Chapter 1 - The entrancing city of Leh
Acclimatized and ready, the road trip began. We were heading to Kargil and had a bunch of places to visit on the way. First stop, a dhaba for brekkie. Some hot aloo parathas and tea to get the day started.
As we left Leh and reached the outskirts, the roads and views only got better. After a short drive we arrived at Gurudwara Pathar Sahib.
Built way back in 1517, it is believed that there was a demon who used to trouble and kill the villagers. This demon threw a boulder down the hill at Guru Nanak Ji who was in deep meditation. But, the boulder failed to harm him and turned into wax instead. The indestructible boulder with Guru Nanak Ji's imprint and the demon's footprint is displayed here.
This Gurudwara is built and maintained by the Indian Army. Anybody who passes by stops, and offers their prayers before continuing their journey. Right opposite the Gurudwara is the path that leads up to unfurled Nishan sahib, the spot from where the demon threw the rock. It is about 500 steps and a fairly steep climb, one that's definitely worth it.
It was mid-day when we climbed and the sun was right above us making it a slightly tiring walk. But as always, the views were rewarding. The beautiful Srinagar-Leh highway passes through the Himalayas, flanked by ranges on either side. We walked around enjoying the aerial views from different corners and sat in the pagoda for a bit to enjoy the mountain breeze before we descended.
Next stop, Magnetic hill. One of the most crowded spots on the highway, the optical illusion created by the landscapes around makes it appear like the vehicles defy gravity and roll uphill, when they are actually going downhill. We didn't stick around for long and headed towards the scenic Nimmu/Nimmoo valley.
One of the popular viewpoints - Sangam, the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar rivers. This time of the year, the waters of Zanskar are more muddy brown while Indus is blueish green. I've heard that it is after the snow you get to view the rivers in their most photographed shades of clear blues and greens.
And the road trip continued. The road to Kargil is a long and winding one that takes you through some beautiful passes. 200+ kilometers which takes close to 6 hours, and with stops for food and sightseeing, it was a lot longer.
We stopped for lunch in a little town called Khalsi. Yum food in a dhaba with great views and some 80s Bollywood on the screen.
After almost 2 hours on the road, the landscape began to change. Hello Moonland! We arrived at the 11th-century Lamayuru Monastery, one of the oldest monasteries in Ladakh. While the monastery has a rich history, Lamayuru is popular for its Lunar-like topography and is hence called the Moonland of Ladakh.
The monastery is nested at an elevation and right from the entrance, the views are incredible. I took a spot and just sat there with my legs dangling, absolutely mesmerized by the Himalayas. A small little town nestled between the mountains, the views of the Moonland are indeed incredible.
Mountain breeze, the sound of Indus flowing at a distance, and the alluring landscapes of The Moonland, Lamayuru. Ladakh living up to everything I had dreamed of.
Lamayuru monastery was yet another unique experience. The monks were prepping for a festival and we watched them at work creating an amazing mandala with utmost precision. We got lucky here yet again and met another monk who gave us beautiful insights about Buddhism and Lamayuru.
The Mandala Ceremony involves creating the mandala with colored sand and immersing it in the river during the festival. The mandala depicts life and its destruction symbolizes life's impermanence. It is a reminder that nothing in life is permanent and the immersion of the Tibetian mandala in the river is a way of giving back to mother nature and reviving the environment.
Today only a small part of this gompa survives as most of it is in ruins. I cannot articulate the legend of how the Lamayuru Monastery was built quite like the monk did. It is believed that in the 11th century, the great Naropa's powers receded the waters of a lake, making way for the monastry. It is one of the oldest and largest monasteries in Ladhak today.
The monk also opened doors for us to see the centuries-old thangka paintings and masks preserved in a private room. After a tour of the monastery, we sat on the balcony for more tales about Buddhism. We had seen the prayer flags, embraced julley, and spun the prayer wheels too, but understanding the meaning behind these was like a revelation in itself.
The belief behind the prayer wheels and flags lies in the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum. The monk delved into the depths of this Sanskrit mantra and explained to us the meaning of each syllable. According to Tibetian Buddhism, saying this mantra purifies the mind and body, absolving one of all their sins. However, one cannot say this mantra enough times in one birth to achieve purity. Each prayer wheel has the mantra handwritten or printed thousand times. It is believed that chanting Om Mani Padme Hum while rotating the wheel multiplies the effect and is equivalent to the power of 100 monks praying.
Fluttering prayer flags have the same effect and are deemed to spread positivity and good karma in the universe when the wind blows.
What an absolutely enlightening conversation it was. It kind of changed perspectives and added some sort of meaning to life. I was lost in reverie.
After another enchanting Himalayan Monastery experience, we were back on NH1. The Sringar-Leh Highway just got more dreamy after Lamayuru. In all honesty, words can't describe this road trip. Meandering through the unending Himalayas, Border Roads Organization, fondly referred to as BRO has done an incredible job in creating this masterpiece and continues to serve the nation with their impeccable maintenance efforts. Special mention to the iconic and ever entertaining BRO road signs!
As we crossed bridges and continued the journey, we slowly watched the sun set into the mountains. Driving into the night, around 8:30 pm, we arrived in Kargil. There are almost no shops on the highway and Kargil has limited options too. Super hungry, we stopped at Papa's Place for dinner, located right at the Kargil City viewpoint.
The city was lit and the weather was now quite chilly. After a long halt for dinner, we were back on the road. Our accommodation was in the Army camp in Dras Valley which was another hour and a half away.
Pretty exhausted, we arrived in Dras around 12:30 am and crashed shortly after.
Good morning from the second coldest inhabited place in the world, Dras/Drass, situated on the stunning Srinagar-Leh National Highway, NH1. Waking up amidst the Himalayas has that feeling that one really cannot put into words. Add to that colorful flowers and some wonderful mountain doggos. Mornings = made.
Post breakfast, we were off to the revered Kargil War Memorial. As you enter the gates, walking on Vijaypath flanked by the Indian flags on both sides, and watching the mighty Indian flag stand tall and flutter behind the memorial wall will fill you with so much pride. And as you walk around the memorial and read the stories of unimaginable valour, they will most certainly tug on those heartstrings.
Inside the Manoj Pandey Gallery or The Hut of Remembrance, tales of Operation Vijay, letters to loved ones, photographs and more; so many thoughts flood my mind, and I just couldn't hold back my tears. And the tears continued to flow as I walked past Veer Bhumi and saw the endless Memorial Stones, each with a name and tale.
I stood in front of the towering pink standstone memorial, teary eyed, and watched the eternal flame of the Amar Jawan Jyoti burn. I had goosebumps all over. What an incredible country and such selfless soldiers. I just stood there and watched our beautiful national flag flutter in the Himalayan air. What a battle and what a land. My salute to the martyrs. Incredible India indeed.
From the memorial you can see points of strategic interest Tololing Heights and Point 4875 (Batra Top), and the fiercest battleground, Tiger Hill. On the way out, I absolutely had to pick up a souvenir from the memorial. Met a Pashmina seller right outside and picked a few shawls too.
We grabbed lunch and then decided to visit Manman top, one of my absolutely favourite places from the entire trip. Just the drive around Kargil and Dras is so incredible, with the Dras river flowing by your side as you make your way through the valley.
Took us about 45 minutes to reach the top as the incline is quite steep. But the sight was truly incredible! We climbed further up to soak in the panoramic views of Dras Valley. Believe me when I say no words can do justice when describing these views. This was one of those spots that lived up to the phrase; The best views come after the hardest climbs.
I just sat there in absolute awe. It was one of those views I'd imagined all my life, ones you see in paintings or on Discovery channel. Perfectly rendered mountains, the light and shadow play by the clouds, the tiny houses, and a perfectly meandering river.
Easily one of the most beautiful evenings of my life. The Himalayas are mesmerizing and yet so humbling. We sat around watching the colors of the landscape change as the sun began to set. It was like a seat on a mighty throne.
As the sun set, the temperature began to dip too, and we began our descent.
After a restful night and some stargazing, we started our return to Leh. With Suru river as our companion, we drove out of the valley. Kargil city looked lovely basking in the morning light and this route gets quite busy.
Our next stop was Mulbekh. A little over an hour and we reached Mulbekh and saw a board that said way to the monastery. It was quite an incline and a lot of walking around with the sun right over our head. We explored the place and with the little signal we got, realized that the gompa we were looking for was a couple of miles ahead and we had taken a random detour.
Well, there's no regrets when you exploring any place in the mountains. Great views and random discoveries are always a good idea. I think that was an abandoned fort area with a monastery. We couldn't find anybody in the entire area and the main shrine was locked too. So we walked around for a bit and then drove back down towards the Chamba Gompa.
A little ahead, bang on the Srinagar-Leh Highway, the 30ft tall sculpture is unmissable. It is a sculpture of Maitreya Buddha carved on a limestone rock, believed to have been carved in the 1st century BC. We visited the temple at the base of the sculpture and decided to have lunch at the cafe right opposite the monastery. We had a very long journey ahead so took it slow and gave our driver bhaiya some time to rest up.
Around 2:30 we were back on the mystical parts of the highway and stopped at the first pass, Namikala. An hour from here we arrived at the highest point on Leh - Srinagar highway, Fotu La. Standing here, I was reminded of a song, I believe I can fly, I believe I can touch the sky!
Endless views of the Zanskar ranges, incredible landscapes, and breathing in the crisp mountain air. Ah, life is good!
It was 6 pm and we just managed to make it in time to visit the famous Alchi Monastery, the oldest monastery in Ladakh. The Alchi Choskhor is quaint and the walk toward the monastery itself is quite nice, flanked by souvenir shops on both sides. As we walked around the 900-year-old monastery, it was incredible to see how well they have tried to preserve the relics and wall murals. We had a brief chat with a monk who told us a little bit about the history of the place.
A walk down behind the monastery and the beautiful Indus River was in full flow. Just sat on the banks listening to the Indus flow and watched the sunset.
Took another 3 hours, and we were back in Leh.
As we neared Leh, the skies were beyond perfect for stargazing. What an evening that stop turned out to be. Thank our lucky stars?
Billions of stars, the Milky Way, and we even saw a few shooting stars! We were all just glued to the sky. Absolutely magical!
After a long journey, we just wanted to kick back, relax, and we found just the place. The Terrace, in Leh Market,10/10 would recommend. What a lovely vibe and great food to go with it. Mr. Stanzin and his team are great hosts and we had a wonderful night!
In the works, Chapter 3 - The epic road trip: Khardungla and beyond