This was my second trip to Ladakh, and I hadn’t thought I’d go back. It is not my thing to return to places I’ve visited, trying to repeat an experience, or recapture a moment. But the prospect of Ladakh pranced in front of me insistently–one way or the other, it was to be these mountains, this summer, this desert, this valley, these gompas, these rivers, these people.
The first time, eight years ago, I went to trek up the imposing Stok Kangri, which naturally fell under the label of ‘roughing it’. This trip required me to stay in a tent as well, but the similarities, as they say, end there. This time, I was camping with a capital ‘G’. Glamping, they call it, glamorous camping.
The Ultimate Travelling Camp (TUTC) pitches its luxury tents for only a few months a year in two beautiful locations in Ladakh–in Thiksey, 25km from Leh, and in Diskit, the headquarters of Nubra Valley, 150km north of Leh. The window is only as wide as the highaltitude summer permits but TUTC gives you a marvellous experience: superb vantage points, classy luxury, firstrate service, fine dining, tailor-made excursions and experiences... A holiday where you can do as much or as little as you care to and maximise it all anyway.
At the reception (which is a handsome affair with curios, board games and a library with seating nooks), Ahtushi and I got a taste of the kind of attention we were to receive. We were to have a guide for the entire week, a car at our disposal and a butler. The medic-on-call measured our oxygen levels and, soon, our butler was leading us through the camp. The garden was planted with a riot of flowers and the tent itself turned out to be a plush affair with pretty four-poster beds with sheer net canopies, charming furniture and fittings, and a generous en suite bathroom space with ample cupboards. I was going to like it here. A lot.
We took it very easy that first day to acclimatise to the high altitude, but I was clever enough to do some pranayama right away and the oxygen levels crept up. In spite of plans to get in more rest, some activity formed itself the next day and we got away early under the aegis of Akanksha, the camp’s in-house naturalist. A morning of wildlife spotting in the direction of Wari La–and what a morning it was! We ticked off chukar partridges, hill pigeons, two species of snowfinch, several horned larks, red-billed choughs, ravens... We surprised a little owl on a rock by the road and he dropped a headless carcass of a hare as he flew a little distance away. We saw a woolly-naped hare bounding away, and some marmots, comically surveying the world. And, of course, lammergeier in the distance, circling the thermals. No fox, no wolf... and, ahem, no snow leopard. I’d have to go back in the winter for that one.
We made a stop at Hemis Monastery. The famous once-in-12-years Hemis Festival was to take place the following week. The courtyard was buzzing with anticipation, and we saw monks rehearsing their Cham dances to the accompaniment of drums. Inside, the beautiful murals had been freshly retouched and Phuntsog, our guide, gave me a decent primer on tantric Vajrayana Buddhism. The 12m-high tankha, a portrait of Guru Pabmasambhava, would be unfurled at the festival and I couldn’t believe how narrowly we missed that!
There was adventure on the cards the next day: rafting on the Zanskar. We started at Scorpochay on a 14-km run of Grade 2+ rapids as far as Sangam, the confluence of the Indus and the Zanskar. Since I’d gone rafting only once before, the thrill was measured out just right: exciting without terrifying the hell out of me. Once the rapids were past, we cruised peacefully in between canyons, looking up at the cliffs and the occasional blooms of lavender on the banks. Towards the end, we all fell into the water in a spirit of jollification. I scraped my finger on the rope and, as I bled into the river, it felt very significant somehow... As if I was offering a little of my own to this mighty guardian river that formed the uppermost boundary of my land.
We made our way to the Nubra Valley for the second leg of our stay. As we wound our way up to Khardung La in a crawling convoy of dieselly vehicles, we looked left to see the entire Stok range gleaming in the sunlight. Phuntsog said sharply, “Golden Eagle!” And there it was, a magnificent raptor gliding at us, framed against the mountains. We got out of the car to see it soar higher and higher still. It was joined by another and they circled the thermals in a beautiful dance, brushing past each other, their wings indeed golden as they filtered the sunlight.
We descended to the village of Khardung and past Khalsar, and then–Nubra. I had heard and read accounts of this valley but it hadn’t prepared me for this 360° immersion. The river Shyok flows along it and, framed by mountain citadels on either side, a thin straight tar road plunges, seemingly without end, into the heart of the flat valley. I was bewildered by its strange beauty.
After a break for chowmein, Ladakhi roti with curd and a local salted brew called khunak, we arrived at Diskit. The central market road, so many hotels and lodges to house tourists, narrow, circular lanes hedged with seabuckthorn and then, across the photogenic Diskit gompa, the camp. We were welcomed with wide smiles, fruit juice and surprisingly robust wi-fi. The design of the camp was different from Thiksey, and it gave off a distinct off-grid vibe. They had laid out lunch for us outside the tent–salad, pasta arrabiata and fruit custard. And we took it all in.
It may have been only my second visit to Ladakh but it was Ahtushi’s fourteenth! Early on, I’d left the planning of our days to her and Phuntsog, and their plans for Nubra included the far-flung village of Turtuk. What I heard was very exciting: a Muslim habitation just short of the border, Turtuk was part of Pakistan till 1971, when it was taken over by India. It was opened up to visitors only in 2010, and the Balti people misliked strangers tramping through their village, I was told, although they were coming to terms with the inevitability of it.
“Ladakh isn’t a trekking destination, it’s actually a driving destination,” Ahtushi had said to me. I saw what she meant on the 85-km drive to Turtuk. At every turn, the river Shyok flowed rapidly alongside, so speedy it sometimes overtook the car. Shyok is Uyghur for ‘River of Death’, a name traders on the Silk Route gave it, bewailing perhaps the many losses of man and beast in its treacherous grey waters. The route is spectacular–gompas dot the cliffs, a few villages, fields, irrigation channels, but mostly river and rock, river and rock. And sky. And mountain. Scrub, wild flowers using remnant moisture from rock-shadow and sandy dunes to push their heads above ground.
At a tea stop 5km from Turtuk, we chanced upon two bikers from the Agra Bikers Club. We fell to talking and Vipul and Manoj chivalrously offered us a pillion ride for the rest of the way. The breeze on my face, the skies a full blue and the towering Karakorams–glorious fun. I understood now first-hand why legions of motorists set out on these paths, bags on back, for weeks on end.
For Turtuk, I have to sit down and gather my thoughts and words. I could simply say charming, and it certainly is, but that is so pat. It is an inconsequential place of great consequence. A hillside village in two parts, Youl and Pharol, divided by a gurgling glacial stream and a bridge. As we trudged up the narrow pathways that separated the houses, a network of water channels serviced the whole habitation, sometimes even running under the houses. One particular cavern in the mountain-side is so cool the village stores its meat and perishables there! The Masjid occupies pride of place and, as we were in the holy month of Ramzan at the time, it was being put to active use, with men doing wazu, preparing to offer salat.
In the village, we sought out a man named Kacho Mohammad Khan Yabgo. Note the ‘Yabgo’, which is the dynastic name for the rulers of Chhorbat Khapulu of Baltistan, as also the ‘Kacho’, which indicates that this royal status was formerly held. We were led up to a fine wooden house, with an ornate entrance. This was once the summer palace of the Yabgos, built by Turab Khan in the 15th century. As he led us around, Mohammad Khan earnestly told us the history of his family and of this site. Once on the Silk Route, Turtuk was significant for being no more than five hours away from four crucial hubs. The wooden house retains echoes of its former life: the zenana chambers decorated with extra embellishments, the lock that catches on the inside so as to alert sleeping inmates of intruders, the historic orchard with its centuries-old fruiting trees... But I was most touched by the museum that Khan has taken the trouble to curate. He is an unassuming man, eking out a respectable livelihood from his zamindari fruit orchard and agriculture–it is a good life, but in an odd, bracing mixture of pragmatism, nostalgia and duty, he keeps various artefacts in good order, making sure to document the way things were.
We had a marvellous picnic in the upper fields of Turtuk. The chefs at the camp had given us salad, biryani with raita and a nice dessert smacking of orange and we rounded off the repast with blushy apricots plucked from the abundant trees in the village. Too many can give you the runs but really how many luscious apricots could you count as too many?
We did so many other things in Ladakh–too many to recount! We rode Bactrian camels, visited a village oracle, saw a blue sheep, spent a few hours at the drama-laden Diskit monastery, attended local festivities... But I also did so many nothings: I saw a Ladakhi rainbow, gazed long at a spectacularly visible Milky Way, spent a good many hours sitting outside the tent staring at the gompa, watching rosefinches, reading a trilogy of paranormal romances while trying to guard my coffee against Tashi, the camp’s youthful Labrador who came up to press against me and sit with me awhile. But long story short: it was the good life.
Air India, Jet Airways and GoAir operate daily flights between Delhi and Leh (from approx. â‚¹ 3,000 one way).
The Ultimate Travelling Camp
The company has two campsites in Ladakh: Chamba Camp, Thiksey and Chamba Camp, Diskit in Nubra. Both are open up to October 15 this year.
Accommodation: Chamba Thiksey has 14 luxury tents which include 8 Indian and 3 South African tents and 3 presidential suites. Chamba Diskit has 8 tents of Kenyan origin. Each has its special design elements–the South African ones are more spacious, and the Kenyan tents at Nubra are evocative.
Food & Drink: The camps provide a fine-dining experience–the dining camp at Thiksey opens out to a sweet pond. There is a small set menu to choose from but if there’s something special you want, just whistle. For excursions, the staff will pack meals–a laid-out picnic or a simple sandwich on the go.
Tariff: There are various packages on offer: A 3D tour at Chamba Thiksey costs from â‚¹ 84,000 per person, twin-sharing. A 1N stay at Chamba Diskit costs â‚¹27,000 per person. A 7D package across both camps is priced at â‚¹ 2,06,501 per person. The tariff includes transfers, all meals and soft beverages as well as specified guided excursions.
What to see & do
There is much to see in and around Leh including the Leh Palace and Shanti Stupa.The various monasteries–Thiksey, Alchi, Hemis, Diskit–are worth a visit. Undertake a birding trip, go river rafting... The camp staff is happy to understand your particular interests. Incidentally, both camps are located in ample grounds facing the Thiksey and Diskit monasteries, respectively. Getting intimate with a coffee and book is a terrific plan too.