Please don’t kill me for the title! But to be honest, all the blogs and notes that I have read talks about people’s experiences and trips in/to Leh-Ladakh have fancy titles. This was my 3rd trip to Leh-Ladakh and I don’t think any of those big fancy words will be able to justify what one feels. So, instead of perusing the dictionary to come up with a better and bigger title I decided to call that feeling as ordinary. At times, just an ordinary feeling is what you need. The way one gets up early just to take a walk around the town,to steal the morning sun rays and the ghost-town sort of a look of the valley with the first cup of tea, the way the river dances when it flows, the way the words of a book make sense, the sparkling lakes, the majestic mountains, the tricky roads…every second acting as a reminder to the self being alive…for me this is what ordinary feels like… finding something truly important in an ordinary minute…
“Do not ask your children to strive for extraordinary lives. Such striving may seem admirable, but it is the way of foolishness. Help them to find the wonder and the marvel of an ordinary life instead. Show them the joy of tasting tomatoes, apples and pears. Show them how to cry when pets and people die. Show them the infinite pleasure in the touch of a hand and and make the ordinary come alive for them. The extraordinary will take care of itself.”
With this, let me pen down the memories of a 9 day and 1500 kms journey.
We took a Volvo from Vidhan Sabha metro station, Delhi. A decent dinner stop, a flat tyre that took an hour to fix and the driver’s obsession with the movie Befikre which he kept playing on loop…it was the beginning of one heck of a journey.
There was too much of a log jam towards Kullu because of the 4-lane construction and it took us about 15 hours to reach Manali. We quickly freshened-up at the guest house… This was day 1 of our trip and we had decided to stay the night at Jispa. We had booked our trip with none other than Black Sheep Motto Adventures in Manali. Their office is on the main road in Vashisht Chowk near Panchayat Bhawan and there is this amazing Tibetan café, called Tibetan Phuntsok right next to it. The Mutton Chowmein here mixed with a little bit of red chilli sauce was to die for. Over the years, Black Sheep Motto Adventures has become our trusted travel partners. The people were super talented and acted as the guardians in the hills. From ensuring safety to all the travel nitty-gritty they managed it like a boss! They had designed the trip’s itinerary keeping our choices, whims and fantasies in mind and it was better than what we had expected!
We left Manali in after noon… Crossing Rohtang Pass, we entered the beautiful Lahaul and Spiti Valley. We stopped at Koksar for tea and a plate of juicy Mutton Momos. The temperature had started to drop and we decided to add beanies and gloves to our warm clothes’ stock. We stopped at Tandi to fill-up fuel but unfortunately the petrol pump was closed. This petrol pump was the last one on the way to Leh but we were hopeful that we will be able to get some fuel arrangement done at Jispa. We reached Jispa around 9 pm The host at Nomadic Camps welcomed us with the warmest of smiles, interesting stories and good food! The tents had all basic amenities and was comfortable. We also tasted the local alcohol made of Barley, known as Ara. As we gulped it down, we could feel ‘strong’ written all over it! I don’t know if it was the alcohol or the fact that we were tired or both, but we slept like a baby!
Next morning, we started our day with Yoga and some basics of Kalaripayattu (the ancient martial arts). This was day 2 of our trip and we just had to cover about 86 kms. We crossed Darcha, Zing-Zing Bar, Suraj Tal and Baralacha La to reach Sarchu. Situated at an altitude of 16,040 feet, Baralacha La is a high mountain pass in the Zanskar region. You could get a peculiar type of headache because of the altitude. And to cure it, you could either take Diamox or just have another cup of Tea and relax! 😊
Sarchu lies on the boundary of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir. Also known as Sir Bhum Chun, the barren grandeur of this place is similar to the Ladakhi landscape. The weather here was cruel to the core…the people and the tents were the victims of it! After dinner, we were strolling around, talking about love, life, human stupidities…and bumped into the brains behind WARMEE. A revolutionary self-heating pouch, WARMEE provides up to 8 hours of continuous warmth, without any external source of heating. The gentlemen gave us sample pouches and we were grateful to them for those pouches helped us survive the night.
“Sitting with a peculiar contentment sipping that hot gingered sweet tea, he nourishes himself with the warmness of dear sun from the cold mountains! Ready he is, for another journey higher up into the mountains, towards the white peaks of delight! Every sip of tea that he takes his heart fills with a joy of faith and trust in self. Squatting on that stone of highway, the road goes higher up towards the pass with eyes moving from peak to the glass. From glass to the cup filled with Maggie! Another cold wind and his ear must freeze, however, the glass and the cup save the exposed parts of this journeyman, let’s go – journey man – let’s go, it’s time to head towards next stop.”
Day 3 of our trip was a mix of good and bad. A little after Sarchu, Ram’s Bike had an issue. The axle that holds the tyre together broke. Bantu had not kept its spare ,as in his lifetime he had never heard of the axle breaking off! We stopped almost all bikers to ask if they had a spare part, but unfortunately, none of them did. Few of them didn’t even know that such a part even exists. It was heartbreaking for Ram as he had to leave his Bike here and travel in Gypsy till Leh. Between Sarchu and Leh lies two remarkable stretches of land – the Gata Loops and the More Plains. It is a series of twenty-one hairpin bends that takes you to Nakeela Top. On one of the turns, you will see a pile of water bottles. The story goes like this – several years ago, a truck with 2 travelers (cleaner and driver) was stuck here. It was sometime in October and it was snowing heavily and there was no help around. One of them decided to walk to a nearby village and get some help. But because of the bad weather, no help could be arranged. It took several days for the weather to clear. Finally, help came from Manali and they all hurried back to Gata Loops, to the spot where the truck broke down only to find the dead. Stranded in no man’s land, he had died of thirst, hunger and cold. Next year when the highway reopened, people started observing strange things around this area. Some said that they saw a beggar/ghost-like figure who would stop all vehicles and ask for water. Hearing such stories, the locals built a small temple at that spot and made offerings of water. Since then, whoever passes by and is aware of the story, leaves some water at the temple, as an offering.
More Plains is a barren stretch of land that lies after Pang and it gives way to a steep climb to the Tanglang La. The stretch till Pang is bumpy but the view covers up for it. We crossed Upshi, Karu, Thikse and Shey and reached Leh. The city had prayer flags all over. They are made of small pieces of cloth of various colors, tied in a row of long ropes and strung out for the winds to catch. The idea is for the prayers to reach the abode of the gods. The landscape changes spectacularly as you enter Leh… majestic mountains on both the sides… sky that is bluer than blue and the clouds playing hide and seek with the Sun. The weather was little warm and our jackets and beanies started to come off. We were staying at Deva guest house and our host, Tenzin and Amo were super sweet. Amo helped us to settle down quickly. The rooms were neat and clean and they also had a dog named Karma. We freshened up quickly and went out to explore the market. We had dinner at Summer Harvest – their Mutton Momos, Schezwan Lamb and Noodles made us drool over. Back at the guest house, we were discussing the following day’s plan over a game of cards. We had to make a tough decision to chuck Nubra Valley as we were on a strict timeline. We decided to head towards Pangong the next day. We could also see Shanti Stupa from our guest house. It is a white-domed Stupa in Chanspa region of Leh. It was built in 1991 by Japanese Buddhist Bhikshu, Gyomyo Nakamura and part of the Peace Pagoda mission. And it was inaugurated by the 14th and current Dalai Lama. The Stupa provides panoramic view of the Leh city and is open for tourists between 5:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Thikse Monastery is about 19 kms from Leh and is located at an altitude of 11,800 ft. While we were at the Monastery, one of the Lamas were explaining the teachings of Buddha to a group of people. We got to know later that The Dalai Lama was in Leh and that day we left for Tsomoriri and would later also visit Spiti. The nearby tourist attractions also included Hall of Fame, Druk Padma Karpo School where the movie ‘3 Idiots’ was shot, Magnetic Hill, Leh Palace and Zanskar point.
Day 4 of our trip and we were off to Pangong! It was also Mohit’s birthday – the reason why this trip was planned in the very first place! And what a way to celebrate! At an altitude of 14,270 ft… no network… no traffic… few wandering souls… under a blanket of stars! On the route to Pangong, we crossed Chang La (17,590 ft) which is the third highest motor-able road in the world. The name literally means ‘Pass towards the South’ or ‘Pass in the South’. It is the main gateway for Changthang Plateau and also has the world’s highest functional research station, established by the Defense Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). We stopped here for Tea and Maggi. A little farther from the pass, there were 3 Army trucks which were swept away and brutally crushed by an Avalanche that had hit the area few months back. Rescue efforts were carried out but the locals told us that the soldiers couldn’t be saved. Chang La is considered as one of the deadliest roads and is also regarded as a driver’s worst nightmare! We then had to cross a Naala that was approximately half a kilometer long… It had already caused a bit of a jam . After a long wait and a little bit of difficulty, we crossed the stream. We reached Pangong around 9 pm. We had planned to stay at Shambala Tents but unfortunately it was occupied. We then headed to Wonderland Tents. After dinner, we walked till Pangong Sarai to sit near the lake. The sound of the water hitting the rocks…the silhouette lining of the mountains…the sky full of stars…the beautiful arrangement of the constellations letting us have a better look at them…shooting stars instigating us to make a wish… The view was nothing short of magic! We laid down and kept staring at the sky being able to feel every minute detail but unable to express it.
Next morning, after breakfast we headed to Pangong Sarai once again. The Lake which literally means ‘high grassland lake’ is 134 kms long and extends from India to China. The Lake changes colors – from brown to green to blue, it looks like a work of fiction.The point where the last scene of 3 Idiots was shot has been completely commercialized. From 3 Idiots café to the Yellow Scooty, this place looks like a movie studio set. We did not spend much time here. One last look at the Lake and we decided to leave for Leh. This was day 5 of our trip. On our way back, while we were sipping Tea at Chang La, we spotted a fresh Avalanche – it wasn’t that big and had stopped mid-way. Treading on narrow, snow-laden and bumpy roads, we reached Leh in the night. We were staying at Dream Ladakh guest house. We had dinner at a Korean restaurant called Amigo. We had ordered Kimchi Fried Rice, Sushi, Bibimbap and some Chicken and Rice dish. We were famished and it took a little while for the food to arrive. And it took a little more time for us to figure that Avinash and Ram disliked their food. Well, we quickly called for the bill and hopped to La Piazzetta so that the guys can eat better. It was a comedy of errors! We should have known that a Korean place with a Spanish name Amigo could go completely wrong! The Yak cheese Pizza at La Piazzetta saved the day! We ate one and packed one – just in case we get hungry again! Our guest house was a 15 minute walk from the place and we didn’t mind walking with content heart and stomach. We spent almost an hour at the living area of the guest house, browsing through the books, discussing about the next day. Also, the living area was where one could get WiFi connectivity!
DAY 6 & 7
The car screeched to a halt and we all turned to a far corner to spot the animal that was probably annoyed by our presence. Kiang also known as the Tibetan wild ass turned it’s back towards us and continued grazing the field. Native to the Tibetan Plateau, the herbivorous animal is the largest of the wild asses. We also spotted a pair of green eyes which we thought was a Fox. The Red Fox also known as Watse in the local language along with Tibetan Sand Fox are among the few smaller animals one can sometimes see from the road. This was the 6th day of our trip. Our daredevil meter went a notch higher when we took a sudden turn and for the next 20 minutes or so drove on the meadows. It was 11 when had left from Leh. In the morning, we had left for KhardungLa after a scrumptious and authentic Ladakhi breakfast – Ladakhi bread, bhurji, white bread with butter, tea/coffee at our guesthouse, Dream Ladakh. Our host ensured that we were taken care of in the best way possible. Her husband Mr. Tundup is an Ice Hockey player and the medals displayed in the living room told us that he was pretty good at it! At an elevation of 18,379 ft, KhardungLa is the world’s highest motor-able road. The road till South Pullu check-post was good but post that was when the ordeal began and the traffic jam added to our woes. When we reached the top, we were in a little bit of a shock! There were people everywhere! And the photo shoots just won’t stop! With great difficulty, we managed to click the pic of the milestone and decided to make a move. Back in Leh town, we had lunch at Chopsticks. This place is indeed the best in town! We had Mutton Briyani, Japanese Chicken Teriyaki, Pad Thai Noodles, Garlic Schezwan Noodles and Pineapple Chicken Rice and it was finger licking good! Considering the weather and the logistics, Ram unfortunately had to keep his bike at Leh and travel in Gypsy with us till Sarchu. The weather was changing by the minute and it had started pouring already.
The river gave us company…the majestic landscape slowly revealing itself… I could faintly hear the song…
“Khule Hain Jo Pal, Kahe Yeh Nazar… Lagta Hai Ab Hai Jaage Hum… Fikrein Jo Thi, Peeche Reh Gayi… Nikle Unse Aage Hum… Hua Hai Yun Ke Dil Pighal Gaye… Bas Ek Pal Mein Hum Badal Gaye…”
On the way, we spotted a Yogi-like mountain! It was trippy! We still had a long way to go. We stopped for tea on our way and the locals had their hearts in their mouth when we told them about our destination. We were headed towards TsoMoriri and in the entire stretch from Leh, it was just us! One of the reasons for it was because we had started late from Leh and also TsoMoriri is still less explored in comparison to Leh-Ladakh. We reached our destination after an Army check-post around midnight. We were staying the night at Yak Camp in Karzok village. The tents were extremely comfortable and warm. We slept like a log! In the morning, we were greeted by friendly pahadi faces. One of the staff members was a college student who was doing his summer internship. Karzok village is located in the Rupshu region on the shore of TsoMoriri and it also has a reasonable nomadic population. TsoMoriri which literally means ‘Mountain Lake’ left us speechless. Just like Pangong, it changed colors. It was mighty, beautiful and simply magical. We spotted Brahminy Ducks and Black Necked Cranes there. Marshes of Ladakh is a good breeding ground for other migratory birds as well. After spending an hour or so at peace near the lake, we decided to make a move. On our way back, we saw a kid running with full speed towards us…we thought maybe he needs a lift…we stopped a little further and saw an old man walking towards us…we had thought about all the emergency situations these guys could be in – maybe they need water or food or maybe somebody is sick and they need to be taken to the hospital… but to our surprise, all that the old man needed was a few cigarettes! For the next couple of minutes, all of us broke into a laughter riot! He was one of the nomads…out there in the field to herd the cattle. At 14,836 ft, with no soul around, all that the old man needed was moments off puffs when he saw humans with few cigarettes.
Well, fulfilling the old man’s crave, introspecting, we were on the road once again. We stopped for tea near Tsokar Lake, another salt lake located in Rupshu region. One of the tent’s thread was hanging in the air. We could smell the melting butter…the aura alone filled the body with warmth. The Pink Ladakhi Butter Tea did its magic with the first sip itself. The lake however wasn’t in its full glory. But the rain gods had taken it upon themselves to make up for it. The grass was turning green with every drop of rain. From where we were sitting, it looked like the gods were leading an orchestra and nature with its innumerable shades of blue and green arranged themselves, happily. We crossed More Plains, Pang, LachungLa and reached Sarchu at 10:30pm. Sarchu is known for its harsh and cruel weather. It was damn windy and it felt it was freezing. Thankfully we had Vat-69 and freshly made dinner specially for us to help us survive. The valley was soon filled with our laughter as Hearts, Spades, Clubs and Diamonds made rounds on the table. Bantu and Manu had taught us a new game called Jhanp also known as Bhabhi. Bluffs being caught- sly looks being exchanged-the spirit warming up the body and the games and jokes warming our hearts. All of this being done under an emergency light as these places function with the help of solar panels and they switch off the main power by 11 pm. Adding little more of chit-chat and Avinash dramatically showing-off few stunts, we called it a night! The tents were super comfortable. A sound sleep of 7 hours and we were fresh like a flower in the morning!
This was a happy day for Ram as he was to get his bike back. So, no more Gypsy travel for him. Pooja and I were happier as none of us were sitting at the back seat . After a filling Bread-Omelette breakfast and Kadak Chai, we were on the road once again. We stopped at a Dhaba in New Bharatpur for a quick tea break. It was still windy and the weather was chill.
“A cup of Tea is all you need at times… In my opinion, it helps restore normality…at such remote places with the harsh weather, somebody saying, “take some more Tea”, is music to ears! Ram was way ahead of us…he will have to wait for us at one of the blind turns while we sip tea here.
I am reminded of these lines from City of Bones –
“I don’t want tea. I want to find my mother. And then I want to find out who took her in the first place, and I want to kill them”, said Clary.
“Unfortunately,” said Hodge, “we’re all out of bitter revenge at the moment, so it’s either tea or nothing.”
It started pouring again. We had a long, chilled up ride ahead of us. The landscape had started to change. From a majestic yet non-friendly, harsh-looking, we were now stepping into a greener and welcoming one. We crossed Suraj Tal, Zing-Zing Bar, Patsio, Jispa, Stingri and reached Keylong in after noon. We stopped here for lunch. After an appetizing round of Mutton Momos, Chowmein and Dal-Rice, we started driving towards our destination, Manali. The entire Rohtang Pass stretch was a nightmare with Bumpy roads,continuous rain and zero visibility. It was getting worse minute by minute and we stopped at Marhi… Ram had to leave his bike there as it wasn’t safe to ride ahead. On our way we saw fresh landslides and secretly thanked God for ensuring we reach safe and alive.
“The river is back…giving us company…the rain pouring down, making sweet, passionate love with the valley. The smell of wet soil brings back bitter-sweet memories of the past… Petrichor – that’s what they call the smell of earth after rain. Let the rain kiss you. Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops. Let the rain sing you a lullaby…”
We reached Manali at around 9 pm. We stayed at Hotel Kanchanikot and the overall aura of the place was happy, cozy and calm. The rooms were spacious, the beds comfortable providing a superb view from the balcony. The kitchen was closed but the staff was sweet enough to take our order and serve us fresh garma-garam dinner. Good food few rounds of playing cards with Smirnoff proving a good old companion, we called it a night. We departed to our rooms with a heavy heart. None of us were prepared to face the harsh reality that the next day was destined to bring. Packing bags and leaving for the bus stop would be one heck of a task.
“I am reading and re-reading these lines from the book Himalayan Melodies by Stanzin Lhaskyabs… I bought this book from Thikse Monastery in Leh.
One wanders into the woods, full of deep purple plums and red apples. Following the narrow path to happiness with whispering birds, and unknown sounds. Could this be what they called, dancing in the rain? In the wet woods of highland Himalayas.
Smells of wet earth, burning woods, and the wild plant warm my heart and, unless the moon rises again, I let the fire lit on the hill. For it is the smoke of happiness that runs through my veins!”
Next morning, we were headed to The Lazy Dog for breakfast. But surprisingly, the staff was extremely rude and we left the place after giving them an honest feedback for their behavior. We were back at our favorite place, Café 1947. We had to wait for 20 minutes for the café to open but it was all worth the wait. After a delightful brunch, we were back in our rooms, happy and excited to find 2 tattoo artists waiting for us. It was one of the most random decisions we took. I think somewhere during the trip, Pooja mentioned. “we should get a tattoo done” And a week or so later, we were staring at Ankur and Vikas from Yama Tattoos arranging their equipment in our room. It was already 3 pm and we had a bus at 4:30 and for a second we didn’t mind missing the bus at all for the guys were superb at their work. Vikas was working on the finishing touches of my tattoo meanwhile Mohit and Pooja helped me pack my bag. All of us scooched down into the Gypsy and rushed to the bus stop following a cruel journey of 16 hours where the AC was obstinate enough to not work and the driver was on a spree to kill anybody and everybody on the road thus finally we reached Delhi.
“How I long to be in the hills again… the city life, the 9 to 5 ordeal, is a web of complications. How I long to be with simple, uncomplicated beings… the madness, the chaos, the competition, it gives that adrenaline rush at times – to achieve things, to do the work better – I have often heard the city dwellers call it Passion…. How I long to be in the lap of nature, staring at the mountains and sipping Tea, not many souls around… A traveler tempo passes by honking, – it reminds me of the traffic in the city, the obsession with excuses and phones…. How I long to be treading unknown paths, meeting strangers, exchanging stories…. For now, the city life seems inevitable… Until next adventure… How I long to be in the hills again with all of my secrets, my scars, my sorrows…. How I long to be in the hills again…to unpack my heart…. How I long to be in the hills again… to feel nothing but Ordinary!!”