Changing shades of the land – from Srinagar to Kargil by road….

The Vale of Kashmir-Srinagar

Mughal emperors like Shah Jahan would move into the valleys of Kashmir,when Indian summer would scorch the plains of Delhi and they would do so in grand style.As per the records-100000 horses,200 camels,100 elephants would accompany along with hundreds of men for the 10 km radius campsite where the Emperor would stay.
In the Shalimar gardens of Srinagar,by the Dal lake-an inscription by Jahangir reads as…”Agar Firdaus bar rōy-e zamin ast, hamin ast-o hamin ast-o hamin ast” which translates to-If there is a paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.
Even before Mughals,Kashmir was romanticized by poets in ancient India-like in the epic of Rajatarangini by Kalhana.The modern troubles of Kashmir lies in matters of political inadequacy by our leaders,starting from Gulab Singh’s betrayal of Ranjit Singh(he was an aid of the Sikh ruler Ranjit Singh) in favor of the British to upheavals of 1947,an wound which refuses to heal till date.
But these trivial matters apart,Kashmir is a paradise and when you visit this place,you discover that it’s something even more special than that.

The calmness of the lake early in the morning overwhelms you
The calmness of the lake early in the morning overwhelms you
The serene Dal lake in the morning at Srinagar
The serene Dal lake in the morning at Srinagar

The theory of Jesus in Kashmir-as per one very recent theory, The state of Jammu and Kashmir consists of three very distinct parts.The district of Jammu where the Dogra community and Hindu Pandits reside,the Valley Of Kashmir located between the Karakoram and the Pir Panjal Range,and the area to the east called Ladakh,a continuation of the Tibetan high plateau.Apart from the beauty of the green valleys ,Kashmir is known for Cashmere( a typical British spelt word) and Pashmina shawls/Shahtoosh shawls made from the endangered Chiru antelope(so the Shahtoosh shawl trade is illegal nowadays).There is even a modern theory of Jesus spending some time in Kashmir valley… apparently Jesus wandered off to Kashmir in India and learnt Buddhist teachings here,before moving back to Jerusalem and teaching the same thing to herdsmen and village folk there,though the Buddhist philosophy was dressed up in Hebrew clothes.The story even goes on to add that after his crucification,he somehow escaped and came back to the Kashmir valley and died here.

Now,let me ponder over the last few days……
It was 6th of June,the peak of Indian summer and we were wheezing off to Delhi in Rajdhani…and the thing we learned was,you can get anything on Rajdhani if you are willing to ask for it.The AC bogies of Rajdhani screeched to stop at New Delhi railway station at 10:30am.The urban metro indeed is a blessing for Delhi and it,took us without much hassles to the Aerocity-the hub near IGI Airport.Delhi was sizzling at 47 degrees,we never left the domestic terminal…even though the flight to Srinagar was at 4:15pm the same day.On the Delhi-Srinagar flight,many people were glued to the window seats and I found out once I too pasted my nose on the cold glass.White mountain ranges spread below and it looks stunning from the flight window.The plane landed at Srinagar’s pretty airport at 5:20pm and once we stepped out of the flight,the air was different.It was cooler and much lighter…..so much for topography.Srinagar would easily go down as the most beautiful capital city in India,a city of gardens and lakes ,surrounded by mighty mountains.
It was a tragedy that we had only one evening in Srinagar on our schedule, but still we made the most of it.We stayed in a small hotel near Lal Chowk,the nerve center of Srinagar.As evening descended on the city,we took a stroll down the Lal Chowk.The temple of Sankaracharya is perched on a high hill and soon even that faded out in dying light.The charm of Lal Chowk is only disturbed by the presence of security forces in large numbers and the reason for that is written on the area itself.Not few than 7-8 buildings near the area bore the marks of past encounters and bullet wars with insurgents.If you look closely the chowk area has a nervous look to it and so is rest of the city.
Though I would like to dwell my thoughts again on the current political situation,the curious traveler resists me from doing so. Politics will wait for another day…..let’s take the place at face value. Friendly Kashmiris,shawls,kababs,cheap leather jackets and many local delicacies on the road side…Lal Chowk is charming and vibrant.If you want shawls or jackets,search for workshops behind the shops where the skilled craftsmen are busy preparing them.You get variety and price is quite cheap.I have seen the same leather jacket hauled up in Delhi for Rs 5000/- that you would get for Rs 1500-1700/- here.The old chacha who gave us Kababs in the evening looked pretty upset when we informed that we would be leaving for Leh the next morning.He said-“Ladakh is too cold and barren ,no greenery at all….you young people should visit places in the valley like Dal Lake,Gulmarg,Pahalgam etc…..”, and we felt guilty as these places would have to wait for another time.He added that Sonmarg falls on the road from Srinagar to Leh,and we must stop there.And thank heavens we did next day.

The valley of the Golden meadows...at Sonmarg,Kashmir
The valley of the Golden meadows…at Sonmarg,Kashmir
The valley at Sonmarg.Kashmir
The valley at Sonmarg.Kashmir

The morning at the Dal lake-Early in the morning when the sun was peeping over the hills beside the Dal lake,we were filled with regret that we didn’t have much time to explore the city.The famed lake changes it’s mood and looks with various hours in a day and we just saw one of them.Life at the lakeside was getting started and through the golden mist on the lake,we could see shikaras approach the shores from the other end of the lake where houseboats are lined up.The British loved the lake but even then the territory was part of the princely state of Kashmir so they could not break rules to own land around the lake.And then,the witty British came up with the idea of building houses over the lake itself,a continuation of which we see today in the shape of houseboats.A houseboat doesn’t move and you need a shikara to navigate around the lake.The highly decorated shikaras are what will capture your attention at the Dal Lake.Over the years the shikaras have become almost the cultural symbol of Kashmir because it not only serves as a boat on water but as a market place too for people living on the lake.There are no motors to drive the boats around as they are paddled with oars by thin and handsome Kashmiris since time immemorial…..and it’s a good idea because the sound of motors or infact any machines would disturb the very idea of spending time at the Dal Lake,the idea of peace and serenity.Having a ride on the Shikaras on Dal lake is one of the closest things to having heavenly peace.
After having breakfast by the lakeside,we had to be off on an epic road trip.The distance between Srinagar and Kargil is around 215 kms ,which is around half the distance to Leh and we had to hit Kargil before nightfall.

Srinagar to Kargil by road…..

Most people take the legendary road trip to Leh/Ladakh from Manali side but we decided to do it from Srinagar and it was not a bad idea after all.It was June and all high passes in the Himalayas were recently made accessible after heavy snowfalls in the winter that just passed.There are two roads to Leh,one from Srinagar and the other from Manali(Himachal) and both these routes open around May-June each year.As we moved past the city early in the morning ,I saw some splendid Kashmiri houses and then some grand fruit markets that were just opening up.As the local wooden houses and markets disappeared ,we were out of the city limits and once the confined streets of the city gave way to open fields and villages,we saw the spellbinding beauty of the Kashmir Valley.The road ran along with the lush green hills and sparkling river below it.As you look up towards the momentous hills on the road,they are crowned with crystal white snow and there is always a bigger mountain around the next bend on the road.We stood by the singing river and looked at the mountains in the early sunlight and realized why so many kings and politicians have fought over this land over so many years.The Kashmir Valley is more than just beautiful,it’s enchanting to the onlooker.As we passed rural hamlets on the way,we were gaining height on the terrain.
The landscape in the valley was getting better with each passing time and then we reached Sonmarg around 11am in the morning.We had to stop here for 2 hours because the traffic from Sonmarg would not leave before 1:30pm towards Kargil.This was some kind of local traffic management to avoid vehicular traffic jams on high mountain passes.And for next 2-3 hours we were in fairyland.Sonmarg literally means the Meadow of Gold and this heaven of an earthly place is around 90 kms from Srinagar.You can stand in awe for hours and still not fully comprehend the beauty of this landscape.The valley is dotted with small eateries and simple folk with their ponies who insist for a pony-ride into the snow just above the meadows and they have a peculiar way of doing it.
They would chase you around for a long time with their small ponies and even if you turn them down…they would say that-“what to do sir….it’s not my fault….my pony likes you very much and wants to take you on a ride to the icy meadows…..what to do sir?”.
Though it’s hard to turn these fellows down,we did and strolled around the meadows till our soul was content.

The resorts in the valley of Sonmarg at Kashmir
The resorts in the valley of Sonmarg at Kashmir

Down in the valley in Sonmarg,we saw many lodges and resorts being put up to meet the demand of the tourists and we don’t think that would be a good idea because the meadows would lose their natural charm.The makeshift markets,lodges and hotels come here during the spring and summer and this wears a desolate look in the peak winters.Sonmarg was once a vital stopover in the old silk route that ran all the way to Ladakh but today it stands choked with military and tourists.
Sunlight plays around the white peaks and the valley can be very moody…..just when the sun was shining straight over head,a cloud slithered into the meadow with big and heavy drops.We had lunch at 1pm and made our way out of Sonmarg by 1:30pm.Many vehicles would turn back to Srinagar and some would make the journey ahead…..into more spectacular and thrilling roads that lay ahead.

The dream like meadows and valleys of Sonmarg,Kashmir
The dream like meadows and valleys of Sonmarg,Kashmir

After leaving Sonmarg behind,we moved further into high mountain zones as the only way forward was a steep climb up the rugged faces of the mountains.The climb into upper reaches of Himalayan ranges was thrilling but a sense of danger never left us…..the roads vanished into mud and sluggish bends and we were entering a world which is visually stunning but takes a toll on mind and body.We were approaching the 2nd highest mountain pass on the Srinagar-Leh road-Zojila Pass at around 11,500 feet above sea level.This was also a way to acclimatize our bodies to the high altitude and less oxygen environment that we would face in the coming days in Ladakh.The road in the pass is cut between sheets of ice as high as 20-30 feet on both sides.Your vehicle trudges between high walls of ice on both sides with melted water running beneath.This is your taste of high Himalayan roads and you will love every thrill while there.Near the base of Zojila Pass ,lies a beautiful camping site called Baltal,around 10 kms from Sonmarg where pilgrims for Amarnath Yatra assemble for the 14km journey to the famous caves near Zojila pass.

The road at Zojila pass gives an adrenaline rush to all passing through it
The road at Zojila pass gives an adrenaline rush to all passing through it
The haunting vastness of ice and snow at Zojila pass on the route from Srinagar to Ladakh
The haunting vastness of ice and snow at Zojila pass on the route from Srinagar to Ladakh

We got out of our vehicles to take stock of things at Zojila and the chilly,sub-zero winds lashed our faces like needles.This is a stark and cold world of ice and rocks with hint of water emerging from cracked sheets of ice below in the valley.The winter was just closing down and the pass was still covered in thick blanket of ice all around.The view around for 360 degrees is sublime and unbelievable to the 1st time visitor.The cold and silent pass at Zojila gave way to more open views in the valley as we moved onwards.It was beautiful to see the ice sheets melting slowly in the valley to transform into sparkling water streams and then gradually some greenery sprouting on barren rocks as spring is welcomed in the Kashmir Valley.

While discussions on the weather was carried out in the vehicle,our charming driver-Wasim Bhai said that –The weather in Himalayas and fashion in Bombay can’t be trusted,both are as unpredictable…..and it’s something we heard from many people on the high roads.

On the road from Kashmir valley to Kargil
On the road from Kashmir valley to Kargil

The change is gradual but it happens at some point of your journey.The valley of Kashmir and the high plateau of Ladakh are different in many plausible ways and while we travel from Srinagar to Leh by road,this change is visible in the stretch between the towns of Drass and Kargil.The change is ethnical, geographical as well as cultural.

The alpine greenery found abundantly in the Kashmir valley slowly gives way to lesser stunted vegetation as you approach the town of Drass.The mountains bare their rocky underbelly and the land itself gets arid and dry in stretches.People are intimately related to the land in which they live and hence houses and fields change too.You begin to see the square earthen houses with a flat roof which looks as if thatched with hay on the top.These houses will remain symbolic of the agrarian community in whole of Ladakh.More than anything the mountains look stupefying as ice sits on various shades of rock.Drass was one of the areas in news during the Kargil conflict of 1999 but what many people fail to know is-what a beautiful little place this is…..and while travelling from Kashmir to Ladakh,Drass seems as if standing on the boundary between two distinct terrains and cultures.

The road between Drass and kargil in J&K
The road between Drass and kargil in J&K

Upon arrival in the town,a board by the tourism department says that Drass is the 2nd most coldest ‘inhabited’ place on earth with temperatures plummeting to -45 degrees in peak winters(the coldest being Siberian winters).Over the years Drass has been called as the Gateway to Ladakh and we could see why.We reached Drass late in the afternoon and the chill was returning in the air.After a brief stoppage in the town,we moved further without losing time as we had to be in Kargil before it got dark.Kargil is around 60 kms down the road and all through the Drass Valley,you get wonderful Himalayan vistas on offer.The land was dry now for most of the part and the air was getting torturous for first timers in the area.Before 20 kms still to Kargil,we got a flat tyre and had to stand in the cold and chilly mountain air for quite some time.Most of us resorted to running up and down the road just to keep our bodies warm and it worked.As the sun had set behind the brown and white peaks,we reached the town of Kargil for an overnight stay.
To add to the charm,we were at Paradise Guest House in front of the hospital in Kargil.A secluded ,wooden hideaway from the world.The Islamic culture of Kashmir valley and Buddhist culture of Ladakh meet at Kargil,though Kargil is predominantly muslim in population.As a strategic cross over between two places,Kargil is small and yet charming in it’s essence.Just take stroll down the major arterial road in the town and you feel what I mean by charm.A group of elderly and middle aged ones who were returning from Ladakh side,warned us of rough conditions as many in their group had been taken ill.We kept that in kind.

The Himalayan sojourn
The Himalayan sojourn

We slept uneasily that night because the cold air would somehow seep into the wooden window and then we realized the symptoms of breathing less amount of oxygen than our bodies are used to-sleeplessness,loss of appetite and slight headache due to less blodd circulation in the head.All these symptoms are part of Altitude Sickness and they would stay till the body adjusts itself to the conditions.

the Lost Hermit/Soumya D Jena

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