Day 3, September 1, 2014
Sonamarg-Kargil (195km, 6 hours)
I woke up around 6 am to a quietness through which I could hear the Sindh river flowing not far away. The rain had stopped and so had that racket from the downpour onto a metal sheet below. I stepped out to check the view on the other side and found the tops of the mountains still hidden behind thick clouds. Little by little the clouds started to lift to reveal fresh snow on the mountain tops around.
The plan for today was to drive up to Kargil through our first real mountain pass (Banihal Pass was through the Jawahar Tunnel) and we were in no hurry. There was time to take in the surroundings. Anand decided to take Vikas’ bicycle for a spin. Bharat went out to find a replacement for the petrol tank-cap for his Gypsy which he seemed to have lost while refilling the previous night. The rest just ambled around doing nothing in particular.
Sonamarg is at an altitude of 2800 m (9,200 ft) and is primarily a tourist town with no permanent settlements. The hotels shut with the onset of winter. At the moment, the meadows looked mossy-green and soft.
Taxi operators out front seeking tourists for local sightseeing were disappointed to know we were only passing through on way to Kargil and beyond. In which case, they informed us, we ought to be on our way since the road out of Sonamarg was likely to be closed between 10:30 and 1:00. The Himalayas are young, petulant, and unpredictable. The previous night’s rain had only unsettled them further. It was 10 already and some of us were not even around! Some phone calls later it was confirmed that the traffic was indeed closed till noon or later. It was decided that we all get ready, eat breakfast, and get to the post where they hold the traffic, and wait there.
There was no sign of any Kashmiri breads at breakfast. No kahva either! Instead, we got aloo parantha with dahi, a breakfast you are sure to find at ALL hotels in North India. Any travel in this region includes a daily dose of aloo parantha for breakfast. It is now ubiquitous even in the land where any tava (griddle) bread was an exception. Kashmiris might be serving roti/parantha, but they haven’t yet learnt to make them. I opted for bread and omelet. The view, however, was not wanting.
Around noon we all got into our cars and started off. The rumors were true and it looked like we would have to wait longer till the road was opened to traffic. Abhey reminded everyone to stock up on water. We were going to move to higher elevations where not only is the atmosphere rarefied but also very dry, the rain not withstanding. Vijay and I had taken half a tablet of diamox each, as a preventive measure against high-altitude sickness. Diamox is a diuretic and to balance that out, one needs to drink up! By then, our third day, we had almost finished the 6 litres of water we had carried from Delhi. We had refilled our bottles at the hotel but it didn’t look like they had any kind of water-purification system and it was best to keep that water for non-drinking purposes.
The little shack by the check post stocked more than just water. I found myself shopping for rajma, shir-chai, local rice and chillies! Bhavna and Anand too bought rajma and chillies, and we all stocked up on bottled water.
Today, we were going to drive along the Sindh which flows through Sonamarg and is the largest tributary of Jhelum. It didn’t look like the road was going to open anytime soon so we decided to drive to the riverside. Some, the 4x4s, meant it literally. There would be plenty opportunities this trip! We walked down to the water’s edge where Ravi whipped out limes and sugar (and masala!) and soon we were enjoying fresh limeade in bright picnic-ware by the Sindh. We spent over an hour by the river watching the flowing water, the pretty rocks and boulders, and building cairns. It was 2 o’clock by the time we went back to the check post to find the landslide had been cleared and the road was open.
We hadn’t gone much further when we saw what looked like a line of vehicles up ahead – a fresh blockage. It was the perfect opportunity to stop for pictures. Keeping Zozi La/Zojila, a tricky mountain pass through loose, crumbly mountains motorable is no mean task. The pass is often closed during winter. A little after 4pm, we were over the highest point on the pass (elevation 3,528m/11,575ft) and an alpine tundra waited on the other side; a landscape completely shorn of trees except for occasional patches near the valley bottom.
Just two kilometers ahead of the pass, at Gumri, is the Zozila War Memorial in memory of the soldiers who died during the 1947-48 India-Pakistan War. We got out to pay our respects in the rain and wind (6 degrees C + wind chill). The lone ‘cafe’ there was doing brisk business of vada-sambar (!) though we had a long wait for the very-passable cabbage-momos (the only momos I was going to get in this entire 12-day trip through Ladakh!). We huddled there under a tent that was little protection from the wind or the rain, sharing plates of ‘lunch’ as they arrived. The rain and clouds were to be our constant companions for the next few days.
Then onwards we went, past cozy settlements. Just before the sun set over the Zanskar range we reached Drass and stopped at the Kargil War Memorial at Drass which commemorates the sacrifices of our brave soldiers in the most recent war with Pakistan, the Kargil War. Right behind the eternal flame stood Tololing Peak. This is how close the enemy had advanced! Many young officers and jawans lost their lives in restoring control of this and other strategic positions and the stories are recounted here through photographs, letters, and other memorabilia. Officers guide you through the interpretive center passionately explaining the displays. Charged with patriotism, we all trooped to the Army souvenir shop as the sun set behind Tiger Hill.
The remaining route to Kargil was covered in darkness and we arrived at our hotel around 7:30 in the evening. From the window of my room I could hear the Suru river just outside. We washed up and went down to an early dinner of…killer-mixed-vegetables, almost-edible dal, rice, papad, … There was no need to retire early tonight; tomorrow we had just a ‘short’ drive to Rangdum. In the hotel’s backyard by the river, we settled around a big plastic table with bottles of rum and whiskey and hot water.
PS: I was planning to cover up to Rangdum in this post, but it is hard to hold back the pictures, and this post is already picture-heavy! You’ll have to wait to hear about the road to Rangdum – that is where the adventure actually starts!