Sunday, November 23, 2014

White water rafting, Leh and Khardungla... Top of the World!

White water rafting, Leh and Khardungla... Top of the World!

21 Jul 2014. This morning, I sleep in. Not up before the crack of dawn as has been the routine every day since we started. The last two nights haven’t been all that restful due to the intense cold and my flagging energy needed this booster dose of sleep to be vital again today. Well rested, I am all charged up to take the day on. We have joined forces with our Team B who have flown in from Goa yesterday. They will take this journey forward through Nubra Valley, Pangong Tso, Kargil, Srinagar, Jammu, Amritsar, Delhi and then back to Goa. This is the only time that both the teams are together... today and tomorrow giving Team B time to acclimatise before they take the rally forward. 

Small apples from Nimmu camp

Our colourful tent

Right after a leisurely breakfast and in our wetsuits and helmets, we assemble for the planned white water rafting. This is my first time and I look forward to it. In fact, most of us are going for the first time. We will be taken by bus to just short of Leh and will raft down the Indus for about 14 Kms. I am told that the rapids in this stretch are just 1 or 2 level and considered easy. Tomorrow we are to go for the tougher stretch through the Zanskar River where we expect 3 to 4 level of rapids. All of us are reminded to wear shades since the glare off the water is intense and can be very hurtful to the eyes. Since we are not carrying any glasses straps, we use a ‘jugaad’ of tying a string on the shades to avoid them slipping off when wet or when looking down even though they would be inside the helmet. I think it is a great idea! As we reach the starting point, our guide Vikram gives a detailed briefing about what to expect and what to do in case of a capsized raft. All safety procedures are explained in detail and then we are off. 

The Rafts we used for the white water experience...

Split into 4 rafts, we set off after a mandatory dip in the river for all the members on our raft. Our guide absolutely insists! It is fun actually after one conquers the worry of how cold the waters would be and just jumps in...

Getting the hang of rowing takes just a few minutes and then there is competition between the boats each vying for the top position including splashing the other teams with water as they are overtaken. Chotak, the guy who runs the camp is a champion rafter and No 1 in India and he is in a kayak today. His antics in the water are to be seen! Has us in splits or gaping in awe in turns.

Unfortunately, our cameras are not on us today since the equipment is not safe in the rafts and thus, no pics today! What a shame really! We have so much fun and all of it is stored away in the upper storey...

A kilometre short of the confluence with the Zanskar, I jump in again and swim along quite lazily. I drift under the bridge which is just 100 metres short of the confluence and then I realise that I have drifted far faster than the raft! I have no intentions of going through into the icy waters of the Zanskar. Zanskar is a much colder river since it travels shorter and is completely sourced from melting ice. Our team has to row hard to get me before I hit the confluence since the current is strong and I am unable to swim upriver. All’s well that ends well!

Back at camp, we are all ravenous! Lunch is demolished and a while later we are off to Leh for sightseeing and a trip to Khardungla. Our rally vehicles have been given for a thorough servicing and we get a ride on the camp bus to Leh. Hiring bikes, we are off to Khardungla on bikes... a different kind of thrill I assure you! The route is good for a bit and then the road deteriorates into a wide but rough unpaved path criss-crossed by small streams some of which are big enough to soak our shoes as the bikes splash through them. The Zanskar range lies spread out before us and the tallest peak Stok Kangri is visible all snow covered. Reaching the top we are exhilarated! And cold! The altitude difference between Leh at just under 12000 ft to Khardungla top at 18340 ft is immense! So also the difference in temperature. A busy photo session later we head back. Rendezvous at the ‘Rendezvous Cafe/German bakery’ and we are back to camp for dinner and bed. 

The Zanskar range as seen from the Khardungla ascent...

Khardungla top

Rendezvous Cafe and German Bakery

22 Jul 2014. A nervous excitement pervades the group as everyone is thinking of the turbulent rapids we need to conquer today and hopefully (fingers crossed) stay afloat through that! It is a 30 Kms route today. As is the norm, we pour into the bus which takes us across the Indus over the bridge and then along the right bank of the Zanskar. Today the manager of the camp is also accompanying us armed with a camera and will take pictures from some (strategic!) locations along the route.

It is a newly laid road so it is super smooth sailing till the road abruptly becomes the now familiar potholed and unpaved trail like the less trodden paths elsewhere in Ladakh. We reach the starting point and go down to our rafts. We are the lightest raft with 5 members plus the guide. The first hour is great. Our confidence surges and the thrill overtakes us to the point where we think we can conquer all... absolutely anything!

And then it happens. We are warned that it is a really rough patch ahead and to be rowing as hard and fast as we can as we hit it. Before I know it, the rapids are upon us and .... I can see it happening in slow motion... our raft just rises up from the right front end and keeps rising. The two members on the right side fall on us taking all of us under with the raft overturned right on top of us. I tell myself there is no need to panic. The guides are trained and our protective gear is on therefore all I have to do is come up to the surface even if under the raft and breathe from the air pockets under it. Easier said than done. I come up and try to breathe and I can’t. Just swallow some water from my mouth so resolutely, I close my mouth and try to breathe in through my nose. No luck. It is as though the air had suddenly turned solid.

The raft has drifted off of me and my partner grabs me in the turmoil. In the meantime I continue to struggle to breathe and nothing is helping. In rising panic I have dunked my partner also a couple of times ensuring we both taste and swallow the icy Zanskar waters. And then miraculously, I can breathe again!  My partner has realised my predicament and pushed the shades up my nose. They must have slipped lower down as we fell in the water blocking my nostrils and I have not realised it in the ‘excitement’ of the last few minutes. Also, they have not fallen off completely because of the ‘jugaad’ we had employed!! Sometimes these things come back to bite us when we least expect it! Anyways, the river has become wider right here and the left side seems to have a slower current where my partner drags me to the edge and hangs on to a rock with one hand and me in the other while I get myself together.

Long story short, we all five of us get rescued and asked if we want to take a ride back in the vehicle or go back in the rafts. No incident like this is going to get the better of us! We choose to raft back. After this, we are slightly shaken but there is an inexplicable freedom I feel.... of ‘been there, done that’ and now bring on whatever else and we will triumph over it! Looking back I feel good that we did it!

Reaching camp, we get mobbed. Most are horrified and almost everyone has seen it happen since we were the first to go into those rapids and overturned in front of them. While stories are told to a suitably reverent audience, lunch is polished off.

The second leg of the rally is flagged off from our camp by our senior-most member and Team B heads out to Nubra Valley hoping to cross over Khardungla well before sunset. In minutes, we are also off for a final round of shopping to Leh. It is a pleasure to stroll on the main street with hawkers selling fresh produce along the sidewalk and many curio shops lining the bustling city centre. I pick up some ‘khurmani’ and ‘walnuts’ and we are done... Some of us also shop around for some T-shirts and other souvenirs for family and friends back home. We get back late to a delicious dinner of noodles and momos (on request) prepared by the staff at camp. Final day here... we leave early tomorrow morning flying out to Delhi and onwards to Goa.

Main street at Leh bazaar

23 Jul 2014. Early morning we are at the airport, boarded and off. I have carefully chosen my right side window seat ensuring it is not over the wings so that I can have good views of the Himalayas inflight. I am not disappointed.

I end my travelogue here thanking everyone who has read through this long, but I hope not too tedious series leaving you with the last pictures I clicked from the plane...

Adios! Till we meet again...

A glacier is visible on the left side of the picture....

Looks almost like a model to explain what snow topped mountains look like -)

The play of clouds among the high Himalayas

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sarchu to Nimmu.... via Tso Kar

Goa - Delhi.... the journey begins in the plains

Delhi – Sangla ... journey through the verdant valleys of Himachal

Chhitkul... The emerald green Valley!

Destination Pooh...

Spiti.... journey through ‘The middle land’

Road to Chandratal

Chandratal to Sarchu... a picturesque drive through Lahaul

Sarchu to Nimmu.... via Tso Kar

20 Jul 2014. Early morning in Sarchu is even colder. I have had a bit of a cold and uncomfortable night. Uncomfortable, not due to any uneasiness or discomfort due to altitude but more owing to the freezing conditions.

The idea today is to start at the crack of dawn and take in Tso Kar before heading out to Leh. It is just a 30 min detour one way and that is very doable if we pace ourselves well. Our campsite is at Nimmu, further out of Leh but that is fine. Nimmu is just a little over 30 kms ahead of Leh. The road conditions in Ladakh are expected to be really good and the passage that much faster.

We leave Sarchu at 0530 hrs. It is the crack of dawn.... the place is overcast and there is a bit of a drizzle. The wind is howling, it is snowing in the higher elevations of the surrounding mountains and I am chilled to the bone!

Right after we set out, we cross a little bridge which I am told is the boundary between Ladakh and Himachal. So now officially, we enter Ladakh! A little bit further we come across this signboard... the BRO has already been spreading the AIDS awareness message...! 

Looks like the BRO has already been spreading the message...

Driving along with the Tsarap Chu on our left, we reach the Gata Loops... starting at about 4200 mtrs altitude. This is a series of 21 hair pin bends before we hit the Nakila at 4739 mtrs. All along, the peaks seem to have a sprinkling of fresh snow on them... just as if they were some giant muffins with a drizzle of icing sugar on top! Very beautiful! 

Gata Loops

There is a fair amount of traffic on this route... even though it is so demanding a journey. The day is getting brighter and the scenery more compelling. All of a sudden I spot a dog sized something on the corner ahead. Its gait immediately gives its identity away. It is a Himalayan Snowcock. Lo and behold! There are two more right behind it and our Scorpio comes to a screeching halt. The moment we stop (with squealing tyres) and rush to get to our cameras, they scramble up the mountainside giving us precious little time to get in a few clicks. It is then that I realise that there is a fourth one too! Am I happy!! A brilliant start to the day indeed! 

Himalayan Snowcock

Lachulungla at over 5000 mtrs is cold and windy and we move ahead to Pang. It is very different from what I have imagined it to be. I have expected a couple of dhabas but this is like walking on Main Street.... at about 4700 mtrs! There are at least 7-8 dhabas each, on either side of the road catering to the hungry, sleepy, out-of-fuel or just a tired traveller. Imagine, a collection of 15 odd dhabas looks like ‘Main Street’ after driving in these remote areas!!! Gives an idea of how sparse and patchy the habitation is in these regions.

A quintessential breakfast of maggi and tea later, we are off. The road loops up high over Pang giving a panoramic view of the settlement there from above as well as the valley of the Lachung River with those typically distinct geological formations in the valley, the result of high velocity winds in the area.  

Lachulungla.. with a sprinkling of fresh snow

The dorm-beds at the dhabas at Pang

The dhabas at Pang also offering  tented dorm-type accommodation.

Pang, from the road above

A close-up of Pang

Goelogical formations reminiscent of medeival castles!

Lachung river valley

Moving ahead we come to the famed Morey Plains. A vast area of flat land surrounded by mountains... with Kiang (Wild Asses) grazing lazily in small probably family groups and loads of little birds foraging around the roadsides as well as the small clumps of grasses around. These plains are high altitude semi-desert plains at just under 4800 mtrs and part of the Tibetan plateau kind of habitat. The flora and fauna here also exemplifies this fact. Tibetan Larks, Horned Larks, Twite, Great Rosefinch, Tibetan Snowfinch...

Driving through the Morey plains

Great Rosefinch

Tibetan Lark


Horned Lark chicks


Tibetan Lark

The fabulous road through the Morey plains ends at a place just short of Debring. A minor road branches off to the right taking us towards Tso Kar. Though a rough and narrow road, it is easy going on it. A half hours worth of drive brings us within sight of the lake.

Tso Kar is a salt water lake and salt deposits are visible along the lake margins. This is one of the numerous lakes dotting the south east part of Ladakh. It is a breeding ground for the Common Redshank, Brahmany Shelduck, the Bar-headed Geese and the most sought after avifauna here – the Black necked Crane. The latter is a critically endangered species of which there are estimated to be just 200 to 300 left in the world. 

We are lucky to spot a Black necked Crane right upon entering the lake area and even before the little settlement of Thukje. There are marshes around the lake which are the favoured habitat of these handsome birds. For me, this entire trip has been worth it just to see these beautiful creatures...

The sandy soil at the edge of the lake is very soft and the vehicles are sinking appreciably driving on it. There are sand banks a little way inside the lake where we spot some Common Redshanks and Lesser Sand Plovers in breeding plumage. To the right, are a flock of Brahmany Shelducks. All around in the small scrubby patches of grasses around are Tibetan Larks, Tibetan Snowfinches, Twites and a lone Desert Wheatear. Near the settlement there is a stony retaining wall on which we spot the Little Owl. Very cute! 

Tso Kar

White winged Redstart Juvenile

Little Owl

Common Redshank in breeding plumage

Black necked Crane

There is very little visible in the way of accommodation here. There are a couple of tented camps near Pongunagu right at the point one first sees the lake. Since it is a day trip for us, we do not check out any stay options. After spending a half hour there, we head back towards Debring and the main highway.

The roads are very good most of the way today except for the detour to the lake though one can’t really call it bad. The area around Debring is dotted with the tents of the nomads (the Changpas) spaced well apart though loosely congregated within say shouting distance of each other with the sheared wool from their livestock (sheep) lying outside all along in this region.  Either they are doing well for themselves or it is the monetary help extended from the government that enables the presence of an SUV outside each tent we see! 

A lone tent of one of the Changpas

The road slowly ascends in wide loops. Right at the very distant top, we cross the famous Thanglangla, the second highest pass in the world at over 5300 mtrs. The views from here are superlative...


View from almost the top of Tanglangla

As we drive towards Upshi and Leh, we pass Rumtse with tiny fields all bright yellow and vibrant green alongside the pristine blue of the river. There are chortens on the wayside and the landscape changes colour at regular intervals. Right about here there is a startling change as the mountains aroud take on a vinaceous hue! 

Vibrant yellow fields along the way at Rumtse

Changing colours of the landscape

At Karu we turn towards the Hemis Gompa for the benefit of our fellow passengers. We have done this trip (to Leh) before and seen the monastery. We spend the time birdwatching around the Gompa. A treat it is! 

Tibetan Snowfinch feeding its young

Mountain Chiffchaff


Black billed Magpie

It is getting dark and we move out towards Leh. I look forward to seeing the Stakna Gompa even from a distance since I totally love the setting it is at. Much photographed, it looks mysterious, enticing, austere yet vibrant all at the same time! 

The much photographed Stakna Gompa

This is definitely one of the most scenic routes I have ever driven on... all the way from Shimla, through Kinnaur, Spiti, Lahaul and now Ladakh! I feel blessed to witness such beauty firsthand!

We drive through the outskirts of Leh and go towards Nimmu on the other side. Enroute we stop at the Gurudwara Patthar Sahib and the Magnetic Hill, regroup with one of our other vehicles and then proceed to our campsite. It is after dark by the time we reach our camp. The gush of the Indus is heard in our tents since we are right at the river’s edge. A campfire set up at the riverside is beckoning. A sumptuous dinner later we hit the sack!

The journey continuous...