Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Hunder- An Oasis In Middle Of Cold Himalayan Desert!

If there is Heaven on Earth, we surely were lucky to have visited it. Nubra Valley welcomed us with some beautiful landscapes, the deep horizon with different shades of blue, massive brown mountains, vast uninhabited land with lush green patches, amazing roads and the only company that we had was Shyok river guiding us right into Heaven!

The ride to Heaven was via the much celebrated Khardung La Pass. The roads are challenging to say the least and landslides being a norm, road maintenance work is a regular occurrence and that leads to traffic jam. Considering the tough terrain and the obstacles that come up, patience is the key. On our way, we were stuck in a massive traffic jam as an Army truck had a flat tire. It was sad to see that a few people were not willing to wait despite being aware that the best effort was put in to ensure that the traffic is cleared but a few tourist vehicles and bikes were just in a rush. With the focus clearly on the destination, sadly these folks failed to enjoy the journey.

After submitting the form at North Pullu check post, we proceeded towards Diskit and Hunder and were treated with winding mountain roads that were an absolute delight. Though Diskit is only 120 km from Leh the roads are treacherous and steep but the valley is very beautiful. The tough and tiring ride was totally worth getting completely covered in dirt, mud and breathing in diesel fumes when we laid our eyes on the magical Hunder sand dunes from the highway. The little green oasis in middle of the desert was such a stunning sight and we were reminded of few movie scenes portraying Egypt.

It was surprising to see these dunes completely surrounded by hills with a few of them being snowy peaks. Around the dunes was a village filled with greenery and agricultural fields as well plus spotting a river cutting through the dunes was an unimaginable sight. At first, you might assume it is a mirage but in this case the closer you get to the dunes you are proved wrong and you can see the beautiful river through the dunes and it is so crystal clear that you can count the stones on the river bed. Nature is indeed truly amazing.

Sometimes these spectacular sights of Nature make us feel like it is fine if these places are not touched by humans so that they remain pristine. Being travelers this would be an irony as travellers crave for places that are natural wonders and are so amazingly beautiful. However, we are aware of the harsh reality that once humans reach the place it is just a matter of time before all the natural beauty is stripped off and replaced with concrete and trash. Some treasures should not be visible to the human eye for their own benefit.

Apart from the striking natural beauty and the double humped ship of the desert, the most amazing aspect was unlike Jaisalmer sand dunes there were no hawkers selling snacks and beer. Thus saving the place from turning into one big trash can. However, gracious visitors have still managed to dirty the place.

The double humped bactrian camels are the star attractions and one an take a camel safari.The high number of tourists reflected in hunder dunes for the camel safari. There is a good waiting period for the safari.  A 15 min to 1 hour safari is charged Rs.200-600 respectively. The entry charges for sand dunes is Rs.20 for bikes.

We took a nice calm walk in the sand dunes skipping the camel safari. It was one of the best travel experiences to see the sun disappear behind the hills and have stunning views of the Diskit Gompa with company of massive Maitreya statue.

We were very surprised to see plenty of tourist vehicles on this stretch. The sheer high number of tempo travellers, taxis and bikes took us by surprise.  It is high time that authorities come up with a logical system and maybe put a cap on the number of vehicles that ply on this route. The massive amount of pollution and carbon footprint left behind could have devastating effects on the fragile Eco system. There were times when we were directly exposed to massive amount of diesel fumes of commercial trucks. Our already very dirty riding trousers turned charcoal black and our eyes started burning to the point that it started watering and we even found it very difficult to breathe.

The view of the massive Diskit Gompa is stunning from every angle we looked. Hunder is just 7 km from Diskit and is a perfect place to watch sunset. Massive Diskit monastery which takes center stage would easily be one of the biggest monasteries in the whole of Ladakh. The steep road leading up to the monastery made us wonder how they managed to built such a monument while it was accessible only by trek in the 14th Century. The view of Nubra valley from the monastery is breathtaking to say the least. Most parts of the monastery are off bound for tourists while the ones that are open are absolutely stunning. The Kali mata Mandir has a series of amazingly well carved sculptures, now restored centuries old paintings and thankas. Adjacent to the Monastery is the massive Maitreya statue, recently constructed and is over looking the valley. Entry fee to the Monastery is Rs.30 per person.

We preferred to stay in Diskit which offers good number of stay options but there are not many good dine in options in both places. Throughout the trip, we have been extremely lucky with good food or great food but for one lunch in Diskit. The second day too our guesthouse was not serving lunch and two hungry souls walked in search of food. After a few hotels turning us down, we walked into hotel 'Olthang.' It was such a good news for us when the receptionist said they would serve lunch. Our order was very simple rice, dal tadka and masala omelette. The tadka was simply amazing with good flavor and plenty of coriander seeds and a healthy load of oil. The food tasted heavenly and we wiped our plates clean. A heavy lunch for two costed us Rs.270. Their service was also excellent.

During our stay in Diskit, we checked into 'Kharyok Guest house' which is on the main road. The rooms were pried at Rs.900 and were brilliant. The room had amazing soft mattress and pillows with super soft and thick quilt. The guest house has an amazing green garden and homemade badminton court. Running hot water is provided from 6-11 am and the buffet dinner served here was fresh food right from the farm and was lip smacking. Dinner was priced at Rs.150 per person and had a very good spread of dal, rice, super soft rotis, mixed vegetable, salad and papad.

During our two nights stay here, there was power cut for several hours but we absolutely had no issue with that as we spent long hours in the sit out that offered amazing views of Himalayas. The rooms have TV and they also offer Wifi. Their dining room is very pretty and cozy. Given the remoteness of the place it is absolutely justified if they have power cuts. They even have solar water heater and in case you need hot water in the evening they provide it in buckets. In the remote regions of Ladakh, we experienced how awesome and powerful the impact of clean natural energy source could be. Right next to our guest house was a massive stream with clean water. The thundering sound of the flowing stream was so soothing to our ears.

The climate here in Ladakh is highly unpredictable. Though it falls in the rain shadow area while we were on a lengthy road trip (June to July) here it did rain and drizzle a few times. One minute the skies were clear and deep blue and just like that the condition became over cast and gloomy. It drizzled for a few minutes and then there was sun shine and that is why we always had our rain gear handy. During our second day in Dishkit, there was thundering, heavy showers and the bikers coming from Leh had a tough time riding to Dishkit and were stuck in crazy traffic jam.

Our adventurous ride back from Diskit to Leh via Kardung La commenced early in the morning. D-ue to the previous day's rain there were landslides in a few spots, luckily nothing serious that could have halted our as well as other travelers journey. There were several patches where the stream runs by the road that were over flowing on the highway. Being an early bird has it's own perks as for the first 25 km from Diskit to Khalsar we did not see a single vehicle on either side of the road. And in no time we reached the green Khardung la village and it was such a pleasant ride.

Just a few kilometers from here we reached the North Pullu check post took a good break, geared up to encounter steep slopes, extreme cold weather and the unforgiving nalas or water crossing on the highway. The entire stretch of 30 km between north and south pullu are such a delightful adventure or a nightmare experience depending on who you ask. In our opinion it was such an adventure. During our ride we crossed 24 nalas of which 7 were massive. En route we stopped at K top clicked a few pics and reached Leh in 4 hours.

Do stock up enough fuel for the to and fro journey. The only fuel pump in Diskit is in absolute shambles and unreliable as it is the only petrol pump for the locality in Diskit. It was in such an interesting sight- the machines were old, rusted and stripped naked and the pumps are hand cranked.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Riding to Khardung La - a Memory To Behold!

Every biker waits eagerly an entire year for the summer months of June to August- the time when snow is cleared in high altitude Himalayas and the mountain passes are open, perfect time for a road trip to Leh. The icing on the cake is riding your bike on the treacherous road that takes you to ONE of the highest motorable roads on Earth- the Khardung La at 18300 feet above sea level.

Also known as the Pass of Lower Castle, it is the gateway to Shyok and Nubra Valley and the far end being the Siachen glaciers. Even before the roads were laid, it was an important trading route to Kashgar in Central Asia with close to 10000 horses and camels that used to ply on this route annually. The Khardung La Road, built in 1976 and maintained by BRO, is of utmost importance as it carries supplies to Army posted at Siachen. It was made open to public motor vehicles from 1988 and since then many a automobile and bike companies have run expeditions on this pass.

Though claimed to be the highest motorable road on Earth, it is one of the many highest roads. Khardung La is 40 km away from Leh and the climb is very steep from 14000 to 18000 feet. Hardly a few kilometers into the ride, for the first time in our trip we were stopped by the Leh taxi union guys. The Leh taxi union does not allow vehicles apart from J&K registration to visit Nubra and Pangong Tso as they feel other states Taxis are eating up their income. Other state vehicles that are not rented are allowed without any problem, Since we were on our own bike we just had a casual chat and they did not even bother checking our bike papers. But they were pretty serious in their job and were scrutinizing other rented bikes and were asking for rental receipt to check where the bike was hired.

We were amazed by the winding roads and the gorgeous scenery that welcomed us. No words can explain the beauty that was around us. En-route, there is a view point from where the beautiful snow clad mountains are visible and is a sight to behold. A perfect place to stop over and take some memorable pictures.

The road condition until South Pullu check post, approx. 24 km, is narrow but spotless and awesome black top. Also note that the roads until South Pullu though narrow are a treat but can quickly turn dangerous as there is a lot of inward heavy vehicular traffic and riding on those narrow roads can be challenging with a few of the trucks refusing to give way for oncoming vehicles so it's best to be cautioned and ride safe.

At the South Pullu check post we were asked to provide a self declared form with traveler details by the J&K police. The forms are available in a shop opposite the check post for Rs 10 each. Just basic information about the vehicle and traveler are required. If you are travelling further from Khardung La to Nubra valley, an additional form is required and this form needs to be submitted at the North Pullu check post. However, do regularly check official site to know if there are any changes in permit procedure.

The road condition from South Pullu to Khardung La and North Pullu, if you are heading to Nubra valley, close to 15 and 30 km respectively, will be an absolute test for any rider and pillion but it definitely guarantees breathtaking mountain vistas and adrenaline rush. The snowy mountain ranges are any Nature lovers or photographers delight.

This road is a testing condition for man and the machine. To enhance our motorbike's performance. a few kilometers before reaching K top, we removed the air filter. This helped in ensuring that the bike does not struggle much and smoothly climbs the altitude. However, if you still find your bike lagging and not able to give you the desired power output, tweaking the carburetor setting would definitely help. All you need is a screwdriver and obviously you need to know what you are changing.

Reaching Khardung La Top is an accomplishment in itself. The views of the valley, the mountains and the clumps of ice around makes the entire trip not just worthwhile but the whole journey becomes an experience in itself, a once in a lifetime experience. To celebrate, there is chai and piping hot maggi that is available at the army canteen here. Khardung La has an army base. Also, you will need to get in a long queue to get a picture clicked next to the sign board.

It would be smart and very sensible to leave very early from Leh. There are a lot of nalas or glacier melts that one has to encounter en-route and as the day progresses the intense heat melts the snow rapidly and the gentle stream like nalas gain massive momentum and are like raging river. This makes crossing these nalas extremely difficulty for bikers so the earlier one crosses over the better it is. Always remember to maintain good momentum (not over speeding) while crossing nalas. If the water is rough ask your pillion to get down and crossover by foot. Waterproof shoes and gaiters would be life savers in the unfortunate event of you putting your foot down as these could save your feet from getting wet and help in avoiding frost bites.

A few things to keep in mind while riding to K Top/ Tips-

Leave as early as possible to avoid massive nalas and traffic jams.
Be geared up as it can get cold.
Keep rain gear handy especially if you are on the bike as the weather is unpredictable .
Be patient, traffic jams are a norm here.
Keep in mind there are no places to stay on the way so time your trip accordingly.
Carry some munchies as you do not know how much time you will spend reaching K Top.
Also ensure that you do not litter the place.
Carry all ID and vehicle related documents.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Phyang Monastery- Off The Tourist Radar!

For a patient traveler there are plenty of unbelievable experiences waiting at every turn. And we experienced the same as we wandered around the magnificent hills of Ladakh- a land where Buddhism flourished and till date continues to be so. Some 20 km from Leh en route Nimmo in a quiet corner lies the stunning Phyang Monastery.

The deviation from the highway turned out to be even better with roads pretty much similar to the one leading to Stok Palace. The winding roads with just the monastery in sight and green fields on either side made the start of our journey even more beautiful. There is a blue mountain right behind the monastery and this is how the monastery got it's name. Phyang and Lamayuru are the only 2 monasteries in Ladakh that belong to the Dri-gung-pa sect of Tibetian Buddhism. Also called as Gangon Tashi Chodzong, it has a 900 year old museum that houses ancient thankas, age old wall paintings and has Chinese, Tibetan and Mongolian firearms and weapons. It is home to around 100 monks and houses a school to impart Buddhist Teachings along with modern education.

Upon entering the monastery we were greeted by two kids, one of them a lama, discussing the colors to be used to color their books. The monastery is massive and we were in time to be a part of their prayer rituals. We heard them play their traditional musical instruments and offer prayers. Like other monasteries, the paintings, sculptures and thankas here are simply breathtaking. We were left in awe looking at the wall paintings and they had a stark resemblance to the wall paintings found in Ajanta Caves.

The newer wing of the monastery has a massive statue of Lord Buddha in a calm meditating pose. The walls and ceiling of the hall have beautiful paintings and the massive halls provide a calm and peaceful environment. This place surely has a very positive vibe and is perfect for meditation. Though we did not meditate, we were automatically drawn to sit down, soak in the atmosphere and surroundings and surely we left with wider smiles and lighter souls.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Why Spituk Gompa & Stok Palace Are A Must Visit In Ladakh.

Apart from the tons of places to visit within Leh city, there are a lot of interesting attractions within 20 km radius around the town that are equally spectacular and guarantee a very calm, peaceful and soul searching experience.

While most of the tourists head back to city after visiting Hall of Fame, almost a kilometer ahead lies one of the oldest monasteries of Ladakh- Spituk Gompa which is secluded but captivating.

Some 8 km from Leh city is one of the oldest monasteries- Spituk, also known as Pethup Gompa among locals. Founded in the 14th century. Spituk means Exemplary and this monastery got it's name when a translator, Rinchen Zangpo, visited this place and said an exemplary religious community would rise here. The monastery has a massive statue of Kali whose face is covered for the entire year but for one day during the annual festival held at the monastery. It also has a fine collection of antiques such as ancient thankas, arms and masks.

The main temple also has a throne reserved for the Dalai Lama. The inner sanctum of the monastery is mesmerizing with amazing and massive sculptures, carved centuries ago that greet the devotees and tourists. The craftsmanship is bound to leave anyone speechless with the sculptures so lively that looking at the demon avatar might give you jitters. And it is not just limited to the sculptures, their thankas, paintings and monuments are indisputable proof.

Situated on a hill, the Spituk monastery offers view of the Indus river and the surrounding hills plus uninterrupted and amazing views of Leh airbase from the parking lot. The revving of a massive engine echoed around the valley and for a while we were only able to hear the aircraft hidden behind the hills and out of nowhere like a magic trick it appeared just few meters away from us and a couple of feet from the mighty hills. We were very lucky to see an air force cargo plane make a dramatic landing just a couple of hundred feet away from us. The pilot has to be exceptionally skillful to land a jumbo jet in such challenging terrain and short run ways.

We decided to head from Spituk monastery to one of the best monuments in whole of Ladakh - Stok Palace and Museum. Stok gompa was founded by Lama Lhawang Lotus in 14th century.  It has a library that houses 108 volumes of Kangyur- a collection of teachings of Lord Buddha. The Stok Palace was built in 1820 and is still the summer home of the Ladakhi Royalty from the Namgyal dynasty of Ladakh.

It is thousand times better and well kept than Leh Palace. This amazing wooden and brick monument is far away from the city and hence sees far less tourists. The best part was the road that lead us to this monument. In the middle of nowhere with absolute gorgeous panoramic views of the surrounding hills, there was spotless tarmac road taking us to Stok and several small chortens announced the arrival of our destination.

The Stok museum is a rich source of information into the royal life of the Kingdom. Age old antiques are preserved and kept in best condition with different galleries dedicated to different artifacts. There are around hundreds of fine stunning exhibits, each a rich source of valuable information and the most amazing exhibits were 35 lively Thankas from 1500- 1530 AD, water container made of Yak skin, elaborate gold and silver ornaments embedded with precious stones, a very intriguing knotted sword- a steel sword completely twisted like a knot by the oracle of the Kings. Plus gold weighing scales that are 500 years old, antique locks, trumpet made of human thigh bone, last but not the least an absolute gorgeous, spotless elaborate ancient Tibetan kitchen. This is just the glimpse of the best of the museum.

Right at the entrance of the museum is a massive wine fermenter made out of Yak skin. Also, within the museum is a chorten made of gold and studded with precious gems dedicated to the Queen. Photography inside the museum is prohibited. There is an entry fee of Rs 70 for Indians. It remains open during the summer months from May to October from 8 am to 7 pm. If you have deep pockets you can even stay in one of the rooms here, the tariff starts at Rs 20,000 per night. There is an amazing cafe that serves good food and offers stunning views. Their mint tea is a must try. The views of Chortens and a huge Buddha statue makes it picture perfect.

There are 3 different ways to reach Spituk gompa and Stok Palace- One is a kachcha or rugged country road and the other one is by accessing the highway. The best route would be to back track to Leh town and then take the Leh-Manalai highway road till Choglamasar and post that take the deviation to Stok Palace. Though the kachcha road is a tough terrain, the scenic beauty that it offers makes it worthwhile. It would be a great idea to take this road if you want to enjoy the scenic beauty, landscapes, and the river giving you company and if you are in no rush to reach the Palace then this would be perfect.

We ended up taking the rugged country road, Stok Road starting from Spituk Gompa via Spituk village. This road is sans tarmac and is a very bumpy ride with mud and slush giving you company. But the advantage was we were the only people on the entire stretch and we had the massive Indus river giving us company. Though covered in dust for most part of the road, it was fun riding through remote parts of Ladakh enjoying the natural beauty.