What a beautiful world ! #1 – Skardu in Gilgit-Baltistan

India’s neighbor, and erstwhile inseparable part of the family is no different when it comes to being blessed with an abundance of natural beauty. How naive it is though, to be a tiny part of a massive universe and see more of the differences between us than the similarities. In his series of photo essays from the magical land of Skardu-Baltistan (geographically contiguous with Ladakh and the Tibetan plateau), Bukhari gives us a glimpse of the treasures that his country, Pakistan, has been blessed with. After going through it, there lingers a romantic hope that someday, there will be no borders.


 

“I was walking on a narrow strip, when a window of a nearby home opened, and a boy with green eyes and a warm smile waved at me. All my exhaustion seemed to just melt away.

I then, made my way to the main road, crunching over fallen leaves that had covered both sides of the road.”

For it is such a beautiful world that we live in ! Click here to view this unmissable photo essay.


 

 

 

 

A day trip to Calvary Mount

When I first tasted the joys of travel during my MBA days, I naively started drafting a list of destinations. A sort of to-do list. And on top of this list, the very first destination that I wrote, was a little known place named Calvary mount (or Kalvari). Why Calvary mount, of all places ? The desire then, was to go truly offbeat. My biggest source of travel reports in those days was the travelogue section on motoring forums in India. And one look at photographs of the place was convincing enough.

With the advent of smart phones and social media, that place wasn’t to remain off beat for long. A regional film released in 2013 implanted it firmly in the mainstream consciousness. But it wasn’t until I came across Ram’s blog that memories of that dusty old list were rekindled.

When plans for a weekend excursion to Munnar district started germinating, there was hardly any excuse to not visit this particular place. Although, with not much information available even now, we had no idea how the roads were, what kind of terrain would we have to cover to reach the point, and most importantly for me, would we encounter leeches.

Idukki map showing Calvary mount (Kavari mount)
Follow the Google maps route, but take the diversion to Adimali and then rejoin the road towards Idukki. Though slightly longer, this is a flat stretch of road whereas the Google maps recommendation is narrow and awkwardly steep in places.

An early start, as I always endorse, was treated with much disdain by my travel mates. Sumptuous breakfast notwithstanding, we covered much ground in the morning but as soon as we left the hills of Munnar, the incessant heat wore us down steadily.

Speeding past the packed, touristy Idukki dam, we soon spotted a sign board for Calvary mount. Stepping wearily through the gates (there is a ticket involved), we were greeted with an enormous cloud cover that blockaded the sun’s heat entirely.

Our first view was nothing short of breathtaking.

First view of Calvary mount Idukki (Kalvari mount)
Behold, a bird’s eye view of the catchment area created by the Idukki Dam. A small shelter made out of bamboo stem pillars and a thatched roof occupied the otherwise verdant viewpoint.

Not a single sound pervaded the place. Not even the gentle rustling of the overgrown grass in the breeze. It was as if everything stood still for a tiny moment and etched a sharp technicolor photograph inside your brain.

Beautiful islands viewed from Calvary mount Idukki  (Kalvari mount)
Tiny islands dotting the catchment area, almost seemed to have been added as an afterthought, in order to add some more variety to the scene.
Catchment area of the Idukki dam viewed from Calvary mount Idukki (Kalvari mount)
I remembered reading somewhere, that on a lucky day, you could see elephants from the forest wading into the waters.

While the eastern side of the hill is owned by a private party that runs a tea estate, the western side of the hill throws open more panoramic views. A rough road connects everything and I walked over to the western side, past a basic toilet, a small garden with vegetables and a few grazing cows. There I came across the caretaker Benny, digging and planting a few plants, who told me that there is a lot more to explore on the western face.

Place to stay on Calvary mount Idukki (Kalvari mount)
Benny, the caretaker’s hut is like a dream come true. He told me that the forest office was building a few cottages on the hill, to let out to tourists.

The sky grew darker through the afternoon. Before long, the calm was interrupted by the sound of thunder in the distance. A strong wind brought in it’s wake, ominous dark clouds from the western horizon.

Calvary mount deserved a lot more time, I realized with a heavy heart. Something for the future maybe.

View from Calvary mount (Kalvari mount)
One last look from that view point again

Oct – Jan would be an ideal time to visit Calvary mount though monsoons cast a different kind of magic on the place. A tiny shop provides noodles, packaged snacks and other refreshments at the entrance to the place. Though the road to Calvary mount is not tarmac all the way, we saw hatchbacks carefully treading the incline without too much fuss. 

You have an option to stay in one of the two cottages built for tourists on the hill. Each one accommodates 5 and includes basic sanitation facilities though there is no provision for cooking. Get in touch with the forest office at Idukki or Mr. Thomas at +91-9447166084 for reservation.


 

Why a visit to Ladakh is incomplete without the Pangong Tso

On the Pangong Tso

.. Though the country is so barren, the lake has its beauties in the varied tints of surrounding hills and mountains, and the rich deep blue of its waters, becoming quite of an emerald green colour as they shallow near the shore.*

Once in a while during your travels, you come across a place that is different from everything else you’ve ever experienced. It captivates your imagination and the mind, already lured away from the monotone of routine, is suddenly unshackled and left free. As the body relaxes and somehow starts breathing differently, every whiff of fresh air invigorates you, like never before. This strange sense of absolute bliss and tranquility etches out memories that stand out not much unlike flame trees in full bloom. For once, you feel truly alive.

The Pangong Tso is one such place. Even though there are countless photos of it online, the first glimpse of the lake puts to shame all the undulating hype that has been building in your brain from weeks of anticipation. Only words can do it even a modicum of justice, and since I won’t attempt the sacrilege, I will depend on a few photographs to lend the narration some respect.

First view of Pangong Tso
To think, that having seen countless photos of the place, you’d not be awestruck is a sheer understatement; for at the first glimpse you are left wondering whose brush has unleashed this piece of art. From afar, when you first sight the cobalt blue waters, it looks magical. From up close, it is otherworldly.

.. a fine view of the first long reach of this elevated and interesting piece of water is obtained. Its colour is of an intense blue, the water as clear as crystal, but far too saline to be drinkable; there was quite a true salt water feel in the air as the wind blew off it.*

To see it in a photograph or read about it in a book is different. But to be able to witness the changing colors and the natural play of light and shadows, to hear the gentle waves lapping at the shores, to ignore the cold wind biting against your skin while breathing in the rarefied air; feels like a privilege.

On a side note, why is the Pangong tso blue in colour ? The straight answer is that it depends on how cloudy the sky is. There are photos that show the Pangong lake in a dull, moody weather and without the mountains, it looks like any other lake. But give it’s clear waters, some deep blue skies to reflect, and the results will be magical. Take a look at my photos of Porthimund for instance. This is why I’d recommend spending a night at Pangong Tso since a day trip, besides being exhausting, might not always present the lake in all it’s glory.

The road to Spangmik
You can opt to stay farther away in Tangste. Or you can choose to camp on the banks of the Pangong lake. The choices vary from Lukung, which is to the west of the lake; to Spangmik seen here, where we stayed or further east at Man-Merak village. In either case, good woollens, mufflers, balaclavas and mittens are highly recommended since the temperature often dips below freezing point at night

Daytime temperatures near the Pangong lake are not much of a botheration. But even in the summer evenings, the temperature drops rather quickly into single digits. What makes it uncomfortable though, is the ferocious wind. The wind chill makes a bearable 10 degree Celsius feel like sub freezing. The cold penetrates exposed skin and soon, the nerves start tingling due to the numbness. The wind makes the ears scream in pain, the cold makes the nose weep too.

At night, the wooden walls of our cottage provide minimal respite. Outside, we can hear other tents flapping in the wind. Inside, our drinking water becomes too cold to be drinkable, and any contact with unheated water is like sifting through a sack of needles. The mink blanket and quilt feels like heaven, but that is only after you’ve put on 4 layers of clothing. Getting out of bed once you’re tucked in, is unthinkable.

In spite of all this, I do step out at night, briefly, to take a look at the starlit skies above. The milky way is not as crystal clear as made out to be, but the sky does seem darker and the stars by contrast, brighter. The wind protests against my intrusion in its space, and soon forces me inside. For a couple of tourists though, liquor and a bonfire prove adequate. Pangong Tso is at a considerable altitude, and none of us sleep well at night.
Continue reading “Why a visit to Ladakh is incomplete without the Pangong Tso”

The Ladakhis

Famous western explorer Marco Pallis, while on an exploratory tour of the region way back in 1936, had this to say about the peasants of Ladakh, although it can be taken as a description of the Ladakhis in general too.

The inhabitants of these villages must surely be some of the happiest on the face of the earth. One can only pray that no zealous enthusiast will feel impelled to ‘improve’ or ‘enrich’ them, acting on some sociological theory worked out under totally dissimilar circumstances. Certain writers have alluded to the poverty of the people, doubtless referring to their lack of ready money and their rather spartan simplicity of life. There is no luxury, nor a big margin of surplus food, but if the enjoyment of a sufficient, if rather unvaried, diet composed of tasty, unadulterated materials and the leading of a healthy, outdoor life in majestic surroundings with work which has its leisured as well as strenuous phases, the wearing of durable and comely homespun clothing, the dwelling in spacious, well-built homes, and the possession of a restricted number of objects pleasing to the eye – if all this be poverty, then let us deplore our world.

The brief time that we spent with Tashi, our driver, gave us exactly the same impression. These are a happy set of people who have learnt to take the hardships of the land in their stride. One only wishes that they do not court controversies like disallowing private vehicles and self-drive schemes from plying in Ladakh, after all they need us (the tourists) as much as we need them.

References:

Prem Singh Jina, Famous western explorers to Ladakh

The Changthang Plateau – Doorsteps of Tibet

Changthang meaning: Large northern plains

Durbuk: flourishing village in the valley

Tang ste: higher ground

The difference in the landscape as one exits the Chang La is immediately palpable. For this region consists of the western fringes of the Changthang plateau, which is itself, an extension of the enormous Tibetan plateau that runs thousands of miles to the east.

Take a look at this map to get an idea of the scale of this plateau. At an average elevation of 10-15000 feet, it rightfully deserves the moniker ‘roof of the world’. It is also the life-blood of the Asian subcontinent as all of Asia’s major rivers – the Indus, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, the Irrawaddy and the Yangtze originate here. Courtesy: http://www.thelandofsnows.com/faqs-on-travel-in-tibet/
The Tibetan Plateau Take a look at this map to get an idea of the scale of this plateau. At an average elevation of 10-15000 feet, it rightfully deserves the moniker ‘roof of the world’. It is also the life-blood of the Asian subcontinent as all of Asia’s major rivers – the Indus, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, the Irrawaddy and the Yangtze originate here. Courtesy: http://www.thelandofsnows.com/faqs-on-travel-in-tibet/

In ancient times, one would now be treading through Tibet itself. Of course, today it is a part of the Indian mainland and the Indo Chinese border separates it from it’s parent.

The Changthang is noticeably colder than the other regions of Ladakh due to it’s higher elevation. It’s winters are referred to using the adjective ‘Arctic’ in many places, indeed this is the place where one can be afflicted with frostbite and sun burns on the same day.

Another major difference is the total absence of trees that are usually present in abundance in the valleys to the west of the Chang La.

The locals here, more Tibetan than the Ladakhi populace back in Leh, used to be, and even now in some cases, are Nomads, called as the Chang Pa. Tashi, our driver, points out a nomadic hut on the plains – the tent is apparently made of Yak skin and can withstand the fierce cold here.

Closer to the pass, a lot of snow-melt irrigates the land and hence, serves as ideal grazing grounds for a variety of wild life. One comes across wild horses, the ubiquitous Yak as well as hordes of domesticated Pashmina sheep on these pastures. From time to time, mormots, some of them accustomed to the presence of human beings and the food they carry, also scurry out of the ground to greet tourists.

Descending the Chang La and onto the Changthang plateau
Frozen ponds dot the descent from Chang La
Roads on the Changthang plateau
The roads lead past numerous such scenes – towering snow peaks benevolently feeding snow-melt and watching over the grasslands.

Continue reading “The Changthang Plateau – Doorsteps of Tibet”

Crossing the Chang La

Chang La: Northern pass

A drive through the town of Shey is one of the most rewarding experiences in Ladakh. Here, the morning sun blesses the willow and poplar lined roads, resulting in lateral streaks of soft light falling on the ground. Accompanying this are bird songs and the sight of irrigation canals running merrily along side the road. This pleasant feeling sets you up nicely for what Ladakh has in store, up ahead, on the road to Pangong Tso.

Indus river in Ladakh enroute the Leh-Chang La
The Indus shines a brilliant aquamarine under the mid morning sun and merrily accompanies you till Karu, where it deserts you in favor of the Leh-Manali road. From here, the only sight of water will be snow-melt from the high passes.
Chemrey Monastery in Ladakh enroute the Leh-Chang La road
The Chemrey monastery presents an imposing sight. Even from a distance, it easily dominates the surroundings and stands out from the beige landscape and the green plains below.

Continue reading “Crossing the Chang La”

The rocky road to Kolukkumalai, world’s highest organic tea estate

Overcast sky. Foot hills of a place named Kolukkumalai that I had only briefly heard of.

It’ll be 1600 Rs, Sir” said the driver.

How about 1500“, I tried to bargain it down.

You take a look at the roads first. Pay us only if you think we don’t deserve it“, came the retort.

That reply totally caught me off-guard and I had to agree with the rates he was quoting. We were in Suryanelli, a small town near Munnar on a cloudy afternoon, wondering how to reach Kolukkumalai in the hills above us, with ominous dark clouds looming. The Kolukkumalai tea estate, an attempt at discovering the slightly offbeat side of Munnar, was what had led me here.

How to reach Kolukkumalai from Munnar

Lots of cabs and buses will take you to Suryanelli from Munnar. From Suryanelli to Kolukkumalai however, it is a different story. As it turned out, only 4WD vehicles with a generous ground clearance can attempt the roads to the tea estate situated on these hills. And hence, the deal with the jeep driver, a total of 1600 Rs for climbing up the rocky roads to the world’s highest organic tea plantation at Kolukkumalai.

 

The ride up Kolukkumalai

Once we bundled in, the jeep lurched forward and for around 10 minutes, my companions doubted whether the roads really were that rough. No sooner did we cross a bend than the driver stopped and engaged the 4wheel drive on his Mahindra Major. We could see that the remainder of the way uphill was a rock-strewn, off-roading exercise, masquerading as a road.

Offroading in a 4x4 jeep at Kolukkumalai
While one tyre would be climbing up a rock, it’s partner would be diving into a ditch and the remaining 2 would be dealing with problems of their own. It felt like being inside a toy raced around by a 5 year old with a total attention span of zero.

Soon, the backseat of the jeep felt like being inside an orb, albeit without the cushioning. One moment, our backs would be thrown against the seat, and the next, our heads would almost bump into the canopy. The overhead bars in the jeep provided some purchase, but even then, it almost felt like your insides were being tossed about violently. For what seemed like hours, our bodies were subjected to this unrelenting torture until the driver finally stopped the roller coaster ride and pointed outside, indicating to us to take a look. It took a moment for us to realize our organs were still in their rightful places, before we stumbled outside, where, the most magnificent sight awaited us. Continue reading “The rocky road to Kolukkumalai, world’s highest organic tea estate”

Photos from the Nubra Valley

Continued from Part I here.

Past Khalsar and the Karakoram wildlife sanctuary, is a stretch of road that is straight as an arrow and appears to point straight at the Nubra valley.

This road is called the camel road“, remarks Tashi, our driver, in his usual mischievous tone. Upon being questioned, he bounces in his driver’s seat, mimicking the road’s tendency to make you feel like you are seated on a Bactrian camel that is native to these parts.

The road itself is surrounded by flat stretches full of sand dunes, the scale and the diversity of the geography never ceasing to surprise you at any moment. Past it, is another pass that leads you straight into the Nubra valley.

Shyok river enroute Nubra valley
On the pass, Tashi pulls over to the side and points at the panoramic view that has unfolded in the valley below. The Shyok’s riverbed lies exposed, it will be fully covered as summer unfolds, turning into a resplendent shade of turquoise blue then. From Nubra, it continues northwards into the Karakoram ranges before uniting with the Indus in Pakistan.
Unique Nubra valley
How many places on earth can treat you to views of sand, greenery and snow capped peaks at the same location ? Ladakh is as unique in its scenery as it is magnificent.
Hamlets in Nubra valley
Talk about a mountain at your doorsteps – our rooms had a balcony that opened up to this view. This hamlet was situated right at the base of the mountain range.

Continue reading “Photos from the Nubra Valley”

Sights from the high road to Nubra

Nub-ra: the western district

As we cross the Khardung La and leave the high altitude behind, the landscape changes and we are well and truly on the road to Nubra. The snow from the glaciated mountains feeds little streams that irrigates the land, leaving patches of white and green. Set against the deep blue skies, the scenery is a welcome relief from the dirty brown monochrome that is Khardung La.

Road to Nubra valley
Snow at a lesser altitude, melts and turns into streams leaving green patches as it flows down the land.
Picturesque Khardung village
Soon enough, you can sight the picturesque Khardung village, dwarfed by mountains that watch over it like a sentinel.

Continue reading “Sights from the high road to Nubra”