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The Vaishnodevi Experience 2023

My first trip to Vaishnodevi was unimpressive. Climbing was hard, and it only served to highlight how badly out of shape I was, while my in-laws managed to cope so much better. Further, I hadn’t quite realized that the cave experience wouldn’t be the same as I had imagined, since the original cave was only opened at certain times a year, and that we only entered a newly created tunnel, one far easier to access, and hence more manageable with the crowds that thronged the mountain shrine. The resulting experience at the shrine, for barely a fraction of a second, hardly compared to what I had expected / imagined / heard about. So, for me, Vaishnodevi was like any other temple, nothing to write home about, something that was reflected (though not explicitly mentioned) in the blog post I wrote then.

Ladakh Diaries Part 2 - Jispa to Leh

We made an early start from Jispa, at 7 am, after a breakfast of hot, buttered alu parathas, toast, and tea. 

All signs of habitation disappeared by the time we reached Sarchu, where we crossed into Ladakh from Himachal Pradesh. Today, it is a Union Territory, but then, this was still part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Borders, I believe, are simply lines drawn by man, over land, and geographically, there are usually few differences on either side of any border. However, here, the difference was stark. While in Himachal, we could still see scattered habitations, within Ladakh, we went miles before seeing signs of any, and when we did, they were usually military, or small shacks built for the convenience of visitors. The nature of every such settlement was temporary – to be dismantled with the arrival of winter. Nature itself felt harsher, more primal, both in the landscape and in the weather.

We drove through endless roads meandering through the mountains, the landscapes unlike anything we had seen before. The sense of barrenness was evident everywhere, not only in the lack of foliage, but in the nature of the mountains, the dryness of the earth below our feet when we halted for tea. At one such unplanned halt, we stopped by a hillock which appeared more monument than mountain. Our driver was unimpressed. He said if we stopped for every such formation, we would never reach our destination. We did see many more impressive rock formations, but those we saw on our first day entering Ladakh are special, and etched on my memory forever! These monuments created by nature are what make a visit to Ladakh so memorable! 

Lunch that day was at the village of Pang – rice, roti, rajma and tea. There’s something about eating at such out of the way places. Hunger, fresh air, and simple food – a combination which adds to the taste.

The next stretch was unexpected – 40-odd km along a straight road, across a plateau at around 15,400ft (4,700m) above sea level. These are the Morey plains, leading towards the pass of Taglang La, at an elevation of around 17,000ft (around 5300m). The landscape here changed, with clumps of vegetation scattered around. We spotted a few sheep grazing in the distance, and learned that the only residents of this plateau are sheep-herders, who live in tents on the meadow. The wool is used for the famed pashmina shawls.

A panoramic view of the plateau

The landscape changed yet again as we crossed Tanglang La. The mountains were the same, but we were now driving along a river, probably a tributary of the Indus, and the effect was seen in the fields we spotted now and then, all the way to Leh.

We got our first good look at the Indus river as we entered Leh. Crossing a bridge over the river, we stopped to feast our eyes on the one river that we had waited so long to see.

I had heard and read that the Indus is a great river, but that first sight of the river, against the backdrop of the mighty mountains, is one that I shall treasure forever.

We reached our homestay in Leh around 5:30 in the evening, tired after our long day on the road. More on the homestay in the next post. For now, let me share some excerpts from my diary, verbatim, to share some of my learnings and thoughts.

I’ve gathered, from the conversations that we’ve had with people on the road, that, from Rohtang onwards, including places like Jispa, Sarchu and Pang, tents are set up in May/June as the roads begin to open and are packed up in October, when the roads begin to close. Everything is packed up and sent into storage. Most of the owners are from Manali (within Himachal Pradesh) and from Leh (within J&K). The people managing them come from different parts of Himachal or Ladakh, as the case may be. People from Himachal don’t usually work in Ladakh and vice versa. Also, drivers from Manali usually pick up and drop people only upto Manali. From Manali to Leh, and Leh to Srinagar, Ladakhi drivers are preferred. However, drivers from Ladakh don’t drive within Srinagar, or the rest of Jammu and Kashmir. The manager of our tented resort at Jispa was from Shimla, one of the young boys working there had just come from Nepal, and our driver, Namgyal was originally from Tibet, but settled in Ladakh, and had worked for a while with the army.

Some thoughts – over the last two days, we have covered hundreds of miles. There are army camps at regular intervals along the route, but not very visible. They are small army settlements, for basic services.

The entire region, from Rohtang, to about 50 km before Leh has no permanent local settlements. All the small villages are either related to the army, provide support to it, and usually pack up once the roads close. The only regulars are the nomads, who anyway don’t settle anywhere permanently. The landscape is gorgeous, the mountains are so different. It is difficult and treacherous terrain, and was inaccessible till just a few years back.

Going back in history, this land has been fought over. But the land has never really been used by man for anything other than its basic purpose – as land. Nothing has been built here, since nothing would have stood the ravages of the weather. Nothing has been grown here, since nothing grows. This was on the trade route, but only as a road, for people passing by. Wars may have been fought over it, but even that doesn’t seem to have touched the land. This land is wild, still untamed. Was it the inaccessibility or the extreme extent of nature’s vagaries that has kept this land as it is? Is this why there is such a deep sense of peace here?
The arrival of modernity in the form of good roads and airports might change all of this. Yet, despite our constant attempts to domesticate nature, nature still seems to stand her own here, seen in the extreme weather, the difficult terrain, the lack of oxygen, and above all, in her reclaiming her land, every year, year after year.
Earlier posts in series -

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