What it’s like to travel to Changthang Ladakh, the world’s highest and largest plateau during an unbearable harsh weather. Here is a personal account of the solo offbeat Leh Ladakh Roadtrip.
Arctic like winter of Changthang, Ladakh is not everyone’s cup of tea. It’s freezing cold, daylight is short and is a treacherous time to travel. Often referred as the ‘Third Pole’ of the world, Changthang is definitely not an ideal place to explore in winters. A region so remote and hostile that there’s a famous Ladakhi saying,
The land is so barren and the passes so high that only our fiercest enemies or our best friends would want to visit us.
But curiosity can take you to places where no map or app can. In March 2016, impulsively I booked a flight to Leh with just one thought – to explore the unexplored rugged beauty of Ladakh, not the airbrushed image projected by Bollywood.
Nestled at an altitude of 14,600 meters above sea level, Changthang is a high altitude plateau extending from Western Tibet to Eastern Ladakh. Winter gets undeniably harsh here. It gets so bitterly cold that even the boiling hot spring water freezes as soon as it oozes out of the ground. But this winter wonderland is worth braving the temperatures as low as -35°C and spine chilling winds of 90 kph.
Come on board and virtually experience my Changthang, Ladakh journey:
Delhi - Leh – Chumathang – Mahe Bridge – Sumdo – Namshang La – Kiagar Tso – Korzok – Chumur – Puga –Sumdo – Tso Moriri – Chumathang – Leh - Delhi
REACHING CHUMATHANG FROM LEH
As soon as I landed at Leh, I looked at the Himalayas with the same longing as long parted lovers do. The soaring Himalayan peaks welcomed me with open arms. After securing the inner line permit and acclimatizing for a day, I left for Chumathang early morning the next day. Chumathang is a small village that is at the junction of many routes and is famous for Hot springs. For the entire 139 kms journey, Indus accompanied me. The frozen river would surprise me at times when it suddenly gushed through canyons. I arrived at Chumathang at 3 pm, witnessing the Narnia like beauty of Changthang, Ladakh.
I spent the rest of the evening talking to the locals and visitors halting. Locals are the unsung heroes who turn good trips into great ones and Changthang happened to be one. The village Sarpanch (head) and locals helped me plan my itinerary and made me reach the unheard of places in Changthang during a season when even locals fear to venture out.
LANDING IN THE DISPUTED LAND OF INDO-CHINA BORDER
We left early morning next day for Chumur, the disputed village on Indo-China Line of Actual Control (LAC). This journey was exhausting, dangerous but rewarding. So awe-inspiring that I easily shrugged off the discomforts and the many heart-in-mouth moments that came as a package deal.
Chumur is famous for ‘the Gompa with a live Mummy’ and the recent Indo-China Border issues. Visiting this small village of thirty houses was like revisiting past. The village seemed to belong to a bygone era, an era that we seemed to have left far behind.
After spending a day at Chumur, it was time to experience the nomadic life of Ladakh next day.
SHARING A ROOF WITH THE CHANG PAS
Changthang is home to more than 3500 Chang Pas (pastoral nomads of Tibetan origin), who depend on their livestock for food, shelter, and livelihood. The Rebo Tent of an elderly Chang Pa lady at Puga was my home for the day. In spite of a language barrier, my 66 years old host, Sonam, treated me with utmost love and care. In a harsh barren land where nothing grows, she offered Ladakhi Roti, Satthu, yak soup and raw yak meat. During our conversation, I got to know she migrated from Tibet in 1950 - when Tibetans were fleeing from their homeland to evade the Chinese atrocities. Her Tibet memory bank is blank as she was just a few months old when she arrived in India. However, she lives with a hope to return to her birthplace one day.
With teary eyes, I bid her goodbye and started my onward journey to Tso Moriri.
GETTING BEDAZZLED BY A COMPLETELY FROZEN LAKE
Tso Moriri is the largest of the high altitude lakes in India. During summers you can see incredulous variety of flora and fauna. However, I witnessed a completely different landscape. The frozen white lake flanked by lofty mountains looked surreal. It was difficult to believe that this snow blanket transforms into a mystical lake, which changes six to seven colours in a day. Mother Nature’s magic knows no end!
After Tso Moriri it was time to bid adieu to the third pole. I was brimming with joy for having experienced the journey of the otherworldly Ladakh that I did not know existed.
So when are you embarking on this epic journey?
WHAT TO SEE:
- High Altitude Lakes: The three prominent lakes of Changthang, Ladakh are Pangong, Tsomoriri and Tsokar but do keep an eye on countless unnamed lakes you’ll come across your drive
- Changthang Wildlife Sanctuary: Listed as one of the five bio-diverse regions of India, where you can see the snow leopard, the Tibetan wild ass and some rare exotic birds like Tibetan cranes, Black necked cranes and Bar headed goose.
- Chumur: The Indo-China border village where you can see the live mummy of a monk whose nails and hair grow every year
- Puga Hotspring Geysers: The most promising geothermal field in India, which has hot springs, mud pools, and sulfur and borax deposits covering an area extending over 15 square kilometers.
- Chang Pa villages: Experience the ancient way of living by visiting any of the high altitude villages of Chang Pas like Karzok, Sumdo or Puga.
- Hanle: The best place for stargazing as it houses one of the world’s highest
WHAT TO EAT
The fresh air and beautiful landscapes coupled with adventurous activities make you very hungry in Ladakh. 5 local Ladakhi cuisine items you must try are Shapale, Thukpa, Skyu, Khambir and Butter tea. And you must try apricot in every form – freshly plucked, dried apricot and apricot jams and candies.
WHAT TO SHOP
Leh is a mecca for bargain hunters. Best things to buy are the locally handmade woolen items and Tibetan handicrafts like prayer wheels, Buddhist masks, and Thangka paintings. I pack my bags with prayer flags, traditional Ladakhi jewellery, apricots, green tea and traditional porcelain items for gifting. The places to shop are Tibetan Market, Moti Market, Ladakh Art Palace, Women's Alliance and Tibetan Handicraft Community Showroom.
WHERE TO STAY
You can choose from a wide variety of hotels to guesthouses to homestays. But it is slightly difficult to find a roof in Changthang. Be prepared to stay in basic homestays. I stayed at an Army Guesthouse at Chumathang but there are local guesthouses available. I would recommend staying at the Sarpanch's Guest house, which has all the basic amenities.
WHEN TO VISIT
The best time to visit Changthang, Ladakh is from June to September. During this time the valleys are lush green, the weather is nice and abuzz with the colourful and vibrant festivals. However, for me, Ladakh is beautiful throughout the year. There is a unique charm of seeing Ladakh fully covered in snow during winters.
HOW TO REACH
Srinagar to Leh - from early June to November
Manali to Leh - from mid-June to early October
Air India, Go Air and Jet Airways Direct flights from Delhi, Srinagar and Jammu
Only J&K registered vehicles are allowed in Ladakh
You can easily hire cabs or motorbikes for day tours or long tours
Public buses are the cheapest way to travel but their services can be infrequent
This story was published in the July edition of Air Asia Inflight magazine (Travel 3Sixty India):