Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Taking a rocky road to the Shangri-La of India
LEH, INDIA -- Even the most adventurous traveller might be intimidated by the rocky road to the ancient kingdom of Ladakh, India's Himalayan Shangri-La.
We planned to take an easy 18-hour drive from the honeymoon hill station of Manali in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, to the Ladakhi capital of Leh. But due to major snow blockages, we were compelled to take another route -- a four-day, hand-on-horn detour through the heart of Kashmir, where we encountered separatists and roaming nomads and experienced all four seasons within a 24-hour time span.
But neither the arduous landscape -- this road less-travelled has more than its share of cliffhanger moments -- nor the political instability of the region could keep us and fellow adventure seekers from our goal.
Ladakh, a region of Jammu and Kashmir also known as Little Tibet because of its many Buddhist monasteries dating back to the 10th century, is situated in the most northern part of India and is only accessible in this way during the summer months. Heavy snowfalls block the mountain passage for the rest of the year, making it one of the most difficult places to reach by road in all of India.
The winter chill was felt throughout the journey, especially when we passed by Dras, the second-coldest inhabited place on Earth after Oymyakm in Siberia. My friends and family never thought we'd wear long johns in the middle of June. But they were handy while we spent a night in Kargil, a military town where fighting took place between India and Pakistan in 1999. There was no reason to linger the next morning.
Though flights are available to Leh, the long drive helps travellers acclimate to altitudes that reach almost 4,500 metres. The overland route also provides spectacular views of the snow-capped mountains and Indus River streaming below.
Our Tata Scorpio 4x4 vehicle took us 984 kilometres across the Himalayas along a rugged and rocky single-lane road. Leh, our destination, was once a base for travellers who made it through the glacier-packed passage from Himachal Pradesh. The town's historic Buddhist roots are still evident in the hundreds of maroon-robed monks making their way down the streets and the ancient monasteries that line the mountainside.
But the real adventure started when we left Leh to trek the Himalayan plains beyond the city's outskirts. Trailing along with us were motorcycle enthusiasts in their antique Royal Enfields living out their Che Guevara dreams and Bollywood fans who were on the edge of their car seats preparing to set foot on the banks of Pangong Tso Lake, sometimes referred to as "Aamir Khan Lake," after the Indian movie star.
Pangong Tso, a saltwater body 4,350 m above sea level, has served as a scenic backdrop for several Bollywood blockbusters. It's a permit-only area, as is Tso Moriri Lake, a stunning body of water surrounded by peaks at the base of the Rupsu Valley, 240 km southeast of Leh. Both are shared with Tibet and due to frayed political relations with China access is limited.
Tso Moriri, with its pristine landscape and nomadic people, was a highlight of our journey. We encountered the Khampa nomads, whose origins trace back to Tibet. They made their way across the Himalayan plains during the Chinese invasion in the 1950s and have called Ladakh home ever since. The mountain lake is their summer retreat where they spend their days combing their prized goats' hair, which is later sold to merchants who weave it into pashmina scarves in the Kashmiri capital of Srinagar.
Entering one of the nomads' yak wool tents, we felt like we had stepped back in time. A middle-aged woman named Tenzin Paldol eyed us closely; her family, taking a break from their combing, looked up from their steaming bowls of buttermilk tea and pointed at our cameras in amusement.
Tenzin greeted us and motioned us to sit down next to her newborn grandson. Our driver exchanged words with her in Ladakhi and after several nods, she quickly tossed slabs of yak dung patties into her wooden fire stove to brew us a fresh pot of soupy buttermilk tea.
"Are you a Chinese spy?" asked Tenzin's nephew, a college student from Mangalore, who was visiting his family during summer vacation. His serious tone and worried expression rippled across the room.
"No, we're just tourists," I assured him. He sighed in relief and explained how his family still worries they will be sent back to China.
After several cups of tea and some shared laughs, we continued along the single-lane road, already dreaming about a return journey -- next time by Royal Enfield.
-- Postmedia News
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 1, 2012 D2
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