Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Road to Srinagar - Heaven on Earth (Leh - III)


  • If you are traveling in a car or bus from Leh to Kargil, sit on the passenger side of the vehicle to enjoy the scenery.
  • Visit the Hari Parbat  - you have to get the tickets to get into the fort in a different part of the town.  The panoramic view from the fort is well worth it.
  • If you take auto rickshaw to the airport, it will be stopped about a km from the entrance and you have to carry your luggage to the entrance.

My Journey

Getting the share taxi

There is a small board at the polo ground in the Manali highway as the new shared taxi stand and I was there very early in the morning (630am) watching different transactions going on there.  There were more taxis than the tourists in the stand, there’s no chai shop around that area and there’s a very poorly maintained toilet at the back of the taxi stand.  There are shared taxis to Srinagar, Manali and to Kargil leave whenever the vehicles get full, and the taxi union controls which taxi goes when. The office (small booth) opens at 8 am and they start announcing the taxi registration numbers and their destinations in Hindi, if you don’t know Hindi, ask the guys who stand around there.  The whole place comes to life only after 8am.  
When someone walks in to the taxi stand and enquires about something, there are about 10 people surround him to answer the question or curious about that person :-) Around 745 am one guy came in a vehicle to start selling the regular chai, Leh chai (very salty-pink in color) and Leh bread (naan kind of bread).  There are a lot of people just standing around the taxi stand and driving in and out of the stand, but no vehicles left to anywhere ‘til 9am.  Finally, our vehicle got full around 930 am and we left to Kargil.


The road from Leh to Kargil is paved highway with a lot of small towns with restaurants and ATMs.  This highway is a five star highway compared to the Manali highway.  The scenery on this road is good but not as breathtaking as that of the Manali highway except the sections after the area called Moon Landing. We reached Kargil in less than six hours even after taking a long lunch break in one of the villages.  Kargil is a decent size town with a lot of shops and restaurants.  I found a hotel very close to the share taxi stand thinking that I’d leave very early in the

morning to Srinagar.  There’s not much to do in Kargil and it is a jump-off point for the trekkers to reach different parts of Kashmir.  I set out to see the only
museum in town that has the silk route artifacts, when I reached the museum it was closed.  When I shouted out for anyone, a guy came out from his home below the museum, to open the doors, collected Rs.50 and walked along with me inside the museum to put some pressure on me to see and to get out of the museum soon so that he could do his regular work :-)  After spending about 15 minutes in the museum, seeing photographs, money during the earlier 20th century, things traded during at that time, etc., I went to the town to walk around.  It is predominantly a Muslim town with very few tourists hanging around.  The next-door neighbor in my hotel was in Kargil for business and was planning to leave at 10am by shared taxi to Srinagar, so made arrangements with the shared taxi to go in the same taxi.  Made arrangements with the taxi driver that I wanted to spend some in the Kargil war memorial on the way to Srinagar.

Shared Taxi Ride and War Memorial

In the shared taxi we had four locals, French tourist (William), a Spanish lady (Itxaso) living in Rishikesh and I, traveled to the Kargil war memorial first.  Seeing the Tiger Hill and the other ridges where the actual war happened, and how close they are to the main highway artery that connects Leh to Srinagar gave a great perspective of the importance of the conflict.  I was disappointed to see no one explaining what happened during the war in English but saw a soldier stood in front of the crowd giving military style speech about the war for about 20 minutes.  And at the end of the speech, he said “Jai Hind” and left, there’s no question and answer
- it was just an one way conversation.  Don’t know why they couldn’t put any interactive media in the memorial to pride themselves of the winning of the war..!  One of the locals in the taxi, Sarvar, was explaining what happened at different points on the road during the war and it was interesting.  But I could sense his leanings towards to Pakistan by the videos that he was sharing and exaggerating the casualties on the Indian side.  

The section of the road near Sonamarg was bad and we could see the after effects of the cloudburst there; also this section of the road from Kargil is very dramatic and beautiful.  Sarvar showed us where Amarnath is and indicated that it’s possible to take helicopter to
Amarnath from Sonamarg.  As we got closer to Srinagar, we could see a lot of military personal on the roadside but the numbers are not as high as what I expected. 

Srinagar Dal Lake

Since I have already made arrangements to stay in a boathouse, William & Itxaso wanted to come along with me to see the boathouse before deciding where to stay.  Fridose, with whom I was dealing with regarding the boathouse, met us near the near to take us to the boathouse.  I thought that the boathouses are on the edges of the lake, but there are all parked at one end of the lake close to each other.  Unlike the boathouses in Kerala, these boathouses don’t move and they are always docked in one place.  Since it was off-peak season, there’s not many people around our boathouse and also, it is further away from the main road.  We liked the boathouse and we decided to stay in the same place.

We just sat on the boat talked about our travel stories.  We talked a lot about why Itxaso is living in Rishikesh for the last five years and her stories about traveling in India.  The discussions went into scuba diving when we started interacting a few Israeli guys in the next boat and what the cool places are to teach scuba diving for one of the Israeli guy who has Master certification in scuba diving.  Contact information exchanged between the tourists.

Old Srinagar !?!

After leisurely having breakfast, I set out to explore Old Srinagar with the Israeli guys with Fridose’s brother.  The Old Srinagar is not impressive and there’re not any old heritage buildings to take a look at and also the mosques are very simple without any extravagant artwork.  The old mosque structure is different from the regular mosque structure where there’s no dome structure but looked like the structure of a church with huge prayer halls.  The visit to the Hari Prabat fort was very good and we had to go to a different part of the town to get permissions/tickets to get into the fort.  There is a lot of military presence in the fort and the view from the fort will let you understand the size of the Dal Lake.

Hitch Hiking

My Israeli friends wanted to visit some of the Mughal parks, so I bailed out
and wanted to go to the Sankarachraya temple.  I was stopped by an inspector, who was registering the vehicles those were going up the hill to the temple, and asked where I was going (I was the only guy who was walking up the hill while everyone else is going by car/auto).  Told him that I would like to walk up to the temple, he started talking to me in Tamil and told me to get an auto to go up because it would take more time and he tried to get me an auto but no one was answering.  So when the next vehicle stopped for registration, he asked them to take me in their vehicle to the temple.  The temple is a simple one with a lot of security (you are not allowed to carry phone/camera into the premises).  On the way back, I hitch hiked and got the ride in a car with a couple Chilean girls, who were traveling in the Kashmir/Rajastan area for three weeks.  Interacting with the police and hitch hiking were a better experience than paying Rs.200 for the auto to go to the temple..:-)  

Sunset Shikara Ride

On returning from the temple, I bargained a shikara (boat) for Rs.250 per hour to go on the sun set ride in the Dal lake before returning back to the boat house.  The shikara ride on the lake with less tourists was good and I noticed only one power boat with water skis but overall the lake was calm and nice.  Not sure how the lake will be during the peak season.

End of an Awesome Trip

I was afraid that the time that’ll take to get to the airport may be
long because of the security but I was wrong.  There was not that many army personal on the way and the security at the airport was through but quick. You will be stopped about a km from the entrance of the airport where you have to scan your bags before you can continue your trip to the airport.  The airport is well maintained and had to go through the security at least in three places within the airport before boarding the flight.  But overall, it was quick and no issues.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Exploring Ladakh (Leh - Part II)

First part of my travelogue reaching Leh from Manali by Enfield motorcycle can be found at: http://shantagunny.blogspot.in/2015/08/gunny-motorcycle-diaries-manali-to-leh.html


  • If you are traveling in Leh during the non-peak season, you get easily get 25-30% discount on the published taxi rates.  Take a look at the published taxi rates and calculate how much the published fare for your trip would be.  This knowledge will help you to negotiate better.  Before start negotiating, take a look at the vehicle first and make sure that you are happy with that.
  • Every destination in Ladakh area may or may not be beautiful but the journey to those places will be definitely awesome.
  • There are a lot of guest houses and hotels close to the old town
    near the palace area.
  • The share taxi stand is now moved to a new place (polo ground) that’s located in the Manali highway beginning area.  If you are planning to take share taxi to Manali or Kargil or Srinagar, you need to have patience and belief that you would get there.  The people in the taxi stand are very helpful and will let you know which taxi will leave first to your destination and you have to wait til the taxi get full, it may take 30 minutes or two hours.
  • Instead of booking separate taxi rides, e.g. Leh to Nubra valley
    or Leh to Pongong, etc., have an itinerary and book as a 3 or 4 day trip, you will be able to get deep discounts.
  • If there’s no major floods or landslides, you will be able to go to Pongong from Nubra Valley without coming to Leh, when you book multi day tours, you will be able to save time.
  • If you are planning to go to Tso Moriri from Pangong lake using backroads, you need to get the inner line permit and plan to get it a week or earlier.  
  • Not many people venture to the Tso Moriri because of its remoteness that is one of the reasons why you should visit.  
    There’s limited accommodations near the lake, so as soon as you arrive there, book a place before you go out to enjoy the views.

Getting the Discount

Before going to the taxi stand, we talked to the receptionist about the taxi, our plan and asked for his suggestions.  With the help of the published taxi fare booklet, we calculated different fares for different plans and finalized on a less expensive plan for four days.  To cover the places that we wanted to cover, the published taxi fare has price for five days so right away we knew that we could easily get 20% discount and after negotiation we were able to get 30% discount with the first driver that we talked to.  We left to Nubra valley around 1030pm because we need to cross the check post before certain time.  


We saw a lot bicyclists on the way to the Khardungla pass and view of himalayas in the background of Leh was pretty awesome.  The road was dusty but well maintained.  There’s an oxygen station run by army and a cafeteria at the 18380 feet level.  It was not as cold as what we expected.  We spent about 15-20 minutes walked around taking a lot pictures and testing my endurance by doing pushups at the high altitude, we continued our journey to Nubra valley.   After coming down from the Khardungla pass, we took a break at the Khardung village for lunch and tea, if you want to enjoy the food at the military canteen, it is available there. 

Orchard of Ladakh

The Shyhok river and the valley is very beautiful with a lot of
vegetation, since the climate in the valley is mild at the 10,100 ft level, people were able to do farming there.  Even on the side of the roads, there are a lot of lavender plants.  This area is called "Orchard of Ladakh”.  We decided to visit the Diskit monastery before continuing to the Hunder, and climbing the stairs to the top of the monastery was really tiresome but it is worth time and it is a such a peaceful place.   In contrast to this 14th 
century monastery, there’s a new and modern monastery with 14meter statue of buddha is close by.  You can go there to have a good view of the Nubra Valley and I didn’t find that monastery interesting.

Sand Dunes

The main attractions in the Nubra valley are the sand dunes and Bactrian camels (two hump backs).  Diskit is the government center in the valley so it is a little bigger town than Hunder.  We reached Hunder around 5pm, while my friends were taking the ride on the
camel, I was walking around the sand dunes enjoying the beautiful scenery.  Compared to the sand dunes in Rajasthan or any other desert area, it is not huge but the location of it between the mountain ranges is the beauty.  The whole place shuts down once
the sun goes down.  We wished that we went to Turtuk which is very close to the Pakistan border which became accessible only after 2010, but no time.  There are a number of tourists visit Nubra Valley for camping but majority of them are just to just a day visit to see the sand dunes.  More than the scenery of the sand dunes, the scenery along the way is very beautiful

Road to Pangong Tso

We really wanted to take the road through Warsi La to Pongong but due to the latest cloudburst and bad weather, that road was closed
so we had to go through Leh. We took the road through Changla, which is the third highest motorable pass in the world (17,688 ft), to Pangong.  As expected, the scenery is very dramatic with the views of monasteries, yaks and himalayan marmots.  It is depressing to see most of the tourists getting very close to the marmots and in some cases feeding them to take pictures.  

Pangong Tso

As with any tourist place in India, Pangong was crowded and the signs about “no motor vehicles beyond this point” or “no camping
allowed” do not have respect, saw people riding their motorcycles/cars very close to the lake and also saw a person camped closer to the lake.  As usual, I could see beer bottles and other trash thrown around the lake which is depressing.  Ignoring all these, if you look at the scenery it is mesmerizing and couldn’t find anyone getting in the water for swim.  Guess what, no one is willing to do it, i was dumb enough to do it, so got in to the water and ready to take a dip but at last minute afraid of
getting arrested for swimming there (this lake is considered as one of the sacred lakes), got out of it just standing in the water for sometime.  The water was not that cold but very clear and nice.  It is one of the largest (83 miles long) high elevation  (about 14,000 ft) lakes that’s shared between India and Tibet(China).  The view of the clear blue water surrounded by mountains is very beautiful.

There are a lot of tent sites as well as concrete buildings available to stay in Spangmik, which is the name of the village on the shores of the Pangong Tso.  Surprisingly, it was not very cold at night and I could get out of the room around 5 am to see the sunrise without much winter cloths.  We decided to wake up early the next day to drive to Tso Moriri.

Drive to Tso Mirori

This is one of the remotest and beautiful landscape that I have seen,
this drive is the best of the best.  We drove up to the Merek village and the drive is so beautiful.  Most of the tourist don’t go beyond Spangmik but you need a four wheel drive to go to Merek.  On the way to the lake, we saw a number of Brahmini ducks, Tibetan Asses (Kiangs) and nomads setting up their tents in remote areas grazing their goats.  This is also one of
the high altitude lakes (14,500 ft) and at night this place gets really cold.  We met a group of people travelled from Mumbai wearing no shoes/socks and cotton cloths freezing in the dining area, because they had been told by their tour operator it won’t be cold.  I really wanted to see the night sky but didn’t bother to fight the freezing weather so slept well.

Adventure (almost) gone Bad

We stopped briefly for tea near Tso Kar (white lake) and didn’t find a lot tourists staying here.  Due to the high salt content, this lake
looks white from far so the name Tso Kar.  Also on the way, we passed through sulphur lake and a water spring.  Since there’re not many tourists traveling here, you could enjoy quite, calm and remoteness, that is hard to find in India, here.  Once you reach the Manali Leh highway, you will see a lot of traffic.  We stopped at the Taglangla pass for some time and the driver wanted to make our trip interesting so he took on the
off road to cut 5 km of travel through the winding road, it was like rolling down from 17,000 ft.  It was fun for 5 minutes before car
got stuck in the mud.  We tried hard to move the vehicle but no luck, but we were lucky to get stuck near a place some people were working laying cable for the BRO.  Five of us managed to push the car out of mud after trying different tricks for about 45 minutes and continued our journey to Leh.

Last Minute Things

We reached Leh around 4pm and decided to take the motorcycle to the mechanic to take a look at it for the long ride the next day.
 Since one of the riders was having hand pain, we decided to leave one motorbike in Leh and take only one bike back to Manali.  I decided to go to Srinagar and fly out of Srinagar to Chennai.  There’s a long line of people checking and running their bikes, so by the time we got our bike it was dark.  We decided to look for the share taxi stand and the exact location of it was not found by the time we went back to the room because different opinions/directions provided by others.  We packed the stuff for the riders and put them in the bike before went to sleep.


I wish that we rode the bike to Nubra valley, Pangong lake and Moriri lake areas, but it needs a lot of time and planning that we didn’t have in this trip.  May be next time.  It is one the best trips of my lifetime.