*‘From the Journals’ is a new series of posts on Adventures of Potli Baba that features the experiences, observations and gamut of emotions that stay with me long after my journey is complete.*
It was 11 p.m. An icy wind came roaring from the snow-capped Himalayas and knocked against the windows of my room. I didn’t pay much attention; my mind was on next day’s drive to Khardung-La, the world’s highest motorable road. In six hours, I would be 18,400 feet above sea level and living a childhood dream.
The road to Khardung-La is quite treacherous – melted snow forms a sheath of slush on the narrow mud roads, giving them the appearance of chocolate gelato gone wrong. With jagged mountains on one side and a sheer drop on the other, our 4X4 struggles to stay on the slippery roads. I’m torn between praying for life, keeping my eyes peeled on the road and catching a glimpse of the magnificent Leh valley below us – a palette of blues, greens and browns dotted with compact, boxy homes.
As we inch our way upwards, the landscape gradually changes from plain rock to snow-streaked sections with icicles hanging over the road’s edge. I grow impatient, wanting to leap out and touch the snow. Minutes later, the 4X4 comes to a halt at the top of Khardung-La and my wish is granted. “You guys are lucky”, our driver says, “It snowed just a few hours ago.”
My pink down jacket is the only spot of colour in a blanket of white. (Well, that and cars full of tourists, but my sensory overdrive blocks out everything except the snow.) I quell my excitement and slowly, almost nonchalantly, walk towards the nearest pile – it would be easy to blame my high-pitched bursts of excitement on the lack of oxygen at that level, but years of conditioning have taught me to behave lady-like amidst strangers. My fast-freezing fingers pick up a handful and I blink my eyes rapidly in an attempt to stop my brain from reacting to the icy cold of the snow, but the sensation of holding thousands of shimmering diamonds stays. It’s the first time I have ever seen or touched snow; the experience is unreal.
I feel its coolness against my palm seconds before it starts to turn to liquid. My mouth savours the feather-like kisses of the fresher flakes before they melt on my tongue. They taste of Bollywood song sequences and snow angels and ice skating in faraway places that I have only been to in my head. More than anything, they taste of a 10-year old girl’s dream to see snow someday.
A smile of pure delight bursts from somewhere deep inside me, and I become that 10-year old again.
I sat sipping a cup of steaming Ginger-Lemon tea from the army canteen at Khardung-La and drank in the sight of snow. My eyes moved rapidly over every bit of the white landscape, etching an image in my mind for posterity. I couldn’t stop smiling and thought, this moment can’t get any more perfect.
Factually speaking, Leh is a town in Ladakh district, Jammu and Kashmir. It’s a key army area and about 220 kilometres away from Kargil. It connects with Tibet and China, and a lot of Chinese goods are smuggled over the border and sold in the markets. On the dreamy side of things, Leh has claimed the top slot in my list of the most beautiful places in India. It is breathtaking, with surprises around every road corner and mountain turn. It’s a chameleon, constantly changing, never the same twice. How it does that is a mystery to me.
A for Apricot and Apple Trees
Apricots are a staple in Leh. In fact, the garden space of every household – big or small – sports at least one Apricot tree. The blooms are snow-white and cover the tree entirely during flowering season. Apple trees also sport white blooms, but they are bigger flowers and carry the promise of crunchy, juicy apples in their fragrance. (Next on my agenda – visiting Kashmir during apple-plucking season. I can’t wait to get my hands on the fruit-laden trees!)
B for Buildings
The architecture of Leh is much like the monasteries around the region – big windows, wood roofs, white walls, wood awnings and open spaces inside. Simple, pristine and at stark contrasts with the landscape.
B for Buddhism
You’ll find several avatars of Buddha in the monasteries of Leh, and you’ll come to love the Buddhist way of life – simple, without expectations and focused on inner peace.
C for Colours
Close your eyes and place your finger on any square of the Shade Card of the Universe, and you’ll find the colour in Leh. The display of vibrant hues and mellow shades is almost obscene in its onslaught on the senses – it’s just too much for our colour-starved-in-city-life selves to take. That said, it’s also the closest you’ll get to seeing Nature put out her best paintings.
D for Dawn to dusk
That’s how long we were out for. I caught more sunrises and sunsets than I have on all my other holidays put together. The distances are fairly long and the pace mostly slow because of the terrain, so we woke up at around 4:30/5:00 a.m every morning and were out on the roads by 6:30/7:00.
D for Diskit
Like all monasteries, Diskit rests on tops of a mountain. What’s the logic behind placing them there, i asked Dorje – our local guide. The answer was such a simple one that i wondered why i hadn’t thought of that – since monasteries and temples are dwellings of gods, they had to be at a greater level than the rest of the structures. Diskit Monastery has a unique statue of Maitreya -Buddha’s avatar – holding the skull of a Mongolian King in his hand. Legend has it that this Mongolian King wanted to invade the surrounding areas, but by some twist of fate, ended up dead on the doorstep of the monastery every single day till an oracle suggested that his body be beheaded and the skull placed in the hands of the temple’s god. The king was never seen after that.
E for Excitement!
My first view of snow was at 6:15 a.m on Saturday morning, when we saw a blanket of white on the ground from our Jetlite flight. Everybody on board went mad. Out came cameras and cell phones to go clickety click in an attempt to capture the sea of snow below us.
F for Freezing cold
Leh is approximately 14,000 feet above sea level. The air is thin, oxygen levels are low and because the place is surrounded by rows and rows of snow-capped mountains, the temperature is in single digits. The usual was 4-6 degrees, with 0 being the standard for most nights. The worst was Pangong Lake – minus two or three. When I happened to wake up in the middle of the night from under my double blankets-covered sleeping bag to get some fresh air, my breath misted over instantly.
F for Flowers
There are many varieties of flowers in Leh. Some bloom freely and abundantly, some others are terribly shy and stick close to the ground. But no matter what, they all sport dark and brooding or fresh and pastel colours. They just add more to the contrasting landscape that is unique to Leh.
G for Goats
Pashmina Goats. Lots of them. Fully grown adults and their kids, prancing around the mountains in snow and across frozen rivers, herded together by fluffed-up sheep dogs.
H for Hemis
One of the most well-known monasteries in Leh, it’s where part of Jab We Met’s most popular song was shot. Unfortunately, by the time we could visit it, my health had more or less turned itself in, so Dorje took my camera and shot pictures of the monastery for me. It’s vibrant, rich in Buddhist symbolism and the venue for the Hemis festival in the months of June/July.
I for Indus River
The Indus River flows through parts of Leh and joins up the larger river in Pakistan. The water is a clear blue green, with brown patches in some places.
J for “Julley!”
The local greeting, Julley means ‘Good day’, ‘Good morning’, ‘Hello’ and ‘Thanks’. From local shop owners to army personnel, everybody responds to it in kind.
K for Khardung La
Up for riding 18500 feet above sea level, where a biting wind stands guard against intruders and snow stocks up on ammo to hurl on unsuspecting travelers? Well then, Khardung La is the place for you. At 18,385 feet, it’s the highest motorable road in the world. Stop over for a pee break (in the snow) or a chai (Lemon ginger tea, compliments of the military unit) and take in the beauty of white mountains all around you.
L for Lipsmacking Ladakhi Dinner
On our second day in Leh, we drove far out of town for a traditional Ladakhi dinner at a native family’s place. We started with Solja – the local tea brewed with butter, water, milk, tea leaves and salt. Chaang came next – a drink made of Barley, but unfermented. For dinner, there were steamed and fried Momos, Vegetable Pulao, a curry made with potatoes, spinach and inch-long flat wheat dumplings and soup. For dessert, there were apricots boiled in sugar water. Yumm.
L for Leh Palace
No matter where you go in Leh, you’ll be able to get a glimpse of Leh Palace sitting majestically on a flat bit of a mountain. The royal family doesn’t stay there anymore, choosing to reside instead in a mansion tucked away in the midst of mountains and vast fields.
M for Maggi
I have no idea if it’s the air in Leh, the water or just the fact that everybody is a different person there, but Maggi eaten from little hotels on the roadside and sometimes, from a tiny shack in the middle of nowhere, tasted absolutely delicious! It was the same old Maggi but with a lot more punch. I loved it so much that I’m going to think twice about trying it here, lest it tastes different and ruins the memory of it for me.
N for Nubra Valley
The descent onwards from Khardung La leads to Nubra Valley, and the landscape changes dramatically from snow-clad mountains to swirling, rocky patterns in looming mountains and vast desert land dotted by marshy trees. The Indus River continues to run through Nubra, gushing peacefully towards Pakistan. We stayed at an organic farm-cum-resort and had the good fortune of seeing an Apple tree in full bloom, among other things. And then, of course, there were the double humped camels.
O for Ohmigod the colours!
Neither can one get over the colours one finds in Leh, nor can one get enough of them.
P for Pangong Lake
Pangong Tso, as it is called in local language, is 60 kilometres of pure magic that we share with China. On a clear day, the lake shimmers in myriad hues of browns, greens, blues and – I kid you not – purples. The minute our feet touched the lakeside at Pangong, we scattered in all directions like a string of pearls set free, and found our own pool of water to immerse our souls in.
Pangong Lake demands your respect and awe, and you’re more than happy to give it. In the early morning light, it’s a sea of glinting silver, rapidly changing colours as light fills the sky and reflects it back on to the water. The phenomenon is indescribable. One has to experience it to believe it.
P for Prayer Stones
When you’re driving down the roads and sometimes, on the walls lining the monastery, you’ll find engraved stone tablets piled one on top of the other. These are prayer stones, etched with many, many prayers and placed there for the wind to carry their messages. Tempting as it is to put one in your bag, don’t pick any of them up as souvenirs – you don’t want to steal someone else’s prayers now, do you?
Q for Quintessential Moti Market
I picked up souvenirs for friends from a Pooja store in Old Leh Market and a whole lot of woollen itty bitties. Moti Market’s full of little stores piled high with stoles, shawls, scarves and caps. The women there drive a hard bargain too!
R for Ravishing landscapes
The landscape in Leh is constantly changing. One minute, there are looming mountains with swirls and swirls of coloured rocks, and next there are snow-covered peaks, followed by rivers and tufts of greenery and desertscapes and pebble-lined pathways and blue skies… every moment leaves you gasping, every eye-full leaves you wanting more.
S for Snowwwwwwwwwwwwww!
I cannot, cannot begin to tell you how awesome it is to be able to see snow up close! I’ts like fine powder that either melts in your fingers or sticks to them, based on what sort of a mood it is in. When the sun hits it, a thousand diamonds hidden in every square inch of the snow come alive and dance a slow, sparkly dance for the sun rays. Sigh. When we reached Khardung La, it started snowing and i can now tell you that there’s no taste that equals the taste of fresh snow at 18,500 feet. Absolutely nothing comes close.
S for Shanti Stupa
The first place we visited in Leh, Shanti Stupa is located on an elevation and surrounded by mountains. Leh town is laid out below like a carpet of greens dotted with houses and army buildings. It was awfully quiet, and very peaceful out there.
S for Solja
The local name for Ladakhi tea. Solja is made with water, tea leaves, a little milk, salt and butter and takes a bit of getting used to.
S for Spituk Monastery
Over 900 years old, Spituk Monastery is the chief temple of the Mahayana School of Buddhism. The Dalai Lama visits the monastery once every year, when the monks don giant masks of monsters and protectors and enact scenes for the benefit of the crowds.
T for Thiksey Monastery
At 7:30 in the morning, the monks gathered in the prayer hall. As the drums were beaten, chants rolled off their tongues with ease. The old ones closed their eyes, lost in devotion, while the little monks tried their best to suck on Apricots tucked away in the cavity of their cheeks, mumbling absently, all their focus on not swallowing the seed, looking around surreptitiously to see if anybody’s noticing that they aren’t paying attention.
U for Unbelievably cute marmoths
Danny, our driver, stopped in the middle of nowhere when he spotted marmoths, got off the SUV armed with a couple of biscuits to lure the marmoths into befriending him. Pretty soon, they were scuffling their way to him fearlessly, all set to eat (and fight with each other in the process).
V for Very laid back
Moments stretch out in Leh. You lose track of what day it is, time doesn’t matter, and life seems at its stillest, peaceful best. Don’t be too surprised if you forget that you’re away from home and there’s a life waiting back there for you.
W for Wild asses
Hordes of them, grazing by the roadside on the way to Pangong Lake.
X for X-quisite birds
Hey, even writers fall short sometimes! You’ll find tons of magpies, river terns, Himalayan sparrows and ducks in Leh. Oh, and plenty of sea gulls at Pangong.
Y for Yak Cheese Pizza
Yummmmmmmmmmmmmm. Enough said.
Ze most memorable and life-altering journey of my life
Leh has changed me forever, undoubtedly. It’s one of those experiences that silently works its wonders on you without you realising it; and when you do realise it, you shake your head about it in amazement, reminisce, send up a prayer and carry the magic of the wordless mysteries of nature with you for as long as you live. Your life just gets that much more richer for it.
Getting there: I have been told that Leh is best experienced on a bike, and i can totally understand why. But flying down to Leh isn’t too bad – it just takes slightly longer to get acclimatised. There are only early morning flights from Delhi to Leh. The best time to visit Leh is between the months of May and August. Anytime after that is bound to result in surgeries for frost bites and a deep-rooted aversion to cold that will make every winter thereafter seem like a curse.
Go if: You love surprises, nature, want to rediscover yourself, know more about Buddhism and want a reprieve from reality.