Ticket to Ladakh

We all have that one destination, that one trip with a group of friends, family or even a solo-trip which takes years to accomplish. While a solo-trip usually gets worked out earlier (most of my trips happened this way), a group takes a longer for everyone to get convinced. Every time we cousins meet for festivals and family gatherings, we would discuss going to Ladakh, do a bit of research and then the topic would silently die down. But the year 2019 had something new in store for us. There was a new enthusiasm which was driving the plan towards reality. Things found a quick conclusion and we were in high spirits to travel to dream destinations of Ladakh in July. [Long post alert 😉 ]

The Preparation [Adding-up all day zeroes]

Unlike any other location, Kashmir needed an advanced level of preparation. Starting with the number of days, altitudes, stay and transport arrangements, there were many unknowns. We could either look for an agency to do an end-to-end booking or do the entire groundwork by ourselves.

Now that the trip was confirmed, we started hunting for the routes and places to visit. A team Deyor camps got in touch with me to help plan our itinerary. Our initial plan of Delhi-Manali-Jispa-Leh-Nubra-Pangong-Kargil-Srinagar was facing a sever day crunch due to the massive increase of altitudes between each location. This route ideally should be taken in 12 days for good acclimatization with a minimum of 9 stops. While we were worried about which places to skip, the reverse route miraculously had good acclimatization and was taking lesser days. All we had to do was to swap our start and end locations. The first thing we did was to book flight tickets to ensure nobody drops out at the last moment. Sandeep, Ganesh, Shubha, Shridhar and I were the ones who made through a long conversation of days, money and locations and had the boarding passes printed with our names. The quote offered by Deyor camps was reasonable, however, Sandeep and I wanted to give things a shot by trying to book everything by ourselves.

Devil on Wheels offered valuable information about places to visit, stay options and vehicles to rent. From these blogs, we got the contact number of Sonam Angdu who offered the 8 day Innova ride through the locations for ₹65k. At Srinagar and Leh we opted to stay in Zostel which came for a nominal cost. Other places required a search through booking.com, MakeMyTrip, and Airbnb. We booked hotel Rangyul at Kargil and Gemur camp (tent stay) at Jispa which offered a comfortable stay. Tso Moriri was a new destination in our list and Nubra, Panging along with it had really bad telephone network to find any hotels over the call. I discovered Bunny from Airbnb who offered us a good deal with the stay at Nubra, Pangong, and Moriri. Our stays at Kargil, Jispa, Pangong, Nubra, and Moriri cost us an average of ₹6k for a group of 5 with 2 rooms, breakfast and dinner included. Except for Leh and Kargil, all other locations were mostly outskirts and had lesser food outlets around them. Having a meal plan built with the stay price was a better option to consider. Additionally, an inner-line permit is required to visit Pangong, Nubra, and Moriri which can be obtained at Leh. The permit costs about ₹600 per person and the same was handled for us by Sonam as part of his travel arrangements. The entire booking process took about 3 weeks and we were finally counting days for this once-in-a-lifetime trip.

Things in our backpack
1. Bodywarmer – 1 pair
2. Regular cloths -6 sets (no shame in saying some days you won’t take bath in freezing temperatures, so keep the bag light)
3. Woolen gloves
4. Wind-cheater/jacket
5. Sunglasses
6. Cap
7. Good pairs of socks (many, because you don’t want to be smelly)
8. A pair of cutlery (whatever you can, because you want to travel green)
9. Water bottle
10. Sunscreen + lip-balm (yes, guys use them too, unless you want to return tanned)
11. Medications (common-cold tablets, fever tablets, first aid, Volini spray, Diamox tablets – to be taken only if there are chances of altitude sickness)
12. Screen-shots/prints of hotel booking vouchers
13. Multiple photocopies of Leh inner-line permit ( at least 10)
14. Binoculars (some animals, birds, flora, and fauna are far from the road)
15. BSNL postpaid sim (at least one per group to coordinate with driver and stay connected with family and friends or for any emergency)
16. A power-splitter/spike-buster to charge many devices at once.

Bengaluru to Srinagar

The day was finally here and we had an early start. Sandeep and Sridhar were already in Srinagar exploring the places. Ganesh, Shubha and I were to reach this day in the evening. Shubha was going to reach Bangalore from Hubli and we had to catch our 10 AM flight to Srinagar. The first set of panicking moments started when her bus reached an hour late. We decided to pick her up on the way to save time. We made it to the airport half an hour before the boarding time and quickly had some light breakfast. Our flight had set course to drop us at the start-line of our trip.

#KursiKiPeti

The flight journey was rather interesting. We had brought packed Biriyani+ chow-chow bath from Bangalore and just the thought of opening my lunchbox at thousands of feet above ground had made me laugh harder. An air hostess had got a hint that we were on a trip and enquired about our itinerary. I should appoint cousin Ganesh as my PR head for talking so much about this blog throughout 😛 We even spotted Golden temple at Amritsar and some huge valley and snowcapped mountains from a birds-eye view.
The weather at Srinagar was at around 27 showing hardly any difference from Bangalore. A cab dropped us at Zostel Srinagar near Nishat Bagh at 4 PM and we had half a day to explore this pretty city. It was my first day in Zostel and I loved the arrangements. Srinagar is known for Dal lake, Shankaracharya temple, and housing a lot of gardens such as Nishat Bagh, Shalimar Bagh, Tulip Garden. One can even visit Gulmarg if there is an additional day in hand.

We decided to go straight to Dal lake which us about 20 minutes away (the main market, most of the city is in fact around Dal lake). A Shikara fellow agreed to show us around for a fare of ₹1800. All 5 could fit in this tiny wooden boat floating just a few inches above the ground. As our oarsman started to row the Shikara, beautiful scenes started to unveil in front of our eyes. Few nearby boats started approaching who were souvenir sellers giving us a floating market experience. I even got a few pictures clicked wearing the traditional Pathani dress. We had Kawa (a unique sweet drink of Kashmir) at a small ship docked at the end of the lake, saw some well-known movie shooting spots, beautiful lotus ponds, houseboats, did some window-shopping, all while sitting inside this tiny yet lavish boat. When he dropped us back, I looked at my watch and it was 7:15 PM. Sun was still much much away from horizon which made me more confused about the weather and days here. In just a few moments it started to rain and the entire surrounding turned golden. A beautiful rainbow appeared above the lake and the place was a Jannat indeed.

There was a strike at Srinagar that day, but none of the tourists were facing any issues. The hotels were open, public transports and tourist attractions were functional as usual. The picture which the social media imprints on our mind rather feels much far from reality even on days like strikes here. People were humble and were ready to offer any help or guidance in exploring this beautiful city. We had some yummy Kashmiri biriyani (that was biriyani for the third time in the day 😛 ) at a restaurant. Our long journey was beginning early the next day.

Kashmir ki Biriyani
Srinagar to Kargil

Our chauffeur Mushtaq Bhai was ready near the hostel right on time. We bid adieu to fellows of Zostel and set out on our journey towards the mountains. The routes had army personnel stationed at every 100 meters. These months were also the season of Amarnath Yatra and we came across many groups which were traveling in either direction led by a van of the army. We stopped for a quick breakfast at a Dhaba on the banks of the river.

The roads were slowly picking up elevations. There were huge green hills on one side and a valley on another. We five had come to an agreement that each will take turns in sitting at different seats in the car to get an equal opportunity to admire the beauty around.
The first place in the route was Sonmarg, a valley surrounded by lush green hills on all the sides. A half an hour journey on a horse can take you close to a glacier and some of the locations of movie shooting. We decided to skip going here to keep ourselves on time for our long journey ahead. We would definitely see similar scenes in our week-long journey.
The first pass in our journey i.e. Zojila had uneven and dusty roads much different in reality than beautiful views of passes I had imagined. Mushtaq Bhai amazed us by providing detailed info about each place, hills and rivers we asked about. This 58-year-old man with a young heart had already gelled with us.
Baltal was in the lap of Zojila. This serves as a basecamp for Amarnath yatra. One can visit the temple by helicopter, horse ride or a day trek from here. We were both amazed and sad for passing so close to Amarnath. Ganesh had not touched snow in his life. Seeing a patch alongside the road, though it was covered in dust, had brought a big smile on his face. Helicopters were rising up like honey-bees and taking the devotees up the hill as we watched from our car wobbling on the roads.

Baltal basecamp

While Sandeep was explaining his experiences to tease Ganesh of rather fresh and white snow, we came across the Zero-Point. The place offers some fun activities such as wooden-sled, snow scooter ride, and skiing. Two inclined slopes of snow were our playground to drive and jump on the snow. We had fun throwing snow on each other. I even got a chance to ride the snow scooter.

The zero point

Next stop before lunch was Drass, a place where the fierce Kargil War was fought. A memorial is built in the remembrance of the victory and to pay homage to the martyrs. The air in this place was filled with patriotism and the stories of war. Being so much close to the borders of the country had given me goosebumps.

Drass is also known as India’s coldest inhabited place for its record low temperatures in winter. Ali Dhaba at Drass is a must-visit for some lip-smacking food.

As we came close to Kargil town, the hills on both sides were filled with Apricot trees. We had missed both Apple and Apricot seasons since both were still a month due. We were on NH1 (number 1 gives some strange excitement) driving by the side of a river and Mushtaq mentioned that it was flowing to Pakistan. No wonder the border was much closer. After checking in at Hotel Rangyul, the hotel owner intrigued us by saying that we could actually see the national border. In no time, a cab was arranged to drive to LOC. While we were expecting just a quick drive to the place, our driver was rather taking us back in the time of war.

He showed us the marks on the shop doors caused by the shell-attacks, the stone chambers where the villagers were hiding to keep themselves protected, and the bunkers which were used by the soldiers to keep a watch. We were driving up the hill in a narrow road and the moment turned eerie when he said that there were live mines on each side which were planted during the time of war. The road almost came to an end near a small tea stall where one could see much bigger hills at the front with a steep valley in between them. That was it, we could see the land of India ending and that of a new country beginning. Our driver was quick enough to snatch binoculars from other fellow viewers and guided us to show the river that flows out from our country, some last bunkers still used by the soldiers, a mosque and the lands of either side.
As usual, the sun was still up till about 8. After returning, we played in a park near our hotel, but we were getting tired easily. Shubha had made a new friend at the park while we others were playing something similar to football. She even invited us to her home for dinner, but we politely refused. The nights were getting more chillier and it was still the second day.

Kargil to Leh

The geography around had already changed. The hills were no more covered with thick grass or tall trees, and all we could see was the soil of different colours. Each hill had a unique shape and pattern and some even reminded me of the grand canyon(I haven’t seen it for real). The car climbed up and down many hills each opening to a much more scenic view. There would be greenery only in few small towns in between them and then again would start the never-ending barren land.

We could clearly notice that we had entered the district of Ladakh when we stopped at the first monastery on our way, The Mulbek temple. It has a huge stone carving of Maitreya Buddha made more than 2000 years ago. The place was already reminding me of the times at Bhutan. A drive ahead took us on top of Futu-La (La means Pass) at 13479ft, the highest point on the Srinagar-Leh road.

The next stop at Lamayuru had another monastery Singay Lakhang. It is believed that a well know monk Naropa had meditated on this hill and a monastery was built later in 11th century at the same place. This massive structure standing on the tip of the hill had most of its structure built using wood.

After a quick stop for lunch, we came across the confluence of rivers Indus and Zanskar at a place called Nimmu. It was still the beginning of summer yet we could clearly identify water from each river with distinct shades of grey. Our earlier plan was to go for rafting here. But Sonam had suggested us to try it near Nubra valley the next day.

The landscape had now changed and we were driving on a seemingly neverending flat land. The hills had now parted away much far and the black tarred road had stretched towards infinity. A point called ‘Magnetic Hill’ en route had an illusionistic view making it look like the vehicle is moving up the hill without any acceleration while it was sliding on the slope in reality. But we had approached this point on the opposite side where we could already see the slope on the road which took us a while for us to testify it.

We then stopped at Patthar Sahib Gurudwara, which was maintained by the Indian Army. Seeing army camps was now a common sight on our journey. None of us had been to Gurudwara before and a volunteer there identified it quickly from our puzzled looks. He asked us to bow down to the Darbar Sahib and then proceed to Langar for tea and refreshments. We had a quick conversation with a volunteer who was a soldier to know more about the place and its history. The place gets its name from a story where a demon throws a huge boulder to disturb saint Guru Nanak who was meditating at that place. The stone is still kept inside the premises where one can see the boulder having a cavity in the shape of a man in a seated posture.

The last stop for the day was ‘Hall of Fame’, a massive collection of artifacts and information about the wars fought by Indian Army. The place is a must-visit to know the history and challenges faced in each war.

Julley Leh!!!!!
Our stay was again at a Zostel here. Leh town and especially the Zostel was more lively with expressions of people inviting conversations. We had to bid farewell to Mushtaq Bhai as the remaining trip would be on a different car.

Our travel arranger Sonam welcomed us with a Julley (means ‘Namaste/Hello’ in the Ladakhi) and introduced us to our new chauffeur Dorjey (aka Yuru Bhai). In our 6 six-bed dorm room, our roommate Munnu was quick in introducing himself. He had just arrived back from Nubra the previous day on a bike and had stayed back due to health issues while his friends left for Pangong. He spent the entire evening with us telling stories from his trip and telling us the do’s and don’ts while we explored the streets of Leh. We started a conversation about the very famous Pashmina Shawls at one of the shops. The shopkeeper seemed knowledgable and explained how wool from Leh gets transported to Kashmir and gets woven, as the skilled women and men are available only in Kashmir.

Pasham in Pashmina just means hair, however, the quality of it from a specific type of goat brings the fineness to it. Whereas the shawls made from the wool of the sheep are called Cashmere. He suggested not buying both since the climate in Bangalore was much hotter and there would be hardly any use of such shawls. After a bit of exploration, we managed to get some souvenirs to take back as a memory. We stayed up till late in the night on the roof of Zostel munching on snacks and humming some old and new movie songs.

Leh to Nubra Valley

Today’s journey was the toughest. We were to go on the highest motorable road in the world i.e. KhardungLa at 18,000ft altitude. It was definitely a challenge. Leh being at around 11,500ft was already making us breathe heavily just after climbing a few stairs, the state at KhardungLa was questionable. However, we declined Sonam’s suggestion to carry a backup oxygen cylinder.
After some light breakfast, we decided to explore the places in Leh before our ascend. First one in the list, Leh palace was a 9 storied building that is resting on the surface of a hill. It reminded me of old houses from my hometown with its infinite rooms separated by tiny doors. View of Leh city from the 9th floor is not to be missed. The walls inside the rooms are filled with the history of Leh and some really beautify paintings. Next stop, the Shanti Stupa was on the other end of the town. Buddha statue here overlooking the town was rather a recent installation.

Our car now started to climb up the 7000ft elevation that was remaining to the pass. The curves were steep and changing terrain after every turn. Roads were good almost till South-Pullu, a place about 10km away from the peak. Pullu is the temporary stay used by shepherds. There are one each on either side of Kardung La i.e. South-Pullu and North-Pullu. We could now see fresh snow on either side of the road. Khardungla top was filled with a crowd numbering few hundreds. People were coming by cars, bikes and even cycles (a big salute to their courage). Any high altitude pass including Khardung should only be stepped on for a maximum of 20 minutes, any longers would cause symptoms of altitude sickness. Ganesh and Shridhar and a minor headache before starting the ascend and they felt it’s effect since all of us had stayed out on the top for about 40 minutes. Yuru Bhai was hurrying to start the descend to avoid any further health issues. While we continued to drive down, he shared his experience of a group which he had traveled with recently, who vomited blood after staying out on the top for more than an hour(not sure how much of the story was true, but we could not deny its possibility). I felt a mild headache which started to reduce as we continued to drive down.

The road downhill was on the edge of mountains some of which were covered completely with snow. When we finally reached the base, it was like completing a rollercoaster ride filled with numerous turns. Our driver dropped us at a camp for lunch at Khalsi. The place offers good stay options and fun activities including river-rafting. Our original plan was to try river-rafting here, but since all were still recovering from nausea, we decided to skip it.
A little ahead from Khalsi, a diversion was leading towards Siachen, the highest battleground on earth. We continued towards Nubray on the other road and stopped for some fun dessert activities. We tried ATV ride where we could zoom this heavy beast on sand dunes for 3km.

Next stop was the Diskit monastery where a gigantic Maitreya Budha statue is installed overlooking the Shyok river. The meditating expression of Budha takes anyone to a momentary peace on a quick gaze upon his face. Diskit monastery is the oldest monastery of Nubra valley built in the 14th century. The place is also known for hosting the well known “Festival of the Scapegoat” in the winter.

Budham Sharanam Gachami
Diskit Gompa

Last stop for the day was the Hunder sand dunes. It seemed like a miracle to see a desert in the middle of nowhere. Ladakh seems to have a mix of all types of terrains. Hunder is known as the home for double-humped camels. The placed looked straight out of a fairy tale filled with camels, tiny sand dunes and a freshwater stream flowing on one of the sides. The constant conversations between the camel owners and travelers, games, and the air filled with dust had created a festive mood. After an hour-long wait, it was our turn for a camel ride. The one which I was riding was called Yuropasa, we ended up naming the other two with something random since they dint have any.

Our stay was booked at Hotel Yourdum. I must say, it was one of the best stays we had. The people were humble and friendly where it almost felt like we were staying at relatives. They served yummy and hot home-cooked food prepared from veggies grown right in front of the house. It was the night of lunar eclipse and moon was brighter than usual. We slept peacefully listening to the rhythm of the flowing river.

Nubra Valley to Pangong Tso

The next three days of the trip is going to be crucial. The places will have hardly any network, so we had to stick together and inform all our parents in advance about the same. Even the roads were not completely marked for these places, so extra caution was needed too. The routes were known for getting washed off from the streams caused by melting snow from the mountains. Additionally, the next three places including the Nubra we stayed earlier had the power supply available for only 4 hours i.e from 7 PM to 10 PM. Any devices requiring a recharge should be managed in these 4 hours.
The first part of the journey was through the Shyok valley. We had to pass through Diskit and Khalsi again to join the diversion towards Pangong. The road seemed neverending as it stretched till we could see through naked eyes. We came across many bikers though it was not the usual road taken by tourists. The conventional route is to go back to Leh and take a different route to Pangong via Chang La. The Border Roads Organization (BRO) however was making it’s best effort to maintain both roads in good condition by quickly deploying groups to fix any road blockages. Quotes on road safety by BRO are literally on another level.
Almost till we reached the Shyok village, the roads were bad. Some were washed away by streams, some had still small yet challenging streams flowing on them and some were getting cleaned after a recent landslide. After a quick stop for some yummy hot momo and chai at Shyok village, we were sure of reaching Pangong by lunch.

Roads were in a better condition now and were directly facing the mighty Karakoram range (gets its name from the mountains formed from black rocks). A new freshwater stream had joined our course and all we wanted was to sit on the rocks dipping our legs in the water. Yuru Bhai stopped the car at a small village called Durbuk where we could get close to the stream and the currents were safe. We could dip our legs for only a minute as the water was really cold. We even tried to climb a huge rock on the side to catch a glimpse of the places around.
Pangong was just an hour away now and we were getting impatient. Just before we could get the first glimpse of the lake, we stopped at Changthang wildlife sanctuary. It is in fact an open grassland where we could find various wild animals including the Himalayan marmot. These looked really cute when they hopped from one place to another or stood on two legs appearing to greet you. Though they are harmless and you can go as close as you want, they tend to bite if disturbed. When I tried to click a picture of one of them, it stood still and started to gaze at the camera. Closest I have been to any wild animal. If you intend to visit this place, don’t feed them anything. These are now an endangered species primary because people feed them random food which they can’t digest. A little ahead was a location where some of the famous Bollywood movies were shot. One could spot some really beautiful horses and herds of sheep. Wool from this very sheep is used to make Pashmina Shawls.

There it is! we could see the Pangong lake behind the hills playing hide and seek every time we took a turn on the road. It was still far, yet the turquoise colour was eye-catchy. When we approached closer, we could see it change colours as the clouds passed above it. What a magical moment!! Every part of the lake with mountains at the background was looking like wallpaper from the desktop.
Our stay at The Golden Cottage was very close to where one end of the lake began. We quickly finished our lunch and went to explore the lake. The lake was at a higher altitude too, which was draining us just in a 1o minute walk. We clicked a lot of pictures near the lake and even saw some places where few movies were shot (such as 3 idiots). The water was bone-chilling and we had to drop the plan of taking a dip. There were a lot of tiny stone-balancing structures near the lake. Ganesh and I tried to build a similar one and miserably failed 😀

The place was getting cloudy and we could hardly spot any stars. We were in high expectations to capture the Milkyway from here (we actually don’t know how to capture them), but the weather played spoilsport. Coincidently the next few huts in our stay were occupied by mutual friends of Ganesh. It was fun playing Dumb charades with them sitting around the fire till late in the night. Same as Nubra, power was available only from 7:30 PM to 11 PM, but we were prepared for it this time.

Pangong to Tso Moriri

Tso Moriri or the Moriri Lake was a less heard of a place for us. People would usually return from Pangong and skip Moriri either because they don’t know about it or because there is no road (that’s right. There isn’t one for about 80% of it). Also, the place is extremely remote with really poor network connectivity. So, even to book a stay there was a nightmare. We somehow got it arranged from Bunny. We had to leave early to avoid any delay due to bad roads.
Since we were at the starting of the lake, we had to travel all the way to the other and to join the road towards Moriri (skipping the word Tso here because Tso means lake). This was a 40km long journey on the edge of the lake, undoubtedly the most scenic journey of our entire trip. Shades of brown and grey to our right and shades of blue towards our left, a scene straight from heaven indeed. Water was so clear that even from our vehicle we could spot rocks beneath. It had probably snowed on mountains on the other end, most of them appeared like ice creme cones. When the lake turned towards left, our paths departed. The rest of the lake’s share would belong to China i.e., 60 %, the rest 40% of the lake belongs to India. One can opt to stay at the Spagmik, Maan and Merak villages which we crossed in this day’s journey.

Rods were now completely vanished and all we could see were some tire marks. Yuru Bhai was constantly looking at distant mountains, taking some unexpected turns. At one point, we assumed that he had lost the road, but that was how the roads were. We saw some bunkers built by the Indian Army. These were the fall-back posts in case of war. The weather wasn’t great today and temperatures were towards the lower end. We first saw the Indo-China war memorial. Surprisingly the place was unmanned and locked. We quickly had a look around and got in the car before it started to rain.

After crossing plenty of tiny mountain passes with a growling stomach we stopped at a tiny tent for Chai. A much-needed refill before we could proceed any further.

Finally, better tar roads had now begun and we were traveling on the banks of the Indus(Sindhu) river. A lot of army trucks and vehicles were passing by and it was fun to wave at them. We literally jumped like kids when they waved back or saluted. I can barely imagine their life here so far from home. Yuru Bhai showed us some wild horses which were strangely of exact same in colour. Binoculars will be handy here since most of them will be grazing really far and are afraid of vehicles.
We came across a lake by name Kyagar which Yuru referred to as Tso Moriri ka bacha (kid of Tso Moriri). A tiny lake surrounded by hills. Morir was getting closer. We spotted a few more Himalayan Marmots and Dimo (female Yak). There were tiny settlements of shepherds throughout. Each would have a tiny tent, a flock of 200 – 500 sheep and a makeshift rock fence to keep the flock at night. These were the true nomads, the ones to discovered paths to these beautiful locations on earth. They reminded me of Santiago from The Alchemist.

The network was already dead when we reached Moriri and dark clouds were waiting to burst. Most of the lakeside is fenced and only a tiny part is open for having ways to reach the water. It looked equally beautiful but unlike Pangong, Tso Moriri was a sweet-water lake. Waves were constantly hitting the shore setting a peaceful and rhythmic mood. We couldn’t stay out for long and quickly headed towards the town.

Tso Moriri

Every trip needs to have that one bitter moment and our share was waiting at Moriri. The guy at Hotel Grand Dolphin denied that there was any booking on my name. He denied recognizing Bunny’s name who had booked the stay for us. However, he suggested he would help us find a place to stay assuming he was at fault. This made us more suspicious about the entire scene as he could have given our rooms for anyone paying more money on the spot. We were helpless without a telephone network even to callback Bunny and reconfirm, and neither could I fetch back the email confirmation I had received. I was losing confidence every moment and we were just following the guy to places he was suggesting as an alternative. After a lot of arguments and disagreements with him and each other, we settled for a place called The wisdom Guest House. I had struck a deal that we wouldn’t be paying a single penny more. The place was still under construction and amenities needed a lot of improvements. The owner there, however, was humble and accommodative.
Menu me kya hai (what’s on the dinner menu), we asked him and a standard reply of ‘Roti, Alu-sabzi, rice, and yellow-dal’ was waiting. We had lost our appetite by now and were craving for Dosa, Pongal, Idly and Rasam like any typical South Indian. Some chose to have rice with milk that day instead of dal. Yuru took us to a nearby hill to get a better view of the lake. It was a small town with a few hundred people and an equal number of goats. Cloudy weather and fenced lakeside had made it impossible to get any clear view, so we decided to return back to the room. There was no sign of power as usual till almost 8 PM. We gobbled-up our dinner early that day since our next day had to start as early as 6 AM to cover a 320km long journey towards Jispa.

Tso Morir to Jispa

To our request, the family at the guesthouse and woken up early to pack breakfast for us. We left at 6 as per our plan. Weather was still not great and general anxiety kicked in about completing today’s journey. Most of us continued to sleep while the music player played some old classics as a lullaby. Many of the hills we had seen the previous day were now covered in snow. The tents of shepherds had the morning tea brewing in them, the sheep were still asleep ( few more in our car 😛 ) while the car moved on the bumpy roads.

We first saw the hot springs, but unfortunately couldn’t go closer since the entire area was muddy and soaking wet from previous days rains (another scene were binoculars are needed). We were already hungry and were waiting for the lake at which Yuru had promised to stop for breakfast.

Probably even he was anxious about covering most of the road quickly. After traveling for more than 2 hours, the lake Tso Kar had arrived and we hurried to find the packed breakfast. The sky was now clear and promised a better journey. The highway was about 15 km from here which would then lead us towards Jispa. Every year hundreds of tourists travel to Tso Kar for bird-watching. We had to zoom-in through a 75mm lens to spot a migrating bird which Yuru was pointing at.
By this time we had crowned Yuru as an off-roading expert and he proved us right by shortening a 15km road to just 5km by finding his way through open grassland. We were now on the highway on a section called ‘Mori plains’. This is a 50km long stretch on the valley. The road was amazing and we could easily cover the distance faster. Every time there was even a tiny sign of off-roading shortcut to cut-down the distance, we would laugh because we knew that Yuru would take even a more than 45degree inclined road to go faster.

On our route, we passed through Lachung La and Nakee La, passes at an average altitude of 15000ft. At Lachung La, we even witnessed snowfall, the first one I ever saw in my life. At Pang village, there was the world’s highest army transit camp. A greater portion of our descend was through ‘Gata Loops’, a series of 21 hairpin curves. Each turn was giving a majestic view of the valley. This was probably the only road where Yuru couldn’t take any shortcuts. 😀

Sarchu is one of the places where during ascend people would camp, but since we were coming from the opposite direction, we could easily continue ahead. Luckily most of the distance was covered early and we stopped at Bharatpur for lunch. There was fresh snow all around and Baralacha La was covered with dense fog. Cold weather increases hunger and I was still ready to eat more after gobbling up a plate of Rajma-Chawal and a bowl of Maggie. Jispa was just 70km from here and Yuru asked us to take some rest. This tiny tent had beds at the edge of which tables were kept to have food. It was a heavenly feeling to remove our shoes and lie down on the bed. We could stay in that cozy place all day, but Jispa had our evening’s tea brewing.
Just after 10 minutes of the drive, we came across a 10meter wide stream right on the road. In fact, there was no road at all and just rocks. The tire of the vehicle in front of us was getting jammed and all the nightmares of getting stuck on the roads we hunting me. The bikers were struggling to get their bikes crossed, but we somehow managed. The Baralacha top was completely covered with snow and we were cautious this time to stay out only for about 15 minutes as the altitude here was around 16000ft. We played our heart out in the snow and there was nobody around to make us conscious. The view of Suraj Tal lake was another beautiful sight from the Baralacha top.

The change in terrain was evident now as the mountains around started to turn green. Himachal was welcoming us with open arms. We had a lot of mountains to climb down to reach Jispa. A little ahead of a place called Zing Zing Bar (god knows why such a name), there was a roadblock and we could witness a #JCBkiKhudai moment. That was the shortest and probably the only severe roadblock we had witnessed in the entire trip. The place was yet scenic keeping us busy while the road got cleared. While crossing the block we realized the actual reason was a stream flowing on road washing it away. We would witness at least 4 more such streams before reaching Jispa. While it looks thrilling to go over these tiny waterfalls, the drive is equally challenging to cross them at once. Deepak Tal lake in the lap of the green hills was yet another beautiful stop on our way.
The signals in our phones were now back and people got busy with their phone. Our stay at Camp Gemur was a little ahead of Jispa at Gemur Village. The guy checked us in quickly and the first thing we wanted to do was to take bath. Really cold weathers at Pangong and Moriri had made us skip the bath. Chilling winds were cooling down the heated water instantly and nobody wanted to have a semi-cold bath in such bone-chilling weather. A warm cup of chai after a hot water bath was a perfect recharge. This camp was overlooking the Bhaga river with green hills at the background. The constant sound of the river and greenery all around was setting the perfect mood. The tents were filled with amenities for their size. We met a group of bikers who were headed towards Leh. After witnessing the conditions of the road which we had crossed today, we couldn’t believe if the same can be crossed by a bike. The group members, however, appeared more energetic. The long journey was tiring and after two long days, the weather was perfect for good night sleep.

Jispa to Manali

Our last day of the trip was here. Though the distance is just about 150km to Manali, the roads would be either bad or would face a jam due to a large number of tourists. The group of bikers at camp had shared their experience of slippery roads and countless diversions which made us start early from Jispa. While having breakfast, all of us swore to not have Paratha and yellow dal for almost a month 😉
The hills were lush green on both sides and soaked with the early morning drizzles. Tiny pink, yellow, red, and white flowers had covered the hills making them look like a newlywed bride. Some of these hills had huge fields of peas and cauliflower. At Keylong, we witness the confluence of Chandra and Bhaga river later to become Chenab (aka Chandra-Bhaga river), one of the prominent rivers of Panjab. The sight of melting snow turning into a stream and then to a river was indeed magical.

The Rohtang pass looked much different than what I had imagined. It was more green and most of the snow had already melted. These melting streams caused more troubles by creating a surry on roads. Any moment a vehicle could get jammed and we would have had to wait for long for them to get cleared. But our stars were in the right position and we could ascend faster than expected. After witnessing beautiful passes such as Khardungla and Baralacha, the Rohtang pass seemed quite overrated. The place was overcrowded and it was painful to see people littering the place all around.
While the road to descend was in good condition, people driving senselessly was causing more traffic jams. These stops, however, didn’t disappoint us. Any direction we gazed at, we could see waterfalls, snow-capped hills, pine forests, tiny villages in the valley and the neverending roads.

The place started to look familiar now. I had been here, I had seen this Beas river. But it was more than 2 years ago. Some parts of this beautiful town still looked the same. On one end I was happy to come back here which I had never imagined I would, but Manali would also mean the end of the trip. None the less, the last 8 days had taken us to a whole new world. We bid farewell to Yuru Bhai for taking us through this amazing journey and sharing all the knowledge that he could.
The first thing that we looked for after checking-in at a hotel was south Indian food. How awesome is it to find an Andra style hotel in Manali? The food wasn’t as tasty as we imagined it to be, but tastebuds wanted something new anyhow. We strolled through the markets of Mall road, yet none of us were fascinated by things sold there. With a bag full of memories and stories to share, we boarded our bus to Delhi. The all-cousins trip was finally successful.
And it doesn’t end without saying the cliched line “This is the story of how I got Leh’d”……..!

PS:
1. It’s a long journey and every view, every place is different. Capture more from eyes and less from the lens.
2. While I like traveling Solo, some trips are awesome with groups.
3. When there are many voices in a trip, arguments are common. Work together to make it the best.
4. Trust people. Especially at places that are new to you.
5. It’s ok if things don’t go by the plan. We all love surprises right??
6. Be prepared to come back tanned. Its a mark of the truly enjoyed trip 😛
7. Travel often and travel green
8. A big shoutout to Shridhar, Shubha, Sandeep and Ganesh for clicking some of these amazing pictures.

The Adress-book
1. Sonam Angdu (for vehicle) – +919469272773, +919469683834
2. Dorjey (Yuru Bhai, for vehicle) – +919419177040
3. Bunny Punia (for stays in Airbnb properties) – +919654244102
4. Dheeraj (for frequent updates on Himachal weather and travel tips) – https://devilonwheels.com/
5. Yourdum guest house Nubra – +911980221114, +919469735827
6. Wisdom guest house Tso Moriri – +919469894014, +919469451568
7. Gemur Holidays Jispa – +919418933067, +917018009887

Author: Hithesh Bhat

Traveller | Foodie | Geek | Lone explorer | Tech coach | Technophile | Maker | Wall-E in search of EVE