Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Hunder - Idyllic Village In Nubra Valley, Ladakh

Hunder environs

Connectivity of Leh through land and air route has seen tourists of all hues pouring in this Ladakh town in summer months between June and September. Most of the tourists avail of the tour packages offered by travel companies with duration anything between 7 days and 14 days. The discerning group of travelers make their own arrangement of jeep hiring from Leh and chart out an itinerary of their own. Leh being focal point of all jeep safari circuits, one rarely stays and has a feel of so many idyllic villages dotted all across Ladakh. During jeep safaris, at the most one gets a night halt at villages like Hunder, Tsomoriri and Pangong Tso. Those who go for trekking or on expeditions do come across many more villages for their overnight halts. 

In our ten day trip to Ladakh in early summer, with our own pre-set itinerary, we came across many idyllic villages, stayed overnight in some of them. If I have to select top three such villages as my choice, I would unhesitatingly select Hunder, Stok and Shey. Each of them is worth a stay for 2/3 days.
Hunder village, located in Nubra Valley, will be on top of my list of idyllic villages in Ladakh. Situated at an elevation of 10,000 ft, much lower than even Leh at 11,500’, keeps the visitors free from those high altitude sickness if at all one is prone to. This idyllic village has all the ingredient of modern amenities which will take care of a comfortable stay for every tourist and his family. There are plethora of guest houses, located in huge plots of lands, surrounded by greenery, with 24 hours water supply and good food. Some of them we came across are two storied Goba guest house, single storied Ibex guest house and a huge complex housing tented accommodation known as Organic Retreat. Some guest houses offer the genuine Ladakhi cuisine, including Ladakhi bread and low spiced yet tasty cuisines. For the non-vegetarians, egg preparations are always available for asking. 
Goba guest house
Ibex guest house
Hunder village abounds in Willow, Poplar, Apple and Apricot trees in almost every compound. An early morning walk in lush green environs, through the narrow but clean streets is a rejuvenating experience. From terrace of every house the wonderful vista of hillside enhances one’s perception of nature in its pristine glory. A careful eye on the flying birds among the trees will possibly result in a sight of specie of a beautiful bird with a few feathers in its crest and the wings with black and white patterns. Camera totting, I had a quite a chase in spotting and trying to shoot this bird by trespassing through the tented camp, but could not get a clear crisp shot to my dismay. Later, I discovered this species has a common name as ‘Common Hoopoe’ with biological name as ‘Upupa Epops’. 

Crossing outskirts of Hunder village, one arrives on the road which brings the tourists to this idyllic place. Distant snow clad hills is a reminder to the tourists, that it is still early summer and that one is at 10,000’ elevation.
Snow peaks from Hunder
The road, facing the hill is dotted with chortens of different sizes scattered rather randomly, breaking the monotony of otherwise barren hills.
Chorten on hill, Hunder

Tourists who are thrilled to do some climbing exercise in the adjoining hill, can take mud-stone steep track going up. Stepping over scattered pebbles one comes across ruins of few religious structures at different elevations.
Fort like structure on hill, Hunder
 Lay tourists are perplexed by Ladakh being mentioned as high altitude cold desert. They will have a real down to earth feel of desert, with sand dunes, the seabuckthorn bushes, the camels of Bactrian species, at a walking distance from Hunder village.
As the sun rises, so do the Bactrian camels on all their fours in their camps. The owners along with their camels in tow, begin yet another of their journeys to the sand dunes, to earn their livelihood. From village, tourists take a short journey to arrive at the spot to have an experience of Bactrian camel ride. For me, the two humped animal was some kind of a novelty; kept busy my shutter finger as much as possible, capturing camels in their various moods and postures. The young ones of the camels, stayed glued to their mothers and even if got separated, reunited with them without any hassle.
Bactrian camels at Hunder
At the end of the day at sand dunes with sunlight fading, momentary golden glow on the distant hills looks spectacular.
Evening at cold desert, Hunder
Places to visit around Hunder: 
Diskit is a short 8 km drive from Hunder and has the biggest Gompa in the Nubra valley. Monastic School at a somewhat lower elevation is an imposing structure and offers a great view of Gompa. 

Sumur is 40 km drive from Hunder, via the diversion point Khalsar. The journey from Khalsar to Sumur, is through greeneries interspaced with wild rose bushes. Samstanling Gompa at Sumur attract a lot of tourists. Panamik 20 km further, is a place of hot water springs. Beyond Panamik, the drive is restricted to Army who head in the direction of Siachen, the biggest glacier outside of polar region. 

Following captioned link gives footages of Bactrain Camel ride at Hundar:

Riding Bactrian Camel - Hunder, Nubra, Ladakh 


Sunday, 26 February 2012

Diskit Monastery - Nubra Valley, Ladakh

Diskit Monastey

A very sought after jeep safari from Leh is that of Nubra Valley. After starting at early morning from Leh and covering  40 km, one is delighted to have visited the highest motorable pass in the world - Khardung-la. Another 56 km drive and one arrives at Khalsar. From Khalsar one can take a detour to Shyok valley and proceed to Sumur and Panamik. Alternately one can drive on 20 km to Diskit, famous for its ‘cold desert’, which is full of sand dunes. 

On 2nd of June 2010, on our return journey from Hundar village, with plenty of time in our hand, it was worth while visiting Diskit monastery - the largest in the Nubra valley. On the way we came  across a beautiful looking Monastic School, run by Monastery administration. 
Lama School
Alighting from jeep, we entered the huge compound.  The gigantic Buddha statue structure was being freshly painted and spruced up on the eve of His Holiness Dalai Lama’s visit.
Buddha statue being painted
From School compound we got an awesome view of seven storied Diskit Gompa clutching the mountain side.

View of Diskit Monastery from Lama School
We resumed our short journey towards the Diskit Gompa and on the way come across students from Monastic School carrying the big diameter cable or pipe, whatever.
Lama Students on job

A climb to seven storied Diskit Gompa through a few hundred steps takes some time and effort; but the effort is adequately rewarded. From elevation of upper stories of the Gompa, the panorama of hills and the greenery around the Diskit village looks spectacular. After negotiating Final flight of steps, we get a view of Gompa hall; it looks spectacular, with the court yard painted with murals.
Vista from Diskit Monastery
The Lama School, with gigantic Buddha statue, on the backside on a small hillock looked imposing.
View from Diskit Monastery
The Gompa Hall, housing Buddha idol, was dimly lit compared to other Gompas like Shey and Thiksey. As camera flash is not supposed to be used hence a good shot in low lighting conditions proved to be difficult. Also, there was objection to video camera to be used in this monastery. The Buddha idol appeared to be installed in a rectangular box, recessed into wall.  

Inside Diskit Gompa
I get another image of a close-up of Buddha idol.
Buddha idol - a close-up
The Gompa Hall walls are decorated with Thangkas or painted scrolls. 
From Nubra Valley, we drove towards the Shyok valley. From road, a view of Shyok river with a very low level of water during early summer, breaking into many small rivulets, created some kind of abstract painting in sand.
Shyok river in Shyok valley
Having written a few words on various Gompas of Ladakh, some readers may feel tad monotonous on this aspect of Ladakh. If one is at Ladakh, he cannot wish away Gompas and Chortens, which are fountain heads of Buddhist religion and will make their appearance in every possible destination. These mountain clutching multistoried structures, invariably give a kind of divine dimension to the mountains of this Trans-Himalayan region and from layman’s point of view, break the monotony of the rugged hills.  

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Luck, Stok and Bounty in Ladakh

Stok Palace

(Mother nature has showered its bounty rather liberally on Ladakh, the Trans-Himalayan region of India. More so, on a tiny hamlet called Stok located 14 km from Leh-the principal town of Ladakh. The place offers an astounding vista, full of Willow and Poplar trees and the tiny brooks flowing in grassy meadows. The 2 km drive to Stok Palace on a road lined with Poplar trees, with a back drop of layers of hills with varying hues, the clouds caressing some of them. Located at the extreme end of Hemis Wild Life Sanctuary, by taking a small uphill walk from Stok, offer, possibilities of watching wild life from close quarters. As luck would have it, we had all of these and more.) 

Our touch down at Leh airport on a bright sunny morning on 24th May, 2010, with awe inspiring 360 degree view of snow clad hills around, augured well for 11 days trip to Ladakh. Little did we realize that, the late excessive snow fall this year will keep us under suspense for all our jeep safaris and treks. The Manali -Leh road was still blocked with snow. The Nubra valley jeep safari had not started because of blocking of Khardung-la pass. The Pangong circuit was closing and opening sporadically because of too much snow at Chang-la pass. We somehow squeezed through 5 days of jeep hopping for three circuits. It was high time to free our limbs, to have a feel of fresh earth below our feet and let the whole canvass of nature unfold before us.
Stok -Kangri Peak
Our Zingchen–Stokla–Stok trek slated for 30th / 31st May appeared to be in jeopardy, because of the late snowfall, in upper reaches of the Ladakh mountain peaks. The Stok-la pass was presumed to be unworthy of trek because of heavy snow and the inclement weather. We were advised to take a trek from Stok village to Stok-Kangri base camp or near about. 

We were as usual, ready by 7 am, to be picked up by Sonam Dorji in his Innova car. Our destination was Stok village at a distance of 16 km from Leh. We arrived there around 8 am, the base for our 5 km trek to Changma. Sonam dropped us at a point which had a board indicating ‘Tourist Homestay Stok Trekking Point’. Since Sonam was to pick us up after the completion of to and fro trek to Changma, Sid who had a post paid Vodaphone number noted down Sonam’s cell phone number. The connectivity appeared to be ok at Stok. In Ladakh, it seems only post paid connection of BSNL, Vodaphone and Airtel worked wherever the network was available.
At Stok village
There was a single storied structure with a number of unoccupied spacious rooms. To say the Stok village is picturesque is an understatement. This village with a large number of Poplar trees, cluster of willow trees, the distant snow covered hills, the small brooks, had a perfect 'picture postcard' look. The serenity of the place was very much apparent. I decided to do some extensive photo shooting after we returned from our trek.
Stok landscape
For now, it was time to wet our parched throat for a cup of tea from a garage teashop-cum-eatery. Sipping tea and munching a few biscuits from our ration, guideless, clueless, we were just three wandering souls contemplating from where to begin our trek. We had a modest goal of trekking up to Stok-Kangri base camp. Stok-Kangri is a major mountain peak nearest to Leh and is attempted by adventurous trekkers in month of September. 
Teashop-cum-eatery at Stok trekking point
As Sonam departed for Leh, we found a guy arrive with two jerry cans and filled them with crystal clear water from the tiny streams flowing nearby. Responding to our enquiry on way to Changma, he just pointed at a distance and told us to keep the stream on the left side and to keep going alongside a boundary wall on right side. We had a bite to eat from our ration of some dry food-stuff and took to the trails. 
We threesome ready for trek
We had a gentle walk through the meadows, across a boundary wall, isolating a few two storied structures.  We come across Homestay guest house owned by D Tundup. A little ahead a small beautiful looking Buddhist prayer wheel was visible and sign board for Hotel Kangri, offering breakfast, lunch and dinner.  We switched over and had a lively but careful walk over stones, in between two boundary walls.  The narrow trail coming to an end, we stepped up on dried river bed kind of terrain containing stones, stones and more stones. We carried on till we stepped in between two hills, which was like entry door to 'nature's treasure house!’ 

Cruising between two hills, we were at a dilemma. On both sides of dried river bed, there were narrow trails running along the hills. Without a guide, we had to choose between the two. We just chose the left one which appeared to be easily accessible and carried on. The sun was playing hide and seek right   throughout our trek. It was chilly to say the least. In Ladakh, weather is very fickle and can change its complexion abruptly. The last thing we wanted was a rain at this stage. We were near a willow tree in wilderness for a short break; the weather suddenly became very cloudy and chilly. As if to make matter worse for us, the heavens opened up. No! Not the rains. Small milky white flakes, pouring from sky, made us jump and take notice. Is it snow or flurry?  Should we abandon our trek and return to safety of Stok village? Or, shall we continue trekking in snow? Is there a possibility of a snow blizzard? We had more questions than answers. In spite of churning going on in my mind, I did not let go this opportunity of photo shooting. My black camera bag was splattered with snow-flakes. Sid put on the ‘poncho’ borrowed from Sac. Sac was comfortable in wind cheater and water proof trousers. Sid and Sac made a lovely sight, with snow- flakes falling on them!
Amidst snow-flakes
Five minutes later the fickleness of weather of Ladakh once again became apparent. The clouds cleared, snowfall ceased and we resumed our trek with fresh vigor. Our ‘nature treasure bag’ seemed to be filling up. We just went as far as the trail went on the left hand side hill. There was an abrupt end to the trail and we were back to dry river bed walking over stones trying to take the trail on right hand side hill.

We were repenting of not having a guide in this off-seasonal time, where not a single soul was visible. When nobody is around to help you, God will! An old Ladakhi, with one of his glass in his spectacles broken, met us on the trail. He apparently knew where we were headed for and told us to take to take the right side trail and inquired whether we needed horses. We thanked him for providing us the direction to Camp Changma and resumed our trek. After nearly half an hour around noon time, we were at a level ground, with a huge boulder on which was painted the word ‘CAM’ with an arrow which means Camp; but, not a soul around, not a single tent, no horses. Disappointed, we just pushed on and started climbing higher through a narrow trail. Finally we arrived at Changma our destination. Words were painted on flat stony portion of hill, with some advertisement for food and beverages.
Changma tent resting place decorated with Bharal Skull
We veered round a bend and found two tents right in front. That was a big relief. We were dieing to have a cup of coffee in the chilly weather. The first tent had some benches and plastic chairs. There were two sets of Bharal horns with frontal skull adorning the tent props. We just dropped our back packs and made ourselves comfortable. We ordered for some coffee and I peered inside the second tent. Three persons were seated on blanket around a stove. We enquired whether any trekker has passed through this route. The answer was, ‘Do Angrez.’ A  Music player was playing some music. Sid, excited with our trek bounty, requested for a rhythmic music number and performed an impromptu dance in his own style and to our entertainment! 

Will Sid shake his legs again in course of the day, on onward trek? Finishing coffee, Sid and myself decided to have another kilometer of trek uphill, just to sight Stok Kangri peak; Sac decided to take a rest at the tent. A glacier down the hill looked splendid with Changma base tent at the back. 
View of Changma tent resting place and glacier
A little ahead a brown moving shape came to our notice. I looked through my Handycam with high zoom, but could not get it into focus. Sid got a few clicks, but not very sure whether the result will be good. We tip toed and moved closer and closer and came near a pack of Bharals (Himalayan blue sheep), grazing on the pasture! That really got us excited. We are watching wild life at Ladakh, all live, right in their den! We simply got clicking, the stills and the videos. 
Bharals at Changma
The animals appeared not to be perturbed, yet very alert. Significantly, whenever we made a move, they also made a small move; as if ready to dash off with hint of slightest danger.  After nearly 15 minutes of photo shoot, we left the innocent creatures to themselves and moved ahead and climbed some more height. We could not sight the Stok Kangri that afternoon and decided to return to tent for return trek. As we were descending, ‘what is happening?’I exclaimed. The Bharal group after grazing in pasture was in a relaxing mood and all were seated in front in a single row with a gap of three feet between them.  They were, as if, beckoning us to take their photos as wild life models! Who were we to refuse? We spend another good ten minutes obliging them. Wish we could show them their pictures!  At the base camp, Sachin said, he too saw some Bharals just ahead of the camp. Another cup of coffee and we decided to commence the return trek.
Bharals relaxing
On return trek, we made our ground much faster. After nearly two hours at 2.30 pm, we were at Stok village. A group of ladies and gentlemen from overseas were seated across a table having Maggie. On enquiry, we found they were a group of rock climbers and just had a trek nearby. Sid contacted Sonam for the jeep.
While seated on the road side culvert, waiting for the Innova car to pick us up and to take to Leh, it was opportune moment to shoot some more Stok landscapes around us which undoubtedly had picture post card beauty.
Scenic Stok
We were not the only ones enjoying the nature’s bounty around us. A guy photo-shooting the Ladakhi owner of the garage eatery, in the scenic environment, in his own inimitable style, holding the flash in one hand and camera in other, gave me a photo shooting opportunity as well!
Photography session
The photographer shared the results of photo shoot with his model through LCD image of his digicam, to his delight.
Instant Happiness
Getting a phone call from driver Sonam that he was on his way to pick us up, assured, we captured some more of the scenic surroundings. Tall Poplar trees and smaller willow trees are the main vegetation in Stok village.  The single storied cottages blend perfectly to give the village a picture post card image.
Stok Scene
The short two km drive from Stok trekking point, through Stok village to Stok Palace, will remain one of my best road journeys in Ladakh. The landscape is awesome to say the least. We got a photo shoot of Stok Palace from about two hundred  meter distance, with a large number of chortens on the way side.  The cloud formation was just right to give dimension to the
Road to Stok Palace
I could not resist yet another shot much closer as we approached the Palace.
Nearing Stok Palace
The Stok Palace houses the Stok Gompa and a Museum which is very popular with the tourists. The Vista from Stok Palace is magnificent and soothing to the eye.
Vista from Stok Palace
Stok info: 

Visiting Stok in early summer i.e. in end May or first week of June, when the mountain top snow has not melted fully, the clear blue skies give a picture postcard landscape and one is in tune with the nature; it will remain one of my most favorite destinations in Ladakh. If one wants to stay here, there is a single storied home stay guest house, in a huge compound at ‘Stok trekking point’. There are a few more guest houses, we came across at a short distance on way to Changma. One does not have to book these places in advance but just walk in. There are a few restaurants as well, which we could make out from spiraling smoke through the chimneys of the road side cottages. Cell phone connectivity at this place is a great advantage. Both Airtel and BSNL network with post paid account operate here. The travel agencies at Leh will arrange for drop and pick up from this place at a reasonable rate. One can trek to Changma, about 5 km and will be in Hemis wild life sanctuary; a chance encounter with wild life is a possibility. A two km drive will bring one to Stok Palace. The vista from Stok Palace of the adjoining hills is magnificent.  A casual walk through the Stok village will be a rejuvenating experience for tired souls. Stok has the potential to be a great destination in Ladakh, if given the due recognition it deserves by local government as well as the travel community.