Beyond Leh through Northern Ladakh
After having seen the sights in Leh and completing my work for the week, which I did while sipping on the area’s fantastic masala chai in their panoramic cafes, it was time to see what lay even further north. Making this decision easier was the fact that all the wifi in Leh had been shut down, something that can apparently happen in Ladakh when border tensions run high. Wasn’t going to get much work done anyway, so I booked a trek that would take me to see the sights between Leh and the extremities of the Indian territory – a trip that would take me all the way to Turktuk, a town so far north that it belonged to Pakistan until 1971, and is the furthest foreigners are allowed to venture.
Drive through Ladakh
A group of strangers piled into a van with me and we set off on one of the most terrifying drives of my life. Leh, being nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, has only one way out: up and up and up. The road that made that ascent was not only very windy, as any mountain road would be, but it was also extremely narrow. Single laned to be precise. Each turn came with an aggressive honk in an effort to warn potential oncoming drivers of our presence around each blind corner. Half way up the mountain, the asphalt ended and we were driving on a one laned, two way “highway” consisting of rocky, uneven earth with sharp corners. “It’s a work in progress”, the driver told us, in broken English.
Despite the sketchy road, the view became more and more scenic as we continued upwards and we got closer and closer to the snow we were able to see at the peaks. As the road plateaued, the driver stopped in at what looked like a small, shabby military camp. He got out for what I could only imagine was a quick rest stop or picture opp until I saw the sign: “Highest motorable road in the world!” Suddenly, the area went from scenic to “Holy shit!”. Good thing they sold hot tea because it was as chilly as you would expect and breathing was a bit of a struggle.
As we continued, we passed a couple of more interesting sights, including a little temple where the Dalai Lama has lunch and speaks when crossing the area (a Dalai Lama lunch n learn), plentiful little rivers and bits of vegetation in an otherwise barren landscape, and lots of animals. A herd of yaks brought back memories of Ace Venture when Nature Calls, when he was doing a formidable job of mimicking their mating call directly into his partner’s year while waiting to take off #roadtripthoughts.
Other than our lunch break in a valley at the modest altitude of 14738ft, our other stop was at a the Disket monastery. It looked like something out of a myth as it crawled up along the edge of a cliff overlooking a beautiful valley. It sported a zenfully impressive giant Buddha statue in front of it, each of them offering brilliant views of the other.
I climbed up the stairs which, at that altitude, left me breathless, and took a few moments to enjoy the view, the temple and the little village inside. Unfortunately, I was the only one in the group interested in exploring it so I didn’t get to stay as long as I could have with everyone else waiting. There were Buddhist recordings in the temple though, both in English and Hindi, which were a pleasure to listen to for as long as I could.
Our final destination for the first day was meant to be the little town of Hundur. Upon our arrival, we did a little planning for our next day, which was meant to be spent in Turtuk, another 2:30 hour drive away. To save time the next day though, we asked the driver to take us there that evening. He was not at all down for it, but as we further broke down our motives and insisted, he finally reluctantly agreed. I’m not totally proud of pressuring him, and his mood definitely went sour, but it was definitely the right call. It allowed us to see the sunrise the next morning and really explore the village, and I made sure to give him a generous tip at the end.
We arrived back in Hundur just in time for a camel ride at sunset. I was so excited to ride across the desert like a nomadic warrior! I walked around the camp until I came across a camel that let me pet its head without flinching. I figured it’s important for any animal to show a little comfort before subjecting it to any activity.
I mounted it and nestled myself between its two humps. It hoisted itself up with me on top as if I were a helium balloon and we took off through the desert. There must be a specific way of riding a camel that they never taught us in computer engineering school, because each step it took rattled me from the groin up. How people crossed deserts on these majestic beasts, I’ll never understand. Near the end though, I started trying to bounce along to its rhythm which seemed to help.
We set off back to Leh early the next day. We passed another monastery on the way, and I was fortunate enough to have arrived during a sort of prayer. Many monks were lined up in a room, chanting and banging along. I have to say, it didn’t sound as peaceful as I would have expected, and I started thinking that it must be weird for them to have someone hanging outside the door watching them so I peel off. The monastery did have a fantastic view of the mountains, as all the other ones in the area did, and I can certainly see how someone would find bliss here.
We finally made it back to Leh at 3pm. My van to Manali was scheduled for the next morning, which I didn’t like. I’m a fan of traveling overnight and not losing a day on the road, but decided that I still hadn’t seen the Stupa and this would be an opportunity to do so, as well as catch up on some work. When I saw that WiFi still wasn’t available in the entire city though, I decided that I couldn’t afford another disconnected day. I ditched my initial ticket and found someone willing to drive overnight the 14 hours to Manali overnight.
After this adventure, I was eager for a day to just chill and catch up on emails and deliverables. The ride was tough, another cramped van with 4 people crammed in a row of seats on a very long bumpy road over night. Sleep was intermittent, but I was so excited to keep exploring, taste the food a little further south and see the next sights. Manali, here we come!