What began as a fall-back plan (with the rains playing spoil sport to the Ladakh trekking plans),the trip to kargil & Drass became one of the best road trips I had ever done.
I boarded the bus around mid-night @ Leh to take me to kargil and this meant that I could not see the “magnetic hill”. I pleaded with the guy next to me to swap places, so that I have the window seat and a better view…. and the nice guy that he was, he obliged.
Once the sun was up, we were really far out in the middle of nowhere. With barren mountains and valleys, and an occasional glimpse of the Indus- it was the kind of landscape I had only once seen before- in Lakshya 🙂
I opened the windows inspite of the morning chill and started clicking- had a simple point & shoot camera and two data cards- so no worries about going overboard. My co-passengers somehow learnt to bear with me- I guess it was the obvious excitement that I was showing in soaking in the beauty of their land. One even commented – “kya bhaiya saari vaadi ka photo kheench logo kya?”.:-)
We stopped at a small village on the way and I managed to grab some breakfast. The pit stop turned out to be very benefecial, as I managed to befriend the driver & the conductor and convinced them to stop at some of the most beautiful places on the way.
They gave me the seat nearest to the door, so that I could signal when I wanted em to stop.
Am I good or what !!
So we stopped for a few seconds at Fotula top, at the Moon-land-view and a few other places – you see I was trying really hard not to abuse my privileges, hard as it was.
Some 200 snaps later we reached Kargil. The barren mountainous landscape had given way to hilly regions with occasional patches of greenery.
Entry into Kargil is through a heavily guarded bridge across the almost fully silted river. One crossing the bridge us civilians go towards Drass on the right while most of the army establishments are in the cantt. area on the left. I checked into a not-so-comfortable hotel in Kargil and went about walking in the town. The market place was alive with a lot of action and I kept walking along the river towards the cantt. area.
As soon as I entered this area the machine guns of the sentries started tracking me, wherever I went on the road. It was truly a very eerie feeling and I quickly traced back my path to the civilian area. later on the same thing happened to me in Srinagar, and I couldnt stop thinking how much stress these soldiers must be in- following every unidentified person that passes by finger-on-the-trigger. Phew!
In Kargil, I asked for how far Drass was and how long would it take to reach Srinagar etc and after a few discussions it was decided that I would take a shared cab the next day to go into Drass, spend the afternoon there and come back in the evening. Would then take a cab again early morning from Kargil to Srinagar.
So the next day I went looking for the cab at the market to take me to Drass and what hit me was that almost all of the young & old of this town seemed to be perennially at the market. trust me, you would end up asking exactly what I did- when do they work? And then it slowly sinks in, that years of turmoil in the valley have really eroded life so much that most people here are without any meaningful employment.
The road between Kargil and Drass is just too picturesque to be described perfectly in words by someone like me. Since photography is not allowed in most of that area, I do not have too many snaps to share with you but take my word for it, its a trip that you should do, atleast once. You have the Drass nulla flowing on your right and a sheer drop of a few hundred metres to it at most times. On your left is the mountain face which has been carved by the heroes of BRO (Border Road Organization) to make the national Highway 1E. And across the nulla are even higher peaks beyond which are our not so friendly neighbours.
The first few minutes of the drive were anxious for me,as I saw pebbles made loose by our tyres falling down the gorge and it took me a while to get comfortable enough to notice and enjoy the scenery around. And then it happened.
There was sign on my side of the road which said – “Caution! The enemy is watching you” Its tough for me to recall now how exactly I felt but all i remember is that it had left me completely blank with hair standing to attention. I couldn’t help notice the choice of words, it didnt say “The guys across the border”- it said “the enemy”. It didnt say, “the enemy can see you”. It said, “The enemy is watching you!” Whoever chose the words, am sure it had the desired effect on me.
And as soon as we passed the first such sign, I saw villages on the road with houses having bullet holes (or were they shell holes?) and it was amazing to see people still living a seemingly normal life in such obviously dangerous conditions. It says a lot about the human spirit.
The whole area looks like a war zone, with army establishments on either side of the highway every few kilometers. Every now & then you would see a Bofors gun or a multi barrel rocket launcher or an anti aircraft gun, all aimed towards the west. Watching all of these, I was excited like a kid. I started remembering how I had almost joined the NDA and how I had dreamed of a career in the services.
Just before we reached Drass, I saw a war museum on the highway (around 5-6 kms before Drass) and told myself that I have to come & visit this. I reached Drass around noon and was really hungry, so asked around for some veg food w/o much luck. Finally found a place where some Bihari labourers were eating and I reasoned that this place must serve something vegetarian. So I had some amazing Rajma with not so fresh chapatis.
I rested for a while, took a couple of snaps with Tiger Hill in the backdrop, said a silent prayer for the men who fought in the Kargil war and started walking towards the war museum.
While walking I started thinking what we usually think sitting in places far away from the frontiers- Why do people fight? What is so crucial about an otherwise barren sparsely populated area that we have to lose so many men every year.
And somehow the answer was there in the calm and serene Drass valley. I saw this man sweeping the road with a branch- sweeping a road that hardly sees an traffic. A road that hardly had any dirt or dust on it, because it was the road around his home.
After a leisurely trek down, I reached the war museum and was about to enter when a soldier stopped me asking for some identification. I was carrying none. I had left my license etc back in kargil and all i had was some cash and a Citibank Credit card.
After a few minutes of questioning, the chap seemed visibly irritated and finally asked “What are you doing here”. And I answered in my sincerest best “I wanted to come and see what is it that our men in uniform have been protecting”.
That was like the magical password. I was ushered in, introduced to the young captain on command there, and given a complete VIP treatment.
They told me that the war museum is built with Tololing as the backdrop, the famous peak that we had re-captured. I was told that the war took place in 3 sectors, Kargil, Drass and Batalik and the wall @ the museum had names of each & every soldier & officer who had laid down their lives- their regiment, the honors they got and the sector that they finally protected from Paki invasion.
I was also told that today was the dry-run of the celebrations for Vijay Diwas, which meant that the soldiers were practising the parade routine and overseeing the lighting of lamps on the peaks. This was interesting, coz the lamps were strategically placed at such places where they would be seen from both the sides- India and Pakistan. 🙂
I learnt the significance of such gestures in the lives of people at the front. In Drass the army paints a mountain face which says “Op Vijay VII” depending on the number of years it has been since the successful Operation Vijay. I also noticed that the officers in these areas didnt wear mettalic stars,but ones made of cloth. I assumed it was so that the metal reflection is not seen by any sniper.
After my VIP tour of the museum I trekked back to Drass to get a cab into Kargil but was greeted with some really shocking news. It seems Zojila pass is closed one day of the week in either directions i.e. once a week no vehicles from Srinagar come across the pass into Drass/Kargil and today was that day. This meant that I had no one to share the cab with and the guys in Drass asked for a crazy 8000 Rs fare for the 60 km trip. I could not spend the night at Drass as my stuff was in kargil and I had a flight to catch from Srinagar the next evening.
So I decided to give my new found friendship a test. I went back to the war museum and told the soldiers there my urgent need to get into Kargil. The guard stopped the first truck that was passing by- a really old pickup truck, on army duty that was carrying a bull dozers fender- and asked the driver to drop me into Kargil. I thanked my army friends from JakLi and boarded the truck for the journey back into Kargil.
What was otherwise a few hours drive, was now a 6 hour trip in this old thing. But it was blessing- coz we were going really slow, I had all the more time to soak in the beauty . Also coz the truck was so much higher than the sumo I had taken in the morning,it meant I had a much better view of the Bofors guns and the rocket launchers along the way !