3 Idiots, acetazolamide, acute mountain sickness, AMS, Baralacha La, Beas, Bod Dal, Buddhism, Chandrabhaga, Chang La, Char Chinar, Chenab, Cheshme Shahi Bagh, China, Dal Lake, Dalai Lama, Deepak Tal, Diamox, Dras, Fotu La, Gagribal, Gelugpa, Gopadri Hill, Gurdwara Pathar Sahib, Himachal Pradesh, Himalayas, India, Jammu & Kashmir, Jispa, Karakoram Range, Kargil, Kashmir, Khardung La, Lachalang La, Ladakh, Leh, Line of Actual Control, Line of Control, LoAC, LoC, Lokut Dal, Magnetic Hill, Manali, Manikaran, Nagin, Namika La, Namki La, Nichiren Buddhism, Nipponzan Myohoji Daisanga, Nishat Bagh, Nubra Valley, Nullah Sindh, Pakistan, Pang, Pangong Tso, Peace Pagoda, Pir Panjal Range, pulse oximeter, Rohtang Pass, Rupa Lank, Sarchu, Shalimar Bagh, Shankaracharya Temple, Shanti Stupa, Shayok, shikara, Sindhu, Sino-Indian War, Sonmarg, Srinagar, Sukhna Lake, Suraj Tal, Taglang La, Tenzin Gyatso, Thikse, Tibet, travelogue, Uleytokpo, Vashist Kund, Zoji La
I have always preferred the conquest of nature over its appreciation, and vacations are meant to be about monuments, museums, music, cultural shows, and new cuisines. If you have seen one tree, you have seen them all; if you want to see water fall, turn on a tap! However, after decades of adhering to a strict urban code, I finally went on a quasi nature tour to the Ladakh region of Kashmir last month. Mountains – and oceans – are an exception to my general avoidance of nature; if I am not celebrating the pinnacle of human achievement, I would rather be nowhere near any of it.
Anyway, we decided to start the trip from Chandigarh and drive up to Ladakh rather than fly directly into Leh. This was because it was thought best not to annoy the altitude gods with our stupidity – a rapid ascent from sea level to approximately 11,000 feet could cause unease and difficulty in breathing for some. Although the causes of acute mountain sickness (AMS) or altitude sickness have not been distilled into a formula, caution is advised at anything over 8,200 feet. It can afflict anyone regardless of gender, age, or even fitness levels. The best way to control AMS is to maintain a slow rate of ascent to allow the body to acclimatise to the rarer air at the higher altitude and to restrict physical activity to a minimum until then.
We did not want to waste our time at Chandigarh as we waited for our real vacation to start, and so some of us ventured out to take in Chandigarh’s sights. There is little to befuddle the mind with wonder but the Rock Garden does evoke a brief moment of curiosity at the 20,000 rock forms created by one Nek Chand some half a century ago. The Open Hand, designed by Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, better known as Le Corbusier, is another site for idle curiosity. Sukhna Lake, a three-km² artificial water body created in 1958, has become a part of the identity of Chandigarh. The picturesque lakefront appeared to be a popular hangout for the Chandigarhites. I am told that the Rose Garden is Asia’s largest; sprawling over 30 acres, it boasts of over 1,600 species of plants including a number of rose species as well as medicinal plants such as bael, bedda nut, harar, camphorwood, and kaalvaripoo.
Early next morning, we set off for Manali. Chandigarh is at an altitude of about 1,000 feet and Manali is at approximately 6,700 feet. The 5,500 feet climb would be made over some 290 kilometres and, to my horror, ten hours! It would be a good idea if the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh were to get acquainted with the concept of roads – they are these long, gray ribbon-like things upon which pedestrians and carts can travel more easily. The Phoenicians had them and the Romans perfected them over two millennia ago; there is little reason Himachal cannot catch up.
The rough paths – they are really not roads – have had one unintended consequence and that is the quality of many of the state transport drivers in Himachal – it is incredible how easily two buses can pass each other on a single-lane, pot-holed path. Of course, I would have rather not had this demonstration in the twilight hours on a path along a precipice that fell at least 1,000 feet straight down into a cold river!
We reached Manali a little roughed up but still quite excited about the coming days. The town was a huge disappointment – Manali is famous as a hill station and holiday destination but the place is congested and filthy. It is just as well that the place is ensconced in some really beautiful surroundings; as long as you kept your eyes on the hills and mountains, you just might believe you were in paradise. However, the steady stream of tourists has allowed good hotels to develop and lodging should not be a problem in Manali.
Late July is not rafting season, and sadly, we had to forgo our plans to navigate Grade II & III rapids on the Beas river. I hear kayaking is also possible but not in the months when the water level in the river is low – July, August, and September; paragliding is also available.
For the less active, there are other sights. Manikaran, the site where Hindus believe the sage Manu recreated human life after the floods, is 85 kms away and Manali itself has several hot springs such as the Vashist Kund and even a temple to Ghatotkacha that will tickle the curiosity of Mahabharata lovers. Hidimbi Devi Temple, sitting in the midst of a cedar forest, is quite a pleasant sight. The slight drizzle when I was there made it even more alluring.
Early next morning, we started for Jispa. The town is a pit stop on the way to Leh and gives the first glimpse of the days to come and the stupendous mountainous beauty we will drive through. With a population of about 330, Jispa has less people than an average residential building in Bombay! The journey from Manali to Jispa is barely 138 kms but can take up to eight hours. You will be driving through landslide country, so if you are unlucky, it can take even longer. To reach Jispa, we had to drive through the Rohtang Pass at an altitude of slightly over 13,050 feet. Reassuringly meaning ‘pile of corpses,’ Rohtang is on the eastern Pir Panjal Range of the Himalayas and connects Kullu Valley to Lahaul Valley. The north side of Rohtang lies in the rain shadow of the mountain range and this is easily visible as the vegetation disappears very quickly after the pass and is replaced by sand and rocks. The Border Roads Organisation has been planning to build a nine-kilometre long tunnel that would enable year-round travel along the route and shorten the journey time by a good five hours. The project, started in 2010, has reached the halfway mark as of the summer of 2014.
On the way, we stopped by a dhaba for tea where a very helpful gentleman explained to us, “In Himachal, it is best that you forget kilometres (when travelling from place to place); hours is a better unit!”
At this juncture, it is best that I warn you about how north Indians make tea. Even if one were to accept that milky and spiced concoction as a questionable species of tea, the sugary syrup they serve you would have been enough to knock Alexander the Great’s entire army into a deep diabetic coma! If only Porus had access to the vile substance… 🙂
At 10,500 feet, Jispa was also our first scheduled halt above the magic 8,200 feet mark above which one must be wary of AMS. Local wisdom suggested that we hang a little sachet of camphor around our necks to sniff on if we felt any shortness of breath. Nibbling on garlic, ginger or cloves is supposed to ease mild AMS as these herbs are supposed to thin the blood and make more efficient use of oxygen. We also stocked up on water, dates, and healthy snacks as hydration and small, easily digestible meals make high altitudes more bearable.
Oxygen cylinders are also available in Manali. If you are travelling in a jeep and not a bicycle or motorcycle as many tourists do, a large cylinder may be a wise insurance policy; make sure you know how to use it though. Smaller cylinders, offering about 400 ml of air are also available. These are quite useless generally but may be sufficient to get you to the nearest hospital if you need medical assistance. It is also advisable to carry a small supply of acetazolamide, commonly sold as Diamox in India. Consult your doctor before taking the pill, obviously, but the pill offers relief in an emergency for a short duration. As with any trip, a small supply of medicines for diarrhoea, antiperistalsis, fatigue, body aches, fever, and the like is also recommended.
After Manali, toilets will be harder to come by. This is particularly a problem for women and they may want to acquire an emergency supply of female urinary directory products such as pStyle, Go Girl, or Freshette that are popular among sports enthusiasts.
For someone used to urban civilisation, there was little for me to do in Jispa. The Beas seductively ran by close to our hotel and the cool air and the serenity of the place persuaded me to take a walk outside in the evening. I went up to the Beas to dip my feet in the icy cold water and spent a pleasant couple of hours ambling around, taking photographs and enjoying the towering mountains all around. Some piping hot jaggery-laden kashayam and a little MS Subbulakshmi would have truly hit the spot just about then.
So far, we had taken four nights to breach 10,000 feet. From Jispa, we proceeded on to Leh, a thousand feet higher at 11,500 feet. The distance between the two places is about 340 kms, a ten-hour drive on Himachal’s mountain tracks. Despite only a slight elevation between the point of origin and destination, we spent much of the day at greater altitudes as we had to go through several high passes such as Baralacha La (16,050 ft), Namki La (12,200 ft), Lachalang La (16,600 ft), and Taglang La (17,600 ft). Routes from Lahaul, Spiti, Ladakh, and Zanskar intersect at Baralacha La, making the pass more of a crossroad. Sarchu, the border crossing between Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir along this route, also lies at 14,000 feet and the Pang plateau, 50 kms across, is at 15,200 feet. The prolonged exposure to high altitudes may cause some discomfort and mild AMS.
One of the first things I was disabused of on this trip was the expectation of pristine mountain air. No matter the altitude, throughout my trip, I was subjected to diesel fumes and dust thrown up by vehicles ahead of us or passing us. I had expected the sun to be sharp at greater altitudes but the hot days and warm nights surprised me. By the end of each day’s tourism, I desperately wanted a cool bath. Not to get metrosexual on you, but some of you may need sunscreen lotions, chap stick, and moisturiser. Also, your hair will definitely need some tender loving care after this trip. I don’t know, maybe I have just been spoiled by the sweet waters of the Cauvery! By the way, if any of you are concerned about retaining your “wheatish complexion” until your fireside stroll in a month or so, I would suggest postponing the trip 🙂 Before the trip, I might have auditioned for the role of Kipling’s Mowgli but now, I may just have to learn the lines for Thackeray’s Sambo!
On the way to Leh, we also passed Deepak Tal, a small man-made lake at Patseo, and Suraj Tal, the third-highest lake in India at slightly over 16,000 feet. The lake is the source of the Chandra river, which becomes the Chandrabhaga in Himachal and Chenab in Jammu & Kashmir. The lake itself is fed by melting glaciers. We also passed near the Bagha Canyon. There, the glacial erosion has given some of the rocks interesting shapes.
Given the strenuous journey, it is best to check your oxygen levels with a pulse oximeter when you reach Leh. Most decent hotels should have a pulse oximeter available at the front desk and any reading below 80 should be a cause for concern. Your oxygen levels can drop further during the night as breathing during sleep is slower. A quick trip to the hospital – there is only one, the Sonam Norboo Memorial Hospital – might be the wiser course of action. Although the facility appears to lack modern equipment for any complex procedures, it sees hundreds of cases of AMS every week and even has a Tourist Ward for visiting AMS cases.
Leh seems to have been afflicted by that annoying northern European disease that makes them think that their climate is so spectacular in summers that there is no need for even a ceiling fan, let alone air conditioning. Unfortunately, the town can be uncomfortably hot with sharp sun during the day (28º C) and warm at night (11º C) in summers, with very few hotels offering fans. While I personally like cool temperatures (between 5º and -5º C), most people would, I suspect, prefer to visit in July and August rather than put up with nighttime temperatures as low as -15º C in December.
Ladakh is overwhelmingly Buddhist (77%) and Islam is the second-largest religion (18%) in the region. The local language is Ladakhi, part of the Tibetic family, which is written in the Tibetan script. Spoken by about 100,000 people, it has three or four dialects of which two are tonal. Interestingly, schools in Ladakh teach in English, Hindi, and Urdu but not Ladakhi. From what our guide told us, there seems to be some controversy about whether Ladakhi should be written in contemporary or classical Tibetan script. The people are ethnically Tibetan and little is known about their history before the 10th century. The importance of Leh was in the convergence of several ancient trade routes from Punjab, Srinagar, Yarkand, Lhasa, and Baltistan. Most foreign tourists in Leh are from France, Japan, and Germany. The French have funded solar panels and extensions to a few schools in the area, while the Japanese have built stupas and helped to preserve Buddhist heritage. Although most people visit Leh for its mountainous beauty, the town does have some sites of historical significance. Leh Palace, Zorawar Fort, and the Shey Monastery are worth a dekho as part of a city tour which we did on our first day.
The next day, we visited Pangong Tso. Although the roads in the vicinity of Karu and Leh are not bad, they deteriorate rapidly further out and the potholed dirt track to the endorheic lake was challenging to say the least. Despite being saline, Pangong freezes over in winter. The lake is about five kilometres wide and 134 kms long at its extremes, covering about 604 km2. Although the lake itself is at an altitude of 14,270 ft, we had to traverse Chang La (17,600 ft) which lies between Leh and Pangong and is the third-highest motorable pass in the world.
Pangong Tso may have achieved popularity with the filming of the climax of the Bollywood production, 3 Idiots, in 2009, but this serene spot has already been the victim of unwanted attention during China’s invasion of India in 1962. The Line of Actual Control, India’s de facto border with China, passes through Pangong Lake – approximately 70% of the water body falls in Chinese-occupied India. Khurnak Fort, half way up the lake, has been occupied by China since even earlier in 1952. For obvious reasons, boating is prohibited on the lake and there is a small Indian military base right next to it.
Special permits are required to visit Pangong Tso – Indian citizens need an Inner Line Permit and foreigners need either a Protected Areas Permit or a Restricted Areas Permit, I forget which. Make sure you have the necessary documentation or you could end up sorely disappointed.
The lake is supposed to attract various migratory birds during summer but there were none when I was there. Despite the recent tourist attention, the lake area remains sparsely populated with only five or six low-key dhabas to serve visitors, or more likely, the occasional soldier. In fact, one of them had closed early – at around 11 00 – when we visited for lack of vegetables!
After Pangong Tso, we moved on to Nubra Valley. Like most of Ladakh, the valley was also a cold and dry desert. However, the Nubra and Shyok rivers permit a little fertile area by the river banks and the green stands out like a beacon in the arid Ladakhi geography. Thankfully, the road was not too bad, or maybe I just thought so after my experience on the way to Pangong Tso! We had to pass through Khardung La, which is mistakenly proclaimed as the world’s highest motorable mountain pass. Recent and more accurate NASA Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) measurements show that the honour actually goes to Semo La (18,258 ft) in central Tibet and Khardung La is some 800 feet lower than the 18,380 feet advertised at the site.
Our destination in Nubra was Hunder. We stayed at some sort of “organic retreat” farmstead rather than a regular hotel. In essence, the vegetables our meals were prepared from were locally grown and without chemicals and our accommodations were tents rather than rooms. These tents, however, were hardly of the type young students use while backpacking through Europe in their gap year; rather, they reminded me of the sort generals used during military campaigns as recently as two hundred years ago if perhaps a tad smaller. The tents came equipped with cots, a small coffee table and chairs, and indoor plumbing.
Like Leh, Nubra is quite hot during the day with an unrelenting sun beating down on you. We reached our lodgings around lunch time and so our tents were only marginally better than ovens. However, we didn’t come all the way to Ladakh to take siestas! Most of us explored our eight-acre farm after tucking into the local goodies and made use of the hammocks, swings, and tree houses generously scattered over the property. By early evening, we headed over to check out the desert.
Hunder is famous, at least locally, for its silver sands. I was surprised to find two-humped Bactrian camels though in retrospect, I should not have been as Nubra lies close to the old Silk Route and Central Asia is nearby. Camels were apparently introduced to the region from Afghanistan over the old trading routes through the Karakoram. Rides were available with the usual tourist surcharge applied. Nearby was also an impromptu stall where one could get one’s photos taken in traditional Ladakhi costumes.
What struck me, however, was the sheer vastness and majesty of the mountains that no mute photograph can convey; one simply has to be there to feel Ladakh’s beauty. I took many photographs in that high altitude desert but coming home and looking at them on my computer, I am not filled with the same jaw-dropping wonderment I experienced just a few days ago. To try and give readers some estimate of the grandeur of the geography, in the adjacent photograph, you might spot a tiny white dot at about a quarter of a way in from the left and slightly below the half-way point vertically – that is a 14-seater minibus.
The evening at Nubra was pleasantly crisp and under the warm and soft comforter, I slept like a baby. Some of us had sat around a campfire the previous evening but I had retired to my tent with a lovely book on Phoenician and Carthaginian trade in the Mediterranean – there is only so much nature one can digest at a time! As if to remind us that we were not really “roughing it,” hot water was available in the taps in the morning and tea and breakfast was served in the dining hall.
Near Hunder is the Diskit Gompa. It is the oldest monastery in Nubra, dating back to around the 14th century and belonging to the Gelugpa sect of Buddhism. The prayers at the crack of dawn are supposed to be hypnotising but sadly, we lacked the discipline of the monks to get ready that early in the morning. A 100-ft statue of the Maitreya Buddha adorns the monastery, facing west towards Pakistan. Buddhists believe that the Maitreya is a future buddha, an incarnation to come and save mankind when the world has lost all sense of dharma. This is reminiscent of the Hindu belief in the dashavtara and Kalki but perhaps the methods employed by the two saviours will likely be slightly different 🙂
The view from the gompa, perched on a hill as usual, was spectacular. A Tibetan flag fluttered vigorously in the morning breeze, and the isolation of our location could not be starker. I think that is what I like about this quasi-nature tour – like the ocean, it is unstained, to a large extent, by hominids. After paying our respects, we returned to Leh. The gompa was nothing spectacular.
As far as I can tell, Buddhism has mostly lacked the drive for monumental architecture or art. Most of the monasteries I have visited are fairly similar in layout and artwork – situated on a hilltop and walls decorated with tales from the life of the Buddha. The intricate carvings, stunning artwork, and imperial flair one is used to from Belur, the Sistine Chapel, or Angkor Wat is missing. Worse, many monasteries have been modernised with scant regard for the traditional decor. Unassailable from a functional point of view, it yet diminishes the awe of the visitor. To be fair, there are a few amazing Buddhist monuments such as the caves at Ajanta in Maharashtra and the Sanchi Stupa in Madhya Pradesh and the construction of domes, especially in those days, is nothing to be scoffed at.
The next day, we said goodbye to Leh and set off for Uleytokpo. On the way, we stopped by the Kargil War Memorial. One thing I can vouch for is that Indians do not know how to make war memorials. The Hall of Fame in Leh was cramped and poorly ventilated. Though the memorial left visitors with a sombre understanding of the sacrifice Indian soldiers made at Kargil, the quality and diversity of exhibits was lacking. The testosterone-saturated imperial hubris one notices in war memorials across Russia, Europe, and the United States was not present and instead the Hall of Fame served as a quiet reminder of a brave and honourable bunch of boys.
We also visited Shanti Stupa on Chanspa Hill on the way out of Leh. It is one of the 80 or so Peace Pagodas around the world as envisioned by Nichidatsu Fijii. Inspired by Mohandas Gandhi’s message of world peace, Fijii founded the Nipponzan Myohoji Daisanga, a sub-sect of Nichiren Buddhism. The stupa was inaugurated by Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama, in 1991, and offers an excellent view of Leh and its surroundings.
On the way to Uleytokpo, we made a quick stop at the Gurdwara Pathar Sahib. Maintained by the Indian Army, the gurdwara commemorates Guru Nanak’s stay in the area in 1517 during his second Udasi. Further along the road was Magnetic Hill, a popular stop for tourists travelling by road. Magnetic hills, or gravity hills as they are also called, are an interesting optical phenomenon in which the topography of the area makes a slight downhill slope appear to be an uphill slope. As a result, cars parked in the vicinity appear to roll up the hill and this is attributed to the strong magnetic properties of the hill! There are dozens of such hill all around the world.
Our convoy also stopped at Moonland, near Lamayuru. Some of the rock face in the area has undergone glacial erosion and the softer, golden yellow rocks, have acquired interesting shapes. While I would hesitate to compare it to lunar landscape, the formations are nevertheless quite different from their surroundings. As we drove on, we passed by the confluence of the Zanskar and Sindhu rivers, both muddied and brown from the soil they have accumulated from the various mountain streams and tributaries feeding them.
The road, initially quite good, deteriorated rapidly as we got further from Leh and we were stuck at one point due to ongoing construction work by a bridge. Thankfully, we lost only some 30-45 minutes; in these parts, blockages due to falling rocks can last for the better part of a day even. After that little delay, the roads got better again. Pushing on, we visited the Likir and Alchi monasteries close to our final destination. Both were founded around 1000 CE and are presently administered by the Gelugpa Order. Wood does not last well, unfortunately, and the monasteries have undergone several renovations and repairs during which care was not taken to preserve the original designs. As a result, neither monastery had that gravitas one expects of a thousand-year-old structure. Nonetheless, these were certainly two of the better gompas we visited in Ladakh.
Although Uleytokpo offers rafting, rock climbing, and is close to several monasteries like Ridzong, Temisgam, Lamayuru, and Mangyu, that was not our reason for halting there. The searing sun since morning when we left Leh was getting difficult to bear and the several stops we had made, not to mention the steep climbs to the two monasteries, had exacted their price on our enthusiasm and stamina. After all, we were still at approximately 10,000 feet. We stayed in tents – not as nice as at Hunder – and the food was passable. Yet more important that that was our onward journey. If we pushed on to our final destination for this leg of the trip – Kargil – we might have got there by late evening. However, that would leave our drivers exhausted and they would not be able to start early the next day towards Srinagar. The need to start early towards Srinagar lies at 11,600 feet, at the notorious Zoji La.
The next morning, we headed off to Kargil from Uleytokpo. The drive was uneventful and we covered the distance – about 70 kms – in four hours. We passed through two of the highest passes on the Leh-Srinagar Highway, Fotu La (13,500 ft) and Namika La (12,150 ft). Our hotel in Kargil resembled a dirty chawl in Bombay’s Bhindi Bazaar but there are no alternatives in the town. On this trip, there were several things I found unsatisfactory but one has to consider what the other options are before complaining. In places as remote as Kargil or Uleytokpo that are not even accessible from the rest of the country all year round, a little adjustment is required.
After lunch and a quick siesta, we set off for the Line of Control, approximately 20 kms from Kargil. Honestly, it was hard to distinguish the border from any other part of the mountain range surrounding us. Yet with binoculars, camouflaged dugouts, lookout points, and ammunition bunkers can be seen in the mountainside on the Indian side. Clearly, our local guide knew where many of them were for he pointed out some of the structures to me. The Pakistani side was not quite as visible form our vantage point but a small mazar and some of their barracks could be seen.
Our guide informed us about the role the townspeople played during the Kargil war, many of them volunteering to transport food, medicines, and ammunition for the Army. Kargil town was spared most of the butchery of warfare but a few errant Pakistani shells did kill three or four dozen civilians; most, however, had left for safer areas. The district is over 80% Muslim but nearly three quarters of that number are Shia.
The next morning, we left Kargil for Srinagar via that dreaded Zoji La. We started at the crack of dawn as we wanted to traverse the pass early before anyone had an opportunity to get into an accident or traffic bottleneck on the narrow road. Yet we also wanted to hit the Kargil War Memorial at Dras before leaving Ladakh. The memorial at Dras was a finer experience than at Leh but the exhibit space was still cramped and the displays were largely wartime press photographs. There was also a power outage during our visit. However, Tololing, Knoll, Three Pimples, and Hump overlooked the memorial at Dras with Batra Point a little further off, and being in the shadow of some of the peaks the war was fought over lent the lacking gravitas.
What really saved the visit was an enthusiastic Army tour guide who took us through each exhibit, explaining the significance of each position, weapons system, and victory. We were told that journalist Barkha Dutt visits the memorial every July 26 – Vijay Diwas – and she has also made it into one of the memorial’s exhibits detailing the role of the Indian press during the war. The Dras Kargil War Memorial also had a section of the ground marked off as Vir Bhumi which held plaques for each fallen Indian soldier in any of the country’s wars in the Dras Sector.
Interestingly, one of the soldiers I met at Dras was from Nepal. Although it is common knowledge that Nepalis, Bhutanese, and Tibetans can serve in the Indian Army, those would probably be rare cases I thought and did not expect to meet one. I suppose the pay and benefits of the much larger Indian military must be better than those of the Nepalese or Bhutanese armed forces.
Without any exaggeration, I can say that Zoji La was the scariest road experience of my life; there was no road, the dirt track was quite narrow, there were potholes, vehicles ahead of you threw up dust and gave out diesel exhaust fumes, and the gravel made any sudden braking perilous. Furthermore, the one-lane pass traffic going in both directions, including lorries, minivans, sports utility vehicles, military convoys, and construction equipment. If that did not deter you, there was the added risk of falling rocks, accidents, and bottlenecks.
After a harrowing drive through Zoji La, we finally left Ladakh and came into the Kashmir Valley. We stopped at Sonmarg for a few minutes in case any of us wanted to hug and kiss the ground after Zoji La and drove on to Srinagar. Nestled as it is between the Kolhoi, Machoi, Sirbal, and Amarnath peaks, Sonmarg was a pleasant place. It was the first time we had seen ample vegetation since we crossed the Rohtang Pass over a week ago and it was welcome. The scenery was beautiful as we drove along the Nallah Sindh towards Srinagar but as we came close to the state summer capital, the disappointment slowly started to set in.
Srinagar is little more than an overgrown shantytown, with few of the modern building facades one is accustomed to in a large city. It is hot, dusty, and businesses operate out of old storefronts everywhere. Everywhere, faces wore a frustrated resignation which I assumed to be with the state of the economy and the political situation. Of course, there are a couple of posh neighbourhoods, particularly off the lake, but the city seemed tired and lacked a vitality common to any major town or city. Since we had reached Srinagar just as the Amarnath yatra was about to start, the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) was out in full force. Our hotel manager informed me that the military presence in the city, though not as heavy, is constant and visible even at other times.
In all my trips, I make it a point to talk to local people – waiters, receptionists, porters, nurses, vendors, drivers – about the region’s political and socioeconomic condition. Despite its remoteness, Ladakh suffers from food inflation just as much as the rest of India and in some cases even worse. While few people have any complaints about education until the secondary level, there is a need for local colleges and jobs are not easy to come by.
In Ladakh, I was surprised to find a very positive view of the Indian military. The men in uniform provided jobs and supported the local economy; the Army even supported local schools, employed women, and allowed their vehicles to be used to transport school children and women home late in the evening. Many families in the area had at least one serving member in the Armed Forces. India’s men in uniform seem to have done a fine job in winning the hearts and minds of the local population in Ladakh. This is in stark contrast to the resentment felt against the Indian military in the Kashmir Valley, the subject of all news reports.
Ladakhis do not seem to be too fond of the people in the Valley. Our driver hinted at problems with racism, a generally hostile visage, and problems with anger management in the Valley. As if the Fates had conspired to prove his point, our driver was randomly pulled over twice as soon as he entered Srinagar.
One more thing Ladakhis seem concerned about is the constant Chinese intrusions into India. A stone’s throw away from the LoAC, none of the people I talked to accepted Delhi’s exhortations that China did not pose a threat to India. Perhaps their ethnic closeness to Tibetans, or their observation of China’s brutal suppression of Buddhism in Tibet, makes the fear a lot more personal to Ladakhis. In fact, I was asked why India did not take the Chinese intrusions seriously. I had no answer for my Ladakhi hosts other than Delhi’s criminal negligence of defence capability development over the last seven decades.
The next day, our first stop in Srinagar was the Shankaracharya Temple. Perched atop Gopadri Hill, one can get a splendid view of Srinagar from the top. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed in the temple premises and we could only capture the sight with our eyes. There is a 265-step climb to the temple but the steps are wide with a gentle gradient; moreover, tiny rest areas have been provided every fifteen steps so that the physically unable may take their time and climb with comfort. The top-most structure houses a Shiva lingam and the Adi Shankaracharya tapas sthal is slightly below and off to the side. There is also a Gauri Kund off the top of the stairs.
After saluting Kerala’s greatest export, we ventured out onto Dal Lake in a shikara. Dal Lake is in fact a combination of four smaller lakes – Lokut Dal, Bod Dal, Gagribal, and Nagin. Together, they cover an area of 21 km2. We intended to go to Char Chinar, or Rupa Lank, on Bod Dal, and then swing by the Floating Market on the way back. Rupa Lank, meaning Silver Island, was built by Murad Bakhsh, Aurangzeb’s youngest brother, in the mid-17th century.
Dal Lake reinforced what I was already feeling – that Srinagar is a filthy place. Sections of the lake were overgrown with unseemly flora and there were beer cans, crisps packets, and other garbage floating on the lake. The lake clearly had serious trouble with hypertrophication. The famed houseboats appeared decrepit though I am sure some nice ones are available for a fortune. That traditional image of paradise in Kashmir, the so-called Switzerland of India, was dead for me.
Char Chinar was certainly beautiful, though I am not sure what the fuss is really about. The trees are ubiquitous in the eastern Himalayas and are an important part of Kashmiri tradition which uses them for dyes, delicate furniture, and medicine. Chinar leaves turn a deep and beautiful red in November, a sight worth seeing. On the island, there are a few of benches and a little stand where you can take pictures of yourself dressed in Kashmiri garb. There was also a tea vendor on the island offering Kashmiri kahwa. In Arabic, Turkish, and Persian, kahwa means coffee but in Kashmir, it is an interesting concoction of saffron, almonds, cardamom, and walnuts brewed in water. Apparently, some people also add honey to the mix. I suppose one can call it saffron tea for the sake of clarification.
On the way back, we went by the Floating Market. Despite the fancy name and promotion by the tourism department of the state, the bazaar on water was just a few merchants selling trinkets and Kashmir-specific products like pashmina shawls and saffron from seedy-looking houseboats that did not inspire any confidence. Needless to say, these places are tourist traps and there is bound to be a hefty tourist surcharge tacked on to their prices. If you really wanted to buy these products, it might be a better idea to ask your hotel manager or receptionist to recommend trustworthy shops. Given the demand for some products like saffron and cashmere, they are also most likely available in major cities near you where you know the merchant and can go back to him if you are not satisfied.
The afternoon programme was truly fantastic – for those who had never seen grass or trees before. We visited the Mughal gardens of Srinagar, the Cheshme Shahi Bagh, Nishat Bagh, and Shalimar Bagh. Each of these three gardens could have been beautiful – as far as gardens go – had they been better maintained. Instead, these once royal respites from the heat now boast withering flower bushes, litter, and out-of-order fountains.
What is sad about the Kashmir Valley is that there is much that can be done at a local level to improve the place and attract tourists to boost the economy. The gardens can be maintained, the lakes can be cleaned up, and a little order can be imposed upon traffic. With neat roads and enticing storefronts, Srinagar can easily become India’s own little Shangri-La. I suppose this can apply to most tourist spots in India but in the Valley, holding out for a perfect tomorrow might be hurting a viable present.
Thus ended our trip, from the Rock Garden of Chandigarh to the Mughal gardens of Srinagar over about two weeks. Though it was not, strictly speaking, an adventure tour, it was also not the typical getaway into the lap of luxury. I am still not fond of trees and waterfalls, and Ladakh has made me fall deeper in love with the desert. This trip was tiring, no doubt, and required some extra medical precautions to be taken. However, despite the early mornings, atrocious roads, and constant dust, I had a great time. The adventurous may want to try our route with a tent and on a bicycle or a Royal Enfield but they would need to work out their fuel logistics carefully. Nevertheless, Ladakh is a place of stunning if austere beauty and a journey through the region should be on everyone’s bucket list.
A few photographs from my adventures in Ladakh…and the Kashmir Valley