BEST PLACE TO VISIT IN INDIA DURING JULY
It started with the desire to visit India in July during the US summer holidays. The monsoon season is beautiful in itself, but if you want to avoid the rains, it is hard to find places to visit in India during the month of July. That is when the idea to go to Ladakh emerged. Ladakh was always on my ‘must visit’ list. The stunning scenery is a magnet for anyone interested in photography. Turns out that July is the perfect time to visit Ladakh. It is late enough in the summer that the snow would have cleared from the mountain roads. And being a high desert, disruption due to rain is less likely.
TO FLY OR NOT TO FLY
The city of Leh is the hub for any trip to Ladakh. Using Leh as the base, one can make trips to various points of interest in the Ladakh region. Our travels in Ladakh would take us to altitudes ranging from 10,000 feet to 18,000 feet. So it was critical to allow time to acclimatize in order to avoid altitude sickness. We debated whether to fly into Leh, or to drive up from Srinagar to Leh. The advantages of driving from Srinagar is that you can drive over two days, allowing your body to acclimatize to the high altitude of Ladakh (elevation 11,000 feet). It also allows you to enjoy the views of the Kashmir valley and stop over at Kargil to see the war memorial. On the flip side, the advantage of flying is that it saves you two days of time, a strong consideration if you are tight on time. It also avoids the risk of getting stuck on the Srinagar-Leh highway due to the Amarnath Yatra traffic or unexpected landslides (low probability, but could happen due to rains in Kashmir during July). We opted to drive from Srinagar.
Our stay in Srinagar was brief. We arrived in the evening and departed early next morning. The presence of army and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) hits you as soon as you enter Srinagar. Several neighborhoods we passed through had armed CRPF personnel at each intersection. Other than that, the first impressions of Srinagar were that of a typical busy Indian town. I was eager to see Dal lake. I was not sure what to expect – from childhood stories describing it as heaven on earth, to more recent stories talking about the crowding and abuse of the lake. What struck me at first sight was the intense commercialization. Houseboats and busy streets surrounded the lake. Normally, it is easy to look past the distractions and enjoy the place for what it is, but the jet lag and fatigue made it hard. We got onto the Shikara (local row boats) to get transported to our houseboat. A nice cup of kahwa (Kashmiri tea), the ambiance of the houseboat and the pleasant welcome by the houseboat owner helped me relax and I started to appreciate the beauty of the lake. I could imagine the stunning scenery of snow clad mountains in winter, reflecting in the still waters of the lake, punctuated by shikaras silently gliding over the surface. I made a mental note to revisit Srinagar in winter.
DRIVING TO LEH
Early next morning, we were picked up by our taxi drivers – two young ladakhi men, one of whom would stay with us through our trip. We took an instant liking for our driver. He had a pleasant personality, eager to help and do a good job, without a hint of any expectations in return. Perhaps it is the innocence of people who grow up amidst nature, away from the city hustle. Our drive to Kargil was smooth, with one brief traffic jam due to a long convoy of army trucks. Luckily we did not run into the Amarnath Yatra traffic. Near Baltal, we could see the hundreds of tents setup in the valley with thousands of devotees waiting to start their trek to the Amarnath cave. There were helicopters flying back and forth carrying the more privileged devotees to the ice shiv ling.
The alpine meadows and green mountains in Kashmir are in stark contrast to Ladakh's desert landscape
Amarnath Yatra campsite
KARGIL AND DRAS
We spent a night at Kargil, on route to Leh. Kargil is at an elevation of 8780 feet, located on the banks of the Indus. On the way to Kargil is the town of Dras, which holds the claim for the second coldest inhabited place on the planet. Winter temperatures in Dras can drop as low as -45 Celcius. The highlight in Dras is the Kargil war memorial. In the Simla treaty, India and Pakistan agreed to move down from the high elevation line of control during winter. The Kargil war broke out when Pakistan violated the treaty and crossed the line of control while the Indian army had moved down. At the memorial, there is a touching narration given by an army jawan, describing the fallen heroes of the war.
LAMAYURU AND ALCHI
Lamayuru and Alchi are amongst the oldest monasteries in Ladakh. Lamayuru was built in about 1000AD. It currently houses about 300 monks. Listening to the chants of the monks in the prayer room was a wonderful experience. The Alchi monastery was also built in about 1000AD. The monastery is famous for its well preserved vivid paintings of the Bodhisatvas.
We stayed at the Ladakh Residency in Leh, owned and operated by a wonderful gentleman named Wangchuk. On our first day in Leh, we did nothing but rest in our rooms. The intent was to acclimatize, but it also helped us get over jet lag and the fatigue from the first few hectic days of our trip in Surat and Mumbai. On the second day, we visited local sights in Leh. The Stok palace was our favorite. It is a small palace, with a peaceful ambiance, and a dramatic backdrop of the Zanskar range. Our visit to Sindhu Ghat was a pleasant one. Nothing dramatic, and could probably be skipped if one is short of time. But the kids had a good time unwinding and tossing stones in the river. The final place we visited was the Shanti Stupa. There are sweeping views of Ladakh and the Zanskar range from the stupa, but it was a bit cloudy on the day we visited. On the third day, we were rained out. We changed our plans of going to Nubra valley and instead swapped it for our day of whitewater rafting in the Zanskar river. In hindsight, this turned out to be a good decision, since we heard that some fellow tourists were stuck on the road to Nubra for eight hours due to landslides and water on the road!
View of Zanskar range from the terrace of the Ladakh Residency hotel.
Courtyard of the Stok palace
View of the town of Leh and the Zanskar range from Shanti Stupa
Whitewater rafting in the Zanskar river
Nubra valley is located north east of Ladakh, at an elevation of about 10000 feet. The road from Leh to Nubra goes through the Khardongla Pass, at an altitude of 18000 feet. The local claim is that it is the second highest motorable road in the world, though other data suggests the pass is about 17500 feet. The valley is surrounded by the Karakoram and the Ladakh ranges. The Shyok river, a tributary of the Indus, flows through the valley. There are two major towns in the valley - Hundar and Diskit. The white sand dunes of the valley are popular for their Bactrian camel rides. These are two humped camels that are resilient to cold and high altitude, which made them the ideal for the ancient silk trade route. The sand dunes are photogenic and form a great backdrop that has been used in a few Bollywood film shootings. The Diskit monastery is the oldest in Nubra. It was built in the 15th century AD. The views from the monastery are dramatic, including that of the 32 feet Maitreya (future) Buddha statue.
Road to Khardonla Pass
Maitreya Buddha statue in Diskit
Bactrian camels and the Karakoram range in Nubra
Frisbee time at the Nubra sand dunes
This is the star attraction in Ladakh for most tourists. The lake is situated at the Indo China border, with about two-thirds of the lake falling in Chinese territory. The pristine blue waters of the lake with the barren mountains of Ladakh in the backdrop became popular amongst Indian tourists after being featured in the movie "3 Idiots". The lake is at an altitude of 14,500 feet. On a clear night, it is a great location for star gazing.
Brilliant view of the Milky Way during the night sky at Lake Pangong