Travel experience in the Himalayas: trekking to Ladakh, Kargil, Amarnath

Traveling is a passion. Almost everyone loves it - some more, some less. Whatever may be the mode of travel, the thrill therein is irresistible, especially in the Himalayas. And, in the Asian sub-continent, Ladakh is a wonderful destination. This country falls in the high level arid zone. Here you can read about my travel experience to the Himalayas- trekking to Ladakh, hitchhiking to Kargil and Trekking Back via Amarnath.

Trekking in Ladakh is a wonderful, though arduous, experience because of the beauty of the tract and the affectionate nature of the local people. The stark landscape, the bare-rock hills, eroded gullies — which are cast in weird yet eye-catching shapes by rain, snow, wind and other elements of weather — rising like sentinels, all make the area a heaven for the lover of nature.

In the olden days, people used to spend years to reach this wonderful land. The beauty of the tract and the simplicity and affectionate nature of the people there, would soon entrance a visitor. In fact, once there, the visitor would never wish to leave the enchanted place.

Many believe that this part of the earth belonged to the earliest human habitation and one can become immortal by some heavenly device supposed to be existing there. To name a few of its visitors, Fa-Hien and On-kong of China, came here around 400 AD, Mirza Hyder Duglas of Central Asia invaded it in 1534, A Zevedo and Clivera of Eastern Europe came in 1631 and Adolf and Robert Shragintweit came from Britain in 1856. They all stayed in the area for quite some time and left invaluable legendary notes about the land, the people and their culture.

The area remains dry for most of the year. The traffic here has been revolutionized completely in the last few decades by the introduction of jet aircraft for passenger flights. A visit to Ladakh has, therefore, become very easy now and lovers of novelty and adventure keep landing there all round the year.

Rightly did poet Kalidas say, "There is a mountain in the north, ensouled by divinity, named Himalaya, the king of all mountains. Stretching from east to west coast, it is located on the earth as a measuring rod."

And the Puranas too say, "He who goes to the hills, goes to his mother, the loving, nourishing bounteous mother."

I have had the privilege of wandering over remote lands over the great mountain to my heart's content. I happen to be a nomad from my very childhood. Going over these bounteous lands bears unlimited appeal to me. I have been craving to visit the Kargil-Dras war front for quite some time.

So I planned to go up to Leh, via Kullu-Manali-Serchu and come back straight by the same route in the least possible time. The D-Day finally happened when I reached the scenic Himachal Pradesh.

The night bus of Himachal Road Transport Corporation — or HRTC — for Kullu-Manali came in handy after a whole day of several chores and errands. There being few passengers on board, it was possible for me to stretch myself in the aisle. And I went dozing all the way.

Dhalpur maidan in Kullu was the first halting point-232 km from Shimla at 4,000 feet above mean sea level, or msl. The time was 4 am. An old friend had already been sounded about my being at large. He, therefore, made me comfortable at his house and I had a good nap.

After this, I moved to Manali, 40 km further up at 6,000 feet msl, and received a hearty welcome from the Border Roads Organization (BRO) brethren there.

Now, Manali is a gem of a place to be at on a bright and clear morning. The 15 July morning was fit for taking pictures of the pines, people and Pirpanjal ranges, and I availed myself of this accordingly.

The Officer Commanding of Manali-Serchu road sector of BRO happened to be there. He was very glad to give me a lift for the onward movement. The journey started at 2 pm. The officer had to sort out many civil engineering knots of the road to maintain the free flow of hundreds of vehicles of all kinds going to Kargil via the Manali-Serchu-Leh load.

The surface of the road on Rohtang hill (Pirpanjal) range and some 20 km each on either side was not smooth at all because of continuous melting of snow and the perpetual flow of water. The engineer's halts at every point offered good opportunity for me to take pictures of the men and machines at work and also the landscapes.

We then reached Satingri (at 3,360 msl, 120 km from Manali and 5 km ahead of Keylong, the headquarters of the Lahaul-Spiti district of the Himachal Pradesh) at 10 pm.

The next morning at 10 am, the BRO Platoon Commander of the sector, a young captain, was going to Baralacha side to ensure the smooth run of the military and civil convoys heading towards Leh and Kargil. I got a lift in his vehicle and could also take photos, whenever he stopped for inspection of works.

The road from Satingri onwards has quite a smooth riding surface but for a few short slide points here and there. The habitations en route, named Kolang, Jispa, Gemure, Darcha (3,400 m, 155 km) etc on the way are green and populous and full of life and activity. The Zanskar range on the left and the Pirpanjal on the right j presented a very beautiful landscape, invaluable for, preserving on the celluloid. The drive was immensely enjoyable.

Darcha being the last village of the Himachal Pradesh, the flats of Patseo (3,811 m, 170 km) and Zing Zing Bar (4,200 m, 180 km) further up are good camping sites for travelers.

Baralacha, the 4,892 m high pass, comes at 190 km. A beautiful lake called Suraj Tal, (150 x 300 m.), a little short of the pass, is a good spot for a short break. A small BRO camp downhill at Kinlung (4,400 m, 210 km) is good for a lunch break.

The captain conveyed me up to Serchu (4,253 m, at 222 km) the border between the Lahaul-Spiti district of the Himachal Pradesh and the Nayoma district of the Ladakh Division of J & K. The place has so many Lahauli, Ladakhi and Nepali entrepreneurs, running small dhabas in tents for the visitors. The charges are nominal. A military transit camp is also there.

One thing most needed here is a petrol pump. There is not one up to Leh after the last at Tandi in Lahaul valley. Some daring dhaba owners, however, stealthily keep a very small quantity of petrol and sell it to needy bike runners.

The road further on happens to be in the charge of another Chief Engineer, the one commanding the BRO Project for Ladakh. The captain arranged for one of the civil trucks in the convoy to take me along.

The flat tract around Serchu, known as Lingti valley, is a wild landscape of exquisite beauty. A lover of nature cannot have any better place to feast his eyes. The road now runs on the right bank of the Lingti River up to one place called Takh (4,100 m at 250 km). It is a beautiful level and smooth drive.

From this point, the climb of Ghata loops starts. The road rises by 1,000 m in nearly 15 km stretch carved in 21 hairpin curves. The place above is Lachalang-la pass (5,065 m, 276 km).

The Ghata loops are a nice specimen of a hill road. A spectacle indeed! Imagine 150 vehicles going up and a similar number descending down simultaneously, rubbing sides with one another. Most of them are Tata make. Some were as old as a 1963 Mercedes.

Many truck drivers tended to carry more load than prescribed by the manufacturer. As expected, some of them had broken down and blocked the way.

Interestingly, many foreigners, men as well as women, were seen moving on bicycles. They enjoyed a hearty laugh to find motorists bogged down.

From Longlacha pass, the road starts descending. The next stage is Pang (4,630 m, 299 km). The road is generally smooth. The convoy was to make up to this midway destination by 8 pm, but reached there at 3.30 am only, thanks to greedy drivers indulging in overloading and consequent break-downs.

The civilian drivers in the convoy have their own cooking arrangement. They prepare and eat food at convenient halting points. The crew of the truck giving me a lift could not prepare any food that evening because of the suspense in the movement of the convoy. Fried grams put by my wife in my rucksack made a good substitute.

There was quite a chill in the air. A 1970 vintage Delhi-made light feather sleeping bag, therefore, made me fairly cozy for a short nap in the cabin of the truck.

Now, hundreds of vehicles, of army as well as civilians, either going towards Leh/Kargil or returning from there were parked all around in the vast open ground of Pang — an Army check post-cum-transit camp. The crews of all the vehicles were anxiously waiting to be let off for the onward journey. The military vehicles move first. Others follow them after a variety of checks.

From Pang, the "More" plains start. General altitude is 4,700 m. The star-shaped valleys, fanged outwards, are all flat. The hills are undulating. It is quite an exquisite landscape. The bright and clear sky with a sprinkling of beautiful snow-white specks of clouds here and there makes this uninhabited wilderness a really charming spectacle.

Further, the "More" plains happen to be the natural habitat of wild asses, snow leopards, Tangrol deer, snow pheasant, etc. These denizens are known to come out of their hiding places early at dawn or late in the dusk. I was, however, not lucky to see any of them, although the time was quite opportune. The frequent, long and noisy convoys of vehicles appeared to have pushed them to safer more undisturbed recesses, far into the interior.

The tract being high altitude arid zone, the road here has a good, smooth riding surface. The drive is enjoyable, more so, when moving in a long winding convoy of hundreds of vehicles — running bumper to bumper. Further, the valley being so flat, one can drive blind-fold over long belts stretching to scores of kilometers in any direction.

The water of a nearby lake, diameter about 800 meters, is pretty rich in potassium sulphate. The mining department of J & K Government has a summer camp here and a lot of the mineral is collected by sun- drying.

After rolling over "More" plains for about 45 km, the road starts climbing gradually towards Takiangia pass (5,360 m, 364 km). The atmosphere here is quite rare, which can cause breathlessness among those not properly acclimatized. The saddle offers a magnificent view of a series of Zanskar ranges, one hiding behind the other. There are specks of snow glaciers here and there, mainly at points touching the horizon.

After climbing down nearly 20 km, one comes across the J & K, Pashmina Goat and Sheep Breeding Farm, Rumtse, at 4,000 m, 400 km.

The village, proper Rumtse, the first habitation of Ladakh after Darcha, the last one on the Himachal side, soon shows itself in the middle of a vast green expanse. The slopes now roll magnificently with beautiful green fields of cultivated peas and barley, golden mustard etc.

Luxuriant grass also grows naturally in vacant spaces and salixes and poplars stand in lovely queues all along the river-banks, streams and water channels. The higher reaches are brownish hills, giving a baked-brick look. They too present a beautiful spectacle.

The residents of Rumtse valley, as in Lahaul valley, are followers of Buddhism. The hamlet has a number of "Manes", strategically built at the beginning and the end of the habitation, in addition to a Gompa.

From Rumtse downwards, as one descends into the lesser altitude tract towards the Indus basin, the valley becomes narrower. The villages become more and more green and populous. As one reaches Upshi on the left bank of the river Indus, the habitation becomes quite dense.

Moving further down towards Leh, one feels one has reached a suburb of a metropolis like Delhi. There is a lot of greenery, domestic animals, vehicles and hordes of people with a matching hustle and bustle.

The following day, being a Sunday, was well utilized for an exchange of mutual welfare and interaction on a variety of subjects. The town Leh is a wonderful place. But for the hard winter months, from November to March, the weather here generally stays salubrious.

There are expensive hotels and restaurants for stay. Inexpensive ones, like the open premises in and around Buddhist gumpas . Mosques, Hindu temples, Sikh gurudwaras , etc are also available. There are beautiful tent camps on sunny green glades on either bank of the Indus as well. The rates are similar to those at Serchu.

On the following day, I proceeded to Khardungia pass (world's highest road at 18,354 feet above msl, 50 km from Leh). Though the ride was somewhat rough, but the landscape of the Indus and Nubra valleys, so breathtakingly beautiful, more than compensated for the trouble, rather pleasure, taken.

The same afternoon, one vehicle going towards Kargil took me along. The driver did not mind entertaining my requests for brief stops at scenic spots for snapshots. The road runs parallel and down stream along the right bank of river Indus.

Villages like Nimoo (3,400 m, km from Leh) and Khaltsi (3,300 at 50 km) en route are charmingly green, populous and full of life. A trekker or motorist can avail himself of a simple meal, tea or modest accommodation at rates similar to the ones at Leh.

At Khaltsi the road crosses to the left bank of the Indus and starts rising towards Lamayuru gumpa, 12,000 ft, 100 km, from Leh. The Nimkila pass at a height of 13,500 ft at 150 km and Fatula at a similar height at 180 km from Leh, with the road surface fairly smooth, presented a fascinating landscape.

At about 10 am on the following day, I was lucky to find a vehicle heading towards Kargil on the way to Dras and then Gumri near Zozila pass. The fear of Pakistani shells landing on anyone, at any point and at any time coerced the troops to keep moving and avoid stopping anywhere unless it was very urgent.

The party stopped only at the Organisation's Harka Bahadur roadside camp for a meal. We reached Gumri (11,600 feet, 335 km from Srinagar side) at about 6 pm. The night halt was arranged there. The next day at 6 am, I was taken by a Jammu & Kashmir State Transport Corporation bus, which dropped me at Baltal camp - 9,000 ft, 100 ml from Srinagar.

I wanted to make a journal of my observations with regard to the length and condition of the circuitous mule track connecting Baltal with the shrine and then Pahalgam, along with a rough assessment about the effort and cost involved in converting the track into a motorable road.

Two volunteers, Pioneers, offered to accompany me up to the cave. The trekking started at 2 pm and I reached the cave (13,729 ft above msl, 12 km from Baltal) at 8 pm, spending some time en route for taking photo shots of the landscape and other natural objects like herbs, shrubs, trees etc and also the geometrics of the mule track.

I utilized the next morning for paying obeisance at the shrine in addition to a liberal indulgence in photography. The Pioneers returned to Baltal. At about 10 am 2 youths belonging to Rajauri area, having come up with a load and now returning empty to Chandanwari, offered to assist me in carrying my light baggage for a very nominal charge of Rs 200.

Our trio trekked the 32 km foot track from the cave downwards, via Panchtarani (12,000 ft, 6 km from cave), Mahagunas pass (14,800 ft, further 6 km), Sheshnag (12,500 ft, another 6 km) and Pissu top (12,000 ft, 12 km) to make up to Chandanwari (the motor head in Lidder valley at 9,000 ft, 16 km short of Pahalgam; also the starting-point for the traditional yatra) at 8 pm. The Commandant of the BSF camp there was generous enough to accommodate me in his officers' mess.

On the following day, I first availed myself of appreciating the natural beauty of the Lidder valley at and around Chandanwari and then got into a passenger bus of the Kashmir Valley to reach Srinagar that evening and then traveled back home. The hitchhiking was arduous, and yet memorable.

Caution: Some people usually living in the planes suffer mountain sickness and/or breathlessness while moving in high-altitude areas. Therefore, only those who are constitutionally fit and mentally strong should attempt an adventure like this. They should move gradually, stage by stage, to get acclimatized for the high hills before entering therein.

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