As soon as I was done with my half yearlies, I could breathe a sigh of relief only to find myself packing for a vacation, my parents had planned for me. And the moment I found that the scheduled and chalked out tour was meant to be spent in the newly designated union territory of Ladakh, my happiness knew no bounds. Since we had been instilled with the repute of Leh and Ladakh many times before, we made it an intent to see the serenity and beauty the place beholds ourselves.

Surrounded by mighty mountains and snow-capped peaks, the hilly capital of Leh welcomed us, with woolens covering our summer-accustomed bodies, only to give us a feel of the pleasant climatic make-up of the region. Situated at 3500m above the sea level, nestled comfortably between the Himalayas and Kashmir, Ladakh can be approached by road, either through Kashmir or Manali. However, we decided to make our journey air-borne. The instance we landed at the Kushok Bakula Rimpochee airport runway, our faces were caressed with cool breeze, blowing straightaway from the towering mountain passes.

‘Juleh’ or ‘Julley’ was the first expression that we were welcomed with wherever we were, be it at the conveyor belt or at the taxi stand or from the resort’s manager. ‘Julley’ is the one-word answer or query to everything, ranging from ‘hello’, ‘welcome’, ‘namaste’ to ‘thank you’. Although we were not interested in the precise meaning, the smiles and incredibly happy faces that offered the salutation was enormous. And soon we got the grip of Ju-Leh and wanderlust Leh-Ladakh further.

Soon, we were briefed by the airport and medical faculties about the mandatory acclimatization process that each and every traveler was supposed to undertake, in the course of their journey in the high- altitude region. The areas in and around, being at an altitude of 11000 ft and above, along with marred availability of oxygen, surely needed a conscious take on precautionary advices given by one and all. Having heard of incidents wherein people ended up being sick due of lack of acclimatization as a result of flaunting of norms, it became very relevant to remember the phrase listed everywhere: ‘Don’t become Gama in the Land of Lama’, which, more or less, summarized the essence. Therefore, as instructed, the first day was devoted to resting and adjusting to the climate of the newly arrived location, in order not to miss out on the adventures and frolicking moments awaiting ahead. We enjoyed a complete day at a Ulektopo riverside resort 60 kms away from Leh, at a lower height in complete rest and recoup mode afloat blue skies, which literally seemed to be hugging the mighty mountains. So, the actual sojourn began after almost forty-eight hours, with us getting ready to witness the attractions located in and around the teeming-but- gradually-booming capital city of Leh.

Back at Leh, the sight-seeing fixture kicked off with the Shanti Stupa monastery, wherein we could only find ourselves dumbfounded with the building marvel and prized location of the Buddhist architecture, positioned amidst the backdrop of rocky-mountains and low-lying valley! The city and the proposed valley areas that lay, as far as one could see at the horizon, housed olive green and pale-yellow trees around similar-looking houses, adding up to the capital’s beauty. As a dominating feature of the town, the Stupa demonstrates the evolution of Buddhism for the last 2500 years, only being built locally by Japanese monks and inaugurated by the then Dalai Lama in the initial stages. And to date, it serves as an allegory for consonance and harmony.

The next sites on the tour itinerary were the Tsemo monastery as well as the Leh palace, which literally took us aback! The riveting ride and the richly crafted design of these structures startled all the tourists that made their way to these religious and regal edifices, with a compelling force to capture the panoramic scene and surroundings with their eyes and high- resolution cameras at the earliest! Even the walls and pathways that led to these revered architectural structures were supplemented with the colorful Tibetan flags, with the mantras that are supposed to promulgate prosperity and awaken tranquility in the areas that wind blows them towards.

The succeeding place on the list was the Hall of Fame, abutting the airport. It, basically, is a museum that houses an assortment of items, attributed to Ladakhi culture, history, tradition and nature. Besides, it also glorifies the contribution and sacrifices made by Army personnel in the course of waging wars against the rival Pakistan and those in the highest and coldest battlefield of Siachen Glacier. The tourist attraction, which almost marked the end to our first productive day of vacation, also made room for a war memorial, that highlighted the sacrifices made by troops, with unparalleled bravery and might in the wars that traced back to the march of history. Later, we led ourselves to the Leh market, which is a pedestrian street, with all sorts of stuff one could require, from woolen clothes and handicrafts to home grown vegetables being sold by localites on either side. Accomodating the Tibetan refugee market along with restaurants serving sumptuous Ladakhi food, the main bazar also acted as a place where one could spend some time window- shopping and actually getting hold of valuable products. We could only call it a day after we were extremely exhausted, being at the beck and call of the market for hours!

The next day dawned warm and bright and we got ready to carry ourselves in the booked comfortable 7- seater motorable vehicle, to head towards Lamayuru, the moon village, nestled in the famous Sham Valley. The main attraction of this old and wrecked hamlet was the monastery or gompa, which is one of the oldest in Ladakh and located around barren and chimney-type rock formations, in a lunar landscape. The attraction also acted as a pathway for us to get to other places of interest as well, ranging from the venerated gurudwara of Pathar Sahib, managed and controlled by the army, to Magnetic Hill, which seemed to defy the gravity by pulling vehicles towards itself in the upslope fashion. Furthermore, we tried to ensure, starting off a little early, to not miss out on the many viewpoints that we came across apart from the monasteries like that of Likir and Alchi, and Sangam, the confluence of Indus and Zanskar, amid many other places which were popular for the ancient art and pictures they heartily offered to the tourists.

Post the brief but worthwhile stay at leh, we got ready to leave for the Nubra Valley, one of the foremost and celebrated areas of the region among the tourists. Before leading to our place of rest at the end of the day at Partapur via the high-altitude and sickening pass of Khardungla, we managed to get on the back of the beast-seeming double-humped camels in the backdrop of golden sand dunes. Besides, the ride got diversified as the next mode of transport we got onto was a motor bike, made exclusively for the sand dunes like of the valley. The idea of being able to take control of the swiftly moving vehicle was more the merrier than the thought of getting tanned in the sun-sweltering backdrop of sand dunes, stretching as far as the eye could see, often being supplemented by narrow streams and towering but blurry mountains!

Enroute to Partapur, we crossed Diskit, visiting the tourist-thronged monastery it upholds, as a marker of reverence towards Buddhism. Here, we stayed near the famous Siachen Base Camp area, which happens to be the starting point to the northern Karakoram glaciers where our brave soldiers are fighting atop 26000 ft and above, under sub-freezing temperatures of -60 degrees and below. Rightly scripted on one of the army walls ‘Quartered in snow, silent to remain; when the bugle calls, they shall rise and march again’, which speaks the life of the soldiers in the highest battlefield of the world. They need a special mention and salute for their chivalrous life, less ordinary. Salute to the spirit of our Indian Army!

Before leaving for the next place on the list, we managed to visit the hot water spring at Panamik, which was believed to be of utter medicinal value, being of use to the locals from time to time. Apart from the site of this scientific marvel, we made an off-route plan to get to a bewitching lake post trekking- the Yarab Tso, a lake located close to Sumur village, the native place of Colonel Chewang Rinchen, the war hero and one of the mightiest men the country has ever seen! Being a local of the area, he had, time and again, contributed immensely to the wars and skirmishes that continued to dent the peaceful history of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, especially in the Ladakh region.

We further moved past Nubra Valley, making way towards the Shyok Valley, only to find the distinct shades of mesmerizing peaks along with Shyok river, which moved parallel with us throughout our escapes towards the areas like Galwan, Pangong and Chushul. We had only read them as mentioned in the newspapers and periodicals because these places brought news of the heroism our army displayed, often to reminisce!

Ahead of reaching Durbuk and Tangtse, small settlements near the world-famous lake, the Pangong tso, we fastened our seat belts to contain the excitement of witnessing the surreal and serene lake the following day! With as far as the eye could behold, the beauty of the Pangong seemed to stretch beyond the threshold of absorbing the tranquil shades of colours that screened, as a result of the reflection the sunlight made with the water molecules and the surrounding areas. It was truly a peaceful place, with us having made sure that the visit wasn’t a very tiresome one, allotting enough time to be spent in the area, which was also the spot where the penultimate scene of Bollywood movie ‘3 Idiots’ was shot.

Like every sojourn has a capillary effect to rebound, we had to head back to Leh the next day. Enroute to Leh via the snowing Changla top located at 17,688 ft, we tick-marked the list containing places like Thiksey and Hemis monastery, which we stopped by to visit and gaze upon the intricately done buddhist edifices and even the sculptures inside them. Thiksey, being the largest of all in the central Ladakh region, housed the popular Maitreya Buddha statue in the lotus position, along with many other objects of beauty to reverently look at. Even the Rancho school, again a shooting spot for ‘3 Idiots’, catapulted us back to the movie scene to recollect the greatness of the architecture of the school, apart from the plot and storyline, of course. The few last places on itinerary were the Stakna monastery and the Sindhu Ghat. Even the sight of the ibid Buddhist architecture could let anyone imagine that European features seemed ubiquitous around, courtesy of the stunning scene. The point of confluence of Indus and Zanskar, too, compelled us to capture the intermixing of different-coloured waters with our memory cells!

Now that we were done visiting the places we had chosen for ourselves, along with the literal acquainting with the local culture and cuisines, we could vouch for the certitude that the entire trip went off in an extremely well-planned and congenial manner. Aforesaid, the autumn break was utilized in a way, I would not forget until quite some time, courtesy of the unprecedented moments spent together with my family in a location as surreal as Ladakh! The beauty, serenity, people, culture, faith and trust, food and tradition of Leh and Ladakh have had a huge imprint on our minds, remaining etched in our sub-consciousness forever. Being left bemusedly struck, all I seem to remark is that Leh was simply mesmerizing….Julley; Ju- Leh!