Road to Kargil & Drass

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.

Drass War Museum
Drass War Museum

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 !

Letting Destiny build the Itenary – From Leh to Kargil

I have always been a firm believer that best of the trips happen when you dont really plan them, when you have the freedom and time to take the path that unfolds itself to you.

It was June in 2005 and I was supremely depressed during my 15 day leave, coz I was not able to do the “Chasing the monsoon (CTM)” trip. CTM was supposed to be the highlight of my adventurous life wherein I would drive up the western coast of India from Kerala to Gujarat & then cutting into Rajasthan & finally Delhi. My co-driver had to opt out at the last moment and I was left with 15 days of break and no exciting travel plans. All I managed to do was get myself on a flight to Delhi so that I could spend the break with family.

But my easily-bored self realized that I needed to go out somewhere soon. I was online chatting when my friend Vijay, told me that his friend had just returned from an amazing trip to Leh. It was like I had found my inspiration. I called this friend of his to get a better sense of what options lay ahead and at the end of that 15 minutes call had decided that I would fly into Leh (rather than do the road trip via Manali) and take it from there.

I went to the cyber cafe and was booking my ticket for the very next day. I was so excited, that in this hurry and excitement forgot to note that I had booked myself in the business class :-). By the time I reached home there was news about a blast in Mumbai & in Srinagar and my family was strictly against the trip. It took a lot of convincing and some help of maps(to show how far off Leh was from Srinagar) for them to finally let me go ahead on one condition- I was supposed to call them & update em on a daily basis.

And so the next day found me at the IGI airport, waiting for the early morning trip to Leh.While waiting for my flight I stuck up a conversation with a lama who asked me if this was my first trip to Leh. On hearing my affirmative he advised me to take it easy on the first day and to drink lots of water to avoid any altitude sickness.

The flight into Leh was short & sweet…with some of the most specatular views of the Himalayas I have ever seen , TV included. But alas i had packed my camera in the check-in luggage.

I landed at Leh, took a cab to just take me to the central part of town so that I could have a look around and decide where to stay for the rest of my trip. I called my folks from the bazaar area and told them that in this part of the country my own cellphone would not work (those days no one was allowed to be on roaming in Kashmir Valley). After asking around I realised that there was a guest house quite close to Shanti Stupa – which was away from the hustle bustle of the town center and had a nice family as its hosts.

So off I went to this guest house, which was almost 1 Km away from the nearest restaurant/shop, to have my own spot of peace in this beautiful place.
Over the next couple of days I traveled & hiked in and around Leh and saw the regular tourist spots.But my secret desire was to do a 5-6 day trek across the passes & into the really remote valleys. I spent a lot of time negotiating and discussing options with the tour operators and had almost zeroed on one when it suddenly rained. Yes, it rained in Leh- it was one of those rare moments when you feel that nature’s being evil. Coz this rain meant snow in the passes and that meant no trekking for atleast next 7-10 days. So here I was watching it rain, in a place that sees very little rainfall throughout the year. In fact the land is so barren due to altitude and lack of rain that you hardly see any vegetation.

In the evening, I was having a cup of tea with my host, watching the beautiful mountains gradually fade into the night’s darkness when a walker passed us by.
He suddenly stopped and asked me very abruptly -“How come you are staying at this place”. Not knowing if this was him being rude to my host or genuine curiosity I let the truth prevail and told him its cos this place is the farthest from the market- meaning it was the most quiet & serene place.
I think my answer got him by surprise as he told me that in all of 5 years of him walking this stretch almost every season, he had never seen an Indian staying at this guest house. So while my host went in to get him a cup of tea, we started talking. He told me how he was now with RR (in the army) after being injured and how he was still happy to be posted in this place- which many take as a punishment posting.
I wasnt in such a thankful mood so when it came to me, I just cribbed about how the rain had spoiled my whole trekking plan and blah blah blah……

Between Kargil & Drass
Between Kargil & Drass

The Colonel then told me ” If you find Leh beautiful, wait till you see Kargil“. I told him that I am not sure if its safe to travel that part of the valley esp after the bombing incidents. He replied “If theres been an incident today, nothing will happen for the next 3 months…take my word for it and go!”. He then showed me some snaps on his cell phone taken from a road trip done last week… Looking at the snaps I knew this was where I was headed…. Kargil. And while I ran around figuring out the bus timings, getting a ticket, asking for a cab at midnight and settling the bill with my host….. I was just thinking if it had not rained I would be hiking and Kargil would have been left.

I was no longer cribbing but thanking the stars for this army-man-on-his-evening-walk to help me make the best of my trip. Even my Lonely Planet wouldnt have come up with such a great recommendation.

Ladakh- How green was my Valley?

The Leh valley as seen from inside a monastery.

Nothing prepares you for Ladakh- its barren yet so beautiful. Something in ur head will tell you this can’t be correct- beautiful places need to have liberal use of the green hue in their color pallete.

My decision to go to Leh/Ladakh was quite a rushed one. I had come to Delhi on a 15 day break & got really bored sitting home, twiddling thumbs… Called up a buddy to check how things were with him & he told me about a common friend who had just come back from Leh & i just decided that even I had to go there.

I spent the whole of next day convincing family that I am headed to the mountains but as luck would have it- there were blasts in Srinagar & Mumbai the same day…
I was told that the trip to any part of J&K is out of question…but being the rebel that i am- went to a net cafe & got the tickets done for the next day’s flight to Leh 🙂
But the rebel in me is mostly careless too- in my haste I didnt realise that I had booked myself in the business class !

By the time the whole $ impact of my stupidity sanked in- I had told myself that I shall make the rest of my trip a budget one & see Kashmir for the 1st time.

My first view of the Himalayas was something I would never forget- it was a great morning & the sun was shining brightly over the snow covered peaks- we were so close to the might Himalayas that I could see some of the small glaciers !

The Leh airport is a v small one & i was told by a pilot friend that the landing in this airport is called a “committed landing” (since its surrounded by mountains on 3 sides- if a plane starts descending there is no way the pilot can change his mind at the last moment)

There are numerous monastries in Ladakh & you would find prayer wheels everywhere- these come in various sizes- from handheld ones to giant 1-storeyed ones.In the local language they are called “Maanes”…. another word that would come handy is “Juley”- which is used for hi,bye,namaste & any other form of greeting !

If you havent been to Ladakh yet- get there this year or mebbe the next !