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Lost in Ladakh

Ladakh has been in the news quite a lot recently, with the Indian-Chinese dispute at the border. And I would most likely not be allowed to go to those areas these days. Luckily, I did manage a trip when times were peaceful, and worries were less. Here is my story:

It was an early flight from Delhi International Airport to Leh, the capital of Ladakh. Not very long, perhaps a 90 minute trip. You know you are approaching the mountains when they almost reach up and touch the plane.

Leh Airport, being a military airport is rather sparse and tiny. Just a small building to pick up your luggage from. Outside, there is no shortage of taxis available. The taxi system in Leh is run via a rate card, which you can often find if you search online. The rates are definitely more than what you would pay for an Uber in the metros, but considering that all the drivers are really nice and no-one tries to rip you off, I'd say its worth it. Actually, scratch that, you need to take the taxi because hauling your luggage on a shared bus is not my idea of fun.

You won't find a shortage of good, affordable accommodation in Leh. I stayed at a hotel called the Oriental Hotel and Guest House, and it was closer to a guest house than a hotel. I would heartily recommend this place as the service was very personal and warm, the food delicious, and the rates affordable. Not to mention the gorgeous garden in the front and the apple trees.

You would need a day to acclimatize to the higher altitudes before moving further. Leh stands at 3,500 metres above sea level, and you do need some time to get used to the thinner air. Luckily, the town is quite walk-able and I spent the day exploring the area and having dinner at a lovely German Bakery. Walking a lot does really work up an appetite, and made the food even tastier than it already was.

The hotel helped arrange for a taxi, for next on my agenda was going to Pangong Lake, made famous in the movie 3 Idiots. It's here, on the road that I noticed the main difference between the city mindset and that of the hills. Being in a harsh, mountainous terrain where a breakdown can signal certain death, we found ourselves stopping to help the occasional stranded traveler or broken down car. When it is you, a human being, against nature, you find yourself being far more generous and compassionate. Compare that with the city life where anyone who cuts you off gets a nice dose of swear words.

As you leave the capital and move further and further into the countryside, you notice the changes in the landscape, primarily the lack of vegetation and the different shades of the hills. Each hill seems to be of a different colour, some light brown, some moss green, some black, others grey.

You also notice that there is not much here, apart from the odd goat or house. It is a rather barren place, lonely, but also beautiful. Your only companion is the sound of your engine, and the occasional truck passing you by. Progress is slow, and stopping for a cup of tea is a welcome change and a chance to explore the rugged landscape.

Pangong Lake is around a 4-5 hour drive from the capital, and while it can be done in a day trip, an overnight halt is preferred so that one can relax and enjoy the sunrise the next morning. Accommodation at Pangong is sparse, with the best option being a set of concrete rooms with no indoor heating. Still, the wind outside is fierce, so you are thankful for the protection you get.

Pangong Lake is beautiful, something words cannot really do justice to. It stretches out as far as the eye can see, flanked by mountains. The water is as clear as glass at times, with the colours changing from a light aquamarine to a dark blue. Strangely, we are not allowed to go into the lake as such, due to the orders of the Army. So we have to make do with admiring its beauty from the shores.

The next morning I woke early, hoping to catch the sunrise. Alas, my hopes of a good view were thwarted by the clouds. Still, I climbed up a hill, looked down, and felt rather small and insignificant. We kind of lose track of how large and impressive the world is in our day to day lives. We as a species have taken it upon ourselves to mould nature to our will. But here, far from civilization, our efforts seem small. And I am thankful that there are places like this where we have not yet stamped our authority.

I went back to Leh and explored a few more temples, monasteries and shops. But Pangong lake was definitely the highlight of the trip. I would recommend a trip to Ladakh if you can. Hopefully, after tensions at the border die down I can make another trip there again.


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