Age No Bar – 16 or 60
Nurla Khaltse Lamayuru Fotu La Mulbek Kargil ( 160 km )
The UP boy prepared good dinner to our liking and gave us good service. He brought water from the stream and supplied us hot water as well. Prepared black tea to our liking. Complained that he did not like the lonely place, was not being paid enough and planned to go back to his native place. In the morning, we kicked off after breakfast of alu parathas. We were running short of time, otherwise we could stay few days here. Came to know that the owner has a resort having number of cottages near by on the confluence of this thundering stream and Indus ( Sindhu ) river. The resort is closed due to bad tourist season.
Morning at Nurla – View from my resort
Road was very bad as construction was going on. It took us more than two hours to reach Lamayuru. We also realised that it would have been extremely difficult and hard journey for us to reach Lamayuru previous day in the night driving if we had not stayed at Nurla. At some places before Lamayuru, road did not exist and big ditch ( pot holes ) made it difficult for the car to pass through. One had to decide the strategy to cross some of these. No work was in progress on this road. It seems that alternative alignment was being constructed and perhaps good progress has been made. I guessed this as we crossed one new wide and recently metalled good road, with ‘ROAD CLOSED’ sign board. On enquiry, came to know that the road goes to Lamayuru.
Lamayuru is a beautiful place and tourists come from Leh on day trip and go back to Leh. But I think it would be excessive journey of 200 KM on the bad hilly roads that the pleasure would be lost. After visiting the famous monastery, we moved out a short distance and stopped at a view point for tea. The point commanded a good view of entire area. Lamayuru monastery is one of the oldest monasteries in Ladakh. It’s a lonely place, the closest villages are far away. Below the monastery is the valley, known as moon valley.
Then we crossed Fotu La, 13479 feet, the highest point on Leh-Srinagar Highway and 12198 feet Namik La. From Namik La, one can enjoy spectacular views of Karakoram mountain ranges. We missed to visit Alchi Monastery and Ridzong Monastery on this way since we have had enough of Monastries right from Tabo. After descending the last pass, Namika La, we stopped at Mulbeck. There is a Maitreya ( Avaloketshvara ), the future Buddha carving built about 1400 years ago on a huge rock. Art historians think it’s the most valuable sculpture. The statue is from the 7th century and 23 feet high. Incidentally, a huge tree blocks the view of this carving. There is a restaurant just opposite the Buddha carving. We had lunch under the open sky in the sun. Further ahead, visited a monastery from outside and a fort plastered into the face of the hill. There was no time to enter any of these as it involved considerable walk uphill.
Fort plastered into the face of the hill
After the barren landscape of Ladakh, greenery appeared and Suru river gave us company for long distance. After few more hours drive through the countryside, we arrived at Kargil, the first Muslim town on this route. The Kargil war between India and Pakistan in 1999 made it well known place. It is the second largest town in Laddak and lies on the banks of the Suru river, 204 kms west of Leh. 2-3 KM before reaching Kargil, we picked up two Kashmiri girls, who waved and asked for lift upto the market. Urdu, they spoke in sweet Kashmiri accent, stirred nostalgic memories of my class five education in Srinagar, half century back. The sweetness reminded me of my two Kashmiri lady class teachers. The Urdu reminded me of Lucknow, my class 9-10th education when Urdu was the language I used to speak. The two words the girls spoke, clicked the surge of memory, ‘darakht’ ( tree ) and dariya’ (river). They were giving us directions for car parking and hotel search. I was wondering whether girls walk freely on the street, talk and ask lift with strangers in any Muslim country in the world. I stopped short of requesting them to pose for a photograph with my wife, as I would have done at any other place. But here, I was not sure of their reaction.
Checked in a hotel near the main market with a safe car parking, had tea, and then took a stroll through the market. Earlier, we had taken two rounds of the town in the car due to NH being one way road, had to search the road to the other direction. There is nothing to see in the town. Beauty of the town lies in the Suru river which flows along side the town. Secondly, the road to a beautiful tourist area, Zanskar valley, goes from here. Hotel was very good and we had pleasant stay with good food, centrally heated water supply, TV etc.
Kargil Drass Zojila Pass Sonmarg ( 128 km )
Had breakfast of alu parathas ( these always taste good during journey) and moved on. When I asked for directions to Bheem Batta, one Kashiri Muslim, speaking sweet Urdu, gave directions. We chatted a while and when he came to know that we two were coming from Delhi and that too, via Leh, insisted that we must come to his residence near by and have tea. As we had paucity of time, we declined his offer politely and extended counter offer for tea we were carrying with us, which he declined. Then we visited Bheem Batta. It is said that Bheem died here and his body is lying in the form of a stone boulder. The place is a good picnic spot and scenic due to isolated location and river flowing by the side. It also appeared that some one had performed puja on Bheem Batta. We had tea and snacks at the spot and pushed off.
Tea break at Bheem Batta
Moved on to Drass, the second coldest inhabited place on earth after Siberia and had spectacular view of Kargil War famous Peaks Tiger Hill and Tololing Peak. Spent some time at Kargil War Memorial which has an army heliapd as well. The Memorial has been constructed in the memory of soldiers who laid their lives for us during Kargil War in 1999. Then we visited Draupadi Kund. It is said that Draupadi takes bath here even now a days. The lake imparted serene look to the place and there was a temple as well. Further ahead, we came across Zozila War Memorial but choose not to stop there. We saw Baltal, some distance away on a branch road. It is one of the two routes for Amarnath Yatra, the other one with milder slope but longer distance is via Pahalgaon and Chandanbari.
Loops before reaching Sonmarg
About 10-12 km before Sonmarg, road turned out to be very difficult, non-existent, under construction and dangerous with very sharp multiple hairpin bends. It was late evening, sun light fading, when we reached Sonmarg. Checked in a resort with a good view. Then we went to visit the small market in car as it was some distance away. In the night, had reasonably good dinner and bed. We could have stayed in the Tourist Lodge, rooms were available, but it is located in the market.
Sonmarg Gandarbal Kheer Bhawani Manasbal Srinagar ( 142 km )
Sonmarg – Morning view from our hotel
Checked out and had alu paratha in a hotel in the market. We skipped Glacier visit which involved horse riding or walk, both of which we avoid for disc problem and proceeded towards Gandarbal.
About 10 km before Gandarbal, we stopped at a tyre shop. Got the tyre pressure checked and there was another work pending for 15 days, cleaning of air intake filter of the car. The idea popped in mind when I noticed slight degradation in pulling power on hill gradients. On dismantling of air filter, I found it reasonably clean and surmised that the degradation of pulling power might have been caused by low oxygen level in the air at higher altitude. However, the filter was air blown and fitted back. The man asked for too low charges for the work, paid him extra as tip. I read somewhere on net that there is a Mazar of a Hazrat at Gandarbal worth a visit. On enquiring from the shopkeeper, came to know that there is no such thing but we must visit Kheer Bhawani temple which is 5 km away from Gandarbal. Some more people joined him and all of them insisted that we must visit. Every Hindu, who comes to Kashmir does not return without visiting Devi’s temple. What a surprise for me, that three Muslims are advising us, in fact insisting, that we must visit Kheer Bhawani temple. They gave complete road directions how to reach, and also told us that Devi accepts prasad of only Kheer and nothing else.
In the past I had been searching for exact location of Kheer Bhawani temple. I read that it is one of the 51 Shaktipeeths. But, somehow, exact location is not mentioned. I checked all tourism pamphlets and maps I had with me. Checked on slow GPRS internet, but no mention of location. And all of a sudden, these three Muslim strangers, without asking, are telling me where it is and we must go there. This is what they call “Devi ka bulawa”. When She calls, only than you will go, not otherwise. Since we didn’t know that Kheer Bhawani is near Gandarbal, or there is another tourist spot ( Manasbal Lake), we would have just passed through Gandarbal and would have missed both spots, but for these people. Can’t thank these people enough.
The temple was under complete control of the army and the security was very strict, although, it never caused us any problem due to age factor. As one thing leads to another, we visited Kheer Bhawani temple and saw a display board that Manasbal Lake is only 6 km away and we may visit. We did visit and liked it too. Beautiful lake, with garden and lawn, shikara ride and all that. There was an ancient temple but no further information as to what temple, what period etc. We took our packed lunch and tea, in the garden of Manasbal. It was 2 pm already by the time we left Manasbal.
Since we had only one day at Srinagar as next day was Jumma (Friday), Namaz day, and day of likely trouble in the valley, we had to finish the sight seeing by today evening. The hotel manager at Sonmarg had suggested a road to skirt the city and directly reach Mughal Garden area. We reached garden area by 2:30, had some snacks and tea. And continued visiting gardens one after another. First garden we reached was Shalimar Bagh, Nishat Bagh, and 7 km drive on to the hill temple, Shankaracharya Temple. My family had lived in Srinagar when I was in class V, quarter century back, and my mother had auspicious memories of this temple. She told me a number of times that I must visit this temple if I ever happen to visit Kasmir. When it happened, I could not convey the news to her. It could have been conveyed over phone but I thought of telling her in person when I reach Patna next month. By the time I reached Patna, it was too late. Then we visited Chashm-e-Shahi and Pari Mahal.
Fixed up a House Boat, unloaded the baggage into Shikara, and went for parking the car in paid private parking along with the shikara man, Suleiman Bhai. Went to House boat, settled in, had tea. The House boat had every facility, attached bath, running hot and cold water, bath tub, well furnished drawing room and two small benches outside, on both sides of door. After tea, we set out for floating market to buy some souvenir for the children. The shikara man, Suleiman Bhai remained with us till we finished marketing. Generally, these house boats are stationery and are moved around for some specific purposes like marriage. We happened to see a house boat moving. It was going to brides house with groom and marriage party for nikah. Sounds strange. The house boat with marriage party tripped the overhead power line some where and we were plunged into darkness. I was 8pm We had finished purchasing and were in the process of making payment through debit card, when power failed. I don’t know how they could manage without power supply, but payment was made. This was another world floating on water, hawkers moving around door to door on shikara, florist coming to doors of one houseboat to another, with flowers loaded shikara, a lady rowing her shikara taking her parents to hospital ( our house boat owner told us ), children going to school ( forgot to ask whether the school was floating as well ), floating vegetables growing field.
As a technical man, I was interested to know how they got their water supply in the house boats and where and how they disposed off the sewerage. Learnt that water was supplied through pipes by city water supply system. Regarding sewerage, well…well…please don’t ask me.
Srinagar Banihal Patnitop ( 182 km )
Checked out of the house boat, Suleiman Bhai, ready with his shikara to drop us up to the main road running along the Dal Lake. The terms of the house boat is that you may go to shore, i.e. main road on shikara as many times as you like and it is free, rest all trips like market etc are chargeable extra. There was some tricky issue regarding payment to Suleiman Bhai as he wouldn’t tell me the figure but left it to my judgment. He had spent 2-3 hours with us during marketing and traveled some distance to market, had been a good and contant companion and nice gentleman. He was not happy with the disturbance in the valley, as it effected their livelihood which depends on tourist volume. He was chain smoker, and asked for a cigarette from me. I warned him about the Charminar’s reputation as most strong cigerette, and gave him one. He liked it and told me that he had never smoked such a strong cigerette in his life. I gave him three packets of Charminar. He kept on telling me that he would smoke it during winter as it would give him some relief from cold. I wanted to see him happy. So I paid him as I thought reasonable. When I found him pleased, paid him some more to be sure.
Suleiman Bhai was to accompany us up to city in our car for a quick tour of city and main market. But in the morning, he enquired about bund/curfew in the city and came to know that this Friday, Hurriat has called Bund. Normally army imposes curfew on Fridays. I asked him about trouble enroute to Jammu. He told me today is Namaz day in masjids and people gather there. Some one delivers a provocative speech and the trouble erupts. But it would be after 1pm only. By that time we will be in relatively safer area.
With a good bye to Suleiman Bhai, we embarked on our journey out of Kashmir valley. Being a Bund day, called by Hurriat, we were some what apprehensive but were soon relieved seeing partial response to Bund call and good army presence all along the route and particularly, in town and market areas. The scenery along the road is picturesque. As they say, journey is more pleasant than the destination. Crossed Banihal tunnel (Jawahar Tunnel). Reached Patnitop by evening, large number of trucks causing enough trouble and speed sacrifice. Going was too slow for number of reasons, trucks, streets full of crowd due to Friday, roads narrow at places, entire traffic being stopped for VIP convoy to pass, etc.
Patnitop is a picturesque little place on the way to Srinagar at around 2000 met altitude. There is nothing special tourist spot to visit but just relax and enjoy the scenery. There is a Nag Temple near by. Visited the same. Then checked in a hotel with a good view from balcony. One can spend a few days here in peace and tranquility, but we had time constraint.
Patnitop Udhampur Mansar (82 km )
Had a terrible day due to traffic jam, caused by heavy truck traffic on both sides of the road. We were moving at 5 kmph, stopping and starting repeatedly. Short distance from Udhampur bypass, traffic eased and we stopped for fueling and then late lunch at a simple road side dhaba. Instead of going towards Jammu, we changed direction and decided to halt at Mansar. Could do only 82 km in whole day and reached Mansar by evening only. The place is a beautiful tourist spot with Lake and temple. We checked in a hotel and then came out on foot to stroll around the lake area and temple and spent around one hour and enjoyed it. Had tea, pakoras, watched very large size fish being fed by people, mostly local and some coming from nearby areas. Fishing was prohibited in the lake and the area of 5 km radius around Mansar is vegetarian, hence over population of fish in the lake. There is a big size tortoise as well, which extended its neck by one foot when food was dangled above its head.
Beware – I did not know, they may bite our finger
Mansar Pathankot Julundar Ludhiana Ambala Kurukshetra ( 424 km )
Back to same place from where it all started. Completed one full circle – Kurukshetra. I don’t know what got into me, drove 424 km to Kurukshetra for night halt. I never drove this much distance in one day in my life. Perhaps, I was testing my own endurance, once in a while. Or perhaps, the warm weather or disliking for city halt, more so in plains. Passed Pathankot bye pass, which had traffic jam due to parking of thousands of trucks on both sides of the road. Passed Julundhar, Ludhiana and Ambala, stopping for lunch only. Journey lasted from 7:30 am to 8 pm. Checked in the same Birla Mandir Dharmashala as it is secure for keeping cars and went out to market. I badly needed tea. Had tea and then went to quiet and serene Brahma Sarovar and sat on the steps in silence. Had dinner and back to Birla Dharmshala. Found gate locked, they opened it for us.
Kurukshetra Panipat Sonipat Delhi ( 181 km )
At Sonipat, had lunch at Lallu’s Residence ( B-in-L ), started at 3PM and reached Delhi by 5PM, the car loaded with 30-40 kg of apples. Feeling sad and empty that it ended as all good things must end. It had been memorable 40 days and around 4000 km. This trip became adventure trip instead of pleasure trip. I don’t think, there is any other section in India as adventurous as this section.
This year, in Sep-Oct 2011, will be visiting entire Kumoun valley in Uttarakhand (Nainital, Jim Corbet and all other tourist places in Kumoun). From there, Gangotri-Yamunotri (Kedar Badri done in 2009 ), and then enter Himachal from this side and visit Kotgarh, Rohru, Hatkoti, Thanedar. Also to Manoj Kumar’s place once more, if he is not transferred. If so, I will make a programme in 2012 to where ever he is transferred, Nepal, Bhutan or any other project. After all, where will I get such an excellent host.