Leh-ing it down

It was in June 2014 when my brother was visiting home after two years of studying outside with two of his friends from New Zealand that we decided to take a trip to Leh. What was so great about this trip other than the location? It was completely unplanned. There was no itinerary, no place booked to stay, no one we knew who awaited us – just four confirmed train tickets to Jammu and five travellers.

There are so many things that happened during the journey that, even after two years, it is etched in my memory. Before I start forgetting the details, here is a (photo)walk down the memory lane.

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Dal Lake was about spreading our legs and watching mountains become reflections on the water.

It took us a while to truly begin the journey. While we did manage to reach Jammu via train, the drive from Jammu to Srinagar which is usually an 8-hour ride took us almost 24 hours. Some roadways work had led to a traffic jam that did not even manage to crawl and the night had to be spent at a dhaba in a small room with three beds. Thankfully, we were more tired than frustrated and almost immediately fell asleep.
Early next morning, the journey began again and we finally reached Srinagar. So, phase one was over. Phase two was finding a place to stay. Luckily, or unluckily as we found out later, we found a man willing to rent out his houseboat at the tourist center. He also promised to arrange for us a car and to personally accompany us to all the tourist destinations of Srinagar. Turns out, all tourist destinations in Srinagar are gardens overcrowded with people trying to get their picture with the next firang they see. Though we fell for it, I strongly advise you to take a walk around Srinagar rather than visit the “tourist spots”. The only saving grace was Dal Lake – the water is murky and the shikaras are dirty but the stories our guide told us about the Dal Lake, the only good deed he probably ever did, lay in front of us not just a lake but a witness to Indian history, muted by the present.

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The spot from where you see Kargil in its entirety

 

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Where even victory remains bitter-sweet.

Once we left Srinagar, after a hefty rent was levied on us, our next stop was to be Kargil. The best part was that we didn’t know. This is how this story unfolds – we got stuck in another line of blocked cars. This time around at a small village on the way where some college students had announced a strike, blocked roads and declared a curfew. Cars were stuck, shops were shut and the ones which were open refused to sell anything. Oh, did I say it was mid-afternoon and our supposed lunch stop was still an hour away from the place where we were being upheld. We had no water, no food and frankly, no one cared. That is one lesson you do learn while travelling – you do not matter, how you manage to play with this thought could actually change the world around you. Anyhow, after sneaking in through the backside of a restaurant’s kitchen because our obnoxious driver felt pity for us and convinced the locals, we managed to eat something and by the time we were done, the road block had been opened.
Of course, this shook our whole schedule and we decided to spend the night in Kargil, which, by far, remains the most peaceful places I have ever seen.
Tip: If planning to go to the Kargil Memorial, remember to wear full pants.

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The beauty that haunts

Right before we left Kargil the next morning, our eccentric little driver, invited us to his uncle’s place for tea, after being almost two hours late to pick us up. Nevertheless, we decided it did no harm and went along. It was a square house with carpets as the seating arrangement and two of his nieces got tea for us, giggling as they would during their wedding ceremony. One of the two was extremely pretty but every time I pointed the camera towards her she’d shy away. It was while we were bidding them farewell and I was still trying to get that picture that she held her pose for a minute, gave me what I wanted, and walked away.

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The river of green
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While Buddha stood still
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Getting our ducks in a row?

Eventually after Jammu, Srinagar and Kargil, we reached Leh. We stayed at a cozy motel which had a bookshelf right outside our room and was a five-minute walk to the main market of Leh. On its terrace, they had a car seat decor, which I found quite innovative and the view was the Leh palace. We did make a trip to Pangong Lake and Nubra Valley as well but one thing that stood out for me, as it stands out for almost everyone, was the night sky and the stars that twinkled (yes, they really do twinkle) and the air that always smelled fresh.
Tip: Don’t try to waste your time bargaining with the shop-keepers. They know what you want and at what exorbitant price to sell it at.

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Find a secret crowd-free waterfall – check!

Oh, that’s right. Its not over yet. There is one more destination that we decided to drop by on our way back to Delhi and that was Manali.  As our tradition for this trip called, we were stuck in another road block caused by a landslide for another almost 24 hours in a small RTV bus at Rohtang Pass while it snowed. That is, until we made the bold move of crossing the land slide affected area on foot. What we did not know was, the water that flows out of mountains after a landslide is in full force and cold as ice and since the road is destroyed the only thing you will step into is debris. Yes, we did not know that, so we made our bold moves in socks and chappals.
Tip: DO NOT CROSS A LAND SLIDE AFFECTED AREA.
We managed to make it through, forming a man-made chain among ourselves and pulling each other out but it took the whole night for my feet to get warm again.

I’d say if Srinagar-Kargil-Leh were a three-tiered cake, Manali was the cherry. From exploring hidden waterfalls, attic shaped apartments, secret walks through the forest that connects New Manali to Old and the graves of ‘Rose Mary Marlo’ (funny story this one) to staying at the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of Mountaineering and Allied Sports, Manali bid us goodbye with a huge sloppy kiss.

 

Image(s) courtesy: LoiterToiter and Aishwarya Choudhary

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