28th August – 5th September
The Srinagar – Leh highway
We leave Kashmir through the lush terraced paddies of the Sindh Valley and the high mountain pastures of Sonamarg; weaving our way ever higher. Initially we climb through serene glades of pine and deodar trees, then, approaching the Zoji La Pass, through a tightly knit confusion of hairpin bends on a fast deteriorating road embedded in sheer rock faces.
The road between Srinagar and Kargil lies at an average altitude of 2,500m and is ravaged by snow and ice in the winter, making it reliably passable for only three months of the year, from June to August. The ubiquitous potholes and gravel landslips make the going slow: we can average little more than 35 km/ h, although even this is a challenge as the road is a key arterial route for the Indian army, omnipresent in this area. Their convoys form an almost perpetual overtaking challenge as the average army truck’s top speed in these areas is around 20 km/h – which makes getting anywhere at all pretty arduous.
As we approach Kargil, the military presence increases yet more (around here the Srinagar – Leh highway is often no more than 3km from the Indo-Pakistan ceasefire line) - every valley between the jagged snow capped peaks is home to at least one military base. It is hard to guess the numbers of soldiers here; our own observations would suggest tens, if not hundreds of thousands. But the atmosphere all round is pretty relaxed, most checkpoints are unmanned and those that are contain cheerful soldiers who are usually happy to wave us through unimpeded.
Kargil holds little for the overland tourist except a few grubby hotels and its altitude – 2,500m – which makes it a handy acclimatisation spot before reaching the deoxygenated heights of Leh, nearly another kilometre higher.
Kargil is noisy, too. We leave early, our much needed slumber interrupted by the constant yapping of the local taxi drivers and guides, and by the still ever present mosques instructing the faithful to wake and eat before sunrise and the day’s fast.
In our semi-sonorous state we make the first major navigational error of our whole trip to date, failing to realise we need to cross the large river adjacent to Kargil in order to proceed to Leh. There are no signs, of course, so this is a relatively easy mistake to make – so we drive 25km (one hour) through a pretty valley towards the depths of Zanskar before Nina glances at the car compass and realises our mistake.
A two hour diversion, especially after our carefully planned early start to cover a large distance, does little for morale. Neither does a profound lack of bakeries in which to grab some breakfast, so yesterday’s bananas and rather chocolate-rationed chocolate biscuits have to suffice.
The monastic life
Happily, as we enter Ladakh, the spellbinding scenery lifts our cloudy spirits. The clichéd term ‘moonscape’ often applied to Ladakh by uninspiring guidebook authors is frustratingly, the most applicable adjective available to describe this extraordinary region. We see very little greenery: clinging only to the edges of the parched rivers that run through the valleys. Everywhere else is rocks and sand.
It is a barren, desolate area, but so rich in mineral deposits that in every direction the landscape appears totally different: sometimes bright orange rockfaces, elsewhere purple outcrops, occasionally black or grey peaks crowned with snow, elsewhere reds, greens and even white streams of rock provide us with us with continual moments of awestruck wonder.
On the way down from the Fotu La Pass at 4,100m our first view of Ladakh proper suddenly springs into view: the precariously yet perfectly positioned Lamayuru gompa (monastery) appears, perched on a large outcrop jutting out of the valley hundreds of metres below us. It is an immaculately maintained Buddhist monastery, its walls pristinely whitewashed and its typical wooden framed windows and lintels freshly painted.
It’s like entering a different country; just a day ago we were amid the bustle of a typical dusty, cacophonous Indian city, surrounded by blaring horns, mosques and corrugated iron roofs; now we are submersed by remote and barren mountain silence and crisp and refreshing Buddhist architecture. It almost feels like we’re in Tibet – the culture and architecture are essentially identical; the principle difference being that here, the Chinese have been unable to grind away the area’s culture and identity.
We don’t actually reach Leh today. Driving on from Lamayuru we stumble upon Alchi, a picture perfect and utterly peaceful monastic village perched in a quiet valley the other side of the Indus from the main road. Arriving not a little worn out at 3pm, we find a quiet and simple guesthouse overlooking the pretty gompa (nearly 1,000 years old, the oldest in Ladakh and the finest surviving example of its era, ‘the second spreading’) and decide this will make a far better resting point than the eminently busier Leh, the capital of the region some 60km on.
A very wise decision. After a wonderfully restful night’s sleep we arrive in Leh in good order in the morning, and find ourselves immersed in tourist-ville. It is a shock to the system – we haven’t seen tourists in any numbers since Moscow. Worse still, the ones wafting around Leh are generally of the most unpleasant type – in need of a new wardrobe, a haircut and a damned good scrub.
Dismayed, we book ourselves into a quiet, clean looking and cheap hotel, a recommendation from a Kashmiri contact we have in Leh, and head for the (literal) pinnacle of our adventure so far.
Its all downhill from here
Some 30km north of Leh lies the world’s highest driveable mountain pass, at 5,606m (18,380ft). As we’re here, we feel it would be rude not to drive it – so we set out with all haste.
Our attempt is almost scuppered halfway up by unbending checkpoint officials who insist we require a permit from Leh’s magistrate to proceed any further (we’re not so far to the Chinese border here, more sensitive territory…). We persevere, making it abundantly clear we don’t have time to obtain said permit and that we won’t budge until they let us through, if only for one hour. Eventually, they agree to hold Charlie’s passport as collateral and we can proceed.
The road is actually good: neither as steep nor as treacherous as other passes we have encountered to date. That said, we can both feel the effects, as can our poor car – belting out great plumes of black smoke as we go higher (we had been warned about this happening before leaving the UK so weren’t worried). By the time we reach the top we feel decidedly queasy – so much so that after a very quick photo stop we head straight back down again, stopping only to collect Charlie’s passport. Tick!
We spend the afternoon hurriedly marching through Leh’s highlights and avoiding the dreadful tie-dyed tourists, so we can escape first thing in the morning.
And first thing it is, too. The hotel is our worst yet – on returning to our room we find a moth infestation has made the place uninhabitable, so we demand a room change. We get one, but at a cost…
Nina is woken at 5am by ominous sounding watery gurgles from our bathroom – on closer examination she finds a tap below the shower is spurting out water. As she tries to turn off the tap, it simultaneously comes off in her hand and gives her a vicious electric shock. Alas, it is not a one-off. Prince Philip had a point when he infamously remarked: ‘this fuse box looks like it’s been wired by an Indian’. Quite how the electricians here have managed to contrive that every metallic item in the bathroom, including the shelf above the sink, is electrified, during the night-time city-wide electricity blackout, is utterly beyond our comprehension.
But they have, so we end up blearily and very cautiously proceeding to a breakfast of boiled eggs (safe), tea (filthy) and coffee (beyond undrinkable), far earlier than planned. We refuse to pay for breakfast, on principle, and are on the road long before the dreadlocked hippy travellers surface.
It’s worth noting that one doesn’t come here for the food. Tibetan food is basic at best – wholesome but generally tasteless. The two staple meals available (momos and thukpas, one can guarantee everything else on the menu will be unavailable) are nearly identical: vegetable broths in which lurks the local homemade barley pasta – great for subsistence but hard work on both the taste buds and the constitution.
The Leh – Manali Highway
We spend a happy day viewing the multitude of gompas and stupas (traditional Buddhist shrines generally found in large numbers outside villages) in the Indus valley around Leh, before enjoying a night in a basic but quiet guesthouse a safe distance away from the capital. We embark very early the next morning, in the rain, on the Leh-Manali highway – the second highest road in the world with three passes over 5,000 metres.
It is a two day slog over terrible roads through permanently changing mountain scenery, initially barren and rocky and becoming greener and steadily more tropical as we leave Ladakh and enter Himachal Pradesh (HP) to the south.
We break up the 16 hour, 460 km journey with a night in the relative comfort of Keylong, just over the border in HP, having driven 11 hours and broken the back of the journey. The second day, just 120 km to Manali, takes five hours. The two days undeniably comprise our most challenging driving conditions since Kazakhstan.
Good timing, too, for the day after we cross the Rohtang Pass (4,000m and the final high pass before we reach Manali) heavy snowfalls cause most of the passes we have just traversed to be shut, stranding hundreds of locals and tourists alike. It’s only September 2nd, a fortnight before these passes officially close for the winter, but a sharp reminder of the unpredictability of these mountains.
Nina’s birthday, and some luxury!
September 4th is Nina’s 30th birthday and we both decide it’s and excellent excuse for some well-earned luxury. Before leaving the peculiar yet beautiful Buddhist and Hindu pilgrimage of Rewalsar, deep in the HP hills, we book into the Nalagarh Fort for the evening – a huge, rambling 16th century Mughal fort, converted into Himachal’s finest hotel.
What a treat – we arrive at lunchtime to ensure we can make full use of the facilities – there is a pool (hurrah!), tennis court (complete with sweepers and elderly would-be ball girls), croquet lawn, endless terraces overlooking the Punjab upon which we can enjoy our evening drinks, a pool table and a wonderfully atmospheric bar complete with silver tray service and every drink under the sun. Heaven!
The weather is far hotter down here so we make full use of the pool, interspersed with some proper sunbathing. When it cools down, a surprisingly competitive game of tennis (considering the heat, our rustiness and the interruptions of the court sweepers who evidently have little understanding of the risks of sweeping a tennis court mid-game) ends in a 6-6 draw – an eminently equitable result.
After numerous drinks in the bar (more a museum, like the rest of the hotel), supper comprises an excellent buffet followed by a surprise birthday cake conjured up by the chefs at Charlie’s request. It is flamboyantly decorated, including candles, and Nina’s eyes light up in surprise and delight. The chefs even manage to join in a croaky round of Happy Birthday! A relaxing game of pool rounds off a perfect day of pampering and relaxation, leaving us well prepared for the heat and chaos of Delhi tomorrow.