Our next destination was Leh. Leh is connected to Srinagar both by Air and Road. In fact we were not aware that there is a flight connectivity to Leh from Srinagar. Even though the distance to Leh from Srinagar is less than 500KMs, it takes more than a day to reach Leh by Bus. Private Cab operators will take you by evening. Cabs are quite costly and I feel it’s an unnecessary expenditure to take cab to Leh from Srinagar. You have to pay him for the return journey too even though it’s only one way for you. Anyway 2 of us decided to take Bus. Srinagar to Leh costs Rs. 670/- by bus. There are no prebookings in Srinagar. You have to reach the J&K Tourism Center early morning around 6:30 AM – 7:00AM from there the bus will start. Thankfully, the Srinagar bus stand was less hostile and more friendly this time. We had a slightly bad experience last time at this place. Our bus was mostly full. We bought 2 and 1/2 Kgs of local apple for our journey. It costed only 100 rupees and was fresh. The bus was driven by a Sardar and started around 8:00AM. In the bus we met one Lakshmi Narayana from Karnataka who is basically a Doctor and was on an adventure trip with the Youth Hostel.
The road from Srinagar till Sonamarg is good and quite scenic. Our vehicle stopped at Sonamarg for breakfast. There are many restaurants in Sonamarg. We took Alu Parotha with Curd in one Vaishno Restaurant. Unfortunately my BSNL Prepaid SIM was not working in J&K. During my last visit to J&K, I was in Vodafone postpaid and it was working fine and this time I forgot to pay attention to carry a postpaid SIM. Manoj Maharaj gave me a local Reliance SIM but that worked only in Srinagar. I needed to get one local working SIM. A shopkeeper told me that he can give me a BSNL Local SIM. When I was purchasing that local SIM, our bus driver started the bus without checking for the numbers. Our luggage was inside. As a matter of fact my friend had told him that I am inside a mobile shop there. Somehow he forgetfully started the bus and it disappeared. I was not exactly tense but had to find a way out. Buses are very few in that route. I tried to request Cabs on the way to help us catch the Bus. After sometime, one person by name Ashok Gupta stopped. He told that he had seen us having breakfast. Thankfully enough he was working for our KMF Nandini and looked after milk supply to the Army in J&K. We traveled with him for almost 25-30KMs before we sighted our bus. We boarded our Bus and the driver told me that he thought we were inside. Later he apologized for not paying attention.
The road from Sonamarg to Kargil is definitely not for the weakhearted. Once you enter the Jozilla Pass, the road is quite scary. It is a mud road and is very steep. Don’t try driving here if you do not have sufficient control over the steering. Perhaps this is the road that I found most challenging till date. Soon we entered Kargil where all the vehicles were being checked and the foreigners’ passports were looked into. There were quite a few foreigners in our Bus. Soon the bus entered the Dross sector which has one of our largest Army base stations. This is the second coldest inhabited place on earth. We had our lunch here. From here my newly bought J&K local SIM became operational and gave me some connectivity to the world.
From here the next station was Kargil town. The bus was supposed to halt in Kargil for the night. I met the driver here again who once again apologized for his lapse in picking us. I told him it’s fine and that it was not intentional on his part. He told me that he is not going to halt in Kargil that night since there are some young men in the Bus who are going to attend the Army Interview in Leh next morning at 8:30AM. I was not complaining because we wanted to reach Leh early too. But I was quite touched by the driver’s empathy towards those young men who had come all the way from Bhopal to attend the Army exam. It’s actually very severe on the bus drivers to drive 500KMs on the same day in this road. Moreover they are told to halt the bus for a night in Kargil. But this driver was willing to help those young people. So he drove and we reached Leh at early morning 2:30AM. I asked the driver if we can sleep in the bus itself for the night. He told fine and everyone in the bus was relieved. We had a sound sleep for around two and half hours. Since I carry a small blanket during my travel, it was quite easy for me to sleep in the bus.
We woke up to a beautiful Sun raise in the morning which was as early 5:00AM. A friend of mine, Sagar had recommended that we stay in Karma Guest House. But this guest house is quite far from the Bus Stand, more than 5KMs. We thought it is good to walk in the early morning and also that it will help us to see the Leh City. We walked all the way to Karma Guest house and reached there around 7:30AM. Karma guest house is a nice place and is located just at the foothills of Shanti Stoopa, an important place of pilgrimage in Leh. It is in the outskirts of the City and is peaceful. Leh in itself is very a small town. We had our breakfast in the guesthouse and rested till afternoon. A full breakfast of unlimited Chapatis, Coffee and a double Omelette costs 120 rupees in Karma guest house. This is the minimum rate in most hotels here. One time food costs you minimum of one hundred rupees here in Leh. A decent food will cost around 200 rupees.
In the afternoon we started for the Leh palace which was around 3KM from our place. We didn’t take any vehicle on rent and just walked. What has happened after our Amarnath Trek of 2015 is that any distance around 9KM, if time is not a constraint, we feel we can walk comfortably. That is one of the biggest changes after our Amarnath Pilgrimage. Leh palace is not exactly like our Mysore and Jaipur palaces. It’s mostly a brick building without much attention into beautification. Perhaps they were limited by the availability of materials and skilled work force here. It is a seven storied building and is currently maintained by the Archaeological Survey Department of India. From here from each floor we can get a different view of Leh. The palace in itself has nothing much inside it – only small rooms and slightly bigger halls. The King had a small temple build inside this palace. Currently, they have some exhibitions of local art and culture and the developments that have taken place in this region. That includes their references to the restoration of certain Buddhist monasteries and you can also see photos related to the old Buddhist tradition. Leh Palace is worth a visit.
From Leh Palace we proceeded towards the TSemo Monastery which is just adjacent to the palace but is located on top of a hill. It’s a slightly steep climb. It is at a higher altitude compared to Leh Palace and is perhaps at the highest altitude in Leh Town. TSemo is a medium sized monastery and has places of worship of Bhagavan Buddha. It was sunset when we started down. It got quite darker before we reached the footsteps. On the way we were slightly impressed by a Shop which had all articles displayed in a very artistic way. We met the owner Quyum who is really a wonderful man and is highly cultured. He was happy when he came to know that we are from Bengaluru. He said his son also studied in Bengaluru and is now looking after the business in Leh. His Son Nasser also joined us later. I was very impressed by the way the shop was maintained. Religious items of all religions were kept on sale. That was a bit of surprise to me to see in a Muslim shop. Nasser had fallen in love with a Hindu girl in Bengaluru and they are getting married in next two months. Anyway, that helped us a little in having a nice chat with these people. They are really nice. I bought a Shawl from this shop.
On the way we met the other 7 people of our team in a Hotel and we jointly decided to take a Tempo Traveler for Pangong Lake and Nubra Valley. Our initial plan was to go by Cycle but that was ruled out since it needed about 9 days. With Tempo Traveler we would cover both these places in about 3 days at the most. If we could be fast enough, in 2 days. The entire cost would come to Rs. 19700/- by Tempo Traveler. The Ladakh District Administration has made it mandatory for all the travelers to take an inner line permit to visit Pangong and Nubra Valley. You need to shell out Rs. 600 each if you want to visit these places. We decided to stay for a night in Pangong and then covering the Nubra valley in one day. So that was effectively 3 days.
Journey to the Pangong Lake
We started for Pangong around 11:00AM. Here you are traveling in two of the highest motorable roads in the world. I didn’t take any tablet, though some are advised. My body was holding up and didn’t have issues. The road to Pangong is sort of mixed type. You have a good stretch at places, and there are stretches where the work is going on, and some stretches are not good at all. As I said you need a skilled driver to drive in these places. Our driver was young but quite experienced and very skillful. The vehicle was also new. So we were blessed in all that. On the way we saw cute Himalayan Marmots. We are forbidden to feed them. They are cute little creatures which do not like sound but they like to come near you if you show them affection. We spent some time with them. Enroute to Pangong, you will see beautiful ice covered mountains, sand covered hills, rivers and clear blue sky. It’s definitely a journey to be undertaken at least once in a life time.
A short video of Pangong that shot in my phone.
It was evening when we reached the Pangong Lake. We traveled along side the bank of the lake and reached a place called Spangmik where the accommodation is cheaper and also the crowd is comparatively lesser. Here the tent rate varies. It could be from Rs. 500 to Rs. 3500. Most of them include dinner and breakfast. We stayed in two groups. Two of us stayed in Diskit Guest house which costed us Rupees 500 per person per night and included dinner and breakfast. The Pangong lake is the most beautiful of all the lakes and rivers that I have seen. It reminded me of our boat journey in Krishna River enroute to Akka Mahadevi Caves in Srisailam. These two are very similar. The water in Pangong is crystal clear and reflects the color of the sky. It is surrounded on both the sides by mountains and presents a fantastic sight. We went near the lake during midnight and also in early morning. Water was too cold to take a bath. But I just got in and experienced the chill. Bathing was not impossible but somehow nobody was taking a dip here. Also fathoming the depths is difficult here. That could be another reason why people were hesitant to enter the lake. There is absolutely no safety measures prescribed and no security is put in place. You are left to yourself. Here we met two Medical students from Karnataka – Shabbir and Shaheen who drove the Enfield all the way from Hubli. It was the 16th day of their journey. It was so nice to see them. We also met another big group that had come from Karnataka. We were more or less at home in Pangong. There was really not much crowd. The attack on Amarnath Yatris this year has severely impacted the J&K Tourism. One thing to note is that Leh Ladakh is not exactly very cold. It was only in Pangong that I needed to wear my Jacket. It was sub 10 degrees in the night. But in all other places, it is actually hot. Even in Pangong the day is hotter.
We started from Pangong around 11:00 AM and reached Leh in the evening. On the way we also visited the Ranchos School which became quite famous after the 3 idiots movie was shot here. It is a nice residential school with good facilities. It has won many awards for their innovative approach to teaching and also for the thought they have applied in construction and maintenance of the School.
From Rancho, we went back to our Guest house and visited the Shanti Stoppa in the evening. Shanti Stoopa is basically an idea which symbolises world peace. There is one main Buddha Temple here and a Buddhist Stoopa.
The next day, we started for the Nubra Valley at 6:00AM. Khardungla Pass, the highest motorable road in the world is enroute to Nubra Valley. I had some breathing problem here. It was not so serious but I could feel the difficulty. Even this road is quite dangerous and needs a skilled driver. In fact we saw couple of vehicles that had tripped off the road. Just want to let the readers know that you have Bus facility to both Pangong Lake as well as Nubra Valley. You don’t need to hire a Taxi or a take a bike on rent to see these places. The Road to Nubra Valley is absolutely delightful and you will feel it is worth the effort and price you have paid to undertake this journey. Perhaps only a Poet can do justice to this place through his writing. All I can say is that it’s mesmerizing.
In Nubra Valley I stayed back at the Diskit Monastery which I wanted to explore little more. Everyone else left for a neighboring place where they could ride Camels. After exploring the Discuit monastery where I saw His Holiness Dalai Lama’s guest house, and Meditation Hall I joined our team back. Here one Army person who was going to Leh also joined us. We reached back to Leh in the evening.
The next day we hired a scooter and went to the Shey Monastery and Thiksey Monasteries. Shey Monastery also called Shey Palace is comparatively small and is an important Buddhist Monastery here. But Thiksey is a very big monastery spanning several acres and is very well maintained. One mighty sculpture of Maitreya Buddha (The Buddha who is to come) is pretty good here. Overall it’s a very nice monastery. They also have an old library here. From here we proceeded straight to the Army Base Camp where we saw the Kargil War Documentary and paid our respects to the Martyrs at the Shourya Sthal.
The next day we started for Kargil. My plan was to be in Kargil on the Independence Day. We didn’t get any bus in the Bus Stand and were told that the Bus will start in the afternoon to Kargil. Meanwhile a cab driver who was going back to Sringar was following us from the very beginning. Finally he agreed to drop us to Kargil for rupees 600 each. We traveled with him to Kargil. He was a nice guy and explained the problems in Kashmir. We reached Kargil in the afternoon and got accommodation right next to the Bus stand itself. We thought of exploring Kargil in the afternoon. We were told that the India Pakistan border can be seen from the Hundarman village. It was roughly 10KM from the city which somehow we thought of covering by walk. It’s uphill and got bit demanding towards the end but we finally made it to that point. On the way I met a very nice Muslim Kid who impressed me a lot by his fine tuned manners. He also told us of the Independence Day parade the next day in Bhyamathang (An area in Kargil). From Hundarman a local person dropped us back to Kargil in his car free of cost.
Independence Day in Kargil
We reached Bhyamathang Stadium in the morning slightly ahead of time. The security personnel greeted us cordially by saying “Welcome to Kargil.” Most of the Kargil people are Muslims and looks like they are all with India. The Independence Day program was well attended, and the National Anthem was saluted to. The Chief Guest made a very nice speech, and the crowd kept on swelling. It was contrary to what I had to see in Srinagar the same evening. We left the stadium after sometime and started from Kargil towards Srinagar. On the way we visited the Kargil War Museum in Dross and paid our respects to our War Heroes.
We reached Srinagar in the evening. We were told that there will be a Bundh in Srinagar because of India’s Independence Day! Yes! Srinagar was shut for all practical purposes and Army was guarding all the important places. What a tragedy! India does so much for Kashmir and gets this in return! We got an Auto and reached Ashrama around 6:00PM. I wanted to be in Srinagar Ashram that evening because 15th August also coincided with Sri Krishna Janmashtami this year. We celebrated Sri Krishna Janmashtami in the Ashrama by singing Bhajans and also chanting some chapters of the Bhagavad Gita.
By now, my trip to Leh Srinagar was almost coming to an end. I had promised Swamiji that I would set up a website for the Ashrama before I go. On 16th I spent some time to set up the Ashrama website. This is currently live at www.rkmsrinagar.org. This post is already long and I don’t want to write about the Ashrama in this as of now. I will try to write it in another post. In the evening we played a little of Shuttlecock with Manoj Maharaj. On the last day after some shopping we left Srinagar in the afternoon after a very satisfying trip. Only on the last day of travel from Kargil to Srinagar by road that I felt a bit of back pain. Otherwise this trip was smooth and went according to the expectation. But I couldn’t do much meditation in this trip and was feeling a bit down on spirits towards the end. Higher altitude, different food, longer days and shorter nights also meant that my routine went for a toss and the world looked upside down when I reached Bengaluru. But it was a nice trip and definitely once a lifetime visit for every Indian.