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First Stop: Leh

Ki ki so so lharghyalo!” the typical war cry of the Ladakh Scouts resonates through the LSRC, while you watch them in the midst of their arduous training routine. Leh, the capital of Ladakh, is a quaint town with picturesque mountains adorning the background. A white desert, Leh is home to a very small variety of flora and fauna in its rugged, almost uninhabitable rocky terrain, where temperatures go as low as -15 degree Celsius.

I reached Leh onboard the Air Force flight, Il Yushin-76, and was welcomed by strong, gusty winds on a chilly winter morning. Travelling through little air pockets and almost landing on the snowcapped mountains-one doesn’t realise when the actual landing takes place. On arrival in Leh, one immediately gets transported into a different culture altogether, a kind not seen in the rest of India as a whole. The only resemblance that it holds is the language, Ladakhi, which is slightly similar to Hindi. One of the few regions in the world that is heavily influenced by Buddhism, you can see the entire town dotted with small rows of praying wheels that usually keep rotating on their own, courtesy the windy climate. It is a rather peaceful and backward town, with the only sign of development being the commercial airport that came into being in the last decade.

If you land during winter, it is strictly recommended that you undergo the acclimatization drill, which is carefully outlined, keeping in mind the number of visiting days. Since I was to stay for a fortnight, I was required to follow a complete five day routine; the first two days required complete bed rest, followed by 3 km, 5km and 7km walks on subsequent days. Due to low oxygen density, even the slightest of exertion on the first two days would leave you as breathless as the view from your hotel window. Leh can be considered as the Akshaya Patra of scenic spots for one to visit and explore.

Indus River :

Probably the only location which is easily accessible in Leh, the banks of this river provide the perfect sight to behold. Semi-crystallized water particles flow between frozen banks, flanked by rows of leafless trees while the majestic mountains stand tall in the backdrop.

Shanti Stupa :

Atop a little hillock, this is perhaps one of the best known stupas in India. Known to be particularly resplendent at night, this place of spiritual refuge looks as divine as the statue of Lord Buddha it houses.

Kali Mata Mandir :

This temple ought to be the first place of visit, not just because of its structural beauty, but also because the Goddess is unlikely to be pleased if her temple doesn’t top your pecking list.

Pathar Sahib Gurudwara :

 A little north of Leh, this particular Gurudwara has its own piece of history to tell. According to legend, when Guru Nanak was praying at that particular spot, an ill-wisher rolled a boulder towards his back. The moment it touched the guru, it carved into the shape of his back and stopped, without harming Him. Hence, the Gurudwara was built around that very rock.

Magnetic Hill :

A few hundred metres away from Pathar Saheb, this region boasts of a very high magnitude of magnetic field. It is said that during certain months, when the dipoles are well aligned, if you leave your car in neutral gear, the car automatically moves up the slope. Though our car did move, there are a lot of people who believe the phenomenon to be a falsity, supporting it by saying that the upward slope is in fact, a down slope, veiled by an optical illusion.

The destinations mentioned above are popular tourist sites. Eventually, I realised that the true essence of Leh is not felt by hopping from one tourist site to another. Rent a car, turn on the radio and set off on a drive. Don’t go about looking for something in particular, and you’ll see how the scene changes every minute to something more breathtaking than before. The deep blue sea waters flowing calmly alongside make you wonder if the turquoise stones this land is known for, are literally borne out of the meandering river. The mountains are as fickle as fire-one moment sandy and grainy, the other, rock solid and made of red sandstone, and eventually, they appear highly vegetated. There seems to be no constant backdrop. In fact, if one kept a lookout, they’d spot rather amusing signboards at constant intervals, ranging from “Had whisky? Now driving risky.” to “Feel the curves. Don’t hug them” to wise wordings such as “In the land of Lama, don’t be a Gama”.

The native population has great diversity and primarily consists of Buddhists, Muslims, and Tibetan refugees. Though their skin looks toughened by their days under the sun, their hearts are warm and welcoming. Be it a heckling couple on the streets you ask directions for, or the young boys cracking ill-timed yet hilarious jokes on being talked to, the people are always willing to help. In fact, while trudging along the icy banks of Indus, I came across little girls skidding and playing gleefully on the sloped part of the bank. I walked up to them, picked up a discarded plastic plate, sat on it as if it were a sled, and skid all the way down. That’s how I became friends with Sana, Qainaat and Rabia and taught them the art of ‘snowboarding’. Word of caution–not all inhabitants are friendly. The dogs, for instance, may seem rather fluffy and adorable, but one is advised to stay away from them, especially during nights when they hunt in packs.

If you happen to visit Leh during late December, make sure to go out and explore the town on the eve of 23rd December. Being the first day of Losar, the Ladakhi New Year, this sleepy little town awakens in all fullness. With candles painstakingly lit over entire hillocks in patterns of Om and Swastika, one knows that the new year is upon us as firecrackers fill the air with sounds of joy and mirth.

Memories and experiences can only be created when one decides to explore without a guide or word of mouth advices. Go, travel the world, with your broken pair of rose tinted glasses, and discover a whole new world that’s awaiting you!

Cover Image: Viral Tiwari