Ladakh – The ultimate travel destination in India, which has landscapes like nowhere else. It was largely unexplored until recent years but increasingly becoming popular nowadays. Traveling/Driving through the region is the most exciting part of the trip. Some of the roads are very narrow, dangerous and scary. You will encounter dust, heat, hard sun rays, snow, wind, mud, rocks, mountains, valleys, trees, crystal clear water, dirty water, bikers, cyclists, trucks, buses, army and in worst case even a war.
Its a very historic place related to Buddhism and strategically important for Indian Army as it shares border with China and Pakistan, both are our close friends 🙂
Leh and Kargil are the main towns in Ladakh. There are two main highways to reach Leh, one is via Manali and the other one is via Sri Nagar which goes through Kargil. It was this highway Pakistan was targeting in 1999 Kargil war. There is also an airpot in Leh for flying down directly there. Both the highways are maintained by Border Road Organisation (BRO) and under the control of Indian Army. These highways are open only for about 5-6 months in a year and remains closed for the rest of the year due to extreme cold and snow conditions. Which means Leh is disconnected from the world for 6 months every year.
Due to the recent issues in Kashmir, Sri Nagar highway was closed so we selected the Manali road. The journey is scenic and exciting. Its about 500Km and takes more than a day as night driving is not a good option there. Normally people drive half way, stay in some tents or homestay overnight and proceed the next day. There is no mobile network coverage on the highway between Manali and Leh.
Leh is a moderately crowded town with many hotels, home stays, shops, good bars and restaurants. The local people are very nice and helpful there. You will find many foreign tourists flying down directly to Leh and getting a bike on rent to explore Ladakh. You can also see people cycling from Sri Nagar or Manali to Leh, which takes 6-7 days. Our group leader Naveen has cycled to Leh from Sri Nagar thrice. He has also done it twice in bike and this sixth one was in car.
After spending around the Leh town and nearby places we headed towards the famous Pangong lake aka “3 idiots lake”. This lake become very popular with the climax scene of the “3 idiots” movie. This making video shows the trouble they had due to bad weather and then a wait for one year to shoot the climax scene at this location. The lake is about 140km away from Leh town and guess what, it took about 8 hours for us to reach there (with breaks). The roads were terrible bad at many places and maintenance were ongoing.
Situated at about 14,000 feet above, 70% of this 134KM long lake is in China. Since it shares border between China there are many military camps (which you can see all over Ladakh) and boating is also banned in this lake.
Though its a very remote place it is gaining tourist attraction nowadays and there are many tents/home-stays available for overnight stay as well. There is no electricity and only a bulb per tent is connected with generators. Food is also available there however we carried and cooked Maggi noodles. First time we saw Moon rising behind the mountains across the lake and sun setting in the opposite. Next day morning we saw sun rising across the lake and moon setting behind.
Morning the lake looked more green than previous evening’s Blue. We drove to the leading edge where the “3 idiots” climax was shot and spend some good time there.
From there we headed towards Nubra valley which is almost the north end where civilians can go. Beyond that is Siachen area and then Pakistan owned Kashmir. The roads were very exciting, at some places it was completely vanished due to land slide.
Nubra valley was green and a very nice place. It was like a mix of Europe and Middle east. We got a wonderful stay at Sand Dunes Guest house. Most of the houses in Ladakh keeps a garden with flowers, fruits and vegetables to keep them self sustained.
Next day morning we visited the Diskit monastery where a gigantic Buddha statue is also hosted.
From there we headed back towards Leh town via Khardungla Top which is the highest motorable road in the world. The pass is situated at 18,380 feet above. There was a warning message written not to stay there over 20 minutes to avoid health issues. However except the first day in Leh I did not find any acclimatization problem due high altitude & reduced air pressure. On the first day you will really feel a lack of oxygen and breathing difference.
Next day early morning our return journey to Manali has started. Again the roads were scenic and exciting. In between there are about 20-30KM of plain roads, otherwise its mostly uphills and downhills.
By evening we reached Keylong and it started raining heavily. We stayed at Himachal Pradesh state tourist guest house there. Next day morning headed towards Manali and faced two hours of road block due to land slide with the previous night rain.
Overall it was a wonderful trip and a completely different travel experience. I always try to keep only 5-10 best photos in a post but this is really an exception. Its a photographer’s paradise especially with the clear blue sky & scattered white clouds. You can spend months or even years there photographing the landscapes at different time of the day/year. Here is the Flickr link for more photos.
Few tips for travel:
- Leh is a good town and you will get everything there. Its better and cheaper to buy winter clothes from there rather than carrying.
- Local people are very nice and helpful, their business runs only for the half of the year so don’t show your bargain skills there.
- Food and accommodation are available at most of the places and they are not expensive. You will spend more money on travelling.
- Only bikes are available for rent for self driving there. Taxis with drivers are available and they drive really fast 🙂
- The roads are risky and narrow, not a place to shows the speeding skills but be steady and patient. You may have to wait for few minutes or hours on the road for getting a pass through.
- Help anyone who gets stuck on the road as you may be the only help they can ever get there.
Few tips for photography:
- No need for any other lens than the kit/wide angle lens, unless you are interested in street photography in Leh town.
- Tripod and Skylight filter can be handy, though I didn’t carry both.
- Battery can drain faster than normal due to the cold, use a faster memory card.
- The sky is clear and bright most of the places so you can keep a vivid – higher contrast and saturation settings.
- Most of the photos are wide (18mm), narrow aperture (>F16) & low ISO (100).
- As it can get cloudy in some places switch to Cloudy WB.