Tag Archives: J&K tourism

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

Basohli is a small town located at a distance of 150 kms from Jammu city and at a geographical proximity to Dalhousie in Himachal Pradesh and Pathankot in Punjab. The innumerable remnants of ancient buildings found across this little town reminds one of the historical importance of Basohli in the formation of the state. This place is known for its indigenous art form of miniature paintings named after the town. It is however disheartening that this rich heritage is dwindling with just a countable shops selling these and very few craftsmen practicing it today in Basohli.

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

All done and the sun is set now, we headed back to the guesthouse. This place itself is so beautifully located on the shores of the backwaters. As the evening rays faded into the darkness of the night, we slept on the floating docks set out behind the guest house and gazed into the clear night’s sky. The illuminated Atal bridge on the distant shore added to the charm of the peaceful night. If the silence was broken, then it was only by the rustling breeze, the lashing ripples and my heart beats…

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 once in a lifetime experience of trekking on a frozen river- The chadar trek – 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. Due to pressure build up, the stored water would wash away the nearby areas causing flash floods. 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 – None of our phones were working (No connectivity via phone or internet)- Thanks to all our pre-paid connections: Only postpaid works there. Thus started our lifetime experience in the mind-numbing winters of Ladakh.

Day 1: It was noon by the time our early morning flight took off from the Delhi airport, thanks to bad weather conditions. Just 20min after take off, a small but a prominent layer of cloud seemed to appear at the horizon.. But within no time, we realised that we were approaching the Himalayas. In few minutes, the GPS indicated Shimla on the map. A neverending stretch of deep gorges, ravines, formed the beautiful landscape below. Few minutes further up.. Yes..!!! we couldnt contain our excitement of flying over the snow covered mighty Himalayan peaks, we were jumping for a spot at the windows taking turns.. Click click click…. The cameras went on and on…It was as if we were in an enclosure that was floating up in heaven.. 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 deg 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, acclimatization to a scary combo of High altitude + low temperature was important (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 the 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- an 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 more than a year ago.. We then headed to the monastery where the mask dance was happening all day long.. We visited the holy abode of Kali(which is open for viewing only during this festival) at the top 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 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 the 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 to Pangong Tso- the controversial border between India & China. The lake was partially frozen- where we could drive over most part of the lake and experience the chadar partially :P- If one has an extra day, they could head to Tso Moriri, a salt water lake and stay there overnight and return through…. back to Leh. But, we took back the same route where we covered 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 couldnt ask for more when the snow fall began just as 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- The sham valley drive. First stop was at Nimmoo where we filled our fasting tummies. There on, 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 experince though, which made us agree to the scientific explanation of 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, the 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 a few more hours in hand and safe conditions at the border to go further upto the Kargil border and drive back through the 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’d love to get an inner line permit to spend a day at DhaHanu valley: home to the endangered community of the Dard people. I’d 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 in hand, I’d love to do the Markha valley trek to 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.

Since it was winter, 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, if we had some form of connectivity of phone or internet, we could 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 woke up with 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 mountain that said ‘Touch the sky with glory’.. in the true sense…

I will come back ASAP for more..

Julley Leh..!!