Unplanned travel to the remotest part of the world – Changthang
The downside of an expat life is homesickness that hits you like a ton of bricks. I have a good job and a balanced life. But I still feel homesick, not so much for my family or the food but for the Himalayas. The urge to return was so strong at the beginning of the year that I brushed aside a serious threat of losing my job. I didn’t know which home was calling but I was hearing a call – O nadaan parinde ghar aa ja! But as the cliché goes, “When mountains call, you must listen to them.” I did exactly that.
The calling this time was different. There was a different tune to it. I sensed a deeper meaning, probably more than just the travel. Too often, travelling becomes just an itinerary on paper to squeeze as much in as possible. Rushing from place to place to get the boxes ticked, to snap the picture-perfect sunset and to hit the next scenic spot. Sometimes it feels like we are acquiring experiences rather than experiencing them. I had a super crammed itinerary but this time I was determined to travel slow and relish the experiences and not just gather them. As they say, the best dishes are cooked on slow and low flames. I wanted to do something different, go offbeat and live the unique experiences, for they are not found on the beaten track. And guess what, I discovered happiness in the remotest part of the world – Changthang.
Unlike my last three trips to Ladakh, this was completely impulsive. And the credit goes to nostalgia. I was going through my picture gallery on phone (not on Facebook) when suddenly a picture clicked in the Changthang plateau in 2014 arrested my attention. Eureka! My eyes glittered with excitement. I called my Ladakhi friend right in the middle of night. After a brief conversation, I discovered that he was posted in the very place that I wanted to be at. Looks like destiny was working super hard for me!. The up-in-the-air-plan was made. But there are many a slips between the making of a plan and its finalisation. The plan got finalised only a day before I was to fly and I ended up paying a bomb for the flight tickets. The heart doesn’t understand the pain of a wallet. If it decides to go, it decides to go 🙂
My plan was limited to landing in Leh. I decided to leave the rest to serendipity and the local conditions. All I knew was, I was going to visit the unexplored Ladakh – the Changthang plateau. I had no clue beyond that. The only folks who can help you when you are as clueless as me are the locals. Locals are the unsung heroes who turn your good trip into a great one. My case was no different. The credit for an unforgettable trip goes to them – some I knew beforehand and some I made friends on the trip.
Time to buckle up folks! Hope you have your seat belts locked and have your munchies ready because this will take you through the stories of a lifetime.
From a sweltering 35 degrees to -8 degrees, Leh was a welcome change. The change in temperature had already triggered my “happiness” hormones. Before getting into my cab, I longingly gazed at the beautiful Himalayas, in the same way as long parted lovers look at each other when they meet after ages. Happiness doesn’t require words. It can only be felt by the heart and the eyes. I was relishing my share of happiness. The mountains were mountains, smiling at me and waving at me through gestures that only I could understand 🙂
I had booked myself at the Zaltak guesthouse, a place where I’ve lived in the past. The Didi who runs the place is one amazing person. She was preparing for my home coming. After a lovely hug and exchange of heartfelt pleasantries, I was treated to my favourite Jasmine Kehwa and Ladakhi Roti. Memories of my previous trips hit me hard and off I went dreaming.
As a part of acclimatization, I wasn’t supposed to go out on the first day but I had no option. I had to secure my innerline permit from the DM’s office to visit the restricted areas of Ladakh. James, one of my good Ladakhi friends had done all the hard work in securing the necessary permissions, while I just signed the document. And like clockwork, I fell sick. I was continuously throwing up, had a terrible headache and fever. When Didi saw my condition, she went out to get Diamox, a tablet that helps in acclamistisation. All shops were already closed. But she still managed to get the medicines. She made khichdi and asked me to drink lot of green tea. She checked on me several times during the night. And voila by morning I was back to my cheerful self 🙂
Next day early morning, I was on my way to Changthang. Around 3 pm, after a long and bumpy ride through the beautiful sights and sounds of frozen Ladakh, I arrived at Chumathang. A small village that is at the junction of many routes.
My last minute call to an Army friend, who was posted at Leh, got me a comfortable stay at the Army Guesthouse at Chumathang. From a bathtub to comfortable cozy bed to room heater to cable TV to hot meals and packed lunch, I had all luxuries of life in a place where even getting potable water was difficult. That’s the perk of being associated with Indian Army. Impossible word doesn’t exist in its dictionary.
The Guest House in-charge introduced me to the village Sarpanch – Skarma. He was the most respected man in a village of 50 houses and ran Lamying Hotsprings Restaurant on the banks of the might Indus river on the Leh-Hanle highway. The all glass restaurant gave a greenhouse effect, amazingly warm in a cold barren land where temperatures plummet to -40 degree in winters. Almost everyone traveling on this highway stopped at his restaurant.
In case you didn’t know, Chumathang is a place famous for Hotsprings. There is one particular hot spring that hardly anyone knows about – it stays in the riverbed for ten minutes, water looks very calm and suddenly it oozes out with full force. And the same loop continues. I would have been contended by seeing the usual hot spring site and would have never known something like this exists had Sarpanch not showed it to me.
They say mountain life is not easy. I experienced that first hand. Though the water is so hot here that you can boil eggs in 5 minutes, it leaves a pungent smell and taste to the food. That’s why the Sarpanch’s staff walks for four kms uphill to the Chumathang village to fetch water for cooking, every single day. And it’s not a few litres. He gets water to cook for at least 100 people every day.
I spent lot of time talking to villagers, army personnel, Ladakhi scouts and locals taking a break at Sarpanch’s restaurant. I was listening to all kind of unheard of stories, like a child glued to her grandparent’s bedtime stories. One of them I spoke to was the headmaster at the Puga Nomadic School. His stories about the school and the difficult life lived by the pastoral nomads inspired me to visit the place, which had nearby not-to-miss-at-any-cost attractions like Tso Morori Lake, Sumdo and Karzok Tibetan nomadic villages, Puga hot springs and Chumur.
The only problem at hand was finding a cab. There were only two personal cars – one of a government servant working at Nyoma and other of the Sarpanch. Both were busy with their own schedules. Despite being out of bounds, I had to try! Nobody was ready to accompany me on this daredevil stunt. Even money failed to lure them. Reason – the area was completely frozen and cars would often skid. No connectivity. No help. But where there is a will there’s a way.
Curiosity takes you to places where no map or app can take. Are you curious enough to find out what happened next? How did I manage to witness the frozen wonders of Tso Moriri and the beautiful villages?
All of this and more in the upcoming posts – Extreme Road Tripping in Changthang, Ladakh Part II, Part III & Part IV 🙂
Stay curious and stay happy.
- Air tickets: Don’t be a foolhardy like me. Book your flights early. Money saved is money earned. Last minute flight are very expensive in March-April because it is the time when outside workers and locals return to Ladakh to prepare for the upcoming tourist season
- Acclimatisation: Even if you are a seasoned traveller, give yourself ample time to acclimatise – at least two days. Changthang is at a greater height than Leh therefore it poses serious health issues. Carry Diamox for sure and if you encounter any health problem, visit the hospital at Nyoma
- Eat and drink well: Don’t skip your meals even if you don’t feel like eating. Drink lots of green tea/butter tea and water
- Wildlife: Changtang Wildlife Sanctuary is home to many rare species of flora and fauna. Even when on road, keep an eye on the mountains and plains. I saw a Tibetan wolf hunting cows, Kaing (Tibetan Wild Ass), wild dogs, wild yak and Ibex
- Permits: Secure your innerline permits before visiting places like Hanle, Chusul or Chumur. No permit no access
- Start early: Leave Leh early so that you can reach well in time and look for accommodation, in case you have not booked in advance
- Stay: If you plan to visit Hanle, Tso Moriri and Puga then you can either stay at Chumathang or at Nyoma. At Chumathang, Sarpanch has a good guesthouse that accommodates 4-6 people and comes with all basic facilities like hot water, heater, cosy bed etc. There is a PWD Guesthouse too. Nyoma has a PWD Guesthouse and many homestays
- Transportation: You have to hire your own cab as there is only once a week bus (leaves at 12 PM every alternate Sunday). And don’t forget to tank up and carry extra fuel for your return journey. There’s no petrol pump in the region.