Living a Dream - A drive to Leh and Ladakh

“We have to live the dream and not just dream” and the drive to Leh was exactly living our dreams. We lived our dream from 24th June’ 2016 to 3rd July’ 2016 - a journey both of us will cherish forever. We drove from Chandigarh through Manali and Jispa to reach Leh. From Leh, we proceeded to Nubra, Pangong and then back to Leh. We drove through tough terrains, mountain passes with no roads and hair pin bends, water streams, loose rocks and a 1 km long tunnel in a Scorpio 4X4 to ultimately complete this “perilous journey”, with unlimited fun and adrenaline rush and not to forget the endless fights and arguments to be behind the steering wheel. 


Vehicle Courtesy: Sunil Kapoor, Unwind Outdoors.

Travel Planner: Sunil Kapoor, Unwind Outdoors.

Partners in Crime: Riju and Antara

Day 1 – 24th June’ 2016: Exploring Chandigarh

Accommodation: Best Western Maryland Hotel

Day 1 of the journey started with a flight from Bangalore to Chandigarh via Delhi. Chandigarh is definitely a place worth exploring. The city is well planned, with broad, landscaped roads. Google Maps can be a savior on the unknown roads. TheRock Gardensis one of the primary attractions, a destination not to be missed on a trip to Chandigarh. The Rock Gardens is the brainchild of its creator, Nek Chand, a government employee who crafted these amazing sculptures in his leisure hours with the help of waste materials. The idea and the concept will leave you spellbound! Reading through Wikipedia and numerous blogs, I discovered that Nek Chand had actually constructed the Gardens secretly in a forest area beside Sukhna Lake and hid it from public eyes for 18 years. Once discovered, the gardens were on the verge of demolition, but the public of Chandigarh was on Nek Chand’s side and with their help he was able to conserve his artwork and then spread it across an area of 12 acres. The gardens now boasts of an area of 40 acres, consisting of man made interlinked waterfalls and the sculptures of scrap and other kinds of wastes (bottles, glasses, bangles, tiles, ceramic pots, sinks, electrical waste, etc.). The creativity shown by the Padmashree awardee with industrial and urban waste will leave you dumbstruck. You have to see it to believe it.

Another attraction in the vicinity of the Rock Gardens is the Sukhna Lake. This 3sq. km rain-fed lake was created in 1958 by damming the Sukhna Choe, a seasonal stream coming down from the Shivalik Hills. 


Day 2 – 25th June’ 2016: A tiring drive to Palchan

Accommodation: Cliff Top Cottages, Palchan

Day 2 involved a day long journey starting from Chandigarh through Ropar, Kiratpur, Bilaspur, Mandi, Kullu , Manali and all the way to Palchan.The roads were awesome, often encouraging crazy speeds. The best part of driving through Punjab and Himachal Pradesh were the unending dhabas on the roadsides. If you are hungry or just want to grab a cup of tea or coffee, you have a dhaba just round the corner.

From Mandi starts the drive parallel to the Beas River and the whole landscape is breathtakingly beautiful.


Day 3: 26th June' 2016 - Exploring Solang Valley and Manali

Accommodation: Cliff Top Cottage, Palchan.

Day 3 started with a lazy and relaxed morning at the resort, prompted largely by the beautiful surroundings. The latter part of the day was spent exploring the Solang Valley. We had parasailing in mind, but the long queue made us drop the idea. After a quick lunch at Solang, we headed towards Manali. Once there, we explored the Manali market and headed straight back to the resort.


Day 4: 27th June' 2016 - Early morning drive from Palchan to Jispa via the dreaded Rohtang Pass

Accommodation: Padma Lodge & Camps, Jispa.

Day 4 involved an early morning drive to Rohtang Pass. We had the required clearance in place, courtesy Unwind Outdoors. That is the advantage of having your trip planned by an experienced travel agency- the stay and the required passes are all taken care of. The landscape is quite dramatic once you begin your ascend to Rohtang pass, the rugged mountains with lush green surroundings are indeed a treat to the senses. On the way, we packed a few packets of snacks as it is apparently advisable to keep munching to get rid of motion and altitude sickness. This drive will make you realize why Rohtang is named as one of the most dreaded motorable roads. The ascend to Rohtang involved driving through the fog with zero visibility. The never ending hair pin bends made the task even more challenging. The decend from Rohtang was scarier with practically no roads and several stretches consisting of loose rocks. On several occasions during the drive, I witnessed raised eye brows, including those of even army personnel, at the sight of a lady driving in these extreme conditions. Driving through Kothi, Marhi, Rohtang, Koksar, Keylong, we ultimately reached our next destination - Padma Lodge, Jispa. From Rohtang onwards, you are only accessible to BSNL networks which practically meant we were without cellular connectivity. Luckily we had offline maps downloaded, which helped us navigate to our destination.



We were accommodated in a very comfortable and cozy tent, with all basic amenities available. After a little rest, we ventured out for a walk on the banks of the Bhaga river, situated right behind the lodge and from there we proceeded to the Buddhist temple located a kilometer away from the resort. Jispa is a beautiful valley and walking around on the road in the evening is quite a delightful experience. The locals are quite friendly and striking a conversation with them gives you a good insight into the place as well as the road ahead. One of the attendants in the lodge advised us to have lots of water on the road ahead to avoid altitude sickness and trust me we were able to complete this journey without consuming tablets for altitude sickness. The support staff at Padma Lodge were probably some of most hospitable people we had encountered in this entire journey.



Day 5: 28th June' 2016 - A date with the Mountain Passes

Accommodation: Ladakh Retreat, Leh

Day 5 was actually a date with the mountain passes. We managed to cover four mountains passes and the 21 Gata loops in a single day. This is the route that we followed: Jispa – Darcha – Zing Zing Bar – Baralacha La – Bharatpur – Sarchu – Gata Loops- – Nakee La – Lachung La – Pang – Moreh Plains – Tanglung La – Rumste – Upshi –Karu and Leh.

The first pass of the day was Baralacha La, one of the most beautiful passes on the Manali-Leh highway. Deepak Tal and the Suraj Tal are two spendid lakes in this vicinity. Stopping by the lakes and experiencing the sound of the winds make for an amazing experience. The views are breathtaking and a treat for shutterbugs like us. Suraj Tal is the source of the Bhaga river which flows by the Jispa.

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The roads are decent until the top of Baralacha, but once you descend to Bharatpur, the roads turn pathetic. Bharatpur is a nice place for a short tea break after a rough drive through the Baralacha La. Moving ahead through similar rough and mountainous roads, you are welcomed by the vast open fields of Sarchu. 


After crossing the plains of Sarchu, you ascend to the 21 hair pin bends, also known as Gata loops. While crossing the Gata Loops, you might come across a pile of bottles stacked on the road. There is a sad story behind this. Legend has that a truck attendant had died at this spot due to the lack of water and travelers crossing the road often come across a person seeking water. As soon as they hand over a bottle of water to the person, he vanishes into thin air. Not sure of the authenticity of the story, but we did see the pile of water bottles. After Gata Loops, come the two back to back passes Nakee La  and Lachung La. After crossing Lachung La you descend to Pang, another stop-over location.

After Pang comes the incredible Moreh Plains, a 40km stretch of uninhabitable plains at a height of 15748ft above sea level and flanked by mountain ranges on both sides. At some places, the road runs along the Sumkhel Lungpa river that feature stunning natural formations of sand and rock. The drive through the Moreh Plains is amazing and also a deviation from the rough roads of the mountain passes.

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After the Moreh plains, comes the last pass of the day, Tanglung La pass. Surprisingly, the roads here are much better than the ones we had encountered in the other mountain passes. After crossing TangLung La, it is a smooth ride all the way to Leh. Leh, with it's hustle and bustle, was a refreshing change after the lonely drives through the mountain passes. Just before Leh, you come across the Thiksey Monastery and the Shey Palace, which looked quite a promising destination from the roads. However, we were too tired to pay a visit and kept it on hold for the next day. We reached our hotel "Ladakh Retreat" late in the evening, totally tired after the rather long drive. 

Day 6: 29th June' 2016 - Exploring Leh

Accommodation: Ladakh Retreat, Leh

Day 6 started with breakfast at the resort and then a drive to the Magnetic Hill. Magnetic Hill is a small stretch of the road located on the Leh - Srinagar Highway, National Highway # 1. The layout of the area and surrounding slopes create an optical illusion of the road ahead going uphill. However, if you keep the car in neutral in the position defined, it will move downhill. Another theory states that this area has a magnetic force so strong that it can pull cars uphill. Hence the name Magnetic Hill. As per local folklore, this is a supernatural phenomenon and serves as a means to pull the deserving to heaven. Whatever the story, the drive and the area around this magnetic hill is awesome and definitely worth a visit.



The next destination was the Thiksay Monastery, home to the Maitreya Buddha statue. According to Buddhist traditions, Maitreya is a bodhisattva, who will appear on Earth sometime in the future, achieve complete enlightenment, and teach pure dharma. Thiksay Monastery is noted for its resemblance to the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet and is the largest gompa in central Ladakh.


The evening was spent in the beautiful Shanti Stupa. The starlit sky, the quite and calm ambiance was a perfect way to end the day.


Day 7: 30th June' 2016 - Conquering the world's highest motorable road

Accommodation: Organic Retreat, Hunder

Driving through Khardung La was the best and unforgettable experience of the whole trip. Khardung La is at an elevation of 18,380 ft and is believed to be the world's highest motorable road. Maintained by the Border Roads Organisation, the pass is strategically important to India as it is used to carry supplies to the Siachen Glacier.

After crossing Khardun La Pass you reach the Khardung Village, which has a few dhabas run by locals. Interacting with the locals gives you a great deal of insight to their lives and way of living. The summers are when they can earn a living. During winters, only the Army vehicles pass through Khardung La.


As you pass through Leh and Ladakh you see a lot of stacked stones, the owner of the Dhaba informed us that the locales believe that they are a resting place for the departed souls and hence construct these. However, the travelers believe that the stacked stones would supposedly bring them good luck. Whatever be the case, the stacked stones, the prayer flags and the Stupas form an integral part of the Ladakhi landscape, enhancing it's beauty.



Crossing Khardungla, Khalsar and Diskit, we arrived at our destination Hunder. Khalsar, Diskit and Hunder are part of the greater Nubra Valley with Diskit being the capital. Like the rest of the Tibetan Plateau, Nubra is a high altitude cold desert with rare precipitation and scant vegetation except along river beds. A walk on the sand dunes at sunset is a divine experience. You can also chose to explore the dunes on the double humped Bactrian camel.



Day 8: 1st July' 2016 - A day in Rancho's land

On the day 8, we drove via Diskit, Khalsar, Agyam, Shyok, Durbuk, Tangste, Lukung to ultimately reach our destination Spangmik, which is located on the edge of Pangong Lake, an endorheic lake in the Himalayas situated at a height of about 4,350 m (14,270 ft). It is 134 km (83 mi) long and extends from India to China. Approximately 60% of the length of the lake lies in China. The lake is 5 km (3.1 mi) wide at its broadest point. All together it covers 604 sq. km. During winter the lake freezes completely, despite being saline water. It's amazing to see the changing hues of Pangong Lake with the variation in the Sun intensity. The night sky in Pangong gives a clear view of the milky way.



Day 9: 2nd July' 2016 - The landslide and the traffic jam

Final day of our road trip and we started back for Leh. We had heard a lot about the landslides in Leh and thought we were lucky to not spot and be stuck in one. But as destined, we met with a landslide at Chang La Pass and a horrible traffic jam because of that. It took almost 6 hours for the jam to be cleared and traffic restored. So by the time we reached Leh it was quite late. Luckily we got time to explore the Leh Market and buy a few souvenirs.

We handed over the vehicle and next day took a flight back to Bangalore from Leh airport, via Delhi. This brought an end to our "perilous journey”, which we will cherish for the rest of our lives.

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