Ladakh Escapades 


There is an air of complete chaos and confusion at the check-in counters, as I reach New Delhi’s spanking new air terminal number three at Indira Gandhi International airport. Airline staff appear to be trying their best to guide the passengers, but it is obvious that their efforts are proving very ineffective. I finally manage to rush to a check-in counter and soon find out the reason for this helter-skelter situation. The computer system that controls the reservations and checks-in the passengers has given up. The airline staff are manually preparing the baggage slips and the boarding cards. Despite all the confusion, thanks to the efficiency of airline staff, I manage to get my baggage checked in and secure a boarding pass.
The flight is announced and I move on to board the aircraft. Even after all routine departure announcements are over, nothing seems to happen for a long interval of time and we are still on the ground. I make inquiries with the air hostesses. I find that Air traffic control at Leh (my destination) is not allowing our aircraft to take off for some reason or other. Finally the clearance is received and I am airborne after a delay of about a hour. 


Himalayan ranges rolling past our aircraft

We are served piping hot breakfast. As I finish the last few bites of my tasty grub, I glance outside through the window. I am wonder struck, as a fascinating scenario is unfolding before my eyes. Just below the tips of the wings of our aircraft, I see range after range of tall and snow covered Himalayan mountains, rolling past our aircraft. It feels that if somehow I can take my hand out of the aircraft, may be, I could just touch those grand peaks. The aircraft keeps slowly moving ahead and the snow covered mountains are now suddenly replaced by bleak, stark and barren mountain ranges spangled in shades of brown and an occasional ice cap. I know for sure, that we have arrived in Ladakh.
The aircraft does not glide in and land in a straight forward fashion. It descends first to a lower height and circles the airport while descending. After second or third circle, the aircraft descends to a height, well below the towering heights of snow covered peaks surrounding us. After one more circle, aircraft makes a smooth landing. I have finally arrived at Leh.
Even since I decided to make this trip, I have been warned, cautioned and tipped by endless number of well wishers, about perils of high altitude sickness, which I am sure to face in Leh. With all that advice pressurizing my sub conscious mind, I am little bit tense on arrival. I take a deep breath and step outside the aircraft. Its about 9 o’clock in the morning. Weather is nice and cold. The airport area is huge but quite empty. Except for our aircraft, I do not see any other aircraft on ground anywhere. Breathing however is no problem at all. Feeling little relieved, I collect my bags and get out of the airport. A taxi cab is waiting for me with a banner, with my name printed on it. I feel happy and secure as I reach my hotel. 


Our Hotel in Leh

A welcome cup of Tea awaits me. As instructed, I move to my room, change and get into the bed. I am advised bed rest at least till evening. I still manage to get a peep through a window. A stunning landscape appears right on my window frame, complete with towering hills and mountains as back drop, tall poplar and willow trees and lush green grass. 

room with a view

I am served hot and tasty lunch around 2 PM. Whatever apprehensions that were there in my mind about high altitude of Leh and my physical capability or incapability of handling it, are all gone by now. I feel fit and ready for Ladakh.
After landing at Leh, first thing that I had done was to switch on my mobile phone. I had found out to my dismay, that my service providers, Vodafone have no service in Leh. This was definitely a major irritant. The problem is solved by my travel agent, who cames to see me to discuss my travel plans. He happily gives me a sim card, which works in Leh and interior ladakh. Word of caution, only BSNL service works in Ladakh and it is also not possible to call numbers, who are serviced by other service providers. You  can call only BSNL numbers. Carrying a post paid BSNL sim card with you, is a must. 

Around 4 PM my car arrives. My first impressions about the driver of the vehicle, who would be driving me around for next few days, are not exactly favourable. I feel that he is bit rude and keeps unusually quiet for a guide cum driver. I keep my feelings to myself for now and get ready to get out. Our first destination is a hillock at Changspa, about a kilometer away from the Leh town and about 1000 feet higher in altitude, from the airport.


Shanti Stupa


Buddha statue on Shanti Stupa


Bass Reliefs on Shanti Stupa 


Octagonal wheel on top of Shanti Stupa

A nice motorable road takes me up the hill. At the top, I can see a huge white domed structure. My car stops just below the top. It is necessary to climb up, last hundred feet or so by foot. Again a feeling of anxiousness, about the height, creeps into my mind. To my relief, I face no problems at all and easily reach the top. The white structure on top of the hill is known as Shanti Stupa and has been built by a Japanese Buddhist organization as legacy of Nichidatsu Fujii Guruji, who was awarded Jawaharlal Nehru award for international understanding in 1978. The work on this stupa was started in 1983 and is supposed to be a symbol of the spiritual ties and relationship between people of Japan and Ladakh. The Stupa itself is a two tiered structure with two terraces, a huge central statue of Buddha with an octagonal wheel on his head. Brightly coloured bass reliefs, from the life of Buddha are engraved on all sides. 


Leh Town seen from Shanti Stupa hill

The view from terraces is absolutely stunning. The Leh town in the valley, with scores of poplar trees and lush green parks contrasts absolutely with the barren rocky mountain sides. Straight in the south west direction, I see for the first time, river bed of Sindhu or Indus river. This river has been one of the principal motives for me for making this trip. Much beyond the river, the Mountain ridges and ranges of Zanskar mountains rise up and up. And much further beyond , I can clearly see the glowing peaks of Stok Kangri(6130 Mtr), Matho Kangri(6010 Mtr) and Go-Leb Kangri(6120 Mtr), bathing in the Golden light of the evening sun. I feel somehow a sense of belonging to this entire landscape. May be, this is what my ancestors saw six or seven thousand years ago when they first set their feet on the Indian sub-continent after crossing the desert lands of central and west Asia.


Panoramic view of Indus valley from Shanti Stupa hill


Panoromic view of Stok Kangri (Peak) from Shanti Stupa hill

Hundreds of tourists visit this place every day. Even now, there are quite a few of them around. With small children and youth, all bubbling with joy as usual, the place appears perhaps even more brighter and sunny.
I get into the car and we move on. We get into Leh town and go to the most congested part of the city. Winding through the narrow lanes and by-lanes which is an essential part of any Indian village or township, we again start climbing a hill, which appears to be sitting right in the middle of the market street. The road climbs a few kilometers and stops. I get out of the car and start walking. My new destination is the Leh palace. 


Leh palace


Steps to Lah palace


Palace Entrance

This construction work on this palace was completed in 17th century in the reign of King Senge Namgyal. Senge means lion, hence the palace is also known as Lion palace. Today the palace is in deserted state of dilapidation. Some restoration work seems to be going on. Construction of this seven storied structure, based on the Potala Palace of Lhasa architecture, was started in 1553. Only two storeys, of the original seven levels, remain in good shape today, with one assembly hall and a Garbhagriha or a chapel. 


View of Leh Town from the palace terrace

A Gompa on way to the palace

I climb few steps and enter the palace. The entrance gate is adorned with intricate wood carvings on the sides and above. It is very dusty and dark inside. In front of me, there is another flight of stairs. In the twilight, I can barely see the steps. I climb up and discover a terrace, brightly lit with fading sunlight. The terrace offers a magnificent view of the Leh town. While I look around, I realize that the sun is setting down behind the tall mountains. Dark shadows are already spreading across dusty and darkened steps of the palace staircases. I hurry back to the car. It is almost dark, when I reach the hotel.
It would have to be an early dinner and off to bed for me today, because I have to leave rather early tomorrow, for my first journey across Ladakh. No doubt, I am mildly excited about it because for a significant distance of my journey tomorrow, I would be travelling along the river bed of Sindhu or the Indus.
As I reach my hotel, I find that there is no electrical power and the hotel is in complete darkness. Electrical power shortage is a reality in Ladakh. There are couple of Hydel power projects along with few oil fired thermal sets. However the situation is unreliable. Luckily my hotel has a generator set so today I can have my dinner comfortably. If the power fails at an odd hour, there is no substitute arrangement. It is essential that every traveller to Ladakh must carry a good electrical torch with him.
My first day in Ladakh has gone rather well and without any hitch. The real thing is to be faced tomorrow.


There are three ways in which one can arrive in Leh. There is a road which connects Manali in Himachal Pradesh state of India to Leh via Rohtang Pass. Alternatively a road from State capital Srinagar, (Jammu & Kashmir State, India), connects to Leh via Zoji La, Drass and Kargil. It takes minimum two days of crowded bus travel to reach Leh by any of these two routes. The third way is obviously to fly in from Delhi directly. Many people prefer to come by road. The advantage here is that you get acclimatized, while on your way to Leh. I preferred to fly directly from Delhi because firstly I hate such long road journeys by bus and secondly I wanted to spend maximum of my time travelling in Ladakh and not travelling to Ladakh. 

My plan for today is to travel to the village of Lamayuru, to visit the Monastery there. The village of Lamayuru is situated about 100 kilometers from Leh on the main Leh- Kargil road between Khaltse town on the Indus river and Buddhkharbu town. In fact this road is now preferred to the old Leh-Kargil road, which was all along the Indus river and passed through Batalik, because it is much safer. People who come in to Leh from Kargil, anyway travel through this village, but seldom stay there. They just have a cursory glance at the monastery and leave. My plan is to stay in the village. My travel agent belongs to this part of Ladakh and has suggested that if we leave early from Leh, we could be in Lamayuru before noon, to watch the annual Pooja ceremony at the Monastery, performed on the day after the yearly festival. This is the reason for my plan to leave Leh town early in the morning.

I manage to get up early with a slight heaviness in my head. I just pop up half a tablet of Paracetamol and forget about it. Since Leh has a permanent and perennial power problem, most of the hotels provide hot water heated by wood fired boilers. This means that hot water is available at a fixed time and only for a short interval. Luckily, I find that there is hot water available today at 5 AM. I get ready but the driver and the vehicle fail to arrive at stipulated time. Besides, the packed breakfast, which my hotel had promised to keep ready at 5 AM, is still not ready. There is no way in which I can speed up things. I just relax and enjoy the beautiful morning weather.

Eventually, my vehicle and the driver arrive. He has a frown on his face and is not very willing to help. Only last evening, I had heard him lecturing someone, about importance of keeping time. I ask him about the delay, he just laughs in a sarcastic fashion. I collect my packed lunch and finally we are off to Lamayuru.
We pass the huge base hospital built by the army for fighting men and a power station which only supplies power to this hospital. We turn round the airport and join the Leh-Kargil highway. This area is known as Spituk and on both sides of the road, only thing that I can see are the vast campuses of various Army units stationed in this area. The terrain ahead is now turning hilly. The hills however look quite different here from what I have seen anywhere else and weird. Hills here have a peculiar grayish, yellowish colour. Some of the hill slopes, taper off so gently and smoothly, that even a pebble launched from the top, would come rolling down with speed. On some of the slopes there are deep sharp ravines and strange shaped rocks stand, sit or lie down, as per viewer’s perception. On some of the hills, I see a plethora of small pebbles and rocks of all kinds and sizes, strewn all over.


A Ladakh Landscape

We pass through miles and miles of this mesmerizing monotony. when my mind is getting convinced that what I see around is nothing but a full fledged desert, I suddenly see ahead lush green grass and hundreds of poplar trees with small brooks passing through. This is the beauty of Ladakhi landscape. At one instant, all that you can see around you is just hot and dry desert land. You take a turn and suddenly you find yourself surrounded by lush green thick foliage, reminding you of tropical lands. 


Sindhu or Indus River

The car takes a sharp turn. The driver announces that River Sindhu or Indus is on the left. We are probably forty to fifty feet above the river bed. I ask the driver to stop and get down. As I stand on a side of the road, facing this greatest river, cherished by all Indians, my mind passes through a spasm of uncontrolled emotions. This is the River that has given her name to our religion known as Hinduism, her name for our land, known as Hindustan and yet I had to travel thousands of miles to reach a far off corner of India, just to see this river. Perhaps my mind has already connected to some long back ancestor, who having braved the terrain and the deserts of the Persia and Afghanistan, has just descended through an equally rough terrain of Bolan Pass (Near Quetta city of present Pakistan) some nine or ten thousand years ago, to a fertile river basin, full of forests and game to hunt. I keep looking at this river with the same wonder and amazement that he must have felt then. 

We move on. The terrain keeps presenting ever changing appearances and I find myself short of words to describe it. No amount of filming or photography can store in a photographic image or series of images, this absolutely stunning landscape of infinite dimensions. I suddenly become aware that each and every mountain I pass by, has a different hue and shade of colour, subtly mixed in the basic tinge of grayish, yellowish colour. Some greenish, some yellowish, some have a red tinge and some look purple. Yet there is no order of colours. You never know what would be the hue and tinge of the next hill or a ravine. My college day chemistry reminds me that this is nothing but abundance of some salt of chromium or iron or sulfur that is giving this tinge to the mountains. Yet I find it impossible to conceal my childish sense of amazement at every turn and corner of this vast glory of a landscape. 


Confluence of Sindhu(Indus) and Zanskar rivers 

The car starts climbing up a hill. When we reach a top of sorts, driver stops the vehicle, There are many multicoloured flags fluttering violently in the wind, by the road side. I cautiously approach the edge of a steep mountain slope. Some two or three hundred feet below me, I see a sight, which would remain permanently etched in my memory. The river Sindhu or Indus, which is flowing from my left,  meets here another major river of Ladakh, River Zanskar. This is the confluence of these two great rivers. The enormous volume of water that moves ahead is of little use to this hilly land with deep ravines or it’s people. The water is being collected here by nature, to be sent ahead to people of Pakistan, staying in the flat lands of the south-west for their prosperity and well being.

We reach the town of Nimo and decide to break for Tea. The scene here is not much different than what one can see around breadth and depth of India. Rugged Tata trucks, smell of diesel and burnt oil, tough looking drivers, roadside shacks serving hot and sweet, milky Tea. I remember the grilled sandwiches packed by the hotel for me. The extra sweet Tea somehow goes well with the cheese sandwiches I have. 


Sindhu(Indus) rapids

We pass more villages on way. The river keeps on changing its appearance every mile. It looks like a quiet mass of water just merrily floating along at one place but would turn into a gurgling, splashing mass of dirty whitish water, just few miles ahead, a heaven for the rafters. I see many of them travelling on the road with their rafts loaded on the roofs of their SUV’s. Small lush green villages appear suddenly on the sides with giant sized Gompas and statues of deities. Every minute, the river is becoming bigger and wider.
We reach the town of Khaltse. The old Leh-Kargil road goes straight ahead alongside the river. We are turning to take a new road , which also goes to Kargil but via Lamayuru, our destination today. We cross the river on a temporary iron bridge built by Army Engineers. Having parted from the river, the terrain now becomes even more like a desert, yet even more fascinating. So far, on one side of the road, there was always that certainty of a river bed. Now nothing can be presumed or expected. At one instant, we are on the level of a dried bed of a rivulet and and within minutes find that we are at the top of a steep mountainside with a rock roof hanging precariously overhead. It is like sitting into a giant roller-coaster. Heavy road repair and construction activity is going on here. 


Road to Lamayuru

Just ahead, on a patch of road, a spluttering earth excavator is generating huge dust clouds of desert sand, but fortunately for me, no rock blasting is scheduled this morning. If there is rock blasting planned, the road could get blocked for hours and my plans to see Lamayuru Pooja ceremony would turn to be just a daydream. 

Lunar Landscape


View of lamayuru Gorge

We are now entering into a narrow gorge. The steep mountain slopes on the sides, suddenly turn sulfuric yellow and porous as if some strong acidic bath has eaten away large chunks of rocks. The land looks just like the Lunar landscape images, released by American space agency. No wonder that this land is known as Moon land. Ahead of us, I see a small village on a mountain slope on one side of the gorge. In the flat land at the bottom of the gorge, there are lush green fields with patches of turmeric yellow flowers, of the mustard fields. Poplars and willows stand guard on the sides and far above of me, I see hanging precariously, on an outcrop of a mountain top, the Monastery of Lamayuru. 


The Lamayuru Monastery


Our Hotel in Lamayuru

The car stops and the driver announces that we have reached our hotel in Lamayuru. The hotel consists of few small buildings on a hill slope designed to match and suit the terrain. There are no railings for stair cases or such other safety features around. I find a patch of green grass , overlooking the gorge, with chairs arranged for sitting, near the main dining hall. I settle down and drink my welcome Tea. I am allotted my room, which is small yet has all basic comforts. The electrical power is available only from 7 PM to 11 PM and only for one or two hours in the morning. However the bathroom has a electrical boiler. I feel happy at the arrangements. 

I freshen up, pick up my camera and start moving towards the car. There is a fair condition road going up to the Monastery. The car drops me at the parking place near the Monastery. I would have to walk and climb, rest of the distance.
Lamayuru monastery is perhaps the oldest monastery in Ladakh and was a holy place even before advent of Buddhism in Ladakh. 

The history of Buddhism in Ladakh goes back to 10th or 11th century , when King Sron-tsan-gam-po of Tibet sent a great scholar Rinchen Zangpo to India to study Indian Buddhism and propagate the same to western Tibet or Ladakh. Lamayuru monastery is believed to be built by this Rinchen Zangpo. A long period after demise of Goutam Buddha, the religion of Buddhism was split in two schools of thought, known as Mahayana and Hinayana. Out of this, Mahayana Buddhism is dominant in Ladakh and is further divided into four sects. Lamayuru monastery observes the Drikung-pa sect. It is based on the teachings of Indian master Tilopa and his disciple Naropa and has elements of Hindu philosophy added to the original teachings of this sect.
From the car parking area a narrow pathway leads to the Monastery. On one side of this pathway, there are buildings of residences for the monks. I climb the final few stone paved steps to enter the main building through a small wooden door. The main Monastery building has a small open courtyard in the middle. The side opposite the entry door has a veranda with wooden pillars to support the roof. A door in the rear wall of the veranda, leads to the main prayer hall or the Du-khang of the Monastery. The veranda walls on the sides of this door are painted with bright coloured paintings of the four guardian kings of the cardinal directions and other paintings of religious significance such as Four harmonious Brothers and Wheel of Life.


Wall Painting-Wheel of Life

Wall Painting- Four harmonious Brothers


Wall painting- Guardian King of the South-Virudhaka


Wall painting-Guardian King of the North-Vaisravana


Wall Painting-Guardian King of the East-Dhritarastra


Wall Painting-Guardian King of the west- Virupaksa

Inside the prayer hall one side is lined with a glass door cupboard, which stores old manuscripts on religion, law and ethics, stored in a neat and orderly fashion. There are three rows of low tables equally spaced along the hall. Religious attire and Pooja or worshiping accessories are all arranged on these tables. I also find the Dung-Dung drum and other musical windpipes used by the monks neatly arranged. Between the tables, there are carpets for the monks to sit and pray. The main deity inside the Du-khang is Vairocana or the Illuminator, enshrined on a lion throne along with images of Dhyani Buddhas. I find an enormous mural of eleven headed Avalokiteshwara on one of the walls. Just behind the main deity there is an inner temple which houses manifestations of Tara , the female deity of longevity and giver of wealth and children. 

A banner with exquisite painting of Goddesses Green Tara and White Tara 

I come out and climb the step to the terrace. On a side, there is a small temple with some exquisite paitings and three silver Chhortens or Stupas. One can have a fantastic view of the entire Lamayuru gorge, village and the ever present mountains of Ladakh. I make enquiries regarding the Pooja ceremony that is supposed to be held this morning. No one knows for sure, but the general view is that it might be held between 12 AM and 1 PM. I look at my watch and realize that there is at least a gap of one hour for this Pooja to start. I go round the roof , rotating prayer wheels all the way. While I come down, I see an old villager with a prayer wheel. I take his photograph and give him some money for providing me with an interesting object for my photo. I find the old village of Laamyuru down hill on a side. I walk down and take snaps of few old and unused dilapidated buildings. Not knowing what to do next, I wander around the place. I find that there is a restaurant next door to the Monastery. I order some black Tea and relax in a chair. 


Villager with a prayer wheel


A Ladakhi baby

After an hour or so, I decide to make my second trip to the Monastery. This time, the place is full of villagers and few tourists like me. It appears that the main Pooja would be performed on the terrace. I climb up again and take a position of vantage. In the middle of the terrace, a table has been since arranged with Pooja utensils like bowls, water dispensers, and few consumables like oil and butter. On ground several objects made from wax have been laid out in sets of four. A band of musicians comes on the terrace from the side room. They are wearing very interesting looking red coloured head gear and long robes. The music starts playing. Now a row of priests with black hats adorned with skull like faces appears and stands at the edge of the terrace in front of the table. The music starts and the priests with black hats start reading from the old manuscripts. Four more priests with tall red headgear, stand on the four sides of the table, obviously praying to the four guardians kings of the four cardinal directions, Dhritarastra, Virupaksa, Virudhaka and Vaisravana. From what I observe, the essence of this ceremony is to offer various offerings in form of wax objects to the four Guardian kings of the cardinal directions such as Dhritarastra or Vaisravana, to ward off evil. When these wax objects are offered, they are thrown away in that direction.


Villagers and tourists crowd to watch Pooja


The musical troupe arrives for Pooja


The line of priests with black hats


The Pooja ceremony begins

The Pooja ends and I return to the hotel for a simple but tasty lunch served with some hot soup. In the evening, I decide to walk to the end of the narrow gorge just opposite the Monastery. The view from here is again exquisite and bewitching. In front of me, there is the narrow lush green valley of the village. Behind me there are tall mountains only surpassed by even taller ice-capped mountains. Strange and weird shaped rocks stand on the mountain slopes as if waiting for a call. 


Another view of Lamayuru Gorge


Waiting for roll call

As I am standing quietly, someone says ‘Hello’. I feel startled and look around. He is one of the local farmers and manages somehow to express himself in somewhat broken English. I start talking to him. He talks on many subjects. Life in the village, farming, weather. He asks me whether I have liked Ladakh? I ask him about the people of Baltistan, who live across the line of control, presently under occupation of Pakistan. He says, some people from there do come down here sometimes, but they are not well accepted here. After we finish our little chat, he ends it with a comment, that perhaps he is speaking too much, because today he had little more of his Chhang (an alcoholic drink) than usual. I laugh heartily and tell him that I enjoyed this little chat with him and return back to my hotel. I meet two German ladies, who have come for trekking in Ladakh. They have travelled widely in India as well as Asia. We talk about Cambodia and other places in Asia and also about their hometown in Germany. Satisfied with this social interaction, I decide to have my dinner. The dinner served in the dining room is sumptuous and very testy. The night is much colder now, but the bed is warm and there is electricity to charge my camera batteries. I decide to retire to my bed. 



I wake up rather early. The night has been unexpectedly cold here in Lamayuru. The month of July is considered the hottest month in Ladakh. Even then, the night was appreciably chilly. It must be getting really freezing here in later months, I wonder. Fortunately there is electrical power available at this time. I put on the electric water boiler and enjoy the luxury of a really hot water bath. After a rather sumptuous breakfast, I am ready for the return journey to Leh. I find that our driver and the car missing again. I get absolutely peeved now with this character. I telephone my travel agent in Leh and request him to help me. Within 15 minutes, the driver makes an appearance. Obviously, he has just woken up from his sleep. I would have to wait till he is ready. After ages, we are ready to leave. I try to discuss with the driver, plan for today. He is not very co-operative. Finally another person, who is a representative of my travel agent, appears on the scene. He has a lengthy discussion with the driver and finally the matter is settled. We would visit four places of interest on our way back to Leh. By now I am so irritated with this driver, that I decide to dump him later. I would have to take on, another driver from tomorrow. 

A village on the Indus

The return journey is quite uneventful and equally beautiful, till we reach town of Saspol on the Indus. Here we cross Indus, once again on a steel bridge built by army engineers and take a much smaller road to a village called Alchi.
The village of Alchi is located on the left bank of the Indus, about seven kilometers south of town of Saspol and is named as a model village. Compared to Lamayuru, this village has dwellings, shops and other places, which look modern and have rather neat and clean appearance. The village has a monastery which is known as Dhrma Wheel Monastery and was built in eleventh or twelfth century. Surprisingly, this monastery is not built up on a steep mountain slope, but is built on a stone outcrop downhill looking towards the Indus river bed. Our car stops in the town square. Besides other tourist vans and mini buses, I find some medium sized trucks being loaded and unloaded.
The way to monastery is through rows of antique shops, selling everything that tourists might be interested. There are wooden engravings and idols, brass, silver and copper embossed and engraved jewelery, bead necklaces, Tibetan antiques, pictures, banners and even Buddhist prayer wheels. The prices are ridiculously high. I just gaze around and walk through. An open water channel has been built on the side of the path, with continuous flow of fresh mountain water flowing downhill. Anyone, who needs fresh water, can just dip a plastic pipe at an appropriate point and take the delivery of the water down stream. Very interesting water supply scheme for the village.
Alchi Monastery was founded by the same Rinchen Zangpo, who also founded the Lamayuru monastery, after he arrived in Ladakh from Kashmir. It was built by artisans from Kashmir and has a strong influence of Indian and Kashmir architecture. This Monastery, which initially followed the Ka-dam-pa order of the Mahayan Buddhism, consists of series of small squarish temples one after another going into northerly direction towards the river from the village. The first temple is called ‘Soma Lekhang’ and is a very small temple with a Stupa. There is not much to see here.
I walk down on the stone paved steps to an old triple storied dwelling, which turnes out to be the Sumtsek temple. This temple has thousand year old carved wooden facade, consisting of pillars, carved brackets, and capitals, typical pre-Islamic architecture of Kashmir. There is no way to climb up to upper stories of the temple. In the center of the temple, there is a large stupa. Three sidewalls have recesses in which large statues of Maitreya, Avalokitesvara and Manjusri are displayed. Rest of the walls are painted with figures of deities. The upper floors have an opening at the center in such a way that the sun light filters through to ground level. 

Sumtsek temple; Alchi

A Bodhisatwa figure embeded in the carving on the 
wooden facade ; Sumtsek Temple

Capitals on the Wooden facade ; Sumtsek temple

Avalokitesvara Statue; Sumtsek Temple

I walk further down the stone steps. In the front, there is an open courtyard with small buildings on left and in front. The building ahead, is some sort of a kitchen with cooking going on. I am offered Tea by two Lamas. On the left, there are two temples of Lotsa and Manjushri. Both temple facades have carved front wooden panels with miniature Bodhisatwa figures embedded in intricate patterns. Inside the Manjushri temple, there are large plaster images of Bodhisatwa. Lotsa temple is dedicated to the founder of the monastery, Rinchen Zangpo and I see a gilded statue of Bodhisatwa Shakyamuni inside the temple. 

Carvings on the door frame of Manjushri temple

Carving on door frame; Lotsa temple

Du-khang or the assembly hall could be considered as the best part of Alchi monastery complex. This Du-khang has a courtyard and an elaborately carved doorway. The courtyard is covered and converted into a prayer room for the monks. I walk inside the main hall. The main deity here is Vairochana, whose statue can be seen in the central recess of the wall. Other deities such as Ratnasambhava and Amitabha are on the sides. The walls inside are painted with thousands of tiny figures of Buddhist deities and with huge circles or mandalas filled with tiny figures of deities and other symbolic figures. I find another mural of 1000 armed Avalokitesvara, near the door way. Its a pity that photography is not allowed inside this Du-khang. I manage to take just one or two snaps with the kind permission of the Lamas. I realize that keeping these beautiful wall paintings in my memory without aid of photographs is going to be a herculean task. They have some photographs for sale. Firstly the quality is poor and secondly, the photographs are meant for religious purposes. I walk back empty handed towards the town square. I find a nice restaurant on the way. They serve excellent fruit juices but I stick to my favourite, the black Tea.
We are back on the Kargil-Leh road. My watch shows that its 12-30 PM. I wonder about having lunch somewhere, but driver feels that we should instead turn left on a branch road and proceed to our next destination, the Likir Monastery, about five kilometers away. He adds further that even though this monastery is located in a remote gorge of Ladakh range of mountains besides an old caravan route to Leh, there is a reasonably good restaurant there. We take up his suggestion and take the branch road. The road is not in very healthy condition, thanks to the heavy floods of summer in 2010. The authorities have managed to repair the major roads so far, yet smaller roads still remain in bad condition. The Likir monastery occupies a secluded site on a steep hill. The land scape around is however simply breathtaking. With a tall range of snow capped mountain ranges just behind, the monastery is surrounded by lush green agricultural fields on all other sides. A 75 feet tall statue of Maitreya or the future Buddha, built in 1997, on a side of the monastery, adds to the majesty of the view. This monastery belongs to the Gelugs-pa order of the Mahayan Buddhism.


Grand view of the Likir Monastery

The car stops at the parking place. I get down, pick up my camera and start walking up the hill. The first attraction on the way is the 75 feet statue of Maitreya. The statue, painted in bright golden yellow colour, looks quite impressive. I climb few steps on the side and reach the Du-khang or the assembly hall. A Lama welcomes me. He tells me that I would have to hurry, as the Monastery would close for lunch between 1 Pm to 2 PM. I request him to keep it open little longer after 1 PM. Surprisingly he gives his consent. The exterior walls have bright paintings of the Guardian kings of the four cardinal directions. Inside the Du-khang, walls are decorated with banners or Thankas. A collection of manuscripts neatly arranged can be seen in a glass cabinet. There are statues of Bodhisatwa and Amitabha, but I find these covered with fine white cloth.

Maitreya or Future Buddha; Likir Monastery

The highlight of the Likir manastery is however the museum. This museum has an impressive display of ancient weaponry, musical instruments, ornaments, historical documents, Ladakhi costumes, coins and centuries old ‘Thankas’ or banners and hangings, most of which are at least 800 to 900 years old. Some of the old banners embroidered on silk fabric with gold thread are just priceless. Some of the silk hangings remind me of similar wall hangings found by the great explorer Sir Aurel Stein, from Dun-huang monastery in China and now displayed in the national Museum at New Delhi. 

A beautiful silk hanging; Likir Museum

Another Fabulous Silk Hanging; Likir Museum

A door frame hanging or a Torana: Likir Museum

A banner from Likir Museum

A banner with portraits of Gurus

Avalokitesvara banner; Likir Museum

Face masks; Likir Museum

After my visit to the Likir museum, I walk to the terrace in the front. The terrace has a fantastic panoramic view of the Likir gorge and the Zanskar mountain range far ahead in southerly direction. I take few snaps of the view and enjoy the cool breeze in the hot sun.

Panaromic View of the Zanskar Range from Likir Manastery terrace 

A flight of stairs, brings me down to a lower level of the monastery, where a new Du-khang is located. This room has a wooden Mandala of Vajra-Bhairava and impressive statues of 11 headed and 1000 armed Avlokitesvara and few other deities.

Wooden Mandala; New Du-khang; Likir Monastery

11 Headed Avalokitesvara

Siver Stupa; New Du-khang; Likir Manastery

Statue of Guru Padmasambhava; New Du-khang; Alchi Monastery

I look at my watch. It is already 1.30 PM. I remember that the kind Lama of Likir monastery, had forgone his lunch recess and kept the Du-khang open for me. I sincerely thank him and start walking down the hill. I try a Ladakhi gourmet dish for my lunch. Noodles with Thukpa soup. The dish, made from Noodles and a soup consisting of peas, dried cheese and leafy vegetables, turns out to be very testy. 

Maitreya statue snapped from Restaurant in Alchi

We are back now on Leh-Kargil Road. Afternoon is very warm. The sun light burns anyone here very easily. This is because of the rarefied atmosphere of the high altitudes, which can not block the ultra-violet radiation of the sun. I am lucky that I am wearing a full sleeve sweater, otherwise Sun block cream is a must.
Our planned next stop is the Basgo fort ruins. This fort, being the residence of Ladakhi kings,is historically a significant place. In 1683, Fifth Dalai Lama of Tibet, sent an army to Ladakh over a religious conflict. The then Ladakhi king, sought the help of Aurangzeb, the then Mughal ruler of Kashmir and India. In a battle that followed, Tibetan forces were defeated and a treaty was signed between Ladakh, Mughals and Tibet. 

Basgo fort Ruins

Unfortunately, my enthusiasm to visit the ruins is nipped in the bud. In 2010 floods, the road, which leads to the fort ruins, had been breached. This means that the car would not be able to go up. I would have to climb up a significant distance. This is just not possible today, because we are already running behind schedule. I realize that if we had started early from Lamayuru, as per our schedule, we had time for this sight seeing. Because of the late start, I would have to just miss this sight. My resolve to dump this driver, who was the main reason of this delay and who must have been in the knowledge of this situation, is strengthened further.
We are back on Kargil-Leh road. Our next stop is Gurudwara Pathar Sahib. This place, situated about 25 miles from Leh, is a shrine created from a huge stone boulder and a legend by the Indian Army. The stone has a peculiar depression, which looks like the profile of Sikh Guru Nanak as shown in his pictures. There is a legend that a demon tried to kill Guru Nanak of the Sikhs, by rolling down this boulder on him when he was mediating here, while visiting Ladakh and Tibet. The boulder turned into wax and Guru Nanak’s impression was etched permanently on the stone. A Gurudwara was built by Buddhist Lamas here in 1517. The small Gurudwara, has now been converted into a big shrine by the Indian Army, since it took over maintenance of this place in 1948. 

Pathar Sahib

The Gurudwara is just on the curb of the Kargil-Leh road. I get down from the car and get inside a shamiyana ( a large tent). I remove my shoes, wash my hands and feet and visit the Pathar Sahib. One has to sit with his legs folded together and then keep his forehead on the ground to pay respects. After the visit, I sit down on the carpet and talk to number of Army men, who have come here to pay respects. I receive a small quantity of Sweetened rice flakes and cool water to drink. As I talk with these Army Soldiers, I realize the power of faith over we human beings. This place is so revered and honoured by our soldiers, that each and every man, who is posted in Ladakh, comes here, before joining his duty, to pay respect and after successful completion of his tenure, never forgets to visit the shrine again before heading home. The army men firmly believe that Pathar sahib would see them through this toughest assignment of their army career. Indian Army, realizing that every soldier, who is posted here, has that little bit of fear and uncertainty in his mind, has cultivated and nourished this object of faith, which helps in giving the soldiers, supreme confidence needed, before they join their duty in Ladakh. On the other side of the Kargil-Leh road just opposite Pathar Saheb, a medium sized hill with rocks and stones strewn all over, is named as Nanak hill. A path of stairs has been built to the top. I just look at it, imagine in my mind the height and give up all thoughts of climbing it. 

Nanak Hill

As we near Leh town, I look at my watch again it is almost 4.30 PM . We still have one more place to visit. I ask our driver. He tells me in a a nonchalant tone that ‘The hall of fame’, the place which we are supposed to visit, closes down at 5 PM. Its is a big museum and needs time to visit. I am so mad at the driver that I have no words to say. This idiotic fellow, has seen to it that we would miss two interesting sights so that he can reach Leh before evening and can go home early. The car drops me at the hotel. I telephone the travel agent and tell him about what has happened. He tries to pacify me and says that he would visit me late in the evening to sort out the matter.
After my trip in the rural districts, town comforts of Leh are very soothing to mind and body. I have some nice and hot Tea, relax, take a bath and decide to go to Leh market, which is not very far off.
Leh is a big town, fairly wide spread. In a typical Indian Bazaar style, all the shops that are of interest to tourists, are located in an area known as old market, a complex of few odd lanes and couple of main roads. There are shops which sell clothes, curios, food, books, bags and almost anything that a tourist may require. I am told that State Bank of India has a n ATM machine there. I locate it but find a long queue in front of it and decide to defer it’s use to a later date.
As I move around this ancient market, I remember something that I had read in a book sometime back. Leh was an important trading town at least for last two to three thousand years as a direct trading route linking it to Yarkand and subsequently with Kashgar, in China, the places which have always been on the Silk route. Trade caravans had been traveling on this route for at least last 3000 years. The goods that were commonly traded on this route, included items like wool, silk and silk cloth, Russian leather, Spices, salt, Gems, Gold dust, felt and Tea. 

According to figures available for the year 1846, about 300 mounds (6000 Kg) dried fruits were exported, 2400 mounds of Lena shawl wool and 5000 mounds of sheep wool was imported in Leh market. This gives a good idea about the volumes and quantities of goods that passed Leh through this trade route. ”
I feel nice to move around the same historic market, where for three thousand years, trade boomed between India and the central Asia. This trade has now come to a complete halt since last 60 years, because Chinese have sealed the border pass. I can only hope that Chinese would see the trade potential here and lift the trading ban. Leh has the potential to become a big ‘in land’ trading port of India."

It is almost 7 PM , when I return to the hotel. My Travel Agent is waiting for me. He tells me that he is sorry about the driver and I would be getting a new driver from tomorrow. About Hall of Fame, he promises that he would accommodate a visit in our program, on a suitable later day.
Satisfied with the arrangement, I am feeling quite happy. I have an early dinner and hit my bed. Tomorrow we leave for Nubra valley. 



Our school geography tells us that Himalayan Mountain ranges form a natural and formidable barrier between Indian subcontinent and central Asia. This is very true, for central and eastern parts of the Indian peninsula. In the North-West India however, where Ladakh is located, things are bit different. We certainly have the Himalayan barrier here, extending all the way from central India to Afghanistan in the West. But in addition to this, There are three equally formidable mountain ranges one after another, spreading parallel to each other in North-West direction.
If we decide to travel to north of Himalayan ranges, we have first the Pir-Panjal or Trans Himalayan range, followed by the Zanskar range. Ladakh range follows the Zanskar range. Finally, before we can reach Central Asia, we still need to cross, an equally formidable Karakoram range.
Between these mountain ranges of the north, major river systems drain out from the glaciers and flow generally to the west , all finally meeting the Sindhu or Indus river. Thus, between Pir-Panjal and Zanskar mountain ranges, we have Zanskar river in the Zanskar valley; between Zanskar and Ladakh ranges we have the Sindhu or Indus flowing in the Indus valley and also the city of Leh; finally betwwen Ladakh and Karakoram ranges, we have the Shoyok-Nubra river system flowing in Shoyok and Nubra valleys.
I am ranting and chanting all this school geography, for one simple reason. I am leaving for Nubra valley today and it is always better to know where you are actually heading. I just had a very refreshing breakfast in my hotel in Leh. My new driver with his Innova station wagon, has just arrived. He is a complete contrast to the earlier bloke, who made my first two days in Ladakh, quite uncomfortable. This new guy, Tundup, has a wiry physique, yet I find him quite enthusiastic about his job. He appears fairly knowledgeable too. In short, I am happy to leave on this new journey.


The road to Khardung La
The car exits Leh town in the Northerly direction and almost immediately starts climbing a steep slope. As I mentioned above, our first obstacle is to cross the formidable Ladakh mountain range. Most of the mountain peaks in this range are in the 19000 to 20000 feet range and we have to have a motorable pass to cross over. There are only three passes in the Ladakh range, out of which Wari La does not have a motorable road. A pass with a motorable road, near the village of Digar and known as Digar La, has a lower height of 17720 feet, but we need to take a much longer detour to travel by this one. The nearest motorable pass to Leh, is Khardung La or Khardung pass. This pass is at 18380 feet and is considered to be highest motorable pass in the world.


India Gate
As the car climbs up on this steep road, the beautiful oasis of greenery around Leh town, suddenly disappears. What I see around me now, is a vast sea of reddish yellow sand, spread across continuous zigzags of slopes and climbs at impossible angles. The mountain slopes, polished by ages of winter snows, sliding down the hill, look so weird sometimes, that it is hard to believe that I am driving on a road. In this vast wilderness, the metalled road, which I see in front of my car, is the only thing that re assures me that I am still in a civilized world. The car makes a complete U bend; far away, near the horizon, I see the greenery of Leh only for an instant and I realize the distance we have already covered. Khardung pass is about 35 kilometers from Leh.
I see a small group of tin shades ahead with number of Vehicles parked. Our car slows down and we stop. This place is called ‘South Pallu’ and is in reality an Army checkpost. Each and every vehicle that passes Khardung pass is checked here. Our driver Tundup gets down and hands over our ‘Inner Line permits’ to the officer at the check post. Any one who wants to go to Khardung or such places near the international borders, must have these permits. They are issued without any hassles by the authorities in Leh, on production of any type of Photo Identity card such as a driving license or a voter identity card. My travel agent had arranged these permits for me.


Snow Fall in Khardung La

Approaching Khardung La
After some delay, we are off again. Tundup points out to a tower, which I can see up above on the horizon. That is the Khardung pass. Then suddenly, he gives a news, which would be absolutely thrilling to any Indian. He says that “ It is snowing in Khardung la”. For majority of Indians, snowfall is something that is seen only in pictures and Holywood flicks. Sometimes, relatives settled down abroad, mention about it. But to experience it yourself and that too at the peak of summer, in India itself, is an unbelievable and the rarest experience for an Indian. The road surface below our car, is continuously degrading as we climb up. We take a turn. On the road side, I see a shade with JCB excavators and bulldozers all ready for any eventuality. Further ahead I see a mountain ridge completely dug up right up to the road level. Two remaining parts of the ridge on either side of the road look like ancient support pillars of a gate. Aptly, this gate is named as India Gate. The road is no longer dry. Streams of water from melting snow flow across the road. A road sign tells us that the road further, is unpaved. The traffic slows down now to a crawl. On one side of the road, I see big chunks of ice covering the surfaces. Then we take a turn and suddenly everything turns foggy. We are amongst a snowfall. Bits and pieces of snow flakes, hit the windscreen and stay there. Suddenly ahead, I see a break in the mountain. We have reached the top of the pass. Khardung la is crowded with vehicles and people even in such weather. There is a cafeteria here which claims to be the highest in the world and sales hot tea and snacks, The business appears brisk. I enjoy a hot cup of Tea and then try to do some snow walking. The snow, fallen freshly, crushes under my feet, making a crunching sound. There is a shop here, selling souvenirs and Tee shirts. I defer the visit to the shop, to my return journey.


Khardung La Cafeteria 

Way down from Khardung La

North Pallu
The journey downhill to North Pallu or North check-post is uneventful, except for a road block caused by some road construction work. We come down again to the valley level. Tundup points out to a nice picnic spot, where people who have brought packed lunch, usually have it. We carry on and stop in Khardung village. There are couple of eating places here. I order Roti and vegetables with a coke. The waitress recommends ‘Momos’ , another Ladakhi delicacy. Momo or Muk-Muk are bean shaped dumplings, filled with lamb mutton or vegetables and cooked with steam. I enjoy this Ladakhi touch to my lunch. While I am eating my lunch, a lady sitted on the next table inquires about my ordering of Momos.I chat with her for few minutes. This lady, Ms. Chhaya Bhattacharya-Haesner is originally from Kolkata but now lives in Germany. She has been awarded Tagore National Fellowship by New Delhi’s National Museum to study Arts of Ladakh. I tell her about my articles on Saatvahana Kings of Maharastra. She is interested because she has worked on this subject previously.

After Lunch, we are off again. The scenario around me reverts back to that desert wilderness again. The mountains are less tall here but the gorges and ravines are so deep that I would be scared to look down into one of these. I realize that slowly we are reaching the foot-hills of the Ladakh range mountains. I can even see some small wild bushes around now with blue flowers. The car takes a turn and behind a huge ravine, formed by two inter spacing mountains, I suddenly have a glimpse of a very tall mountain peak, completely covered with ice. I know that it has to be a Karakoram range mountain peak. I refer to my maps and notes, but fail completely to recognize the name as it disappears again behind mountain ranges nearer to me. The car takes a U turn. Now unfolding before my eyes, is a vast river basin barricaded by a mountain range. The river basin appears very flat, rocky and filled with white sand in places. The river proper looks like a thick dark line drawn in zigzag haphazard fashion in the vast flat basin.


Ladakh mountain range foothills

Khalsar Village
Tundup informs me that this is the Lower Shyok river. There are green oases patches in the sandy, rocky basin. As we come down to lower and lower heights, the green oases turn into small villages with tin shades.
We are now almost at the river bed level. The river sometimes flows just next to us only to move again to other end of the basin. Another military town is seen ahead; the town of Khalsar. Tundup stops the car on the curb. I get down to enjoy the view. Ahead of me, on the other side of the basin, stand those tall mountain ranges, which I wanted to see since last 49 years. I had heard about the Karakoram mountains for the first time in the year 1962. On 22 nd October of that year, scanty news items had appeared in the News papers, saying that Chinese had attacked Indian border posts near Doulat Beg Oldi in the Karakorams. These Indian border posts in the vicinity of a mountain pass called Karakoram pass, have always been the border points between India and the Chinese Turkmenistan. I had then tried to find out whatever information I could gather about the Karakorams and also the Karakoram pass. I used to have a Readers Digest atlas of the world. I had studied the map then many times those days and had tried to imagine the terrain. Few years later, while standing on tarmac of the airport at Bangalore, I had seen a strange propeller aircraft with a jet engine mounted on the top of the body. The aircraft was a ‘Fairchild Packet’ for sure. A friend working with Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. had then told me that these Packets were fitted with an extra jet engine, so that they can land at the airstrip of Doulat Beg Oldi. In the Karakorams. Ever since that day, I had this wish in my mind to visit the Karakorams some day in my life. In 1965, I had an opportunity to spend few months in Kashmir Valley. I had then tried my level best, to travel to Leh. It was of no avail, as no civilians were allowed to travel to Ladakh those days. Ladakh was opened for tourists only in 1974. Now standing here on the banks of Shyok river, near Khalsar, I had a sense of fulfillment and I could cherish the mountains I always wished to see.
Ahead of Khalsar, Shyok river meets Nubra river. This river drains out of the famous Siachin glacier and flows in the Nubra valley. The road on which we are driving is on the left bank of the Shyok river and goes straight to Hunder. My plan is to cross this river and go up in the Nubra valley. We are now branching off from Hunder road to left near a place called Tirith. A well guarded steel suspension bridge, is the only way to cross Shyok river here and go to the left bank of Nubra river. Our car stops near the bridge. Our Inner Line permits are checked again and we are allowed to go ahead. This part of Nubra valley is strikingly beautiful. Green patches of fields and little villages are everywhere. The road is also in good condition but narrow. We keep slowing down with every oncoming vehicle, most of which are military trucks. The first village we cross is Sumur, full of gardens, apricot orchards and little houses. After Sumur the road climbs up a little as river bed shifts to our direction. We are now very near the river bed and I can clearly see the brackish muddy waters of Nubra river directly coming from melting ice of Siachin glacier. On the other bank of the river, another village appears clad in green foliage. Tundup tells me that the name of that village is Murgi (Means a chicken in Hindi) and laughs. The wild shrubs all along this road are in full bloom. I can see blue, pink and purple blossoms everywhere. The wild flowers have their own beauty without any doubt.


Wild flowers of Nubra valley

Beautiful Panamik village
I see another green oasis ahead. Green field with patches of Mustard flowers, Poplars, Willows and Apricot Orchards. Tundup says that this is Panamik village, our destination. The car leaves the main road , which goes further to Sasoma(About 15 Km.) and then further to Siachin base camp. Both these places are important landmarks for totally different reasons. Our car starts climbing on a hill track in opposite direction. About three four hundred feet up, there is a parking ground that can accommodate only a few cars. We stop there. After climbing few steps, I arrive at the famous Hot Springs of Panamik, a natural geothermal source of hot water.


Panoramic view of the southern end of Saltoro ridge from Panamik village
I had never hoped, when I planned initially my Ladakh trip, that I would be able to come here in Panamik. The Nubra valley proper, which branches off from the bridge on Shyok river at Tirith, was strictly a ‘No entry’ area for civilians. It has been opened only recently for tourists. Most of the people who come, are here to see the Hot Springs. For me, the place is also of tremendous historical significance.
Panamik was the last stop for getting food and provisions for traders and porters of Trade caravans going from Leh to Yarkand and Kashgar in Chinese Turkmenistan (Today’s Xinjiang) besides fodder for their pack animals and also naturally was the first civil stop for caravans coming in from the ultimate wilderness of the Karakorams. The summer caravan route known as Tabistan, was along the Nubra river from here up to Sasoma and then turned left in the river valley. The caravans climbed up the mountain range, on which I am standing now, at Sasoma ( 15 Km. From Panamik) along the gorge of a river to climb and negotiated the most treacherous Saser Pass.

Hundreds of devout Muslims from Chinese Turkmenistan used this route for their Haj pilgrimage. To cut down their hardships, the Sultan of Yarkand, sent in Nineteenth century, Ali Hussain, a brilliant engineer from central Asia, to build a track near Sasoma. All the pilgrims coming down the mountains, rested and recuperated from their arduous journey, at Panamik Hot springs.
In summer of 1889, a young British Army officer, Francis Younghusband was sent by the then Foreign secretary of India, Mortimer Durand, to investigate cases of looting of valuable merchandise from Caravans. He describes meeting Russian and Afghani caravans here in Panamik in his book , ‘Wonders of Himalayas’ . The greatest explorer of the Silk route, Sir Aurel Stein, traversed through Panamik, when he was suffering from Frost Bite in 1908. He describes in his book, ‘Ruins of desert cathay’ Vol II, as to how his life was saved by a quick journey from Chinese Turkmenistan to India through Karakoram pass. He was saved because of the timely medical help received by him at Panamik from Rev. S.Schmitt, who had specially travelled from Leh to Panamik to treat him urgently.In 1937 legendary mountaineer Eric Shipton surveyd these areas. In his book Shipton mentions Panamik as a fertile valley.


From these Hot springs in Paanamik, the view is just out of this world. The mountain slope, where I am standing is actually one of the main arms of the Karakorams and is known as Saser Muztagh range. This range extends straight up to Chinese border. In fact a major Karakoram peak, Saser Kangri II (25170 feet) is located about 25 Km. East of my position. I look around. Because I am standing only at ten thousand feet, it is impossible for me to see any of the big peaks. I can however see many snow clad peaks in the front. The mountain ridge in front of me, is the southern end of the famous Saltoro range. This range actually joins the Saser Muztagh range( the mountain range on which I am standing) at the start of the Siachin Glacier at Indira Col, forming an acute angled valley through which Nubra river drains the Glacier. It was Francis Younghusband again, who, in an earlier expedition, had surveyed and realized that the glacier basin starting from this northernmost point, was a true watershed dividing Indian subcontinent from central Asia. He called this as a true border point between India and China.
Northern reaches of the Saltoro ridge, happen to be the most crucial and important mountain range from India’s strategic and defense point of view. It provides an effective dagger like separation, between India’s two hostile neighbours, Pakistan and China. In a preemptive move, India occupied the northern reaches of Saltoro ridge in 1984, in an operation named as ‘Meghdoot’. Entire Siachin operations of the Indian Army are essentially to defend this Saltoro ridge and the passes. This ridge and the mountain passes are called the highest battlefields in the world and have seen heavy military action in the decade of 1980-90. Holding Saltoro ridge is also of paramount importance if India hopes to resume trade any time in future with Central Asia through Karakoram pass.
I stand spellbound by the panoramic view from the hot springs in Panamik for a long time. I am awakened from my trance like stature, by a Ladakhi girl, selling Tea from under a blue tent. I ask her to give me a cup. The Tea is nice and hot. While drinking Tea, I realize that it is uncomfortable to stand in the Sun, as the sunlight is very bright and burning. I move to the tent, which is shady and cool. The hot water from the spring, comes out of the ground at a slightly higher elevation above us. Water channels have been built to bring the water down to the bathing area. I check the water at a channel. It is moderately hot. What is interesting is that the entire bottom surface of the channel is coated with a bright yellow sediment. I try to pick up a small piece of the sediment. It is actually an Algae layer, coated with a thin layer of sulphur smelling sediments, that are imparting the yellow colour to it. The same Ladakhi girl asks me whether I would like to take a bath in the hot springs? On spur of the moment, I decide to take a bath. Bath Towels are available from the same Ladakhi girl, selling Tea. Bath rooms built by the Government are nice, clean and specious. There is even a shower. It feels kind of funny to take bath with water with a sulfuric smell. For last three thousand or more years, people from central Asia and beyond, travelling on this route, have been enjoying a natural hot bath at Panamik. I have joined them.


Sulphur Sediments in the hotspring water channel
We start on our return journey. After crossing the suspension bridge at Tirith, we turn right and start crossing the Shyok river basin. The entire area is filled with well rounded whitish coloured stones and patches of marshy land. The road is flat and straight. Tundup enjoys the road by speeding up. After reaching the other side of the basin, the road climbs up to a higher elevation. On a U bend, I view again, for a fleeting second, the snow clad Karakoram peak, in the gap between two mountains, that I had seen in the morning. I still have no clue to its identity.


Beautiful Shyok Valley
A Karakoram Peak
We pass Diskit town. Now we have regular white desert sand on one side of the road complete with dunes. At a distance, I see some camels also. With wind blowing towards us, the sand blows on the road, making it look milky white. Within one day, I have seen snow fall and also desert sand blowing in the wind. It is just kind of weird.
Finally we reach our destination for the day, Hunder village. After the snow fall of morning and dust storm of the evening, Hunder is a complete anticlimax. It is a lush green village with thick foliage, small brooks and springs flowing from every nook and corner, apricot orchards, mustard fields, cows, goats. Lovely wild flowers blooming from shrubs on hedges.
The Car stops at Snow Leopard Guest House. A lovely place with blooming flowers everywhere. I am slightly disappointed, because I am allotted an old room. The room is cozy, comfortable and with reasonably good toilette. I sort of cover my disappointment and walk out for a stroll.


Wild Flowers of Hunder
The hotel is a family affair. The dinner, cooked by the wife of the owner, is quite nice. Instead of Roti, we are served some kind of wheat-barley bread, which turns out to be quite tasty. While I am having my dinner, a troupe of about 15 bikers led by a woman enters the dining hall. Now I know the reason for my getting an old room. These guys have been staying in the hotel for last couple of days. No wonder, I have to manage with this tiny room. They order beer and talk about motor bikes. After my dinner is over, I have a chat with the leader. They have been travelling all over North India on their motor bikes. Royal Enfield is the best bike for India, she tells me.
I hit the bed and just go to sleep. 



The time is Six o’clock in the morning. I am  wide awake already, as bright sunlight filters through the curtains. I get up and slide one of the curtains. I see a typical village scene outside, seen anywhere in India; fields, mud tracks, cows and goats being taken for grazing. Yet it looks incredibly beautiful. I can also see hotel’s beautiful garden with many variety’s of roses. The night has not been very chilly. I get up and first thing that I do is check up my camera batteries. These are charged fully, which means that there was power available throughout the night. I switch on the boilar and have a nice hot bath.
After I am ready, I decide to go out for a walk. Ever since Pune (my home town) became a busy metropolis, I have missed the lovely walks, I used to have in the vicinity of my house. After so many years I am having a leisurely walk today on this road without  any traffic, horns and buzzing vehicles. The road is wooded on both sides. There is a small culvert built on a picturesque spring of water. I take a pause. Through a gap in the foliage, I see ahead a very tall mountain. On top of this mountain, I see a white Gompa or monastery, which I think is the Hundar Monastery. Immediately behind the white Gompa, there is a majestic snow clad peak, glistening in the golden rays of early morning sun. I stand still and watch the grand spectacle arranged by mother nature for me. 

A natural spring in Hundar
Hundar Monastery

A Gompa in Hundar
I return to the hotel for breakfast, which consists of egg omelets, crisp bread and apricot jam. I again meet the troupe leader of the gang of bikers. They are off today to Leh, but would be passing through the Digar pass, which is lower in height but takes longer distance. I finish my breakfast and we too leave for Leh. Our first stop on the way is silver sands of Hundar, just outside the village.

Shyok river valley 
Two humped Bactrian camels of Hundar
We are back again in the desert land of the Shyok valley. It is really a huge stretch of land. On the east side, tall mountains of the Saltoro ridge, stand majestically with many snow clad peaks. On the west, yellowish red sandy mountains of the Ladakh range stand. In between these two, the flats stretch up to a line of green foliage at the base of the mountains. White sand dunes formed by the severe wind, which blows here most of the time, appear like ripples on a sea of milky white colour. Tundup points out to a big heard of camels relaxing in the morning sun. They are all sitting with their hind legs folded like a baby. I am not very keen about riding camels anyway. Some other tourists seem to enjoy the ride. This camel is known as Bactrian camel and is usually found in northern regions of Afghanistan, which were known as Bactria. No one knows for sure as to how they migrated to Ladakh. There is a theory that Kushan king Kanishka’s army brought them here from Gandhar region of present day Pakistan.

Panoramic views of the Saltoro ridge from Hundar side
We leave the camels behind and start towards Deskit village. We cross the village and the car takes a turn and starts climbing, after a while, we reach a parking place and stop there. I look up, straight ahead, at least five hundred feet up, is the Deskit Monastery. Climbing up to this monastery is really an arduous task. Not only the climb is very steep, but the steps cut in the pathway are also rather tough, some of these easily one and half feet high. In the rarefied atmosphere of Ladakh, one starts panting and gets out of breath even after few steps. I manage to reach the top after numerous stops on the way. While I am waiting to catch my breath at one such stop, a young girl sees me and inquires about the climb that is still left. I assure her that only little distance is now left and she is doing rather well. She laughs and returns my complement saying “ I don’t think I can do it at your age.”
This monastery was founded by Sherab Zangpo in the year 1420. There are two wings on the top, separated by a veranda. The veranda wall has paintings of Guardian kings of cardinal directions. A Lama informs me that the paintings have been made entirely by paints made by crushing various coloured stones. The room on the right hand side is the old Du-khang. The main deity here is Gonkar, one of the wrathful and fierce deities. The deity is shown here with the chopped hand of a Mongol invader. There are few extremely precious paintings here of Tibetan monasteries. The wing on the left, houses a newly built large Du-khang, with a large image of seated Maitreya behind a glass case. On both sides, old manuscripts are arranged in glass cabinets. A Lama welcomes me here. I start talking to him and ask him few questions about Buddhism, Mahayana and Hinayana sects. He is a well informed and knowledgeable person and is able to clearly answer all my questions. I ask him about number of climbs he does everyday to the top of the Monastery. He admits that he does it only once a day as it is a rather steep climb. I come out of the hall and stand on the terrace.

Paintings of guardian kings done in mineral  colours
Covered deity of Deskit Monastery

Wall hanging with picture of Buddha

Wall hanging showing a Tibetan Monastery
Image of Maitreya
Lamas of Deskit Monastery
A breathtaking view of the Shyok and Nubra valleys is unfolding before my eyes. This view from here is perhaps the best and unmatched for grandeur, compared to anywhere else, I have seen in the world . Nearer to me is a huge statue of Maitreya built on a separate hillock. The Shyok and Nubra valleys stretch from this statue right up to the towering Karakoram range seen far away. The supreme wilderness of the landscape is so overwhelming that I can greet it only with complete silence. There are huge and tall mountains to my left, right and center. The whole scene looks like a grand amphitheater, where a play or a scene of a grand court of mountains is being staged and each and every actor mountain has just taken his stipulated place on the stage.

Shyok- Nubra valleys
Grand stand view from terrace of Deskit Manastery
Monastery at Deskit village
Statue of Maitreya
With extreme reluctance, I start walking down the steep steps. On left, I see a shop run by the monastery selling little souvenirs like trinkets, key chains etc. I buy a few and walk down to the car. While on way back , I see again that elusive Karakoram peak. This time however, from our relative location and elevation, I guess that it must be the Arganglas Kangri peak(22273 ft). We stop at Khalsar for Lunch. I again order my favourite Thukpa soup and noodles.

Wild flowers of Nubra valley

Wild shrubs with blue flowers near Khalsar 
I have been asking our driver Tundup since we came to Shyok valley, to stop the car near one of the shrubs, which grow abundantly in this area. Finally, on the outskirts of Khalsar village, I get an opportunity to photograph some of these shrubs with beautiful blue flowers. Tundup tells me that it is called Burtse. I have read somewhere that this shrub burns even in icy conditions and is used as fuel. Since I have no way to confirm whether the shrubs with blue flowers are really the Burtse shrubs, I just take Tundup’s word for that.
After lunch We leave for Khardung La again. I am feeling slightly disappointed though. I was quite confident, when we started for Nubra valley that I would be able to see at least some of the big daddy peaks of the south Karakorams during this trip. However except for few occasional views of Arganglas Kangri peak, all other Karakoram peaks have completely eluded me. I have seen scores of mountains and snow capped mountain peaks for last two days, yet the real big ones have remained totally hidden from my sight. With a feeling of slight dejection, I feel resigned to this situation, as we again start climbing the road towards Khardung La. 

Big Daddy peaks of the South Karakorams; seen from Khardung La
South end view from Khardung La 
Playing Cricket in Khardung La 
As I reach the top of Khardung La, another surprise awaits me. No one can really beat mother nature in Ladakh. Yesterday when I was here in Khardung La, it was snowing with chilly and icy winds with almost zero visibility. Same Khardung La looks so different today with bright sun shine and no trace of any snow or moisture. Couple of young boys are even playing a game of cricket for fun. I get down and walk towards northern end of the pass. To my greatest surprise, all the big daddys of Karakoram peaks, which have eluded me so far, are on full display today, glistening in bright sun light far away. I immediately recognize, Saser Kangri peaks I (25170 ft) , II(24650 ft) and III (24590 ft). A smaller peak perhaps is Chhushku or Chamshen Kangri and the one to extreme right is Arganglas Kangri without any doubt in my mind. I am extremely happy and feel contented that mother nature has finally granted my wish and I can see these grand peaks, which only few mountaineers can normally see. With a light and happy heart, I enter a cafeteria run by the Army, which serves free cup of Tea. I purchase few souvenirs and Tee shirts for every one at home and say good bye to Khardung La.
I reach Leh around 5 PM and remember that I have one unfinished business for today. Ever since I came here, I wanted to withdraw some cash from the State Bank ATM, yet I have found no time for this. I therefore rush to the market where State bank of India has 2 ATM machines. I am surprised to see a long queue before both machines even on a Sunday. I join one of the queues. I find that there are actually two queues. One for ladies and foreigners and one for others. Most of the people in queue have 3 or 4 debit or credit cards in their hands and are proxying for their friends too. I know that I am in a long haul and any shopping today would be out of question. After standing in queue for almost two hours,I enter the ATM booth. Normally only one person is allowed inside an ATM booth in most of the places. In Leh, any number of persons can get inside. There is no one to restrict the entry. When my turn comes, the machine suddenly displays a sign that it is temporarily out of order. My heart sinks, but there is nothing I can do. I walk back to the hotel postponing all purchases to the last day. My strong advice to anyone contemplating a visit to Leh, is to carry cash with you. Nothing else is accepted or works.
Tired by this ATM experience, I eat early dinner and decide to retire early. Tomorrow we leave for Pangong lake. 


I am leaving today, on the last of my journeys in Ladakh, to Pangong lake. Tundup and his Innova car are ready at the gate of the hotel . As soon as I reach there, Tundup welcomes me with his usual infectious smile. I remind him that we still have to complete that unfinished task from our Lamayuru trip; visit to the Hall of Fame, Museum. Tundup agrees immediately and says that we should visit it the first thing in the morning. The car stops near the museum. I get down and walk towards the main entrance. The museum building has been built like a Gompa with an arched gate. The building with its background of Zanskar range mountains, looks very impressive. Two mountain howitzers placed on either side of the gate, complete the picture. I go in and buy an entry ticket. I feel relieved as cameras are allowed in the museum with a small fee. As I enter the central hall of the museum, a huge three dimensional map of Ladakh welcomes me. All the geographical features and the areas and locations where major battles were fought by the Indian Army and Air Force are marked clearly. I find the map very informative. The first hall on the left has displays about Ladakh, its flora ,fauna and the people. The next room displays the attire our soldiers wear above snow line and other places, the packed food that has been developed specially for use at these high altitude places. All other halls in the museum are dedicated to various battles fought the Army and the Air Force since 1948 right up to 1999. display panels and three dimensional models for historic battles like that of Gurung hill in 1962, Tiger Hill, Tololing and PT 4875 (1999) , Turtuk operation (1971) and that of Saltoro range for Siachin Glacier(1984) are all well documented. A panel displays the last letter written by Capt. Vijayant Thapar (22) to his father, before he created history in the Kargil war. The letter expresses his feelings and show how charged he was with his love for the country. After reading that letter, my eyes almost become watery. A hall on the first floor displays captured Pakistani arms, pay books and and other papers carried by Pakistani soldiers in 1999 Kargil war.

Pakistani Arms captured at kargil


Papers of dead Pakistani soldiers found in Kargil
I am so much charged with emotion that I start feeling suffocated. I walk out of the rear door, which leads me to an open air memorial to the Martyrs, who set out to serve the nation’s cause and did not return. I stand before the memorial with my head bowed down for few moments. On three sides of the memorial, Black granite walls have been engraved with gold letters, depicting names of of all the Martyrs since 1947. I easily find a name, I am looking for, Major Shaitan Singh (PVC) , the greatest hero of that legendary epic battle of Rezang La near Chushul village in 1962. One of the famous Bollywood films, Haqigat was based on this epic battle. I walk out of the museum, with watery eyes and heavy heart, yet feeling extremely proud of the soldiers of my country. It is no wonder that this museum is a must for every domestic visitor to Ladakh.

Memorial for martyrs; Hall of fame Museum in Leh


Hall of Fame Museum in Leh; Ladakh

For going to Pangong lake, one has to take the Leh-Manali highway up to the town of Karu. This highway built on one bank of the Indus river, is perhaps the most populated part of Ladakh. This region appears to be quite habitated with many villages on the way. At Karu, the Manali highway continues along with Indus river and our car turns left towards Chang La, the second highest motorable pass in the world. The landscape again changes to the sandy radish yellow mountain land. It is natural because we are now trying to cross the same Ladakh mountain ranges, though much to the east of Khardung La . The road is much better here and BRO (Border Roads Organization)is very busy here. I see many patches of road recently asphalted. Our car keeps on stopping on the way as new asphalt laying work is in progress in many places. We come to a road junction where a smaller road leads to village of Sakti.


Sakti Village

The main road now turns right and starts to climb the hills. As we gain some height, I can see on left, beautiful greenery of Sakti village, with it’s lustrous yellow mustard fields. The road continues to climb higher and higher. After an hour’s drive, the road becomes unpaved and bad indicating that the hill top or the pass is nearing. I see many shrubs on the grond with beautiful blue flowers. These look quite different from what I had seen in Nubra valley and are so beautiful that these could easily be planted in an garden. The car crawls and jerks even more as we reach an open space. We have arrived at Chang La.(17600 feet). I get down from the car and look around. On the west side, from where we have climbed up, I can see a huge mountain slope covered with snow. However in Chang la proper, there is no snow at all. Towards east, nothing can be seen because a tall mountain standing right in the middle, completely blocks the vision of any visitor. I was hoping to see bits of Nubra river, Chang Chenmo river valley and just a bit of Aksai Chin far ahead. But absolutely no chance as this mountain is like a dark curtain blocking out all views. Slightly disappointed, I turn to a small restaurant, set up in the pass itself. Since I am feeling hungry, I inquire about lunch. Only Maggy Noodles are available and it would take 15 to 20 minutes to cook because of the height. I order the same and sit on a bench.


Road to Chang La


Wild flowers of Chang La


Chang La 


The Shrine of Chang La Baba

After lunch, I take a stroll around. There is free medical help available, courtesy Indian Army. Army also has built a shrine here called ‘Chang La Baba’ where every soldier, goes and worships while on way. In the pass itself there is no snow, but in adjoining areas there are white patches of recently fallen snow everywhere. The soil is slightly more rocky here and of dark brown colour.
I get into the car and we start our downhill journey. A sign proclaims that we are in the Changthang region of Ladakh. Changthang plateau extends deep inside the Tibetan territories and includes region of Aksai Chin, which has been grabbed illegally by China since 1960. Since this is a sensitive border region, Army is in complete control. The border posts are however manned by ITBP or Indo-Tibet Border police.

Cafe at Chang la 

At Chang La 
Our car slowly climb downs to a small village known as Darbuk. This village is not very far from the place where Shyok river takes a complete U turn and starts flowing to the North. However huge mountain ranges block my view. The car turns right; a road sign tells me that we are proceeding to Tangtse village. This village is some kind of important military establishment and all vehicles are checked here. The car stops here and Tundup gets down to show our ‘Inner Line permits’ to the authorities. Further up on the road, we need to purchase entry passes for Pangong lake. From here another road branches of to Chushul village. The name Chushul brings in my mind, strong memories of 1962. Particularly the battle of Rezang La and Maj. Shaitan Singh. I quote here from a display board in the Hall of fame museum which I have just seen.
The battle of Rezang La commenced on the early hours of 18th November 1962. The first Chinese attack was ‘silent’, with the intention to surprize the defenders of Rezang La, in which, the Chinese failed. Maj. Shaitana Singh and his brave men were now certain to face a big attack. With baited breath they waited their fingers on the triggers. When the dawn was just cracking and the Chinese came within range, Maj. Shaitana Singh ordered to open fire and the company under Maj. Shaitan Singh let the attackers have it. But with every weapon of the company firing, the gullies were soon full of dead and wounded Chinese. Chinese frontal attack having failed, they modified their attack plan by shelling Rezang la heavily. Finding his company surrounded, Maj. Shaitan Singh reorganized the position and resited the automatic weapons to take on the enemy attack. It was during the re-organization, which Maj. Shaitan Singh was personally supervising, that he received a burst of fire in one arm. After a while, he received another Light Machine gun burst in his abdomen and succumbed to his injuries. His mortal remains were found three months later. By any test, every man of the company who fought and died at Rezang La was a hero and the grateful nation continues to remember each one of them as such. The Kumaonis ‘ fought till the last man last bullet at the icy heights of Rezang La. Of the 118 men at Rezang La, 109 men laid down their lives. 5 men were captured and only 4 men returned back alive. The company had outdated and obsolete weapons as against the sophisticated weapons held by the Chinese.”


I know for sure that no civilian is allowed near Chushul, and I would never be able to visit the memorial of Rezang La battle. Since Pangong lake is not very far away from this place, I would have to pay my respects to these brave men at the lake only. 

Wild horses grazing in Changthang


How green was my valley? Meadows of Chanthang 

From Tangtse onwards, we are no longer traveling on higher echelons of mountain ranges; the road now is along a very fertile green valley with huge mountain slopes on either side. Yet this valley itself is at a height of over 13000 ft and remains covered by snow for major part of the year. There is no foliage here, only green grasses with darker green patches of shrubs sticking out in the middle.. Perhaps only these can survive the extreme weather and the harsh winters. I see Yaks and wild horses grazing on the grasses with white tents of the nomadic residents called Changpas. Few wooly rat like creatures called Mermots cross our paths several times. As we come nearer to our destination, the green grasses at the floor of the valley change to pure white sand. The wind blows this sand on the asphalted road, creating an illusion of a snow covered road. Even then, the view is incredibly beautiful. We approach a dried flood water current or Nala. This one is called by the locals as Pagal Nala or a mad water current. This Nala has changed its course several times during last decade, completely destroying the overbridges on it. Army has now built a steel structure on a much higher level, which means that the car has to climb up and come down again just to cross the Nala.


Bridge on pagal nala


First view of pangong lake; Chang Chenmo I peak is seen in middle

Far ahead, near the horizon, I see mountains breaking apart. In the middle a snow clad peak rises far above and in the front a small patch of brilliant blue is shining in the harsh sunlight of Ladakh. Tundup points out to the blue patch and announces that we have reached Pangong Lake. Before embarking on this journey, I have done my home work with Google Earth and recognize the snow clad peak as Chang Chenmo Kangri I (21423 ft.). This means that the low height peaks with patches of snow seen on the right side of this peak would be where Line of actual control between India and Tibet (China) passes through. On left side of these peaks with snow patches, I can see a depression, which most probably is the Marsemik La (18314 feet). The second highest mountain pass in the world.
As the car moves ahead, the patch of blue gets bigger and bigger. We approach a narrow opening between two overlapping mountains and pass through it, ahead of us is one of the most beautiful spots in the world; the Pangong Lake. This lake at an elevation of 14200 ft is the largest in Asia and measures 6 to 7 Kilometers in width and 130 Kilometer length. Half of this lake is part of Tibet (China) and remaining half in India. In 1962, Chinese have grabbed illegally, further part of this lake and now only 1/4th of the lake is in India. 

Marsemik Camp

I have reserved accommodation in a camp set up on the North-West end of the lake. It has been named as ‘Marsemik Camp’. The car stops and I get down. There is some confusion about the reservation. The camp manager tells me that he has reserved a tent for me with a common toilette. My understanding of this situation was that the toilette would be near the tent easily reachable in the night. It turns out that the toilette is a fiber glass cabin at least 100 meters away with no clear foot-way even. I have lengthy discussion with the manager and I try to tell him to call my travel agent in Leh. It can not be done as there are no telephones in Pangong and the mobile phones do not have a range here. After lot pf persuasion the manager agrees to give me a tent with attached toilette if available by 7 PM. I just dump the backpack in a tent have a cup of Tea and rush to the lake shore in our car.

Pangong Lake Panoramic view


Pangong mountain range on west side of Lake

The panorama from the lake shore is stunningly beautiful. In front of me are the clear blue waters of the lake, the ripples on the surface, sparkling and dazzling in bright sunlight. There are few people around, yet vastness of the panorama engulfs me so completely that I fail even to notice them. I try to hold some water in my palms. It is so cold that my palm and fingers gets numb. The water testes slightly salty, perhaps because of the heavy concentration of salts. Ahead of me, beyond the east shore of the lake are the mountains of the Chang Chenmo range. Shorter mountains are in the front, with the taller snow clad peaks in the background . To the south I can see series of shorter hills. To the west, just next to my position, stands the towering Pang gong range; There are quite a few snow capped peaks here. To the left of this range I can identify towering peak of Kangju Kangri (22063 ft.). To the north, beyond the lake shore and at the foot of a mountain I can faintly see the village of Lukung. The surrounding hills are all barren without any snow. Yet the marks created over the ages by small glaciers formed in the winter, sliding over mountain slopes, have left their marks on the slopes creating weird patterns. The marks appear to me like war paint stripes, painted over bare chested fighters of the medieval times. 


Marsemik La; The gateway to Aksai Chin

The name Marsemik again has takes me back to those shameful days of 1960′s, when India was at war with China and was defeated very badly. It all started in 1952, when rumours reached Indian Army high command, about presence of Chinese in Aksai Chin area. Two officers were sent by Army for surveillance. These officers had travelled by the same route on which we have travelled today and then went via Lukung to Marsemik La- Kongaka la and finally to Kanak La on boundary with Tibet. They reported presence of Chinese engineers on Indian soil. Unfortunately, Government of India did not take any action and Chinese subsequently grabbed Indian territories. When Chinese incursions became known to Indian public and there was much anger, a Police officer, DSP Karam singh was ordered by the Government of India to go to Aksai Chin to establish a police post. DSP Karam singh and a team of 40 policemen left for Aksai Chin by the same route; Leh-Pangong Lake-Lukung-Marsemik La- Kongaka La. When this team tried to go beyond Kongaka La, they were surrounded by hudreds of PLA soldiers equipped with automatic rifles and machine guns. When DSP Karam singh was asked to go back, he did something, which was headline stuff and was published by all newspapers in India then. DSP Karam singh bent down, picked up some soil from the ground, and held it near his chest indicating that the land is his.
Needless to say, a war broke out. DSP Karam singh and his men equipped with WW II Enfield 303 bolt rifles, were no match for the Chinese soldiers with automatic weapons and after loosing many men, they had to surrender. They were released after few days with much humiliation. A memorial has been built near the Kongaka la to honour these brave men. It remaains out of bounds for any civilians, and I have no hope whatsoever, of seeing it and paying my homage to the brave policemen.
As I stand on the lake shore, facing the Marsemik La, which is the easiest gateway to Aksai Chin, I close my eyes and pay my homage to these brave policemen. I get back to the car and we start moving south along the lake shore. As we move southwards, the placid waters of the lake no longer look calm and quiet. As the easterly wind blows , the water responses with ripples and waves. The waves are not very big, yet they have a frightening kind of force. On the edges, the water is comparatively calm. The shore is not very sandy, except for a few places. Otherwise, gravel, stones and patches of marshy earth welcomes the lake waters to the shore. There are no water grasses seen anywhere with only short bushes sticking their neck out of the stones and the gravel. We continue to move southwards and finally arrive at our destination. The village of Spangmik.


Pebble Beach 

Stunning Beauty of Pangong

This village is really very small. Just a few huts. But I do see few green fields and a tree, the first tree I have seen since we arrived in Pangong. I can see one or two houses built with modern construction practices. But most of the other constructions such as houses, compound walls, shelters for the goats, are all constructed by stacking rows and rows of rounded stones found abundantly along the lake shore. This small village is famous for the Pashmina wool of the goats here. The lake shore near the village is marshy and full of shrubs. It is difficult to go near the water. I stand little away from the water and look to the south. On my right the towering mountains of Pangong range taper off to the ground far away. Between these hills and the mountain ranges of the Chang Chenmo range, which are on my left, there is gap, which can be clearly seen. In this gap, far away, I can see faintly, some hills of low height. These hills appear to be obstructing the lake which really means that the lake turns sharply to the left at this point here.With the help of my binoculars, I manage to get a slightly better view. According to my map, these hills have to be the Gurung or Black top hills, where a major battle was fought in 1962. Just like Rezang La, Gurung hill and the Black top battles have become part of history and are well documented. I quote here again from the display board from the Hall of fame museum.
The battle for Gurung hill had begun on 18 Nov. 1962 and at 0545 hrs and the Chinese attacked the two platoons on Gurung hill commanded by Capt. PL Kher. As the Chinese started an artillery bobardment, the Indian gunners fired back at Chinese preparation sites. Guided by Second Lieutenant S.D. Goswami, own artillery barrage caught the Chinese in the open and the severe casualties forced them to abandon the attack.
When the Chinese were 150 yards, Kher ordered his men to open fire. Meanwhile other Chinese troops were streaming down the gullies leading to Gurung hill from the Spanggur Gap. Now the AMX 13 tanks of B squadron, 20th lancers, commanded by Second Lieutenant S.P.S. Baswani were thrown in the fray. Intitially the Gorkhas were thrown back but the valiant Gurkhas led a khukri charge and retook their positions.Meanwhile Kher was wounded and as he watched the Chinese attack again develop, he had two options. Stand and fight and be overrun or withdraw to camel’s back (adjoining hill) where he had a better chance. He opted for the second and called for artillery fire on his own positions to give him a chance to disengage. Meanwhile Goswami continued to direct fire from his observation postire on his position, he started to withdraw on Kher’s order, when he was hit.He collapsed and lay there till a patrol found him in the night and brought him back. But the severe cold had caused frost bite and his legs had to be amputed. Second Lieutenant S.D. Goswami was later awarded with Maha Vir Chakra.”


I stand still, close my eyes and pay homage to the warriors of the Gurung hill. The Pangong lake area is so strikingly beautiful that it is difficult to describe it in words. The colours of the water body, keep changing as sun rises from the east and sets behind the Pan gong range, from Electric blue to deep green, almost every shade possible is seen. I keep on clicking my camera never tiring of it. While we are returning from Spangmik, Tundup points out to a spot on lake shore, where a Bollywood film song was shot. He tells me that Pangong lake has now become famous because of this song and the actor. I do not like the idea at all that a Bollywood film and its actor are associated with this wonderful spot. I would rather associate this place with likes of DSP Karam singh and Maj. Shaitan Singh.
The car brings me back to our camp. The row about a tent with attached toilette has been resolved and I am allotted a room with attached toilette instead. I was looking forward to staying in a tent, but considering the extreme weather conditions, in a way, this arrangement is better. I look at my watch. The time is 7.30 PM, yet there is enough sunlight. I decide to make another short trip to the lake shore. I walk slowly to the nearest lake shore. The sun is behind me,casting last rays of the day on the placid waters. Straight ahead is the Marsemik la or pass and other mountains which are in Chinese possession since 1962. The grandeur of the view makes me very quiet and makes me realize that the wind is getting stronger by minute now. My balaclava or monkey cap is just not sufficient. I pull up the hood of my wind cheater on my head and feel comfortable.
Later, we are served dinner in a special dining tent. A cozy and warm place with rows and rows of tables. The food is piping hot and good. To serve full Indian meal in this remote location near Pangong lake is an incredible feat without any doubt. The camp staff is very courteous and polite. As I return to my room, I just look upwards in the sky. The sky is dazzling with bright stars. For a long time, I have not seen such bright starry sky. I can identify few stars and constellations like the Big dipper and Capella . But it’s getting very cold and I start feeling uncomfortable. I return to my room and get into the bed. They have provided two woolen carpets on bed sheets to sleep in between. This Ladakhi sleeping arrangement is amazingly warm. The camp lights go off at 10 PM. Its totally dark now except for the starlight. I just doze off.


I had decided last night to get up early to photograph the sunrise from behind the Chang Chenmo mountains and sun’s reflections in the Pangong Lake. However things started going wrong from the night itself. I did not have a comfortable night. I kept on waking up almost after every hour, feeling lack of fresh air in my chest. After three or four long breaths, I would feel alright and would doze off again. This went on throughout the night. Since I have came to Ladakh, this is the only effect of high altitude, that I have felt. Pangong lake is at a height of about 14000 feet and I am told that this kind of uneasy sleep experience is not something that is abnormal. After waking up in the morning, I check my watch and confirm that I am still in time for the Sunrise. I decide to venture out just to check the weather. I find the weather just too cold for any photographic adventure and drop all my plans for a visit to the lake. From the window of my room, I can clearly see the mountain tops of Chang Chenmo range and decide to photograph the Sunrise only from my window. I fail again because the actual sunrise from behind the hills, happens so fast that there is no time for me to ready my camera and take the snap. Just in few seconds, the sun is so bright that any photograph is impossible.


Pangong Lake just before sunrise

Camp management serves sweetened hot tea in abundant quantity. I drink few cups to get some warmth and get ready. The sun is now up in the sky and weather improves considerably. I decide to make a final pilgrimage to the Lake. Since I am facing the sun, photography of the lake is rather difficult. I look for birds, but can not find any. After spending some time at the water front, I return to the camp. They are serving breakfast now. The menu is sumptuous. Cornflakes, toast, omelets and apricot jam. I finish off with more hot tea.


Breakfast in Marsemik Camp


White sand accumulates on the Asphalted road 

We are going back to Leh now. The Journey is quite uneventful. Even at Chang la, the weather is almost identical to yesterday. We join the Manali- Leh highway at Karu again. I remind Tundup that we have to go to Hemis to visit the Monastery there, The road to Hemis actually branches off at Karu village itself. We travel few Kilometers, yet there is no sign of a monastery anywhere in the sight. Hemis monastery is so well hidden in a gorge of the Zanskar mountains that it just can not be seen unless you are very near to it. I buy an entry ticket. The monastery is packed with people as annual festival is being celebrated. This festival is celebrated as a commemoration of the birth anniversary of Guru Padmasambhava. The monastery has a big courtyard, which has been covered with a huge Shamiyana to let visiting Buddhist disciples to sit down and relax. On the other end of the court yard, there is a new building which houses one of the best museums of Ladakh. The Museum is in basement and cameras are strictly not allowed. In fact they provide you with lockers to keep your cameras before you enter the museum. Hemis monastery is considered as the wealthiest monastery in Ladakh. It was established in 1630 and belongs to the Drupa order. 


Hemis Monastery


Paintings on outer wall of monastery

The array of items kept in the museum is really vast. A copper gilt statue of Buddha, several gold and silver stupas,sacred thankas (some of them as old as from second century), personal effects of Kings, ancient arms, items of ritual and daily use are well displayed in big glass cabinets with proper lighting. My only regret is that the museum does not provide any literature or brochure about the exhibits. I find some nice wall paintings on the outer wall of the museum.
We are back on the highway again. Our next stop is supposed to be Thiksey Gompa and the Shey palace complex. I look at the watch. I suddenly realize that I must reach Leh as early as possible as I have completely run out of money and must go and stand in the queue at an ATM machine to withdraw some cash. With great reluctance, I tell Tundup, that we would just stop at these two places to take some snaps and would not be able to visit the places. 


Thiksey Gompa


Shey palace ruins


Shey Monastery

There is however one important place which I want to visit in any case. The Sindhu Darshan ghat or Indus viewing place. This place has been built just 10 years back and consists of some nicely constructed shades and series of steps reaching down to the river bed. I go down to the river and wash my hands and face. The water is too muddy and looks grayish white. I do not dare to drink it. I fill a bottle with the water of Sindhu or Indus and carry it with me. 


Sindhu Darshan or Indus viewing steps


On the bank of river Indus


The most revered river of all, The Indus 

The car speeds to Leh. At the hotel I have to say good-bye to Tundup, who has done his job extremely well. I dump my backpack in my room and rush to the market where there are two ATM machines. There is a queue of about 15/20 people even in the hot sun. I wait patiently for about three quarters of hour. My turn comes and this time, thank God, I am just lucky. Machine releases money to me. I return back to the hotel to have some lunch. 


A Peak from Stok kangri range


A Ladakhi landscape

In the evening, I manage to do some shopping finally. My travel agent comes to meet me in the evening. I thank him for a job well done. I still have to pack, get some sleep and be ready early morning tomorrow. Our flight leaves for Delhi at about 8 AM and airport security at Leh airport being very tight , I must reach there by 6.30 AM
I really do not know whether I would ever be able to visit again this beautiful place. Yet, the Ladakh that I have seen over last seven or eight days, is permanently etched in my memory and in my camera. There is no doubt in my mind that I shall always remember and cherish these memories. 


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