Thursday, September 10, 2009

Drive to Lamayuru

I chucked the plan of an organized chronological publishing of Leh travelogue, am gonna dish out articles as and when I finish processing the photographs. It's a Herculean task for an impatient guy like me to sort/process/upload 8 goddamn GB of RAW photographs. So here comes the first in series...

One of the Israeli travellers who hitchhiked in our SUV from Pangongtso lake, told us that Lamayuru was worth visiting and we took her words seriously. It was a chilly yet a beautiful dawn with clear cerulean blue skies and fleecy fluffy clouds embellishing the blue carpet. Our initial plan to head to Khardung La pass was axed off due to bad weather and excess snow. We had a light breakfast of parathas, after which Papinder Singh gave us a ride to the city. Unfortunately, due to a Lama's murder in Srinagar, the whole Leh city was shuttered down, however there were few bullets parked on the street (very close to Tibetan market) which were available for hiring. After a quick engine and break check, Pradeep tested the red Royal Enfield, got the breaks tightened, paid 500 bucks as rent and we head straight to gas station and filled in 10 liters of petrol. We came back to guest room, got gloved and hit the highway.

Lamayuru is located about 125km away from Leh on Leh-Srinagar highway. As we passed through numerous military settlements and reached outskirts of Leh city, we saw two interesting things - Indane's world's highest bottling center (where the fill the LPG into cylinders) and Leh Berry juice industry (Leh berry a.k.a Sea-buckthorn springs up ubiquitously in Leh city, like a weed). The road started getting as straight as a die, with Indus river on the left flowing in the gorge and both sides bordered by mountains, few of them snow-capped at the tip.

The first village we encountered, after the picturesque Sangam (confluence of Indus and Zanskar rivers), was Nimmu. The village had a rustic beauty of green fields dotted with white manes (stupas), with Ladakhis leading a herd of cows on road or old hunchback women spinning their prayer wheels. A long stretch of road along the cantonment in Nimmu was still being laid out. After the cantonment area, the mountains magically turned into a purplish tinge and the houses and manes were beautiful constructed along those mountains. I had a strong urge to stop and photograph, but I postponed it for the return journey though I did few clicks in the pillion seat.

At this point, I would like to reiterate a wholehearted "gracias" to my good friend Sudheer for lending his Canon Rebel Kiss. Without a spare camera, I would have gone mad interchanging 17-40 and 70-200 lenses and would have given up on many shots. It was an adventurous photography I did on the pillion seat - 2 cameras slinging from my neck and Pradeep's dangerous driving on a mountainous terrain. It was a bright day, I just fixed the f-stop at 11 to avoid unnecessary motion blurs by closing it down further and kept shooting. The surrounding landscapes and cloud formations were so picture-perfect that it didn't need too much of composition to be put in before releasing the shutter. The vista was so vast that, surprisingly, I used more of 70-200 than 17-40 for landscapes.

We passed smaller villages like Saspol, Nurla and Khaltse. Most of them were just a small community - a few small houses with apple and apricot trees fruited in profusion, a small shop selling sundries and an abandoned camping ground/resort, mostly due to off-season and few Buddhist country girls, clad in their traditional outfit with colourful scarves on road. We even stopped at Nurla and pluck a couple of apricots, they were not ripe though. At Khaltse, there is a police check-post where every vehicle going towards Srinagar had to be registered. You find many ladies peddling apricot bags at the check-post.

Few kilometers ahead of Khaltse is where the great ghat section (curvy mountain roads) starts with an azure blue river in the valley marking the beginning of the great adventure ahead. There are 2 roads, the shorter one is blocked during mornings for it is still being constructed so we had to take the longer route. The mountainous terrain here was one of the most unique one I've ever seen - the mountains are all absolutely barren and each of them are made of differently, vividly coloured earth and far the horizon, stood majestically, dashing white snow mountains. It was as though the mountains were proving Newton's colour theory. The scenery just got better with every curve we climbed, the roads were damaged at many places and our bullet was striving hard to rev up the curves.

When we got close to Lamayuru, we get to see a very rare, very special kind of mountains in the valley, that bears the name Moonland. Almost all passersby stop here for a while for catching a glimpse of this uncommon panorama. It looks as though zillions of tons of fuller earth lumps have been dumped there and molded into a undulating surface, which resembles a full moon. Few more curves to drive and we were at the entrance of Lamayuru town, from where the whole Buddhist settlement was in clear view - the gompa (monastery), the manes (stupas), the town, the winding road leading to the village, small chunk of fertile lands in the valley - all amidst colourful lifeless mountains.

Lamayuru is a Buddhist monastery in Kargil district of Ladakh region with a history that could be found on it's wiki page. I'm refraining from keying in here the history in the interest of many who would love to see more and read less. We parked our bullet near one of the restaurants near the gompa and were wondering whether to leave the helmet at the bullet or carry it. One of the Ladakhi there proudly said, "Yeh Ladakh hai sir, helmet to kya, aap apne camera bhi yaha pe chodke jaa sakthe hai, koi kuch nahi kerega" (This is Ladakh sir, not just helmet, you can even leave your camera here nobody touches it) and we obeyed him.

Houses in Lamayuru are snugly built among the mountains and the gompa stands on the highest peak overlooking the entire village. We entered the gompa, unfortunately the main sanctum sanctorum was locked, we walked through all the passages and circled around the stupas leisurely clicking many photographs. The architecture is a typical Buddisht kinds with wooden pillars and ceilings all painted red. The outside walls of the temple bore paintings of Buddhist legends, painted using rich bright colours with red and green being prominent. The stupa area outside the gompa had a mixture of some old, smaller defaced stupas and some immaculately white bigger stupas. There were series of red coloured praying wheels with some divine words on it, along the wall surrounding the stupas.

We spent an hour or slightly more in Lamayuru before we started our return journey. I wanted to explore more of Lamayuru town, but we had to return to Leh early. The descent of the ghat section was, obviously, faster than the ascent. I felt sorry for lorry drivers for whom it was an onerous task of negotiating their loaded lorries in the sharp curves downhill. The mountains now looked even more saturated, probably due to slant mild early evening sun rays. We stopped at Khaltse for lunch and had hot Maggi noodles and continued our journey ahead. We again stopped at Indus view, a view point somewhere near Nurla for a few clicks and stretching.

At Nimmu we stopped again for photographing, I couldn't help falling in love with this small village. Very picturesque little town along the highway and the architecture blends in well with the purplish mountains. There is a monastery atop the mountain and at the bottom are a series of houses and stupas. The mild evening light had brilliantly illuminated the whole village. On the other side of the road were the fertile patches of land. After Nimmu, the next stop was at Magnetic hill (a.k.a Gravity hill).

Magnetic hill is about 20 kilometers before Leh, which has a special property caused by the surrounding mountains. On a slant road, it seems, if the car is parked in neutral, instead of moving downhill it moves uphill. There is a billboard which indicates the magnetic hill and place where the car had to parked. We didn't have a car, we tried out with bullet naively, but nothing worked. We paused a couple of times as we approached Leh for clicking and also stopped at Indus view, yet another view point by the same name just at the outskirts of Leh. The view was breathtaking with branches of Indus flowing in the valley, colourful Leh mountains in the backdrop and artistic cloud patterns enhancing the overall charm. We returned to our guest house in Spituk village and returned the bullet at the city.

Definitely Lamayuru is a must visit place for all those who visit Leh. First of all it's a very delightful drive to the place, secondly the settlement itself is very ancient and appealing and finally the colourful landscapes are something not to be missed. All photographs are of 1024x768 with 72dpi resolution, in case you need a particular picture in bigger resolution, do write to me: sachin [dot] cas [at] gmail [dot] com. PangGongTso lake coming soon...

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