Ladakh Part 1: Srinagar to Leh

The Plan

Ladakh is one of the ultimate destinations in Indian adventuring, at least for the run of the mill city guy like me. Anything more requires special gear and some training, anything less isn’t something one brags about. Especially Ladakh by bike is the dream of most people who have travelled on 2 wheels, be it the hardcore biker or the average commuter with a 100cc engine on a cycle (ie. me again). Actually mustering up the courage to do it, getting the requisite amount of leave and money, convincing everyone and their family it can be done without hospitalisation or worse and finally planning the whole thing based on everyone’s convenience, ideas, hopes, and dreams is a whole different story though. This is that story.

The group I was travelling with are no strangers to this kind of travel, having already done Bhutan the year before (A trip I’ve already blogged about). There were a few additions though, two friends of friends who instantly fit in, one was a chilled out guy with a crazy for biking, bets he seems to mostly lose and an unfortunate taste in movies. The other was one with a brilliant eye for photography and a friend in group who had a thing for posing, they made the perfect odd couple. The final addition was the cousin sister of one of the group. While our friend had her first trip with friends be to Bhutan, her cousins first trip ever with friends turned out to be to Ladakh. Think it’s a family thing.

Ambition: yes. Excitement: yes. A clue: No.

Planning began in earnest in March for a June trip. After a lot of squabbling about date and budget, the first draft of the trip had us going from Delhi to Leh via Manali and flying back to Delhi from Leh. This was dropped almost instantly due to the price of the flight tickets from Leh to Delhi. The final solution was to extend the trip to the nearest major airport in the region: Srinagar, adding an additional 2 days to our trip without a large increase in cost. Further tweaking caused us the flip the direction of travel and start in Srinagar and end in Manali in order to get better flight deals.

The tour agency chosen was the Delhi based “Shoes on loose” who would take care of transport, stay and any permits we would require. It was decided we would all travel together in a Tempo Traveller van (TT for short) from Srinagar to Leh and then pick up 3 bikes and a smaller support vehicle for sightseeing around Leh. The final stretch from Leh to Manali would be all together in the TT again before boarding a bus to Delhi from there. Everything would be included as part of our deal with the agency.

Thus began the long wait for June, which saw us paying for the trip in instalments and buying a frankly unnecessary amount of gear out of nervousness and excitement than anything else. Finally, on the dull morning of June 7th, we caught our 10 am flight to Srinagar and began another epic misadventure in the Himalayas.

Day 1: Srinagar

Compulsory wing in air photo

After the over 4 hour flight from Bangalore, which included a small stopover at the beautiful city of Amritsar and an aerial view of the Golden Temple, we finally touched down in Srinagar. A short walk on the runway in surprisingly hot weather and 10 min in baggage claim saw us standing at the exit of the airport looking for an ATM and our driver. Thankfully, both of which we managed to find at the airport.

A point to note here is that prepaid sim cards do not work here, at all. There won’t be cell reception in Kashmir or Ladakh with one. Postpaid sims from Airtel, BSNL and Jio work in the cities but once out the highway cell towers are hard to come by, so prepare accordingly. WiFi too is erratic and sparse, with half decent internet in city hotels to absolutely no internet in the further reaches of Ladakh. That being said if you do come to such remote and beautiful places and spend time looking for net connectivity, you’re kind of missing the point.

Srinagar here we come

The drive into Srinagar was an interesting one. As someone who’s not used to a heavy security presence it was a little odd to see police, paramilitary and even military personnel all the way from the airport to the city, stationed due to the volatility of the region and compounded by the fact that there were dignitaries from Delhi visiting that day. People seemed to go about their day no different than anywhere else though and we soon got used to it.

View from the hotel. As with most Indian cities, always under construction.

Our hotel was in the heart of the city, in a shopping complex no less. We had an event less check-in and settled in for a nap and some food. While there are multiple places to visit in Srinagar, we unfortunately only had half a day to do it all. There was no debate about it, there’s only one sight we’d be seeing, a sight we’ve seen in movies since childhood, the gorgeous Dal Lake.

The main attractions of the lake: little ferry boats, and big houseboats

It was a beautiful day to visit the lake, clear skies and cool temperatures. Unfortunately, the Dignitaries from Delhi seemed to share this sentiment, ensuring that the main roads to the lake were blocked. We were told that while the function was over, the roads would take a while to open. After a small argument between the policeman and our driver, we were shooed away disheartened.

What followed next was a masterclass in driving, requiring a blend of skill, bravery and madness I do not possess. Our driver took the large TT done the tiny streets of downtown Srinagar, on roads I wouldn’t dare take a car through, let alone a large van and at speeds that I’m sure broke at least two laws of physics and one of biology. He got us to the shores of the lake in record time and dropped us off at a nearby restaurant with a smug grin.

Typical Shikara with typical tourists

After food which is varied and easy to find like in most Indian cities, we walked to the shores of the lake and began bargaining with the local boatmen for a ride on the iconic Shikaras of the lake. A Shikara is a small yellow wooden boat used to navigate the massive lake. It’s similar to the Gondolas of Venice and is usually accompanied by a traditionally dressed and usually talkative boatman. They charge a rate based on the amount of time you want to spend and you usually have to bargain to get the best price. We whiled away over 5 hours without realizing it. The lake truly was massive.

The houseboats of the lake, a few of which were also film and TV sets

The lake had a lot of weeds and other plant life just below the surface which ensured that motorised crafts were rare and mainly just large stationary houseboats and the little Shikaras roamed the lake, giving it a calm and quaint atmosphere. We met a large number of vendors along the way. They pulled up next to us in their own boats and try to sell their wares, which ranged from little trinkets and novelties to traditional clothes on rent for photo shoots or for sale if you really want it.

The extraordinarily colourful Dal Lake.

 

Ethnic Kashmiri dresses. Bring your own camera.

Food and beverages too are varied both in type and source. From tiny boats selling tea to large floating restaurants tethered to the banks of the lake, you have multiple options. There are even water sports in the middle of the lake if that’s your thing. We just had some snacks and large quantities of tea and continued on our way. One of the sights of the lake are the various filming locations of Bollywood’s past and present productions, given the love affair the film industry has had with the lake. You can even go up to and visit the various boathouses and locations used as sets or, like us, float past while sipping some good tea.

Sunset from the lake

The final stop on the lake was a floating market. We made our way there after watching a slow orange sunset between the snow-capped mountains from the relaxing vantage point of the lake. The market is a bunch of wooden shops with a waterway running between them. The boat just docked at the shop we wanted to enter and then went off to the side to wait for us. The shops themselves mainly sell spices and clothes, both Kashmiri and others. Prices can be pretty high and the boatmen will usually take them to a shop which will give them a commission. Be prepared to bargain but it’s definitely worth a look, even if it is a little on the tourist trap side of things.

Floating night market

We finally made our way back to shore and after a quick photo shoot and settling bills with our boatmen, we got back into our TT and headed back to our hotel for dinner and good night’s sleep as we had to be up early the next day. Ironically we spent our first night of a trip we assumed would be the coldest ever with the AC on.

An AC room to kick off our coldest trip ever.

Day 2: On the road to Kargil

The next day started with a feeble effort to try and start early, which failed almost instantly. A trend that was going to follow throughout the trip. After breakfast at the hotel and began to trundle along NH1 out of Srinagar and towards the storied town of Kargil. The route was breathtaking and ensured we arrived late as well, due to all the photo stops we ended up taking.

Into the mountains, TT for scale.

When travelling by road to Leh, the road from Srinagar is the one recommended. The road is in better condition and the increase in high is a lot gentler than the route from Manali, so acclimatisation is easier and the effects of altitude sickness are reduced. It includes the venerable Sonamarg along the way if one is inclined to spend some time at a hill station as well as the war memorial at Kargil. It is a road definitely worth taking and a good place to start a trip through the Himalayas.

Sonamarg is a destination in itself for most. It was just a 30 min halt for us.

The route follows the river Sind and is dotted by small villages and hotels. It was while travelling here that traffic began to thin and we started getting a sense of the isolation awaiting us. It’s also where we started seeing residual ice along the river banks, a sign of things to come. We climbed steadily on until we reached Sonamarg, by which time the temperature had slowly started creeping lower and we finally started feeling the cold we had come prepared for. While we didn’t have much time in Sonamarg, we did have enough to get a quick photo with the ice-capped Himalayas in the background.

Slow climb up the pass

 

Traffic jam with a view

It was just after Sonamarg while labouring up Zoji La (La means mountain pass in the local langauages) that we encountered our first traffic jam. The road was already terrible, having been destroyed by snow in the winter, and 2 trucks slowly attempting to pass each other ensure that anyone in a hurry was in for nothing but disappointment. After this, the next hurdle we encountered was a massive flock of sheep guided by not enough Shepherds. Tackling this obstacle required the unique experience of getting out of the vehicle and actually herding sheep. Which some of us did give a try and successfully pulled off.

Traveller! Adventurer!! Shepherd??

Our first stop with any activities other than taking a thousand photos was at the top of Zoji La, the first of many mountain passes we’d have to cross on the trip. There was a large bank of ice and snow on which sledding, snowmobiling, and a few other activities were available. Due to time and budget constraints we chose to stick to just sledding and of course, taking all the photos we could.

Activities in the Ice at Zoji La

Sledding, it turned out, involved trudging up the slippery icy slope to a predetermined height with a guide and the sitting on the sled with him while he guided it back down what looked to be a well-worn path. So, being the all-star athletes that we are, we struggled up the slope, stood shakily for a photo and then came sledding straight back down again. It was a surprising amount of fun.

Hello Ladakh.

After a quick serving of Maggi and Chai, we were back on the road again. After Zoji La, our next stop was the checkpost about 20 km away, where we officially left Kashmir and wandered into Ladakh. A quick stop to get our paperwork checked and a longer halt cause we discovered one of our tyres was flat ensured we had additional time for another photo shoot. Even the simplest of places like a little checkpost with an archway looks stunning when it’s amid the snowy Himalayas.

The quick fix for a flat tyre.

 

The Kargil War Memorial

Our last stop for the day was the Kargil war memorial at Dras, one of the coldest permanently inhabited places on the planet. This was a completely different experience to any war memorial I’ve been to before. Firstly, It’s for a skirmish that was in living memory for us, not something we read in a textbook. With vague memories of the newspaper and TV reports of the incident in mind we stepped into the massive memorial complex and began to silently take in the place.

The fields of battle

The other major difference about the Kargil memorial is the fact that it’s a war memorial located in the fields where the battle took place. With explanations of how the various attacks and counters happened on the slopes of the mountains which can be seen right outside the memorial, it really does give a sense of what the soldiers who fought the battle had to go through and what had to be sacrificed in order to bring about a quick victory before the conflict turned to a full-blown war. There are also memorial graves to all the soldiers who died fighting in this sector. It’s a chilling and reverent place without a visit to which a trip to Ladakh isn’t complete.

We finally made it to Kargil just before nightfall and checked into our hotel. A quick round of dinner and some slam poetry later, we were out for a walk exploring the sleepy but much larger than expected town. After walking around for a while and realising that the town was closing down for the night, we return to the hotel and settled in for the night.

Day 3: Leh all the way

The colourful lifelines of the region.

Another failed early start compounded by the fact that we had to get the tyre that was damaged the previous day fixed ensured that it was late morning by the time we left Kargil and pushed on through a landscape that was getting ever more barren and brown, with the only patches of green being along the banks of rivers and streams that cut through this increasingly alien world.

The Buddhist statue and temple

Our first halt was at Khakukpa, where there is a large Buddhist statue and temple located. It was on the banks of the Indus river and would have proved to be an ideal picnic spot if we had actually thought to bring food along. Thus after exploring the small temple surrounding the statue and prayer wheel next to it, we slowly trudged our way down through small fields to the green banks of the river to relax and maybe dip our toes in the icy cold water. We wasted far too much time here and it was completely worth it.

In the advanced stages of chillin’

 

The furriest stray in town

Once back up we had our lunch at the wayside hotel opposite the temple. We were given the option of Maggi, egg and for the truly privileged, egg Maggi. After lunch, our route took us up the Fotu La, the highest point on the Srinagar to Leh highway, We stopped at the top for a quick photo shoot with the increasingly desolate landscape as the backdrop. It really did give a sense of isolation that would come to define our stay in Ladakh.

The high point of the journey so far, literally.

 

Rare signs of life in an almost alien world.

On the descent back down the pass, we stopped at one of the many Gompas or monasteries along the way. While these places of worship that dot the landscape are as stunning as their surroundings, it’s the little towns around them that were the surprise. The town seemed to be straight out of a history textbook, with brick and stone house and little mud roads surrounding them. There wasn’t a hint of modern technology in site except for the newly repaired asphalt highway and the vehicles that traverse them. I was told the houses were built like this because of tradition and the fact that normal concrete would crack in the extreme winters of the region.

Ancient town meets modern highway.

We now had a choice to make. While the original plans involved river rafting at Zanskar, we were already late and pretty exhausted. It would have been an amazing experience but we did not have the time or the energy to do it. So after a lot of debate and dealing with our FOMO impulses, Fear Of Missing Out for the uninitiated, we decided we’ll take up rafting in Manali and not Zanskar. This gave us the upside of now being ahead of schedule, allowing us to have an impromptu photo shoot in the middle of the road.

No end in sight.

 

King of all he sees, according to him anyway.

The sheer dry desolation of Ladakh was a surprise to me. I’ve seen my fair share of the Himalayas, from Bhutan and Sikkim and the way to Himachal Pradesh. None of it looked like this. The views I was used to were pine forest, green meadows and snow-capped peaks, something we actually saw a lot of until Zoji La. But by now the landscape had changed. It was brown with hardly any signs of life, human or otherwise. It was utter stillness and silence broken only by a passing vehicle or nearby river. And for someone who is used to always having human habitation or any kind of habitation nearby, the sheer scale of isolation was mind-bending. One really does feel oddly tiny and alone in this place. This was compounded by the fact that I was going through withdrawal cause of no phone connectivity for 3 days and counting. It’s an experience everyone must have at least once. Gives one a sense of perspective on things.

Messin’ around

 

Messin’ around part 2: More Messin’

After messing around in the middle of the nowhere, we pressed on. The final stretch to Leh saw us crossing the confluence Indus and Zanskar rivers. An interesting phenomenon with a very distinct boundary between the two rivers. It oddly beautiful.

The most striking difference in converging rivers I have ever seen.

Immediately after this, we came across the very interesting Magnetic Hill. The literal pull of this place is stopping one’s vehicle in a box drawn on the ground, leaving it in neutral and having the surreal experience of the vehicle apparently rolling uphill under the magnetic influence of the hill. Hence the name. As with most urban myths, this isn’t exactly true. The effect is caused due to the slope of the road relative to the surrounding hills giving the impression you’re rolling up when you’re actually going down. An explanation that’s usually fun to ignore when you seem to be magically coasting along the road.

Our stay in Leh at the end of a long day

We finally reached Leh at Dusk, rolling past the various military installations and the airport. A short drive through the main market and a few deviations because of improper directions later, we finally pulled into our hotel which was overlooked by the Shanti Stupa. We also had to bid farewell to our driver who was to head back to Srinagar the following day. After check in we sat and relaxed, had our dinner and desperately tried to get the WiFi to work in order to inform home that we’ve reached. An endeavour we were thankfully successful in. With dreams of the bike ride ahead, we drifted to sleep.

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