To heaven and back-is even a lifetime enough there?

I realized a few days back that other than dancing like I’m in a trance, traveling is what gives me peace and contentment, next. And of course I’m not talking about traveling to work, but travel which includes exploring new places, people and of course food 😉 And this is an account of yet another such travel to a destination we had marked as part of our earlier ‘places to visit in India’ checklist- Ladakh! Even now, 2 days after our return, sitting in my office cubicle, waiting for my next meeting, all I can think about is that place and how even 10 days seemed too little.. J

So, after a very hectic week (all IT guys working with an Indian IT company would know how difficult it is to get leaves approved for more than 3 days ;)), the day of departure finally arrived and was I glad or what?!!! To be frank, I was still a bit nervous, since I’ve started getting skeptical about getting too excited about anything these days, less it falls apart, and with all the news of bad weather and landslides, I decided not to get too excited until I actually set foot at Leh 😉 hehe. We left Pune on Friday, 6th July 2012 and flew to Delhi first. Reached Delhi at 3 am in the night (stupid Go Air flights) and had to leave again at 6 am to catch our morning flight to Srinagar. We (Pinks n me) met the remaining group – Nevielle and Lampu at the airport at Srinagar itself and after a very boring wait of 2 hours at the airport, finally hopped on to our cab and checked in at Feroz guest house (I have mentioned a breakdown of the rates at the end of this article). After freshening up, we left to check out Srinagar…Our driver and co driver (his cousin) were both Muslim guys and were absolutely amazing! They were funny and caring and very polite and ensured we had a great time sightseeing J So in Srinagar, we went to a few gardens – Chashmeshahi, etc., had lunch at Mughal darbar (definitely recommend the rista for meat lovers..Simply yumm), and ended it with a shikara ride over Dal lake at sunset. Our first night at Kashmir was a success, and we opened the bottle of Teachers and had a round each to commence the most important leg of our journey the next day-a 2 day road trip to Leh!
We made an early start for Leh on 7th July 2012 at 8:30 am, stopped over at a roadside dhaba at Gunderbal district on the way for a hot and much awaited breakfast of paratha, puri, chhole, maggi and tea (I did mention traveling for food earlier you see ;)).
Our tummies full, we set off towards Sonmarg, where we would be stopping for lunch later. The drive to Sonmarg was simply beautiful. The road was smooth and lined with ice topped mountains, green pine trees on one side and the flowing river on the other side..I knew we were on the right track to heaven then 😉

We reached Sonmarg at 12 pm and went on a horse (although mine looked more like a poor pony) ride along the glacier mountain. Personally, I think I would’ve preferred to walk up, since by the end of the ride my bum was bruised with the hard saddle and the upward walk on top of my poor old pony..sigh! L We did get some respite from those hard saddles in between, where we had the option of trekking up one of the dry glaciers..but me being me (by that I mean fat and not very fit..tee hee), I had gave up after 20 steps and chose to sit on another hard rock instead, while Pinks and Lampu trekked on. I do have to mention here that those 20 minutes on that rock (even with Neveille sitting beside me) was sooo peaceful. Neither of us could talk, there was no one to see for miles, no music, no cars, no people, just the sound of the running water and the wind to give us company and the sight of those majestic mountains to entertain us, and I was captivated. I was in peace…

We had lunch at Glacier house at Sonmarg of roti, chicken, daal and coffee and the food was decent, though not as good as the dhaba breakfast was J We left Sonmarg at 3:30 pm, but sadly got stuck in a very long traffic jam at Bartal for around 1.5 hours due to the Amarnath tourists. We somehow managed to cross the long line after requesting some of the army officers there, that we needed to cross Zozila on time to go onward to Leh. We were able to touch Drass (apparently the world’s second highest inhabited place) by 7:30 pm and stopped over there for pee break and some refreshing Kehwa (kashmiri tea).
Left Drass at 8 pm (by the way, amazingly, even at 8, the sun hadnt set there!) But then started one of the worst legs of our entire road trip-the road to Kargil. I know this sounds like a serious movie Title, and trust me, we could make a really serious movie with that terrain and 5 tired souls in the middle of nowhere. The road was awful, there was no light, it was getting colder by the minute, there were no rest stops and no vehicle in sight as well! This went on for 2 hours continuously and by the time we started nearing Kargil for our night stop, I think we all had our backs and bottoms broken and bruised. It was worse for Neveille and me, since he had suffered some sort of flea infection from that horse ride and I had bruised my bottom sitting on that hard saddle for so long. We reached Kargil at 10 pm at night and checked in at this really good hotel called Hotel Zojila. Lampu and I managed to stuff some food into our tummies (don’t even ask what we had, coz it’s just not worth mentioning) and then took showers, changed and dropped dead 😀

The next morning, finally rejuvenated from the amazing sleep, I went out to our hotel balcony and was instantly awestruck with the beauty in front of me. If we weren’t short of time and didn’t have a destination to go ahead to, I swear all I would’ve done that morning was to sit on the balcony, drink in the clear sky, the huge dessert mountains and the landscape around it, simply sipping some tea and probably with a smoke. Aaahhh..bliss! But we did have a journey to complete, so after having another good breakfast of eggs, toast, paratha, sabzi and tea, we headed out towards Leh at 8:20 am from Kargil. The journey from Kargil was so much better, the landscape changes every half an hour, there were huge mountains, barren lands, sometimes rocky mountains, sometimes mountains that looked like an old man, some patches of green and even purple and absolute blue clear sky.
When you’re traveling this road, there is no need for companionship, since even in a group where 3 of us love to talk, we were all quite, since we couldn’t imagine what we were seeing.. We reached Mulbek at 10:15 am, where there is a stone sculpted with Budhha’s picture. We stayed there for pee and tea break. Now I must tell you, that this was the first place I discovered the famous Ladakh toilets-what I started calling the Compost pits! Hehehe..dont get me wrong-they’re more hygienic than most of the public toilets Ive been to, are cleaner and don’t stink as much-since people manage to put in their crap right into the hole which is around 10 feet high from another floor. I think that is used as manure for the land later, no idea though 😀 We left after 10 minutes and touched Lamayuru at 12:20 pm. Most people stop here if not at Kargil or stop here for lunch, but we decided to go ahead to Khaltse, an army check point before entering Leh, where we stopped for Lunch. Although the view as usual was breathtaking, I must say, I was a bit disappointed with the lunch at Khaltse-we had simply rice, egg curry and raajma, but it was tasteless and very spicy. I also have to mention here, that I started having a slight headache from here, which I ignored thinking it must be due to the travel stress, but later came on to realize was a symptom of AMS , which is caused due to less oxygen in the air in very high altitudes.

We finally reached Leh (after frolicking around at Magnetic hill- which actually is an optical illusion where downhill looks like uphill) and checked in at our Army guest house-Alpha mess in the heart of Leh City at 5:30 pm. A point to note here is that our entire accommodation in and around Leh was arranged at Army places, where even civilians can stay at subsidized rates, if it has been booked by an army person on their behalf. And I have to say, it is a steal. I’ll mention the room rates later at the end of my blog. We had 2 huge rooms with ante rooms and attached bath with 24×7 running hot and cold water with TVs and what not! But even with all the facilities here, everyone in the group was itching to check out the city, the cafes and the market place in general. Sadly for me, my headache earlier had worsened and I took a disprin from my friends, thinking that would curb it, but in about half an hour it got even worse and I had to rush back to the guest room to rest. The in house doctor advised us not to take any more un prescribed medicines and avoid fatty and non vegetarian food for at least the 1st day at Leh, in order to acclimatize. I was ordered to sleep off the rest of the evening and the boys got me some yummy yak cheese momos for dinner, which I happily ate and fell asleep again J

The next day was planned to stay at Leh at take it easy, since it is recommended to do so in order to acclimatize, before we venture out to further heights. So we had our travel guy arrange for our Inner Line Permits for Pangong  and Hunder, while we decided to explore the quaint little town. My headache had vanished, but the breathlessness was still there. Anyway, we had our standard army mess breakfast of toast, eggs, butter, jam and coffee and relaxed indoors the first half. We went out for lunch to a nearby German Bakery, which later became our favorite place to eat 😉 We ordered Chicken Thukpa, Lafa, Snitzel with hummus and our favorite drink in Leh- ginger lemon honey tea..yum yumm! After lunch, we left to visit the nearby places around 4 pm and went to Shanti Stupa, Spituk Monastery, Hall of fame and kali mata mandir. The Monastery and mandir were right next to each other and there were more of those colorful flags there, which I found to be my favorite contrast to the barren land of Ladakh everywhere we went J We returned back to our guest house by 7:30 and decided to have dinner inside and an early night, since we had an early start the next day.

Day 2 at Ladakh, I managed to do the almost impossible-get up at 6 am and be ready to leave by 7:30 am!! And I managed to keep up the performance for the rest of my trip at Ladakh as well!!! Wow..what all a beautiful place can make you do, you wonder right? 😉 So we left for Pangong Tso at 7:30 am and stopped in between at karu for breakfast. Had a heavy breakfast of alu paratha and raajma and of course, tea. They didn’t have any toilets at karu though, so I started to get in a bit of a discomfort trying to control my bladder until the next stop 😀 hehe Another 1 hour drive and at 10 am we stopped at an army base where I could finally let my bladder loose. I do have to digress here and mention that if you think the Army was only there for your protection, you were mistaken. Here at Ladakh, they almost play your host-making sure you are not only safe but have a comfortable and never to forget trip up there. They clear out roadblocks due to landslides, help you with directions, have free maggi and tea spots, and the cleanest toilets for women to use! Hats off to you Indian Army! Coming back to the journey, we reached Chang la pass at 11:30 am, had tea there and then finally reached Pangong Tso at 1 pm! Even from far, Pangong was a site to see! But before we could go any further, since we were on an army schedule, we had to stop for lunch-more raajma and chawal for lunch, but it was yummy. The army men gave me some garnets too-it seems the base was built on a place called ‘garnet hill’ famous for semi precious stone-garnet! Whew..and its all just lying out there in the open! Lol

We made our way to the lake after that, and well, words or even the pictures below are not enough to describe the beauty of this place. It was so peaceful and serene..and the best part was, you realize there is a place in India where there is no crowd! No noise! No filth and no traffic! You could just close your eyes and listen to the breeze and the lake actually! The lake in itself was blue like sapphire and one of the biggest salt water lakes in India. Surrounded by white sands and huge rocky mountains on the other side. Neveille just sat on the white sand for the entire time, like he was in a trance, Pinki and Lampu got busy trying to capture the beauty of the place with their cameras and I decided to remove my shoes and get my feet wet in the icy cold crystal clear lake water! Haha..We spent around 3 hours just walking around, sitting on the sand and watching the lake. You would think, what does one do there? Specially for people like us, who need some sort of entertainment all the time, who are used to the noise, people and getting bored at the drop of a hat, what does one do when you reach there? There are no restaurants near the lake, no washrooms, no music stations, no tv, no people to stare at..absolutely nothing except for that beautiful expanse of water. But even that gave us so much peace and contentment, it was a feeling that I never felt even when I thought I was having the time of my life with friends, dancing to loud music and drinking. This was an altogether different kind of high. I think Pangong was my favorite place in Ladakh. I wish we were allowed to camp there, that would have been just amazing! Imagine waking up early in the morning to that beautiful blue view..bliss! J

We finally left Pangong at 3:30 and checked in at another army guest house at Tangste. And oh my god, what can I tell you, my beautiful day just kept thrilling me more and more with more beauty! This guest house was again situated in some remote area, away from the village, right in front of a stream, surrounded by mountains and we had an entire cottage with a swing in the front to ourselves! The cottage was very modern with all the amenities you could think of, with two huge double bed rooms (the rooms even had an ante room, can you believe it!?), books to read, tv to watch, a lounge area, a dining area with alcohol and our own attendant to look after our food and other needs! this is what I call a vacation! 😉 So the attendant made us amazing cups of tea , which we had sitting outside until the sun set. Everyone went about doing their own thing, some went out for a walk, some decided to smoke by the river, while I settled down with one of the books there. We wrapped up the night with a hilarious game of 21 and poker and an amazingly well cooked vegetarian dinner.

The next morning we left by 8:30 am after a breakfast of paratha, alu and coffee. Wes topped on the way at the Hemis monastery (where we also had lunch, which was not that great, but would do), Thiksey monastery and Shey Palace. I really liked Thicksey monastery, since I had a very heart touching experience there. While we were exploring the monastery, I came across an elderly Tibetan duo- an old man with his mother. He had brought his mother for a Darshan there and once we greeted each other with the usual ‘Jhule’ (hello in ladakhi), he started talking to me. He spoke hindi and had such a happy disposition! And we found a connection too, when I told him I came from Pune and he mentioned his son worked in Bombay! What a small world. Afterwards, he offered me this white silk sloth, which Lampu explained to me is generally given by Buddhists as a sign of appreciation or a token of friendship . I was touched J (By the way, I also went to the toilets at all these places..heheh)  Reached back at our Leh guest house by 5:30 pm. Ventured out again at night for dinner and this time had dinner at this place called Wonderland café which was full of foreigners and had a very good ambience, but that’s where it ended. The food and service both were really bad, and since we were neither stoned nor high, it bothered us more than the other stoned foreigners there 😀

Day 4, we left our mess after a breakfast of toast and eggs by 9 am for Khardung La pass and Hunder. The roads to Khardung were much better for the first half of the journey than we had travelled so far. We stopped before the pass at an army check post for tea and as usual, for me to use the washroom. After an arduous drive for an hour, we finally reached Khardung La and it was laden with snow! And the best part of it all was it started snowing there!!!! This trip was just getting better and better for me! I saw snowfall for the first time in my 29 years! We totally lost control, specially Lampu and me, and started jumping about, played with the now, threw snowballs at other tourists and then got breathless with all that jumping and laughing! After half n hour, we were told to go, since its not advisable for normal people to stay at the pass for more than that, else they would fall ill from the height, cold and lack of oxygen. So we left Khardung at 11:40 am and reached Khardong village at 1 pm. Had lunch there of maggi and momos..what yummy maggi and what amazing momos…lip smacking! Pinki and I then peed in the open with the one shielding for the other..haha! Left for Hunder and after another amazing drive and games of antakshari and word games, we reached Hunder at 3 pm. Imagine seeing a snow capped mountain and a sand dune in the same day in a span of just hours! I had rolled in the snow earlier in the day and then I rolled in the sand later…what fun! I also did get a lot of sand in my pants though, but I didn’t really care at that time. The boys went on a camel ride on one of those double humped camels, while I clicked them.

We left the sand dunes and reached our guest house for the night at Partapur by 5:30 pm. Thankfully we reached there just in time, since after that it started pouring like mad there. This place was as good as the Tangste guest house in terms of the facilities, but the view wasn’t that great, plus it was raining. So we stayed indoors, watched Sita and Gita on TV, the boys had alcohol, while I finished my book in the other room. We had another yummy simple dinner and I had thought we would wish Pinki at 12, since it was his bday the next day, but the morons had had so much to drink, that we all crashed at 11 am itself J

On 14th July, Pinki’s 31st bday, we left Partapur at 9:30, after another yummy breakfast of alu parath and tea. Stopped by at Diskit monastery on the way, where Pinki and Lampu went inside, but Neveille and I preferred to stay outside and just sit and talk about random stuff. It felt so good though J
On our way back, we stopped over again at Khardung La, and had lunch of maggi and tea there. The trip was almost over, and we reached back at our guest house in Leh by 4:30 and just chilled out for a while. Lampu went and got a plum cake to cut for Pinki’s bday, and Neveille got him a Tshirt which said ‘I got Leh’d’..heeh (which by the way, I have snitched from him now ;)) We celebrated his bday indoors with a couple of drinks and went out for dinner later to a place called ‘Mintokling-apple garden’. Again, the place was pretty with apple trees and candles and lamps, but the food wasn’t that great.

Finally on our last day at Leh, we just walked around the city, picked up knick knacks for our friends and family and had another amazing breakfast at our favorite place-the second german bakery near our guest house. I had cheese and mushroom omelette with my favorite ginger honey lemon tea and we had another amazing lunch of oven baked thin crust pizzas at la Pizzeria.

We lulled away the afternoon at that place which had low lying cushions to sit on overlooking the Leh mountains…sigh! We were all quite and quite sad really, that we had to leave that beautiful place with its beautiful people and return to our so called action packed mundane lives. But all good things do come to an end right? We had an early dinner at the guest house and left the next morning at 6 am by flight from Leh to Delhi.

P.S.: Although we have managed to tick this off our list, Priyank and I have made a pact, that if we’re still alive and together when we grow old, we’re going to come back here again, but on bikes this time 😉 aha!

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