Kashmir to Leh Thursday 27 – Sunday 30 August 2009
The road out of Srinagar towards Kargil which is the biggest town on the road to Leh - has some of the most spectacular scenery we'd seen to date.
It also very much got the heart rate going!! The first section - through lush green meadows - is reassuring gentle until you hit the pass of Zola La- which separates Kashmir from Ladakh.
The road winds up clinging to the - increasingly steep - mountain side with a sheer drop between you and the river below.
There is mercifully a one way system for trucks but private cars can go through and a few times when we pulled over for others to pass I was so frightened I only realised I'd stopped breathing when I had to do a big gasp! The numerous shrines to those who hadn't made it didn't help peace of mind - but the road signs were still a good laugh! One said "When driving trust in God above!" and I guess a few atheists were praying over these roads!! Another favourite was "Overtaker on bends might need Undertaker!" Andrew drove really well and the car managed beautifully -we were very pleased to have our good RAW shocks too as it was very bumpy. Once over the pass the scenery has changed and you're in the stark landscapes of Ladakh rather than lush green Kashmir.
This being a sensitive area - very close to the Pakistan border - there is a big army presence. They do seem a lot more relaxed than their Srinagar counterparts and a few times we were pulled over by army guys who just wanted their pictures taken with us and to give us a cuppa!
There were a few registration posts, one of which at the top of the pass had memorials to the India /Pakistani war in 1948. It was amazing that they got the tanks up here -in the thick of winter too. The soldiers were incredibly courageous and India is very proud of them and there are quite a few monuments to those that fell and displays about the wars.
That night we camped at Drass a town which has one claim to fame of which they are really proud. Drass is the second (to Siberia) coldest inhabited place in the world - as the signs tell us! It was actually reasonably mild for us - but it regularly reaches minus 20-40 in the winter. In 1995 it reached a new low of minus 60 degrees!!!!! We camped at the tourist office and the scenery was pretty striking.
The next morning we drove on towards Kargil. The landscape was lovely - stark mountains blue skies and lots of greenery as the crops were ready and we passed lots of people out working in their fields.
It was a pleasant drive. We only stopped briefly at Kargil which is the big administration capital. It is very close to Pakistan and has been shelled in the past but all seems to be peaceful now though there is a strong army presence. It is a strongly Shiite Muslim area and pretty conservative.
Leaving Kargil we came a bit unstuck. Somehow (no road signs!) we managed to take the road out to the remote Zanskar valley rather than on to Leh - which we didn't realize prior to going 40 kms - a long round trip on these roads!
Still due to the diversion we stopped at an army run co-operative teaching women to spin. As this area has had a rough time as mentioned above there have been some army initiatives to try to improve life for these people and one is this weaving centre where the ladies learn to spin and they are given help selling their goods to local towns/shops. The army guy overseeing them looked a bit out of place - as if he'd rather be squad marching & yelling at new recruits than watching women spin - perhaps that's why he got camera shy on me so no pictures of him! We bought a shawl as it is getting increasingly chilly especially at night and this justified the unplanned diversion!
Heading back to just outside Kargil (where we started from 3 hours ago!) we camped that night at Mulbekh. This little farming community marks the point where people become predominantly Buddhist rather than Muslim and you can see the Mosques giving way to Buddhist temples. We camped at the home of a nice extended family - 20 members and 4 generations in total- and they cooked us a lovely meal with their home grown produce.
Next day we journeyed on towards Leh - passing through more lovely scenery we're a bit blasé now! There are ponies donkeys and mules everywhere - often used as transport in the bad weather - and an increasing number of Yaks - though many of them weren't yet shaggy as they were still growing back their winter coats.
The locals grow apples and apricots and they come around the car to sell at all the check in points -lots of nice snacks for the journey!
Just prior to reaching Leh we met two very fit French overlanders - doing the whole thing by bike! We've noticed now we're over 3,000 metres how thin the air is and any exertion has you heavy breathing so these cyclists are really impressive. Made us tired just contemplating it!
The scenery had gradually changed - less patches of greenery and more dramatic snow scapes and houses clinging to the mountain sides.
Just out of Leh we saw the impressive point where the 2 gorges carrying water from the differently coloured rivers Indus and Zanskar meet.
Finally on Sunday 30 August we hit Leh - a striking town set in the desert with snow capped mountains in the background. It was quite congested in town but just out in the Sankar area we found the Silver Cloud Guest House a family run place which agreed to let us camp in their garden. We ate a home cooked meal of organic vegetables that night - which was really nice though we were soon to find in 6 days that this exact menu never varied!!!! Anyway it was at the time new and delicious and we were soon very ready for bed and a good night's sleep - especially the long suffering driver!!!!