(Last Updated On: July 11, 2017)

Snow Storm and Sand Storm: A Day in Ladakh

Pangong LakeLadakh is known as the Cold Desert. We understood the real meaning of this phrase on our week-long visit to Ladakh this summer. We had visited and seen the beauty of the White Desert, the Rann of Kutch, white salty marshy desert! And here we witnessed the rugged, natural beauty of Ladakh! There was hardly any greenery.

There were mainly two types of trees.  One was locally called ‘Yulak’, a teak-like tree, a local variety of poplar, tall, but with very small rounded leaves, unlike teak. The wood from this tree was used for doors, windows and wood carving on the top of all windows.

The other was called ‘Yarfa’, another variety of poplar tree, but with slightly longer elliptical leaves and more foliage. These trees were trimmed in order to allow then to spread their branches and provide more shade and foliage. However, such vegetation was seen only around Leh situated at a height of 11,500 feet above sea level.

View of Snow capped mountains from Leh Palace!

View of Snow capped mountains from Leh Palace!

It was an amazing journey of 130 kms due North of Leh to the Nubra Valley. A journey of steep narrow mountains roads, the highest Pass, snow-capped mountains, snow fall, and sand dunes in Nubra Valley and a sand storm, all in a day’s drive! We started out from Leh and soon began a steep climb. The road was narrow and with sharp curves. I was scared stiff, must admit I’m scared of heights and steep falls. I had to keep my eyes closed at first, while the car took sharp turns on the narrow road.

So we climbed up to 15,500 ft. to the South Pallu check point. As we approached we found that we were among the snow-capped mountains and no longer clicking them from various strategic points. We got down from the car really excited to get photos close up of the snow and mountains. And then miraculously it began to snow. It was such a joy to see the first few drops of snow-flakes fall.

Among the snow capped mountains, near South Pallu, 15,500 ft

Among the snow capped mountains, near South Pallu, 15,500 ft

As we moved ahead the snow began to fall at a steady pace. It was a long time since I had experienced snow fall. The last I had seen snow fall was in 2013 and 2014 in the US. The speed of the car slowed down and the cars lined up as the army personnel were stopping gypsy jeeps like vehicles and helping to install iron chains on the wheel to prevent slipping and skidding. We had to stop again while a convoy of 24 army trucks passed, going downhill to Leh, perhaps to collect provisions for the army stationed on the mountain Passes.

Snow storm reduces visibility

Snow storm reduces visibility

Army faces stiff condition on the High Passes

Army faces stiff condition on the High Passes

White snow and clear blue sky above

White snow and clear blue sky above

We reached the top of the mountain range, the Khardungla Pass at 18,380 ft. We were Ok, and did not get any of the symptoms of breathlessness due the low oxygen levels in the air. It was one of the most exciting and high points of the day. The mountains around and the road was covered with fresh snow. With vehicles and people stomping around, much of the snow turned to ice. Vehicles and people were slipping and skidding over the ice.

While I was busy enjoying the scenery and capturing it, I suddenly saw my partner, who came looking for me, slip and fall on his side, the left shoulder taking the entire impact. Strangely, as I watched the fall, his entire body was in a straight line horizontal to the ground, almost like the Heroes in fight scenes in the Hindi re-make of Tamil-Telegu movies! Weird fall, said he felt he had no control and nothing to hold on to. Fortunately, he was fine, except for some soreness the next day!

Khardungla Pass, 18380 ft

Khardungla Pass, 18380 ft

On our way down from Khardungla Pass to Khardong village, we tried to capture the bright blue sky, but iPhones did not get the real colour!! The narrow roads allowed me to catch an icicle from the car and I held on to it till my hand froze! We climbed down to the North Pallu Check post at 16000ft.

Caught an Icicle!

Caught an Icicle!

As we began to descend further the scenery changed. We saw some herds of Yak. The snow on the mountains had melted, they were bear and brown and rocky. The colours of the rocks were fascinating, from black to brown to red and even green!Then the mountains changed to ravines, on the side of the road were deep-steep rocky gorges, with streams flowing eventually to the river Shoyak. My partner said, “Look the Grand Canyon! Kya yeh bhi koi Grand Canyon se kam hai?” I said, “Oh yeah, but don’t think you escape from our trip to the Grand Canyon!” another tourist spot on our bucket list.

Then the mountains changed to ravines, on the side of the road were deep-steep rocky gorges, with streams flowing eventually to the river Shoyak. My partner said, “Look the Grand Canyon! Kya yeh bhi koi Grand Canyon se kam hai?” I said, “Oh yeah, but don’t think you escape from our trip to the Grand Canyon!” another tourist spot on our bucket list.

The Ladakhi Grand Canyon

The Ladakhi Grand Canyon

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At some point of the descent we got a view of the Nubra Valley, at least one facet of it, a large river basin. Unlike the ravines earlier, there was greenery and cultivation around it and also the very large and grey muddy coloured River Shoyak.

The scene changed again as we moved on. The character of the desert, ‘Cold Desert’, began to appear. There was sand and sand dunes everywhere, large tracts of bear land. The vegetation changed again to short shrubs and desert like plants. We passed the Deskit village, with the Deskit Gompa, monastery, and on to Hunder Village. Hunder is the desert village with sand dunes and the famous two-humped camel.

Nomad herds woman graze Pashmina Sheep along Shoyak river

Nomad herds woman graze Pashmina Sheep along Shoyak river

The Hunder Village had miles and miles of sand dunes and tens of two-humped camels and of course tourists, mainly Gujaratis! We rode two-humped camels, Raja and Karishma. They were not as tall as the one-humped camels we rode in Jaisalmer. The experience was very comfortable and less scary.

As one of the young boys exclaimed, “We are in a desert with sand dunes and camels but wearing sweaters and coats!” What an amazing thought! It reminded me of my first encounter with a cold and freezing beach, a sea front. That was in Connecticut, a welcome party near Prof. Paul Schultz’s home! The same feeling of unnaturalness, freezing when in India we expect to be sweating (by the sea) or baking (in the desert)!

Two Humped Camels in Hunder Desert, Ladakh

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We walked up some sand dunes and sat down at the top where there was a steep slope. A Tamil family joined us on the slope. The father urged his son and later his daughter to slide down the sand dune slope.

The son soon did. I wondered how he would get back up. He clambered up. It was hard work. Then the sister slid down the slope too, both of them raced back to the top! Finally, the father decided to slide down too. The slope was very steep. He walked down a little and managed to clamber up where the slope was slightly less steep. Not bad for him!

Children slide down and clamber up the sand dunes

Children slide down and clamber up the sand dunes

While we sat on the sand dunes, a sandstorm rose. We were covered with sand. When it subsided we saw that the mountains around that we captured earlier on camera were almost invisible! The desert strangely had a river/stream flowing through it.

I was fascinated by the flowing stream. The water was cold in the Cold Desert! It had been a most remarkable day from the snow-capped mountains, snowfall, the desert, sand dunes, camels and a sand storm!

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Ladakh: A Confluence of Rivers and Lakes

Ladakh is a ‘Cold Desert’, but the snow-capped high mountains ensure that there is a stream of water trickling down during part of the year. These form little rivulets, streams, rivers and lakes. We witnessed a confluence of streams, rivers and lakes in our week in Ladakh.

As expressed in my blog post on “Soothing waterfront experience”, I love large bodies of water and ‘blue space’, water or sky! Not all water bodies in Ladakh were blue due to the continuous erosion of the soil and rock from the surrounding mountains. But still, their effect was captivating.

Our first view of the meandering River Indus was from the top of the Spituk Gompa, a Ge-lug-pa Monastery built by King Gras-Pa-Bumlde in the 14thCentury. On one side of the hill was the view of the Leh airport and on the other was the meandering River Indus with a lush green river bed. The Yulak and Yarfa (poplar) trees were planted in clusters adding to the greenery.

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Away from Leh as we drove up the mountains, close to Nimmoo Village, we got a magnificent view of the confluence of the Zanskar river and River Indus.

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The River Indus came down from the North, the Zanskar river came from the South West and the two came together in wedlock, a Sangam, and flowed together rapidly towards the South East forming part of the great Indus Valley.

It is said that at certain seasons of the year, the rivers have different colours and flow and wildness. But on that day both rivers were more or less muddy. The flow of the River Indus was more rapid and wild, while the Zanskar flowed in Jhankar (Melody). The confluence of the two took the form of the wild and fast flowing Indus.

We spent some time along the bank of the confluence of rivers. You could see the snow-capped mountains above from where the River Indus seemed to emerge. The hills and the immediate vicinity were brown and bare, but as we sat there the sun fell on parts of the hills and there was a remarkable play of light and shadow over the mountains.

The blueness of the sky above these hills was also calming and serene. As we sat drinking tea at the exact spot of the confluence we noted a strange effect on the river. The Indus came down fast and the Zanskar joined it, together they took off in a different direction rather wildly!

But the part of the river in between the two and closer to the shore where we sat seemed confused and appeared to be flowing in the opposite direction, or there was a sort of whirling effect in the water where both the rivers met with great force! Perhaps a part of Zanskar was resisting its loss of identity in merging with River Indus, clearly the stronger force!!

Zanskar: Resisting its loss of Identity?

Pangong Tso/Lake, Tibetan for” High grassland lake” at a height of 14270 ft. has a pristine beauty. It was largely ignored till the last two years when tourists began to throng the Lake. It was made famous by the Bollywood film “3 Idiots” starring Aamir Khan, supposedly based on Chetan Bhagat’s novel ‘Five Point Something”. The last scene of the film was shot at a particular point on the lake and made as though the experimental school by Wang Chuk was located by the Lake. The school Druk White Lotus School

The school Druk White Lotus School is in fact closer to Leh in a village called Shey.We reached the spot and it was incredibly beautiful. It was also freezing in May, as a cold wind was blowing from the West. We ran back to the car to get our winter gear, sweater, jacket, muffler, gloves!!

The prime attraction on the beach along the Lake was the yellow scooter supposedly driven by Kareena Kapoor, the heroine, in the film! There was a big poster of the scene mounted next to the yellow scooter. An entrepreneur was charging Rs. 50 to sit on the scooter and be photographed! When I tried to take a photo of the scooter he stopped me, but of course we got a shot from a distance!

The last scene of the film was shot at a particular point on the lake and made as though the experimental school by Wang Chuk was located by the Lake. The school Druk White Lotus School is in fact closer to Leh in a village called Shey.We reached the spot and it was incredibly beautiful. It was also freezing in May, as a cold wind was blowing from the West.

It was also freezing in May, as a cold wind was blowing from the West. We ran back to the car to get our winter gear, sweater, jacket, muffler, gloves!! The prime attraction on the beach along the Lake was the yellow scooter supposedly driven by Kareena Kapoor, the heroine, in the film! There was a big poster of the scene mounted next to the yellow scooter. An entrepreneur was charging Rs. 50 to sit on the scooter and be photographed! When I tried to take a photo of the scooter he stopped me, but of course we got a shot from a distance!

We ran back to the car to get our winter gear, sweater, jacket, muffler, gloves!! The prime attraction on the beach along the Lake was the yellow scooter supposedly driven by Kareena Kapoor, the heroine, in the film! There was a big poster of the scene mounted next to the yellow scooter. An entrepreneur was charging Rs. 50 to sit on the scooter and be photographed! When I tried to take a photo of the scooter he stopped me, but of course we got a shot from a distance!

We reached the spot and it was incredibly beautiful. It was also freezing in May, as a cold wind was blowing from the West. We ran back to the car to get our winter gear, sweater, jacket, muffler, gloves!! The prime attraction on the beach along the Lake was the yellow scooter supposedly driven by Kareena Kapoor, the heroine, in the film! There was a big poster of the scene mounted next to the yellow scooter. An entrepreneur was charging Rs. 50 to sit on the scooter and be photographed! When I tried to take a photo of the scooter he stopped me, but of course we got a shot from a distance!

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There was also Yak riding on offer on very well adorned Yak. However, that industry was not doing well, due to the freezing breeze and competition from the “3 Idiots” yellow scooter.

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The next prime spot was the peninsular land jutting into the Lake on which the last scene of the film was shot. In the freezing icy wind we got there. It was beautiful, the colour of the water and the gentle lapping of the waves on the shore. Some of the mountains surrounding the Lake were snow-capped and some were various shades of brown. The mandatory photo-shoot of course, but the icy winds did not allow us to stand there for long. We were estimating the temperature to be – 2 deg C, with the wind chill. But our driver did not think so!

Some of the mountains surrounding the Lake were snow-capped and some were various shades of brown. The mandatory photo-shoot of course, but the icy winds did not allow us to stand there for long. We were estimating the temperature to be – 2 deg C, with the wind chill. But our driver did not think so!

Pangong Lake

We proceeded to the Royal Camp for the over-night stay and discovered that these were tents! With the icy winds still blowing I simply refused to stay the night in a tent! Royal Camp was able to arrange a swap with Woodland Cottages nearby. At least these were wooden huts and the wind did not blow through it! We settled for Cottage 302! And of course we froze for a few hours at night!

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It was only 4.00 p.m. and the wind had dropped. We were very close to the lake near the village and decided to walk down to it. The scenery with the lake, mountains, waves, rocks on the shore was magnificent. The view was panoramic. We found a comfortable rock and sat down on it to enjoy the calm, serene, atmosphere of the Pangong Lake!

The water was clear and you could see the large rocks and pebbles at the bottom. The waves lapped against the shore. The water was deep blue at the extreme end near the mountains, lighter shades of blue in the middle and nearly sea-green close to the shore. I was mesmerized as usual by the expanse of water and lulled by the sound of the little waves breaking on the shore.To capture it for posterity,  so here is a short video.

I was adventurous enough to touch the cold water and run when the waves touched my toe. A little, probably Scandinavian, kid was wading in the water in shorts with his mother encouraging him to do so! My partner tried his favourite trick. He picked up some flat stones and tried to throw it flat across the lake. First attempt one bounce, second attempt two bounces, and third attempt two bounces again. Not Bad! Bravo!

I was mesmerised as usual by the expanse of water and lulled by the sound of the little waves breaking on the shore.To capture it for posterity,  so here is a short video. I was adventurous enough to touch the cold water and run when the waves touched my toe. A little, probably Scandinavian,

A little, probably Scandinavian, kid was wading in the water in shorts with his mother encouraging him to do so! My partner tried his favourite trick. He picked up some flat stones and tried to throw it flat across the lake. First attempt one bounce, second attempt two bounces, and third attempt two bounces again. Not Bad! Bravo!

The changing colour of the Lake and of the Changchenmo Range of mountains to the North as the sun fell on different parts was equally mesmerizing! I remembered our Scientist friend who urged that children should be taken to the ocean and mountains to get the ‘sense of infinity’. The snow covered mountains on the Eastern side of the Lake are in China, the larger part of the Lake being with them. This apparently is the reason why no boating or any sports activity is allowed on the Lake.

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We walked further down to the Eastern part of the Lake watching the antics of the folks as we went along. The Lake also inspired creativity. The most common sport was to create ‘Pittu’ or ‘Seven Tiles’, placing rocks one on top of another to create a tower, balancing as many as possible. There were many small and large ones. The one that took the cake was four feet high and it was signed “With love forever, Allen and Rica from Taiwan”.

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We sat down by the lake and noted another ‘Pittu’ with, what my partner called ‘some mumbo jumbo’ done on it. There were some weird drawings on a paper and some orange cloth beneath the ‘Pittu”. We later learnt that these ‘Pittus’ are wish stones and aslo prayers for the departed souls. They were everywhere, particularly at the entrances to Monasteries. We sat down to enjoy the serenity of the Lake till we began to freeze again and started our walk back to Camp David!!

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Source: Ladakh: A Confluence of Rivers and Lakes
           Snow Storm and Sand Storm: A Day in Ladakh