We have been planning a Ladakh trip for almost 3 months. September as it turns out is the best time to visit Ladakh. It is off-season. Tourists are fewer and the weather is not yet too cold.
We don't like the word “tourist” because we don’t want to equate ourselves with those people who visit “tourist destinations” or “hill stations” demanding luxurious comforts, and shopping opportunities for themselves and family members. But we can't really call ourselves adventurists either. I mean, we would love to but we are not doing mountaineering or something crazy like that. Who are we? Let’s just say “travelers” without indulging in metaphysics. And why did we go to Ladakh?
I can think of one good excuse. We want to try Instagramming, aka making “reels”. Just think about it, who wouldn’t want to roam in the mountains if all expenses are paid by photography and videography? Can this really happen? I don’t know. Have you subscribed to our channel? Are you sharing our reels? Have you been clicking on the like button? Or are you going to be a jealous bastard? Lol?
To my surprise, Gagandeep told me a few days before departing that he needs this trip badly. He had been going through a “messy breakup”. I don’t know if I can call it another excuse, but good enough for me. I have helped friends in such a situation. God bless.
I've had a series of bad luck trying to reach Leh. Each time I tried, the mountain passes would be blocked by snow or landslide. I've tried 4 times, once on the bike as well. But Gagandeep has been to Leh 3 times successfully. This would be his 4th time.
It’s going to be confusing, me saying Gagandeep a lot. Yes, my name is Gagandeep. But here I am referring to my dear traveler friend’s name. His name is also Gagandeep. This fact is going to get us into funky situations later on. So, it is both Gagandeep and Gagandeep who went to Ladakh.
Kurali to Manali –
Such wise travelers we are. We started our journey at 1 PM on a Monday! Gagandeep had a patient appointment that he needed to take care of. And, we both suffer from insomnia. There was no way we could sleep the night before and wake up at 5 AM on the day of undertaking an epic journey like this.
As expected, we got royally fucked by traffic at Swarghat in the afternoon. Crossing Mandi was even more horrible. What used to be a 4 lane highway in Mandi was reduced to a single shredded lane. Thanks to the landslides and heavy monsoon of August.
It took us probably more than 12 hours to reach Manali. We reached our hotel at 2 AM! Now, you may be thinking, how is this fun? It sounds brutal.
We did what we could. We bought a bottle of Apple Cider in Bilaspur and we started taking small sips. This would not be drunk driving, I assure you. Just little something to get us through, way below the legal limit. As Gagandeep was going through a “messy breakup”, he took the liberty to play Himesh Rashamia songs for the rest of the drive. I know, how cheesy! I don’t like this music personally. But empathy, bad roads, traffic, and Apple cider created an aura. I started listening to it carefully for the first time. It started to fuck my mind. Especially in the song Aashiq Banaya Apne when he replies to the female singer
I fucking liked it. We made a bad situation Fun!
Manali to Jispa; Day 2
Gagandeep was proud of the fact that he got us a hotel room in Manali for 1000rs with breakfast. Breakfast was crap, we ate anyway and resumed our journey.
Atal Tunnel gets boring after a few minutes. They should paint the walls with something. Something that is not too distracting but keeps the driver awake.
About 20-30 Km before Keylong, we got fined for overspeeding. The road leading up to Keylong is extremely smooth. If you are not paying attention to the speedometer, you can easily cross the posted speed limit of 55 km/h. We were at 63. We pleaded with the policemen to let us keep our driving licenses as we are the only people two driving on the Ladakh circuit. If one of us gets our license blocked, a single person cannot drive for so many kilometers and back. They agreed, praise the Lord.
We stopped at Keylong and had mutton tupka and mutton momos. They were satisfactory. We brought our cylinder for cooking. We brought it empty because no flammable items are allowed through the Atal Tunnel. We asked around in Keylong for where we might get it filled. People pointed us to a shop near the Keylong bus stand.
We reached Jispa in the evening. We found cozy tents there for the night. The tents were beside the river. Which makes them scenic. We met a delightfully charming dude named Kartik from Gurgaon. He was traveling solo in his Thar. I mistook him for a rock guy with his long curly hair but he said he prefers hip-hop. After we got acquainted, we started drinking.
Tent owners kept asking us for dinner but we kept on drinking. We started discussing religion and politics. I busted out John Lennon. Kartik was in strong agreement with our humanistic philosophy. We kept drinking more and more as we indulged in discussing music and so forth.
Tent owners finally had enough of us. They closed the kitchen. Kartik went to his tent and came out with ready-to-eat packets of chicken and daal. We had a stove, a cylinder with a little bit of gas, kulchas, sauces, and organic eggs. We made our meal. One would say drinking excessive alcohol on your first day of acclimatization is a bad idea. Let's find out.
Jispa to Leh; Day 3
We woke up early as the journey ahead would be a long one. Didn’t get much sleep last night either. We skipped breakfast and took ibuprofen with coffee. Lol. What would you rather prefer? Being gentle with the gastrointestinal system or taking care of the massive hangover?
While still recovering from the hangover, we started experiencing AMS about the time we reached Baralacha La pass. We had to stop there for 1 hour as JCBs were working. With more time spent there, our AMS symptoms began to exacerbate.
The views beyond Baralacha La were beginning to get immensely beautiful. That’s when I decided to get out of the sunroof to capture them. I must have spent 10-15 minutes outside the sunroof. Yeah sure, the wind was chilly AF but I didn’t care. When I came back in, my AMS started getting worse.
Gagandeep was no better either. His headache was beyond his imagination. No amount of physical fitness can defeat the biological effects of less oxygen in the atmosphere.
After an hour, I took the driving position. I reasoned, maybe if I start to drive, my mind will be busy, too busy to feel the AMS. We crossed Sarchu. This was my first time reaching Sarchu because Baralacha La pass always screwed me over.
At Pang after lunch, Gagandeep took a nap for half an hour. We decided that I will keep on driving till I can drive no more. I drove up to Tanglang La Pass. Driving in More Plains could have been exhilarating due to the astounding beauty. But AMS kept me from major goosebumps.
I was done at Tanglang La and Gagandeep took over the wheel again. It would be nightfall before we would reach Leh. We stopped near Upashi for tea and took another tablet of ibuprofen. After that our AMS symptoms began easing. We put on the music again and eventually reached Leh. We high-fived.
At night, from the guest house window, I saw a dog sleeping. He had a bowl beside him that had some kind of food. He must be saving it for later. A bird came from above and stole some of his food. The dog suddenly woke up to the sound of the bird's flight. Confused by what happened he spotted a cat nearby. The dog blamed the cat and started chasing him. Another dog awakened by the commotion joined him in the chase and barking. This was amusing, better than TV.
Leh; Day 4
This would be a Leh-only day. It is mandatory to stay in Leh for 24 hours for acclimatization. I suppose I should mention that none of the prepaid sims work in Kashmir. The guest house had Wifi which they provide to the guests. I used it to download offline google maps. I started looking for places to visit in Leh. But we never in our entire journey made concrete plans. People often rush to cover all the places. Why make things hectic? See what you can, and skip what's left for the next time. Anyone who asked us what our plan is, we always said we have none. We are going to take it easy and relax.
We covered the Tibetian Handicraft market, Spituk Monastery, Sangam, Pathar Sahib Gurudwara, Leh palace, and Shanti stupa in that order.
A few things I would like to mention. All these are your typical tourist places, so expect crowds even in the off-season. Although, I am not sure if there is any “off-season” anymore. Gagan says there are throngs of tourists in season.
Pathar Sahib Gurudwara is tremendously exquisite. It is well-decorated and well-maintained by the army. We had langar there in the afternoon. There were both chapatis and puris. Dal and a mutter-paneer subzi. Armymen serve the langar, just like they serve our country by protecting her borders. Jai Hind. Please don't take selfies there with blessed hashtags. They let you take photos but selfies are not allowed in there.
The view from the Leh palace's terrace is extraordinary. Entire
Leh at glance. We reached Shanti Stupa at night. It was seriously peaceful as
the name suggests, especially at night.
Leh to Nubra Valley; Day 5
We woke up well-rested and had another magnificent breakfast from Lamayuru Restaurant. Gagandeep has created massive hype around the Khardung LA pass. He had a few intense worries up his sleeve. First, he wanted to cross Khardung La as early as possible to avoid the tourist rush and to avoid military convoys and trucks. Fair point. Who can forget Rohtang pass days? Before Atal Tunnel, all the traffic went through Rohtang pass, people going to Leh or Spiti, and Manali's tourists all crowding at Rohtang to see the snow.
We were feeling well. Though the fear of AMS hitting us again at Khardung LA was a genuine one. But we also knew that our final destination, Nubra is not so high. I had no clue what Nubra is going to offer, I mean sure, I thought it must be beautiful. Gagandeep kept asking me about my expectations of Nubra. I always replied I don't know we will see. We will talk about it when we cross that bridge.
I drove up to Khardung LA. Gagandeep was relaxing and playing music. It was a fantastic drive. The best I ever had in my life. The road was narrow but we did manage to avoid major traffic by leaving early. While I was relishing the steep uphill drive, AMS was building up inside. It did hit me when we reached the top. There were a lot of people up there. I think people who reach Leh by flight take taxis to visit Khardung LA and turn back. But, many of them do get to Nubra as well. We will soon find out. At Khardung La top, people were taking turns to get their photos and selfies taken with the Khardung LA milestone. It was a mess. Total shitshow. Will remind you of the queue at Banks. We took one or two quick pics and just moved ahead from there. Not lingering saved us from bigger AMS too.
Moving ahead reaching Hunder, we saw Sand dunes. You wouldn't expect sand dunes in mountains? We will return to them after we find a room in Hunder.
We came back to the hotel and started drinking. Oh no, there won’t be a single day when we didn’t drink on this trip. But within limits, we learned our lesson at Jispa. It was very cold in Hunder that night. We hit the sack soon after.
Nubra to Pangong; Day 6
Our earlier plan was to skip Pangong and see Tso Morori instead. I will explain why? But first, the road from Nubra to Pangong is shockingly beautiful and broken at the same time. They make new roads every year and they break down every year. It took us a huge amount of time to reach there. Although the distance is not that great, we must have stopped for 3-4 hours combined at several places due to JCBs working. The excessive delays were diminishing my dopamine. It turned evening when we were beginning to see Pangong. Gagandeep asked me If we should switch because he said and I quote “ the lake is very distracting, are you sure if you would be able to drive?” No, I said and we switched. I kept staring at the lake. Couldn’t keep my eyes off it.We saw the buffet and it read weird names of the dishes. We never even heard of them. But all the items looked so good to the eyes. In the dining hall, it looked like we two have crashed into a family function or something. They kept staring at us wondering who are we. Eventually, a lady asked us who we were, and I explained we are independent travelers and Punjabis. I told her everything tasted delicious. That’s when she told me it was all Jain food. I wonder how they don’t use garlic, or onions and still manage to make their food that is so tasty.
Pangong to Tso Morori; Day 7
We intentionally delayed breakfast for two reasons. First, the kitchen/dining hall was crowded with the Gujju family. There were no tables left to sit at. Second, Pangong’s blue color won't show up till the near afternoon. In the morning, the waters are grayish.
After breakfast, we were on our way to Tso Morori. But the lake wouldn’t let us leave. When the waters turned blue we lost our marbles. We kept stopping along the way. Soaking its beauty, taking pictures and videos. And sometimes, stopping for no other reason just to stare at it. Making every excuse in the book to stop one more time. Oh! I need to pee. But really, just to stare at it. We dilly-dallied to Chusul (a village on Pangong's banks).
Most tourists turn back from Pangong. There is a widespread misconception that if you saw Pangong, there is no need to see Tso Morori because they are both alike. People have their own truths. And they are far away from the objective truth.
Most of the travelers take the route of Hanley from Pangong. They go to Hanley from Pangong and go to Tso Morori from Hanley. We skipped Hanley. It was a week already since we left home. We would cover Hanley and Uming La pass some other time.
The road elevates even more so up to Kasang LA pass. It was windy, chilly, and lonely there. Not a single soul except two of us. Wild! Then comes Yaye Tso lake. Its waters were light blue surrounded by brown mountains. White clouds permeate the sky. Beautiful.
After Mahe, we were beginning to get hungry. By now we have started to take hunger seriously. You don’t want hunger turning into or inviting AMS. We found a little dhaba on Mahe Bridge. The lady made us Maggi. It’s better than nothing.
The road from Mahe to Tso Morori was under construction. It looks like they are making a world-class broad road to attract tourists. We lost our way in between. There was a brand new narrow road but we didn’t take it because we couldn’t decipher where it will lead to. We stuck to a broader broken road. The entire road on which we drove on was etched. Grooves on the road were giving off vibration, something a massager would do. But not to relax the body but instead to shatter it.
An analogous village to Spangmick at Tso Morori is called Karzok. But it’s also different. In Spangmick tents are near the lake. In Karzok there are rather cemented hotels/guest houses and tents but they are at a considerable distance away from the lake. I bet the lake-facing rooms will be more expensive. There is also a lot of new construction going on.
Tso Morori to Jispa; day 8
We stopped for a considerable time at Puga hot springs. There is a single geyser in the matches which squirts out hot water 24/7. There’s no path from the road leading up to it. You need to walk through the marshes to reach it. I walked till the ground was dry. After that, I refused to take my shoes and socks off. I can’t get a proper grip with naked feet. Gagandeep went ahead and made up to the geyser. I elected to stay behind. I filmed a dog roaming around in the marshes. This dog wouldn’t respond to me calling him. Later I found that this was an independent dog. He was hunting rodents in the marshes and eating them raw instead of relying on human food. No wonder he wouldn’t come to me. He walked away from me every time I approached him.
We didn’t stop at Tsokar lake. As we have decided to journey all the way back to Jispa. The banks of Tsokar lake have a unique look. It’s white with salt deposits. We saw Kiangs running wild parallel to our car. They must be spooked by the sound of our vehicle. We filmed them running and they crossed the road and went up the hills.
Reaching the next village, we bought coke for the first time. It’s been a while since we quit sugary drinks. Who in the right mind consumes coca cola in this day and age? But lol it tasted so freaking awesome. No wonder why this stuff is so addictive.
Hence we couldn’t film that entire beautiful stretch of road on our journey back either. We lost the light. It grew dark when the traffic resumed. We reached Sarchu at around midnight. Couldn’t film that water crossing either. For half an hour we stopped at Sarchu, in dilemma. Weather to stay here or continue towards Jispa? We continued.
We reached Jispa at 1:30 AM. Found camps near the road and stayed a night. This is what happens when you have made a sure decision about your destination. We could have avoided this ordeal if we had stayed in Sarchu. But we were beginning to get homesick and internetsick. Jispa was the only place where there'd be internet. Lol.
Day 9 – We resumed our journey back home. I drove up to Mandi and managed to get 25km/l mileage (overall) going downhill till Mandi. It reduced to 15.2km/l (overall for 2000 km trip) due to traffic and fuck up of bad roads from Mandi onwards.
We reached our homes at night. A tremendous trip. Ladakh is a vast wilderness. There’s something new at every corner, at every turn. Something beautiful. New scenes, changing landscapes. Different trees, different roads, different colors. It is the ultimate cure for a soul thirsty for the Himalayas.