Tag Archives: Himalayan Trek

Celebrating a mountain wedding in the Himalayas at Geu

The weather had gotten colder and windier when I woke up that morning at the Nako homestay. The met department had issued an alert for a possible snowfall in the next 48hours. After finishing my breakfast, I decided to head further up the highway. My intention was to drop by a village named Geu, enroute and reach Tabo for the night’s stay. Geu is a small deviation from the highway with no direct connectivity of public transportation. I enquired with a couple of people at Nako for a taxi and I was offered a round trip for Rs.4000. I didn’t want to return and having to pay that amount even for a drop seemed more since I was on a budget trip. I decided to take a chance and go there by myself. I boarded the next public bus until Geu cross and hoped to hitch a ride to Geu or hike up the 8kms road leading to the village. ‘Why so much adventure?’, one may ask curiously. “I wanted to see a mummy in India, the unknown, for which Indians travel to afar countries.” Not many people know that there are about five mummies in India itself, out of which the one I was going to see is of a Buddhist Llama. It is believed to be over 500 years old and has been there in the open without any preservatives.

After alighting at the Geu Cross, I waited at the small bridge for about half an hour, hoping for a ride. As the cold winds were getting harder to stand, I decided to start walking up the trodden road with my backpack. Just then, a pick-up truck came in honking behind me. I put my hand forward signalling them to stop. The driver told me that he was sorry as the seats were filled with more people than what it could accommodate. It seemed to me like they were a large family, all dressed up in their ethnic Kinnauri attire. I told them it was Ok for me if they let me sit in the trailer. “The weather isn’t good outside. You will feel cold.” He politely said out of concern. I told them I’d be fine and hopped on after he nodded an approval.

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The Buddhist shrine atop the hill at Geu

The drive along the next 7kms to Geu was as insane as it could get. The super bumpy road runs parallel to a river in a scenic yet landslide prone barren land. Hence, there is no tarmac and is filled with rocks and gravel all the way. If not the thick layer of thermals and my balaclava, I would look like a zombie doused in south-Indian sambar. I mean, there was a thick layer of dust all over me from head to toe, all thanks to the open trailer and dry winds. It was already noon when I reached Geu. The family with whom I had got a lift until there, invited me to join them for lunch. They had come there to attend the wedding of a family member, they said. It was a small hamlet with about 15 households and no hotels or restaurants. When I turned down their invitation telling I had to head back asap after seeing the mummy, they insisted me to join them in the celebrations and that something can be managed for the night’s stay. I nodded an unsure okay!

Next thing I saw myself doing was being guided into the dining hall with a grand welcome alongside a traditional Kinnauri Band baaja. The meal served mainly comprising of wheat bread, dry fruits and nuts was healthy and simple as per the norms of rest of India where a wedding food is usually heavy on ghee, oil and sweets. The welcome drink too was a subtle namak wali chai, being served from a centrally placed firewood oven in the dining hall. I was force-fed and taken care of as if I were a part of their family (and the village itself). There is always this special thing about the people in the hills, their hospitality would have no match. After the meal, the Bride’s village got ready to welcome the groom to Geu. He belonged to Hurling village. It was an evening of colour, music, dance and fun. I got to experience a tradition which I had never heard of until that evening… Just a couple of hours ago, it was not even in my faintest thoughts that I’d be dancing in the mountains along with the baraatis (the wedding convoy, as it is called in India). What an unbelievable experience!

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The Kinnauri women in their traditional ceremonial costume

After the baraatis were taken inside the house, A few villagers and I walked up the small hill where exists a Buddhist shrine. The mummy is housed in a small room alongside the shrine whose key was taken from one of the caretakers at Geu. When I got there, I was rather surprised to see this mummy comfortably sitting in the open room…. With no preservatives, no wrapped fabric and just a small glass case to keep it away from direct human touch of the visitors, it is still very much intact. Its hair and nails are believed to be still growing. While the locals with me offered their prayers to this mummy Llama, I was watching this INCREDIBLE piece of science and faith!

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The mummy Llama

With the setting sun and dropping temperature, the winds were getting stronger and we all headed back to the house. Each house was filled with so much chit-chatting and laughter going on, around the central fireplace where the guests were munching on the local snacks and hot brews. I was accommodated in a large warm room at the village’s only guesthouse. My stay was sorted for the day and I heaved a sigh of relief for the faint doubt I had until I had a confirmed place to stay.

Very unusual to a regular day in the mountains where all villages sleep early, the celebrations had only begun at 07.00.p.m. to say the least. The evening faded into night and the night became morning… The wedding was an all-night affair. There was food, drinks, dance, songs and so much fun as in any wedding. Everyone had lost sense of the freezing temperatures outside the hall. What was surprising? While there was so much fun and frolic inside the wedding hall, the men in uniform from the Border Security Force continued to perform their duties outside, walking around the village keeping vigil on infiltrators. “The Chinese territory lies just behind this hill”, a localite explained. “We have our kith and kin who are married off there. They are all Kinnauri and share exactly same culture as us. Sadly, they can’t come here to join the festivities because they are Chinese. It is not that we don’t meet, Chup-Chup-ke koi climbs the hill and comes here and goes off there occasionally. That’s why the BSF is here”, he said. It was 02.00.a.m. when I returned to the guest house with a few others to get some sleep before a long day that followed.

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The Kinnauri men in their traditional ceremonial costume

I woke up at sunrise the next morning and got myself ready with my backpack. I had to find transportation and hence wait until someone was heading out of the village. From 07.00.a.m., I was walking up and down the village street because I had to keep burning calories to keep myself warm. The villagers noticed me and insisted me to have breakfast with them. Just as I was washing my plate, I heard a car. The Maruti 800 was already carrying more than its capacity. As I continued to wait, another pickup truck ignited its engine. It too was full. Yet, I found another pickup. The driver said he would go only after all the members came. I said I will wait with him for them to come. A good half an hour and three cups of tea later, the members finally arrived. I was again seated in the trailer with a couple of others on our way out. This time, the cold windy, dusty and bumpy drive was accompanied with some nice warm conversations with the mountain people. We arrived at Hurling; the groom’s house was a short hike up the hill from the main road. The family insisted me to tag along with them for the second day too. “You have seen only half of the ceremonies at the Bride’s village. Now, the convoy with the couple will arrive here to continue the celebrations at the groom’s house. We came early to see that all arrangements are in place before the rest arrive. Please join us.” They insisted. Hurling was halfway to my next destination- Tabo. As tempting as the invitation sounded to experience a complete mountain wedding, the fear of getting stranded in a snowfall made me decide to find a way to reach Tabo asap!

Thus, ended an experience of a lifetime- A wedding in the mountains! There is always magic in these mountains and its people that will keep calling me back again and again!

The Mountains beckon in the Apple valley of India- Kinnaur

I wasn’t sure if solo-traveling would be safe in Chhattisgarh, the campsite wasn’t ready yet for a Gujarat trip, Rajasthan had the election around the corner albeit having the perfect weather, the public transportation system wasn’t convenient in Arunachal, Uttarakhand had unpredictable weather of late, Jammu was done just last year, Dharamshala stretch would be too mainstream, Lakshadweep was too short a trip for the time I had. Maybe I should just settle down with the Sahyadris in Maharashtra or sign up for a fortnight long yoga session at Rishikesh or a Yakshagana course at Mangalore perhaps! I had tele-travelled almost the whole of India to decide where I wanted to go. And then, this happened! Just 4 days before departure, the mountains beckoned and I had finally decided to visit the Kinnaur valley in Himachal Pradesh.

Nothing was clear to me apart from the to & fro flights to Delhi. People around me were busy and my vacations couldn’t wait, lest they be lapsed without pay or without use. Although not very keen on solo travelling, I think that’s how life threw itself upon me when I longed to go to the mountains! The mountains have always been kind to me and have had me meeting them regularly over the last 4 years. I don’t know the reason for this special bond I share with the mountains. May be because I come from a nature worshipping community, that my connection with them is so instant and strong. The mountains had me amidst them yet again. From being a shy kid at ice breaking in public gatherings to having done a complete solo backpacking in an off-season, to meeting and hanging out with strangers and making new friends from travels, my journeys have brought me a long way! The mountains have been kind and have protected me all the way…

Given that I would be alone and I get muscle cramps when the temperature drops, the one thing I had to make sure while planning my trip was to not push myself too hard to see too many places or do anything that could drain me out. Hence, I decided to do it one place at a time, plan my next destination only after reaching a place and move only when I felt like I had sunk in well in the current place. So that said and Kinnaur had me there! After I had reached Himachal, there was absolutely no fear of being a solo-women traveller and no worries over safety concerns at any point of time. The people were amazing who derive their strength from their deep values… From being stopped by random locals on the road and being offered the juiciest apples from the valley to eating local food and getting invited to houses for coffees, from befriending the locals and then to being invited to attend a traditional Kinnauri wedding, from waiting for the day’s only public bus or hitch a ride to having stuck in a place for 3 days without any electricity or transportation due to snowfall, from meditating in the millennium old monastery to confronting a mummified Llama in the mountains, from driving past a valley of green-rock-and-sand onward to having returned through the same valley painted white in snow, from being seen-off by a close friend at the trip start to I seeing-off a stranger at the end of the trip: Whoa! What a journey it was!

So, the route taken by me was: Delhi-Kalka-Shimla- Sangla-Rakchim-Chitkul-Sangla- Reckong Peo-Kalpa- Nako- Geu- Tabo- Rampur- Sarahan- Shimla- Delhi. Some of the key destinations enroute and things I did were:

• The trip started with the ‘Himalayan queen’ train from Delhi and then I connected to the mountain railways from Kalka to Shimla, a part of the UNESCO World heritage. Stopping at several stations enroute, a ride in the loco thugging along the narrow-gauge through in-numerous tunnels and winding pathways in between the green pine laden cliffs and verdant hills was worth an experience.

• The hustle of the desi music blasting at full volume had filled the atmosphere as the HPSRTC bus I boarded at Shimla cruised through thickets of sweet smelling Juniper and deodar. A solo snow laden peak emerged from amidst the green mountains. Call it layers of dew laden and mist covered hills, they sparkled as the sun’s early rays found their way forming several vibrant spectrums as the morning ride gave me the first glimpse of a horizon that had a never-ending line of snow-capped mountains.

• When the bus alighted at Sangla after making its way through steep gradient, blind corners and breath-takingly scary heights of the snaking roads, the sun was calling it a day. It had cast a golden red glow to the entire range of Kinnaur Kailash mountains. I couldn’t have asked for more as I stood there to be welcomed by this magnificent view right in front of the bus stand. The hike up the Kamru fort to catch the golden peaks up close was a cherry on the icing.

• The next day was an exhilarating bus ride through the Sangla valley, overlooked by the Kailash mountains on one side and the beloved untamed Baspa river flowing below. The ride was adventurous with waterfall and river crossing, cliff-hangers, landslides and occasional sightings of mountain goats or yaks. Quick stop-over at Batseri village painted in shades of crimson, chrome to ochre with the trees of apples, apricots and walnuts was a feast to the eyes. A walk down to the river at Rackcham helped me to connect with the Kinnauris with very warm conversations. They offered me a ride through apple orchards and buck wheat farms before meeting the sole Indian tricolour waving at Chitkul, a village bordering China & Tibet.

• The following morning, I started early to Kalpa- a quaint tiny village with old traditional houses amid the Kinnaur apple farms. A solo hike through the suicidal roads to Roughi village turned out to be special when a random dog decided to accompany me all the way. Again, the setting crimson sun cast its magical spell over the manifestations of Shiva and Parvathi seated conveniently in the Kinnaur Kailash mountains overlooking the village. With the chants from the Buddhist monastery next door and swaying prayer flags as I looked out of my window the next morning, I couldn’t ask for a better start for my day.

• That day, I did a bit of shopping and grooving to traditional Kinnauri music with the locals at Reckong Peo, the ‘Gateway to Kinnaur valley’. It was the annual fair where people from all over the state had congregated to buy and sell local Agri-products and handicrafts apart from sipping the local apple brew. Packets of pine-nuts, dried apples and apricots along with the traditional Kinnauri hats were perfect souvenirs to take back before boarding the bus to my next destination.

• This road is when the landscape starts to surprise you. The green canopies make way to steep rocky cliff-hangers. The on-going construction of the Karcham Wangtoo dam only warns you to be aware of shooting stones where landslides are as common as confronting vehicles from the opposite direction on the single-track road. And then, the Rocky mountains disappears suddenly making way for barren landscapes with sand and loose rock laden cliffs. The blue Sutlej river snaked between the valley and the view of the treacherous roads winding around the steep gradient hills was indeed a sight to behold! It was pitch dark and biting cold when I alighted at Nako, to check into a homestay under the clearest star-studded night’s sky.

• Although the weather had gotten more colder, it was one of the finest mornings so far. A walk around the village of Nako, with mud-smeared walls of houses built of wood and clay is one of the highlights of my entire trip. While strolling through those narrow walkways of the village, I felt as if I was exploring a maze. With the early morning vibes of a typical village with cattle roaming around, children walking down to schools, chants and incense from the ancient monastery rising in the dew laden air, it was an altogether different world there. The view of the distant snow-capped mountains and the barren winding landscape around had me spellbound for the rest of the day.

Next destination was Geu, a village that can be reached only if luck be by one’s side. Having no direct connectivity through public transportation, I waited on the highway hoping to hitch a ride to a place that is often cut-off due to landslides. It was wedding bells chiming in this tiny hamlet that day… I was fortunate, to say the least! A large family heading towards Geu not only obliged to offer me a ride in the trailer of their crowded goods carrier, they also invited me to be part of the celebrations. From being treated with the finest Kinnauri delicacies to dancing with the baraathies in a traditional mountain wedding, I could not ask for more. It was an all day and all night affair!

• I woke up in the biting cold next morning to hike up the hill and pay a visit to the mummy of a Buddhist monk, believed to be over a 500yrs old. Strangely, it has been there in open atmosphere without any chemicals and among the only few mummies available in India. Quick breakfast at the wedding house and I was good to head out by hitching another ride until Hurling.

• The weather had gotten worse that day with a forecast of precipitation by day end. As I waited at Hurling for my next ride, the guy making rotis at a hotel offered me a cup of free chai and got me a free drive with his customer to my next destination. With a loaded car and a person with a broken leg hanging out of the rear seat, the people who agreed to drop me were more than sweet to accommodate me in the front seat and they carry my backpack on their lap all the way in the rear seat.

• So then… Tabo happened! This was the place I had been looking forward to all the way. Considered to be one of the holiest places for the Tibetan Buddhists, I sunk into meditation mode for good few hours with the soothing fragrance of the Juniper interiors of this millennium old monastery constructed out of clay. It was BLISS and I can’t explain it further. The millennium old paintings all over its inner walls and roofs, the golden manuscripts were something incredible. Since artificial light sources are believed to damage the organic colours, I eagerly waited for specific time of the day for the sun to light up specific rooms to see this wonder. It is called the ‘Ajanta of the Himalayas’ for a reason, you see!

• The morning when I woke up, the mountains had moved closer to me with a heavy overnight snowfall. This was a sight to which the heart of a snow-deprived-south-Indian-city girl in me had skipped a beat. I had to extend my stay at this monastery due to heavy snowfall for next 2 days and with no electricity, phone connectivity and no plumbing that worked whatsoever, it was ‘THE” time! Amid all this, I had the rare opportunity to relish the Tabo apples (one of the best in the world) every day of what was being offered to the deity at the monastery.

• Finally, after getting my drive back to Shimla- I had plans to stop by at Rampur Bussahr to see the erstwhile palace and stay at Sarahan, one of the Shakthi peethas in the foothills of the Himalayas. But, the mountains had an altogether different itinerary for me for the last 3 days! So, thus was my sojourn in the Himalayas, the mighty incredible Himalayas!

Since Rohtang pass had closed by end of monsoon, I did only Kinnaur and half Spiti and returned the same way back (Although a little hectic with 3 days required only for travel, on the same route). If you are traveling in the summers, then you can start from Shimla and complete Spiti & Lahaul via Kaza and exit from Manali, thereby not repeating your route.

Summary: With the changing landscape throwing surprises at the wink of an eye, each mile was magic. The valleys were overwhelmingly beautiful! When the mountains beckon, just pack your junk and head out! The destination doesn’t count, the journey is worthwhile!

This article is featured in Deccan Herald’s Travel supplement: ‘DH Travel’ on 25-May-2019

Enraptured on my way- at Sarthal

Talk about beautiful places in India- my mind will take me to this untouched valley in the lower Himalayas tucked away from the maddening frenzy of the tourists in the Kathua district, located in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Thanks to snowfall in the winters, this region will be cut off from civilization for almost 6months and when the snow disappears, it does not fail to mesmerize every passerby with a different landscape each time.

So, my journey here started on a rainy morning as a part of the Himalayan expedition from Basohli towards Sarthal. In a bid to keep myself warm (like duh!!) I opted a seat in the comfort of the tempo-traveler over a pillion seat of a bike. Although I regretted my choice later, I had my share of fun getting to stop the vehicle almost everywhere and capture the beauty of the landscape all along. The consistent rains over the past couple of days had brought in greenery for as long as the eyes could see. With winding roads, I was accompanied by the tributary of river Ravi on one side and vibrant hills on the other for most part of the road. There was even a magnificent stretch of the dam backwaters and dotting waterfalls by the roadside that added their charm to the beautiful landscape. We stopped over at one of the small rivulets where we relished the packed lunch we had carried for ourselves. The drive along the curvaceous roads almost until the town of Bani is definitely a delight for every passionate rider. Bani is the last major town one arrives until the next destination on this stretch where we all stopped by for a cup of tea. The roads beyond Bani gets a little treacherous with poor roads, deep valley and possible landslides. I remember how we had missed a landslide by a whisker!! But, the beauty of the mountains did not let us down even a bit and continued to fascinate us all the way. It was dark by the time we arrived at the ‘Tourist Reception Centre’ where we were hosted by the Jammu tourism for the night’s stay. Comfortable tents were pitched in with bon-fire to keep us warm through a cold night under a clear starry night’s sky that I had been longing for a long time…

Enroute to Bani from Basohli

When I came out of my tent at the break of dawn- I was blown away with the beauty of the place. Our camp site was surrounded by the beautiful mountain on all sides which we barely knew of while sleeping through the freezing night! The tranquil atmosphere was filled with fragrant air that carried perfumes of wildflowers from the distant mountains. While the other fellow travelers seemed to be snoring still, I decided to venture out to explore the place on my own… After a small stroll amidst the livestock including buffaloes, sheep, goats, horses, donkeys etc. outside the camp, I was warmly greeted by a Gujjar family for a cup of ‘Desi Chai’ with them. The life of these Bakarwals (the shepherd community) was a good motivation for the nomad in me. They are continuously on the move with their makeshift tents who earn their livelihood purely through diary and wool. Meanwhile, I was joined by my brothers who then decided to walk further towards the Gujjar settlements on the slopes. The beautiful setting with rock-laden plains, flat-roofed clay/rock houses, the sturdy wooden bridges across the murmuring stream hoaxed us to get into its ice-cold water. It was a wonderful morning!!

Livestock at Sarthal

We then decided to rush on the bikes to soak in the views of the Lawang valley that we had missed out on the previous evening, since we had travelled after sunset. For the pious ones, there are several temples around the valley that can be done by foot all of which have Chandi mata as the presiding deity. We were looking out for an adventurous trail. We were fascinated by the beauty of the seven waterfalls at around 3kms behind our campsite. The stream that probably originates from the molten glaciers, gushed down in seven tiers making it a surreal place. We wished we had more time with us to hike down the valley and spend a couple of peaceful hours by the water, alas! A quick breakfast post this short ride and we had to pack-up for the road ahead towards Baderwah… Since, the TT I was travelling in was the backup vehicle, we had to drive behind the last rider… So when a rider stayed back with more than 10 punctures in a single tyre, it meant that we had over 2 hours of time to kill… Meanwhile, I hiked up a small hillock from where I got a good view of the Gujjar valley below… Along with a couple of unicorns that had strayed down from nowhere, the local flora was another thing that caught my attention up there!! After spending a couple of peaceful hours, the silence of the atmosphere was broken by the roaring beasts (bikes) that hinted us to get ready to continue our onward journey…

The Gujjar settlements at the Sarthal valley

The roads that we traversed ahead came as a stunner… The drive through the loose gravel laid roads flanked by tall pine trees, snaking through virgin hills which was abundantly blessed with wild flowers of different colours seemed nothing less than traveling in a fairyland. I enjoyed every bit of this road all the way up to Chattargala top, the highest point in this area. We shared a cup of tea and a nice conversation with the soldiers of the Indian army posted up there. Bidding a warm goodbye to them, I then hopped on to the pillion seat of brother’s bike and got set to pull down the valley to our next destination- Baderwah!

Summary:

Must do:

* Spot a white vulture at the Chattargala top. These birds are critically endangered.

* Participate in the 3-day Bani festival and enjoy the Shinj- the wrestling competition.

Must have:

* Sip on a cup of piping hot ‘Desi Chai’, a pink coloured drink prepared with tea twigs boiled in sheep milk. It can be consumed either with salt or sugar.

Giving a new perspective to my travels- a biking expedition in the Himalayas

When my name was included in the list, I had a bag of mixed feelings. I was glad to have got an all sponsored trip to one of the least explored parts of the country. But at the same time, I had my apprehensions about being a part of an organized trip. I was excited to travel on one of the deadliest roads in the world and then the fear of being a misfit as a pillion among what was supposed to be a biking event with professional riders from across the country kept flashing frequent thoughts of pulling-out of the event! And finally the evening arrived, where we had to start our journey towards Jammu Tawi- The start-point of all the action filled seven-memorable days of my life!!!

No one knew the other fellow rider at the start, but during the course of time- each one ensured they stopped, waited and helped the next one in times of need. Reaching the destination on time did not matter to anyone; they would halt and wait when the rider behind went out of sight in the rear view mirrors. Whether it was running to lift up a rider who slipped on the slush pool or to push one up the steep valley roads when the machine refused to move… whether it was picking up a fallen silencer of a rider who has gone way ahead without noticing or going back to get tools from the back-up vehicle to fix a broken bike.. Whether it was escorting a rider whose headlamps and brakes had given way while riding at night on the treacherous Paddar Valley or towing a halted biker all the way on a militant infested highway… And then, on the last day when I had a miraculous escape from death while trying to avoid overriding on a biker who slipped off-his-course, the entire battalion of riders had stopped by to check on my sprained leg! No fights, no misunderstandings, no quarrels- It ain’t a common thing while you are traveling with a group of over 80 riders from across India who were all strangers. But, they were all united and stood by each other at every turn (literally!!) of life during these 7 days…

Doctors, scientists, engineers, lawyers, were all just educational qualifications. While some made it after a nasty tiff with their bosses, yet a few had quit jobs to do this trip. While some rode to satiate their hunger for travel, some rode to earn livelihood for their towns through promotion of tourism. While some came to make few quick bucks with their photos and videos, yet a few came to love the mountains… Yet, a few rode to spread the good word of beautiful landscapes, safety to travelers and cultural wealth of their hometown which otherwise is perceived with horror and poverty. Every rider had a purpose to travel and a story to tell that’s associated with this trip. Irrespective of the geographical, cultural and educational differences- Travelling was the common religion and riding was the only God… No one big, no one small. No one to judge who you are… For a person that I am who otherwise likes to go slow, walk and take in things and places at my own pace- riding only meant whizzing past things with speed… What I realized during these 7 days is that there lies a whole new perspective to life out there- Biking binds people like brothers… Cheers to all the wonderful friends I made here, who helped me to create truck loads of wonderful memories that I can cherish for several years to come…

The route we covered over the week was Jammu-Mansar-BasholiSarthal-Baderwah-Kishtwar-Gulabgarh-Sansari-Gulabgarh-Patnitop-Udhampur-Jammu. It was a complete package with picturesque landscapes accompanied with art, history, culture, religion, natural resources, adventure, offbeat traveling. It had something for every kind of traveler. I strongly recommend this trip for every person who wants to travel but do not like going to the commercialized and overly crowded places that are so done and dusted. This stretch is a must-do once in a lifetime thing!

I will be posting details of each day and each place that I visited in separate posts in days to come. Do subscribe and get updates 🙂

This trip was sponsored by Jammu tourism and we thank you @lovenature_rahul and trippin_on_life for giving us this wonderful opportunity.

A mind numbing experience of winter in Ladakh

What was supposed to be an once in a lifetime experience of trekking on a frozen river- ‘The chadar trek’, rather turned out to be a wonderful experience in its own way.. Thanks to a landslide on the Zanskar, a natural dam had been formed stocking up water for over 5 kms. If incase this natural dam collapsed due to the built up pressure, the stored water would wash away the nearby areas causing flash floods. Hence, citing safety reasons, the goverment had issued ‘section 144 – Shoot at sight’ to anyone attempting to go anywhere close to the river.

We decided to break away from the trek organiser and explore Ladakh on our own.. Oh yeah, before I forget to mention- None of our phones were working(No connectivity via phone or internet)- Thanks to all our pre-paid connections. Only postpaid connections work in this part of the country due to security reasons (given its proximity to disputed border areas). Thus started our lifetime experience of the mind-numbing winters in Ladakh.

Day 1: It was noon by the time our early morning flight took off from Delhi airport, thanks to bad weather conditions. Just 20minutes after take off, a small but prominent layer of cloud seemed to appear at the horizon.. But within no time, we realised that we were approaching the Himalayas. In just few minutes, the GPS indicated Shimla on the map in the TV infront of our seats. A never-ending stretch of deep gorges, ravines, formed the beautiful landscape below. Few minutes further up.. Yes..!!! we couldn’t contain our excitement of flying over the snow covered mighty Himalayan peaks, we were jumping for a spot at the windows taking turns.. It was the first time we were seeing snow! Click click click…. The cameras went on and on… It was as if we were in an enclosure which was floating up in heaven.. It was absolute FEAST to the senses.. all the way… till touch down🙂

You are flying over the Himalayas...
You are flying over the Himalayas…

Inspite of the glaring bright sun, it was 6 below zero degrees when our flight landed at Leh- one of the highest airstrips in the world. We took a cab to the hotel that we were informed by the trek organiser.

The day went by just making an alternative plan for the trek that could not happen. Also, it was necessary to get acclimatized to a scary combo of High altitude + low temperature(It went upto -25deg on some days of our trip). So we just had to stay bummed to our rooms(without heaters..!!) and warmup ourselves 😛 We shopped for a lot of thermals in Leh market (we got cheap & good quality stuff..)

Day 2: It was the last day of the Gustor festival – the annual fair at the Spituk monastery– Enroute we visited the ‘Hall of fame‘- the war museum. We happened to be there at the right time when an Indian airforce carrier was about to land. With the Sham valley & other mountain ranges all around the airstrip, it called for the exact photo that had inspired me to visit Ladakh more than a year ago.. We later headed to the monastery where the day long festivities and mask dance was going on.. We walked up the stairs to the holy abode of Kali(which is open for public viewing only during Gustor festival) before we comforted ourselves by finding a seat amid the chaotic crowd that had assembled. After the event, we did a bit of souvenir shopping at the mela that was put up and a lot of binging on Ladakhi food. We took a cab to Shanti Stupa which is best for sunset viewing. After the sun was down, we took the stairs down which we were told was a shortcut to reach Leh town by foot.

Mask dance at the Gustor festival - the annual fair at the Spituk monastary
Mask dance at the Gustor festival – the annual fair at the Spituk monastery

Day 3: Drive through Changla pass(the 3rd highest pass in the world) at a nerve freezing temperature: Get a quick grab of food at Karu town. Here one needs to get the Inner Line Permit to proceed towards Pangong Tso- the controversial border between India & China. The lake was partially frozen- where we could drive over most part of it and experience the chadar partially 😛 If one has an extra day, they could head to Tso Moriri, a salt water lake and camp there overnight before returning to Leh. But, we took back the same route so we could cover the Shey Palace, Thikse monastery & got a glimpse of the Rancho school of the ‘3 Idiots’ fame. Hemis monastery- the wealthiest monastery in India remained unreachable by road since it was winter.

A milestone at the Pangong tso
A milestone at the Pangong tso

Day 4: It was a lonng day.. A wonderful drive on a roadless route which seemed to have been carved all out of ice and sprinkled with snow.. A small slip of tyre could get deadly as beautiful as the valley seemed to appear. We couldn’t ask for more when it began to snow just when we alighted at the end of the highest motorable road in the world- the Khardungla pass. Continue on the road that leads to the cold desert of Ladakh- The Nubra valley. With minimal vegetation, and sand dunes all around, you should not be missing out the ride on the Bactrian camels which are endemic to this region and is a critically endangered species. Visit the Diskit monastary- where a 32 feet statue of Maitreya Buddha looks upon Pakistan. Towards the end of the valley is the Siachen glacier- the highest battleground in the world and the glacier forms the source to the biggest irrigation system in the world-The Indus. Catch a good night’s sleep at a traditional homestay there and experience authentic Ladakhi hospitality.

View from a monastary
View from a monastery

Day 5: Start early cuz the day will be short with too many places to cover on a single stretch from Leh. We took the Kargil road- a drive through Sham valley. First stop was at Nimmoo where we filled our fasting tummies. The next quick stopover was at Pattar Sahib Gurudwara. The straight stretch of road looked as if it was peircing right through the horizon. We were driving through the magnetic hill. The road which is believed to have defied gravity where a car with ignition off and neutral gear moves uphill- against gravity..!! We were not quite convinced with our experience though, which made us agree to the scientific explanation of it being an optical illusion. We arrived at Chilling- The confluence of the Indus and Zanskar. The partially frozen stretch was intimidating to walk over.. But we were warned by a cop not to go near the banks.. all thanks to section 144 😛

The confluence of the Indus and the Zanskar
The confluence of the Indus and the Zanskar

We continued our journey through rustic Ladakhi villages, monasteries dotting the distant hillocks, frozen waterfalls, bare poplar trees, narrow truss bridges, army barracks, hot water springs, ice hockey fields, etc. We came across wild deers, yaks, pashmina sheep, wild horses and other fauna endemic to this high altitude region.. Likir monastery was beautiful with the Buddha statue smiling in between the snow clad mountains all around. Our last destination was Lamayuru monastery– The start point for many treks in this region.

Unfortunately, we did not have the luxury of a few more hours and safe conditions at the border to go further upto the Kargil border. We wanted to drive back through Drass valley- The coldest inhabited place in India and the second coldest in the world. Again, If I had an additional day in hand, I would have loved to get an inner line permit to spend a day at DhaHanu valley: home to the endangered community of the Dard people. I would love to go back ASAP atleast to document their customs, traditions, photograph their intricate jewellery and costumes before their numbers further deplete. Had I been blessed with a couple more days, I would want to do the Markha valley trek andand experience the tribal life in its raw & purest form.. And spot a snow leopard in its natural habitat at the Hemis national park- the largest national park in India and the highest national park in the world.

During winters, most of the town is shut for the season. The few places that are up, open after 11.00.a.m and close by 5~6.p.m. We missed out on some fine shopping of souvenirs, local handicrafts and dry fruits.. Probably, some form of connectivity of phone or internet could have helped us to cover more places and organise our trip in possibly a better way.. But, NO REGRETS..!! We’ve still done what most people don’t dare to- Experience the bitter winter of Ladakh. That’s all the time we had for.. We had to pack our bags with a super heavy heart to carry back home..

Day 6: It was a rare phenomenon that we had woken up with that day, early at 6.a.m. It was snowing in Leh. There usually is no snowfall at Leh town… But that day I guess the town had started to miss us… the sky was crying heavily.. We reached the airport by 07.30.a.m. The security measures are very stringent for those leaving Leh which easily needs about 2hrs. 2 rounds of passengers’ frisking and 2 rounds of baggage screening. And then, you have to individually identify your baggage until which it will not be loaded to the flight..!! Quite a strenuous task for the security personnel… While it is considered as a fun trip for the touristy people like us.. It’s a salute to the bravehearts : The Indian army.. Who bare all odds like extreme climatic conditions and unpredictable threats to their lives, strive day and night to ensure that we are safe.. The flight took off over the mountainthat said ‘Touch the sky with glory’.. in the true sense…

I will come back ASAP for more..

Julley Leh..!!