Friday, June 30, 2017

Likir A Quintessential Village In The Himalayas!

Black carpeted highway surrounded with massive mountains dotted with monasteries is what we had in mind while riding on the Leh-Kargil highway but who would have thought that the winds would play villain. We were caught in bad weather and strong gust of wind took us by surprise. There was no way that we could continue riding our bike when strong winds were swaying our bike with a gross weight of more than 350 kg. Forget bikes, the wind was so strong that even massive Four Wheeler SUVs were swaying on the road and the drivers had little control over their vehicle. We were grateful as we were very close to our next destination- Likir and we somehow managed to reach Likir.

Likir Village is one of the most beautiful locations in Ladakh and famous for it's monastery, which is also one of the wealthiest monasteries in Ladakh. Likir means "Nagas Encircled" representing the bodies of two great serpent spirits- Nanda and Taksako that guard it. Also known as Klu Kkhyil Gompa, it was constructed in 11th century but was destroyed in fire and was rebuilt in 18th century. It also houses a 75 feet statue of Maitreya Buddha covered in gold.

This massive monastery was the first one where we saw a map that would be a guide for travelers which surely is of great help as a few hours are definitely required to experience and understand the history and beauty surrounding this multi storeyed monastery. It has several places of worship that have exquisite wall painting, lovely thankas and age old Buddhist scriptures very well preserved and neatly wrapped in silk. The terrace of the monastery can be easily accessed and the views of the surrounding hills from here are killer. There is also a museum inside the monastery.

Likir was the first Monastery where we saw an in house museum. The museum is a treasure trove and has several antiquities with most of them at least 500 years old. They also house massive musical wind instruments. Among the several amazing exhibits, the ones to watch out for are two wooden screws carved with great precision, the colorful and lively masks that are stunning pieces of woodcraft, in particular the mask of Yamaraj was very scary. Several artifacts, including a skull, were supposedly used for tantrik purposes.

The monastery also has a school within the complex and they offer complimentary black tea to every visitor. We had a wonderful time catching up with the lamas and other travelers. Another amazing aspect about this monastery was that it offers stay options at a very affordable price and the proceeds are used to help educate the young lamas. This stay option not just offers great experience to stay with the lamas but also allows one to attend classes with them, dine with them and know more about the lives of the Monks.

Right outside Likir monastery is an amazing garden restaurant with stay options 'Gompa Restaurant.' It was a pleasant surprise to see a cafe in such a location serve amazing nutella pancakes. Our cold early mornings were made perfect at this restaurant which provided beautiful view of the gompa as we relished our breakfast and sipped hot and fresh ginger, lemon and honey tea.

Likir village is as stunning and beautiful as the monastery. The villagers are very warm and friendly, always smiling and love to greet everyone be it a known person or stranger with "Juley" which is nothing but Namste or a hello. It was really nice to see that they were so welcoming and happy. This seemed to be a common feature of Ladakhis in general and not just limited to Likir. We went out for long walks in the evening around the village and the roads were sparkling clean. Local livestock took over the streets and many age old monuments stood guard and the majestic prayer wheel in the middle of the village echoed around the village when kissed by the wind.

What was even more amazing was to see a squeaky clean water body run through the village. The so called uneducated villagers managed to keep the water body- elixir of life, completely free of garbage and plastic. They have the sense not to pollute natural resources. Something we so called convent educated city folks have miserably failed in. Proof is evident in most of the water bodies within our city limits that are nothing but gutter thanks to industrial pollutants, sewage and are not fit for consumption.

The unparalleled feature of these off beaten travel destinations are their humble home stays. No hotel could ever match up to a home stay's hospitality. We stayed with a lovely Ladakhi family that generously opened their home and hearts to host us. They offer very comfortable rooms with stunning views. Though basic they are very clean with common and attached bath but there is no running water. In old school style, we got generous quantity of water delivered to our room. Going by the name "Smanla Homestay," this beautiful home is located just 5 km away from the monastery and is bang opposite the High School.

Who needs modern luxuries when there is a massive organic garden around and the home is surrounded with willow and poplar trees. Our hosts gave us a detailed tour of the green house that had organically grown strawberries and their farm also had carrots, beans, spinach and cabbage plus apricot trees. We got to taste not just yummy strawberries but also apricots right from their garden. Bang in the middle of their garden was a solar panel that could be used for cooking. It was so astounding and envious to see our hosts live such an organic and healthy lifestyle.

This perfectly reflected in the lip smacking food they served us for dinner. We were in awe the minute we entered the kitchen as the fragrance and aroma of the home cooked dishes filled the entire room. The kitchen had several utensils that were neatly arranged and gave us a museum feel and it was one of the cleanest kitchens that we have ever seen. Our modern day ultra modern expensive kitchen would just not stand a chance. Comfortable cushions and small table made the dining room look even more prettier. Dinner was served with so much love in their traditional Ladakhi kitchen. A very simple meal of dal, rice, boiled egg and vegetables had us licking not just our fingers but plates too. We finished our dinner with piping hot mint tea.

They had a solar heater which converted ice cold stream water to piping hot water in seconds. All we had to do was pour water from inlet pipe and instantly via the outlet pipe piping hot water was delivered. We were so amazed that we repeated the process several times just for the heck of it. Another fact that amazed us was that these households were devoid of taps and they have unending source of clean stream water channelized to their homes and fields through pipes and canals.

Solar Panel used for Cooking
Our second day stay in Likir was more eventful and included practical education in the field of agriculture. Our host invited us to the small paddy fields that belonged to her family and it was amazing to see her, a well qualified teacher work with a shovel with as much ease and grace as she would with chalk on the blackboard. Her field had green peas and we got to taste them right from the field and they were big crunchy, juicy and sweet. There are multiple water outlets of the river that are directed to each farm and there is an unwritten understanding among all villagers with every farm in the mohalla/locality gets water from the river twice a week. Manual flood gates are created and water is diverted to the entire field through multiple channels. It was such an emotional and moving moment to see farmers struggle so hard and do back breaking work to feed us but very sadly at the end of the day they do not have enough to feed themselves.

Collectively as a system and society we have failed them. At a very rapid pace younger generations from the traditional farming families are migrating to cities in search of alternate livelihood. Fertile farm lands are being converted to real estate plots at an even more alarming pace. Sooner than expected we will all have a lot of money but nothing to eat. We might have money but food grains could get way too expensive or become a luxury. Our hosts treated us to unadulterated farm fresh milk from their domesticated cow and the curd made from it was also awesome. The fresh milk was boiled and served to us in matter of minutes. The cow is only fed natural grass as fodder. After a day long field work we were famished and had very good homemade food.

Right after dinner, while walking back to our room we were in for a delightful experience of star gazing. Thanks to the village's pollution free environment, it was an absolute stunning magical star lit sky. Though we had no idea about the constellation we had a lovely time looking up at this mesmerizing romantic sight. Simple things in life such as this are most treasured moments. We were very lucky to see four shooting stars in a matter of minutes. After a long and tiring day, this awesome experience served as a perfect ending and we slept like babies.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Hunder- An Oasis In Middle Of Cold Himalayan Desert!

If there is Heaven on Earth, we surely were lucky to have visited it. Nubra Valley welcomed us with some beautiful landscapes, the deep horizon with different shades of blue, massive brown mountains, vast uninhabited land with lush green patches, amazing roads and the only company that we had was Shyok river guiding us right into Heaven!

The ride to Heaven was via the much celebrated Khardung La Pass. The roads are challenging to say the least and landslides being a norm, road maintenance work is a regular occurrence and that leads to traffic jam. Considering the tough terrain and the obstacles that come up, patience is the key. On our way, we were stuck in a massive traffic jam as an Army truck had a flat tire. It was sad to see that a few people were not willing to wait despite being aware that the best effort was put in to ensure that the traffic is cleared but a few tourist vehicles and bikes were just in a rush. With the focus clearly on the destination, sadly these folks failed to enjoy the journey.

After submitting the form at North Pullu check post, we proceeded towards Diskit and Hunder and were treated with winding mountain roads that were an absolute delight. Though Diskit is only 120 km from Leh the roads are treacherous and steep but the valley is very beautiful. The tough and tiring ride was totally worth getting completely covered in dirt, mud and breathing in diesel fumes when we laid our eyes on the magical Hunder sand dunes from the highway. The little green oasis in middle of the desert was such a stunning sight and we were reminded of few movie scenes portraying Egypt.

It was surprising to see these dunes completely surrounded by hills with a few of them being snowy peaks. Around the dunes was a village filled with greenery and agricultural fields as well plus spotting a river cutting through the dunes was an unimaginable sight. At first, you might assume it is a mirage but in this case the closer you get to the dunes you are proved wrong and you can see the beautiful river through the dunes and it is so crystal clear that you can count the stones on the river bed. Nature is indeed truly amazing.

Sometimes these spectacular sights of Nature make us feel like it is fine if these places are not touched by humans so that they remain pristine. Being travelers this would be an irony as travellers crave for places that are natural wonders and are so amazingly beautiful. However, we are aware of the harsh reality that once humans reach the place it is just a matter of time before all the natural beauty is stripped off and replaced with concrete and trash. Some treasures should not be visible to the human eye for their own benefit.

Apart from the striking natural beauty and the double humped ship of the desert, the most amazing aspect was unlike Jaisalmer sand dunes there were no hawkers selling snacks and beer. Thus saving the place from turning into one big trash can. However, gracious visitors have still managed to dirty the place.

The double humped bactrian camels are the star attractions and one an take a camel safari.The high number of tourists reflected in hunder dunes for the camel safari. There is a good waiting period for the safari.  A 15 min to 1 hour safari is charged Rs.200-600 respectively. The entry charges for sand dunes is Rs.20 for bikes.

We took a nice calm walk in the sand dunes skipping the camel safari. It was one of the best travel experiences to see the sun disappear behind the hills and have stunning views of the Diskit Gompa with company of massive Maitreya statue.

We were very surprised to see plenty of tourist vehicles on this stretch. The sheer high number of tempo travellers, taxis and bikes took us by surprise.  It is high time that authorities come up with a logical system and maybe put a cap on the number of vehicles that ply on this route. The massive amount of pollution and carbon footprint left behind could have devastating effects on the fragile Eco system. There were times when we were directly exposed to massive amount of diesel fumes of commercial trucks. Our already very dirty riding trousers turned charcoal black and our eyes started burning to the point that it started watering and we even found it very difficult to breathe.

The view of the massive Diskit Gompa is stunning from every angle we looked. Hunder is just 7 km from Diskit and is a perfect place to watch sunset. Massive Diskit monastery which takes center stage would easily be one of the biggest monasteries in the whole of Ladakh. The steep road leading up to the monastery made us wonder how they managed to built such a monument while it was accessible only by trek in the 14th Century. The view of Nubra valley from the monastery is breathtaking to say the least. Most parts of the monastery are off bound for tourists while the ones that are open are absolutely stunning. The Kali mata Mandir has a series of amazingly well carved sculptures, now restored centuries old paintings and thankas. Adjacent to the Monastery is the massive Maitreya statue, recently constructed and is over looking the valley. Entry fee to the Monastery is Rs.30 per person.

We preferred to stay in Diskit which offers good number of stay options but there are not many good dine in options in both places. Throughout the trip, we have been extremely lucky with good food or great food but for one lunch in Diskit. The second day too our guesthouse was not serving lunch and two hungry souls walked in search of food. After a few hotels turning us down, we walked into hotel 'Olthang.' It was such a good news for us when the receptionist said they would serve lunch. Our order was very simple rice, dal tadka and masala omelette. The tadka was simply amazing with good flavor and plenty of coriander seeds and a healthy load of oil. The food tasted heavenly and we wiped our plates clean. A heavy lunch for two costed us Rs.270. Their service was also excellent.

During our stay in Diskit, we checked into 'Kharyok Guest house' which is on the main road. The rooms were pried at Rs.900 and were brilliant. The room had amazing soft mattress and pillows with super soft and thick quilt. The guest house has an amazing green garden and homemade badminton court. Running hot water is provided from 6-11 am and the buffet dinner served here was fresh food right from the farm and was lip smacking. Dinner was priced at Rs.150 per person and had a very good spread of dal, rice, super soft rotis, mixed vegetable, salad and papad.

During our two nights stay here, there was power cut for several hours but we absolutely had no issue with that as we spent long hours in the sit out that offered amazing views of Himalayas. The rooms have TV and they also offer Wifi. Their dining room is very pretty and cozy. Given the remoteness of the place it is absolutely justified if they have power cuts. They even have solar water heater and in case you need hot water in the evening they provide it in buckets. In the remote regions of Ladakh, we experienced how awesome and powerful the impact of clean natural energy source could be. Right next to our guest house was a massive stream with clean water. The thundering sound of the flowing stream was so soothing to our ears.

The climate here in Ladakh is highly unpredictable. Though it falls in the rain shadow area while we were on a lengthy road trip (June to July) here it did rain and drizzle a few times. One minute the skies were clear and deep blue and just like that the condition became over cast and gloomy. It drizzled for a few minutes and then there was sun shine and that is why we always had our rain gear handy. During our second day in Dishkit, there was thundering, heavy showers and the bikers coming from Leh had a tough time riding to Dishkit and were stuck in crazy traffic jam.

Our adventurous ride back from Diskit to Leh via Kardung La commenced early in the morning. D-ue to the previous day's rain there were landslides in a few spots, luckily nothing serious that could have halted our as well as other travelers journey. There were several patches where the stream runs by the road that were over flowing on the highway. Being an early bird has it's own perks as for the first 25 km from Diskit to Khalsar we did not see a single vehicle on either side of the road. And in no time we reached the green Khardung la village and it was such a pleasant ride.

Just a few kilometers from here we reached the North Pullu check post took a good break, geared up to encounter steep slopes, extreme cold weather and the unforgiving nalas or water crossing on the highway. The entire stretch of 30 km between north and south pullu are such a delightful adventure or a nightmare experience depending on who you ask. In our opinion it was such an adventure. During our ride we crossed 24 nalas of which 7 were massive. En route we stopped at K top clicked a few pics and reached Leh in 4 hours.

Do stock up enough fuel for the to and fro journey. The only fuel pump in Diskit is in absolute shambles and unreliable as it is the only petrol pump for the locality in Diskit. It was in such an interesting sight- the machines were old, rusted and stripped naked and the pumps are hand cranked.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Riding to Khardung La - a Memory To Behold!

Every biker waits eagerly an entire year for the summer months of June to August- the time when snow is cleared in high altitude Himalayas and the mountain passes are open, perfect time for a road trip to Leh. The icing on the cake is riding your bike on the treacherous road that takes you to ONE of the highest motorable roads on Earth- the Khardung La at 18300 feet above sea level.

Also known as the Pass of Lower Castle, it is the gateway to Shyok and Nubra Valley and the far end being the Siachen glaciers. Even before the roads were laid, it was an important trading route to Kashgar in Central Asia with close to 10000 horses and camels that used to ply on this route annually. The Khardung La Road, built in 1976 and maintained by BRO, is of utmost importance as it carries supplies to Army posted at Siachen. It was made open to public motor vehicles from 1988 and since then many a automobile and bike companies have run expeditions on this pass.

Though claimed to be the highest motorable road on Earth, it is one of the many highest roads. Khardung La is 40 km away from Leh and the climb is very steep from 14000 to 18000 feet. Hardly a few kilometers into the ride, for the first time in our trip we were stopped by the Leh taxi union guys. The Leh taxi union does not allow vehicles apart from J&K registration to visit Nubra and Pangong Tso as they feel other states Taxis are eating up their income. Other state vehicles that are not rented are allowed without any problem, Since we were on our own bike we just had a casual chat and they did not even bother checking our bike papers. But they were pretty serious in their job and were scrutinizing other rented bikes and were asking for rental receipt to check where the bike was hired.

We were amazed by the winding roads and the gorgeous scenery that welcomed us. No words can explain the beauty that was around us. En-route, there is a view point from where the beautiful snow clad mountains are visible and is a sight to behold. A perfect place to stop over and take some memorable pictures.

The road condition until South Pullu check post, approx. 24 km, is narrow but spotless and awesome black top. Also note that the roads until South Pullu though narrow are a treat but can quickly turn dangerous as there is a lot of inward heavy vehicular traffic and riding on those narrow roads can be challenging with a few of the trucks refusing to give way for oncoming vehicles so it's best to be cautioned and ride safe.

At the South Pullu check post we were asked to provide a self declared form with traveler details by the J&K police. The forms are available in a shop opposite the check post for Rs 10 each. Just basic information about the vehicle and traveler are required. If you are travelling further from Khardung La to Nubra valley, an additional form is required and this form needs to be submitted at the North Pullu check post. However, do regularly check official site to know if there are any changes in permit procedure.

The road condition from South Pullu to Khardung La and North Pullu, if you are heading to Nubra valley, close to 15 and 30 km respectively, will be an absolute test for any rider and pillion but it definitely guarantees breathtaking mountain vistas and adrenaline rush. The snowy mountain ranges are any Nature lovers or photographers delight.

This road is a testing condition for man and the machine. To enhance our motorbike's performance. a few kilometers before reaching K top, we removed the air filter. This helped in ensuring that the bike does not struggle much and smoothly climbs the altitude. However, if you still find your bike lagging and not able to give you the desired power output, tweaking the carburetor setting would definitely help. All you need is a screwdriver and obviously you need to know what you are changing.

Reaching Khardung La Top is an accomplishment in itself. The views of the valley, the mountains and the clumps of ice around makes the entire trip not just worthwhile but the whole journey becomes an experience in itself, a once in a lifetime experience. To celebrate, there is chai and piping hot maggi that is available at the army canteen here. Khardung La has an army base. Also, you will need to get in a long queue to get a picture clicked next to the sign board.

It would be smart and very sensible to leave very early from Leh. There are a lot of nalas or glacier melts that one has to encounter en-route and as the day progresses the intense heat melts the snow rapidly and the gentle stream like nalas gain massive momentum and are like raging river. This makes crossing these nalas extremely difficulty for bikers so the earlier one crosses over the better it is. Always remember to maintain good momentum (not over speeding) while crossing nalas. If the water is rough ask your pillion to get down and crossover by foot. Waterproof shoes and gaiters would be life savers in the unfortunate event of you putting your foot down as these could save your feet from getting wet and help in avoiding frost bites.

A few things to keep in mind while riding to K Top/ Tips-

Leave as early as possible to avoid massive nalas and traffic jams.
Be geared up as it can get cold.
Keep rain gear handy especially if you are on the bike as the weather is unpredictable .
Be patient, traffic jams are a norm here.
Keep in mind there are no places to stay on the way so time your trip accordingly.
Carry some munchies as you do not know how much time you will spend reaching K Top.
Also ensure that you do not litter the place.
Carry all ID and vehicle related documents.