My job is to recommend great travel ideas but not necessarily insist you experience these. But I will make an exception here: you must visit Ladakh, by road. And ideally, drive yourself. Take four wheels or two, but make sure you go. Sooner than later. You will not regret putting off other stuff for this.
The best part of the drive starts from Manali - every passing mile will tell you more of what heaven might be like. You will literally be at the top of the motorable world - and never want to come back down. Pack your car, and be off without much thought.
This route has been branded Kunzum Route K13; complete driving directions and attractions have been covered in it. For a detailed version of the same, you can get a copy of the Kunzum Travel List at http://kunzum.com/travellist.
A BRIEF DISTANCE / TIME CHART
Leg 1: Delhi - Manali: 578 kms (361 miles) / 11:38 hrs
Leg 2: Manali - Jispa: 144 kms (90 miles) / 6:44 hrs
Leg 3: Jispa - Leh: 366 kms (219 miles) / 11:15 hrs
Leg 4: Leh - Pangong Tso (Lake) and back: 160 kms (100 miles) / 4:35 hrs one way
Leg 5: Leh - Tso Moriri with detour to Tso Kar and back
Driving Distance / Time from Leh - Tso Moriri with detour to Tso Kar: 301 kms (188 miles) / 7:00 hrs
Driving Distance / Time from Tso Moriri - Leh direct: 221 kms (138 miles) / 4:40 hrs
Leg 6: From Leh to Kyagar in Nubra Valley and back: 152 kms (95 miles) / 6:00 hrs one way
Leg 7: Leh to Padum, Zanskar: 470 kms (294 miles) / 19:30 hrs (You will need a night halt at Kargil; Padum is 240 kms (150 miles) from Kargil and takes 12 hours)
Leg 8: Padum, Zanskar - Delhi via Srinagar and Jammu: 1391 kms (869 miles) / 39:45 hrs
From Zanskar, you can either (a) drive back to Leh and catch a flight; (b) drive back to Leh and onward to Manali and Delhi; (c) go to Srinagar and catch a flight; (d) go to Srinagar and continue driving all the way back. Given here is the last option - requiring you to take at least two night halts at Kargil and Srinagar. Some useful distances: Kargil - Sonamarg: 120 kms (75 miles), 5:30 hrs; Sonamarg - Srinagar: 86 kms (54 miles), 2:30 hrs; Srinagar - Jammu: 302 kms (189 miles), 7:53 hrs; Jammu - Delhi: 643 kms (402 miles), 11:52 hrs
Deepak Tal (on the Jispa - Leh road)
A little after Jispa, you come to a small lake called the Deepak Tal. Hozer and his wife run a shack here - you will see more like these run by entrepreneurs who set up shop during summers to cater to travellers. They also offer a small yellow boat for a ride should you want one. You can also sleep in any of these for the night for a nominal amount.
Suraj Tal (on the Jispa - Leh road)
Go beyond Deepak Tal and you come across another lake - the Suraj Tal. You know you are in very high altitude country - the same lake has been seen with clear waters and frozen over in the summer month of June over successive seasons.
The Baralachla Pass (on the Jispa - Leh road)
The Baralachla (La means Pass) is the first very high altitude pass you will cross on this route - it is 16500 feet high. Like all high passes, be careful lest you be hit by altitude sickness - stop for a few minutes and move on. Traffic jams are not uncommon here. Again, this pass can be clear or snow bound even in the summers.
Sarchu is an option for a night halt between Jispa and Leh. It has a beautiful landscape, but it is at a high altitude, and it’s always very cold and windy here - many a traveller is known to be hit by altitude sickness at this point. Recommended one starts early from Jispa to reach Leh in good time on the same day. This is also where you cross into Ladakh from Himachal Pradesh.
Gata Loops (on the Jispa - Leh road)
They are popularly called the Jalebi bends, but officially called the Gata Loops. They take you for a spin, curving sharply 21 times taking you up from 13,780 feet to 15,308 feet over 10 kms. Enjoy the joyride.
Pang (on the Jispa - Leh road)
When Jack climbed his beanstalk, did he meet the giant in Pang? Pang's landscape is dotted with these gigantic needles, things the giant's wife would stitch with. These conical rock structures could well be colossal anthills, if only ants could survive the harsh climate. Geologists are not quite sure of the origins of these odd obelisks.
The More (pronounced 'mo-ray') Plains after Pang are a plateau to be seen to be believed. They are endless. Well, 50 km of flatlands at an elevation of 15,000 feet deserves that epithet.¬ And they are flat, for miles after miles, till they run into the surrounding mountains. What was the creator thinking when He made all this? Did He expect Yetis to play football here? For company, you can rely on hundreds of goats, sheep and yaks grazing on the little tufts of grass; they belong to the nomadic Changpa clan. Just be careful your car doesn’t get stuck; the sand track is suspect.
The Taglangla Pass (on the Jispa - Leh road)
The Taglangla Pass between Pang and Leh is proud to be to be the world's second highest motorable road at 17,582 feet, after Khardung La (18,380 feet). Feel good to be standing at almost the top of the world. After this the road goes all the way downhill, with the landscape getting greener as you approach Leh.
Brown-Headed Gulls flying over the Pangong Tso (Lake)
As you descend the road to Pangong Tso, an endless blue awaits guarded by mountains on either side. The welcome party comprises Brown-Headed Gulls, the Larus Brunnicephalus, hovering about on the most exquisite lake you would have ever seen.¬ The gulls in flight conjure up images of Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. This species flies pretty low over the water in direct purposeful flight, with low wing beat and frequent gliding. They might go for the occasional biscuit but their regular diet is much healthier, comprising fish, insects, slugs and green shoots. You find these gulls at Tso Moriri and Tso Kar too in the summer, and westwards along the Indus valley during their spring and autumn migrations.
Eons ago, they say, a devil drank up all of the overflowing Tso Kar. A gurgle in the stomach suggested he had drunk more than he should have. So he spluttered and sprayed water all over. Some flew towards Korzok, forming Tso Moriri. Some splashed in another direction, creating Starspapukh and Regul Tso. Regul is the local name for Kar, an L-shaped saline lake at 15,367 feet (4,684 metres). The lake covers only about 40 square km (16 square miles) but offers unique attractions. Like one of the few pairs of the Black-Necked Cranes I was lucky to spot, though from afar. Or the Kiang, the Tibetan Wild Ass.
Zanskar: Not easy to drive to
The road from Kargil to Zanskar is one of the most trying you will drive on. It is either pot-holed, or just a rocky track. When I heard of the soreness inducing drive, I almost turned back from Kargil; on hindsight, I am glad that a strong will prevailed! Zanskar is snowed under for eight months of the year. Its only link to the world is the bumpy 240 kms (150 miles) track to Kargil. The landscape is beautiful and ever-changing. But you will barely see a soul on the way, except at some rural settlements. You cannot drive in the winters; your most adventurous option is a trek on the frozen Zanskar river. Along the way, you will meet bubbly children and beautiful women - all happy to chat. Most speak local dialects though - but smiles will convey a lot. Move on now, you have a long way to go.
Leh and the Buddhist Circuit of Ladakh
The monasteries and other Buddhist establishments of Ladakh, mostly around Leh, can touch even the atheists. Most of these are situated in and around Leh - these will be covered in separate posts.
– By Ajay Jain, a travel writer and photographer. He publishes the Kunzum Travel Mag