Monday, October 7, 2013

Trip to Ladakh - September 2013 - Part-I : Preludes and Sight-seeing around Leh

Surprisingly, a trip to Leh-Ladakh was not on my wish-list. The reason was that I was keen to do this trip as a classical road trip in a hired SUV through Manali-Keylong-Kunzum La- Sarchu-Baralacha La-Leh and return via Lamayuru-Kargil-Zojila Pass-Srinagar-Jammu. This would have required a long holiday which was difficult to come while in service. After retirement, with the age catching up with me, I was not so sure about myself and my wife whether we would be able to withstand the journey through one of the toughest road conditions passing through world’s three highest motorable roads with the altitude of over 5000m. Under the circumstances, the trip to Ladakh got postponed whenever such a possibility surfaced.

As the New Year 2013 began, my sister who is also a keen traveller, coaxed me to plan for a family trip to Leh-Ladakh sometime in August-September. In February 2013 when we were travelling in Shekhawati region of Rajasthan, my brother-in-law (wife’s brother) showed interest in travelling with us to Leh-Ladakh when he came to know about our plan. The planning of the trip took a final shape when we returned from the Shekhawati trip. After taking into account the festivals in August and early September, we decided to plan the trip during the second half of September 2013. Since we were all senior citizens, the classical road journey to Leh-Ladakh was ruled out. After preparing a tentative itinerary, we booked flight tickets as early as Februaury 2013 as we were told that being the peak tourist period, cost of air tickets may go up at the later stages.

Our tentative schedule of trip to Leh-Ladakh was as under which we, more or less, adhered to:

Day & Date
Leave : Borivali

Reach :Nizamuddin
In the afternoon, local sight-seeing .

14:00 onwards
A K Rajdhani Express


Stay in Delhi on 15/09/2013
Leave : Delhi
Reach : Leh (3525m)
Full day rest in the hotel
By Air India

Stay in Leh from September 16 to 18th.
Sight-seeing around Leh City – Hemis, Thiksey and Shy monasteries and   Sindhughati.
09:00 to

Leave : Leh
Reach:Pongong Lake (4359m) via Changla Pass (5360m)
Left: Pongong Lake
Reached: Leh 

165 kms

165 kms
Leave : Leh
Reach : Diskit (3185m)  in Nubra Valley via Khardong La pass (5600m), world’s highest motorable road.
In the afternoon visit Hunder (10 kms) for sand dunes and camel rides.
08:00 13.00

120 kms
Stay in Diskit on 19/09/2013
Leave : Diskit
Reach: Leh
On the way, visit Diskit Monastries and Sitting Buddha statue
 120 kms
Stay at Leh on 20/09/2013-
Left : Leh
Reach :Lamayuru (3500m)
On the way visit Patthar Saheb Gurudwara, Magnetic Hill, Confluence of Sindhu and Zanskar rivers and Moonland  mountains. In the afternoon, visit Lamayuru monastery.

 125 kms
Stay at Lamayaru on 21/09/2013
Leave : Lamayuru
Reach: Kargil
(Via Foto La Pass and Naamki La Pass). On the way visit Mulbekh Chamba. In the afternoon take a stroll in Kargil market.
   107 kms
Stay at  Kargil on 22/09/2013

Leave: Kargil
Reach : Leh
Via Dah and Hanu villages, the historical Aryan villages. On the way to Leh, visit Hall of Fame.

261 kms

Stay at Leh on September 23-24, 2013
Rest (extra back up) Day. Visit Leh Markets. In the afternoon visit Leh Palace.
10.00 to 16.00

Leave : Leh
Arrive : Delhi
By Air India

Stay at Delhi on 25/09/2013
Leave :Nizamuddin

Arrive : Borivali

A K Rajdhani Express

In June 2013, I booked Hotel Bijoo in Leh for 6 days (out of 9 days of trips in Ladakh). This hotel was highly recommended by another brother-in-law of mine who had stayed in this hotel during his Ladakh trip in September 2009. The initial idea was to book the vehicles on the days of the trips and hotels for other places on the spot. After knowing that we were three senior citizen couples, Hotel Bijoo’s Manager gave us a package of 9 nights/10days @Rs.18000/- per head (all inclusive but excluding mineral water – inner line permits, tourist fee, lodging, bed tea, breakfast, lunch, evening tea/biscuits and dinner, Innova with driver and diesel and oxygen cylinder). After working out the estimated cost item-wise, I felt that the package offered by Bijoo Hotel was quite reasonable. So I agreed for the package and paid a part of the cost as advance in June-July. Balance amount was to be paid after the completion of the trip.

Day-1 : In New Delhi

Since the flight from Delhi to Leh was scheduled at early morning, as a matter of caution, we decided to stay  overnight in Delhi to be able to catch the early morning flight. We boarded A K Rajdhani Express at Borivali (Mumbai) which reached Nizamuddin the next day, 15 minutes earlier than its schedule arrival time of 10.55 am. My friend and ex-office colleague had very kindly arranged Innova to pick us  outside Nizamuddin railway station. The driver was waiting with his Innova as we stepped out. We checked in Hotel Madonna in Old Rajinder Nagar (again very kindly arranged by my friend). The hotel seems to be a newly constructed property as everything in the hotel was clean (tariff Rs.2000/- EP with 24 hours hot water, AC and TV). After freshening up and having lunch in the hotel, we   proceeded on a sight-seeing tour in the same Innova to Qutub Minar, Lotus Temple and Indira Gandhi Memorial and ended the trip with snacks and tea/coffee in Sravanan Bhawan in Conaught Place. With this, we retired for the day as we were to get up in the ungodly hour the next day to catch the early morning flight to Leh.[Delhi picture album.]

Day-2 : In Leh and rest for 24 hours

We got up at 2.30 am and were ready by 3.30 am for the airport journey. The driver reached with his Innova at 3.30 am sharp  and by 4.00 am, we were at the airport’s Terminal-3. The check-in and security check went on smoothly and by 4.30 am we were at the boarding gate. Since there were easy chairs at the boarding point, we rested for about an hour before the flight’s departure was announced. Air-India flight left at its schedule time of 5.55 a.m. and reached Leh airport at its schedule time of 7.05 am. After picking our check-in baggage, we were out of the airport by 7.30 am. The outside temperature In Leh was 8C. Mohammed Ali of Hotel Bijoo received us outside the airport and within 10 minutes, we reached the hotel. We were welcomed by the hotel staff in traditional Ladakhi style. While our baggages were taken to our rooms, we sat in  the hotel’s restaurant for the breakfast.

After breakfast, we returned to our respective rooms. One of the hotel staff took our photo identity cards which had all the details to apply for Inner Line Permits (ILPs) for visiting the restricted areas viz. Pangong Tso (Lake), Nubra Valley and Dha-Hanu villages. The ILPs were issued within a couple of hours by the office of the District Magistrate/Commissioner, Leh. One of the requirements for issuing IPLs is that the tourist must enclose a copy of the receipt of the Environmental Fee of Rs.200/- per head collected by Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, Leh. 

Since we gained altitude from 292m in Delhi to 3550m in Leh within one hour, it was  of utmost important for us to get acclimatised at higher altitude to prevent Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). So the next 24 hours was a complete rest for us without doing exertions. It is generally believed that onset of AMS  on any person at higher altitude can take place from 4 hours to 24 hours after reaching the place. However, we strolled inside the hotel complex for short period with slow movements in all our actions, be the climbing 4-5 stairs, walking, getting up from the chairs etc. Also one has to keep hydrated by drinking plenty of water. Hence, after breakfast, I arranged for 4 litres of mineral water in each room (i.e., two litres for each) to be consumed by evening. And we meticulously followed our quota of drinking waters throughout the trip. Our plan was to take a short stroll in Leh market area in the evening but we gave up this plan as it was quite cold in the evening. Instead, we watched a Hindi movie on the TV to kill our time. After an early buffet dinner,  we retired for the day. So the day ended with all of us in hale and hearty conditions.

Apple tree in Hotel Bijoo. We ate every apples from this tree. 
Day-3: Sight-seeing in around Leh

We all got up around 6.00 am though we had thought that we had the luxury of waking up late say 7.00 am due to the fact that the day was planned for a local sight-seeing tour. We had deliberately kept the day for the sight-seeing around Leh which would effectively give us 48 hours on the same altitude for better acclimatisation. I had a sigh of relief when I found that there was no trace of AMS related problems to any one of us and all of us had a sound sleep in the night.

1. Hemis Monastery

After breakfast, we commenced our sight-seeing tour of tourist places around Leh. All the tourist places to be covered today were on the Leh-Manali road. Indus (Sindhu) river flowed by the right side of the road. Our first stop was Hemis Monastery located  about 45 kms south of Leh off Leh-Manali road. From the parking lot, about 100 metres of gradual climb leads to the main entrance of the monastery. The entry fee is Rs.50/- per head.

Hemis monastery is said to have existed during 11th century BC though the present structure of monastery was founded by Senggi Namgyal in 1672. The monastery is regarded as the main seat of Kagyu lineage of Buddhism. The monastery has been built on Tibetan architecture using stones, clay and wood. They are mostly on the elevated land or hills facing south direction.

The Hemis monastery has a big rectangular inner courtyard. On the right of the courtyard as one enters through the main gate is the traditional prayer wheels and temples of Shakya Muni (ground floor) and Guru Padmasambhava (first floor). On the left of the courtyard is the assembly hall and a museum. Walls of temples have murals of Buddhist gurus.

We visited the museum located at the right side corner of inner courtyard. Camera, mobiles and bags are not allowed inside the museum for which they have clock room facility. The museum is a repository of a rich Ladakhi culture of more than 1000 years. The highlight of this museum was that besides various antiques made up of bronze, china clay and other mixed alloys, it had a huge throne made in Kashmir and donated to the monastery by a Dogra king. The museum is worth a visit.

Sindhu river with her serpentine turns on the way to Hemis monastery.
 A monastery on a hillock at the banks of Sindhu river.

Sindhu river, a green patch in the middle and mountain ranges on way to Hemis monastery.

A crawly, probably belonging to Chameleon family on a rock on the banks of Sindhu river.

View of Hemis monastery from car parking.

The inner courtyard of Hemis monastery. On the left is the temple complex and on the right is assembly hall.

Hemis monastery temple complex

The mural in Hemis monastery temple complex

A combined mural showing the cycle of life (left) and Hennapadam Panchjanyaya (right)

Guru Padmasambhava in Hemis monastery

Statue of Buddha - Hemis monastery

Paintings in Buddha temple in Hemis monastery.

Hemis museum

A brass Buddha statue on a hillock opposite to Hemis Monastery.

View of Ladakh ranges from the terrace of Hemis monastery.

2. Thiksay Monastery

The next destination was an impressive Thiksay monastery located about 20 kms from Leh off Leh-Manali Road. The monastery was founded in 1430. As one looks the monastery perched on a hillock, one would get an impression that the visitors may have to climb some distance after reaching the parking lot. Surprisingly, the walk was almost on a plain road until the main gate. The entry fee is Rs.30/- per head.

The first on the left after entering the gate is a rest room complex which is very clean. The next to it is a posh vegetarian restaurant and souvenir shop. After climbing a few steps, there is a white chorten (stupa) of Khen Rinchope, the teacher of the monastery. After passing through the chorten, there is a large prayer wheel which is rotated clockwise. At this level, on the left is Dhuchot temple and the monastery school. In the centre of the temple is the statue of Shakya Muni Buddha.

After a further few steps, the temple of Maitrya Buddha which has a magnificent Maitreya Buddha statue, the most beautiful statue anywhere in Ladakh. The statue was concerted in 1980 in the hands of Dalai Lama who commented that he had seen many statues but he had never seen a Maitreya statue like this. The 40ft high statue is made up of terracotta brick and clay, painted with gold.

Climbing further stairs, we went up to the terrace of the monastery. I have seen some more monasteries in my Ladakh visit, but in my view the best 360 degree view can be had only from the terrace of Thiksay monastery. My pictures below would vouch for my statement.

 Thiksay monastery seen from the road side.

A chorten (stupa) on the way to Thiksay monastery.

Thiksay monastery - side view.

Thiksay monastery - Statue of Maitreya Buddha

Wall painting in Buddha temple in Thiksay monastery.

A mural on a wall of a temple in Thiksay monastery showing the harmony among three animals and a bird.

A 180 degree panoramic view from the terrace of Thiksay monastery.

Another side view from Thiksay monastery.

Snow clad mountain view from Thiksay monastery.

Another snow clad mountain view from Thiksay monastery.

Chorten (stupas) view from Thiksay monastery. This is a back side access to the monastery from the chortens.

View of Leh-Manali road from Thiksay monastery.

3. Shey Palace and Monastery

Shey Palace and monastery is located about 15 kms south of Leh.  It was constructed in 1655 by King Deldan Namgyal as a summer palace. When Dogras of Jammu invaded ladakh in 1942, Namgyals abandoned the palace and shifted to Stok Palace located on the opposite side of Sindhu river. It is said that the descendents of Namgyal family still stay at Stok Palace.

The entry to the Palace is by the side of the road from where the a series of small prayer wheels start. We had to climb many stone stairs of uneven height to reach the gate of the Palace. From the road side itself, the Palace looked like a ruin. It is under major restoration which has been going on for many years. A monk in one of the adjoining rooms of the temple told me that the complete restoration of Palace may take another 3-4 years as the work can be undertaken only during the summer and autumn months. So, it was a disappointing visit where we could not see anything in the Palace except a temple attached to it where a giant 40feet high statue of Sakhya Muni Buddha sitting posture was worth a visit. However, the view from the roof of the Palace was beautiful.

Shey Palace & Monastery seen from the road side. 

Entrance to the temple of Shey Palace.

Statue of Maitreya Buddha in Shey Palace temple.

View of the numerous ponds in a grassy land from Shey Palace. Manali-Leh road in the foreground.

4. Druk White Lotus School (Popularly known as Rancho School)

The School was not on our itinerary but our driver insisted that we should visit this school which has become famous after it featured in Hindi film ‘3 Idiots’ as Rancho School. The school complex is located in Shey very close to Shey Palace. We were ushered into the reception room of the School where a receptionist gave us a short talk on the history of the school. The school was started in September 2001 and now has classes from Nursery to Class 10. It has more than 700 students enrolled for 2013. Special emphasis has been given to the children from the remote places of Ladakh where educational facilities are non-existence. There is a hostel in the School complex for about 300 children especially for those who have enrolled in the School from the remote places. The School is run on the active support from philanthropists both from India and abroad.  The school is being affiliated to CBSE. It was nice to know that a high quality school with national and international supports exists in Leh.

 A monastery in the Rancho School complex.

The hostel of Rancho School.

One of the class rooms of Rancho School. Windows were closed but classes were going on.

5. Sindhu Ghat

About 10 kms from Leh near Shey, a ghat in the banks of Sindhu river has been developed in 2001 for the tourist to enjoy the beautiful Sindhu Valley. The main feature of this ghat is that this is the only place where one can dip his feet in the water of Sindhu river as it flows almost at the level of the lower portion of the ghat. This is also the venue for the annual Sindhu Festival, which is held in the month of June. Except for the valley view, there is nothing to see in this place. The most disappointing sight was that of one SUV  being washed in the river.The place was not as clean as it should have been.  I will regard this place only  for  a short break before reaching Leh.

By the time we completed the sight-seeing and returned to our hotel, it was 4.00 p.m. and we did not have lunch. However, the hotel staff had kept aside  lunch for us which we ate and returned to our hotel room.

Thus our second day in Leh passed without any one of us having AMS issue.

 Sindhu Ghat near Shey
6. Leh Palace

On the last day of our stay in Leh, which was kept as a reserved day to take care of any unforeseen problem, we took a stroll in Leh Market and after lunch, we visited Leh Palace which is perched on a hillock about 4 kms from our hotel. This palace was built in 17th century by King Sengge Namgyal. It is a nine level palace which is mostly in ruin. Only the temple attached to the Palace is in good condition.  A restoration work is in progress and some of the rooms are open for visitors which have displays showing the history of Ladakh. Photography inside the Palace is prohibited except in the temple. Most of the rooms are dark and dusty. Those suffering from dust allergy may like to avoid visiting the Palace. One gets a beautiful panoramic view of Leh from the upper levels of the Palace.

A zoomed view of Leh Palace from Leh Bazar.

 Entrance to Leh Palace.

Main entrance of Leh Palace. Photography inside Leh Palace is prohibited except in the temple.

An image in the Palace temple. The deity is trimurti with many hands.

A 180 degree panoramic view of Leh town from Leh Palace.

View of Leh market from Leh Palace.

View of Tsemi Palace from Leh Palace.

Inside Tibet market, Leh.

Inside Tibet market , Leh.


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