“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” ~ Marcel Proust
Time and space bear no relevance, in the midst of such majestic imposing grace. These endless monuments of nature, bear the epiteths of the beginning of life as we know it. From her, we have come, in her abundant giving our lives flourish; and in her wrath shall we perish.
The Himalayas – You cannot but be moved by a million emotions as you stand facing her amazing beauty. To me, this journey to the region of Leh Ladakh, in the Himalayan belt meant so much, right from the inception of the idea. I had no second thoughts when my friends mentioned about the exploratory trip that a women tour group WE (Women Explorers) were planning to the mountainous region known as the Roof of the World. We had all been waiting with abated breath for the day to arrive. And yet little did we realise how much it would alter our lives in more ways than one.
It was tough leaving our families behind. Most of us were doing this for the first time. We had heard all kinds of stories, related to altitude sickness/acclimatisation issues that many encounter, while travelling to Leh. But that did not deter our spirits one bit. In life, there comes a time when we have a calling. Some of us heed to it, and sometimes, perhaps due to lack of time/support/opportunity/inspiration, we do not take up on it. But sometimes when the voices are loud and clear, it is then that we move with utmost devotion, no matter what. This was our one such calling…
Ladakh: The Hidden Paradise
No words can do justice to the kind of feelings that the Himalayas can invoke in you. These virgin lands, untouched by the outside world, is a sight to behold. The pristine waters, clear blue skies and snow capped mountains – possessing sheer energy are enough to dry a thousand tears into oblivion. Ladakh or the “land of High Passes“, is a region of Jammu & Kashmir, also known as the snow clad desert. It is surrounded by the Himalayan Ranges, the Karakoram, the Ladakh and the Zanskar Ranges. Some of its passes, like the Kardungla Pass, is one of the highest motorable passes in the world, at about 18,380 feet (5,602m) above sea level.
Leh is a town in Ladakh that is tucked away from the rest of the world, curled in its own pristine divinity. It was not until the late 1960’s that the Government of India opened the doors of Ladakh to the world outside. There has been no looking back since then. Scores of tourists from around the world, mostly adventure enthusiasts, mountaineers, trekkers and river rafters arrive here, in hordes during the peak season. The beauty of Ladakh is in knowing that this is where it all began…life as we know it…the Himalayas and the origins of the Indus River.
Arrival at Leh and Navigating around Ladakh
Arriving at the Leh Airport, we were told to take things easy, which meant avoid carrying of heavy luggage, to move slowly, and of shallow breathing because of the altitude acclimitasation. The day we arrived we had to take complete rest at our hotel. And yet that did not deter us to walk the beautiful untouched streets of Leh in the evening, its bustling Flea Market, and to find ancient Kashmiri and Buddhist relics.
We visited the Buddhist monasteries that make up most of the architectural splendour of Leh. One of the oldest and largest mountain monasteries, the Diskit Monastery is the epitome of peace and serenity. As you climb your way up to the temple, the soul stirring sounds of Tibetan Chants “ Om Mani Padme Hum” makes you stop in your tracks. For a moment you feel as though suspended in time and space, as though in an out of the body experience…
The rest of our days were spent navigating through central Ladakh, trekking in the region of Nubra Valley, picking fresh apricots, devouring amazing momos and noodles at a restaurant on the highest motorable pass at the Kardungla Range, the Chang La Pass and finally to our base camp at Pangong Lake and river rafting at the Indus River. This was indeed a journey in itself. Eighteen women from different walks of life merged into a single entity, bonded by a sense of team spirit and adventure.
We lived frugally. Luxury seemed a distant word, alien to the world we were in now. It didn’t matter at all because we wanted nothing except this communion with nature in its absolute form. Whether it was freezing in an open tent at the Pangong Lake, spending our nights revelling in the absolute beauty of a moonlit reflection of the lake, or Grade 3 river rafting in the Indus River. In the heart of Ladakh we discovered the undying spirit in each of us.
The culture and tradition of the Ladakhis is something that has inspired us to view life and our relationship with the universe in a different perspective. They live in unconditional love and respect towards every person they meet. The interconnectedness of the universe is deeply embedded in the Ladakhi ideology and the influence of the Tibetan Buddhism has only accentuated that. Soft spoken and polite, a smile is there to greet you no matter which part of Ladakh you travel. Every one on the street is greeted with a “Juley” and a grateful “Thuk che che” . The two words that will always bring cheer to a tourist’s face.
Conquering our deepest fears
The day before we were to do the whitewater rafting in the river, we called our men at home and revealed to them our plans of navigating the Indus/Zanskar River via rafting. Most of them laughed at us and thought it was a joke! They could not believe that their otherwise docile wives/girlfriends would have the courage to get neck deep into one of the most turbulent rivers of India. The rafting was graded somewhere between 3 and 4 and required experienced paddling skills…something that, well…only a few of us had…
Our rafting instructor tried his best to dissuade us, giving us all the gory details about what would happen in case of a mishap. Icy cold muddy waters, running over miles in depth, and rocks beneath…not encouraging at all! Little did he realise that he was dealing with some of the most determined women on the planet! It did not deter us one bit. We realised that as a team, if we can brave this together, we would be conquering our deepest fears of deep waters. I still get goose bumps when I think back, of all that could have gone wrong, but didn’t…
For the half an hour we were in the river, we were solely focused on the instructions that were given to us amidst turbulent rapids, that felt as if it would throw us off balance any second. Like an army regimen we followed the paddling instructions given by our respective raft instructors to the T, and got through it all unscathed. And in the end when we reached back to safe shores, some of us burst into tears, and hugged each other, out of sheer indescribable emotion. We knew that what we went through together, collectively at Zanskar that day, would cement the bonds between us for always.
Leaving on a jet plane
It was hard leaving the region. Ladakh had redefined so many aspects of me, that I never realised even existed. It was here that I had found my internal balance. Something about this sacred land, so untouched by the vile of men, was holding me back. I spent the last few minutes of my time, collecting the Himalayan soil to bring home. And as I sat in the lobby garden of the hotel, listening to the Ladakhi meditation music and absorbing the breathless view around me, I knew in my heart that someday, I will come back to this amazing land whose memories will sustain me until then, all the days of my life. This will be where I shall and will return…
Best Time to visit Ladakh: June – September
Ladakh has extreme winters and tolerable summers. When we went there, even though it was summer, the nights were freezing next to subzero, especially in the regions of Kardungla and Panong. So make sure you take enough thermals and warm clothing while visiting that region.
How to get there:
Main Attractions in Leh, Ladakh
a) Adventure Sports: Trekking, river rafting, mountain biking, cycling, camel safari, polo, archery
b) Buddhist monasteries
c) Leh Palace
e) Leh Mosque
g) Experiencing the mountain way of life
Most hotels are neat and serve mostly vegetarian food. There are no frills mainly because the mountain people wish to preserve the natural simplistic way of life. However, there are 4 star hotels that have come up in recent years but I would still recommend to experience the culture and way of life of the people while in Ladakh. Thukpa (noodle soup) and Tsampa are a must try while there.
Precautionary measures while visiting Leh Ladakh
Ladakh has an elevation comparable to some of the highest regions on this planet. So it will be bit hard to acclimatise on the plains and low terrains. A good rest for 1-2 days with minimal exertion is highly recommended. For those suffering from asthma or respiratory allergies, please consult a physician before travelling. Drink lots of water while ascending, avoid alcohol and smoking.