Ladakh Himalayas: through Zozi La to Kargil



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.

Sonamarg 01
Fresh snow!
Sonamarg 02
Stop with the construction already!

Sonamarg 03
It’s clearing up!

Sonamarg 04

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.

Sonamarg 07

Sonamarg 05
By the River Sindh
Sonamarg 06
Lined up…where’s the Scorpio?
…there it is!

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.

sonamarg 002
pretty rocks

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.

Zojila 01
Starting from Sonamarg
Zojila 03
Watch that bend!
Photo opp near Zozi La
Photo opp!

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.

Zojila 05
To Zozi La

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!

Part I: Delhi to Sonamarg

4 thoughts on “Ladakh Himalayas: through Zozi La to Kargil

  1. Kashmir was on our to-be-visited list but never got there before the troubles started, so have never been. Been to Switzerland a couple of times, thanks to family there. And now, when I see pictures like these, each time, I am struck by how MUCH Switzerland and Kashmir look alike! Landscape, not people, obviously 🙂 Also, the incongruity of vadais in Kashmir!

    I strongly dislike the homogenization of food when traveling – dispiriting that it’s happening so much in Kashmir!

    Globalization…some call it. For a traveler it can be boring and disappointing.

    The situation is Kashmir seems better, so it may be time to visit. They are very nice to tourists since it is the backbone of their economy and they know that!

  2. BTW, a completely unrelated comment 🙂 You had posted in an old entry that Kashmiris eat lunch very early unlike S.Indians and Maharashtrians- actually, most Tambrahm houses used to do the same. No breakfast, only coffee in the mornings, and lunch served by 10. People leaving to work would eat even earlier (My father still has lunch by 8:45 and cannot handle breakfast!) – nowadays most people follow the breakfast-lunch-dinner routine, but the lunch-tiffin-dinner remains the norm in a small population 🙂
    And I still can’t eat any solid food until 10 am 🙂

    Wow, ‘lunch’ at 8:45! But it fits the idea of eating breakfast like a king… I think I should so start doing that – I’d be eating freshly cooked food and no reheating. For you, it will have to be scheduled a little later, Maith!

  3. Wow…keep them coming Anita. I am loving the pictures.
    I am also disappointed always seeing the alu paratha-dahi and daal makhni-paneer-naan rut all over India almost. I prefer having fruits for meal or my granola bars that I carry in such situations…until I find something local or at least simpler versions of daal subzi roti.

    Southern India seems so much better in this respect (and others too!) as you know. Everywhere you go there you will always have overwhelming options for local cuisine. I guess we have to give Ladakh more time; it was opened to tourism much later.

  4. I’m in awe of the landscape and here you are complaining about the food! Food on our road trips is very functional, simple and quick. You have been forewarned!

    In the beginning at least, the trip was for V, and I was hoping to get some local food stories for myself. I wish the basic food would have been local, that’s all.

    I’m going to carry some home-cooked food in that case! A certain banana bread comes to mind…

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