Risky, rocky, rough and tough terrains zigzagging through naked peaks take us to the land of Lamas. As the cab zoomed past the Zoji La Pass (11,318 ft), unknown zone unfolded. The Pass marks the difference between the alpine beauty of Sonamarg and the stark barren beauty of Ladakh.
Ladakh- "a land of high passes" is sandwiched between the Karakoram mountain range and Himalayas. Choglamsar Leh was the venue of the 2-day International conference entitled "Recovery marketing strategies for tourist destinations in Conflict Situations". On 7th September, as we reached the capital city of this arid region, the day was marked by complete shutdown over a trivial issue.
The hotel could not arrange lunch for the delegates. We had to travel to the main market where the shop shutters were down. The mismanagement created chaos a day before the conference as the organisers could not accommodate fellow female scholars in the respective guest houses.
On 8th September, The conference started with an enchanting Buddhist prayer called "Mangalacharan" followed by a flop show where most of the time was consumed in distribution of bookies, shawls and mementos to the bigwigs. With insufficient arrangement, the organisers refused to serve lunch as their protocol didn't allow them to serve delegates prior to the chief guest. On the final day, the hastily handwritten certificates were distributed in hurry.
Otherwise called "Mountain Desert", the frozen land enveloped by bare mountains has its own charming beauty. Leh is the second largest district of India, covering more than half the area of Jammu and Kashmir, of which it is the eastern part. Sheer beauty of Pangong, Tsomoriri, Nubra valley, Khardung La pass and Diskit Gompa mesmerizes every visitor. Leh palace, Hall of Fame, Thiksey Gompa, Shay Masjid, Magnetic hill, Phyang Monastery, Central Asian Museum, Jamia Masjid and Zorawar Fort are the must visit places in the city.
Armed violence in Kashmir has played a spoilsport. It has reduced the tourism sector to rubble. Ladakh- a peaceful division of the state is witnessing a huge rush off late. Both foreign and domestic tourists are frequenting Leh, Kargil, and Zanskar like never before. They can be seen strolling and clicking in the dead of the night- a practice unthinkable of in the valley. It changes ones perspective about life. It taught us how insecure and unstable Kashmir has become.
Ladakh is witnessing unprecedented influx of tourists since 2016 unrest in the valley. Pertinently, only 500 people visited Leh the first year it opened for tourism in 1974. Scattered over a 'never-ending' vast land with thick populace, both Kargil and Leh present a charming look in the night. It was exceptionally amazing to have a candle light dinner for the first time in my life.
Travelling teaches life lessons. A trip around the city was a novel experience in itself. On way to Nubra valley, I had a completely different, enriching and a learning experience at Khardung-la top- the highest motorable all weather road in the world with 18,380 ft above sea level.
The next day, we left for Pangong Lake (14,500 ft) through Changla Pass (17,350 ft)-the third highest motorable road in the world. Around noon, we arrived at the world's highest salt water lake shared by India and China. Adorned by snow-capped mountains, the road to Pangong is enveloped by captivating peaks which are nature's marvel. The feeling of being in "God's own country" can't be weaved in words. The reason being the multiple colours of mountains is God's own painting.
Everyone was gripped. It was nature at its best. We enjoyed the meals on the banks of the lake while witnessing its fascinating changing colours. Interestingly, for last 5 years, a fifty something lady prepares a thermos full of tea and sits down on its shore to serve the guests. She can't do it without her radio set. As we returned in the afternoon, I had a full-length discussion on Sino-Indian issues with a battery of learned professors of Kashmir University. China is just half an hour drive from this side of the border- so near yet so far. It was a thrilling moment to witness snowstorm at Changla Pass.
Earlier, the inhabitants Ladakh were considered weak on every front- socially, economically and politically perhaps due to its geography. They would aim low. But due to changing geo-politics and tourism boom, they are making inroads in every sector and the business is flourishing. Money flows here. Their communal harmony speaks for itself. In main town Kargil, the two sacred places of worship share a same wall. They amicably find a solution to every problem. Minor rifts do not stop its growth. Kargil plays a warm host. Residents of the district are known for their hospitality. Unlike Leh, Kargil is not costly. Honesty is embedded in their blood. Destitute don't beg here. This war-ravaged town has recovered fully.
There is no life threat unlike Kashmir. Lamayuru is the best example of Ladakhi phenomenon of village houses clinging to steep hillsides. From Lamayuru to Alchi, there are smatterings of green oasis villages- a relief from the epic starkness of the vistas.
On way back, we halted at the gateway to Ladakh-Drass. It is the world's second coldest inhabited place known for the Kargil War Memorial. Here, the men in uniform briefed us about their version of the victory. On a parting note, we enjoyed traditional Nunchai at Sonamarg-the meadow of Gold before we signed off to Srinagar.