From the lush green mountains of the Kashmir valley to the multi-coloured mountains of Drass and Batalik, we marched onwards to the cold desert mountains of Leh in the Ladakh region. Not a tree could be spotted as far as the eye could see, it was only some snow covered peaks at a distance. But that didn’t mean that they were any less beautiful from what we had already seen. It was just a different kind of beauty, something you will not see anywhere else but in India. Amidst all this, we never miss an opportunity to pull our ride off-road and click a couple of shots.
This was not our first time in Leh. We visited Leh with our parents exactly a year ago. We flew then and as the flight was landing in this cold desert, we were just awe-struck then. Both of us thought that this is a place where we will come again, hopefully by road. A year gone, and here we were standing clicking the roads as if we were meant to be here, always. Less cars on road gave us an opportunity to park our ride, set up the tripod right in the centre of the road and capture the memories for years to come.
The best home stays in Leh are not available online and there are plenty of them there. We were happy we did not book an accommodation before arriving, so that we had an opportunity to choose our abode since we were there for almost a week. Gurgu Homestay, a 5-min walk from the main market was a perfect choice. With blooming gardens, large sized rooms and amazing hosts, we could not have asked for anything better. When we were in Leh a year ago, I had seen a young tourist sitting in his patio, sipping a cup of coffee and reading a book. Not sure why, but that whole setup had stuck my mind for long and I always wanted to replay it. A year later, I did it!
We tried many cafes and restaurants in Leh, but one that we kept on going to again and again was ‘The Lamayuru’. Coffee at ‘The OpenHand Cafe’ and a few meals at ‘The Tibetan Kitchen’, Leh is a food paradise for people of all tastes.
When in Leh, we had enough and more to do within and around the city, such as Gurudwara Pathar Sahib, Magnetic Hill, Hall of Fame, The Leh Palace (skip it!), the local market, Thikse Monastery, Rancho school, but that is not all. A few far off places were just amazing. We had visited the Pangong Tso (the lake from 3 Idiots movie) in our previous visit, so we thought of driving to the lesser visited but no lesser beautiful, Tso Moriri. A separate blog will talk about that in detail. Another place we had visited earlier, but we could not skip it still was the Khardung La Pass, the highest motorable road in the world at an altitude of 18,380 ft. above sea level.
If our car had any senses of it’s own, I doubt it would have ever imagined that it would drive down to the highest motorable road from Gurgaon. What a drive it is. Driving above the clouds does not remain a phrase anymore, it becomes a reality when you are driving to KhardungLa. It’s just snow all around you. You can see the clouds at your eye level. And you are still driving higher and higher. Eating Maggi and sipping coffee at the highest cafe in the world brings a sense of achievement for travellers like ourselves.
Driving past Khardungla, we were on our way to the land of the double humped camels, Nubra Valley.
1. If you are planning a trip to Leh for less than a week, apply for more leaves and extend it further. Anything less than that and you are not doing justice to the beauty of the Ladakh region
2. When in Leh, follow a few tips or else you will fall ill off mountain sickness. A couple of days before landing in Leh, start taking ‘Diamox’. The day you reach Leh, do nothing, absolutely nothing. Relax in your room and watch some television. Try to be a superman and your trip will be spoiled.
3. The food in Leh is to die for. Sadly, we prefer vegetarian food, but those who don’t, say that non-vegetarian is even better. Try different cafes, restaurants and coffee houses, but don’t miss
Many would argue that a trip to Leh is incomplete without visiting the Nubra Valley, and we concur. We missed visiting the Nubra valley on our last visit to Leh due to lack of time, but we made sure we don’t miss it this time. Since it is located in some of the restricted areas of the Ladakh region, an ‘Inner Line Permit’ is required to visit the region. We got it through a travel agent since we realised that we need a permit a little later and visiting the office ourselves would take us a long time. The cost is INR 600 per person per day, or INR 700 per person per week. An ILP is required to visit Nubra Valley, Tso Moriri and Pangong Tso, so we made sure we get a 7 day permit so that the paperwork is out of our way.
We made a small mistake and mapped ‘Nubra Valley’ on Google Maps, our guide across all destinations. Sadly, it is not rightly placed on Google Maps, so we had to come back 2 hours after someone told us to map ‘Hunder’ instead. It took us some time to reach, but we could not complain about the detour as well. The whole area is so scenic that a drive is never ever tiring.
On the way we visited the Diskit Monastery. It is really hard to miss, considering the size of the Budhha Statue which is visible from far far away. I always wonder how the monasteries are always located on top of one hill or the other. I am sure it is a mammoth task to build these structures but once built, they all are iconic. It is difficult to compare the grandeur of the structure with anything I had seen before, maybe the Buddha statue I had seen in Hong Kong long back.
We stayed at the ‘Wooden Nest’ there. One of the best places around with a small stream of water flowing through the resort and nice wooden cottages with all the amenities you could think of. There is no phone network in the whole region though, so be prepared to be cut off from the world while you are at Nubra.
Nubra is primarily famous for two things – it’s white sand deserts and the double humped camels which add to the beauty of these deserts. The view of a white sand desert surrounded by barren mountains all around is quite stunning. Don’t ask me the reason why the camels have two humps here and why are they not found elsewhere (well, yes they are also found in few numbers in southwestern parts of Kazakhstan too). I could not find a logical answer myself.
1. Nubra Valley is a huge valley, but the best places to see are in Hunder. Do not get confused if you are driving yourself.
2. One night stay in Nubra is good enough if you just want to visit the white sand desert and the double humped camels, but an extended stay won’t hurt if you are looking to spend some time away from the hustle bustle of the city.
3. If you plan to visit the Pangong Tso, go straight from here instead of going back to Leh first. There is a direct route from Nubra which is shorter and has better roads than travelling from Leh.
Tso Moriri is the less visited cousin of Pangong Tso which gained popularity in recent times because of it’s appearance in ‘3 Idiots’, the Bollywood movie. Moriri Lake is almost 6 hours drive from Leh. The drive to the lake is as or more beautiful than the lake itself. The roads are part built and part broken, but we did not get the time to focus on the road since the surroundings were mind blowing.
On our way, we stopped over at one of the most romantic parks we had seen. It is not anywhere to be located on Google Maps but surely has a name - ‘RaniBagh’. The trees were tall and the leaves so yellow. It reminded us of the old Bollywood movies. I am sure a few of the old movie songs were shot here when the actors and actresses used to dance around the trees in most of the songs.
The colours around us were just magical – the mountains, the trees, the grass, the water and the road. It seemed like a fairy land where it was just the two of us. Lack of cars on the road were an indication of how less traversed these roads were.
Clicking pictures with our faces away from the lens is just our thing. We believe that the person looking at the image focuses more on the person than the beauty around if the subject is facing the camera. We tend to get most of our pictures clicked this way, and we are just not into editing the photos beyond a point.
We spotted a few stallions next to the narrow roads leading to Tso Moriri. There is another small lake on the way, called ‘Kyagar Tso’. No one stops by these lesser known places but believe me, it’s not always the places which are famous that are good. These lesser known places are the real gems which remain untouched and hence more beautiful.
Next morning, we woke up to this view from our room. Absolutely clear and blue sky, cottony white clouds, sparkling clean water in the lake and the freshest air anyone can inhale.
A drive to Tso Moriri is so memorable that even today, I dream of being next to the lake and waking up to this view. It’s a place bookmarked to be visited again whenever I get a chance.
1. If you have to choose between Pangong Tso and Tso Moriri, choose the former if you care more about the destination and the latter if the journey matters more to you.
2. Kyagar Tso and Tso Kar are two smaller lakes near Tso Moriri. When visiting Tso Moriri, stop by them as well. These are the less visited ones, but worth a pitstop.
3. There are few hotels as well in Karzok, but there is nothing better than staying in a homestay and interacting with the locals here. They are super helpful and hospitable and would tell you stories a hotelier can’t.
Stopping by innumerable number of times just to get a few shots with the flowing river and the high standing mountains, we passed through Zozilla pass, the pass which shuts down come October due to heavy snowfall. We had tea, coffee and Maggi at point zero. We stop by for the love of Maggi everywhere we can.
We had never seen a more beautiful place than Drass. It somewhere made Srinagar look somewhat less beautiful. We stayed at the D’ Meadows hotel, the only hotel in Drass. During our evening stroll, we met a few army officers who had crazy stories to tell and advised us to visit the Kargil War Memorial which is actually in Drass.
We paid homage to the martyrs at the war memorial and could see all the peaks we had captured during the Kargil war in 1999. Tiger Hill, Batra Top, Tololing – all the peaks looked so calm and serene as if nothing ever happened there. It is only for us to imagine, how many soldiers lost their lives on these mountains less than 20 years ago.
One of the army officers was kind enough to take us for a walk in a local village in Drass. We were amazed to learn the customs and beliefs of the people there. There was not a single girl who did not go to school. The boys give dowry to the girls family at the time of marriage. Everyone works super hard in the mountains day and night. A month before the winter comes, the only job everyone does is stock wood for the winters in there house, since the weather gets so extreme that no one can even step out of there house to collect wood. There is a fire inside the house 24x7 which keeps the house warm. The people up there face the real hardships and they still had nothing to complain about. Everyone lives happily helping each other in every way possible.
1. The drive from Srinagar to Drass is just a 4 hour drive through Sonmarg, Baltal, Zozilla Pass and Point Zero. It is probably the most scenic drive you will ever see in your lifetime.
2. Kargil War Memorial is a must visit when in Drass. You will feel more patriotic than you have ever felt hearing the stories of the brave men and the martyrs.
3. Don’t just hide in your hotel room fearing the extreme weather. A stroll on foot through the villages will teach you a lot more than what you would ever learn in school.
When we started our drive from Drass to Leh, we felt that we have already seen the best and there could not be anything better than this. We had two options for our road journey – go straight to Leh via Mulbekh and Lamayuru, or take a short detour and visit Batalik. The pictures tell you clearly which route we took and we do not regret it even in our dreams. Yes, the roads were not as smooth as we would have wanted them to be, but well, we were not here to just drive on creamy roads.
The landscape is just amazing and we loved every bit of being on the road while on our way to Batalik. There were smooth roads, and rough patches, but all-in-all, BRO has done an amazing job maintaining the roads at such a high altitude.
There was a river flowing with turquoise blue water all through our journey and we just didn’t feel tired of being on the road. We encountered one or two cars throughout on the road from Drass to Batalik. If we had to stop or slow down our car at any point of time, it was either to click some beautiful shots, at some crazy hairpin bends or to give way to flock of sheep.
Around 60 kms north of Kargil and a few kilometres before Batalik is located one of the finest villages we have seen. It is one of the very few ‘Pure Aryans’ village, called the Darchiks. The entrance of the village is guarded by an army post and the village is a couple of kilometres inside from the main highway. The residents are super friendly and live off agriculture as their main source of livelihood. They have the juiciest of fruits and the freshest of grains. We had the opportunity to pick a pear from the tree and nibble on it and I had not eaten a more juicy pear in my life.
The Aryans wear a head gear which is considered holy and they wear it at all public gathering or when celebrating any occasion. One of the women was kind enough to lend Sidhi one to click a shot.
The villagers were so hospitable that they welcomed us into their house and offered us some dry fruit along with the traditional tea which they call Po-Cha, a butter tea primarily made of salt, green tea, water and yak butter. Primary reason for using salt instead of sugar is the availability of the raw materials.
1. When driving from Drass to Leh, do not forget to visit the Darchiks village and Batalik. The road might be a little rough but it is all worth it.
2. Read about the Aryans and the Brokpa community – there is a lot to know about them if you are interested.
3. It might look like a rocky desert, but the fruit and grains available in region are of great quality and taste really really fresh. Don’t miss out on tasting some fruit here.