You’ve probably known this place from the multi coloured flags tied to almost every single passing Royal Enfield you see on the street. Or it’s partly to blame 3 Idiots for featuring Pangong lake in one of its scene. But there’s much more to this land than just prayer bowls and flags! As they say, Ladakh begins where the road ends. From snowcapped mountains, to steaming hot springs– stretching sand dunes, to freezing glaciers, peace loving Lamas to a battle ready army. It’s got everything to leave you enchanted.
And so we left with an open mind, to explore the wonders of its countryside! Ladakh has 2 routes to it. One from the Manali side, the other from Srinagar. While one passes from the fabled NH1 through the Dras sector, the other is more treacherous passing through numerous mountain ranges and passes. We took the one from Manali to experience the adventure of high altitude passes and breathtaking landscapes.
1) The Manali – Leh route
Manali is perched on top of the Pir Panjal range and is a popular hill station for tourists in summer. While it’s famous for its fruit orchards growing apples and apricots in abundance, it’s also popular for some other forbidden fruits which are a legend only appreciated by the truly discerning.
The road to Ladakh from Manali begins as you leave behind the civilization and hustle bustle of the town. You’re accompanied by the tall deodar trees for a good distance until the ascent to Rohtang begins. Located at an altitude of 13000ft, Rohtang is Tibetan for a “pile of corpses” and owes its name to the deadly blizzards and avalanches in winter. The mind numbing chill is palpable even in the peak of summer which made us reach out for our jackets that were tucked into our backpacks until now. The road then descends into Lahaul Spiti valley. Far into the distance, you see the twin peaks of Gyephang, revered by the people of the Lahaul valley.
The Chandra river gushes down this valley turning the barren landscape into lush green pastures. Although sparsely populated, the people of this valley have discovered new enterprising ways to make use the mineral rich land by cultivating high yield cash crops like broccoli, potatoes and cauliflower. We stopped for pictures with some of the locals who were kind enough to give us a taste of their fresh harvest. The Chandra river picks up speed and swells in size at Tandi where it meets the Bhaga and continues its pace eastward until it empties into the Chenab.
We continued our journey on the hilly road road and reached Keylong. The first thing that you see as you enter the town is the Lady of keylong peak. The peak owes its name to a mysterious and bare snowless patch resembling a lady with a sickle. Surrounded by snowy peaks on all sides, we left the town behind and moved on to the next town of Jispa. This is where most of the tourist stop by to spend the night on their way to Ladakh.
Located on the banks of the Bhaga in the foothills of the Great Himalayan Range, the landscape of Jispa is dominated by snow clad peaks and glaciers. The place we stayed at had a curious name called “Hotel Ibex.” The name sparked our hopes of getting a glimpse of the elusive creature but we left with our hopes hanging on the future.
2) Bara-lacha Pass
Rough roads and too many high altitude passes made our next day drive tough. The first one among these was the famed bara-lacha la pass. The road from Jispa climbs onto the mountainous pass crossing onto a long stretch of terrain with glacial ponds. Two notable ponds here are the Deepak Tal and Suraj Tal, the latter being the source of the Bhaga river located just before Bara Lach La pass. Located at a towering height of 16000ft, the Bara Lach La is the “high point” enroute to Ladakh. The temptation to click selfies with snowy peaks in the backdrop is hard to get lost on travelers at this point. We got carried away with the pictures too and had to be dragged by our driver back into the car!
3) Lachulungla Nakeela
The winding road crosses 2 more passes, Lachulung la and Nakeela. The latter commands a dizzying series of 21 bends that climb you to a height of 16000ft once again! The hallmark of this terrain are the shimmering silver rocks adorning the mountains that fool your eyes for snow.
The road down the mountain pass is treacherous. Landslides and avalanches in winter are not an uncommon sight here. And wreckages of cars in the valley serve a poignant reminder of the difficult journey on this route. To claim their share of luck, travelers follow the Buddhist tradition of stacking up stones on the roadside for smooth and safe journey ahead. The anxious amongst us joined them and made one stack before we hit every mountain pass!
The trail down Nakeela pass is rocky with soaring cliffs commanding a great view of the valley below. The road then takes a few winding turns till you reach Lachulung la pass.
4) Morey Plains
As you rise up from Lachlung la, the landscape transforms to a magnificent vast plain stretching for miles and miles under the open sky. Wild Tibetan mules graze on both sides of the road giving the landscape a magical touch. Shanty huts of the Changpa tribe rearing the Pashmina sheep also pass by on this route. If you’re a movie director, looking for a location to shoot a romantic scene, where the couple is out on a drive and the leading lady sticks out her dupatta out of the sun roof, singing some clichéd line like “yeh machalti hawa,” this is the perfect spot made to order for you.
As you continue down the mountain pass from Lachulung la, without giving your eyes much respite, your gaze turns to some jaw dropping formations sculpted by wind onto the barren landscape! The whole geography seems surreal as if lifted straight out of a scene from Mereen in Game of Thrones! Will a dragon fly over us, you wonder and move on, admiring the arches, sand castles and marvels of nature that pass you by.
5) Taglang la Pass Leh
By the time we reached Taglang la pass, we were exhausted and tea and snack breaks became more frequent now. But the warm hospitality and ever smiling faces of the Ladhakis cheered up our spirits instantly. Their small dhabas serving Maggi and Momos in these hostile places serve as a lifeline for cyclists, bikers and all the travelers who flock this route. A few miles after Tung Lungla, the road was smooth and clear. And frequent sightings of fluttering prayer flags signaled our arrival into the heart of Ladakh.
A few miles further, we were greeted by the mighty Indus. Flowing with great force through the high rapids, the river was a great company to have on our last leg of the journey till Leh. On reaching Leh, we were tired and wanted to call it a day, but at the same time a little dejected to know that a mesmerizing journey on the most scenic route had come to an end!
I won’t be the first person to call Ladakh “Paradise in the North” but it doesn’t deserve to be called anything less. Until a few years back the place was untouched by tourism but today this place is under threat. While the army guards its frontiers against the external threat, more worrisome is the internal threat of careless tourists who’re destroying its mountains, lakes and natural habitat by dumping their plastic waste wherever they visit.
The good amongst us have the responsibility of preserving this place by spreading awareness. The Ladakhi saying goes, only the best of friends and the worst of enemies visit us. It’s upon the friends to defeat Ladakh’s worst enemies!