I hope you all have enjoyed the stay at Sonamarg, now start the most awaited, least ventured and ambitious journey, so guys be with me and enjoy the thrill and serenity of nature.
Full of enthusiasm and gradually acclimatized of high altitude by now, we were heading towards the so called most difficult terrain of the Zozi-La, second highest pass on Srinagar Leh highway at an altitude of 3500 meters. There is a common say that if you successfully pass through Zozi-La, you reach Leh. It is pertinent to mention that the road to Zozi-La commonly known as Zozi-La-Pass is open for traffic in the morning after the Army Convoy crosses it carrying all necessary items every day. The road is steeply high with blind curves, rugged and very narrow with high rise mountains at one side and steep deep slopes on the other, which allows only one vehicle at one time. At a junction prior to entering the pass, the vehicles are kept stranded by the Indian Army and allow the descending vehicles cross the pass first after which the ascending vehicles are allowed to enter. This is inevitably required because of the danger of rolling down the steep slopes on the loose pebbled road, drivers trying to allow passing the vehicles coming from the other end. The silver lining is, a new road was under construction which will be broader and less fearful.
We reached at the junction in 10-15 minutes from Sonamarg and were on halt waiting the empty trucks and army vehicles pass. All the drivers and passengers were out of their vehicles to enjoy the beautiful morning view of high mountain ranges and deep valleys around, at the site. Just then very sad news alerted all of us, there was an accident occurred at Zozi-La where a local taxi rolled down the slopes killing three of its passengers and the driver while speeding only one hour before we reached there. We were in a state of shock and I was praying that our colleagues may not get panicked out of the incident. The worse thing happened when the fellow traveler, in Honda Brio decided to go back. I talked to one of the army personnel on his duty and he motivated us to go ahead as there was excellent road after crossing a few kilometers of the Zozi-La. Immediately then, there was information on his walkie-talkie that the vehicles on the other side have been halted and instructed to release the vehicles from our end. I immediately started for the onward journey without waiting consent from my colleagues and I was the first to enter the Zozi-La with a Gypsy moving ahead with red flag piloting the private convoy. A few minutes of silence, my grip was hard on the steering and seat-belt untied (not advisable in hills), seat sliding little front and eyes on the road without staring any where else.
Wow! The exclamation broke the silence by mere view of the landscape, so picturesque with snow clad mountains right in the front and lush greenery all around and the road ahead was through frozen ice, cut by the ice cutter machines by the Beacon wing of the BRO. The road was broader and safer to wait and watch the beautiful surrounding filled with chilly wind blowing, carrying essence of freshness and aroma of the mountainous flora.
About Zozi-La (compiled from different sources)
Zoji La is a high mountain pass located on NH-1D between Srinagar and Leh in the western section of the Himalayan mountain range. Though often referred to as Zojila Pass in the foreign press, the correct English translation is Zoji Pass or simply Zojila, since the suffix ‘La’ itself means pass in several Himalayan languages. The usage of the word “La” can also be seen in the Khardung La, Fotu La, Namika La and Pensi La etc. In modern-day North Indian languages, ‘La’ and ‘Darra’ are both used interchangeably to mean a mountain pass.
Zoji La is 9 km (5.6 mi) from Sonamarg and provides a vital link between Ladakh and Kashmir. It runs at an elevation of approximately 3,528 metres (11,575 ft), and is the second highest pass after Fotu La on the Srinagar-Leh National Highway. It is often closed during winter, though the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) is working to extend traffic to most parts of the year. The Beacon Force unit of the BRO is responsible for clearing and maintenance of the road during winter
During the Indo-Pakistani War of 1947, Zoji La was seized by Pakistani raiders in 1948 in their campaign to capture Ladakh. The pass was captured by Indian forces on 1 November in a daring assault codenamed Operation Bison, which achieved success primarily due to the surprise use of tanks, then the highest altitude at which tanks had operated in combat in the world.
We were happy with our decision; Kargil was our next designated halt for refreshment which is 100 km from Zozi La, a 3-4 hour drive. However, there was a thrill of reaching Drass on the way too, which is considered to be the 2nd coldest inhabited place in the world. The road now was like on plains allowing us to drive on top gear. The air was fragrant and refreshing though cool; the sun was so helpless with minimum thermal radiation. Few small hutments and paddy fields with swaying barley plantation on the way dissipated all earlier worries welcoming open heartedly in the region of Ladakh. School going kids with red dry cheek waving hands and smiling and cheering reminded our childhood.
On the way is a historic place based on Indian mythology called Bhimbhut Stone, five km from Drass towards a village called Bhimbut is famous for the holy rock signifying the petrified body of Bhimsen during the exile of Pandavas of Mahabharata. This place is worshiped by both Hindus and Muslims with due reverence. A legend says worshiping the pious stone by childless women are blessed with child immediately. Its significant to mention here due to the harmony in the natives despite of 90% muslim domination in the area. Steadily we headed towards Drass, on a plain and well maintained road through the paddy fields and water streams at times passing by the road, the inhabitants were now looking similar to Ladakhis. I had studied a bit before visiting the places and so I knew, it is the gateway to Ladakh located in Kargil district. The meaning of Drass in native Baltic is HELL, because of the adversity and cruelty in its climate. The average temperature in the region during winter is −25 °C which may fall to as low as −50 °C. A climate data can justify the bitter truth, compiled from different sources and reproduced for general information.
We stopped alongside a beautiful swaying paddy field with a school alongside to have a glimpse of the nature’s magical view, who knows if we will ever be able to be there again! It was so emotional to stand amidst the nature’s lap that we all started jumping in hay. A small tea stall offered us bread and omelet and hot glass of tea, served on a small plastic table with plastic (broken) chairs but we felt like having a royal meal at some star hotel or even better. Few photographs and back to the driving seat. Drass is a small but busy town on the way so passed through it in slow pace, without blowing horn (just didn’t want to hinder the serene tranquility). The road after it was better and more picturesque.
We were hopeful to reach Leh by evening, it was 9 am at Drass and we were supposed to reach Kargil before noon. The road after Kargil is in very good condition with fewer steeps and much plain therefore, I tried to keep me off the steering and enjoy the landscape as much as I can and also simultaneously capture them in my camera. My colleagues by now were happy and very excited too, to reach closer to the dream destination gradually. I was beside the driver, now grabbing the opportunity to enjoy with freedom. River Drass now comes alongside the road with an added beauty to keep the driver on high mood and lifted spirit. The spirit lifts higher when you reach the Kargil War Memorial, a few kilometers from Drass, far before Kargil town. This was the place where heavy shelling and bombing was unfortunately done during the Kargil War in May 1999 killing more than 1000 soldiers on both sides and over 2000 wounded. The conflict ended in July 1999 after our brave soldiers regained the honour by pushing the insurgents and infiltrates on back foot in triumphant Operation Vijay. We were longing to pay our obeisance to the heroes thus, bowed head thankfully for their martyrdom. Trust me, a spontaneous feeling of patriotism incited into our mind and we all shouted together Bande Matram and Jai Hind teasing the Pakistanis, though the nearest point to the POK is over 150 km from there. A few photos in front of the memorial were homage to our martyrs.
With heads high and filled with patriotism we headed towards our next immediate point Kargil. The landscape now gradually changing from lush greenery to dull barren mountainous, vegetation was scarce except few trees alongside the river flowing timidly carrying silt and mud gathered on the way at its turbulence, adjacent to the road all the way. Just 5 km from Kargil, another incident occurred, when everything was seemingly going right. A large block of rock fell on the road stranding the Army Convoy which has started in the early morning from Srinagar via Sonamarg. The heavy earthmovers were however, doing their job but we had to wait for more than one hour till the road was open for use. A few minutes from that point, a panoramic view of two rivers converging, with a delightful sight attracts a spontaneous halt by every traveler. The River Drass in India with dull brown water flowing adjacent to the highway and the River Singho from Pakistan with crystal clear water gushing from the other side converges with two visible and distinct water streams merging ahead with increased volume. No political boundaries could stop their meeting and flowing together in harmony and tranquility.
At or around 1 PM we reached Kargil, it’s a small but important town in the Ladakh region situated on the bank of river Indus popularly known as River Suru, well connected to Srinagar and Leh through Highway No. 1D commonly known as Srinagar – Ladakh highway. We were traveling on this route and still to reach Leh which is 230 km from Kargil. Kargil has an average elevation of 2700 meters and very cold in the winter with temperature falling to minus 40 degrees however, summer days are warmer with cold nights. We need not enter the town as the road to Leh is on Srinagar – Ladakh highway via Shargole and Mulbekh. Another road leading to Leh is via Batalik, should be avoided mistaken, because that is not the conventional road and through difficult terrain besides longer. However, the fuel tank was indicating for a refueling and we were not sure of any filling stations ahead hence, we entered a little inside the town for petrol in the car and air check in the tubeless wheels.
I was back on the driving seat and wished to reach Leh before its dark. The road immediately was round and steep for a few kilometers thereafter, leading to straight and dusty. The landscape was totally dull as if you are driving in the desert amidst sand storms. The wind shield needed persistent wiping with water sprinkling and temperature was hot. The car AC was doubted and we were literally sweating inside. Actually, we elevated to more than 4000 meters under a cloudless sky directly exposed to the Sun. It was very hot outside which we realized only after sliding down the window panes. The road was however pretty good and plain allowing us to keep the pace constant. On the way we came across a few monasteries at the peaks of the mountains camouflaged due to its manufacturing material which was perhaps the sand and stones of the same mountains thus matching with its colour, visible only due to the colourful flags tied around them. We badly needed a stopover for filling our tummy and also stretching our limbs which crumbled due to constant driving since early morning hence looking for an eatery where some eatables are available. Pertinently, this is one of the world’s most sparsely populated regions hence, not many people are available on your way for enquiries. We reached Mulbekh which is again a monastery with a landmark known as Chamba Statue and found a small restaurant at one end of the road side serving Tibetan food. We had fried rice and momos and a fruit beer, picked few bottles of water and started off after capturing the landscape in my camera on the onward journey, longing to reach Leh.
We were told by the guys in the restaurant at Mulbekh that the Lama Yuru monastery is a must visit if we can afford time on the way. The road now onward was very well maintained and almost on plains except some curves and high rises. We therefore, decided for a short break at Lama Yuru. The monastery is situated after 15 km on the way passing the Fotu La Top, the highest point on Srinagar-Leh road at an altitude of 4050 meters. The 11th century monastery boasts to be housing 400 monks in the past, currently populated with 150 monks permanently and few others from the surroundings. The mask festival hosted here twice in a year is remarkably attended by Buddhists from far and near and fetches locals and outside visitors too. The monastery is a marvel of architecture built on the hills naturally carved in centuries and very photogenic. After a short stopover and clicking few shots, we were on our way.
It was 4 PM and we were yet almost 110 km away from Leh. Suspicions rose, if we can reach the place before its dark, whether we will get an accommodation and how hospitable is the town to outsiders, especially during night, filled me in anxiety in my already heavy head. Full of absurd thoughts, we decided to reach there non-stop. The road condition boosted us to drive faster; I was on the steering again and speeded my car upto 130 km/h on straighter roads for the first time in the entire journey so far.
Suddenly we came under the shades of very gigantic mountains on both sides of the road with a river with very dull and grey colored water full of silt, flowing along side. It was shadowy because the cliffs of the sand stone mountains hanging on the roof allowing little light to penetrate and the road turning in sharp curves. The sight was so delightful and panoramic that I don’t have words to describe it neither my photographs can do the job. You need to be there to experience the nature’s charisma. A triumphant feeling of almost reaching the dream destination highlighted our joy to a greater extent. Engulfed in excitement and ecstasy we continued keep rolling. It was an unforgettable moment to see the sun setting behind the gigantic sand stone structural mountains with figures appearing on them like shades of brush strokes creating abstract impressions on the nature’s canvass, opulently defining the gracefulness of creativity through visual delight. Lost in the illusionary of vision and spellbound with the bounty of natural wealth, we in fact reached our “dream come true” destination. A toll of Rs. 100/- is levied for entering the city and thus we were through. Yes, it was almost dark and I lit the head lights of my car, with a usual bowing head and prayer on lighting the car’s head lights, practiced by every Indian driver, I guess. Simultaneously, I thanked God for the safe journey so far. We were in Leh, a city that surprised me with its beautiful modern amenities as good as in any big city in the country.
Street lights, one way road, traffic signals with excellent traffic system, sufficiently crowded matching any urban development with multi branded showrooms, big shops, automobile dealers, service stations, parks, roundabouts and what not. I was very shy and sorry about my skepticisms by underestimating it. Leh is the second largest district in terms of area after Kutch in Gujrat, in the country with an area of over 45,000 sq. km at an altitude of 3525 meters however, very scarcely populated inhabiting around 35,000 – 40,000 only. Leh experiences a cold and harsh winter from October to early March with minimum temperatures well below freezing point with occasional snowfalls. The weather in the remaining months is generally fine and warm during the day with cool to cold nights. The temperature ranges from −30 °C in winter to 30 °C in summer. A weather chart compiled from authentic sources will well illuminate the factual.
On enquiring a local taxi driver, we were apprised about the hotels situated at the old Leh road which is straight from the round about, in a narrower road having many hotels and guest houses in a row. We were not in a condition to bargain much, hence entered in the first hotel, looking not so expensive i.e. Hotel Shanti Palace, the tariff was however much high. After little bargain, we booked a deluxe room at Rs. 2500/- for the night with one extra bedding on payment of additional Rs. 300/-. No car parking facility was available hence, parked our car in front of the hotel gate. The car was so dirty with dust and mud carried on the way, that even I couldn’t recognize it at first instance. The room was however, cosy and clean with fresh linen on beds and dry toilet with quality toiletries and running hot water. Obviously we took hot shower since it was pretty cold and stretched on the bed recalling the on road journey so far. Can’t comment much about the hotel because we have not required anything nor did we confront any difficulty. The hotel owner, a Ladakhi lady was sitting at the reception and her husband was managing the guest’s requirements. We ordered our dinner in the room which was served well before our expectation. Taste was good but highly priced. Most of the hotels in the area have business in the short span of season only hence, are substantially over priced, I feel.
Leh is now turning to a hot tourist destination with number of tourists increasing multifold every year because of its offerings, a completely diversified landscape and many nearby exquisite places of tourist attraction. Indian cinema and media have contributed their best in familiarizing the place that brought awareness, fetching tourists to this region, once upon a time a remote destination and last in the list of visitors. A one hour air journey from Delhi, to this heaven on earth was deprived to its due reward for years due to many factors, one out of which might be a myth of its being inhospitable and also due to lack of awareness programs deserved by this awesome place. Even our tourism department lacked in promotion of tourist awareness strategies, depriving the region its due.
Leh has so much to offer and so many places of interest to visit that a week stay in Leh is worth and recommendable to every visitor. The Nubra valley offering a camel ride in its cold desert alongside the lake, a charismatic and magical view of the panoramic Pangong Lake with changing colour of its crystal clear water mystifying every visitors stretching far beyond the borders to China, a drive through the world’s highest motorable road at Khardung La at an altitude of 5602 meters, rafting in the ice cold water of turbulent river Zanskar also known as the Grand canyon of Asia, camping at the village camps and monasteries, biking on the roads to Magnetic Hill, a visit to its palaces and its ruins and much more, are few of the activities await for visitors to explore.
We had no plans to stay in Leh as the most important portion of our road journey was still to venture. The road from Leh to Manali is supposed to be one of the most adventurous and arduous besides deceitfully treacherous. The journey comprises of most ardent climbs and loops on the unbelievable high road, swamps, high current streams traversing the road and through capricious whether condition. The route is accessible for roughly four months after the snow melt or cleared by the designated wings of the Indian Army for transportation of their necessities for the whole long winter. The most passionate and adventure lovers only try to travel on this route. The road is mostly dusty through the highest desert amidst dull brown and arid mountains however, with snow on its peaks for a change in colour under the bright blue clear sky above the head.
This part of the land is in rain shadow hence, experience almost no to very scarce rain even in the monsoon thus no greenery at all. Leh to Manali is almost 500 km and cannot be covered in one day because driving in night is impossible and strictly not advisable. Trying it may lead to fatality, the streams gushing down from the very high melting glaciers with ice cold water traverses the road at many points and the current of these streams keep rising during the after hours and thus advised to cross them before noon. Many vehicles are reported carried away, falling through the steep slopes into the very deep valleys due to misjudging the force of these streams. Moreover, acclimatization to high altitude is also a must before entering the high passes. It is advised to keep awaken during the night stay in the high passes to avoid nausea causing vomiting and severe headache, deteriorating into AMS. People generally conduct this, India’s most adventurous journey from Manali with a night halt at Keylong because of availability of many tour operators there and also because Manali is a famous holiday destination, more often visited by both Indian and Foreign tourists. Manali is at an altitude of 2000 meter hence, not a right place to acclimatize, immediately Rohtang Pass on the way to Leh is at an altitude of 4000 meter which is only 50 km and may take 2 hours to reach. The sudden change in height results in complications in many travelers. Keylong is at a lower height of 3000 meters and a hot spot for night stay for travelers in this route from Manali.
We were traveling in opposite direction i.e. from Leh to Manali and were well acclimatized so far hence, we had to start early to reach Keylong for a comfortable night halt because of many hotels and luxury camps available there at a lower height. We were ready to move at 6 AM but the car was so dirty from both outside and inside (due to fine dust entering through the window while they were open on the way) that we decided to clean it properly before the journey. After searching for some one to do it, we had to end up washing it on our own since no one was available at that early hour. A stream of clean water flowing in a nullah opposite to the hotel, adjacent to the old Leh road was the only source of water available. We deliberately collected water from the source and cleaned the car as good as in any service station. The only bad thing happened was frozen hands due to extreme cold weather and ice cold water. Well, nothing doing, we applied some cold cream and warmed our hands and body by switching on the car heater. After our palms were back in senses, we headed towards a service station for filling the tank because the next petrol pump was only 365 km from there. Having filled the tank and checked the air pressure in the wheels including the extra wheel, we were on our way to the dream journey. We were advised by the locals to visit the Hemis Monastery on the way hence we decided to have our breakfast there after visiting it. A left turn from the round about in the city, leads the road to Manali with sign boards. We speeded on the beautifully maintained road leaving the magnificent city with a promise to visit again, to explore it soon by staying there for at least one week.