HIGHWAY TO THE HIMALAYAS: ROAD TRIP TO LADAKH (Pt II)- On one of world’s most beautiful places and dangerous roads.

The roads to Ladakh cutting through the Himalayan mountain ranges are some of the most treacherous, especially the mountain passes like Zoji La (Zoji pass) notorious for being one of the riskiest mountain passes in the world. Although at an altitude of 3528 meters above sea level (11,578 feet), the Zoji pass is much lesser in altitude compared to other mountain passes we had to cross in Ladakh subnsequently, the khardung La for one is above 18,000 feet, the Zoji pass hold the distinction for being the most treacherous and is being billed as one of the riskiest mountain routes in the world. Well I got to find out for myself why.

June 9, 2015, we left Srinagar after breakfast embarking on the National Highway 1 D which is more popularly known as the Srinagar- Leh highway. Coming from Delhi, this is a slightly more circuitous route than the Manali -Leh highway but I had chosen this route over the latter for the simple reason that the gradual ascent offered more time for aclimatisation to the higher altitude. Moreover the former is also famous for the magnificent vistas it offered of the beautiful Kashmir valley. True to the word, we passed through some of the most beautiful and picturesque locations offering magnificent views of snow capped mountain peaks amid lush greenery and foliage. Sonamarg which translates as “The meadows of gold” perhaps getting its name from the gently sloping meadows turning golden when the grass ripens, sits pretty on the slopes of the Himalayas, merely 85 kms away from Srinagar. Being a tourist hotspot, the place was crowded which was quite a put-off and we stopped only long enough for a quick photo shoot. From then on we clambered up the slopes of the Himalayas heading for the formidable ZOJI LA !

The Kashmir basin
The Kashmir basin
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Sonamarg “The meadows of gold”

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Leaving Sonamarg, the landscape began to change considerably. The green turned to grey, the two lane metalled road soon transformed into a single lane gravel and dirt road filled with slush and mud at intervals.The high point of this route is that the mountain trail is an engineering marvel of the olden days which was carved onto the steep mountain walls of the the formidable Zoji pass following the Indo-Pak conflict of 1947 to connect the isolated Ladakh to Kashmir. In the days of yore, Ladakh was an important post  falling in the famous ancient Silk route providing passage from Central Asia through the Karakoram pass and down the Shyok river and then to Tibet via Demchok (on the Indo-China border). Following independence, these routes were sealed and Ladhak was choked off from the rest of the world. As an urgent measure a route was forged through the Zoji pass to join the Kashmir basin with that of the Drass basin on the either side of Zoji La effecting a road link between Srinagar and Leh. The pass became the gateway to magnificent Ladakh. Subsequently Ladakh was connected to Himachal Pradesh on the south eastern side through the Leh-Manali highway which is also of no less repute as it also passes through a number of formidable passes. Turning back to the mortifying route on notorious Zoji pass, we were now abreast with our first petrifying challenge of the trip. The hairs on the back of our necks were by now quite stiff and erect, a tingling sensation of fear slowly creeping up the spine. I told myself quitely “Fear is good, fear keeps you alert”. My co-passengers who were snoring until some moments ago were now quite awake but rather quite. I guess nobody wanted to speak much and left me much to myself to focus on my driving and the perrilous road ahead. Intermittently a word of caution would come from the back if I ventured too near the edge. Here there are no barriers to keep you from slipping off the edge into the 90 degree fall into abyss. The edge itself is crumbling at various places leaving you prone to being swept down the slope if one went too close to the edge. The high altitude, inclement weather and snow have played havoc on the route; landlides, rock falls, mud and slush being a permanent feature of the road. The BRO is being constantly engaged in keeping the road motorable and passable which opens up for traffic in the latter part of spring and closes off before the onset of winter when it is completely shut off by heavy snowfall. However commendable the efforts of the BRO, it did very little in terms of safety and convenience. The road is still what may have been in the ancient Silk route days ! We slowly inched up the 9 kilometers long crumbling dirt trail, negotiating through the hairpin bends and narrow ledge of a road; sometimes perched precariously to let an oncoming vehicle pass by and sometimes not able to move ahead at all because there just isn’t any space left to let anything by. But negotiate we did and managed to finally emerge on the other side that is the Drass basin with a big sigh of relief and an experience to cherish a lifetime.

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HIGHWAY TO HIMALAYAS : ROAD TRIP TO LADAKH – The stop at Srinagar

Ladakh is one of the remotest and least populated region of Jammu and Kashmir (India), ensconced deep in the high mountain ranges of the Himalayas. A dream that have held my fascination for a very very long time. So come summer, I was finally decided upon taking a self driven road trip to this secluded and rather desolate realm in the Himalayas. Despite various odds and difficulties, I along with three of my childhood friends, finally embarked on the trip from Delhi on 7th of June 2015 with much gusto, anticipation and fair share of trepidation. Yes, trepidation because a self driven road trip to Ladakh is considered one of the most difficult and riskiest road journeys one can hope to come across, taking you through some of the most dangerous routes in the world and a very inhospitable and arduous terrain of the Himalayas. To top it up I intended to drive the whole stretch (we cloaked a total of more than 4000 kms) alone ! But what is an adventure without a little risk. So off we went.

The first stretch was a rather easy yet strenuous drive of nearly 900 kms from Delhi to Srinagar. We had been delayed by one day and had to make it up by skipping the planned halt at Pathankot. We started off from Delhi in the evening around 1700 hrs, drove the whole night and the whole of the next day with pit stops at Chandigarh, Pathankot and Panitop. We finally hit Srinagar as the sun went down. We headed straight for the pre-booked Houseboat at Nagin Lake, which is an extension of the famous Dal Lake but slightly more exclusive and less crowded. Here is a glimpse of the beautiful Dal Lake.

Dal Lake 1
Nagin Lake, Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir (India)
Dal Lake 5
Dal Lake, Srinagar, Jammu and Kasmir (India)

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At the break of dawn the following day, we set off on a  Shikara (boat) ride from Nagin Lake to Dal Lake and back, chancing upon glimpses of a number of migratory birds that make Dal lake their temporary home. Besides the birds, the lake is also home to local population and even has a floating market where people venture in small canoes to make their daily purchases. We even stopped the boat by a coffee shop to have a nice steaming cuppa to top up the experience 🙂 Dal Lake 6Dal Lake 7 Dal Lake 8 Dal Lake 9 Dal Lake 10 Dal Lake 11 Dal Lake 12 Dal Lake 13 Dal Lake 14 Dal Lake 16 Dal Lake 17 Dal Lake15Dal Lake 19    Amidst the birds, tourists thronging the lake and local populace going about their lives, we also came across an old man whiling away the morning, enjoying a hookah in the middle of the lake !

Keibul Lamjao

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Keibul Lamjao 4

What you see here are pictures of seemingly normal and regular landscapes that has hardly anything of interest other than being a picturesque scenery. But appearances can be deceptive. These are pictures of a very unique and fascinating wildlife sanctuary in Manipur (India) called the ‘Keibul Lamjao National Park‘ which is the only one of its kind in the whole world, the distinction being that it is actually a floating sanctuary !!! The grassland you see above is actually a massive bio-mass of various vegetation, soil and organic materials in various stages of decomposition and so thickly intertwined that it is almost like a landmass but actually floating on water!  Secondly, it is also home to the very rare and endangered species of deer called the ‘Cervus eldi eldi’ or the ‘Brow-antlered-deer‘ that is endemic to this floating island and found nowhere else in the world.

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Keibul Lamjao 7

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   The Keibul Lamjao National Park covers an area of approximately 40 square kilometres of which roughly 26 sq kms comprise the floating habitat of the magnificent Sangai (local name for the ‘Brow antlered deer’). The waterbody on which it floats is the largest freshwater lake in the whole of Northeast India. Known as ‘Loktak Lake‘, it hold special significance for the people of the region and is listed among BBC’s 14 most amazing bodies of water on our planet. Seen spread across the lake are smaller phumdis and on slightly bigger ones, one would come across hutments of fishermen that populates them. The phumdis are also used for fish farming by the local populace.

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Keibul Lamjao 15

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The only means of commuting in this massive waterbody amid the floating phumdis are the slender fisherman canoes that slices through in the narrow pathways between the phumdis . Perched on it precariously, we set off to find the very shy and elusive ‘Sangai’. Scientifically named the ‘Cervus eldi eldi’ after the British Officer Lt. Percy Eld who reportedly discovered it in 1844, this very rare species of deer was almost driven to extinction due to rampant poaching and neglect. Until a few years ago their number had dwindled to an alarming two digit figures numbering around 80 only but recent conservation efforts and growing awareness have brought the figures up again to three digit figures of 208 according to the last census in 2013. Even then occasional poaching incidents still continue to haunt these fine animals and checking it is a herculean task for the highly understaffed forest officials. At the time of the visit in March 2015, there was only 1 Ranger and 5 forest officials on regular employment who were aided by 27 other casual employees. These understaffed and unarmed forest guards often have to go up against heavy odds and even fight against armed poachers. Undoubtedly it is their love and regard for the magnificent animal that has been the diving force behind their dedication to the protection of the almost extinct animal. It is of utmost importance that measures are taken up to spread awareness and safeguard the conservation of this rare species that is found nowhere else in the world.

Coming back to our expedition,we were able to spot around 8 of the elusive animal which is a very good figure but unfortunately they were too far away for a clear shot (obviously camera 🙂 ). We were told that a large number had gathered at their playing ground near Pabot ching (a hillock in the middle of the sanctuary) early in the morning but by the time we reached there they had all retreated to the tall grasses that shelters them. A very far away shot zoomed in optimally could only get me a very hazy picture below. Even then it was exhilarating to see  the fabled ‘Sangai’ in person, knowing the fact that it actually is in existence still. Of course there will be another day for our rendezvous and I shall be ready.

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Observation tower at Pabot Ching

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Romancing Nainital

Khurpatal Lake, a few kilometers from Nainital.
Khurpatal Lake, a few kilometers from Nainital.
Khurpatal
Khurpatal
Nainital 1
Nainital Lake
The hill town of Nainital
The hill town of Nainital

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 A view of Nainital at night
A view of Nainital at night

Lodged at the foothills of the Himalayas in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand (India), Nainital is a treat to the eyes as it is aptly named (‘Naini’ stands for eye and ‘tal’ for lake). Said to have developed in the mid-nineteenth century after the British took over the Kumaon hills following the Anglo-Nepalese war (1814-1816), it became a favoured escape for the British colonial officers and later became the summer residence for the Governor of the United province. Initially a preserve of the British, it soon developed into a full township half a decade latter and now it is bursting at its seams.

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Highway to Rajasthan (VI) : Jaisalmer

Thar desert
Thar desert

The ride from Bikaner to Jaisalmer was the ne plus ultra of the exhilarating 2000 kms road trip. After spending the morning driving around Bikaner city and visiting Junargarh fort for the second time, we embarked for Jaisalmer post lunch at 1330 hrs and took to NH 15. Soon after leaving Bikaner, the landscape changed to the arid and desert topography with scanty vegetation consisting of stunted scrubs which dotted the terrain. The roads stretched wide open across the barren landscape with very little traffic and the tarmac was smooth as butter. By Indian standards, it was easily one of the best roads and even at 165 kms/hr it seemed like we were merely cruising at 80 kms/hr. It was the best ride of my life.

NH 15 - Bikaner - Jaisalmer road
NH 15 – Bikaner – Jaisalmer road

THE RIDE TO JAISALMER

We started off at an easy pace from Bikaner which took us a little more than 2 hours to hit Phalodi (165 kms from Bikaner) after which we made good time and reached Pokhran (230 kms) at 1630 hrs (3 hrs). After loitering around Pokhran for about 30 minutes, we got onto NH 15 again and cruised to Jaisalmer. I had timed the ride just right to catch the setting sun as we hit Jaisalmer. It was an awesome sight to behold as the sun dipped on the tip of the road far out in the horizon, setting the sky ablaze with fiery colours as I drove straight into the arms of the setting sun. It was phenomenal ! We entered Jaisalmer at 1830 hrs as the light faded.

 

Road to Jaisalmer
Road to Jaisalmer
SONAR QILA - THE GOLDEN FORT OF JAISALMER
SONAR QILA – THE GOLDEN FORT OF JAISALMER

JAISALMER is a small city, more like a border town, populated around the old fort which is nicknamed ‘Sonar Qilla’ – the Golden Fort because of the golden hue of the fort’s sandstones against the setting sun. Back in the early days it was strategically located in the camel caravan trade routes which came from  the ports of Gujarat in the Arabian sea coasts that connects it to Persia, Arabia and Egypt in Central Asia. The city was established in the 12th century (year 1156 AD) and gets its name from its founder Maha Rawal Jaisal who founded it. According to the local legend, Rawal Jaisal, the eldest son of the Rawal of Deoraj, was passed over for the throne of Ludharva (15 kms from Jaisalmer) by his younger half-brother after which he went on a search for a safe location to establish his capital. He came across the massive rock that rose almost 250 feet from the surrounding desert sands and here he met a sage who recounted to him of a hindu mythological prophecy of lord Krishna who prophesied that a descendant of his Yaduvanshi clan would one day establish a kingdom and thus created a spring there. The Rawals belonging to the Bhati Rajput clan lay claims to the decency from the Yaduvanshi clan of the Hindu deity Lord Krishna. The encounter and the prophecy encouraged Jaisal to build a mud fort around the rock and named it Jaisalmer after himself.

Like all frontier regions where war and conflict is a way of life, the story of Jaisalmer is replete with legends of blood and glory. According to popular folklore, the Sage whom Jaisal met had also predicted that the place would be sacked two and a half times. True to the legend, the fort was run over almost three times. First by Alauddin Khilji of Delhi who, prompted by a raid on his caravan carrying his treasury, ravaged the fort in 1294 after the Bhatis defended it for nearly 8 years. Facing eminent defeat after its stockpile of food and ammunitions finally ran out, the Bhatis performed ‘Jauhar’ where 24,000 women folk committed ‘Sati’ by jumping into the funeral pyre while 3,800 surviving men threw open the gates and fought to their death.

The second raid came in the late 14th century by Sultan Ferozshah after a prince of Jaisalmer raided his camp at Anasagar Lake near Ajmer and carried away his prized steed. Here again 16,000 women and 1,700 warriors committed Jauhar. The third raid was in the 15th century from an Afghan chieftain named Amir Ali who, through deceit, hid armed warriors in a retinue of palanquins which were supposed to be carrying the Chieftain’s wives visiting the Queen of Jaisalmer. Taken by surprise and facing imminent defeat, Rawal Lunakaran slaughtered his womenfolks with his own hands in the absence of a pyre. But in a turn of events Amir Ali was defeated and killed after reinforcement arrived just in time thus saving the men from Jauhar. Thus came true the prophecy of two and half Jauhar, so it is told.

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The city of Jaisalmer is spread in and around the old fort. An interesting fact is that the old fort itself is settled by civilian population just like any normal city. It is perhaps the only fort in the world to sustain a bursting, thriving civilian population inside its ramparts. As such it is called a ‘Living fort’ which the guides and local populace are quick to point out.  The houses are built in the same architectural style that merges with the old structure of the fort. Even the houses outside the fort are built mostly with sandstones with the same distinctive Rajasthani architecture that transports you to an altogether different period of time. It is almost surreal except for the want of better maintenance and sanitation.

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Jaisalmer 7

Jaisalmer 8

After a day of exploring the fort, City Palace and the havellis just outside the fort and rummaging the market outside the fort’s entrance the whole evening, the following day we road down to Sam (pronounced as Sum) which is about 45 kms westward from Jaisalmer. Part of the Thar desert, the Sam sand dunes are a popular tourist destination for camel safaris. A ride on handsome Salman Khan and Shahrukh Khan (names of our camel steeds 🙂 ) across the dunes, watching the sun go down in the desert and enjoying a typical Rajasthani dinner with Rajasthani folk dances and songs around a bonfire prove to be an exhilarating experience for the kids. A more adventurous fun, however, would have been  a night or two deep into the Thar desert with no tents and only a fire to keep you warm. Of course that would have to be sans kids. So we satisfied ourself with the sand dunes at Sam which is not too big as the desert is interspersed by scrubby vegetation at intervals.

Sam sand dunes of the Thar desert in Rajasthan
Sam sand dunes of the Thar desert in Rajasthan
A gypsy girl of the desert
A gypsy girl of the desert
The kalbelia tribe of Rajasthan
The kalbelia tribe of Rajasthan
The Matka - bhawai folk dance of Rajasthan
The Matka – bhawai folk dance of Rajasthan

 

Watching the sun go down in the Thar desert
Watching the sun go down in the Thar desert

 

Thus was a time well spent in Jaisalmer.

Highway to Rajasthan (V) – Bikaner

 

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Rajasthan ‘The land of the Rajas’ has always held my fascination since childhood with history lessons in school abound with legends of Rajput bravery and courage, their most stubborn and heroic resistance against the Mughal conquest. Tales of Prithviraj Chauhan, Maharana Pratap, Rana Sanga and many others like them left a lasting imprint and fascination on me. Decades later  I took my first road trip to Rajputana – the land of the Rajputs (as it was earlier known) in 2005 but had to return back from Jaipur due to exigencies. It was many years later that I was finally able to plan a trip again in 2012. The 6 day sojourn was localised mainly around the east and South-Central part of Rajasthan stretching from Delhi to Amer and Jaipur in the Dhundar region and further south to Chittorgarh and Udaipur in the Mewar region of the Rajputs. Having to turn back from the Aravali ranges that separates Mewar from the Marwar and the northern Thar regions, we had to return without a glimpse of the famous stretches of sand that is so often the image that one conjures of Rajasthan.

With the dawn of  a new year (Jan 2015), we set off on a 2000 kms (from Delhi and back) 10 days ride specially delineated around the Thar desert area. The trip stretched through the Sekhawatti region in the Northeast, Bikaner in the north , Jaisalmer in the North-West, Barmer, Jodhpur and Mandore in the Marwar region in Central Rajasthan and then pushing eastwards to Ajmer, Pushkar, Jaipur in Mewar and then back to Delhi. It was one of the most mesmerizing and enjoyable ride through a varied topography and landscape that ranged from a slightly mountainous terrain of the Aravalis to the desert landscape of the great Thar. Most part of the road was the best I have ridden so far.

THE ROAD TRIP
Day 1: Delhi to Bikaner – 500 Kms  estimated time 7 1/2 hours.

We flagged off from Delhi at 0600 hrs wishing to beat the onset of traffic.  The NH 8 took us through Gurgaon, Daruhera (64 Kms), Behror (130 Kms) and Kotputli (150 Kms) from where we took a right turn (underneath the flyover) onto SH 37B. Being a State Highway the road was narrow but free of traffic and was in good condition (it has been newly constructed). We passed through Neem Ka Thana (200 Kms) taking the bypass and reached Sikar (280 Kms) at around 1300 hrs. A freaky fog with almost zero visibility lengthened out travel time from the estimated 4 hours to 7 hours, almost the time we had expected to reach Bikaner which was still a good 220 kms away. The fog also prevented us from enjoying the landscape of the Shekhawatti region which is suppose to have the most arable land as compared to the rest of the area in Rajasthan. A brief stopover of 30 minutes, lunch in a Havelli of a friend and exploring the villages of Sikar, we headed towards Fatehpur (330 kms) via Udaipurwati which took us about an hour owing to the small roads and repair on some patches. From Fatehpur onwards the road stretched out the entire 170 kms in a smooth and beautiful semi-arid landscape that took us less than 2 hours to hit Bikaner (500 kms from Delhi). We spent the entire evening and the following morning exploring Bikaner.

Sikar 1
SIKAR

 

Sikar 2
Nilgai, an antelope that resembles a bull, commonly found in the farmlands in Rajasthan.

BIKANER :

Bikaner is said to have been founded on a barren desert area called Jungaldesh by a Rajput Prince Rao Bika Ji, son of Rao Jodha Ji who founded Jodhpur. Provoked by his father, Prince Bika Ji went on a campaign with a small military contingent of 500 soldiers and 100 cavalry men to establish his own Kingdom. After subduing the Chieftains of Rajputs clans and Jats in the vicinity, Bikaji established his kingdom in the middle of the Thar desert which came to be known as Bikaner. It evolved into a beautiful city and an independent kingdom which was subsequently merged with the Indian Union after India got its independence. The present state of the city, as is the case with most old cities, is crowded and dirty, although the old world charm is still evident in the Royal Palaces and fort below. While here, enjoy the bhujiya and Jungli maas (an exotic spicy Rajasthani cuisine of tender succulent mutton/lamb).

 

 

LALGARH PALACE, BIKANER
LALGARH PALACE, BIKANER
Bikaner 3
LALGARH PALACE BIKANER
JUNAGRAH FORT, BIKANER
JUNAGRAH FORT, BIKANER

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Bikaner 5

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ANUP MAHAL, BIKANER

 

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Bikaner 10

…..TO FOLLOW – DAY 2: BIKANER TO JAISALMER

The lake of tears

The ‘Barapani’ which translates as ‘the big water’ is a huge expanse of water (lake) cached among the ranges of the scenic Khasi Hills, in a place called Umiam in Ri Bhoi district just before entering the East Khasi Hills district of Meghalaya, one of the scenic states in Northeast India.  It is situated along the NH 40, in the Guwahati-Shillong highway, just about 20 km before reaching Shillong, the capital town of the state. Spread across a catchment area of 221.5 sq. kms, the lake is formed by the Umiam river. The lake came to be commonly called the ‘Barapani’ because of its huge expanse. It is a major tourist attraction in Meghalaya.

There is an interesting folk lore that is associated with the Umiam river that feeds the lake. In Khasi, the language of one of the indigenous tribes of Meghalaya, ‘Umiam’ translates into ‘water of the eyes’ meaning tears. The river gets its name as ‘the river of tears’ from a fable that is popular among the local people. The story goes that two sisters from heaven who were inseparable descended to earth one day. One of the sisters landed in the land of clouds, Meghalaya, but the other got lost on the way and never made it to earth. Heartbroken and stricken with grief on having lost her sister, the lone sibling cried and cried until her tears ran as a river. The river thus came to be known as ‘Umiam’ – the river of tears.

And here is my take on the lake of tears.

The lake of tears0

Krishnaraja Sagar Dam and the beautiful Brindavan Gardens

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Just 24 Kms from the city of Mysore in the district of Mandya in the state of Karnataka lies the Krishnaraja Sagar Dam (or KRS in short), one of India’s first irrigation dams built way back in 1924 before India even got its independence. The dam was financed by the then Maharaja of Mysore Sri Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV after whom the dam has been named. Built over river Kaveri (Cauvery), the dam was the source of water for drinking and irrigation in the fertile valley of the Kingdom of Mysore. It is still the main source of water supply for the cities of Mysore, Mandya and even Bangalore.

Built by one of India’s finest engineers Sir Mokshagundam Vishveswariah, who is known as the architect of modern Mysore and the father of planning in India, the dam is a marvel of engineering built entirely on a mixture of limestone and brick powder without the use of cement which was a very rare commodity at that time. Interestingly, it was also one of the first dams in the world to have automatic sluice gates.

The best part of the dam is its beautifully laid out terrace gardens spread over 60 acres behind the dam with running waterways and a number of fountains which are beautifully illuminated at night. The Brindavan Gardens, the credit for which goes to Sir Mirza Ismail, the then Dewan of the princely State of Mysore, who designed and created the garden in 1927. Mentored by the ingenious Vishveswariah himself, Sir Mirza Ismail, who was also a friend and classmate of the King, was a very proficient administrator who helped shaped Modern Mysore.The establishment of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited being one of his many achievements which is too long to be listed here. It was during the turbulent pre-independence period that this trio took Mysore to its heights which is aptly called the ‘Golden period of Mysore’. Thanks to these visionary geniuses that we get to enjoy the fruits even today.

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