Tag Archives: Kashmir tourism

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.

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..!!