DAY 0 - Bombay to Delhi

Our flight tickets for Bombay-Delhi-Leh were done. We were landing in Leh the next day but had no bookings for accommodation or trips. A timely SMS from Sahil read "Feroz 9906989372. Has been in Ladakh for 15 years and the man knows the place like a dog." A few phone calls later we were more comfortable that we wouldn't be left stranded.

On Wednesday, we hopped onto the last flight to Delhi out of Bombay and stayed the night at Delhi airport. We had a 5 am flight from Delhi to Leh.


DAY 1 - Flying over the Himalayas and acclimatization in Leh

Few flights in the world can be as dramatic as the early morning Delhi to Leh. As the dawn broke, soft orange light pierced the clouds and the metal on aircraft's wing shone like molten gold. Below us was spread a endless carpet of mountains, their north faces snow-capped. We were flying over the mighty Himalayas. It was an endless grid, spreading as far as the eye could see.

As the plane descended a bit, the view of the rugged mountains became clearer. We were now clearing the Zanskar range before descending into Leh valley. The plane got pass the ridge and took a sweeping turn to now fly along the Indus. The colossal mountains, now at our eye-level, looked almost stationary while the plane tried to scamper past them. Occasionally, a small area of dark green vegetation and mud brown habitation would emerge out of the cruel vastness.

The entire spectacle was formed out of only a few colors - the earth-brown mountains, blue sky, torquoise rivers and dark green trees. The tiny villages on the border of a vegetation with its mud houses and red-white monasteries provided a sense of scale to the view. In it's final dash for the runway, the plane flew past army camps and bunkers that seemed like minute model-work of a construction project blueprint. We landed at the Kushak Bakula Rinpoche airport in Leh and walked into the blinding brightness of the morning sun.

Our Vodafone mobiles refused to pick up a signal (only BSNL and Airtel will). I shouted "Feroz!" into the crowd of people waiting outside the arrivals. A fair man with dark sunglasses and broken tooth emerged out of the crowd. From his heavily wrinkled skin, it was difficult to guess how old (or young) Feroz could be. We dropped the bags in Toyota Qualis and headed towards the market in the city.

We checked out a couple of hotels before zeroing in on Hotel Chanjor. Chanjor was set of basic rooms - beds, TV, hot water, a triangular backyard with circular tables for breakfast and lunch - run by a Kashmiri man Haji Ghulam Mohammed Dharma. We took some strong advice from Feroz and Dharma and decided to give Leh the respect it deserved. We stayed inside our hotel for most of the first day to acclimatize to the altitude.

Even our trip to Golden Dragon in the market for lunch turned out to be a tough trek. But the Kothay (half-fried momos) and Thupka made it worth the effort. At dusk, we stepped out again for dinner. The juxtaposition of bright colorful jewelry on old mud walls in the market made it a lovely place to stroll. Lubna suddenly disappeared into a huge door and I followed her. The doorway emerged in a large courtyard at the center of which rose a square building with pointed roofs. Soft music of drums, cymbals and hymns chimed in from the windows.

We were in the Chokhang Vihara. We removed our shoes and entered a hall filled with dim light and smoky buttery fragrance from the lamps. Monks in maroon robes sat in one corner while people kept pouring in to fill the rest of the hall. A monk gave sermons from a raised seat in the center, a large Dalai Lama portrait behind him, and the crowd would break out into the hymns in between his speeches. Lubna and I did not understand a word, but our first experience inside a Buddhist shrine was beautiful.

Dinner was yum Roghan Josh and Kashmiri Naan at a roof-top restaurant that provided the view of Leh from its modest 4th floor.


DAY 2 - Monastries, Magnetic Hill and the meeting rivers

In my last trip to Ladakh, we did a quick touch-and-go for Leh. This time, however, we decided to spend more time exploring in and around Leh. We started the day with a trip to the Hemis monastery. A drive along the Indus river and a crossing over the bridge took us into a country of country of mountain dust, green fluttering fields and poles running electricity and phone lines. The sharp bends on the road made sure we ascended the mountain fast. And there she was, beautifully perched in a valley between two mountains, painted in white and brick red pigment, the Hemis monastery founded by XYZ in 16xx.

Hemis was first monastery in the Ladakh region. Inside were a series of prayer halls with various avatars of the Buddha. The altars were stocked with rice, paper currency, chocolates and bottles of Old Monk.

After lunch and a short, we headed in the other direction out of Leh. As the sun descended and dusk approached, gentle golden light rolled down the hills. The waters kissing the shores created a soft song. The rivers were meeting; and there was none one around to see this beauty. In a world of continuous movement, chases and clutter, a private moment in your own secluded space-time was a powerful emotion.




DAY 3 - To Pangong Tso over Chang La




DAY 4 - To Nobra Valley over Khardung La





DAY 5 - Rafting in Zanskar River

We saved our best for the last - rafting in the Zanskar river.

At 8.45 am, two young men picked us up from our hotel. One of them was the Tashi of Kaminey - a french beard, hat and oversized green aviators. The other was a Jackie Chan out of the Asian-American movies.

Jackie took the wheel while Tashi made phone calls to pick others up for the rafting trip. Soon, our Tata Sumo was hurtling out of Leh towards Nimmu with Jackie, Tashi, two rich old Gujju boys, three Punjabi gabru shers, Lubna and I. Jackie was looking for a petrol pump to fill up his Sumo that rattled like a truck. Both the pumps between Leh and Nimmu were shut. At Nimmu, Jackie and Tashi made a desperate dash inside a village and came back with a metal container of diesel.

Around Nimmu, we crossed the Indus and picked up a narrow road etched in the mountain side that took us upstream the Zanskar. The river was gorgeous, the road extremely dangerous. The old boys were a bit tense in their shoulders. "Careful," they appealed to the driver. "Sirji, tension mat li jiye," Jackie came back. "Tension toh diesel ki thi, woh toh mil gaya."

Jackie knew the road like the back of his hand - every corner, every pothole, every shooting rock. I told him that his car roared like a truck. "Truck hi toh hai," he disclosed to me. "Andar Tata 506 ka engine hai." Hmm, that explained.

We looked at the muddy waters in the gorge below, that fierceful beauty that cut the mountains. From our height, some of the rapids looked scary. "We are not going through those," Lubna murmered, while Jackie continued his race-line driving to the starting point of the rafting trip. 28 km upstream the Zanskar along the treacherous road, we met Kali and his boys. Kali and his gang were one of the 4-5 outfits that ran the rafting expeditions in the rivers of Ladakh.

Kali was sharp with his instructions. "Five commands: All forward, All back, Right forward/back, Left forward/back and Stop," he instructed. "And one more thing. If you know swimming, please forget swimming. Swimming is for swimming pools. This is river, not pool." We inflated the raft, took some more navigation instructions, got into the jacket and hit the river.

There are few travel experiences that can rival the rafting in Zanskar. The first few splashes of the ice-cold water sent a tingle down the skin. And then the fun began. Mountains rose steeply on either side of the river and the sky was reduced to a patch of brilliant blue between the ridges. A bright white spot of a sun shone over our heads. Red ferrous, green zinc and black oxides oozed out of the sedimentary layers of rubble. Slate glittered in the morning light that kissed the jagged and rugged mountain cliffs.

Two gabru shers took the front row, I was in the second row and Lubna in the third. Turned out, the old boys at the back had a major problem in absorbing the beauty in silence. Every sixty second, one of them would sputter out "biyu-ti-fool" or "mar-way-less". I would've paid them to shut up. The rapids started coming. And with a bit of coordination and rhythm, we were enjoying navigating them. Zanskar is known for its reverse currents, and the whirlpools that form as a result. Babloo, our rudder at the back of the raft, would shout out the instructions.

And then came a rough rapid. On Babloo's call, we all rafted forward into it. A huge splash and a massive tumble, and another huge splash. For a microsecond, I turned around to see if all of us were still in the raft. Babloo called "Inside!" and we all ducked in. The raft had tossed up 80 degrees and but the timely call, it could easily have been overturned. More such rapids, whirlpools and undercurrents followed. And there were times when the river would be completely still. It was easily to lose perspective in the gigantic and magnificent surroundings. In moments of calm, the raft seemed stationery; a tiny dot between the layers of mountains around us that gently glided to and fro. A rocking sensation that could put you to sleep.

A few kilometers before Zanskar met Indus at the Sangam, the river got steady and calm. Babloo urged us to take a dip in the river. At slight provocation, one of the gabru shers jumped into it - only to make a hasty return a few seconds later. He underestimated how cold the water was. But a swim in the Zanskar was too inviting to let go so easily. I took a deep breath and tumbled off the raft into the river. The first few seconds were the toughest when water pierced my body like sharp knifes. Then I threw my head back, kicked the water and started floating. In fish-eye like view, I could see the mountains create a circle around me that was capped with a bright blue afternoon sky. Exposed to the elements - a harsh sun, dry air and ice-cold water - it was surreal to be swimming in Zanskar. Almost magical.

To everyone's surprise, even Lubna dropped off the raft for a dip in the river! "Brave girl," one old boy went. Another gabru sher who had stayed out the longest in the river came back and declared that he was now an "ice-cube ready for a drink."

We got off on the banks of Indus. From cold river to a harsh sun. The dry air took care of our clothes. Kali and his gang arranged a lunch in the nearby village. Dal chawal and sabzi sitting in a garden of cabbages, sunflowers and apricots. Jackie dropped us back at the hotel. The trip costed us Rs. 2,500 for two, all inclusive. If we had another day in Leh, we would do the rafting again. That good.

Our last evening in Ladakh, we spent looking for one last awesome meal and something to carry back home. The Pashmina shawl negotiations (Rs. 5,000-8,000 for plain, and Rs. 15,000-18,000 for Kashmiri work) all broke down. We picked up a winter coat in wool instead. And Golden Dragon on Market Road did not disappoint with its hot Thupka and spicy Burnt Garlic Fried Rice. Nom nom nom.




DAY 6 - Flying over the Himalayas again and the Gangetic Plain

At 5 am sharp, Feroz showed up outside our hotel to drop us to the airport. The tiny airport of Leh was packed with tourists and army men flying out in the three flights that left that morning. If the view of the Himalayas, by now a little old and familiar, was enchanting, the view of Gangetic Plain that followed was equally enamoring.

Spread below the flight was an infinite chessboard of various greens. Each square farm (an acre?) aligned with the other with near perfection. Chimneys rose up sporadically that threw long east-west shadows in the morning sun. Muddy brown rivers threaded the plains and some straight concrete canals cut the endless chessboard at angles. Clusters of homes - the hundreds of villages, towns and cities that dot the fertile Gangetic planes - appeared often. Here was an India bursting to grow, but given our city planning record in independent India, we barely have a clue how to.

We reached a sultry Delhi in the morning and a rainy Bombay in the afternoon. Both cities, lovely in their own right, but a far cry from the heaven we enjoyed in the last few days.



PLAN YOUR TRIP: Flights - Cleartrip.com / Drives - Feroz Ahmed +91 99069 89372 / Rafting - Luna Ladakh +91 99069 77654



Tags: Adventure Sports, India