June 5th 2014 is when we set out on our journey that would span 16 days and 3,266kms ! 3 Souls who did not know what to expect on this journey to the top of the World – Ladakh. My wife, Nishi, fourteen year old daughter Gaurika, and myself in our new bright Red car.
After three transit halts at Chandigarh, Ramban & Srinagar, we met our first challenge 4 days later at the Zoji La (also called Zojila Pass). The road was a heady mix of snow and mud. Even the seasoned drivers were struggling for a little grip !
After a crossing Zojila Pass at an altitude of 11,650 Feet, we stopped at Kargil. The owner of the Zojila ResidencyHotel, on the banks of Suru River,educated us about the benefits of Almond Oil !! The next day we drove to the Kargil War Memorial. This visit made us actually realize the sacrifices our armed forces make to ensure that we sleep peacefully at night. The ImpressiveRajputana Rifles guard was kind enough to take us around and explain the significance of the memorial and the artifacts at the War Museum.AWE &RESPECT !
The road from Drass to Leh was simply awesome. The landscape was nothing short of spectacular. “Lunar” is an understatement !! The dry arid cold valleys are nothing like anywhere else in the world. At this point, I would like to take this opportunity to entreat everyone reading this to mandatorily do this trip by Road at least once in their lifetime ! There is no place like this anywhere on this planet (Maybe Mars is similar, but not this scenic)
We reached a board that said “Magnetic Hill” and were very skeptical thinking it all these years to be an optical illusion. But then Lo and Behold ! We parked our car in the rectangle drawn on the road and watched in disbelief as the Car rolled UPHILL instead of Downhill !!! We stayed and watched other vehicles including a Tanker try the same. And it worked every time !
The approach to Leh, the Capital of Ladakh is amazing. The road turns a corner and voila -the Leh valley view presents itself in all its glory ! It is huge ! Several kilometers across with snowcapped mountains on the fringes and dusty valley below. The mighty Sindu (Indus) river flows in the centre surrounded by patches of green.
The Bright Red Car became a favoritein Leh City in the 3 days we were there for acclimatization! The local Traffic Police would even move the taxis to help us with a prime parking spot right under their Traffic Booth in the heart of the City !
The local food was amazing ! We ate like pigs, treating multiple plates of Momo’s as starters and still having space for a proper meal. Our advice – use your hotel just for sleeping. The food has to be tried at the local market !!
We did some local excursions to the nearby Monasteries of Lamayuru, Thiksey, Hemis, Shey & Stakna.
After getting used to the rarified air, we were all set to scale the highest motorable road in the world (Allegedly). The road to Khardung-La at 18,380 feet (5,600 Mtrs) above Sea Level was really smooth to start with. The going was tough as the road disappeared and the rough terrain slowed everyone down. We reached the Khardungla-Top and halted for the mandatory photo-shoot !
The good soldiers from Assam Rifles had a canteen where they served soup, Maggi and Chai. Nothing could be more welcome here. They also warned people to leave within 20 minutes before the low oxygen took its toll ! They also had a “Story of Maggi” on their wall which made interesting reading.
On the way down on the other side, we came across a group of playful but shy teddy bearish creatures called “Marmots” !
We also met an interesting person who was from Israel and cycling all the way from Leh to Diskit !
We approached the Diskit valley from a Road that runs right across the middle of the valley from one side to the other. Not a good idea to speed there as there are many sudden dips that can launch the vehicle a couple of feet in the air (As we discovered the hard way).
The Diskit Monastery has the largest Buddha Maitreya Statue (32Mtr High) in the region and is truly a magnificent sight to behold.
The Hundar/Nubra Valley is simply unbelievable. Sand-dunes with Double Humped Bactrian Camels, believed to be descendants of Mongolian trading camels left here eons ago, at that altitude needs to be seen to be believed. The Shyok River flows gently in the centre of the valley. It’s also called the “Siachen Nulla” as it’s mainly fed by the melting glacier. We stayed in luxurious tents at the Organic Retreat in Nubra which grows their own food and has amazing mint tea !
The next day we went for a camel ride and enjoyed the nice sunny weather. However, the minute we got off the camels and headed for the car, a Sand Storm emerged out of nowhere and whipped up huge amounts of sand into the air.
After an hour, we started back to Leh via the Khardung-La pass. The minute, we started the ascent over Khardung-La, there was a snow storm. Well ! The weather Gods were truly upto mischief today.
The minute, we crossed to the Leh side of Khardung-La, the snow stopped and the sun came out as if nothing had happened !!We had a fairly easy run on virtually empty roads back into Leh.
The next day, we embarked on another adventure to the Pangong-Tso (Lake). We hit a traffic jam at the Army Zingral Base Camp. We stayed there for 3-4 hours till a truck that was stuck was cleared. We met a young 12 hour old baby donkey that belonged to the army personnel stationed there. Gaurika wanted to take him home ! I wonder what our 2 German Shepherds would have had to say to that !!
The drive was amazingly scenic and were were lucky to cross a herd of Indian Ibex grazing in the Protected Reserve. Apart from this, there were Wild Yak, Tibetan Ass (Kyang), and Marmots playing in the grass ! To reach the lake, we had to cross Chang-La, which at 17,580 Feet (5,360 Mtrs above Sea Level) is the 2nd highest motorable pass.
The road goes down to the bottom of the valley and along the stream and grasslands before a final turn where the shimmering lake presents itself. We parked and wondered at the beauty before us and the infinite shades of blue.
There were a few shacks near the lake where we had some Ginger/Honey tea. We were told that the Camps for night stay were 8 kms further down at a village called Spangmik. The road to Spangmik is narrow and treacherous. The local cabbies prefer to use the dirt tracks around the lake instead.
That night, (13th June) was a full moon night ! At that altitude, the feeling was that you could just outstretch your arm and grab the moon !! Simply Awesome.
The next day turned out to be nice bright and sunny ! We decided to leave the camp early and reach the edge of the lake before the crowds.
We parked at the edge of the water and got our “movie director”folding chairs out and sat and enjoyed the views with our feet in the water ! It’s a salt water lake so the water was liquid even at -3 Centigrade. Gaurika decided to take a dip in the freezing lake ! Brave Girl.
After relaxing in Leh for a day – and eating the most amazing Tibetan Food at a Small Restaurant called “Summer Harvest”, we said our goodbyes to all the people who had helped and supported us in Leh.
We set out for a long and arduous journey to Tso Moriri the following morning ! There were however no signs along the way. Our next stop afterwards was a small town called Sarchu. We followed the boards to Sarchu hoping that somewhere along the way we would find the cut-off to Tso Moriri. The distance between the two Petrol/Diesel stations is approx. 500kms. We had tanked up at Leh and were confident that the full tank of 62 Litres of Diesel would give us a range of at least 620kms.
After travelling for over 150 kms on the route to Sarchu, crossing the Tanglang La Pass (17,580 Feet above Sea Level & the second highest motorable pass in the world), we were informed that we had missed the unmarked crossing to Tso Kar and onward to Tso Moriri nearly 100 kms back !!
Now with 200 extra kms to cover, we figured that the car would not make it without a refill. Luckily, we came across a group of Tanker Drivers having lunch parking their tankers in a ring around them. We requested for Diesel which was initially refused. However, after hearing our predicament, one of the Drivers, said that we could take 20 Ltrs of Diesel – not from the Tanker’ cargo tank but from the Tankers own Diesel Tank.
With the Diesel tension out of the way, drove approximately 90kms back to reach the correct cut off. The cut off was marked by three army tents.We found that there was atiny board mentioning “Tso Kar” and that was the cut off to a dirt track that went on for 70kms till the village of Karzok. 70km of true off-roading was a true test of the suspension of the vehicle. There were spots were people had decided to make their own roads, so there were occasions where one had to decide which of the three tracks in front to take ! Sometimes, we had to stop and come back to the fork as the chosen track was a bit too formidable ! We crossed two small lakes – Surya Tal and Chandra Tal and then the “road” went right around Tso Kar, which was mainly dry. There were many salt drying beds.
The fact that we didn’t see another soul all day, didn’t help. We came across a village with 25-30 houses – but totally deserted. Not a single person in sight. We concluded that this must be the village of a nomadic tribe who grazes their sheep all Summer Long and returns to this spot in the winters ! Maybe ! Could have been a ghost town ? After a couple of more kms, we were thrilled to meet a group of bikers who, were returning from Tso Morori to Manali. They confirmed that we were indeed on the right track and we were not the only persons left alive in the universe !
After raising a couple of more hundred dust storms, we reached a newly constructed road on the left and happily took it increasing speeds to a respectable level. A kilometer down to road, we were stopped by an army truck coming from the opposite side. They informed us about the fact that we were on the verge of leaving Indian Territory and entering a “No man’s Land” Buffer zone before we entered China !!
We took their advice and turned back to the dirt track and carried on to Korzok ! The first look of Tso Morori is breathtaking. Deep Blue waters right next to the road. We saw a rare Fox who was hiding in the bushes.
After registering at the ITBP Check post, we reached our Camp at the village. After a simple dinner, we took a walk down to the lake and noticed that there were literally millions of stars in the sky. They were so close and glittering, that it felt as if you could extend your arm and grab a few from the sky !! Gaurika decided she wanted to sleep outside and count the shooting stars and satellites passing overhead. We cozied her up with blankets and Hot Water Bottles and tried to capture the amazing image on our camera.
The next morning, after a quick breakfast, we drove over to the lake side. Tso Morori is the migratory home for the rare Brown Headed Gulls. We were told that they had not arrived this year, but as soon as we parked next to the lake and taken out our cameras, two birds flew down and settled on the lake right in front of us ! What a treat.
After, 70Kms of Off-Roading we once again went down the road to Sarchu. After reaching a little village called Pang, the landscape changed completely. From wide grasslands surrounded by snow-capped mountains, the road started climbing up mountains made of dust ! It was scary to watch heavy trucks trundle up the precarious powdery road. The Quattro Drive kicked in again as we smoothly climbed up the slopes and saw the amazing sculptures created by Wind Erosion. After another few kms, we made a startling discovery, we had been travelling on top of a plateau. There appeared a sudden drop on the left with a river flowing several hundred feet below !!
We climbed again till 17,000 Feet and crossed the Tanglang-La pass. Finally, we reached Sarchu – a wide green valley. A few kilometers beyond, we came across a series of camp sites right along the highway. We located our campsite and discovered that it had been set up just a day ago, so no running water or electricity again. The beauty of Sarchu is the huge wide green valley, with a sudden ravine along the right edge of the valley. A river flows a few hundred feet below. We took a walk to the edge of the sheer drop and wondered at the beautiful surprises shown by Mother Nature.
The next day morning, we decided to climb the mountain behind our tents. We hoped to spot a Herd of Ibexwhich the Camp Owner said had come down right upto the Campsite as they were having lunch the previous day ! Alas, there were no Ibex to be spotted but we saw several Marmots gamboling in the sun !
The route hereafter towards Manali is where the road really became interesting, especially since it had just opened after the Winter’s a few days ago. The Day temperature was touching 35 C and the glaciers were melting fast resulting in lots of waterfalls and water bodies directly on the “road”. At the first such obstacle, there was a jam as an Esteem car had got stranded in the middle of a water body. Being an army officer from Jharkhand, he ordered an army truck to lead the way and tied his car behind the truck. The truck had no issues crossing the rocks in the water, but the car being dragged behind got damaged badly and tore off its front bumper ! After, recovering from our laughter, we along with some foreign bikers, who were drying their socks after crossing the knee deep water to pick up the rocks lying around and dump them in the water to make two tracks for the wheels of the vehicles to ply on. Then we overtook all the vehicles in the jam and volunteered to cross and show everyone else the way. Our daughter actually took off her shoes and socks and crossed the water body to check the feasibility of the newly created track.Thereafter, we crossed along with much cheering ! Once, we had shown the way, there was chaos as everyone from both sides wanted to cross first ! We had a free run on empty roads for some time till we came to another Water Crossing called “Whiskey Nullah” We had been warned about this by a group of bikers as one of the most difficult crossings as some their bikes had got damaged by being swept away by the force of the flowing water. Luckily, the water flow was not very strong and we spent 5 minutes in stopping and understanding the flow and strength of the water and then the angle of making the crossing in one go. We put the Q3 in Sports Mode to get additional torque and said a small prayer and drove right through. There was a group of truckers parked nearby who were watching us with amused expressions. They actually stood up and cheered !!
We reached Keylong and stopped for the night at Government Tourist Hotel and marveled at the fact that there was running Hot and Cool Water !! Keylong is a beautiful Green Valley with lots of vegetation. There were clouds floating around at eye level !The Hotel was on the opposite side of the valley where the Kardang Monastery is, so the view was excellent. There were several bikers from Bombay who had just started their journey towards Leh from the Manali side. We explained the onward route and shared stories of our adventures with them.
The last leg of the journey was from Keylong to Manali, just 115kms. But torturous. ! We counted 24 Water Bodies that needed crossing before reaching the Rohtang Pass. Some of them were extremely dangerous as the water flow was strong and the half of the width of the road already had collapsed.
The real Rohtang-La is simply awesome !
Walls of pristine white snow on both sides of the highway and beautiful waterfalls made by melting glaciers ! We stopped and took many snaps at the real Rohtang Pass and then came back to reality. It took us 4 hours to cross the difficult Water Obstacles between Keylong and Rohtang, but 6 hours of continuous Traffic jams between Rohtang and Manali. We realized with a heavy heart that the holiday was over. The memories were terrific and we couldn’t wait to see the 4,000+ snaps taken along the way. We vowed that we would be back again……
Author ~ Lalit Chaturvedi
With inputs from Nishi K. Chaturvedi & Gaurika Chaturvedi