Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Trip to Ladakh - September 2013 - Part-II : Visits to Pangong Lake and Nubra Valley

Day-4 : To Pangong Tso Lake (165 kms)

We got up around 5.30 am to get ready for departure to our first high altitude journey to Pangong Lake.  The next 3 days were to be crucial for all of us as for the first time, we would be travelling at a very high altitude crossing, to and fro Chang La Pass (5360m) and Khardug La Pass (5602m). A knock on the door of my room by my sister interrupted my thought as she told me that my brother-in-law had vomited as soon as he got up in the morning. When I went to his room, I found him coming from the bathroom after a bath. He said that he did not experience head ache nor he felt breathless which gave me some relief from the anxiety. Probably, an upset tummy may have been the cause of vomiting. But at a higher altitude, it is difficult to guess the reason for vomiting as it is also one of the early sign of AMS. Since the doctor will not be available in the early morning, I gave him a tablet of Domstal and advised him to drink plenty of water with electrolytes powder. There was no further vomiting though he had nauseating feeling throughout the day. After taking a light breakfast, he felt confident to travel to Pangong Lake.

We were schedule to leave for Pangong Lake by 6.30 am but eventually left at 7.00 am after breakfast.The hotel had given us packed dry lunch packets. We carried a box of 12 mineral bottles in our Innova which became one of the standard items to be carried in our all the trips in Ladakh. An oxygen cylinder was also provided by our hotel as a precautionary measure which remained in Innova through out our trip. However, none of us required to use the cylinder through out our trips in Ladakh.

Shakti village from where the climb to Chang La Pass (5360m) starts for Pangong Lake.

 Climb to Chang La Pass

The route the Pangong Lake starts from Leh-Manali Road. The road to Pangong Lake bifurcates to the left at Kharu village (45 kms from Leh) where an army check-post inspects IPL, a copy of which is given to them before proceeding further. The road passes through the plateau until Shakti village from where the climb starts. The road condition was good except 5 kms before Changla Pass and 10 kms thereafter which was a dirt road where one was forced to drive in 10-20 kms per hour. The road has no protection or guardrails.  At Chang La Pass (5360m or 17590 ft. Above sea level), the third highest motorable road in the world, there is an army camp which serves tea and biscuits to all visitors free. There is also Changla Baba temple with prayer flags. We did not stop and get down at the pass as we had already decided to get down on our return journey. Fortunately, none of us felt any problem of high altitude during our journey. Probably, we forgot the problem of breathlessness by enjoying the breath-taking scenery throughout the journey!

 Mountain topography on way to Chang La Pass.

Me and my brother-in-law at Chang La Pass. 'La' in Ladakhi language means 'Pass'.

Me at Chang La Pass.

After the pass, the dirt road continued for another 10 kms until a small hamlet called Tangste. Again the road passed through plateau with mountains of different shades on both sides. At some places, there were meadows where we could see Yaks and mountain goats/sheep grazing. It is a scenic journey of a different kind where bald mountains devoid of any greenery look extremely beautiful. This region is also a part of Changthang Wildlife Sanctuary. We also spotted a group of the Himalayan Marmot in this region while returning to Leh.

After Chang La Pass, there are more of the sandy places like this one.

 But there are few green patches like this one which are the favourite places grazing by wild yaks. 

The Himalayan Marmot on the way to Pangong Lake.

And some water hole too.

It is not until Lukung that we got the first glimpse of the western tip of Pangong Lake. But soon it disappears as a mountain blocked the view. As we crossed this ‘blockage’, the entire stretch of Pangong Lake was visible to the infinity.  Even though I have seen the pictures of Pangong Lake, the actual seeing the lake made me speechless as I failed to get the appropriate adjectives to describe the lake and its surrounding mountains. I just could not believe that such a beautiful lake surrounded by ‘bald’ mountains of different shades existed in this planet.

 The first glimpse of Pangong Lake from Lukung.

The final descending towards Pangong Lake from Lukung.

It will not be out of place to mention that just before the entry into Pangong Lake area, there is a small stream which gets swollen as day passes. The source of this stream is a glacier which melts during day time increasing the flow of water into the stream. By noon, the gushing water of this stream over the road is so strong that the vehicles cannot cross the stream until evening when the water level comes down. It for this reason that earlier, it was always advisable to plan for a visit to Pangong Lake with an overnight halt so that one can reach the lake before noon and on the next day, to cross the stream before noon on a return journey. Because of this behaviour of the stream, it was nicknamed as ‘Pagal Nala’ ( Crazy Stream). Now Border Road Development Organisation of the army has constructed a iron bridge over the stream making it possible to visit Pangong Lake on a day trip.

Pangong Lake seen from the road side.

 Another view of Pangong Lake from the road side.

We reached Pangong Lake at around 11.30 am after a brief ‘pit stop’ at an army camp area just before Changla Pass. We parked our vehicle in front of one of many tents in the vicinity of Pangong Lake and ordered for ginger tea. Surprisingly,  Pangong Lake area even at an altitude of 4350m or 14350ft was warm due to strong sun and the absence of breeze. So we had to remove one layer of sweater to walk to the lake shore and enjoy the serenity and tranquility of the place. The water of the lake seemed to change its colour from sky blue to dark blue depending upon the shades of the mountains surrounding it. Sometime the sky blue colour would have a ting of emerald green near the shore.  Otherwise the water was crystal clear as we could see pebbles through the water at the shore.

 Snow clad mountain view from Pangong Lake.

Pangong lake from the ground level. Please note the pebbles which are visible through its water.

Gulls from Central Asia make Pangong Lake their summer home for breeding.

Pangong Lake is 134 km long and its broadest width is 5 kms. Nearly 70% of the lake is over the Chinese side of LOC. The water of the lake is brackish and it does not have any aquatic life. However, brown headed gulls make a regular visit to the lake in summer from Central Asia for breeding. Probably the gulls depend upon some small species of arthropods found in the lake for their food during breeding. Boating in the lake is prohibited though army men were seen patrolling the lake in their boats.

 A gull is about to fly over Pangong Lake.

Western tip of Pangong Lake. A part of the song 'Satrangi re' from Hindi film DILSE (1998) was short on the pebbled filled  mini island (in the foreground) in the lake.

A panoramic capture of Pangong Lake from western side.

A lagoon like projection into Pangong Lake at its western side. This lagoon was the place where the final scenes of Hindi film '3 Idiots' were shot.

There was a moderate crowd – mostly family crowd at the shore of the lake. Some of us stood in the lake water which initially felt  cold and then icy cold as duration of standing in the water elongated. We walked about 200 metres on the shore to witness the colour change of the lake water. We found a pebbled filled place near the shore surrounded by the lake water making it a mini island and sat there for about 30-40 minutes to get a feel of a heavenly abode.  We could have continued to enjoy this tranquil place for some more time but for a scorching sun which made us a bit uncomfortable. So we walked towards the tent where we had tea by walking over a gradual climb. None of us got problem of breathlessness at this altitude even after spending nearly two hours and walking on a moderate climb to the tent.

After taking a bowl of Maggie soup and our dry lunch at the tent, we commenced our return journey at around 1.30 p.m. After a km or so, we noticed a crowd of tourists which appears to be thronging in the middle of the lake. When we came nearer to it, it transpired that it was a narrow longish projection which ended deep into the lake. Even a couple of vehicles were seen on this narrow projection. This was the spot where the final 10 minutes of scenes from Hindi film '3 Idiots' (2009) were shot. We felt like going there but the warm weather and likely altitude sickness due to spending more time at this altitude could later create problem for us. 

Our driver told us that during winter, the lake water is completely frozen which enables the tourists to walk on the lake. He further said that during the month of April, the whole mountain ranges surrounding the lake are fully snow covered and the place gives a different perspective with blue water of the lake.

As decided, we stopped briefly at Chang La Pass for a view and a photo session. By this time, except for myself and my brother-in-law (wife’s brother), others were not in a mood to alight from the vehicle as they felt some signs of breathlessness. The most affected was my brother-in-law’s wife who felt breathless even before reaching Chang La Pass. All of them were snuffing camphor through their handkerchiefs to overcome the breathlessness. They all become near normal once we descended from the pass and return to our hotel in Leh at 4.00 p.m. After a cup of tea and biscuits, we all returned to our hotel rooms for a couple of hours’ rest which hastened the recovery from the bouts of breathlessness. By dinner time, every one of us was hale and hearty, ready for tomorrow’s yet another high altitude journey to Nubra Valley. 

Day-5 : Visits to Diskit and Hundar in Nubra Valley (128 kms)

The day’s journey involved climbing from Leh (3550m) to Khardung La Pass (5602m) in 40 kms of road journey and then descending to Diskit village (3125m) in 78 kms via Khardung and Khalsar villages. A further drive of 10 kms would take us to Hundar sand dunes. So distance-wise, it was not a long drive as compared with the drive to Pangong Lake. But the crucial point in this journey was crossing Khardung La Pass without any hitch. We were told that there could be a traffic jam in around Khardung La Pass due to incoming army convoys of trucks and closure of road at that area for a couple of hours due to the road widening works. So we were advised to start from Leh/ Diksit early so that the pass is crossed before noon after which the road work gets momentum and blasting work starts.

We commenced our journey around 8.30 a.m. from Leh. The road to Nubra valley starts immediately after passing through  the market area and takes a left turn from this point. After about 6 kms of drive, the climb to Khardung La Pass starts. Even though, the pass is a highest motorable road of the world, driving on this hill road is not as difficult as some of the lesser known passes in the Himalayas including Chang La Pass which we crossed the previous day. It is the altitude, the likely traffic jam and delay near the pass which makes the tourists travelling in the vehicles venerable to altitude sickness.  At South Pulla army camp,  the ILP were checked and a copy of the same was given to the army authorities. The road condition after South Pulla below the pass to North Pulla army camp after the pass ( a distance of nearly 30 kms) was a dirt road with some patches being very rough to drive. There was no protection or guardrails on the valley exposed side the road in this stretch.

The view of the beginning of the climb to Khardung La Pass.

View of snow clad mountains of Ladakh range from South Pulla

Khardung La Pass (with tower) seen from Khardung village side.

Me and my borther-in-law on Khardung La Pass

Me in front of a temple on Khardung La Pass

Just about 2 kms before the pass, we were stuck in a traffic jam because of the incoming convoys of army trucks which numbered about 50. Though the road was wide enough for crossing two small cars, it was not possible to cross when army trucks were coming from the opposite direction. It took about 40 minutes for the convoy to pass before we could commence our journey. We crossed the pass by 10.30 am without any problem from the high altitude. As usual, we did not venture out at the pass for photo session and tea break as we had decided to stop here on our return journey.  At North Pulla after the pass, our ILP was again checked and a copy of the same was retained by the army authorities. Both these places have toilet facilities.

We reached Khardung village at around 11.30 am and had a tea break. It is at this point, we noticed that my brother-in-law was having problem in getting down from the vehicle and was walking  unsteadily as he was slightly disoriented. Probably 40 minutes of wait at the traffic jam just before Khardung La Pass may have resulted in getting a mild altitude sickness. However, once he rested in the hotel and had tea and biscuits, he had partly recovered from the symptoms.

A convoy of military trucks coming from Khardung village side on the climb to Khardung La Pass.

A view of Khardung village from road side.

Khardung village prayer wheel.

The road through Khardung village.

After a few kms of drive from Khardung village, the tarmac road was in good condition and there were fewer bends and curves on the road. The mountain scenery was good though we saw only a very few oasis of green patches. As we reached near Khalsar village, Shyok river became visible to the right with its multi chanels of flows. It appears that somewhere Khalsar and Diskit villages, there is a confluence of , Nubra river with Shyok river but due to multi-channel of flows, it was difficult for us to pin point the exact location of the confluence. With river flowing around, the green patches at its bank became pronounced. A few kms after Khalsar village, a bifurcation to the left took us to Diskit village as the straight road goes to Panamik. The highlight of the road to diskit immediately after the left turn is that it is a complete straight road of 5-6 kms without even a minor bend or curve and it passes through the flat land giving an impression of a tarmac runway.

View of snow clad mountains from somewhere near Khardung village.

The first view of Shyok river on the way to Khalsar village.

A zoomed  shot of  Shyok river taken from our moving Innova.

The road to diskit almost comes in level with Shyok river.

We reached Diskit at around 1.00 pm and checked in Hotel Sten Del. It was a nice property having a small courtyard and clean rooms with hot water and TV. Surprisingly  the rooms had a ceiling fan which indicated that even at 3100m above sea level, the day time in summer may be warm. At the backyard of the hotel, there was fruit and vegetable garden. The only problem with this hotel and also for others in Diskit village was that electricity was available only from 7.00 pm in the evening and remains until morning. So one has to take hot water bath either in the evening or very early morning.  The hotel had a nice restaurant where we took lunch after freshening up. As the tourist season was coming to an end, we were the only occupants in the hotel.

  We stayed in Diskit at Hotel Sten Del 

After some rest in the hotel room, we proceeded to Hundar for sand dunes and double hump camel rides. Hundar village is located about 8 kms further from Diskit and the entry point to sand dunes is by taking a big ‘U’ turn of about 2 kms. A small stream flows by the side of the sand dune. The vehicle is allowed up to a wooden bridge over the stream after which the camel ride point starts.  There were many camels waiting to be hired and again we were the only tourists at that point of time to hire the double hump camels for rides. The rate is Rs.180/- per person for a 15 minutes ride which is non-negotiable. Since I was more interested in photography than the camel ride, I did not go for the ride. Same was with my brother-in-law who had just recovered from a mild altitude sickness.

The first close encounter with Hundar sand dunes as we parked our Innova.

Walking towards Double Hump camel ride point.

The camels in waiting for tourists in Hundar.

The camel rides.

After the end of the ride, one the camels had a 'sigh of relief'. 

Unlike sand dunes of hot deserts like Rajsathan which are golden in colour, the sand dunes of the  cold desert of Hundar is grey in colour like the river sands I have seen in the Himalayan Rivers. The waves and humps of this sand dunes are not as high as that of hot desert sands. After camel rides and spending about an hour on the sand dunes, we returned to Diskit to have a hot coffee in the lawns of the hotel.

Hundar sand dunes

Hundar sand dunes.

Hundar sand dunes.

Hundar sand dunes.

Hundar sand dunes.

Vijay Pol, a hotel staff hailing from Parbhani district of Maharashtra took us to the hotel’s vegetable farms in the backyard. He said that vegetables and fruits from their farms were only used for food preparations in the hotel. The requirements of milk for the hotel was taken care of by cows owned by the hotel owner.

When we came back to the hotel, electricity supply was available. So we  watched some TV programmes before the dinner. Earlier  we had requested the cook to prepare kichdi with curry pokodas and baigan bartha for the dinner which he obliged. The kichdi was yummy with good quantity of pure ghee poured on it. For the first time, we relished our dinner to the full extent as if we were having a home cooked food. In the night, Vijay Pol brought to our room a glass of hot cow milk for each of us before we retired for the day. We wish that we could have stayed one day more in Diskit to enjoy the solitude in this hotel with excellent services provided by the cook and Vijay Pol.

Day-6 : To Diskit Monastery and back to Leh (120 kms)

In the previous day, our driver has advised us to be ready by 7.00 a.m. so that after visiting Diskit Monastery on the way, we cross Khardung La Pass as early as possible to avoid getting caught during the temporary road closure around the pass for road widening work. According to his experience, the duration of the road closure could be as short as 30 minutes but at times it could be as long as 3 hours.

 View of Diskit monastery from Hundar sand dunes.

Even though, Diskit is at an altitude lower by about 500 metres as compared with Leh, we found that the night and early morning cold was somewhat more intense than in Leh. The reason could be that apart from sparse population, Diskit has more open spaces and greenery than Leh. Also the sand dunes nearby and the wide Nubra valley give Diskit the uninterrupted flow of cold breeze.

After the breakfast of Kande-Pohe (Flatten Rice with Onion), we commenced our return journey to Leh by 7.30 am, the usual 30 minutes of late start since we landed in Leh. Diskit Monastery was visible from the road outside the hotel. In less than 15 minutes, we reached the road end to Diskit monastery. A path to the left took us to the newly constructed (2010) giant statue of sitting Maitreya Buddha facing Hundar side. A round platform has been constructed with iron railings around the statue giving a 360 degree stunning view of Nubra Valley. 

 Statue of sitting Maitreya Buddha on a hillock close to Diskit Monastery.

View of Nubra Valley from Maitreya Buddha hillock.

View of Maitreya Buddha statue with Nubra Valley from Diskit Monastery.

After spending about 15 minutes, we proceeded towards Diskit Monastery. We had to climb main stairs to reach the gates of two main shrines in the monastery. The monastery was established during 14th century. There were two main shrines inside the monastery – one with prayer hall and Maitreya Buddha statue  which appears to be new one and the other old shrine with a statue of Goddess Kali. The photography in old shrine is prohibited. But there is not much to click here as the shrine is not kept well and the murals on the walls have been partially obliterated due to neglect over a period of time. The monk in the temple told me that during summer, new shrine of Maitrya Buddha is used for prayer while in winter, it is the turn of old shrine for prayer. The monastery runs a public school in its complex which can be seen from  the bifurcation point of the road leading to Maitreya Buddha statue and the monastery. The location of the monastery is awesome for a good photography and it can give a good competition to Thiksay monastery in Leh on this count.

 Praying wheels at the main entrance to Diskit monastery.

Prayer hall of Maitreya Buddha Shrine in Diskit monastery.

Decorated murals on a wall of Maitreya Buddha shrine.

A few of small idols on display in Maitreya Buddha shrine.

The idol of Maitreya Buddha in the first shrine of Diskit monastery.

The old type of lock and keys of older shrine of Goddess Kali.

After spending an hour or so in both these places, we commenced our journey to Leh at around 9.00 am. After taking a short tea break in Khardurg village, we commenced the rest of the journey with some degree of uncertainty as to how much time it would take to cross Khardungla pass due to traffic restriction. As we were about 2 kms short of the pass, we saw some vehicles ahead of us had stopped and drivers had come out. It appears that the road was closed for some time to undertake blasting work and thereafter clearance of rubble.  We spent about 2 hours at this spot and two of our family has some minor symptoms of altitude sickness which continued until we reached Leh.

 Being close to LOC, one could see frequent sorties of Indian Air Force flights over Diskit. The transport aircraft in the picture seems to be IL.76.

View of Nubra Valley from Diskit Monastery.

A river in view soon after we descended Diskit monastery to the road to Khalsar. Either river could be Nubra or Shyok.

The traffic commenced after about 2 hours only to get jammed again after about  1 km. After about 30 minutes of wait, the traffic started moving in a snail’s pace and we reached Khardung La Pass 3.00 pm. No one was in mood to get down at the pass to see the view and take a customary picture with BRDO’s milestone indicating the name and altitude of the pass. Finally, I and my brother-in-law came out of the vehicle and our driver took the picture of us on the pass.

We took a brief stop at South Pulla army camp for some time as our driver was having a head ache. He went inside a tea stall to have a face wash. Probably 2 hours of exposure in the open at a high altitude during traffic stoppage may have affected him. After some rest, we commenced the rest of the journey to Leh. We reached our hotel in Leh at around 4.00 pm. As we had missed our lunch,  the hotel staff prepared for us vegetable upma to fill our stomach.

By evening, the two of our family members who had some mild symptoms of altitude sickness became normal. My brother-in-law had some bad cold and cough adding to his misery. A visit to doctor gave him the assurance that the cold and cough was mainly due to the change of climate and  it would stop of its own in due course.  

With this, the most difficult part of our Ladakh trip was over. In our next day’s trip, we have to cross two passes on our way to Kargil but those passes are less than 4000m in altitude. 



Capt Suresh Sharma said...

Dear Sadanand Kamath

You have written a beautiful travelogue about your trip to Laddakh and have wonderful photographs. Very impressive.

I wish to contact you, may I have your cellphone number so I could call you. You may send an SMS on cellphone 09888 380 386, I shall call you back.

Best regards

Capt Suresh Sharma

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