Barren is beautiful

FASCINATING DESERT

Barren is beautiful

 DIFFERENT WORLD A brokpa tribal with his yak in Ladakh. Photo by authorSo, where do I begin? With the fat, brown marmot with teeth like Eddie Murphy that you startle while it is basking in the sunshine in the middle of a mud track, with the herd of handsome golden wild asses, known as kiangs, that stare at you with beautiful eyes, or with the craggy-faced Brokpa tribal, who is dragging his lazy yak in the middle of endless white sand? Ladakh is a world far removed from the regular. To experience Ladakh, all you need to do is pack some comfortable clothes in a backpack and get on the road to visit one of the most fascinating deserts in the world.

When we decide to drive to Ladakh, we opt to go there via Kashmir. We drive past tall poplars, transparent lakes and rice fields so startling green that they look like scattered pieces of an unstrung jade necklace. The other sight we quickly get used to is endless army trucks carrying AK 47-wielding young soldiers with expressionless faces. These boys have left their homes and families behind and are paying a heavy price to ensure peace in this part of the country.

Highest inhabited place

Across Sonamarg, with its golden trout-laden waters, our SUV wades through icy mountain streams. It hugs the edges of deep crevasses and we meet local taxi drivers who appear to be plotting to throw us off the narrow track. We cross Zojila, a pass, which is the gateway to Ladakh for tourists as well as the persevering monsoon clouds that manage to squeeze their way inside the valley.

Roads cut out of snow stand, flanked by ice walls as high as 20 feet, bringing on nauseating bouts of claustrophobia. The Indus flows faithfully alongside, disappearing and appearing from holes it has cut in the slow-sliding glaciers.

At Drass, the highest inhabited place in the world, we crook our necks to look at peaks that the Indian Army captured, but only after losing many brave soldiers. We get misty-eyed at a war memorial dedicated to martyrs. At Kargil, a sleepy riverside hill town, we gush over pretty apricot orchards growing along the river.

The next day, we head towards Lamayuru, which is home to a famous monastery. To reach the place, we cross an amazing lunar landscape — dry dunes and craters carved in the sand. The Hungroo Loops, a road that torturously twists and turns down the mountain like a giant serpent, makes our heads spin. Finally, after a rajma-chawal lunch at a roadside shack, we drive on a tarred road towards Leh. In the middle of a flat, unending plateau, our car is moving at a speed of 120 km-an-hour, with the wind howling its disapproval in our ears.

Soak in tranquillity

Crossing the frozen Chang La at 17,700 feet, we stop to gape at Napo or the blue sheep that are nonchalantly grazing just a few meters away from the road. After we halt at a place called ‘hell’ (called so because the wind here is blowing at a speed of 70 miles an hour), we finally touch Pangong Tso. It is easily one of the most beautiful things I have seen in my life.

If you reach here early in the morning, when the wind has not picked up, the water is still. It resembles a massive mirror, reflecting the gorgeous shades of the sky. Clear and blue, it looks like someone has emptied bottles of ink into the still waters. Towards afternoon, the breeze picks up, the colours start mixing and waves lap the shores gently, making the swimming ducks and geese rock on their feathery bottoms.

There will always be a few tourists present at Pangong. Here, tents can be pitched at a location close by. It must be amazing to wake up in the morning and watch gulls dive into this stretch of breathtaking beauty in the middle of nowhere from the warmth of your sleeping bag. However, if you prefer to enjoy the lake by yourself, get a permit and continue to drive on, as we did, following the lake all the way to a point where it finally meanders into China.

Travelling to this point is tough, as there is almost no road up to the destination. You can hear your bones creak as the car bounds over loose rock, but at the end, the sights make up for all the ordeal you go through.

 La Dags is not for everybody. But, if you do embark on a road journey to this place, you will definitely come back with unforgettable memories — of cumulus clouds wafting across the startling blue sky and their shadows flitting over the grey hills, cocky geese waddling around with a retinue of obedient offspring following in military precision, maroon-robed lamas with gentle faces, prayer flags fluttering in the wind and roadside bushes of pink Sia blossoms after which Siachen, the glacier, is named.

I look at the crystal-clear Pangong Tso and I am reminded of a beautiful song sung by Mohammad Rafi — Mai zindagi ka saath nibhata chala gaya.

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