Neither altitude sickness nor snow-storms can keep us away
It’s taken me two years and five Chinese tents inside the LaC to write about my tryst with Ladakh. Calling it a trip would be a terrible understatement. Of course, there are people who have experienced Ladakh more up-close than I have — bikers, trekkers and of course the jawans who stoically guard the borders in frighteningly inhospitable altitudes. I cannot hold a candle to them, but Ladakh nevertheless remains my lifetime destination.
With Tibet to its east, Lahaul and Spiti to the south, the Kashmir valley to its west and China’s Xinjiang province to its north, Ladakh was originally ruled by Tibetan Namgyal rulers and wrested from them by a Kashmiri Dogra King in 1834. It became a part of India along with Leh and Kargil when the Instrument of Accession was signed in 1947.
Right from the time you sight the Himalayas from the plane, Ladakh is an experience. At 10,382 ft, the Kushok Bakula Rinpoche Airport, one of the world’s highest civilian airports, is teeming with army personnel who patrol the area not just for security but also for passengers showing signs of acute mountain sickness (AMS). We are greeted by a huge board with information on AMS and the sobering news that the season’s first AMS fatality happened the week before.
From sipping kahwa, the Kashmiri herbal tea to help us acclimatise, to following the prescription of minimal activity for the first 24 hours, to avoiding sleep during the day, to limiting fluid intake — our acclimatisation process is quite an exercise. On the first day, some of us are noticeably breathless and others have a headache. The next morning we are all fine.
We begin with the Hall of Fame, a museum-cum-memorial to war heroes set up by the Army’s XIV Corps and are thoroughly emotional at the end of it, humbled by the sacrifices of our soldiers. From there, we head to Magnetic Road, amazed as our car climbs up with the engine switched off, pulled by the magnetic rocks. At Patthar Sahib, we see the huge rock that legend says Guru Nanak supported on his back as if it were a blade of grass. We marvel at the blue, brown, purple and pink chips of rock strewn around, almost as if a giant hand had been chipping away at the mountains and had stopped for a lunch break.
As we drive on, we spot the Indus River. Once a mere five-mark question in our history paper, it is a frothing, living entity that still nurtures the descendants of the earliest settlers. We are now at Alchi Gompa, one of the oldest monasteries this side of Tibet. Time seems to have truly stood still here; even the old man outside the monastery seems as if he might have been there for the last 80 years. At the Lamayuru Monastery, 10,334 feet high, a somnolent serenity descends on us as we hear the monks chant. But as we step out, a roaring wind almost blows us off our feet into a blue sky that seems close enough to touch. The contrast between equilibrium and turbulence is almost surreal.
But what sets Ladakh truly apart are its high passes. La means ‘pass’; Ladakh being the Land of High Passes. By now we are acclimatised enough to brave Khardung La at 18,379 feet (reportedly the world’s highest motorable road) and Chang La at 17,590 ft (the third highest). Permits are arranged, woollens stacked on, oxygen canisters tucked in. The soldiers tell us we cannot stay out for more than three or four minutes atop Khardung La, as we could get a fatal attack of pulmonary or cerebral oedema.
The gigantic mountains fall beneath us as we climb up from 11,000 feet to heights we have never touched before. Here, the roads are covered with hard ice and the snowy glaciers resemble huge mounds of vanilla ice cream. When we reach the top, nothing we had read could have prepared us for the blinding snow, the roaring wind that makes it impossible to hear each other. The jawans hover, afraid we will stray. Awe, fear, joy, abandon and a deep sense of respect for the soldiers who live here — everything crowds our senses at once. Of course, we overstay. It’s a full seven minutes before we are pushed back into the car by some soldiers who notice our daughter looking pale. Within seconds, she is overcome by a splitting headache and overpowering drowsiness. Karma, our guide, insists that her sleeping could prove fatal, and coerces her to keep talking with stories and questions. Once back at 14,000 feet, she begins to recover.
It’s a suitably chastened and well-behaved group that climbs Chang La the next day, en route to Pangong Lake. This time, the vehicles in our convoy have chained their tyres as the weather is turning hostile. Sure enough, within minutes, the weather changes dramatically. It starts snowing, gently at first and then in swirls. A few hundred yards from Chang La, with just one bend to go, Karma pronounces that it’s too dangerous to proceed. We return, driving in reverse all the way down the icy road from 17,300 feet!
Next morning, Karma tells us that a mere half hour after our descent, an avalanche struck the spot, sweeping away a fellow traveller from Bangalore.
Opinion is divided on Ladakh. Some find the scenery monotonous, the food not very palatable and the heights dizzying. It is sparsely populated and you can drive for miles without sighting a single soul. Then, there are those of us who insist on going back.
Khardung La, Chang La and Tso Moriri
Singing bowls and Tibetan jewellery
Momos, thukpa and chaat from Neha Snacks!