Travel story contributor: Rini Hazel Templeton
I had always wanted to go to Ladakh as I had heard a lot about ‘The Land of Passes, but then wondered if I ever will because I have breathing problem and altitude sickness. But thanks to my colleague, who is from Leh to have coaxed me into making my dream come true. So, a couple of us booked our flights from Delhi to Srinagar and decided to hit the road from there to Leh. The NH1 or the Srinagar-Leh highway is believed to be easier for road trip because a) the roads are better and b) ascent is gradual and so it helps in acclimatization. So, to begin with…my worries were taken care of!
Unfortunately, our trip began on a shaky note since the airline we took forgot our luggage and we had to wait at the Srinagar airport for the next flight to carry our luggage. The bravehearts that we are, we didn’t waste any time and explored Srinagar. From the mesmerising gardens, the beautiful Dal lake, Pari Mahal to the delicious Wazwan at Adhoos we pampered our eyes and tummies alike!
Srinagar to Leh is a 434 km drive and so we left for our destination the next day around 4 am to avoid getting stuck in the traffic. Despite an early start we got held up at Sonmarg for about seven hours! Lesson learnt in this leg of our trip was – ‘anything’s possible when you’re amidst the mighty mountains’!
Anyway, we were rewarded for waiting so long. The drive on NH1 was exceptionally picturesque. The road skirts around the banks of Drass River and you get to see paddy fields, lush green mountains, clear blue sky with dreamlike foam of clouds floating around. I never thought it could get any more beautiful than this, but of course I was proved wrong, again!
We had chai at Sonmarg and soaked in the scenic beauty of the Sindh River and alpine trees. We could see the snow-capped mountains in the distance and frozen ice on the banks of the river. Dreamy-eyed me thought that if this was just the begining I wonder what lied ahead of us!
As we left Sonmarg, we encountered snow on as well as either sides of the road! Being driven was thrilling beyond our expectations! We crossed the Thajiwas Glacier before making an ascent to Zozila Pass, which is the second highest pass on the NH1 Srinagar-Leh highway and the scariest 9km drive I have been on so far in my life. At an altitude of 11547 ft, I had my heart in my mouth most times. There was snow slush, pot holes and the road was non-existent at some places. But, our experienced driver made sure we reach our dream destination safely. There were times when we had to give way to huge army trucks on already narrow roads and we shuddered in fear!
After descending from Zojila, we noticed a dramatic change in the landscape. We were now driving away from green foliage to snow-capped slopes that looked spectacular against the brilliantly clear blue skies! We crossed Gumri checkpost and onward we drove to our next stop, Drass, a small town in the district of Kargil, which world’s second coldest inhabitable place in the world after Siberia! We could spot Tiger Hill and the Drass War Memorial. Your heart swells with pride and Vande Mataram sits on your lips without you knowing it!
The drive over the next few hours on NH1 is beyond words; we drove on broad roads (what a relief!) alongside the Suru River (a tributary of the Indus) and bare mountains with a hint of green at some places. Must say that for me it was the highlight of the road trip after Zojila Pass. Every road trip seeker must make it here!
Our next destination was Kargil, the largest town on the banks of the Suru River. Against the majestic backdrop of the Himalaya can be seen poplar and willow trees and quaint apricot orchards. I think, even 10 years down the line I will still be able to recall this scene quite vividly! I was so excited that I just couldn’t keep myself from capturing photos, whether it is dusk or magical twilight. I was extremely overwhelmed with wallpaper-like scenic beauty. If truth be told…I’m already thinking of getting them postcard ready and sending it to family and friends!
By the way I should tell you that we covered the entire stretch from Srinagar to Leh in one day because of some personal reasons, but you must halt at Kargil and spend some time around and soak in as much goodness nature has to offer.
The day’s drive took us away from the green cover and the scenery changed to brown, barren and snow-covered slopes and peaks. See for yourself!
We crossed Namikla Pass (12,198ft) and Fotu La (13,432 ft) and as I’m writing this, the spellbinding views flash before my eyes! We drove through the evening into the night in the mountains and were lucky enough to see two wild foxes on separate occasions across the road! It was too dark too see the famous ‘moon land’, but we stopped at magnetic hill to see the car roll back on its own, with the engine switched off.
Since our driver knew the route and we prayed we reach Leh as soon as we can! That seven hour delay did put us behind our schedule. *sigh* Finally, we reached Leh at 11:30 in the night. Our friend’s mother had cooked us delicious dinner and we ate to our heart’s content and crashed for the night!
Journey to Leh
Leh offers you everything. From adventure sports (world’s highest polo ground) to spirituality, shopping (silver, semi-precious stones or pashmina) to amazing food. The moment you reach Leh, you realize that the people are warm and friendly.
We ticked off many places from our checklist. We visited the Spituk monastery, Thiksay monastery, Hemis monastery, Shey palace, Shanti Stupa and the Ancient palace. In fact our friend took us to the ‘Hawa Mod’, and as the name suggests you will literally get blown away with the wind speed here! It is a bend along a road wherein lies a lake where people can boat!
Those interested in artifacts must visit the Central Asian Museum which is built in traditional Ladakhi and Baltistani style in the main market. Do not forget to visit a quaint Lala’s café, which is a café cum gallery’ in the old town area. It showcases works of artists and photographers!
We also had time to visit Zorawar fort, and for an animal lover like me, I was pleasantly surprised to see a stable and had fun time feeding them!
Wondering if I did cover Nubra Valley? Of course I did! To reach Nubra we drove through Khardungla pass, world’s 2nd highest motorable road. Hats off to the Border Road Organisation for doing a commendable job of maintaining these roads. At this juncture, I should say that the entire stretch is covered with snow, slush, rain, snowfall, and fog but not as scary as Zojila pass, which has way narrower roads! Once you start descending down you can see the furry marmots, by the side of roads and on the mountains.
Coming back to Nubra valley, let me say it is a world on its own! One cannot imagine sand dunes and snow-capped mountains co-existing…never even in your wildest dreams! Since we wanted a taste of everything, we took a camel safari on the famous two-humped Bactrian camels and watched cultural programmes in the evening.
Oh Lord! What a journey it had been. I’m dreaming about my next road trip to Leh already because I still haven’t experienced half of what Leh has to offer! May be I should take the Manali-Leh highway next time. What do you say? Or do the complete circuit i.e. from Srinagar-to-Leh to Manali or vice versa!
At this juncture, I’m reminded of this beautiful quote: “Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.” Terry Pratchett,