Nothing could have possibly prepared me enough to intake the vast contrast of geography of Ladakh to the jannat that Kashmir offers. With just a pocket of fertile land in an otherwise dry and arid region, the small town of Leh has settled its life. And yet its starkness has beauty in itself. The valley with mini farmlands were surrounded with shades of mountainous brown peaked by the snow-capped mountain ranges. The Himalayas provided them shelter with the paradox of isolation.
Much against the advice of our previously travelled friends, we decided to fly into Leh directly from Delhi, instead of travelling by car via Manali which would have helped us get acclimatised with the thinning air pressure and low levels of oxygen. Coming from Mumbai at sea level, the high altitudes of10,000 feet plus were a challenge in itself. And so we began our tryst with Leh.
Hotel Grand Dragon is the only luxury hotel there… so we set camp, well warned that no overt exploration of the city should be done on day 1 , as we might suffer from severe headaches or nose bleeds due to exertion. However, my family and I are perpetual enthusiasts permanently carrying the thrill of life in our bag packs. So post a filling lunch of yummy momos (staple food), we set off to see what Leh was all about.
As is typical, the small town had all the touristy shops in one lane with different wares decorated in their mini windows while the owner themselves were in the street outside soliciting business. With everything from silver and brass trinkets and warm fur coats to lovely Buddhist statues and tiny teacups for sale (of course with touristy prices) we made sure we had a local with us to help us bargain a good price. But keeping the shopping for another day we decided to visit Leh’s most scenic piece of architecture, the Shanti Stupa. It’s the climb to the monumental structure that made us realise why we were told to rest it out. The otherwise regular uphill climb seemed like a task as we had to stop for breath a couple of times. Fortunately, there was this little tea place that served buttered toasts and the most amazing lemon tea with just the right amount of honey to pep us up.
The view from the top was amazing as was the peace and silence. You could hear yourself breathe. The grand white stupa kept spotlessly clean had stairs leading up to its dome. My daughter and I being the enthusiastic explorers rushed up to take in the panoramic landscape. The dome had vivid colourful paintings on its sides depicting the life of Buddha. Enveloped in serenity it was a place one could sit and absorb the inner tranquility. It was the effect of the place I’m sure because after 15 minutes of sitting in total silence, my daughter ‘whispered’ all her questions in my ears.
“What do the people do here for a living?”
“How do they spend their time?”
“What happens in winter…when there is no vegetation…where do they get their food from?”
In all honesty I wondered all that too because Leh didn’t have any factories, nor major farmlands (the produce was barely enough for them to be self-sufficient), nor was there peaking tourism that could earn them their yearly bread…indeed it was a tough life for the locals. However it amazed me that no matter the hardship, the people were always smiling.
Our next tourist attraction was the old Palace. Once again our guide warned us that it required a lot of climbing and that we should think of attempting it another day but we were the adventurous lot. Built in the 17th century by King Singe Namgyal, it had an old world charm in its Tibetan architecture and murals that survived many a war but in the little left ruins the Palace really had nothing to write home about but the fact that its nine stories overlook the entire township of Leh.
Right next to the Palace is the Namgyal Tsemo Gompa from where long strings of prayer flags reach to the Peak of Victory. The colourful flags are always tied only on auspicious days. It’s a prayer of askance to God I thought, but I was mistaken. Prayer flags have chants and blessings that are supposed to be good wishes, sent out to all by the blowing wind. What a beautiful thought indeed. No wonder the people here were always smiling, they felt satisfied… always in a position to bless and wish well for others. Yes! The barren land had more precious yield than we could have imagined….love for all. No wonder then that the tranquility and peace were significant in the various Buddhist monasteries that dotted the region of Ladakh.
In direct contrast to this was what we were to experience the next day. We were invited by the DIG to see the military establishment and mingle with the soldiers who were looking forward to hearing some tales of the silver screen from me. Little did they know that I was more fascinated by them. We had heard tales about the Siachen glacier and Kargil, but to be able to hear the narrative from the real heroes was an experience I was looking forward to.
Next morning we as requested we were given a detailed tour of the Hall of Fame, the museum dedicated to the martyrs. The museum had, at the entrance itself, the 3D model of the Himalayas laid out with all its peaks, valleys, passes and glaciers. That itself made us feel miniscule as we stood in front of its daunting hugeness and tried to imagine how these brave soldiers scaled those heights and lived for months at their posts braving the vagaries of nature. I felt humbled by their achievements as I listened intently to our guide, absorbing the intensity of the events. Salute to those heroes indeed!
We reached the BSF camp in complete awe of their lives, while they surprisingly were fascinated by mine. So I sat amongst them having coffee and posing for pictures while the others readied to show us a demonstration of an attack. The AK 47’s, the grenades, the rocket missiles, sniper rifles, sub machineguns and carbines, recoil-less rifles like the Carl Gustaf… I added another dimension to my vocabulary. The sheer weight of this ammunition is astounding and then to imagine these brave hearts trekking through the snow in absolute preparedness for a strike is mind boggling. We were shown how in the event of an enemy threat, the soldiers at the post react and how when the Chinese soldiers had infiltrated the borders, how we had counter attacked. We sat there completely mesmerised and overwhelmed. I don’t think Leh would ever be complete for me without having lived this experience.
That night we decided to go to the local restaurants to taste their food. It was the Tibetan version of Chinese I think, the noodles and momos being a must but tasty nevertheless matching the spice of our conversation. We retired to bed that night discussing the various tales we had heard from the soldiers, wondering how we would have reacted if faced with a similar situation… and the answer was apparent. No wonder then that they deserve the respect and adulation from every Indian.
The next morning the waiters from Grand Dragon packed us some sandwiches insisting that we take them along with us as we left to go rafting on the Zanskar river. My kids kept insisting that we should not bother as they wanted to indulge in the local cuisine they had much enjoyed the previous night. However, we were more than thankful for those bites, once we realised that to reach any tourist spot it takes a minimum of 4 to 5 hours and unlike the rest of touristy India we won’t even find a dhaba. Once on our way I wished they had also provided adult diapers… because there is no place to go…. not even a single tree that can possibly provide some assistance. Surprisingly not a single travel blog, travel site or even any of my friends warned me of that. Well now readers, consider it done.
The Zanskar river is silt laden and muddy, nothing like the clear waters of the Ganges at Rishikesh – but for an adventure sport it provided us with the thrill of the rapids and the gorgeous view of the mountains changing colours with the variant of every rock – sometimes ochre yellow to violet mauve to ferrous red – this was something we could never witness anywhere else in the world. All suited up in our orange gear with a total of 8 in a boat we set across the rapids, screaming in exhilaration at every turn. My daughter in her masti as usual, kept teasing to push me over. Not one to stay calm and controlled in such a situation, my husband edged her on, enjoying my paranoid screaming. At last the Zanskar meandered its way slowly to converge with the clear blue waters of its sister, the river Indus, creating the perfect photo-op where the two dramatically different rivers met. Adventure over, we tucked into our sandwiches and downed a couple of Kashmiri teas that we were lucky to have found a vendor of. On our ride back I asked my hubby, “Is this what you mean by roughing it out? I’m not quite sure that I can do the Himalayan base camp with you.” He laughed at me, “You surely are a pampered princess!” But then my mind went back to the soldiers at the Siachen Glacier, saluting them again for all the hardships they endure.
The next morning though was another adventure – the highest motorable road in the world! Wow, this I felt I had to accomplish, no matter what it took. The Khardungla Pass at 18300 feet was a must do for sure. The catch was that one couldn’t be there more than 20 minutes as the thinning air could cause extreme discomfort to those not used to it. By now we were starting to get a hang of this “roughing it out” lifestyle… let’s do it, we decided in unison. So we packed some eatables as we were told it would take about 5 to 7 hours to reach there and took off. There were several instances while climbing the steep ghats that the traffic stalled as there wasn’t enough place for 2 motor vehicles to cross each other…but we finally made it. It was just enough time to say that we accomplished it when the problem started… My hubby started breathing heavily and my son had a nose bleed which just wouldn’t stop. We were carrying oxygen cylinders thankfully and the garam chai with bowls of Maggie that we polished off in a minute helped too. But after this any thought of seeing the Nubra Valley or the Lake Pangong of the 3 Idiots fame was put on the backburner. Maybe another time…
To be honest, for me my jannat was in Kashmir.