(this post was originally publish in June 2013)
Now that we are approaching the day to leave Srinagar, after a stay of about two weeks, it is time to tell how we got here.
After a difficult journey between Manali and Leh, which took us 21 hours to cover the 490 km of the famous Manali-Leh Highway, we didn’t want to face again the dangers of this winding and narrow mountain road to return to Manali, that despite being middle of June was still flanked by thick layers of ice.
So, the only option was to continue forward, towards the Kashmir region facing the National Highway 1 (NH1), which is the only road, linking the Ladakh region to the rest of Jammu & Kashmir state, passing close by the Pakistan border.
Just to make it clear, the term “highway” has nothing to do with what we know by that name in terms of commodities, speed or safety conditions. It’s a term used to identify a main road linking to major places. Maybe the term “highway” should be read literally as a road located at high altitude, usually winding, narrow and carved into the steep slopes of the mountains, far from being safe and where circulation is dependent on the weather conditions that in the rainy season end up in landslides.
Closed more than half of the year due to the extreme weather conditions of the Himalayan winters, the Srinagar–Leh Highway crosses the Zoji La, a high pass at 3528 mm, that despite not being the highest elevation point of this road, Zoji La is famous for being the most danger highpass of the Srinagar-Leh Highway, due to the combination of factor like the bad pavement conditions, steep slopes, narrow road and frequent heavy rain…. but not none of these we knew when we took our decision to lead to Srinagar!!
Srinagar and the Kashmir surrounding region were out of the tourist circuit until about ten years ago, not even appearing in travel guides, as this region was closed to foreigners due to the civil war between Indian troops and the separatist movements that claim Kashmir’s independence, as also the several conflicts during the Indo-Pakistani War which last battlers occur during 1999, known as Kargil War.
Despite the heavy history of these region, the information and feedback that we got from other travellers that we met in Leh, were very positive, referring Srinagar as a beautiful city, with nice and friendly people, a strong Muslim influence, and despite the army presence, it doesn’t appear to have safety problems. So, Srinagar becomes our next destination after Leh, and the NH1 was the only option!
To cover the 434 kilometers separating Leh from Srinagar we decided that it would be best to go by jeep because the previous experience of the mini-van trip between Manali and Leh did not leave comfortable memories. We learned later that the bus service provided by the local company JKSRTC would have been the best option, in terms of cost, of course, but also in terms of safety as the drivers take time to rest and don’t drive in the night. But the two days of travel required by a bus trip were not tempting.
By jeep, we had a ten-hour journey ahead, made mostly at night, and strangely we were the only passengers. Soon, we realised that it was not going to be an easy trip and it would take us a lot longer… the driver was quite bad, sometimes driving in the opposite side of the road, often too close by the verge, making sharp turns on the steering wheel, overtaking without any care…all these while typing messages on the mobile phone and picking the teeth.
In one of the many stops we made during the night was in Mulbekh, which was a place we wanted to visit because of the Buddha statue with about seven meters high, carved in the rock between the 7th and 8th centuries. But this was not for sightseeing or just to eat or drink a “chai”. Here the driver decided to rest vanishing in the dark night. So we end up spending several hours inside the jeep, parked on the roadside, in a completely isolated place, deserted at those hours, surrounded by dense darkness facing the chill night under Buddha’s protective gaze.
At dawn, we made a short stop in Kargil, from where the signs of Muslim culture became clear: mosques, flags in the green colour of Islam, Arabic calligraphy, women with heads covered by scarfs… it didn’t even seem that we were in India anymore. The Dalai Lama pictures that usually show up on the walls a bit every place in Leh, were now replaced by Ayatollah Khomeini images. The face features of the people also changed, and we couldn’t anymore spot the traditional Tibetan round faces and slanted eyes, but instead by the long bony faces, narrow noses and the long beards.
As we move further, the landscape became increasingly green, leaving behind the aridity and dryness of the Ladakh landscape. The road goes smoothly up, describing winding curves in a mountains landscape crowned with snow and valleys lined with grass where rivers meandered. Flocks of sheep and goats led by nomad shepherds move along the road, transporting their possessions and goods in small caravans of mules.
After passing Dras, another village without any remarkable thiing, we went up and up in the mountain towards the highest point, Zoji La, the famous highpass situated at 3529 meters of altitude. The temperature started to drop down and the visibility conditions were drastically diminished with the thick fog, forming small drops in our air and cloths, almost like rain. As we were getting close to the highpass, the conditions worsened, with the bumpy pavement road giving place to a narrow and muddy path, which wasn’t more than a thin line carved in the steep slopes of these mountains, without any protection from us and the abyss.
Moving further become hard and slower due to the intense traffic, mainly overloaded cargo trucks, and got worsened by streams that quickly formed by the intense rain, crossing the road and falling off the slopes like small waterfalls, dangerously eroding the verge and creating small landslides.
Crossing vehicles become a difficult and risky task, requiring long stops, as certain sections of the road are only wide enough for one truck, which creates long lines of trucks and buses. At the most critical points on the road, the military help to control the traffic and monitored road safety conditions, where landslides often close the road even during the few “summer” months where it is supposed to be open.
Faced with this scenario that got worst as we went closer to Zoji La, the driver of our Jeep didn’t show any sign of changing is danger driving style, but instead, started to speed up while honking his horn furiously, trying to make dangerous and unthinkable overtaking, pushing our car too close to the verg, like un unconscious mad-man. It was too much for me, and couldn’t avoid shouting at him to stop!!! It work out for a few minutes…
All these resulting in an extreme accumulation of tension, which left me on the verge of despair, to the point I decided to get out of the car to continue the rest of the way on foot… at last until reach a less scary part of the road. But the persistent rain, the strong wind, the mountain cold and the mud, which almost made me slip as I set foot on the road, restrain my impulse and push me to go back to the car again.
This whole nightmare, framed by a heavy grey sky that make the midday almost look almost like dusk, only subsided when we started to descend towards Sonamarg, where the sun started timidly rising through the clouds, leaving behind the arid and grey landscape of the high mountains, where the summits were still covered with snow.
The rest of the trip was made smoothly, through green and flowering valleys, with the road crossing small villages. It was like a blessing, leaving behind the frightening experience of crossing the Zoji La and enjoying a smooth trip, with the road running along the Sind River, where wild horses graze calmly and where the road is every now and then shared with flocks of sheep.
Without doubt, the Srinagar–Leh Highway is something remarkable in my trip in India and I’m glad (and in a certain way proud) that I did it but I’m not sure if I’ll ever do it again! I respect the courage of people that do this road, as also Manali-Leh Highway, by motorbike… I wouldn’t dare!
From all this intense experience, can’t share much more than words, that are never enough to describe the mix of feelings that range between terror and fascination, or the amazing landscapes from dry steep mountains to green bucolic valleys. But with so many things going on, taking photos pictures was something that was left behind and now I regret don’t have any more images to share.
After an 18 hours trip (almost the double of what it was told us in the beginning), we finally arrived at Srinagar, around two o’clock in the afternoon, and were dropped off by our driver somewhere, on a wide and busy street. The sound of the horn honking and the chaotic intense traffic, that was absent in the Ladakh region, made us realise that we were back in India!