Getting Leh’d in ten days – Part 1

Whenever I read about someone’s excursion to Leh, it’s a heroic story all about grit and determination. It’s about a man, his machine and the mountain. It’s about how one faces the vagaries of nature, the treacherous roads and the numbing cold. It’s like an action movie with a heavy metal background score. In stark comparison, my narration will be like a Karan Johar flick. All scenes will be in soft focus, everything will be beautiful, there will be drama and intrigue, all set to a melodious tune.

From Leh

Delhi-Srinagar

The scene starts from Delhi from where, Swetha and I board a JetLite flight to Srinagar on the morning on July 02, 2010. Not surprisingly the flight was delayed by an hour, however the excitement of beginning the journey which most people only “plan” about, culled any cribs that we might have had due to the delay.

I was very apprehensive about the situation in Srinagar, it wasn’t uncommon to hear reports of violence in the city. To make it as safe as possible, I had booked a room in the hotel Center Point so that we didn’t have to go hunting for accommodation as soon as we reach Srinagar. On arriving in Srinagar we were picked up the the taxi, a complimentary service offered by the hotel.
While driving towards the hotel, we saw a lot of people in the streets but all the shops were closed. The driver attributed this to the fact that shop owners were expecting some trouble and wanted to avoid any damage. Apparently the calm over Srinagar was both fragile and brittle. The hotel was a huge disappointment, it was nowhere as close to the Dal lake as was advertised and it was not as cozy as the had pictures suggested. Anyway, we were treating Srinagar just as a sojourn so how good the hotel was didn’t matter to us. After dumping our things into the room and after verifying many times over that it was safe to venture around the Dal lake, we left the hotel on foot to arrange for a taxi to Leh.

Now, the general impression that we got was that the area around the Dal lake and “Tourist Reception” office is safe. We walked over to the Tourist Reception office to see if we can strike a deal for a taxi to Leh. Few taxi drivers approached us, and demanded anything between Rs.10K to Rs 12K to take us to Leh with a stopover at Kargil. From what I had found out, the price should not be more that 8K. Politely declining their offers we both walked on, discussing if we should go ahead by paying 10K or should we negotiate more.

An elderly man, with thin gray beard, wearing the traditional Kashmiri dress and a tagiyah, approached me to inquire if I was looking for a taxi. Assuming he was yet another agent, I tried to ward him off. But then he said respectfully in Hindi that I should not talk to him rudely and that he has business in Chandini Chowk and he can help us out in our search for taxi to Leh. He asked me for my cell phone number and he said that he would contact us if he find a taxi for us. He gave me his cell phone number, and I got to know his name: Jan Muhammad (+919419095642, +919906447788). Jan Muhammad , turned out to be a very helpful and a considerate man. He told us that the drivers who own a Leh registered taxi charge you less than the drivers who own a Srinagar registered taxi. (The equation gets reversed while coming to Srinagar from Leh).

Swetha and I walked towards the Dal Lake hoping to see the lake that has been the muse of so many poets, but before we could reach there, Jan Muhammad called us, saying he has arranged for a taxi; a new Mahindra Xylo, at 8K ! We went back and he introduced us to our driver, Abdul. He insisted that we leave Srinagar by 3 next morning to avoid the Amarnath Traffic. Being lazy people that we are, we insisted that we should leave by 5 (only to realize later that we should have followed his advice).

Content with fact that we have arranged for a taxi to Leh, we walked around the Dal Lake. We were the only tourists around the lake, and I in my red football jersey was standing out like a sore thumb (or an easy target!).

From Leh

Srinagar-Kargil

Following morning, Abdul came to pick us up from the hotel at the stipulated time, and at dusk we started for Kargil. Jan Muhammad thoughtfully called to inquire if we had left on time. As we sped past the Dal Lake, I saw the silhouette person praying in response to the azan, with a backdrop of the huge and magnificent Dal Lake reflecting the mild light of the morning skies. Truly, it was one of those scenes that should land on the cover page of National Geographic.
Soon the tame plains soon gave way to the majestic mountains. At Ganderbal we came across several troops of soldiers probably on a regular march across the hills. They walked slowly,as if lost in thoughts, with their guns slung across their shoulders. I wanted to point my SLR towards them and click a few pics, but then decided against it. What if they pointed their SLRs towards me? Our road snaked around the mountains parallel to the Jhelum river and as we reached the small village of Kangan, the early morning sun was setting the mountain tops on fire. We got another call from Jan Muhammad, he wanted to know if we are safely out of Srinagar. Coming from a stranger in a strange land, this show of warm concern by Jan Muhammad was amazing indeed.

From Leh

Like the eleventh commandment thundered down from heaven, Google had decreed “Thou shall wear a t-shirt and shorts” and I had meekly obeyed. By the time we reached the picturesque town Sonamarg, I was frozen. We stopped at Sonamarg for breakfast, which comprised of piping hot aloo parathas in a Punjabi Dhaba, served with dollops of butter, along with tea. The movement of vehicles beyond Sonamarg had been halted as there was traffic jam ahead due to the huge number of vehicles coming from and to Amarnath. We took this opportunity to sit by the roaring river and enjoy pleasant warm sunshine.

From Leh

We had been away from our taxi for almost an hour, and Abdul got worried. He came looking and was visibly relieved to find us. Seemingly, the traffic movement had been allowed and we hopped into the car only to be stopped a few kilometers ahead. The traffic due to the amarnath yatris was choking the road. The place where the traffic was halted was serene and beautiful, with a small mountain stream flowing down.

From Leh

As I watched the amarnath yatris, who were on pilgrimage to see the holy shrine, I noticed the general demeanor of the yatris was anything but pious. They littered the roads desecrating the beauty of the hills, they played loud music and were more interested in creating a racket than in being immersed in thoughts about the Holy One. It was a shameful sight, these people were such pathetic representatives of the religion.

We had to wait a good three hours before we could get moving. The relief was short lived as we drove right into a traffic jam.

From Leh

It was after a long agonizing hour that we finally broke away from the jam and entered the road towards Leh that was blissfully traffic free. The whole pile up was because of the traffic from and to Amarnath. As we soared higher up into the mountains we looked down to see how enormous the Amarnath camp was.

From Leh

Adept in driving in these hills, Abdul kept up the speed of the car while we enjoyed the views of the stately snow covered mountains. The condition of the road was more-or-less good, consequently the drive was smooth. We were gaining altitude which was evident not only from the fact we were getting closer and closer to the snow capped peaks but also by the fact the we were above the vegetation belt. Few patches of grass was the only greenery around.

From Leh

After we crossed the lonely settlement Thasgam, a steady descent started that eventually led to the village Drass, which happens to be the second most coldest inhabited place in the world. I could see why it would be cold out there, Drass is surrounded between lofty mountains and lies in a naturally formed channel for wind. Cold winds from the snow capped peaks blow directly into the village making it unbearably cold in winters. In fact it was irritatingly windy when we reached there. The wind was not blowing in playful gusts but rather as a persistent gale.

An interesting feature of Drass is a twelve feet wall built along the village with the purpose of keeping the villagers protected from the Pakistani bullets which tend to cross the LOC(which is pretty close by) and land into Indian soil with uncanny regularity.

From Leh

Dining options in Drass are pretty limited. One one side of the road there is one dhaba and on the other there is another dhaba. No matter which dhaba you choose, the dhaba on the other side seems better. We had some gruel for lunch which was barely palatable after which we rested for a while.

“Land of the Pure” is what the name of our neighbor country means. But after visiting the “Operation Vijay Memorial”, I found it ironical that the country should be called that. Under the shadows of Tiger Hill, Point 4590 and Tololing peaks, this Memorial has been built in the memory of the Indian soldiers who paid the supreme sacrifice while defending our motherland in the Kargil War of 1999.

From Leh

The memorial has a wall that lists down the names of 273 Indian soldiers who were KIA in the war. It also has a museum displaying pictures of the war, the extreme conditions faced by the jawans as they fought the war machine of our belligerent neighbor. One pic which was especially moving, depicts an Indian soldier on the Tololing peak, totally battered by the battle, cooking food in a helmet.

From Leh

Visiting the memorial was a humbling experience indeed. Following the Indus river we continued our journey towards Kargil. The view outside changed from rocky hills to arid slopes with lose boulders. We reached Kargil around five in the evening. Kargil is a gloomy hill town situated at the banks of the river Indus, with small houses huddled together. We had to search for a hotel where we could spend the night, but there was nothing much to chose from. There are about three or four hotels in Kargil that would qualify as “acceptable” and we selected one that was a little away from the highway (don’t remember it’s name).

After washing away the dirt of the journey with a delightful hot water bath, we ventured out to the streets. The evening chill and gloomy atmosphere of the town created a weird effect. We walked up to a road bridge from where you could see the Indus hurrying down with a loud ruckus. With fading light of the day we returned to the hotel, to rest for a while. Dinner as expected wasn’t delectable and we managed to gulp down some morsels. Abdul (who apparently had many friends in the town) came over for a visit and asked us to be ready by 6 next morning.
Sleep was hard to come by, as my mind was playing a slideshow of the images and sounds of the travel so far. But the weariness soon numbed the mind and I was lost in the land of dreams.

Kargil-Leh

Next morning we woke up to a feeble sun and walked to the main street to have the customary cup of morning tea. Abdul appeared punctually informing us that we were to take the route via Mulbek to Leh (the other route is via Batalik, which is too close for comfort to LOC).
The scenery was undergoing rapid changes with every few kilometers. From the arid streets of Kargil we moved into some greenery with a backdrop of barren mountains topped with snow.

From Leh

And later into a lush forest around a small stream, and then again to naked and muddy hills. My stomach started transmitting audible reminders that I haven’t had breakfast yet. Soon we drove into the Mulbek, a small hill settlement, which has a gompa located high up in the hill. Our car came to a halt smack opposite the chamba at Mulbek. The chamba has a huge monolithic Buddha carved on a hill.

From Leh

We did our bit of photo-shoot, clicking lots of pics. The valley below was green, the hills around brown and mountains beyond snow-capped. In the morning sun, the place looked astounding.

From Leh

Having fat, pipping hot aloo parathas with sugary tea and a majestic himalayan view, is not an experience that you can call usual. After filling up our bellies we moved on towards our destination. There was heavy movement of army trucks in the opposite direction. Presumably these were returning to Srinagar after delivering supplies to army camps at Leh and beyond.

Whatever greenery remained soon faded away and the road now wrapped around arid and rocky mountains, which shimmered in the sun.

From Leh

The view soon became repetitive (but not at all uninteresting) with stark hills and azure skies. And as the road wound up the mountains we soon reached the highest point on the Srinagar-Leh highway, the “Fotu La” at 13479 ft.

From Leh

At what point I stopped clicking pics and dozed off I don’t remember, but when I opened my eyes, I could see the Lamayuru Monastery perched on a hill top. Surrounded by wind chapped hills the monastery looked like a crown.

From Leh

The memories of the travel are at least as beautiful as the trip itself. Therefore, please don’t blame me for getting carried away. I will take a break now and continue with this fabulous experience soon. Hope you are enjoying my journey so far.

19 Comments

  • wow ——————amazing photos ——————–thnx for sharing

  • ashok sharma says:

    amazing photographs!!!!!!!!
    beautiful story.

  • sarvesh n vashistha says:

    ???? ????? ???? ??? ????? -????? ???? ??? ?? ????? ??????? ?? ??? ??? ??? ?? …????? ?? ?? ???????

  • Surinder Sharma says:

    Dear Sundeepm,

    Wonderful, marvellous pictures, nice description. Buddha statue nicely photograph but not any description about it.

    Operation Vijay Memorial, The memorial has a wall that lists down the names of 273 Indian soldiers who were KIA in the war.
    But in Kargil War India gave its official casualty figures as 527 dead and 1,363 wounded.

    I just google and find this site where someone else visit there and write down .
    http://ibnlive.in.com/photogallery/1433-10.html

    Thanks and regards.

  • JATDEVTA says:

    ???? ???? ???? ?? ?? ??? ?????? ??? ? ??? ??, ?? ???? ?? ?? ?? ????? ??????, ????? ?? ???, ??????????, ??????? ???, ??????, ???????, ????? ?????? ??? ?????? ??,

    ???? ???? ????? ?? ??????? ?????, ??? ???? ????? ?? ??? ?? ?????? ???? ?? ??, ????? ???? ????? ??????? ????

  • ??? ?????? ?? ???? ??? ???, ???? ???? ??? ???? ?????????? ?? ???, ???? ?????? ?? ??????? ????. ???????..

  • Nandan Jha says:

    Maithani – :-) Finally. Seems the constant (and consistent) nagging worked. He he. I have not yet read it again so would do and comment further. So glad and happy to see this story in print. Take Care.

  • Subodh says:

    Your last line in the post “Hope you are enjoying my journey so far. ” disappoints me … with such great pictures and super narration we are bound to enjoy your journey through this post. Leh is the tourist pilgrim and every traveler has got a desire to visit this place , including me.

    ?? ?? ?? ?????? ?? ???? ?? ?? ????
    ???? ??? ???? ?? ??? ? ?????? ???

    Two contrasting examples of faith , Kargil War Memorial and Amarnath yatra .. Sacrificing your life for the nation is the considered to be the highest sacrifice , War memorials are the modern day pilgrims for us, though I believe in peace. On the other side people visiting Amarnath are littering the roads and creating chaos . This happens in every city and in every religion.

    Out of curiosity , which DSLR have you used for photography .

    Waiting for the next part of this travelog.

  • D.L.Narayan says:

    Fantastic post, Sundeep. I have always associated the Leh circuit with “grit and determination.” Thanks for making it seem like a piece of cake. As you have promised, the spectacular visuals and racy narrative is straight out of a K Jo movie. However, had you put captions for the pictures, it would have been even better.

    Thanks also for sharing the useful info about Centrepoint Hotel and Mr. Jan Muhammed. The monolith at Mulbek is Buddhist but is definitely not the Buddha since he is never depicted as four armed; most probably, it might be of a deity from Buddhist mythology.

    Waiting eagerly for your next post.

  • chicobello says:

    fantabulos pics and post….Leh no doubt has been a favorite destination of people and this post has redefined the leh….

  • syed says:

    Awesome article sundeepM….i came to this page and was just thinking, from where i got navigate to it. then i saw your photo :)….

  • Nandan Jha says:

    Brilliant written. Fluid, thoughtful and sublime, similar to the journey you have taken. If one is not keen to stay at Kargil, is there some other place between Leh and Srinagar for a cosy night ?

    • Sundeep says:

      Nope, Kargil is the only big settlement, most of the area between Srinagar and Leh is desolate and uninhabited.

  • Vijay Bansal says:

    Nicely described. I feel like visiting Leh also. Let us see when we get a chance.

  • Dear Sundeep,

    Awsome pictures and equally brilliant narration. It will be difficult for us, as a reader, to pick the best…i.e. the writer or the photographer…anyway, Kashmir is the Heaven on Earth, right.

    It is my long wish to be there once to enjoy the majestic mountains…and the scenic beauty…thank you for the post…

    Regards,

  • Brilliant pictures and narration. I was feeling like reading a poetry.

  • jaishree says:

    well narrated post with tantalizing pics.

    The monolithic statue is considered of Maitreya who occurs in two variants- two armed and four armed. Usually Avalotikeshwara is depicted as four armed but I think this is considered maitreya because of the Stupa in the crown.
    It also marks the transition from Islamist to the Budhist territory, where gompas dot the landscape.

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