A dreamy, moonlit night led to a very gloomy, chilly morning with drizzle. In such unpleasant weather, we bid farewell to Pangong Tso to head toward our next destination, Hanle (14763 ft). Hanle or Anle (known locally) is a small village known as star gazer’s paradise. The high altitude, crystal clear, very dark night sky attributes to this title. And we were heading to this destination for the same reason – to experience the night sky with stars twinkling bright and the planets glowing in all their might.
As we took the roads leaving our tent resort, we moved along the Pangong lake for a long stretch. Then through some uneven road, we entered Merak village. Here suddenly we got the BSNL cellular network. We used this opportunity to make a call to book our stay. As I mentioned in my first post on this Ladakh series, my tour itinerary had lots of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ so I could not book the room before. Seeing the vast tourist rush in every place we visited till then, we were a little worried about our venture to this small village where there are not many places to stay. A couple of them are shown on the Google search with only phone numbers to get the booking done.
We called one of these guest houses to reserve a room, and the first one replied that they were full. Worried to hear this we tried the second number and with the patchy connection, we could hardly speak and listen. We barely managed to convey the message when the network was off again to return back after a while. Then we spoke to the same person named ‘Angchuk’ and verbally got an assurance of a room for a night in his homestay. As we moved on through the unpaved roads leaving behind the village and also the cellular network we could feel the vast wilderness grasping us in its embrace. We drove through this emptiness intercepted by frequent military outposts to reach Chushul.
We stopped at the Rezang La War Memorial in Chushul and it was an awe-inspiring experience of my life. All thanks to our motorist Dorje, who brought us to this revered site. Rezang La War Memorial is built on the site where the brave martyrs of the Charlie C Ahir company were cremated. The revamped memorial was inaugurated by Union defence minister Rajnath Singh on 18th November 2021. The museum portrays the story of the valour of the 13 Kumayon battalion headed by Major Shaitan Singh who successfully saved the outpost from the mighty Chinese force in the 1962 Indo-China war. Read in detail about the Rezang La war memorial from my blog post that I published on the Independence Day of India to show my respect to the saviours of our Nation.
After a soul-stirring patriotic awakening, we moved ahead to our destination again through the wilderness – a straight gravel road through the wide valley guarded by rolling hills on either side. Wherever the eye goes it was a vast emptiness and our car was the only vehicle moving through the undefined path which we can call a road if we want. Miles of such vacant stretch brought us to a grassland area where we could see flocks of wild ass running on the sound of the approaching biker’s gang. They looked like horses running on the grasslands of Central Asia. Again a topography so differently beautiful. In this way, we reached Loma check post where our identity proofs and permits were checked.
The road condition improved, and we were back on well-paved roads that brought us to our destination Hanle. We went straight to Hanle House to check in, but to our surprise, the lady of the house was not aware of our call and was not too willing to give us any room. Dorje managed to convince her in the local language that we spoke to the man in the morning and he assured us of a room for a night. She finally agreed to give us the room. It was a decent room with basic amenities but in a not-so-popular destination with limited accommodation facilities and huge tourist inflow, it seemed like a starred hotel of which we were the lucky boarders. Just after we checked in, a couple of bikers came to enquire about the availability of a room but were turned back.
After having a hot cup of salted butter tea we went to the Indian Astronomical Observatory situated on the top of a mountain with an open view of everything – the sky and also the earth below. Hanle is famous for its dark night sky and its high altitude and crisp clear sky make it an ideal location for observing astronomical objects. So the Indian Astronomical Observatory with its optical, infrared and gamma-ray telescopes is located here and is remotely operated from the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bengaluru.
Hanle has been given the title of the first dark-sky preserve in India in 2022. This particular title is given to an area that mostly surrounds any observatory or park that prevents artificial light pollution. Local awareness among the citizens prevails in such areas with an understanding of the importance of the dark sky. With this objective in mind the village goes completely dark after 10:30 PM every night, with absolutely no light to create light pollution. Other than that the electricity rationing that we came across in all other places in Ladakh is also in practice here.
The Indian Astronomical Observatory in Hanle is operational with several telescopes with special mention to the Himalayan Chandra Telescope (HCT) and the High Altitude Gamma Ray Telescope (HAGAR). The observatory was inaugurated in the year 2001. Specific conditions such as low ambient temperatures, low humidity, low concentration of atmospheric aerosols, low atmospheric water vapour, dark nights and low pollution make Hanle the perfect location in India to set up the observatory with a yield of approximately 255 spectroscopic nights per year, approximately 190 photometric nights per year.
The morning drizzle of Pangong stopped en route but the sky maintained its unpleasant frame of mind. By the time we reached the observatory, the sky was even darker with excessively strong winds bowling across the mountaintop and dashing against the metal walls and doors of the observatory. Strange sounds accompanied the strong winds, and shivering hard we entered the observatory. A staff member of the observatory showed us a Powerpoint presentation before we climbed the stairs to see the giant telescope.
The metallic dome-shaped cover of the telescope slides open on either side and the telescope begins imaging the sky every evening that continues till twilight. That day was no different the telescope was supposed to start its work-night in some time, irrespective of the weather. We were overly delighted to see the huge telescope and to know about its working mechanism. After we came out of the observatory, we definitely did some mandatory photoshoots with the view of the valley below which was incredible. The Hanle monastery was also seen with the backdrop of the chain of mountains. Everything looked like a beautiful painting.
The Hanle monastery belongs to the Drukpa Lineage of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism just like the Hemis and Stakna monastery. (Read my previous post on Hemis.) It was built in the 17th century and is one of the oldest monasteries in Ladakh. The monastery was built by king Sengge Namgyal. He died in Hanle after he returned from his expedition against the Mongols who captured a part of Tibet, posing a threat to Ladakh. Again the high altitude and the unfavourable weather stopped us from going to the monastery. We returned back to our stay.
The gloomy weather outside and the dark room inside none were pleasant to stay and enjoy. With the same electricity rule, the timing for the lights was 6:30 PM and for hot water, it was one time a day either in the morning or in the evening. We chose the next morning time for hot water. The lady of the house said that due to bad weather the solar heater could not heat the water so she has to manage the limited quantity of water among all the boarders. After another hot cup of coffee, we thought of taking a walk through the streets of the village.
This is a sleepy village with a little hubbub caused by the outsiders like us. As we walked through the mostly empty streets occasionally traversed by some biker’s gang we found the typical village life going on at a normal pace ignoring the cold and the severely bad weather. People were fetching water from hand pumps, some were carrying loads from someplace to home probably, children were going to tuition classes, and we were the only ones shivering in cold even in thick warm garments. We walked through a few other guest houses and just out of curiosity asked about the availability of rooms and to our surprise and relief (as we got a room for ourselves) all were full.
As it started raining we did not loiter anymore and returned back to our room. Without the cellular network, without electricity and without warm water to freshen up we quietly sat complaining about the weather that spoiled all our plans of star gazing. Capturing the Milkyway was anyway a distant dream as it was the initial waning phase of the moon. Overall, none of our plans or expectations was actually met. Disheartened we quietly slipped under the blanket waiting for the electricity and then the dinner.
At dinner, we met the other boarders who were a gang of young boys and girls who also came here for star gazing. All were cursing the weather while having the tasty, warm homely food made by the lady of the house. We retired back to our room after a quick check at the night sky outside. There was no improvement in the weather and with no more hope, we sadly went to sleep.
The next morning the weather remained the same, we got our hot water supply and quickly freshened up to start for our next destination after breakfast. At breakfast, the lady of the house (Padma didi) spoke very amicably. At peace, she was preparing our breakfast while talking to us about life in Hanle. She said they are used to this electricity rationing and the children do all their studies within the light hours (either during daylight or while the electricity is available.) As per the dark-sky preserve conditions the citizens of the area must abide by not emitting any light after 10:30 PM and thus preventing any light pollution.
On the no-network situation, she said that BSNL wired connection does work here but is not very dependable. I asked her about the kid’s classes during the lockdown. She said that the teacher would walk down to every student’s house to give the homework. I was literally shocked to hear about the hardships they face in their day-to-day life. She also shared her experience with the stargazers and the photographers, she showed us the pictures of Milkyway taken by some guests earlier. She said the weather here is unpredictable you can have bad weather any time of the year. Disheartened by our fate we decided to try our luck on our next visit. Our time at Hanle was over and we moved on to our next destination.