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Let the last leg begin – to the South East, remote and beautiful
We start our journey driving out along the main road towards greater India and pass the turn off to Hemis Monastery and to Pangong lake which we had taken less than a week ago. We drive on, stopping at some extremely hot natural sulphur springs at Chumathang, and watch in awe as the crystal clear boiling water bubbles out of the ground, before we go to the cafe and have tea. At Mahe Bridge, we leave the main road and head south. In sections this road is great, while in other parts it becomes rougher and bumpier as repairs are being carried out. We pass through gorges with amazing geological markings and colours in green and purple against the fawns and browns of the jagged rock natural structures. For quite some time we pass through farmland and watch the builders constructing several new bridges over the swiftly running river that we drive alongside. We wend our way past farm-houses and villages built in the now familiar Ladkhi style. These plain square houses with natural wood window frames surrounding clear glass are piled high on top with drying grass ready for the animals as the cold winter approaches. The military are present here, as they are in all the valleys we have explored, and it provides a sense of safety in this remote wilderness.
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Namshang La Pass and Thadsang Karu Lake
We begin to climb and the terrain becomes familiar in its stark rockiness and fading summer fertility as we zig-zag up towards the summit of Namshang La Pass at 4,800m (15,840ft).
We leave the busier, more densely populated main road area far behind and feel the remoteness once again. Wide sweeping hills, no animals, no houses, no people… just a dry dusty road as our companion. Soon we see the bright blue water of a pretty little lake called Thadsang Karu Lake which is ringed in white salt. Horses graze on the sparse brown grass on the slopes around the lake and are unperturbed as we drive on by towards a small green valley. Here we see an eagle perched just waiting for photos to be taken, marmots, and two lots of pack horses – which are apparently returning from a trek.
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We drive past a fenced off region which is designed to protect the wildlife on the lake edge and the black-necked cranes which reside there. We stop at the military checkpoint near the entrance to Tsomorori Lake and the driver presents them with our passports and permit paper-work, a ritual with which we have grown familiar.
Korzok: On the Tsomorori Lake edge
We reach Korzok, the only town in this area, which sits somewhat back from the lake edge at 4,570m (14,995ft) and settle into our guest house. I fall onto the bed to rest after the long drive but not for long. We set off again along the lake shore to a high point where we observe the whole area and the stunning canvas it presents to us of high snow-capped mountains, beautiful azure blue water, rolling shadowy hills across the lake and the town of Korzok nestled in its sheltered spot back along the road. A small building within a compound right on the lake edge catches our eye, and our guide Konchok tell us it is a Buddhist ‘meeting room’ and that statues get displayed there on certain special occasions. The main monastery is just beside our guest house.
A visit to the nomad camp
As we drive back through Korzok, we see guest houses, like ours, commercial camp-sites and a freedom camp-site which is set by a small river on mounds of green grass but shadowed by the tall mountains and I think, ‘it must be very cold there on nights like this’. We make our way out of the shadows and into a large open sloped area where nomads have their summer camps. Today we visit one of these camps and chat with the people as best we can. Two of the ladies work on looms with pashmina wool while a couple of the kids climb all over them. Shona is a hit with the iPad and the older folks, as well as the kids, who all crowd around to look at her photos and play with the buttons. One of the ladies sits down to prepare a meal of onions, herbs and tomatoes but all of the tomatoes are unusable. We pose for a group photo and offer them some food we have with us. High on the surrounding hills, big herds of goats, yaks and sheep can be seen coming in for the night. These folk are Buddhist and have a school on their land; however, the older children go to Korzok for school and once educated, with a glimpse of the western world, do not want to return home to take up the nomadic lifestyle. The nomadic kingdom ceased to be once partition occurred in 1947 and the area came under the rule of India. These simple living people trade in pashmina and yak wool along with salt from the local lakes but this is changing as the nomads adopt the towns’ lifestyle. On our drive back to Korzok, we see three young schoolboys riding donkeys home. They shy away from having photos taken.
This is a 300-year-old monastery (18th C) but the buildings look a lot older due to the climate in this harsh, cold and barren land. The monastery houses about 70 monks. In the main meditation hall (gompa) at 4,570m (14,995ft) are some very old statues, some of which are covered up. We are allowed to take photos here and some of the more unusual statues were very lovely and precious pieces. We feel privileged to be able to see and photograph the statues and Thankas (Tibetan paintings). The lake at Tsomorori is considered equally as sacred as the monastery.
Sunset over Tsomorori and return to Leh
On the return to our room, with joy in our hearts from the visit to Korzok monastery, I photograph the setting sun; and, after dinner, we settle to bed. The following morning we leave early on the return journey – partly on the same route and then with a turn-off, we head towards Leh over the Polo Gongka pass 4,950m (16,335ft) and on towards Taglang La pass 5,328m (17,480ft). Along the way we stop frequently to photograph the scenes that are fresh in the morning light. The driver patiently waits until we all have the photos we want on camera, phone and iPad before moving on.
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The small salt lake, Thadsung Karu, is stunning in the morning light with salt glistening around the shores and horses casually grazing from the shores up to the road. Further along we stop frequently to enjoy the many marmots, a rather large eagle and herds of yaks grazing on the lush green grass by the streams oblivious to our presence. We pass by the previous days’ lunch stop and soon turn left off onto a bypass (detour), which is a cross route that meets the main Manali-Leh Highway.
The remote sulphur valley, salt lake and high pass
Not long after the turnoff, we come to Puga with its charming mud brick and stone buildings. On the outskirts is a large complex of several buildings. Upon asking what it is, Konchok tells us it is the residential school for nomadic children. From here we drive towards an interesting colourful valley that sports the yellow of sulphur, the green of the fertile valley grass and a hot stream laden along its sides with a lot of white powdered sulphur which is due to the presence of the water. The valley widenes and an abandoned building sits alone near the stream. Konchok talks about the sulphur valley we are in and the plans one man had to harvest the sulphur to make match heads. A potential big business but the locals were successful in stopping the venture to save their valley from the effects on glaciers, waterways, the ecosystem and the general environment. The sulphur remains undisturbed and makes for an interesting tourist drive. We stop to view a sulphur pit up close, to smell and feel the hot sulphur before moving along the valley where a geyser of hot water shoots up into the air right in the middle of an empty swamp plain. A lone horse grazes nearby undisturbed and nomad camps are scattered about the valley.
We drive up and then across the Polo Kongka La Pass 4,950m (16,335ft) with its pastel fawn and brown barren landscape all around. No other vehicles pass by and there are few residents other than the nomads who live here during the warmer months. Our attention is soon drawn far into the distance and we wonder what the shimmer is. As we draw closer, we see the Tso Kar salt lake which is still and blue, and surrounded by the white salt sculpted and formed into small cliffs and rolling hills. Shona says that it reminds her of Antartica.
Here in this barren high desert, it is amazing to think of the similarities, and as we traverse the eastern edge we are graced with the presence of the national bird of Ladakh, the black-necked crane. An eagle perched on the high rocks to the side eagerly looks out over the valley and pretends to ignore our camera lens.
As we get closer to Pangunagu, the town near the end of the lake, the salt which is no longer harvested is now a dirty grey colour piled into giant hills abandoned by time, progress and people. We cross the wide valley and wild ass (Kiang), native to the Tibetan Plateau, pose, staring at us as we take our photos.
Taglang La Pass
Soon we are on the smooth asphalt of the wide main highway which reminds us we are almost back in familiar territory. Large herds of pashmina sheep along the roadside are watched over by nomads whose camps are nearby. Before long we are staring at the second highest motorable pass in the world, Taglang La Pass 5,328m (17,480ft) high up in the familiar brown barren mountains. The army presence is again encountered with a long convoy of trucks passing by. The road is easy and comfortable and no snow is seen except high up on the peaks above the road and around the valley. We stop briefly at the top of the pass feeling the cold and airlessness, having zig-zagged up the rocky mountain, and we note the similarities and differences from the previous passes we have traversed.
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And so, on to Leh, but the beauty did not stop here
Soon we are on our way down the other side of this rocky snowless pass twisting and turning as we descend to the valley below. We then drive through several narrow gorges and the terrain offers an entirely new and amazing vista of geology that again elicits wows and clicks of camera buttons. We just cannot get enough of this place as we pass villages, rivers and rock walls of green and purple which change at every turn in the road offering jagged spines of rock just far enough apart for the inner curves to look like steep water slides and the stream running alongside us pristine and clear.
To our amazement, we come across several ‘tuk-tuks’ racing in the ‘rickshaw challenge’ and are amused by the outfits of one couple dancing in the middle of the road. I quickly pull out my camera and get a great photo of this couple dressed like 1960s hippies. We laugh most of the way back to Leh. Read more here
A final few words and a fond farewell
After a day of rest, and shopping in Leh, we do a final pack of our bags and prepare to leave Ladakh.
This has been an extraordinary adventure from day one. We have travelled to the four corners and directions of Ladakh and there is still so much to see. We have not trekked in the remotest valleys – that is for the younger and more adventurous. None the less, that does not stop me from wondering ‘what is up that valley?’ as I stare towards the curves that disappear into the mountains. We had to bypass visiting the Dha Village and the Land of the Ancient Aryans due to a problem with the road but our experiences have been vast, varied and visually pleasing; there are no regrets. I hope the words in this series of stories whets your appetite for travel in Ladakh and I highly recommend organising your journey with Suresh Bahuguna from Lotus India Journeys Book your travel with Lotus India Journeys – read and book here
But wait, the adventure is not over…. the following day we fly back to Delhi – and head for the hills once again. Rishikesh, The Valley of Flowers and Badrinath, beckon before the foothills of the Himalayas takes us to tea plantations, rich highland farmland, hill stations and much more.
Look for further stories on Read more here and the antics of a travel writer who is always planning the next adventure.