The natural bounty of Ladakh has to be seen to be believed

As the wheels of the aircraft slide down the runaway of the tiny Leh airport early in the morning, my view from the plane window is that of a tree-free, grey-brown sandy plain. The open field ends where a sturdy range of bald, rocky mountains begins.

The awesome cold desert, mumbles my co-passenger. A British architect on his seventh trip to Ladakh, he, on knowing this is my first trip to the region, says, “Either this evening or tomorrow morning, you should get a headache.” Well, a gentle nudge towards the fact that I am above 10,000 feet now and most likely to show signs of minor high altitude sickness, a condition that most visitors to Ladakh face.

Soon I find myself in a taxi winding through the streets of Leh town towards Fort Road where my hotel is located. Holding out the room key, the hotel manager suggests I take ample rest to accustom myself to the altitude. Many rest for two to three days before moving around Ladakh, he says. Well, rest it is then.

But being an impatient city sleeker, come late afternoon, I find myself asking a waiter the way to the nearest market. Minutes of slow-paced steps put me in front of the Tibetan Refugee Market. Under makeshift tents, many women in long robe and hair tied in a bun are selling a wide assortment of attractive trinkets laid on wobbly stools. However, during my three-day stay in Leh, I find quite a few Tibetan refugee markets, one of them claiming on its board to be the biggest such bazaar. All of them sell similar wares with varying prices.

The next day, I take a good look at the main Leh Bazaar. Colourful masks, wrist and head bands made of fake and real topaz stones, woollen caps, gloves and sweaters, dry and fresh apricots, fresh vegetables, Kashmiri shawls, T-shirts with “Tin Tin in Ladakh” embroidered on them — all jostle for an outsider’s attention at the bazaar. I get ambitious and make a mental note of things to carry back home — fresh apricots surely, and why not some vegetables too — the carrots look so orange, the greens are real green, and then I remember a hotel waiter telling me that turnips here are real sweet. In anticipation, I buy a jute bag!

Pangong lake

After two days of checking out Leh, I venture into the interiors of Ladakh. I choose Pangong Lake on the Indo-China border via Chang La, the third highest pass in the world. And if we do the distance in good time, my driver promises to pack in a quick trip to the two most famous monasteries of Ladakh — Hemis and Thiksay. Early in the morning, my journey begins. Soon I negotiate meandering roads and hairpin bends, gape at the sharp drops, the mountains, the sandy patches, the crystal clear water bodies, and pass farmers tending to their yaks, the occasional green patch of trees and shrubs with multi-coloured flowers — and above all the clear blue sky as a canopy over the breathtaking vistas.

As we proceed further, the snowy mountains get closer, the air thinner and chillier. Soon, I see fresh snow, first as little dots on the mountains, then as patches, and then mountains plastered with thick snow. Well, we are now at Chang La, close to 18,000 feet and it is super cold! The driver suggests I walk up to the Army camp nearby for a complimentary cup of tea. The tea does real wonders and I silently thank the Indian Army for coming up with such a thoughtful idea. By the way, it also has a free medical camp for tourists besides clean toilets in the wilderness.

From Chang La, it is a downward slide of many feet to reach Pangong. A little less than an hour’s journey and we are at Pangong. Only a bit of the lake is on the Indian side, the rest is in China.

To call the lake beautiful is to inaccurately describe its distinctiveness. Pangong truly is beyond words, it is an experience, a must-see. An ultimate example of serenity. Soaking in the picturesque natural beauty of the lake even as a high wind slaps my face, I see a bunch of yaks walking lazily to nowhere. Heaven!

On my way back, I skip Hemis and stop by at Thiksay for a while. By the time I reach Leh, it is well past evening. After an early dinner, I curl up in my bed thinking of Ladakh’s singular beauty. The image of Pangong lake floats in my mind. Indeed, a thing of beauty is a joy forever.

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