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Finding Shangri-la

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Sohaila Kapur goes on a winter sojourn and returns with haunting images of snow-clad peaks and turquoise lakes

Ladakh has one of the most stunning landscapes in the world. And, to see it in winter it to see it in its element.

So, we took a flight from Srinagar to Leh, and arrived at a sunny, brown and gold land, nearly bereft of vegetation; very different from Kashmir, resplendent in autumn regalia, the blazing red, pink and orange chinar trees painting a Renaissance landscape. Having been warned to acclimatise ourselves to the rarefied atmosphere at 13,000 feet, we snuggle into our hotel quilts and plot to conquer some of the highest peaks and motorable passes in the world! The next day is brilliant and clear.

Our labouring lungs adjust to the thin, unpolluted air, and after ordering a packed lunch of sandwiches and coffee, we set off on our first major trip.

The route to Pangong Tso, a lake in Eastern Ladakh, on the border of India and China, takes us through the picturesque villages of Choglamsar, Shey and Thikse, the latter two with their famous monasteries perched on what look like gigantic ant hills. The Indus, which touches only Ladakh in India, before flowing into China and Pakistan, runs alongside.

The landscape is moonlike — rocks, craters, craggy peaks and fine sand — co-exist in artistic patterns and hues; the colours coming from the minerals that saturate these rocks!

We drive past Ranbirpura, Stakna and Karu, and climb the Ladakh range steeply towards Chang La, at 5475 metres. Despite its elevation, this is one of the easier passes, remaining open in winter, except when it snows. The peaks are gentler after the pass.

Suddenly, we are enveloped by jagged peaks and are completely land-locked. The metallic road becomes a dusty and rocky path. Frozen streams criss-cross our path, and our attempt to cross one of them cracks the ice and the car sinks into the ice cold water. It is not advisable to drive alone in these passes, for getting stuck could mean spending a night in unpredictable weather. Luckily, another car comes to our rescue.

We cross Tsoltak, and then move South-East to Durbuk and Tangse, at the foot of the pass. Pashmina goats, with their long, silky hair, nibble at the sparse grass. Wild asses follow suit.

Pangong Tso is meditative. Tranquil, with not a ripple emanating from its depths, it reflects the turquoise sky. It is so clear that you can see the cobbled floor. The lake is situated at 4, 267 m, hardly six to seven km at its widest point and over 130 km long. It is bisected by the Indo-China international border.

Legend has it that when the Himalayas rose out of the sea, they scooped some water from it. We test this theory by tasting the lake water…it is brackish just like sea water! An aberration from the sweet water gushing from the surrounding glaciers! And, despite its salt content, the lake freezes in the winter.

The weather gods are still smiling at us and so, the next day, we take a two-hour drive up to Khardung La, north of Leh — the highest motorable pass in the world. The mountainscape en route is peculiar….you feel you are seeing entire villages or fortifications, but they turn out to be weathered rocks! It is hard to gauge where habitation ends and Nature takes over.

At Khardung La, you are on top of the world. The only inhabitants are Army personnel, who offer us hot, sweet tea and dry fruit.

They escort us to their Shiva temple perched on the peak (most peaks have Shiva temples), and show us around the small Army museum that displays photographs of early conquerors, and also sells souvenirs. The cold (-10 C) has us scurrying to the toilets, which are clean, replete with Dettol soap dispensers, towels and toilet rolls.

We reach Leh, and head to another Ladakhi wonder, the Magnetic Hill, about 30 km from Leh on the Leh-Kargil-Batalik NH. The hill has magnetic properties that make vehicles move at a speed of 20 km an hour, even after their engines are switched off. Apparently, helicopters and aircraft have to fly really high to escape its magnetic pull.

The Indus flows nearby and joins the Zanskar at a point called the ‘Sangam'. This breathtakingly beautiful area has featured in movies such as LoC and Tashan . A few kilometres from Magnetic Hill is the Gurdwara Patthar Sahib, where Guru Gobind Singh, the 10 {+t} {+h} guru of the Sikhs, sat in meditation in the 17th Century. Tired after our long journey, we return to our hotel only to be snowed in completely for the next 18 hours.

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