Saturday, July 2, 2016

How I got Leh'ed: Day 5,6 & 7 Nubra-Pangong

After four days of acclimatisation we began our real trip on Day-5.

Rigzin was on time as usual. We started early at 8:30 am from The Auspicious Hotel in Leh.

Rigzin gave us two Inner Line Permit forms (ILP) to fill.

Make sure you carry enough money from Leh as there are no ATM’s in Nubra. It would also be a good idea to carry water bottles as their price will double where you are heading.

On our way we were stopped by the army at a checkpost. Rizgin told something to the guard in local language and we were good to go. He did not submit any form there. When asked what happened he said that a different form was required here which he did not have. Surprised, we asked why did they let us go? Rigzin smiled and revealed that he told the guards that the form is in the car behind us. It is true that the car behind us did have the form. But that form had nothing to do with us. I wondered what would have happened if we were caught. Would we still be driving to Nubra? But then, Rigzin has over 12 years of experience, he knows exactly what he is doing.

It was a steep rise through curved roads. A signboard said that the road was open only till 10:30 am because of ongoing constructions. We took a break at South Pulu (15300 ft). Rigzin went and submitted the first ILP form, and then we continued on our journey. After some time we crossed the snow-line and patches of ice started to appear on the sides of the road. Snow increased as we reached closer to Khardung la.

Finally we arrived at Khardung la. The board there claims it to be the highest motorable pass in the world at 18380 ft. It is actually at 17,582 ft (5,359 m), lower than the board claims. It is not the highest motorable pass in the world. It is debatable which one really is the highest. One website claims: “The road to Uturuncu above col is situated in Potosi, Bolivia which is actually considered as world’s highest motorable road at a staggering altitude of 5,777m or 18953ft.”

Never-the-less, the altitude is still very high and the air was thin. A board at Khardung la warned us not to stay here more than 20 minutes. Be quick to click photos. You will find more ice as you drive down. There is a toilet at Khardung la. But very smelly and there is a long queue. However, most toilets are similar. If you aren't comfortable in the open then you better try this.

14 kms from the pass there is another place where the ILP form was submitted. The landscape changes once you cross the pass. The landscape changes because the geology changes. From the Ladakh Batholiths we were now passing through the Khardung volcanics. From there we moved to the Shyok Formation. Shyok Formation is not continuous, but occurs as thrust slices and lenses. It is described as an ophiolitic melange and it consists of serpentinises and ultrabasic rocks intercalated with volcanoclastics and sedimentary rocks. Both Indus and Shyok suture zones represents two northward dipping subduction zones of Cretaceous age. Shyok ocean closed when Ladakh arc and Karakoram block collided to form the Shyok forearc ophiolite (between 74 Ma and 97 Ma). Later the Indian plate collided with Ladakh arc (50-60 Ma) forming the Indus suture.

Instead of 50 shades of brown you see a big white valley, occasionally disturbed by patches of green. Shyok river braided through the miles of white. North of us are the mountains made of Karakoram Batholiths. Nubra valley lies at the foot of Karakoram Range. Temperatures and milder than Leh and you do see a lot more green. ‘Nubra’ itself means ‘garden’. There are apple and apricot orchards around. It was through this valley that the traders of the legendary silk route once travelled. It opened to tourists only in 1994.

So engrossed were we in the beauty of the surroundings that we did not realise when we reached Diskit. Diskit Gompa is an old monastery that was founded by Lama Shereb Zangpo, a disciple of Tsongapa (Tsong Khapa), founder of Gelugpa, in 1420. The monastery belongs to the Gelugpa (Yellow Hat) sect of Tibetan Buddhism. It is a sub-gompa of the Thikse gompa.

The monastery has preserved arms and head of a anti-Buddhist Mongol demon (probably a man who came from Mongolia) who used to terrorise the natives. According to the myth he was killed and resurrected several times.

An impressive 32m high statue of Maitreya Buddha has been built here in 2006-2010 that looks down the Shyok river. The statue looks so majestic with the blue sky in the background that even the Karakoram ranges appears small. Statues of Tsongapa, Gelugpa, Buddha and Guru Padmasambhava (an 8th-century Indian Tantric Buddhist master, also known as Guru Rinpoche) is present inside the monastery. You have to climb the stairs to reach the room.

If you want to go to the toilet this is a good place. Just below the monastery opposite Diskit Gonpa school there are restaurants and shops with good toilets. Ask your driver.

Our next stop was at Hunder, 15 minutes drive from Diskit. The village of Hunder, often called the desert in the sky, was made famous by the movie Dil Se. We had tea in cafe RCC. It is a wet canteen which proudly says ‘all persons are allowed’. After having our cup of tea, when the sun was less hot, we proceeded towards the sandy cold desert. A small fee of 30INR was required to enter the desert.

If you are interested in the double hump bacterian camel ride go early. There are only 50 semi domesticated camels in this place and over 200 in entire Nubra Valley. They found a new home here via the famous silk route. These camels can withstand very low temperatures, upto -40 deg C,  and are very hardy with our much disease and high feed conversion efficiency. They can graze by themselves without any supplementary feeding. Their main importance as the beast of burden has reduced with advent of cars and better roads.

There is a huge queue for the ride. The cost is 200 INR for 15 min. When we went they said that they are not giving tickets any more because there were too many tickets sold already. After lots of trouble we did managed to get the tickets. After breaking the back of the poor camels for 15 minutes and promoting their life of slavery we drove to our hotel- The Snow Leopard. For the camel owners it is just a 4-5 month season. Rest 7-8 months they make sure the camels stay alive. The cost of keeping them alive comes from the money we pay them. Tourism is the reason why these camels are alive in the first place.

The Snow Leopard is a nice hotel. It is big, clean and has spacious rooms. The bathroom is also neat and big. Do not expect to find any mobile towers in this place. We spent our night in the comfortable rooms overlooking the hills.

If you are not interested in visiting the last village in a particular direction of a man made border you can head to Pangong Tso the next morning. Else you can stay one night in Turkruk village. There is an interesting story about the origin of the village. The native name of the village is Dhuk-Dhuk, meaning settling down. According to local folklore, there was a boy and a girl who camped here 1100 years ago. They fell in love and decided to settle down in this beautiful place. That’s how  the village got it’s name.

Next day we started at 9 am. Start early because the road to Pangong might get blocked by river water coming from the melting ice. As the temperature rises and more ice melts, the water level in the river rises as well. Our first aim today was to cross that point in the road before the river does. The 193 kms stretch from Nubra to Pangong is the most difficult drive in this tour so far. It is recommended to know the road conditions before going this way. You have to cross small streams and the road in most places is bouldery. The easier way is to go back to Leh and take Leh to Pangong route. However, it would cost you an extra day.

After some time we hit a green patch, literally. It was Leh forest in Agham. On the way we stopped at a place for photo. But Rigzin was nervous. He warned us that we need to move fast if we have to beat the river. We crossed a river that flowed over the road, but not at dangerous levels. Excited, we asked Rigzin if we made it. He smiled and said, that was not a river. It is more like a drain. Our destination is still far away. Now we were driving almost through the river bed of Shyok. Finally we did cross the danger point, only to realise that there are more than one such points. One by one we crossed all such points. We did manage to defeat Shyok river. By we, I mean Rigzin. In the excitement to cross the river I did not realize that we crossed the Karakoram fault.

On the way there is the 17th century Taktse monastery.  We took a break for lunch at Tangtse, which we reached at 1pm. It was at 14106ft. Maggie is the only thing you can eat here. We asked for egg omelette separately.

We were lucky to meet a Himalayan marmot (pheya in Ladaki) couple on the way, along with cows, pony, sheep and donkeys

We reached Pangong at 3:30pm. There is an entry fee off 10 per person and you need to submit the ILP form. The first view of the deep blue salty lake made us all go ‘WOW’. The Mars like reddish brown mountains sandwiched between deep blue lake and deep blue sky is one of the best sights I ever had. The color of the lake changes with time. The lake is bluest when the sun is brightest. One can spend hours just by sitting at the side of the lake.

One interesting fact about the lake is that even though the water is salty and has no life, there are shells of freshwater species along the shores. This was first observed by British explorer Godwin Austin in 1863. The lake was once a freshwater open-lake, and the water was drained out and re-filled by melting glaciers. A big fan deposit blocked the water exit path and naturally dammed the lake. since then evaporation has turned its water salty. 

The movie ‘Three Idiots’ made this place famous. The three idiots place is a crowded place, though you can enjoy horse ride, tea, coffee, and take  a chance at shooting an arrow. The view is equally beautiful from all the places along the 40 kms stretch of the lake on the Indian side. The rest 3/4 is with China.

We stayed at New Wonderland Tents. For booking contact Norbu at 9469085995. This is amongst the few accommodations that is right beside the lake. On the back of the tents are the snow capped mountains. The price was 4000 including food. We got some discount. Electricity comes only between 7:30 to 11 pm through the generators. No room heater is available for safety reasons. Not that we required it. The tent was pretty warm. Use the toilet waters economically. Water is scanty, and water bottles are trucked from Leh. Per bottle here costs 50INR. The dinner was good. Tawa fry with dal was very good.

Next morning we woke up early to see the sunrise. It happens at around 5:30 am. I was very cold outside, but the sight was worth it. The puri in the breakfast was delicious. Bread does not last long. If you want bread go early for breakfast. When we went, there was none left. 

At 9:30 am we started our journey back to Leh. The valley was on our right, and it was filled with white sand. Soon the valley changed to green as the waters of the small streams gave it life. The grass brought animals like pony, sheep, yaks and marmots to the valley.

On the way we stopped at a patch of ice, as if a small lake was frozen.

We cross the Karakoram fault before Chang La. It is a near-vertical dextral strike-slip fault that was activated recently (between 18-13Ma). Chang La claims to be the third highest pass in the world. 

The road to Leh was blocked because of some ongoing construction. The alternate diversion was in very bad condition. But it is India. Everything is possible. You just have to believe it is possible. While all cars took the bad road, Rigzin gave the workers who blocked the road a bottle of water, and we were let through. Like I said before, drinking water is scarce here. Rigzin knows all the tricks. Down the steep roads we were rapidly losing altitude. Which was a good thing. We were gaining oxygen in return.

We had lunch at Kharu at 2:30 pm. Then we stopped directly at Leh. We were back at Hotel Auspicious.

Click for Day- 8&9

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