"You must not move out today," said Tsering Nurugu, "complete rest for full 24 hours," he added.
I had just arrived at the hotel in Leh from the airport and Tsering, the manager, gave his directive while putting the customary Ladakhi silk scarf of welcome around my neck. Still, at the lounge, tea arrived. Tsering held the saucer up for me with his smile, which, over the days of my stay, only got admiringly stretched. "You are at 11,000 feet, and your body, sir, would take one complete day to acclimatise to the low level of oxygen in the air here," he said. I looked up at the picture of the Bollywood star Akshay Kumar with Tsering - both competing for whose smile is broader - prominently placed on the wall, not to miss the eye.
"What about him," I asked, "does he have time to acclimatise for 24 hours?" Tsering's response surprised me. "Akshay Kumar and many stars who come to shoot in Ladakh stay in our hotel," he said, gleaming with predictable pride, "and they don't come out of their rooms for two full days." My eyes widened. "They have to run and jump. Shooting is hard physical work, you see."
In search of the sacred
Dawa, the driver, arrived the next morning. We drove out of Leh city and took the Leh-Manali Highway heading south. I had heard this to be among the most picturesque roads, but my imagination was no match for the real thing. The terrain was unworldly. The barren mountains, their bodies had colours like chameleons, brown here, green or a tinge of red there, depending on the minerals hiding behind the stark armour. And their heads covered in snow dazzled in the morning sun. After about 15 minutes of the drive, Dawa pointed to the right, at the shimmering streak some distance away. The Indus river.
We continued to play hide-and-seek with the river for some time. Soon, a monastery showed up on the horizon atop a hill. "That is Thiksey," said Dawa, "We shall visit it on our way back. Now we are going to Hemis Monastery."
Hemis Monastery is well known for the annual Hemis Festival in June. The highlight of the festival, the mask-dance performance - dedicated to Lord Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche), believed to be an incarnation of Buddha - takes place in the large inner courtyard, large by the scale of the monastery, but not by the demand of visitors who want to witness it.
Thiksey Gompa (monastery), from a distance, looks much like the picture of Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. It covers one face of the hill overlooking the Indus Valley. From the car park, it took quite a flight of stairs to explore the floors open to visitors, among the 12 stories of the monastery. I marvelled at the wall paintings, thankas and the stupas, in all, a veritable collection of Buddhist art. From that height, the valley below looked like a forlorn world of its own, rimmed by craggy mountains wearing their caps of snow.
Moonscape of western Ladakh
"Which road is this?" I asked Dawa, as we left the Leh city behind us the next morning. "Kargil, sir," came the reply, and I almost jumped out of my seat in excitement and banged my head on the ceiling of the car. "Actually, this is the Leh-Srinagar road. It passes through Kargil and Dras. But we are not going that far," he said.
Just outside the city, we stopped at a modern building in Ladakhi style with a memorial structure. "Hall of Fame of the Indian Army," he declared. The museum is built as a memorial to the soldiers who laid down their lives in the Kargil war. Though small in size, I was amazed at the collection of photographs, artefacts, scaled models, fact sheets, all associated with how the bravehearts fight for and protect our country at the unforgiving heights of Kargil and Siachen.
Another two hours on the mountainous road, the surroundings started changing, from extraordinary to bizarre. It now resembled scoops of butter mounted around, mostly buttery light in colour, some a shade darker. Only, this is no butter but hard, sterile rock. "We are on the moon now, sir," said Dawa. We drove further and at a bend in the road, a monastery appeared at a distance, precariously latching on to the rockface of a mountain cliff. "How on earth it got there?" I exclaimed. "Lamayuru Monastery, sir," whispered Dawa, reverentially.
That night, I halted at a camp on a high rocky bluff with the Indus growling its way down the gorge just behind.
Climbing the roof
Dawa packed stacks of water bottles in the car. "Is there no water where we are going?" I asked. He gave a mischievous smile. We hardly drove for an hour from Leh, in the northerly direction this time, when he stopped the car. "Drink water, sir," he said. We were climbing up from the already high elevation of Leh. This chore of force-drinking of water went on as we were gaining height. We stopped at a small stupa. From there, the valley and the town of Leh was spread way down below in the South, as a patchwork of green strips surrounded by the mountains - stark, as if some invisible hand has skinned them off, only leaving out the white crests.
Soon we ascended the snow line. It became white all around, and the road treacherously narrow and uneven. Dawa slowed down to a snail's pace to let a group of adventurous motor-bikers overtake us. Our car went lugging up the jagged mountain road, like a drunkard aware of the consequence of a fall, for another 20 minutes. We reached the narrow flat of Khardung La - the highest motorable Pass of the world at 18,380 feet - as the signboard proclaimed.
Allure of Nubra
The road rolls down after Khardung La. At Diskit, we met the broad valley of River Shyok, and with it entered the Nubra Valley. We followed the river for some distance and then turned west across a broad arid flat to again ledge up the mountainside. To our right, some 200 metres below was the vast sea of sand dunes of the Hunder Desert. A herd of Bactrian camels - those with two humps on their back - were crossing the sandy stretch, leaving behind a trail of footprints on the silken contour of the desert.
We drove down to the level of the desert at Hunder village. A desert at 10,000 feet, surrounded by mountains, has its own mythical colours to flaunt as the afternoon sun stretched the shadows of the dunes. "Want a camel ride?" asked Dawa. But four camels had escaped the previous night and their owners had gone in search of them.
We left the desert for greener pastures. My tent in Nubra Valley was amid an orchard of apple and apricot at the edge of a tiny village. The villagers cultivate paddy and barley, grow vegetables, work in the barn and pray at the local Buddhist monastery. There was no electricity. Life was simple. And yet, I couldn't miss the remarkable richness in the way these villagers go about.
I ventured out on the narrow village road, a quarter of which was also shared by a gently flowing mountain stream - the main source of water for the village. A village elder was coming the other way. He smiled at me, nodded his head and said, "Julay." "Julay," I responded. It is the equivalent of namaskara.
I walked past the village. The road opened up to green paddy fields. At the far end of the swaying green expanse, the signature-brown Ladakhi mountains soar up to touch the sky with their tuft of snow. Near to me, a long-beaked hoopoe was dancing among the branches of a poplar, its spotted tuft swinging like a pompom at the flap of its wings. The little fellow evaded my camera every time I tried to focus. But its live performance was worth a king's ransom. In the background, the fields and the mountains stood in serene stillness. Like the Buddha in the monastery.
Leh has flights from Delhi, subject to weather conditions. Roads from Manali and Srinagar open up during
Hotels, guest houses, resorts and luxury tents to suit your budget and taste.
Select the trekking company with care. Popular treks are Markha Valley Trek, Chadar Frozen River Trek, Sham Valley Trek, among others.
Food to try out
'Thukpa', 'skyu' with meat or vegetables, 'tingmo', and Ladakh's signature butter tea.
Rest on arrival. Avoid physical exuberance. Drink plenty of water.
If you feel out of breath, or have a headache,
immediately consult a doctor.