile. There’s a sort of determination, sometimes punctuated by desperation, in their voices – they want him to come back, they need him to come back.
One year ago, on this exact day, I was in Ladakh – a remote, arid and beautiful region in Indian Himalayas; and a place that I would happily go back to any day and recommend that anyone who can, visit now. You can read all about our adventures on the road in Ladakh here.
After more than a week of driving around in the Himalayas of Ladakh, it was easy to get used to the massive scale of our environment and forget that we were in the middle of (and sometimes on top of) the world’s mightiest mountain range. 4000 metres, 5000 metres, we’d seen them all. Of course, when we got back to the cramped lanes of Mumbai, it was almost heartbreaking to think of the immense and open landscape that we’d left behind a few flight hours ago.
I found this picture among the hundreds that I’d taken over those 9 unforgettable days in one of the most barren, yet beautiful places I’ve been to.
The first time you look at this picture, you’re probably thinking – ‘Yeah, well, mountains. Big ones, okay.’
But I’d like you to click on the picture to open a full-sized version and take a second look, a closer one (pretty please?), and draw your eyes to the winding road along the mountain on the bottom left – see those 3 little ant-like things on the road? Those are medium-sized vehicles actually, two SUVs and one mini-bus. And now imagine, if that’s how tiny the vehicles look in comparison, you and I’d be sort of, well, invisible here. Amazes me every time, that realization.
(And now I’m trip-nostalgic, *sigh*)
This post is in response to The Daily Post’s weekly photo challenge: “Scale.” (click to see more interpretations)
Posting a bunch of summer pictures of Ladakh (with clear blue skies on very sunny days) over the last couple of weeks in my posts, somehow reminded me of the long and extremely harsh winters there that the local Ladakhi people told us about. Here’s a screenshot of Leh’s weather today (and the next few days, and probably, weeks and months) from my phone. *Brrr*
Ladakh, by virtue of its location high up in the Himalayas, experiences a long, bitter winter that lasts almost 8 months of the year. Ladakh is also the gateway to the Siachen Glacier, the world’s coldest and highest battlefield (sigh).During this time of the year, the land route (national highways) into the region get closed due to excessive snow and ice, the rivers and the lakes (even saltwater lakes like Pangong Tso and Tso Moriri) completely freeze over, food and vegetable supplies are infrequent, diesel vehicles are out of action as diesel starts to freeze, animals enter a state of hibernation and humans enter a state of semi-hibernation of sorts. The tourists and the constant din and traffic are long gone. Flying is the only way into the region and for the adventurous souls, there is a ‘Frozen River Trek’ or ‘Chadar Trek‘ on the Zanskar in the peak of the cold season. And this trek is the only way that the people of the Zanskar area can get out, if they need to, in the winter – that’s preeetty extreme. Zanskar is the same river that we went rafting on in the summer. Just to give you an idea of the transformation that occurs:
I can imagine the landscape completely changed from what I see in my pictures; covered by a thick, endless blanket of snow, silent and still, with a colorful prayer wheel or a string of prayer flags, peeking out from a corner, eager to break the monotone. And here in Bombay, I switch on the air conditioner before I retire for the night.
This Part 5 of a multi-post series covering our trip this summer to Ladakh, a remote region high up in the Indian Himalayas. You can read the other parts here.
Days 6 & 7, 30th and 31st July – Leh to Nubra Valley and back
Nubra Valley is located about a 3 to 4-hour drive away from Leh and is reached by crossing the Khardung La Pass, which at an altitude of about 18000 ft above sea level, claims to be the ‘highest motorable road in the world’. The claim is disputed but that doesn’t stop visitors (including me) from stopping and taking a customary picture with the sign at the pass claiming this. Nubra Valley is famous for its sand dunes, double-humped Bactrian camels (that came here from Mongolia a few centuries back and have been forced into the tourism industry now), a giant statue of the Buddha in Diskit and a village called Turktuk which lies a few kms from the de facto border between India and Pakistan was wrested by India from Pakistan in the war of 1971.
Here are a few pictures from the two days.
Looking back at the Leh Valley, from the way up to Khardung La Pass
Khardung La Pass – more than 18000 ft high, apparently
Prayer flags are everywhere in Ladakh – I mean everywhere, including the Khardung La pass
Skies so blue
The Diskit Buddha silently watching over the Nubra Valley
A prayer wheel at the Diskit monastery with the Nubra valley in the background
The 106-feet tall Diskit Buddha – Up close
Young monks at the Diskit Monastery, some of them come all the way from Tibet to learn here
Getting late for class, maybe?
The Dunes of Nubra
We are family
A forlorn-looking baby camel. Couldn’t bear to ride one of these – they didn’t look like they were treated well at all
Far in the distance, among the snow-capped mountains of the Karakoram range, lies the K2 – the second highest peak in the world
Spot the river (Shyok is its name)
Bidding goodbye to Nubra, as we turn back for Leh
Vistas that will blow your mind await you at every bend of the road in Ladakh
This is the third part of a multi-post series covering our trip this summer to Ladakh, a remote region high up in the Indian Himalayas. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.
Day 3, 27th July – Jispa (11000 ft) to Tso Moriri (15000 ft)
Acute Mountain Sickness or Altitude Sickness – sickness caused in humans by acute exposure to low oxygen levels at high altitudes.
Guess what happens when you go from zero to 15000 ft (~ 4500 m) above sea level in less than 3 days? Acute Mountain Sickness or AMS, that’s what! We started our third day in the wee hours of the morning – no shower, no breakfast, wake up and pile into the cars. We had been warned by our drivers about how long Day 3 would be – 12 hours of driving – therefore, the early start, but the disaster that the day turned out to be for some of us, made the journey tumble into 14+ hours on the road (stunning views all along, though). We eventually got to Tso Moriri around 8 PM that night (‘Tso’ means ‘Lake’ in Ladakhi). Continue reading To Diamox or Not to Diamox – Day 3 of our Himalayan road trip, Jispa to Tso Moriri→
Vistas that will blow your mind await you at every bend of the road in Ladakh
Summer ’14 brought with it a long long-awaited trip to Ladakh – a barren, yet strikingly beautiful region in the Indian Himalayas. Ladakh’s been on my to-do list for the last few years but kept getting put off to the next year because of the remoteness of the region and the travel time needed to get there. Now that it has happened, I’d say it’s easily one of my all-time favourite destinations. I’m going to be documenting the legs of the journey one-by-one but first the top-level view:
When we went: Late July-early August. By this time, the snow has melted, roads have opened up and the weather is predictably sunny by day and still in positive numbers (deg. C) even on the coldest nights. Ladakh has a short tourist season from late May to late September – it stays snowed in and largely disconnected for the long, harsh winter that lasts the remaining 8 months of the year.
Route taken: Chandigarh to Manali to Leh – all by road. Chandigarh has a domestic airport where you can fly in from many major Indian cities. Leh is the capital and the largest town in the Ladakh district. Manali is an overnight stop in Himachal Pradesh and a charming town in its own right. We also made a detour on our way from Manali to Leh to visit Tso Moriri (Tso stands for lake in Ladakhi), one of the largest lakes in the region, where we camped overnight. Leh served as our base for other trips in the region like Nubra Valley, Pangong Tso and a whitewater rafting trip. Our return was via a flight from Leh to Mumbai. (See map further below for more details of our route – different legs of the trip are colour-coded differently)
Distance covered: 1800 kms over 9 days
Places visited: Manali, Leh, Nubra Valley, Tso Moriri, Pangong Tso
Motorbike vs Car: The trip is one of the legendary bike journeys for the more adventurous souls (who also have the luxury of more time), we stuck to a car (a 4-wheel drive SUV was the chosen machine) for time and comfort. We also encountered some even more adventurous souls who were cycling all the way from Manali to Leh (insanely tough).
Self-drive vs Hiring a driver: The roads are just dirt tracks and a bit tricky in places so it takes reeeally long to cover distances – we had very experienced (hired) drivers doing the tough work for us.
The Good: Views that will take your breath away and give you perspective of your tiny existence on this earth. The trip also gives you a chance to disconnect from your life back home with no mobile or internet connection for days. A word of caution though – don’t go expecting luxury and be prepared to rough it out a little – the jaw-dropping sights you’ll see will more than make up for the lack of luxury, I promise.
The Bad: Roads are non-existent in some parts so expect a rocky ride. You will be travelling at very high altitudes (7000 to 17000 ft or 2000 to 5000 m – yep!) and if you don’t get enough time to acclimatize, the dreaded AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness, more about that in another post) can strike and put you out of sorts. The route is not commercially developed – while I’m thankful for the lack of settlements not obstructing my view, but it brings with it the obvious challenges – filthy holes-in-the-ground will serve your purpose when nature calls.
More tales from the road coming up – I hope you decide to and get to experience this magical land on the roof of the world soon too! Just don’t let too many people know about it. 😉