Arid Enchantments – the road from Kargil to Leh

Kargil was nice and laidback and the stay at the wooden cottage was a bliss after the rugged road from Srinagar.But a long road to Leh lay ahead.

Sleep was hard to come by but we managed 3-4 hours of it before getting ready for the road to Leh ahead.Wasim bhai…our driver was found sleeping in the vehicle and apparently his friend with whom he was supposed to stay the night wasn’t in town.Lack of communication was attributed to no-signal on our mobiles in J&K(outside SIMs don’t get coverage in the state).Everybody was looking sleepy and tired but we all were back in shape ,one hour into the road.

The town of Kargil marks the great change in landscape from greenery of Kashmir valley to arid beauty of Ladakh
The town of Kargil marks the great change in landscape from greenery of Kashmir valley to arid beauty of Ladakh

As we bid good bye to Kargil ,the landscape stood stark in contrast to anything we had seen before.After moving ahead towards Leh for 50 kms there is a landmark near the town of Mulbek which distinctly welcomes you to Ladakh-the Land of lamas.The cross over is complete with the twin Buddhist monasteries of Mulbek,standing high on hill tops.By the road side stands the statue of Chamba/Buddha ,carved out on a huge rock face and surrounded by a small monastery at it’s feet.As per the description given there,this is the future Buddha or Buddha-yet-to-come.He will be known as the Buddha of friendship or Maitreya Buddha.The chanting of mantras in the monastery and the morning sun giving warmth to cold soaked souls…..we were in the land of lamas indeed.A group of monks who were travelling to Leh from Mcleodganj(Himachal) informed us that the Dalai Lama would be in Leh in first week of July for the Kalachakra Festival(a Buddhist festival held in Ladakh that has Tantric roots).Unfortunately we would be out of Ladakh by 15th June.After having a satisfying breakfast near the monastery ,we were off for the breathtaking Ladakhi landscape ahead,all 260 kms of it.

Green valleys meet the lunar landscape at Mulbekh
Green valleys meet the lunar landscape at Mulbekh
A bird's eye view from roof of the world-at Namik La pass,Ladakh
A bird’s eye view from roof of the world-at Namik La pass,Ladakh

Ladakh is a plateau and that too above 10,000-11,000 feet above sea level.How altitude is related to geography and how geography is related to lives of communities living amid it,Ladakh teaches you.The high ranges of Himalayan mountains cuts off most of the monsoon winds flowing from south India to Ladakh and hence it’s a dry and arid land.Such a place is known as a Rain-Shadow area.It is because of this natural phenomenon that gives Ladakh and it’s people a quite distinct identity and look from other areas,even different from the adjacent Kashmir Valley.It’s a matter of great irony as to how a land as barren and arid as Ladakh,could be so beautiful and enchanting.And enchanting it is without any doubt.We were climbing curve per curve on to the Ladakh plateau….a part of the Tibetan highlands and together known as the Roof of the World.

The high roads on the Ladakh plateau
The high roads on the Ladakh plateau

The majestic Zanskar Range that separates Ladakh from rest of India rises before you.The name Ladakh means a “land of high passes” as it houses some of the highest mountain passes in the world which were once used by traders and travelers from China,Mongolia,Central Asia and Middle East to gain access to Indian sub-continent.Ladakh is also the gateway to the far reaches of Himalayas called as Trans-Himalayan region,After massive political upheavals in Tibet in 1950s and further friction between Mao’s Red Guards(members of the cultural revolution by the Communist Party) and the Tibetan Monasteries,many Tibetans fled their homeland for India,including the 14th Dalai Lama who still lives in exile in India.They found a home in the mountains of Ladakh and have thrived there because of their hardworking and simple nature.As per travelers who have been to Tibet,Ladakh is the last repository of Tibetan Buddhism and culture…..and what Tibet has been losing over the years,Ladakh has stored them diligently.

The irony perplexes you-How can something so arid and barren as Ladakh can be so beautiful?
The irony perplexes you-How can something so arid and barren as Ladakh can be so beautiful?

As the road slowly climbs up the plateau,the 1st high pass in the land of lamas comes to be Namik La(12800 feet)…a place unlike anything you would have seen.It’s almost like standing on a roof and you can see the white range of mountains,looming on the horizon.As is typical of such passes,Buddhist prayer flags adorn the pass as it is believed that the wind high up will carry the prayers down to the valleys and beyond.And the wind is strong here.Many biker gangs zoomed through the pass as over recent years Ladakh has allured adventurous bikers all over the world.Though we did not have the heart to leave this vista,the road ahead was equally delirious and the landscape filled us with anticipation for things to come.

Driving through the high plateau and magical horizons on each side we were beginning to have sprains in the neck.There were abundant scenery all around and we twisted our necks to take in the 360 degree view on offer.This was another country,a new world and those who have seen this can describe(or fail to describe) the landscape.Between the swirling roads we reached the pass of Fotu La,which is the highest point on the Srinagar-Leh highway at 13,500 feet.The world spreads around you and the landscape which looks like a painting extends beyond the eye.At Fotu La we read the slogan of bike gangs that said-“God made Ladakh and Bikers made it heaven”.Excitement leads to a rush of adrenaline and that leads to exhaustion of the body,though the body was tired but it was the spirit which took over.After a short drive from the Fotu La we stopped for lunch at a road side eatery.As is usual,the high pass is adorned with prayer stones inscribed with “Om Mani Padme Hum” that translates to ‘Praise to the Jewel in the Lotus’ and brightly colorful fluttering flags.In earlier days the pilgrims in Tibet used to place these stones as a prayer to protect them from the supposed poisonous gas on high passes,that we now know as lack of oxygen.

Lamayuru Monastery perched on rocky slopes in lower Ladakh
Lamayuru Monastery perched on rocky slopes in lower Ladakh

Just a few bends down the road from the enticing Fotu La pass gets you close to one of the most spectacularly located monasteries in all of Ladakh-Lamayuru.The white and red lamasery is perched on the barren rock face and after watching the building for quite some time,we understood what makes Lamayuru so fascinating and famous.The Gompa stands in a massive theatre of rocks and cliffs and as shade changes throughout the day,the building transforms itself dramatically according to the magical rocky backdrop it stands upon.Lamayuru’s proper name is Yungdrung Tharpaling Monastery and it is the most prominent lamasery in lower Ladakh.The term Tharpaling means the land of liberation and in ancient times the convicts would make a pilgrimage to the monastery to wash away any sins they committed.Apart from being a sacred place,Lamayuru was strategically important for diplomatic relations between Muslim Rulers of Kashmir and Namgyals of Ladakh.As this was a place considered sacred to both communities,the rulers would often meet here to sort out any disputes that arised.But all that came to naught in early 19th century when Kasmiri armies ransacked and destroyed the monastery completely and it was later rebuilt with great difficulty by the rulers in Ladakh.

The lunar landscape at Ladakh stands in stark contrast to anything seen before
The lunar landscape at Ladakh stands in stark contrast to anything seen before

Around 15 kms from Fotu La,exactly at the point where Lamayuru is perched you begin to see why Ladakh is said to have a Lunar landscape(landscape resembling the face of the moon).There are several loops situated just as you move away from Lamayuru that look out of the world,and we can closely associate it with some images of the land on moon.Soft orange tinted and bluish rock faces who look beautiful and ethereal in the changing shades of the sun.I suppose it’s a fascinating place for geologists and geography enthusiasts.Multi coloured rocks stacked on top of each other and they look like a artist’s canvas.There’s a board displaying “Enjoy the beauty of the moonland” at a certain point on the circular loops which perhaps were the Hangaroo Loops we heard about.Even the driver was not sure about the place.Leh was still about 140 kms from here.

Flat plains stretched out on the high plateau in Ladakh and the enchanting road to Leh
Flat plains stretched out on the high plateau in Ladakh and the enchanting road to Leh

The land stretched into spectacular barrenness all around and you could see black serpentine roads spread on the brownish rocky surface…all the way leading upto Leh.After passing the loops in the Moonland,much of the late afternoon was spent climbing further up the Ladakh plateau and then suddenly we were on plain roads and we could see a vast stretch of road laid out on the desert plateau.The Zanskar range looms brilliantly on the horizon behind and the Ladakh range lies straight ahead and you get the hint of Leh somewhere down the straight highway.We were on the last lap on the Srinagar-Leh highway and it was late afternoon with the sun rays slanting on the vast Ladakhi landscape.

The ladakh Range looms large on the horizon as the secluded town of Leh approaches
The ladakh Range looms large on the horizon as the secluded town of Leh approaches
The mystical beauty of the landscape at Ladakh can only be seen through eyes.No camera can capture what the place entails
The mystical beauty of the landscape at Ladakh can only be seen through eyes.No camera can capture what the place entails

Nestled between huge copious mountains,Leh stands starkly isolated from the world outside.Military barracks line the entrance to the town which was once in history, a major thoroughfare in the Silk Route.The sun had set on the gorgeous white peaks adjacent to the city and the one feature that defines Leh stands above everything else in the city-The majestic Leh Palace.
Tired as heavily as we were after the momentous journey through one of the world’s most spectacular road trips ,we retired quickly to our home stay on Upper Tukcha Road.

Reaching Leh but yet not arriving....the perpetual state of all travelers
Reaching Leh but yet not arriving….the perpetual state of all travelers

Though not as hyped as the alternate Manali-Leh route,the highway from Srinagar to Leh is spellbinding in it’s beauty and scope and one goes through many magical interludes on the way.
Beginning from the romantic and lush valleys of Kashmir ,then entering the barren wilderness of Ladakh and finally culminating the journey at the ancient city of Leh ,high on the cold plateau…….travelers live for these kind of experiences.
If you ever thought of shutting out the world to yourself.This is the place.

Soumya D jena/the Lost Hermit

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