Tag Archives: J&K tourism

I’m supposed to tell you this

While I write this post today, it’s obvious for one to think that I’m venting it out because of all the drama happening between India and it’s neighbour. But, why I choose to do it now is the video of an Indian warrior has kept my heart pounding with anxiety over the last 2days. The video released by the Pakistan army shows that the enemy captors interrogate a severely wounded Indian soldier, his hands tied, blindfolded and there.. with all poise, dignity and calmness in his voice and posture, the captive soldier replies, “Sorry Sir, I’m not supposed to tell you that!”

So here is what I want to tell you all..

My earliest connections with the uniform are mainly two. First is being born in a community which has given some of India’s most decorated defence officers and that had its own regiment in the Indian army. Seconly, being raised in a family of strong women with one of them going on to becoming the first women cop in the state. Yeah! I had quite a lot of stories to listen to while growing up, of both men and women in uniform… Can I say uniform runs in my blood? Stories of heroics of the officers from my hometown and the adventures of my aunt in her pursuit of a job in a male-dominated area has fuelled my curiosity, inspiration and motivation to pursue a life of adventure. Admiration for the #MenInUniform (and the women) had come naturally to me. But these instances take me back in time on how I have always been inspired as a growing up kid to pursue a career in the Indian Military Services.

Growing up in a small town meant limited access to things. So the only ‘Air Force’ thing we could see were occasional choppers that flew in with VVIPs visiting the hilltown (These could have never been the IAF choppers if I guess). Like all kids of the 90s did, we waived at the choppers hoping someone waived back at us.

I now travel to some other faint memories from childhood. It was my week long stay with a relative at Hyderabad. They were an army family living in their army bungalow somewhere in the viscinity of the Golconda fort. That was my closest meeting with defence personnel and the army way of life until then. The discipline, etiquette, mannerisms and all those were something that really caught my fascination. Until then, I had only heard stories and now, I was seeing them all.

But the most fanciest days of my life were my summer vacations spent at our house in Pune. The Sukhoi 30s were newly inducted in the Indian pride back then. And our house being in the proximity of the airbase, ‘The Hunting Hawks’ as they were called, flew past during their sorties all day long. The various formations and the thunder that rattled almost everything in the house were an eye candy and feast for the ears. It is something that really caught my fancy for fighter planes and more so for the adventure that the defence forces had to offer if I happened to join them ever! I am FOREVER grateful to my folks for having a home there… cuz that’s where a spark for the forces was ignited and a fancy for fighters struck me. And then were my share of stories I got to hear from my uncle (a veteran officer from the British Army during the world war) and his many colleagues at their army society at Salunke Vihar in Pune. I used to be a curious cat listening to them all. Year on year, the travels during my summer vacations were eagerly awaited!

Growing up, I got some insights into the way of life through my participation in the NCC (National Cadet Corps) while in high school. With a continuous pursuit of adventure and curiosity to understand how things worked, I think signing up for a course in Mechanical Engineering was inevitable. Sometimes, it is really okay if you don’t get the best. You get what is best for you. With that, I mean the real deal of life that came to me in the form of an admission at Nitte Meenakshi Institute of Technology, Bangalore. This is where I really got the whole Indian airforce thing into me. It’s beyond just an explanation of how fascinated and excited I used to be on just seeing a fighter plane. With almost all the planes from India’s might being there, it really opened up another world to me to learn about the airforce and its strength. I started to get back and google more to learn about each plane, the technology, its background, its history with India, what it takes to be a pilot in IAF and all those associated stories you find hyperlinked online. The more I read, the more I got thrilled. Ok, so a long story short- I too tried my hands at getting into the forces and failed a couple of times, if you asked me that question. So, yeah! Corporate world has me here by chance and not by choice. So if not here, you know where I would rather be!

Why am I telling you all these things today? Cuz, I’m hooked to the news channels along with a million other Indians praying for the safe return of our brave pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan’s release from the captivity of Pakistan Army. It’s an expression of anxiety I’m not able to get out of myself over the last couple of days. With extreme courage and poise, this brave son of my nation has stood by the motto of the MIG-21 squadron: “Siddhirvasti Sahase” which in Sanskrit translates to: “Success lies in courage”. Like literally! What more defines courage than his encounter with the Pakistan fleet? Can you imagine a Bison (that’s the nickname of MIG21) hunting down a Cheetah? (A F16 Falcon in this case) It rarely happens, and this brave warrior has done it! Chased death by the enemy back into its territory! Isn’t this what makes a true warrior? And our country divides its people based on caste and age-old professions…

Be it the Army, Navy, Airforce, BSF, CRPF, coast guards or anybody out there… with the kind of passion, selflessness, skill, precision our brave hearts at the forces keep vigil of our nation… A million million THANK YOU to each one of you guarding us all and enabling us live this happy life in our so called ‘Safe Havens’. As one of my friends rightly points out, with Wg. Cmdr.Abhi, what all of us have seen is just a tiny glimpse of what our forces holds. There are a thousand other equally skilled warriors in our forces who are all waiting for a chance to strike back. They are collectively an epitome of what India Truly is!

Image credits & patch designed by: Saurav Chordia

Riding on the sapphire valley- Paddar

It was post sunset, a meagre road carved out of the sapphire hills with about 75deg. gradient, no aid of streetlights and just the growling sound of the flowing Chenab down the deep valley to keep company. We had absolutely no idea of what the surrounding looked like and we had started our ride with only a rough visualization of the dangerous geography based on what we had heard the people say before we left Kishtwar. We thugged the cliff with our concentration impounded to just the meter wide area lit up by the single headlamp, being cautious of the biker leading and an eye on the rear mirrors to ensure the one behind is on safe track, avoiding hundreds of potholes and still falling into few more, crossing several waterfalls that cut our roads, landslides, missing narrow encounters with the cattle that stayed overnight by the narrow roads, freezing temperature and all those things adding to the ruggedness of the terrain, we had finally reached Gulabgarh at 09.00.p.m. The thought of inching every mile still gives me goosebumps. While the makeshift army tents at the Gulabgarh stadium hosted the men of this entourage, the women participants were given a comfortable hotel room for the two nights that were scheduled to be spent there. After a nice meal cooked at the army camp, all the riders crashed for it was going to be a long day to follow.

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Waterfall crossing enroute to Sansari

After a hard night at the camp with pounding rain and thunderstorm all night, a new dawn brought with it the most anticipated part of the trip… Everyone was up early while the distant peaks were still being painted by early snowfall of the season. The camp site looked beautiful with green and white peaks surrounding 360deg. After a quick breakfast and farm fresh apples being served, all the riders assembled in the stadium for the flag-off. The amassment of so many machines in the middle of the mountains was one hell of a sight to watch and the wham from the exhausts sounded like medley to the ears. And then, by dispersing in a disciplined single line, the ride to one of the dangerous roads in the world through Gulabgarh-Sansari-Killar along the Paddar valley was kick-started… literally!!

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The winding roads of Paddar valley

Thanks to the BRO- Border Roads Organisation, there is at least a rudimentary path for transportation here that connects people in the valley. It is impossible to picture how life would have been for these settlements (villages with as less as 2 houses) that are nestled in the remotest corners/cliffs of these mountains. And the basic healthcare and trade is unimaginable to think over when even this road is cut-off in the winters due to snowfall! With a neat asphalted tarmac ending after a 3 km stretch, the challenge ahead unfolded stage by stage. The road got narrow just enough for one vehicle to pass at a time and we were cornered at several junctures to make way for the 4-wheelers that ferry people across this highway connecting the states of J&K and Himachal Pradesh. The innumerable waterfalls cascading on to the road, slush puddles, stone laid roads were the easiest stretches that we rode on. As the ride progressed, we had the mighty cliffhangers to keep our excitement hanging onto. It became less of a road and more of a trek route to ride on with absolutely nothing apart from a worn out pathway… Further ahead, laid a road that descended and ascended with very steep gradients coupled with blind curves. After riding through the outrageous cliffhangers, foot bridges across rivers, meandering forests and unexplainably beautiful vistas of the valley, we arrived at the Gannaur or Sansari bridge at the confluence of river Chandrabagha and Sansari nallah- the last point of Jammu & Kashmir on this treacherous road at sunset time. There is a police check post at this point for those wishing to cross the state border towards Himachal Pradesh. There-on, the valley will be called as Pangi valley.

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One of the steep roads before approaching Sansari bridge

The sun had started to set which meant there was no time to waste and we had to head back to our camps ASAP. We had to cover as much as possible of this treacherous route while there was still decent visibility. The familiarity of the terrain helped us catch some speed and stability for our return ride to Gulabgarh. What took us about 4-5 hours on the onward ride to Sansari was done in less than 3hours on the return. We had ripped the roads and made it back to our camp just at twilight! That was one hell of a ride I tell you… Quite literally!

This trip was sponsored by Jammu tourism as a part of the Himalayan expedition to promote tourism in the lesser explored places of Jammu

Riding in the land of miniature paintings- Basohli

If you thought Jammu was all about shrines and temples, wait a minute, you are not alone. Even I did not know about all the beautiful places that exist within a driveable distance from the city. Our ride as a part of the Himalayan expedition to unseen places in Jammu has taken us to so many beautiful places that are off the tourist map, totally untouched and waiting to be explored.

On a warm Saturday morning, we started from Jammu on a well asphalted highway cutting through the Surinsar-Mansar wildlife sanctuary towards Basohli. Needless to say, the route is blessed with natural bounty with the road flanked by wooded hills all the way. We did a quick stopover at the twin lakes from where the sanctuary gets it same. The Surinsar lake and Mansar lake are serene patches of nature which play an important role among the Hindu pilgrims as it is associated with mythology. It is believed that the arrow shot by Arjuna pierced the earth at Surinsar and came out at Mansar spouting water, what are now the two bunyanesque lakes. If you have nothing to do, then you can forget your watches by just sitting on the banks and feeding the squillion fishes there. These lakes are also known for the Indian flapshell turtles that are found in abundance.

At Mansar lake

After freshening up at the TRC guest house, we headed to the the Atal bridge built across river Ravi. This happens to be the first cable suspension bridge in the state of Jammu & Kashmir. We got an eyefull of the setting sun from there and got some good silhoute photos of the fishermen busy with their last catch on their vessels drifting past us from under the bridge. The view of the surrounding lush green hills and several islets in the backwaters of the Ranjit Sagar Dam was a feast for the eyes with a golden backdrop. On a summer evening, it is highly recommended that you spend some time at the dam backwaters, what is fondly refered as the RSD beach by the localites. With swaying palm trees along the sandbars of the river bed, it is a very picturesque place surrounded by the lashing waves of the dam’s backwaters.

Our bike at the Atal bridge

Although we had plans of reaching the Chanchala mata mandir to catch the sunrise next morning, we were woken up rather early by the roaring thunder and the rattle of our window glasses. It was pouring cats and dogs and we watched the dawn break into a bright day while sitting by the window side. There seemed no signs of the rain gods taking a break and hence, we decided to head out in the rains… While we seeked for directions from the public, we realised that this town was home to over a dozen temples dedicated to Durga Mata. With a wild guess, we hit the accelerator towards one that was located atop a hillock. Oh Man! The view from up there was stunning… The temple had a 360deg view of the dam water and the hills. We could see the bridge along with several ruins of the old town dotting the view here and there. With the rocky valley at a distance, the entire Basohli town was visible from up there treating our eyes on a perfect morning!! With such a view around, the silver lightning in the dark grey sky, we couldn’t ask for a better start for the day…We were drenched to the bone but coudn’t get enough of the view. We somehow dragged ourselves back to our bikes lest be a reason for the delay of all other fellow travellers back in the guest house.

The view of Basohli town from Chanchala mata temple

We were already running late and had nothing left for breakfast, we satiated our stomachs with fruit juices and coffee. When the rain gods seemed to calm down a bit, we called it a wrap for the wonderful time spent in this historical town of Basohli. The journey continued, to yet another beautiful place waiting to be explored, waiting to be talked about to the world outside.

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..!!