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Chapter 3 - The epic road trip: Khardungla and beyond

A sunny good morning from Leh! And the very exciting next leg of our trip began. Finally, it was time for the famed Khardung La!

This route is absolutely incredible! The snow capped mountains keep you company as you climb your way up to 17500+ feet. With every hairpin bend the views only got better. A little over an hour and there we were, on one of the highest motorable passes in the world, Khardung La.

The fluttering prayer flags welcome you and you just can't help but walk around and appreciate the views from every other corner. We clicked pictures all around, the cliched and not so cliched spots, picked magnets from the Indian Army souvenir store, and off we went.

As we drove down Khardung La road, we stopped at a small cafe for lunch. It was an such a scenic spot, with a small rivulet flowing a few feet away. I just couldn't resist, ordered, and ran to the stream of water.

Took off my shoes, and decided to dip my feet that were tired of the mountain boots.

We went from ahhh niceee to aaaahhhh freezinggg in like seconds!

ICE COLD but sooo fresh. That's it, I just plonked my ass there for a long long while, irresistibly dipping my feet or hands in occasionally. I took a sip of the crystal clear waters too. C'mon, I just had to!

Came back, ate my, by then frozen food lol, and we were back on the road. A short drive later we were met by the valley of the grand Shyok river, one of Indus' popular tributaries.

And what did we decide to do? River rafting and swimming, because DUH! This was an absolute bucket list moment for me. It was around sunset, there was a chill in the air, and we were out there rafting on the free flowing waters. The adrenaline rush as we encountered rapids was everything.

Towards the end it was so calming, just floating by the scenic Himalayas. Postcard moments! Experiences etched for life.

Next stop, ATV ride! The child in me was alive and kicking. What an exhilarating ride it was racing through the sand dunes of Nubra Valley with your friends.

Count your blessings girl! These are the moments we live for.

By the time we were done with our little adventures, the sun had set. We reached Hunder around 9 pm, just in time for dinner. One of my favourite stays from the entire trip was this one - The Hunder Eco Villa. It was late when we arrived but the stay looked so beautiful in the evening light. Warm welcome and good dinner too. Post dinner, it was one of the best locations for star gazing, and that's exactly what we did before we called it a night.

Good morning, Nubra! The resort looked all the more beautiful in the morning light! The colors of the flowers, trees, mountatins, sand dunes, ahhhh what a view to wake up to! The rooms had large bay windows that brought in all the light. You could just sit there all day. In all honesty, we weren't ready to leave this lovely place but we were strapped for time. Breakfast with freshly prepared juice from the apple orchard right outside!

After a lovely breakfast, we sat around in the lawns for a while before we decided to leave. Note to self, next time in Ladakh, spend a few days in Nubra Valley. First stop, the famous Bactrian camels. These guys are very adorable. Fluffy, double-humped camels just lazing around in the desert. We pet a bunch of them and clicked some pictures, but didn't opt for any camel rides. Just wanted to let them be honestly.

In the fast lands of nothing, there was archery! Tempted, everyone picked up bows began to shoot arrows. It was indeed a very very different setting that made it all the more exciting.

And we were back on the road, heading towards Diskit. The 108 feet tall Maitreya Buddha Statue is unmissable! You can spot it from kilometers away while your on the road, the red and gold statue shining in sunlight. The Diskit Monastery is the oldest one in the Nubra Valley and dates back to the 14th century. We spun the prayer wheels that lead all the way up to the stunning Diskit Gompa.

We spent a while admiring the magnificent statue and the unparalleled views from the gompa. We decided to explore further and walked towards the monastery. Thus began the hike of the day as we walked all the way to the top of the monastery and boy was it worth it. Infinite views of Nubra Valley, Diskit village, and river Shyok at a distance. We just stood there utterly fascinated by the views.

We had a long drive ahead and decided to spend some time grabbing coffee in Nubra before we hit the road. And then began the eventful night of the trip. Our halt for the night was in Tangste which was a good 5 hours away. It's just you driving by the Shyok with nobody around for miles together. As the sun began to set, the roads got narrower and we drove through tiny rivulets as we headed towards Tangste. Not a human in sight nor were any shops open at this time, but we were hungry! Thanks to our ever resourceful Mutup Bhaiyya, we got Maggi!

This was the most unforgettable meal of the trip. Picture this: Bowls of piping hot Maggi served in the middle of nowhere. Lights? The tempo's headlights of course! And the billions of stars above us. For music? We had the sound of Shyok flowing right next to us. How is that for a grand Himalayan setting?

After an incredible meal, we were back on the road. This route is one of the most dangerous is what we were told by Bhaiyya, right from the start. And around 9:30 pm, bang in the middle of what continued to be nowhere, the TT broke down! And there we were, trying to fix a tempo with almost no tools and obviously no help or connectivity. Well there was really nothing to do, so I decided to climb atop the TT and appreciate the marvellous night sky.

It was all fun and games till we started hearing falling rocks, and the intensity only got louder. We were in a 'falling rocks' prone area! We literally pushed the TT, running for our lives to get out of the place. Not only did we manage to get out from there but impressively fixed the TT too! It was beyond well 12am when we finally arrived at the army camp that was pitch dark. With nobody around and no rooms to find, we spent most of the night outdoors in the freezing wilderness. Definitely a night to remember.

We finally found one room at like 4am and just about fit in to wait for the sun to rise. In the morning light, the camp looked absolutely beautiful is shades of blue and green. Right outside there was a fresh stream flowing with the mountains in the backdrop. Post breakfast, we were back on the road, enroute the sought after Pangong Tso.

After a short drive, Bhaiyya randomly stopped and asked us to get off and walk into the field nearby. And that's where we met the cutest little furballs! The Himalayan Marmots. Man they are SO adorable. Spent some time observing them in their natural habitat, running around, checking if folks had any food for them.

Humble request - Whenever you meet these little guys, please do not feed them. Their species have been alarmingly dwindling in the area because humans feed them.

Slowly, the terrain started to change, and a short drive later, the first sight of the pristine blue hues of Pangong! This place needs absolutely no editing. It looks straight out of a wallpaper! Absolutely stunning landscapes. As we drove through, we decided to go a little ahead and stop in Spangmik.

We had no plans of staying in Pangong, but after landing here it seemed like the most ideal thing to do. We walked around and enquired in all of the tents nearby but finally settled for this lovely homestay run by the most lovely host, Disket Aunty. Impeccable hospitality would be an understatement. Add to that uninterrupted views of Pangong lake from anywhere in the house.

Sleep deprived and tired, we all decided to crash for a bit. Recharged and ready to explore, we were out walking in the evening to catch the sunset. What an absolutely magical walk it was. Just you on your trail flanked by the Himalayas on one side and the world's highest saltwater lake on the other.

Perched at an altitude of 14272 ft, the lake glistened in the evening light and we listened as the waters slowly lashed the shore. One of those evenings etched in the heart. As the sun began to set, it began to snow in the mountains far far away and we watched the snowfall in the moonlight.

For dinner, we decided on the restaurant Pangong Pot where I finally got my hands on the famous Kashmiri Kahwa. Do not miss trying Kahwa tea when you're in the mountains. It is just lovely. The food and hospitality was great too. We headed back to our stay and Aunty made our night the best by organizing a bonfire for us.

Just a bunch of friends living the Ladakh dream, sitting around a bonfire by the Pangong Tso, talking about life while.

Woke up next to a beautiful bay window that overlooks the blues. Aunty was getting breakfast ready and for hot water there was a really cool solar installation. Even the bathroom overlooked the lake! Now how's that for a view? For breakfast Aunty and Uncle had made yummm poori subzi. Tummys and hearts full, we bid adieu to our lovely hosts and were back on the road.

Bhaiyya, as always, gives us some memorable moments. The entire crew was seated atop the TT for an unforgettable drive through Pangong Tso. We soon arrived at the more popular side of the lake where the famed 3 Idiots was shot. We walked around this side of the lake for a while, soaking in the magnificent views.

Back on the road we had a long drive ahead of us. Next stop for the night, Chumathang. The drive takes you back through Tangste where we met our furry friends again, and then through the Chushul Valley to Chumathang. This route is another absolutely incredible one with just you and the views.

As we neared Thato La, the views were so incredible we decided to take a walk and asked Bhaiyya to meet us at a point above. The sight was just mesmerizing. Soon after the pass, we were passing by the emerald green lake, Mirpal Tso. It was around 6:30 pm and the lake was shining in the light, with the snow capped peaks in the backdrop. Every frame was just spectacular.

And suddenly, it began to snow! We just could not have asked for anything more.

Right there amidst the most picturesque setting, in the best lighting, we had our most perfect moment. Our first ever snowfall. It was truly special and you could see the child-like enthusiasm light up our faces.

Most remote places in Ladakh have electricity for just an hour or two everyday. Pangong Tso had power for just 2 hours and by the time we arrived in Chumathang, it was pretty late, pitch dark, and freezing. We crashed early because we had a long day ahead.

A 7am morning walk by the Indus river. How's that for a wake up call?

We took a walk around and went up to the Chumathang Hot Spring and spent some time by the waters. Despite the freezing temperature, the water was piping hot. You could see the bubbles form and the steam rise. Since it was early in the morning, we practically had the entire place to ourselves. So, we just hopped around and explored the place for a bit.

After a quick breakfast, we were back on the road for the last leg of the trip. About 2.5 hours later, the first sight of the gorgeous blue Mountain Lake. The drive to the incredible Tso Moriri is another beautiful one and as you enter the Changthang region, the landscapes are captivating. Driving alongside, and through some brooks, we first saw the untouched Kyagar Tso with a bed of clouds in the backdrop.

As we entered the area protected by the Tso Moriri Wetland Conservation Reserve, the scenery was pure magic. Shades of browns and greens accentuate the surreal blues of the lake at 14835 ft. The snow capped Himalayas stand mighthy tall and the entire setting looked heavenly.

Far far away from the crowds, we just walked by the lake absolutely captivated by its beauty. We were the only people there and we pretty much had the entire Mountain Lake to ourselves. Unlike Pangong Tso, Tso Moriri is untouched and non-commercialized making it a sight to behold. The waters are truly crystal clear and the picturesque mountains make an idyllic setting.

The majestic Lungser Kangri was unmissable and it was snowing in certain parts too. We headed up to Karzok village, the highest settlement in India, at ~15,000 ft! Karzok is beautiful, offering panoramic views of the lake and the Himalayas. We got exploring and visited a small shop where a Ladhaki woman was weaving a shawl. It's a very small village and most shops and restaurants are a part of people's houses. We got seated in one such shop and the weather + location demanded Maggi and Kahwa.

What an incredible afternoon this was and a fitting end to the sightseeing itinerary. Note to self, will stay in Karzok the next time I visit Ladakh, explore more offbeat locations and enjoy the solitude.

With 200+ kms to cover, we were back on the road to Leh. As we drove out of the region the weather was dramatic and we encountered snow yet again. The scenes around us were incredible, almost like the mountains were bidding us goodbye and asking us to visit again.

The drive back was beautiful too, with snowy mountains, gushing rivers, and just pretty nooks & corners. Of course we had to encounter a puncture as well. After a post sunset tire change, we arrived in Leh post 10 pm. After spending some time in the market and grabbing dinner, we were back in our rooms.

The last 24 hours in Ladhak and we had one activity we absolutely wanted to check off our bucketlist: Biking! The quintessential ride on a Himalayan in the Himalayas. As usual, the ever resourceful Mutup Bhaiyya got our bikes arranged and we were off.

A bike ride in the mountains just hits different. It is worth everything. We first visited the war memorial in Leh and then rode down Magnetic Hill towards the Zanskar ranges. I hadn't ridden a bike in a long time but there couldn't have been a better place to gear down.

Ah the adrenaline rush as I cruised down the Zanskar Valley road! Like a 2 year old in a candy store, pure joy was plastered on my face.

We went down till Chilling and checked with a local on Hemis National Park visit. He said you need at least 2 - 3 days to spot wildlife so we gave up on that idea. So, we just chose to enjoy the ride with Zanskar river on one side and the mighty Himalayas on the other. The road to Zanskar Valley is enchanting in itself.

Another note to self: We'll traverse the Zanskar belt the next time we're here.

The rest of the evening had been devoted to food and souvenirs. From fridge magnets and Buddhist curios to dry fruits and khawa, we were literally everywhere. After picking up all those shopping bags, we were ready to celebrate our last night in this paradise called Ladakh. Went straight back to Leh Terrace for a live music kinda night. Seemed like the perfect way to end the trip as we headed back to Ooru next morning.

It was an emotional goodbye to Ladhak and Mutup Bhaiyya as we walked towards the airport, hearts full. And, an unsaid promise was made; we will be back to this breathtaking jewel of India.


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