The road to Leh : Part 1

In India, Photography, Places, Travel on April 22, 2012 at 11:36 am

It had been my dream to go to Ladakh. Correction, it had been my dream to go to Ladakh by road. It wasn’t getting to Leh or any of the touristy destinations that was to me the most enticing part of the journey. I had heard that the landscape on the road to Ladakh was breathtaking and I wanted to see it for myself.

Our starting point was Srinagar in Kashmir. We had initially thought of taking the bus, mostly to save on money. That did not work out, so ultimately we shared a taxi from Srinagar till Kargil where we would stop for the night and then rent another taxi from there for our onward journey.

We got off to a later start than what we had planned. Our driver had warned us the night before that we must get out of the city at dawn to avoid the traffic. So we were up and waiting for the taxi at 5:30am. He duly came to pick us up when we called on his phone but only to take us to the parking lot where all the other taxis were. We learnt then that the other passengers were not quite as punctual as we were. So we waited and we waited. Our driver soon realised that there was no point waiting  and he made one last effort to try and pick up his missing passengers at their hotel but was told they had left and so he started looking for new passengers. We were 5 of us now but our driver seemed determined not to leave until he found someone for the last remaining seat.

7:00 am and hungry. I was already tired, even before the journey had started.

Then we saw the driver walking towards us with a backpacker in tow and we all looked at our saviour in veneration. Never have I been more pleased to get crammed into a car! We were finally ready to go!

The morning was crisp and the landscape beautiful. We were glad to get out of the city and into the countryside, through tree-lined mountains and along numerous streams.

The journey from Srinagar to Sonamarg was uneventful, apart from frequent police checks at the outskirts of the city, all the more accentuated by the fact that it was also the time for the Amarnath pilgrimage for the Hindus and security had been beefed up. Of course, the presence of the army and police checks have become an annoying part of the daily lives of most Kashmiris. As one fellow traveller remarked, “In Ladkah you see mountains and beautiful scenery. In Kashmir you see the Indian army.” I understood what he was saying after our brief stay at Srinagar. I will not try and go into the Kashmir issue because it is far too complicated to bring up in just a few lines. Still, even though the presence of the army might be more than just an annoyance for the locals, it did not stop me from admiring the beauty of the place.

Srinagar is at around 1,585 metres (5,200 ft) above sea level. We were gradually driving uphill and we stopped at Sonamarg (2,800 metres (9,200 ft) above sea level) for tea and to stretch our legs. We waited a considerable time at Sonamarg and did not really understand why we were not moving. However, it was calm and peaceful and we did not mind basking in the sun and walking around a bit.

Suddenly, there was a commotion. Now, we were not the only ones driving to Kargil and all the cars were parked in this huge parking spot just at the exit of the village. After a while all the drivers started calling out to the passengers to get in and all the travellers started moving en masse towards the parking. Once we were settled, we realised that the cars aligned themselves to form a sort of queue, all facing the exit but none of them exiting. Our driver, not the only one who was impatient, joined some other drivers at the exit and they all seemed to be craning their necks and waiting for something or someone.

Suddenly, as if on cue, they all turned and ran back to their cars,yelling at passengers who had dared to get out of the car, started up the cars in frenzy and at that moment all queues were forgotten…the first one out was the winner and we sped out of the parking. Our driver, who seemed to be quite adept at bollywood car chases, managed to put us in third place. It was then that we saw a file of cars arriving from the other direction. The reason we understood was that after Sonamarg, the road gradually becomes narrower and narrower and cars can only move in one direction at a time. Till 2pm the cars are allowed to move in from Ladakh into Kashmir and after 2pm, it is the turn of those going towards Ladakh. The drivers must have seen the cars coming in from Ladakh and ran back to take their positions.

As we gained in altitude, the landscape changed gradually. Less and less vegetation, some snow but mostly an amazing mountain range. I would have loved to take more pictures, but our driver who took his bollywood ambitions of becoming an action hero quite seriously, made it impossible for me to use a camera, swaying as we were constantly from side to side. For once the beauty and the magnificence of what was outside completely overwhelmed any kind of fear I might have felt otherwise. It was the most magnificent sight ever and even in the later half of the trip when we took a lot of road trips in Ladakh, I saw nothing that matched up to it. We could see the valley below us and the tents of the pilgrims which grew smaller and smaller until they were mere specks.

 And then finally we crossed the Zoji-La or the Zoji Pass into Ladakh at around 3,528 metres (11,575 ft). Juley Ladakh! (for the uninitiated, Juley (Ju-ley) in Ladkah is used for “Hello”, “Thanks” and “See you” depending on the context 😉)

We had now officially crossed into Ladakh, but we were still far away from our destination and our road trip was far from over. The snow-capped mountains were beckoning us, urging us to get closer.

First of course we had to make a halt at Kargil (2,676 metres (8,780 ft) )for the night. Much as we had loved the road trip, we were incredibly tired. We had woken up really early (for nothing), been travelling all day and we were dropping dead on our feet. We crashed into the first hotel we saw when we landed in Kargil. For Indians, Kargil has assumed something of a legendary status after the war also known as the Kargil War with Pakistan in 1999. However, the town itself is disappointing and definitely not worth more than a night halt of necessity. We were happy to leave the next morning and take the road again.

The road from Kargil onwards was visibly different from the first day. The mountains were bare and we were driving through a desert with oases every so often. And every nook which had even the slightest vegetation would have at least a few huts around.

Our aim was to get to Lamayuru (3,510 m (11,516 feet)) where we wanted to stop for the night. As you can see, we were in no hurry to reach Leh, the capital of Ladakh.

The road to Leh: Part 2 will start from Lamayuru and then take you through some villages of Ladakh before we finally reach Leh. In the meantime, if the subject interests you, you can always read my earlier post on my travels in Ladakh, Power it up! which is about my impressions of one aspect of daily life there.

  1. Wonderful pictures though I would have loved a little description to accompany them. And I wish you could have taken a picture of the long Q’s of the cars.

  2. […] post follows my earlier post The road to Leh: Part 1 which covered our journey starting from Srinagar in Kashmir to Kargil and a bit beyond. ) Our […]

  3. […] The road to Leh : Part 1 (1garamchai.wordpress.com) […]

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