LADAKH – LAND OF HIGH PASSES
Ladakh – the land of many passes, of freezing high barren landscapes lying across the lofty Asian tableland – is among the highest of the world’s inhabited plateaus. Remote yet never isolated, this trans Himalayan land is a repository of a myriad cultural and religious influences from mainland India, Tibet and Central Asia.
Situated on the western end of the Himalayas, Ladakh has four major mountain ranges – the Great Himalayan, Zanskar, Ladakh and the Karakoram – passing through it. A maze of enormously high snow capped peaks and the largest glaciers outside the polar region, dominate the terrain where valley heights range from a mere 8,000 feet to 15,000 feet while passes of up to 20,000 feet and peaks reaching above 25,000 feet can be seen all around. The world’s largest glacier outside the polar region, Siachen is here. Such daunting heights no wonder determine the land’s temperature where Leh and Kargil experience temperatures as low as – 30° C and Dras -50°C.
Three months of sub zero temperatures (Dec-Feb) and the, rest of the months facing zero degree temperatures, it is a long and hard winter here. Waterways, waterfalls and lakes freeze, and the water vapour freezes to break into the most intricate and attractive crystal patterns. But on clear sunny days, when the average temperature goes over 20° C, the sun can be scorching hot in its intensity and its ultra violet rays cause deep sun burn. Rainfall is a mere 2 inches and it is the melting snow in summer which sustains life in this arctic zone. High aridity and low temperatures lead to sparse vegetation as a result of which the landscape is desert-like with sand dunes and even occasional sand storms occur.
The major waterway of Ladakh is the Indus which enters India from Tibet at Demchok. Starting near Mt. Kailash, the Indus, according to mythology, sprouts from the mouth of a lion, and is therefore known as Sengge Chhu. Sengge (Sinh in Sanskrit) means lion and Chhu is Tibetan for a flowing water body.As it flows down, Sengge Chhu is joined by its other tributaries, the Zanskar, the Shingo and the Shyok, and these river valleys form the main area of human habitation.
Ladakh also has one of the largest and most beautiful natural lakes in the country. Pangong Tso, 150 km long and 4 km wide, is nearly an inland sea at a height of 14,000 feet, with intensely clear water of an incredible range of hues of blue. Having no outlet the water in the lake is highly brackish and the lake’s basin houses a large wealth of minerals deposited by the melting snows every year. Tso Moriri, a pearl shaped lake, and Tso Kar, both contain large mineral deposits. Among the fresh water lakes Yaye Tso, Kiun Tso and Amtitla offer great scenic attraction.
Ladakh, though a remote border land with virtually no surface communication for more than six months a year, has surprisingly never been isolated. Continuous cultural and commercial contact existed with the surrounding regions of Tibet, Himachal, Kashmir, Central Asia and Sinkiang. This interaction helped maintain trade ties between the places. Pashm, salt, borax, sulphur, spices, brocade, pearls, metals, carpets, tea and apricots were the merchandise exchanged in their marts.
Covering an area of approximately 98,000 sq km, Ladakh has a sparse population of about 1,35,000. All habitations are situated along water courses, where long distances are traversed by using animal transportation of mainly the yak and the pony, the broad backed hunia sheep and the Bactrian two-humped camel. Ethnically, the Ladakhis comprise an amalgam of four prominent strains, namely the Mons, Dards, Tibetans and Baltis. Mons belong to the Aryan race. They might be called professional entertainers, as they move from place to place playing their musical instruments and for the most part are denied the privilege of inter-marriage with the other groups. Dards are confined mainly to Dras and the Indus Valley. At Dras, they are Muslims and retain very little of their past. But those in the Indus valley below Khalsi display a distinctive identity, preserving their original Buddhist religion as well as their cultural entity.
The Tibetans are the dominant racial strain in eastern and central Ladakh, but over the years have merged with other groups to form a homogeneous Ladakhi entity. Two ethnically and culturally distinctive groups are the Tibetans proper living at Choglamsar and the nomadic Changpas with their herds of pashm bearing goats in the eastern plains. Baltis are mainly found in western Ladakh in the Kargil region, but isolated pockets exist in the Nubra valley and near Leh. They are believed to be descendants of the Sakas, a Central Asian race.
All groups have together contributed their own perceptible share in the distinctive physiognomy, language and homogenised culture of Ladakh. The Ladakhis are a simple and hardy people with an immense capacity for work and the fortitude to not merely survive but remain cheerful under the most adverse physical conditions. Living as close to nature as they do, they have maintained a harmonious balance with their surroundings.
Some of the passes which you can explore while on the tour are:
Khardung La being one of the most popular destinations in Leh and the gateway to Nubra and Siachen glacier, one might encounter a lot of traffic and army convoys on the way and it is best to start off the journey early in the day to avoid as much traffic as you possibly can. The drive to Khardung La can get very bumpy as the weather and landslides that frequently happen here doesnt augor too well for well maintained roads! Having said that the drive to the summit of Khardung La is relatively easy compared to a few other rides in Leh. Road beyond South Pallu is in bad condition & gain in altitude is substantial and the elation of reaching the Khardurng la top is mind numbing!
Located about 75 kms from Keylong, Baralacha La at an altitude of 16,040 feet across the Bhaga river is the start point of several treks in Leh Ladakh region which include the famous Suraj Tal trek and Chandra Tal trek. It is always advisable to cross Baralacha La pass before noon. The melting of snow on the higher altitudes of this pass makes it difficult to cross it as the day advances.
Tanglang La Pass
Tanglang La on the Manali – Leh highway at an altitude of 17582 ft is the highest point on the highway. Tanglang la is like the gateway to Leh on the Manali – Leh route. Gata Loops and Tanglang La are the highlights of the Manali – Leh highway. Like most of the mountain passes in Leh on Tanglang la also there is a small temple and a marker stone whith the altitude of the pass mentioned on it!
Chang La Pass
The gateway to Changthang, Chang La at 17,590 ft is the third highest motorable pass. At the pass there is a shrine dedicated to Chang La baba after who the pass is also named. Tangste is the nearest settlement. Indian army serves tea here free of cost to tourists visiting Chang La pass!
Zoji La Pass
Zoji la Pass is one of the highest mountain passes on Srinagar – Ladakh highway about 100 km from Srinagar ahead of Sonmarg. Zoji la pass remains closed to traffic for nearly six months in a year due to heavy snowfall in winter. (Opens by April end)
The Marsimek-La pass built by ITBP at 18634 ft also makes unsubstantiated claims of being the highest motorable pass in the world! Marsimek-La is on the northern-most tip of the Plateau 35 kms from Pangong Tso.
Fotu La Pass
Fotu La pass on the Srinagar-Leh highway of the Himalayan Zanskar Range stands at a height of of 13,478ft (4,108m) above the sea level. This mountain pass is referred to as the highest point on the highway, going beyond the well-known Zoji La. The drive through the pass is a beautiful journey where you can stop to get an amazing view of the snow-clad mountain ranges.
Lachulung La Pass
Lachulung La, located in Ladakh separates the valleys of the Tsarap Chu Chu and the Tozay, where both are on the flow of the Zanskar and the Indus rivers. Situated on 16,600 feet above the sea level, the pass is quite close to the Sarchu and Pangong lake. The pass on the Leh-Manali Highway is around 8 kms from La Nakee that is around 24 kms towards the north of Pang. The road is visible from the narrow gap of the Lachulung Lungpa. While crossing the pass, the tourist buses and taxis take a halt here most of the times, to let the tourists admire the local natural beauty of the surrounding mountains. It is one of the favorite passes amongst the hikers as well as trekkers.
Namikala pass, located at the Zanskar range that connects Srinagar- Leh highway. This pass located at the height of 12,139 feet above the sea level is also known as the pillar of the sky passes. Namikala pass is situated on the way to Mulbek valley. Tourists here can see the rock carvings of Maitreya Buddha as well as a Gompa. It is one of the most important passess in Ladakh and the last one too, before one enters the Kargil region. You will find a number of signboards giving important information. Although a barren land, but once you cross the pass you can admire the breathtaking view of the lush green surroundings and snow-covered peaks.