We started day three hovering over Leh in a helicopter. Father had made this arrangement so that we would have the best sights. We traversed the Indus through the sky and I got some great shots at extreme angles. The pilot indulged all my requests to hover the craft at different angles so that I could get my shots. The chopper’s sides almost kissed a few pinnacles in that process. We got so carried away during these stunts that we almost reached the Kargil army camp further up the Indus. Since that area is a no-fly zone, they actually though we were an intruding aircraft and trained guns on us. Things started going crazy just then. Before the pilot could even establish our identity, one of the missiles zoomed towards the chopper blades ……..
Do I have your attention? (Tee hee hee!!..I know.. that’s a mean trick to play…and yes, maybe I should be a full time writer. Just my 2 cents of fantasy.)
Ok..now to the real travelogue.
August 22nd was going to be a long day. We were going to travel 125 km west of Leh towards Lamayuru Gompa. This road further goes on to Kargil and other areas along the LoC. In addition to the long route, we had other spots to cover on the way too.
Mohammed Ghaus was already at the hotel with his sturdy Toyota Qualis. Another lavish (he! he!) breakfast later, we left the hotel at 7.00 am. It took us about 5 minutes to leave the city precincts and hit the highway. The road was narrow and a lonely one too. For an hour we had passed only a couple of vehicles. The Indus was our constant companion. As we headed towards the mountains the water gathered force. Convoys of army vehicles passed us now and then. The smaller vehicles and jeeps had to make way for the convoys or reverse back to a suitable point on the highway which was wide enough to permit both vehicles to pass each other. It was amazing to see the coordination with which the drivers did this without speaking a word.
We alternated between spectacular wine-red gorges and crater-ridden mud coloured mountains and plains. Sometimes we could see further up where the road lead to, others, we weren’t even sure if a road existed beyond that point. There were purple mountains and green ones, some were covered in dusty soil and others had fragile rocks fragments to show. Due to the tectonic origins of the Himalayas, the whole range is very brittle. High above the road we could see overhangs of rock which looked ready to give way at the sound of the horn. The soil nearest to the river was yellow and brown. The topography there showed signs of constant erosion.
We frequently passed herds furry goats that yield the famous Pashmina wool. Those hardly animals can climb impossible heights in search of fodder which is hard to come by in Ladakh. We had yet to see any yaks though.
Suddenly, Mohammed stopped the SUV. He put it in neutral gear and turned off the engine. “Look behind us” he said, “Do you see the decline on the part of the road we just passed?” We nodded. Then unexpectedly, he let go of the brakes and we were rolling up the slope…..wait a minute……up a slope????? He answered our puzzled looks by pointing to a board on the side of the road. It said “Magnetic Hill”. It is believed that the hill located right behind that board has magnetic properties that can pull vehicles up the gradient. We decided to try if the vehicle would experience a pull if we had it facing the other way. We attempted this successfully on our way back. I guess that makes us magnetic personalities now.
Further down the road we passed the Patthar Sahib. It’s a Gurudwara built to commemorate Guru Nanak’s visit to Leh. The Army manages and controls this holy site and we got some really tasty sheera as prasad there.
There is a legend associated with this gurudwara about which you can read here.
The Indus, which had disappeared for a while among the many mountains, reappeared as we made our way to the Sangam – The confluence of the Zanskar and the Indus rivers. It was suddenly upon us as we rounded a bend in the roads. Another vehicle had stopped there as well and the tourists looked really impressed. The view was awe inspiring. The grey Zanskar joins the muddy Indus and together they flow downstream as the Indus. As the rivers snake through the terrain they form interesting patterns and contours in the landscape. It’s a marvel to look at.
The Rivers are popular venues for adventure sports and ice trekking. In the winter when they freeze over, hikers can walk over the snow/ice up to the origin of the Zanskar River. Kayaking is popular on the Indus, but the grade of the rapids is not as high as those found in rivers of the Char Dham region or in Nepal.
Ladakh is a trekker’s paradise. They have such a choice of mountain ranges to trek on. There is the Ladakh range with medium difficulty level. Then there is the Zanskar and the Karakoram ranges with medium to very high difficulty levels. Some peaks in the Karakoram Range specially, can be really challenging, and the lack of oxygen makes it even more so.
As we passed small villages and big ones, we found one feature common to all these places. They all have well equipped schools! We were thrilled to see kids in smart uniforms walk along the route to reach there. This is a very reassuring sight.
Further up, we stopped to let a military convoy pass. On the other side of the valley, I saw a precariously perched structure on a cliff side. Mohammed told us that it’s was a dilapidated citadel called Bazgo. I managed to get some fantastic shots of Bazgo. It’s a wonder even that it still exists today. I think I quite managed to capture this vulnerability in print. There is a Gompa near Bazgo but we did not visit it.
Our route for that day would end at the Lamayuru Monastery, from where we’d start on the drive back. From where we were, the monastery was about 2 hour away. Nothing in the world would have prepared us for what we were about to see on the route. Such are nature’s wonders that we came upon this beautiful patch of yellow brittle rock in the midst of nowhere. This is the only recorded existence of such a formation and it virtually looks like a scene out of “Mackennas Gold”. They call it the Moonland at Lamayuru. Whether it is phosphorous deposits or any other mineral, we were not sure, but the collective effect was amazing.
Eventually, we reached the Lamayuru monastery. This sits at the top of a hill, riddled with caves where monks meditate. I found it to be the most delightful of all the monasteries. It is a place to linger, to regain one’s soul, to lie back in spiritual induced bliss. As we stepped in the daily prayer was in progress. Mystic chants were alternated with the loud beating of drums and blowing of high pitched trumpets while the Buddha looked on.
The most interesting feature of this monastery is the very proportionate statue of the Buddha installed in an alcove within the inner sanctum. Lama Norbu traveled to Lamayuru in 1610 and sat in meditation in this alcove, which was then a cave. The Monastery was built on top and as a result the cave was absorbed within the structure. In most of the Gompas, there is no light in the sanctum except for the sacred oil lamps that burn within. As a result the very interesting frescos, or Thankas, are hardly visible. Yet Lamayuru’s Thankas are painted at location where everyone can admire them in all their glory.
One of the oldest, is the low-lying Alchi Monastery, with a cluster of chortens, and five small whitewashed temples with wooden doors. The frescoes here—multiple images of the Buddha—have preserved their rich blues and reds. But again it’s too dark to appreciate them enough. From within the monastery garden, the aroma of fermenting apricots wafts up. Although guesthouses surround the place and there is no village visible nearby.
By the time we reached Alchi from Lamayuru on our way back, it was almost 3.00 pm. We stopped at a roadside dhaba for a late lunch. These quaint dhabas dot the landscape and serve gastronomic delights of all kinds. YUM!
We passed all those now familiar sight again on our way back; the Sangam, the Magnetic Hill, colourful mountains, the herds….we were so much at home with all of that.
Back at the hotel, Guru as usual tried to tempt me to sample the dessert. Whether it was due to constant travel or the altitude, I am not sure which; I managed to lose my appetite. “Now that’s a first!” Mother exclaimed tongue firmly in cheek when she saw me, ME… refuse food.