Long drives and starry nights in Hanle, Ladakh

By: Rahul Richard, 14 Sep, 2018

If you’re anything like me, the city of Leh can be just a bit too crowded and touristy for your liking. I’ve found that it’s the kind of place I’m happy to have seen once and then avoid for the rest of my life. The reason I go to the mountains is to escape the commercial chaos of the rest of the world. And for that, the little village of Hanle, about 250km from Leh, is where I run.

By run of course, I mean drive, because this remote settlement in the Changthang region of Ladakh is only accessible by road. There are two routes that get you to Hanle, depending on where you’re coming from. If it’s Leh, you follow the Indus River upstream for around 190km towards Nyoma and Mood and then break away from it and drive another 70km on to Hanle. The drive is as scenic as scenic gets. The road winds its way next to the Indus in a gorge that suddenly gives way to a vast valley surrounded by huge mountains in almost every shade of purple, green and brown. If you’re driving from Manali and intend on skipping Leh, the drive is longer, but the views won’t disappoint. You’ll have to drive around 340km on the Leh-Manali Highway up to the surreal More Plains, and then take the turn off towards Hanle. To More Plains, the route can be tough yet breathtaking, but it is well trodden. The remaining 170km to Hanle, however, isn’t frequently taken by tourists. It is just as amazing though, with a view of a high-altitude lake called Tso Kar, and of course, the endless towering mountains.

Hanle, is a place that a lot of people who frequent Leh hadn’t even heard of until recently. It entered the spotlight last year when the new highest motorable road in the world – Umling La – opened nearby. The village was, and still is, just a quiet place next to the Indo-China border with not much to offer as a tourist hotspot apart from a 17th-century Tibetan Monastery. Well that, and an unintentionally hidden star attraction: the dark night sky.

night sky hanle
Photo credit: Ketan Kadam/ Shutterstock.com

The high altitude, low precipitation levels, ambient temperatures, humidity and all that other science stuff mean that Hanle has one of the best views of the stars you’ll ever find in the world.

I’ve been lucky to see several spectacular night skies in very remote locations, but Hanle takes the cake. Validating my point is the fact that it happens to be where the Indian Astronomical Observatory is set up, home to what’s supposedly one of the world’s highest optical, infrared and gamma-ray telescopes. The observatory, which is on Mount Saraswati in the middle of the valley, is remotely operated from the Indian Institute of Astrophysics in Bangalore with the help of the personnel on site. Luckily for us, they were more than happy to show us around when we paid the observatory an impromptu visit.

Inside the observatory, you’ll find images of galaxies and nebulae so far away, you’ll begin to doubt everything you think you know about the universe. I know I did later that night when I lay down under that crystal-clear sky. The sheer size and scale of the mountains gives you perspective on how tiny you are in this world. Imagine just how tiny the mountains must look from the stars.

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