Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Enter Ladakh : Journey through Leh - Srinagar Highway

All set to head to Ladakh:

After an evening spent with discussions and convincing for the greater part, my dad finally agreed to head towards Leh instead of the actual plan of heading to Kulu, Manali and Shimla! Phew! What a relief! So it was decided at 7PM that we will be taking the Leh – Srinagar Highway to enter Ladakh. 

So now I had to pinch myself several times before I could get myself to believe that we were actually headed towards the azure waters of Pangong. Yes, by then I didn’t know anything about Ladakh. Ladakh/Leh meant only the blue lake that had charmed many. Reaching Leh through road was just a means to accomplish my dream of seeing the Lapis Lazuli waters of Asia’s highest brackish water lake shared by India and China. Little did I expect to be blown away by the enthralling journey.

That night we walked to the J&K Tourism help desk located close to the hotel we were put up. My dad was still apprehensive about our journey to Leh and he clarified the same from the help desk a thousand times that trip was safe. The options suggested by the J&K Tourism help desk was either take the bus tomorrow morning or hire a SUV to reach Leh. We leaned towards the latter option and found that the taxi owners had a fixed rate to reach Leh from Srinagar – 6k per vehicle or 1200 per person. Bus charges were 600 per person if memory serves me well. We hired a vehicle and later that night I drifted into peaceful slumber with a smile – a smile of relief, of satisfaction, of excitement and also of anticipation. 

Leh - Srinagar Highway:

The 434 Km long stretch of Leh – Srinagar Highway is the main overland approach to Ladakh from Kashmir Valley. This road remains open for traffic from June to November. However we were very lucky in 2008 that both Leh – Srinagar and Leh – Manali highways were open by mid May. The tourist traffic was non-existent and the snow was still afresh by the sides of the road which made for delightfully dramatic sceneries. Notice how the scenery changes from lush greenery to arid barren deserts as we reach Leh in the photos below. 

Our driver said he was one of the experienced drivers on that route and he had many stories to tell. True or not I do not know but interesting stories for sure. The plan was to finish the ride in a day and reach Leh by the same night. 
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~ VALLEYS OF KASHMIR, CROSSING SONMARG

Crossing Zoji La

We started from Srinagar around 9 AM in the morning and we went past the green meadows of Sonmarg, whizzed past Thajiwas Glacier before making our ascent up the Zoji La(Pass) at 11,500 feet. Officially this was the first pass we were scaling with this being first trip to the Himalayan ranges ever. And that was scary! The road was muddy, gravely and non-existent at best. The valleys were deep and the path was taking us higher and higher along the precarious edges. To add to the horror, the melted snow filled the potholes with water and army trucks started plying in the opposite direction by the time we were on top of the pass. If you are headed on this road, better to cross Zoji La before the army trucks. 

After a tangy taste of the trans Himalayan road journeys over high passes, massive snowscapes were rising right next to us. The scenery changed from the dusty mountains to neat snow covered slopes set against brilliant blue skies. The clock read 12.15 PM and we were now standing at Gumri Checkpost. This must be one of the most uninhabited areas to station a checkpost monitoring vehicles all through the year – even in winters I suppose. 

The scenery got better and better as we crossed Gumri heading towards Dras – the second coldest inhabited place only after Siberia. But now, in May, the sun was scorching hotter than ever. As we were nearing Dras, we could see abandoned hide outs and Tiger hill over the distant peaks. 

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~ DREAMY LANDSCAPES, MID MAY SCENERY

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~ GUMRI CHECKPOST AFTER ZOJI LA

Kargil War Stories:

Our driver told us he witnessed the Kargil war in person. Apparently he was driving a BBC reporter who was paying him 35000 INR for a 150km ride I suppose, albeit a ride that could’ve claimed his life. Thud! Something fell in front of his vehicle he said. And then one more bomb blast he said. He said he ran to hide under a rock cover. Occupational hazard he claimed. That reporter would’ve had a bulky life insurance policy but what about me – he asked. But we, mountain people need to take risks to ensure our children can go to schools in the least he continued. It was scary even to think how our army fought in these unforgiving lands to reclaim our land. It is impossible not to take pride in these men who fought over these mountains. All victorious – only few alive! 

Caution: You are under enemy surveillance:

We reached Dras at 1.50PM and it was 2.30 PM by the time we finished lunch in the second coldest uninhabited place on earth. ;) Winter temperatures could plummet to -60 degrees and needless to say, the villages are abandoned in winter. After lunch, we started towards Kargil. Our driver was telling us more stories from his pensieve. Soon we reached a vast stretch with a valley by the side and a mountain rising next to it along the length of the road. 

“Caution: You are under enemy surveillance” read the signpost by the side of the road. Our driver was saying, Pakistan Army had set up camps at over the mountain top and it was quite easy for them to bombard us with bombs with this road being at a lower altitude. After few minutes the signpost again read that we were out of enemy zone. Legacies of unforgettable historic events left behind, I thought. 

We reached Kargil by 4 and our driver declared he would not take us to Leh tonight and we would be spending a night here. After seeing how dangerous the mountain roads were, we were more than willing to abide by his decision. Since May was way too early for tourist season, the guesthouses were not ready yet and with great difficulty we managed to find two dingy dim lit rooms for us to spend the night. 

Sleepless in Kargil:

It was not a pleasant night. I could hear trucks plying on distant roads or maybe cannonballs were being tested for all I knew! The room was dark and it felt alien to me. But most of all, the reason for my uneasiness was I was in KARGIL - The place that saw a hundred deaths, a thousand sufferings and probably much worse. The haunting thoughts disappeared into oblivion as the morning glow filled the room. 

Day 2, Towards Leh:

We started off to Leh by 6AM. We left the greenery behind. Today was the official foray into the deserts of Ladakh. The scenery changed to brown mountains dotted with snow capped peaks. We reached Mulbek at 7.30 AM and the giant statue of Maitreya(The fifth Buddha) carved in probably first century B.C welcomed us.  Now this marks the change in religion, culture and landscape from this side of Kargil to the other side. 

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~ THE CHANGE IN SCENERY, ENTER LADAKH

Crossing Namika La(12,200ft) and Fotu La(13,432 ft), past the ancient monastery of Lamayuru we entered the wind eroded and justly called lunar landscapes with weird colored gorges and rocks descending almost 4000ft in 32 kms to reach Indus at Khaltse. Further ahead nearing Nimoo/Nimu Village, we witnessed the grand confluence of Indus and Zanskar Rivers. The Indus was sparkling emerald green while the Zanskar was wild and muddy and the sight looked nothing short of grandeur.  Zanskar exists no longer and it is Indus all the way after the confluence. And if you can’t get a perspective of its magnitude, just try to spot the jeep next to Indus. 

SPOT THE JEEP?
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~ THE GRAND INDUS - ZANSKAR CONFLUENCE

After heading further through the deserts to reach Spituk, crossing Magnetic hill, where your switched off vehicle will be pulled up the nominal slope by the magnetic forces in the area due to magnetic field, we reached Leh at 1 in the afternoon. 

And so we were in Leh, finally!
And today I realized, Himalayas were not all neat and snowy but instead it was muddy and rocky! 

FactFile:

Route – Srinagar – Sonmarg – Zoji La – Gumri – Dras – Thasgam – Kharbu – Kaksar – Kargil – Mulbek – Namika La – Fotu La – Lamayuru – Khaltse – Saspol – Nimu – Spituk - Leh.

Distance Covered : 204kms(Day 1) + 230kms(Day 2)

Time Taken : 
Srinagar – Kargil – Day 1 : 9.00 AM to 4.00 PM – 7 hrs.
Kargil – Leh – Day 2 : 6.00 AM to 1.00 PM – 7 hrs

Water/Food availability : decent. Will be crossing many villages on both days.

Road Conditions -
Zoji La – worse.
Zoji La to Dras - good. 
Dras – Kargil – Good
Kargil – Lamayuru – decent. Gravely rods up Namika La and Fotu La.
Lamayuru – Leh – decent to good. 

Night Stay required? Prefered, Else you might miss out on scenery.

Night Stay Options : Decent Guesthouses/lodges at Kargil or Mulbek

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~ CLIMBING UP ZOJI LA

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~ SNOW BY MY SIDE, LEH - SRINAGAR HIGHWAY

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~ BRILLIANT BLUE SKIES AND SNOWY LANDSCAPES

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~ ROAD THAT TAKES ME HOME

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~ DESERT WINDINGS

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~ MORE DESERT WINDINGS

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~ CHOCOLATE MOUNTAINS, VANILLA TOPPINGS

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~ VIEW FROM FOTU LA

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~ FOTU LA, HIGHEST POINT OF LEH SRINAGAR HIGHWAY

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~ WEIRDNESS PERSONIFIED - MOONSCAPES OF LAMAYURU

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~ WIND ERODED ROCKS

26 comments:

  1. "All victorious – only few alive! " so true!

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  2. Well written....Superb picture!!..I like the Chocolate mountain, vanilla topics...haha!

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  3. Amazing write up n pics of the Ladakh trip! guess i have told you once.... but cant help repeating.

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  4. I am speechless.

    Amazing...The information and the pics..

    Mindblowing.

    Looking forward to future posts.

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  5. Lovely images.. This place on my mind for 2yrs now.. hopefully i'll go next year or year after that :P

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  6. Wow! What an article.. and beautiful photos! And just at the right time! :D

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  7. Comprehensive article and breathtaking images...Thomas

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  8. Hi Neelima! I'm speechless too... Awesome!!

    Blogtrotter Two has a sunset cruise - sea level... ;)) - for you! Enjoy the cocktails and the views and have a great weekend!!

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  9. ## Joshi Daniel - Indeed!

    ## Shweta - ha ha Thanks! When i came back and was going through the images, I couldn't help but notice the uncanny similarity. ;)

    ## Harsha - Thanks again! I wouldn't tire of hearing good words any number of times anyway.. :P

    ## Arvind - Welcome to my blog and Thank you so much! :)
    More posts are coming up soon with much more info. Just back from a second trip to Ladakh.

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  10. ## Sandeep - Apart from stunning landscapes, this place hosts some amazing wildlife and easy sightings as well. not the snow leopard of course. :D
    You will enjoy Ladakh a great deal I am sure. :)

    ## Abhi - Thanks. Tell me your stories once you get back. :)

    ## Thomas - Thanks. Glad if the post is helpful for future travelers. :)

    ## GMG - ha ha..Thanks much! :)

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  11. Is it still possible and safe to travel through the highway?

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    Replies
    1. It was safe and still possible then and even now.

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  12. hey i must say very well written article, i am planing to go there for my honeymoon this june, looking forward to the trip...

    hey but u didnt mention anything abt what u did after reaching leh..any suggestions ?

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  13. Hey awesome road trip description and amazing pictures. Would you mind sharing the driver's contact as I would be travelling to Leh in July.

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    Replies
    1. Hey, this was a long time back and I do not have any contacts now. But you can easily find drivers and vehicles for the trip once you reach Manali or Leh or Srinagar.

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  14. Superbly beautiful images supported well by descriptive text of The Treaty Road.

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  15. Hey, I am not sure if you know about it but please take a look at this:

    https://www.facebook.com/notes/partha-de-sarkar/my-road-trip-from-srinagar-to-leh/10150343611899754

    Most of the write-up is from your blog above & some pictures from here are used as well..

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  16. One of the better written articles on the road trip - really really nice!! Very informative .. thanks a ton!!! We are planning one as well.. hope it works out.

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  17. Breathtaking pics and a lovely write up...especially the "You're under enemy surveillance" sounds pretty exciting...I think that's the closest we will get to being a James Bond or something... :) Have planned up a short trip in June...

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  18. Hi , great description !
    Is it safe to do this road trip by only 3 of us , me , husband n daughter aged 14 ? We are planning to go in July by the same road . Please advise

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    1. don't think if you are same Sharmila I know -) Did you travel yet? would you mind sharing your experience. driver's/accommodation info etc.. and is it safe?

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  19. Wow, you are good narrator, I am planning for same trip , so it was helpful for me!!!!
    Thanks alot, You are quite passionate and daring ....live a lot

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  20. Leh is also a beautiful place to visit in India. So get experience of its beauty and enjoy leh packages.

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  21. nice article:) Yet, Drass should be the second inhabited, instead of uninhabited place in the world.

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  22. Leh is one of the most beautiful place in India. All the pics are amazing.

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