Warm memories of a cold desert

 

The cold desert of the country–Ladakh–is a place that will refresh your body, cleanse your soul and help you to attain peace of mind. It is a place where you will witness the power of nature and its unending relation with you. When I explored this Himalayan region it made me realise that the real happiness lies in enjoying the small treasures of life and welcoming the world with a smile.

They say, ‘be careful what you dream; it might come true’. I realised this when I recently made a trip to Ladakh with seven friends of mine.

Ladakh–a hotspot on the world travel map–is known for its exotic beauty, harsh winters and Buddhist culture. It is every traveller’s dream. Here you are exposed to the wonders of nature and left awestruck by the changing dynamic beauty of the exotic landscape. Lying in the region of Jammu and Kashmir, the northern-most state of India, with the Kunlun mountain range to its north and the main Great Himalayas to the south, it is inhabited by the people of Indo-Aryan and Tibetan descent. Ladakh is also one of the most sparsely populated regions of Kashmir.

The place invites you with open hands. However, it is very important to prepare oneself mentally and physically before accepting this invitation. It is a place where you are practically cut off from the humdrum of daily life.

When you reach Leh, one of the largest towns of Ladakh, your cell phone will stop working, you may not see a newspaper in the morning and there are absolutely no traces of city life.

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You will see Ladakhis enjoying life at their own pace in a very relaxed atmosphere – ‘susegad’. The climate of Ladakh and the high altitude calls for a slower pace. A holiday here is thus highly recommended for those who need a break from the fast paced life of the city and want to experience the real meaning of tranquility.

Our first stop was Leh where two days were devoted to only relaxing in the hotel room so that we could get acclimatised. Bring your favourite novel along, or you can chat with the locals, watch TV, etc.

There are various places to visit in Leh. Our first stop was the famous Leh Palace built in the 19th century. One gets a panoramic view of the city of Leh from this palace. Built predominantly of wood, mud and stones, it is also an example of typical Ladakhi architecture.

The next stop was at the confluence of Zanskar and the famous Indus River. Looking at the impressive River Indus, the river we had only read about in our text books, left an inexpressible impact on us. It was a confluence of the past and the present–a fragile connect–that left us in awe.

Another interesting spot is the Magnetic Hill. It is claimed that if a car is parked at a designated spot on this hill it is pulled backwards by the magnetic field that is believed to be present in the mountain. Yes, it does happen!

Ladakh is also known for its strong Buddhist culture and here we were treated with trips to various gompas and stupas. One such stupa is the Shanti Stupa. As the name suggests one can literally feel the peace here. Located at the top of a hill, there is a spectacular view of the surrounding town and the Great Himalayas awaiting the traveller.

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On the second day we visited the Shey Palace famous for the three storey-high copper glided statue of Lord Buddha. The Palace was built in 1650 and is one of the oldest in the region.

A trip to Ladakh was incomplete without a visit to the two famous monasteries– Thiksey and Hemis. The first thing that fills the visitor here is the riot of colours.

The walls are beautifully filled with Thangs (traditional Buddhist paintings), prayer flags and also the famous statue of Maitreya Buddha at this monastery that is equally colourful. Every corner of these gompas has a story to tell and a hurried visit will not do it justice.

The Hemis Monastery is the richest monastery of Ladakh. Situated 45 km from

Leh, the monastery was re-established in 1672 by the Ladakhi king Sengge Namgyal. The annual Hemis festival honouring Padmasambhava is held here in early July. We were not so fortunate to see this dance but we did manage to see the rehearsals conducted by the resident Lamas there.

After visiting places in and around Leh we were now ready to explore other places of Ladakh. First on the list was Pengong Lake. However, sometimes life doesn’t go according to plan. Our trip was halted due to sudden snowfall. It was an unusual experience as it is summer in Ladakh. But we considered ourselves lucky as we got the chance to experience snowfall, a first for most in the group.

During this ordeal, the Indian Army, which is predominantly stationed here as it is a border state, provided all logistic help. These soldiers tirelessly serve the tourists there and play a major role in promoting this place.

This delayed us by an entire day, but we utilised it for travelling and managed a visit to the Pengong Lake only the following day.

This lake, formed by the melting of glaciers, does not sustain life as the salt content in the lake is very high. The interesting fact is that we share this lake with China – this 130-odd km lake shared by India and Tibet is now under China’s rule.

The following day saw us at another lake–the Tso Moriri. The climax of the Bollywood flick, ‘Three Idiots,’ was shot here and thus it is now gaining popularity as a tourist spot. If you are interested in birding than this is the spot for you as Tso Moriri is home to many migratory birds during the summer.

With a packed itinerary for day 6, out first stop was at the Khardungla Pass.

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Eighteen thousand, three hundred and eight feet above sea level, the pass is the highest motorable road in the world. However, it is advisable that one should not wait for more than 20 minutes here as there are chances of succumbing to altitude sickness due to low oxygen levels.

A disheartening sight was the trash littered at the foothills. It only shows how we do not care to conserve our natural heritage.

After a brief stop at this pass we made our onwards journey towards the most scenic Nubra Valley. Here the scenery is quite different as you will see more green patches, sand dunes and even waterfalls. Here, in the Partapur village, there is an attempt being made to protect the dwindling species of double-humped camels. In India, these camels are only found here. You could enjoy this valley more closely with a bumpy ride on this camel.

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Next was the famous Siachen Base Camp, where Indian soldiers are trained to sustain at the Siachen Glacier – the world’s highest battlefield. Here, we were afforded with a glimpse into the tough life of these soldiers who see only snow throughout their six-month posting here. It is a tough life but they conquer it with their determination and hard work.

There is also the famous OP Baba Temple dedicated to an Indian army soldier. There is a belief that he is still alive and warns the army about dangers. One of the officers then gave us some information about the Siachen Glacier. There is permanent military presence of India and Pakistan at a height of 21,000 ft above sea level. But this glacier is melting. The continuous flow of water from one of the glaciers at the base brought the harsh reality of climate change home.

Climate change has affected Ladakh the worst. The recent flash floods due to a cloudburst in August 2010 are a classic example of this. The remains of this catastrophe are still visible in some parts of Ladakh. This melting of glacier is just the tip of the iceberg.

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The last leg of our journey was a visit to Kargil. This town is like any other town but the strict military presence tells a different story. The sight of Tiger Hill from our vehicle does remind us about the soldiers who laid down their lives during the Kargil war of 1999.

After seeing the highs and lows of this cold desert, we made our journey on to the capital of Jammu and Kashmir, Srinagar. But in our hearts the fond memories of Ladakh were very strong. Coming back to our regular lives was not an easy transition as our souls were still in Ladakh. It is the place that has the capacity to pull you back. The simple lifestyle of the people who welcome you with a broad smile and the greeting ‘Jule’, which is Ladakhi for ‘Hello’ makes you realise that we are so caught up in our materialistic life that we miss out on the simpler pleasures in life.

Ladakh is a place that makes you realise how you are connected to nature and the real happiness that lies in being one with it.

This article was first published on The Navhind Times, Panorama, July 24, 2011

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