Sunday, November 24, 2013

Ladakh - Visiting the famed Pangong Lake

Ladakh – the moonland of Monasteries
(Visiting Pangong Tso)

Panoramic view of Pangong Lake

After having returned from Nubra visit on the 20th June, 2013 afternoon, we were all refreshed and ready to head for the famed Pangong Tso on the 21st of June, 2013.  Our driver, Tashi had informed us that in case we were planning a day return from Pangong Tso, we required starting up early, as many a snow fed rivulets usually attain alarming rate of discharge after 2.00-3.00 P.M. and one has to stop till the flow rate reduces late in the evening.  In such a scenario, it could be very late and we would reach Leh at around 11.00 P.M. in the night.  We therefore, got up early and our journey began at 6.30 A.M. in the morning.  The route one takes is the Manali-Leh Road upto Karu, wherefrom it bifurcates towards Chang La.
En-route to Pangong Lake - the famed Chemrey Monastery on hill top
            The weather conditions were perfect and after going past Karu, we came across a green patch of land, a rarity in Ladakh that stretched for kilometers together on our left side and as we drove through the main road, the Chemrey monastery came into view, which is again a subsidiary of the famed Hemis Monastery and under the ‘Red hats’ or ‘Gelupga Sect’.  As drove further the road bifurcates again, one leads to the Sakti & further ahead to Tartok Gompa and to Nubra Valley and the other towards Chang La.  The literal meaning of ‘Chang La’ is "Pass towards the South" or "Pass in the South" in Tibetan language.  It is falsely claimed that the pass is named on Changla Baba, a myth propagated by the dedication of a temple at the pass.  Changla Pass is the main gateway for the Changthang region (not to be confused with Chumathang on way to Tso Moriri) of Ladakh. This Himalayan region is home to the nomadic tribes of the region, collectively known as the Changpa or Chang-pa.
Icicles on way to Changla Pass
Snow all around - near Changla Pass
How to beat the biting cold??? Eat snow!!  As this driver was doing at Changla Pass
Panoramic view of valley below and Khardungla range from Changla Pass
Close-up of the Khardungla range from Changla Pass
Baba temple at Changla Pass
            At 17,800 ft, Chang La claims to be the third highest motorable road in the world, the first and second being Khardung La (on the Leh–Nubra Valley road) and Tanglang La (on the Leh–Manali road), respectively.  It is at a distance of 44 Kms. from Leh.  The ascent to the peak was through a narrow and rocky road, because of the fresh snow fall in the region, we got mesmerized by the strikingly contrasting snow-clad mountains, breathtaking valleys and green villages. As we climbed further up, we had our second close encounter with snow, as the road near the pass had become very slippery and the tires of vehicles ahead were skidding.   After a brief wait, the road was cleared by the laborers and we got down and had a gala time, relishing every moment of it, the children played in the snow for a while.  At Chang La, there is a small roadside hall, run by the Indian army that offers black tea to reduce the effects of altitude sickness. There are also souvenirs like caps, clocks, Tee Shirts with logo of Chang La printed on each, to pick up. The Army has also put up public convenience facilities too. A board warns the over enthusiastic tourists not to stay for more than 20 minutes at that high altitude. After a brief photography session, we headed forward towards Pangong Tso/Lake.
Craggy stones landscape - just after crossing Chang la
The alpine sheep being bred for high quality wool
            The descent from Chang La presents a stark landscape. Snow-clad mountains are gone and dry and arid ones greet us, with some having a sprinkling of snow on the top. There a quite a few rivulets running alongside at a steady pace, but looks are often misleading, as come afternoon and rate of melting snow increases the volumes of water flowing downhill considerably. Brooks formed by melting snow breaches the long, winding roads at many places and create marshes, where the camps of Changpa nomads can been seen at elevated spots. These nomads rear yak, sheep, goats and horses that graze in the marshy grasslands.   After crossing the Chang La, the road continues to wind down for 32 kms., till one reaches Durbuk, which is a small village housing memorial in the honour of the Indian soldiers who laid down their lives in the 1962 China war.  Further 9 kms. ahead is Tangste, another military settlement, where the Inner line permit is checked by the authorities.  Traverse another 34 odd kms. and you have the first look of magical Pangong Tso.  
Mesmerizing landscape en-route Pangong Lake
The first view of Pangong Lake - a spot of blue at distance
           Perched at a height of about 13,900 ft, the name ‘Pangong Tso’ is a Tibetan word meaning "long, narrow, enchanted lake".  The first glimpse of the serene, bright blue waters and rocky lakeshore remains etched forever in the memory of tourists.  Pangong Tso is about 134 kms. long and extends from India to Tibet/China, whereas one third of the lake is in India, the remaining two thirds lies in Tibet, which is controlled by China. Majority of the streams which fill the lake are located on the Tibetan side.  The lake is 5 kms. wide at its broadest point and it covers 604 km2 area.  On October 20, 1962, Pangong Tso saw military action during the Sino-Indian border conflict.  Pangong Tso is still a delicate border point along the Line of Actual Control and for security reasons, boating is prohibited on the Indian side.  Owing to Pangong’s proximity to the border, tourists are only allowed to visit the lake upto the Spangmik village. For the hardcore adventure lovers, there are numerous camping sites on the shore of Pangong. But the weather tends to get harsh after dusk and coupled with the altitude factor, it is a place for the brave hearts & young fit people. The place is definitely a photographers’ delight and camping is the only option, if you wish to see the sunset and the sunrise, as it is said that the lake water changes colour or hues under different light conditions.
Brown headed Gulls in Pangong Lake
Another view of the Pangong Lake
During the harsh winters the lake freezes completely, despite being endorehic or saline lake.  It is said that the Pangong Lake had an outlet to Shyok River, a tributary of Indus River, but it was closed off due to natural damming.  The lake acts as an important breeding ground for a large variety of migratory birds like Brahmani Ducks, Rare black necked cranes and Brown headed Gulls. One can also spot Ladakhi Marmots, the rodent-like creatures which can grow up to the size of a small dog.  The place is under consideration for inclusion in Ramsar Convention for the conservation of wetlands. When it happens, Pangong Tso will be the first trans-boundary wetland in South Asia under the convention.
Reflections - the blue waters of Pangong Lake
Mesmerizing blues of Pangong Lake
Pangong Tso is a true natures’ colour palette. The blue expanse of water, flanked by barren mountains, with some snow capped ones, creates a visually stunning landscape. Sunrays tickle the tranquil water, making it shimmer and change colours. Seeing the Brown headed Gulls approaching you in anticipation of food and the splashing of water by their feet, intoxicates any nature lover. The feeling is so wonderful that we just wanted to remain there forever. But we have to rush back because, as the day grows old, the small brooks we crossed on the way might not remain small, as explained in the starting paragraph of the blog. A hot day, as on the date, could make the snow melt quicker and in more quantity, thus the brooks could swell up. Crossing them would become more difficult then. Getting stuck on the road and spending a chilly night out was not an exciting option. So we half-heartedly got ready, had a sumptuous lunch and headed back to Leh and were back by 7.00 P.M.
The super moon on 22nd June, 2013 as viewed from Leh, Ladakh
Is it the Mount Everest that towers over all?  View from Airplane
Aerial view of Pangong Lake & Tso Moriri
Aerial view - as river emanates from Himalayan glaciers
The next day we headed back to Delhi and as the weather by now had cleared up we had a spectacular view of the Himalayan ranges from the Aircraft and my son clicked some very good shots, which I am sharing here.

Here is the video for the destination -
1) Atop Changla Pass (Third highest motorable road)

2) Visiting Pangong Lake

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Ladakh - Visiting Diskit Monastery

Ladakh – the moonland of Monasteries
(Visiting Diskit Monastery)

Maitreya Buddha statute - with Diskit Monastery in background
          After having spent the night at Hundar/Hunder, we started for Leh and on the way stopped over at Diskit to visit the monastery.  The Diskit monastery is situated on the hill, just above the flood plains of the Shyok River, a tributary of the Sindhu River, on its right bank in the Diskit village (3,144 metres (10,315 ft)) in Nubra Valley.  Diskit is the headquarters of the Nubra Valley and thus has lot of government offices with basic facilities. Leh to Diskit is 150 kilometres by road. The approach road to the monastery is from the Diskit village through a rugged and dusty road that crosses a stream in the middle of the village.  Diskit Monastery has been built at the edge of the approach road. This main road links with Paramanik and Thoise. Approach to the monastery is through a flight of steps made of stones, which lead to the prayer hall of the monastery.
Panoramic view of Diskit Monastery
Maitreya Buddha statute - as seen from Diskit Monastery
The main facade of Diskit Monastery
Inside view of Diskit Monastery
The lamps in Diskit Monastery - reflections of valley & me on glass front
         Diskit Monastery also known as Deskit Gompa or Diskit Gompa is the oldest and the biggest Buddhist monastery in the Nubra Valley of Ladakh.  It belongs to the ‘Yellow hats’ or the Gelupa sect of Tibetan Buddhism. It was founded by Changzem Tserab Zangpo, a disciple of the great monk Tsong Khapa, founder of Gelugpa, in the 14th century. It is a subsidiary of the Thiksey monastery/gompa.  Diskit monastery was given to Rimpoche of Thiksey monastery during 18th century. It is still under the management of Thiksey monastery and hence, considered a sub-gompa of Thiksey. The monastery constructed in Tibetan style and boasts of murals and frescos.  The history of the Nubra Valley and the monastery can be traced from 14th century onwards. Ladakh was then ruled by King Grags-pa-‘bum-lde (1400–1440) and his brother, who unsuccessfully attempted to usurp Nubra Valley, which was under a local ruler named Nyig-ma-grags-pa. The local ruler assisted a Gelugpa order advocate to build the monastery at Diskit and deify the idol of Tsong Khapa (whose story is narrated in my blog about Thiksey Monastery).  During the rule of King Blogros-chog-idan (1440–1470) who had even controlled western Tibet, Panchen Lha-btsun - a resident of Nubra Valley by birth - studied in Tibet and later became a regent to the founder of the famed Tashi Lhunpo Monastery of Tibet and returned to Nubra during the last stages of his life. His remains have been preserved in a place known as Charas. During 1500 A.D, Ladakh was ruled by Bkra-shis-r- namgyal, who fought the invader Mirza Haider from Central Asia, in Nubra and close to Leh, finally defeated the latter and thus, bringing Nubra under Ladakh King’s rule. Even then, the local chieftains still yielded power in Diskit and Hundar.   There is a sizeable number of Shia Muslims Muslims in Nubra, who had started settling in Nubra after this war. Tshedbang-r- namgyal ruled Ladakh from 1530 and expanded his kingdom. At that time, Nubra people prevailed on him and preventing him from invading, what is known as Ughyur or Xinjiang region of now China, as trade with the Yarkand of Central Asia was considered crucial to Nubra. During the reign of Jams-dbang-rnam-rgyal, historical records indicate that a regular tribute payment was made by the Nubra people to the king. The King Bde-‘Idanrnam-rgyal (1620–45) successfully defeated and defended their territory from the Baltistan and the Mughals. Rgyal kings were very religious and built Mani walls throughout their kingdom. Monks were specially engaged to recite hymns of Mani-tung chur in Nubra Valley and in other surrounding areas. In mid eighteenth century, Tshe-dbang-rnam-rgyal gave away the control of Diskit monastery to the Rimpoche of Thiksey Monastery and this arrangement has been perpetuated to this day. Since then, Diskit is considered a sub-gompa of Thikse.
The prayer lamps inside Diskit Gompa
Eons old prayer wheels in Diskit Monastery
The famed Diskit Monastery as it sits on a cliff side
The monastery has statue of the Maitreya Buddha in the prayer hall, where a huge drum and several images of fierce guardian deities are housed. An elevated cupola of the monastery depicts a fresco of the famed Tashi Lhunpo monastery of Tibet.  Diskit Monastery is connected to Mongol mythology,  the monastery is believed to be the place where an evil anti-Buddhist Mongol demon once lived and was killed near the monastery grounds but is said to have been resurrected several times. Today, the wrinkled head and hand of the demon are believed to lie inside a temple in the monastery. The gompa roof offers "glorious" views of the Nubra Valley.  Recent extensions to the monastery building are in good shape but the Dukhang ("main prayer hall") and Zimcchungh are not in good condition. Paintings have been covered with soot and images are kept in total disorder. The older part of the monastery is said to be in certain degree of decay, as cracks have been observed, and they remain untended.
Reflections in the water
As we head back towards Khardungla
The photong or official residence of the Chief Lama of Nubra is located at the foot hill where there is also a very large statue of Jampa (Maitreya) Buddha.  This impressive 32 metre (106 foot) statue on top of a hill below the monastery faces down the Shyok River towards Pakistan.  The statue's construction was started in April 2006 and it was consecrated by H.H. the Dalai Lama on 25 July 2010. Mr. Nophel says the statue was built with three main functions in mind - protection of Diskit Village, prevention of further war with Pakistan, and to promote world peace.  Lachung temple is close but above the Diskit monastery, and is said to be one of the oldest temples in the Nubra Valley where a large idol of Tsong Khapa is deified and a Gelugpa yellow hat crowns the image. Desmochhey or Dosmoche, also known as "Festival of the Scapegoat" is the popular prayer festival that is celebrated at Diskit Monastery. Since the festival is celebrated in February during the winter season, large crowds from villages in the Nubra Valley assemble at Diskit to witness the mask dance. The mask dance is performed by the monks or Lamas of the Monastery to dramatically express the superiority of good over evil forces. The dances are believed to avoid ill-fortune in the New Year (Tibetan New Year is celebrated in December/January).
When I became a National Geographic photographer - watch the Himalayan Golden Eagle trying to swoop over the Marmot below
Every trip has an interesting personal anecdote associated with it, we had visited the Diskit Monastery and were well on the way back, when just as we were crossing over Khaltse that I remembered having left my jacket on the camp bed.  While I was debating not to go back and get it collected over the next few days, but my wife was insistent that I get it back as we were to cross the Khardung La and the weather could take a turn for the worse any time.  Therefore, we had to turn back and retrieve the jacket with a lot of acrimony between me and my wife.

Here is a link to the destination video -