Day 14: 28th June, 2011
We had a very steep target for today. We had to ride back from Pangong Tso to Leh, load all our luggage into the taxi and then start riding again, towards Srinagar. We wanted to reach as close to Kargil as possible by late night. The first part of the plan went quite beautifully. We left very early and crossed Chang La quite effortlessly. We stopped on Chang La again for the most amazing ginger-lemon tea. This time there were a lot of tourists, many of who were amazed by us and wanted to take pictures with us or with our bikes.
Equally effortlessly, we reached Leh by around 12 noon. Most of us needed breaks, some of us needed to get our bikes fine tuned, there was lunch to be had and a few other errands which took a little longer than we would have liked. We left Leh town only at 4 PM. We had already rode about 140-150 kms and to reach Kargil, we had another 200+ kms to go. In just a while we realised that neither the roads, not the traffic was in our favour. The roads were great in parts and were the worst in some parts. We crossed Alchi, Khalsi and reached Lamayuru by around 7:30 PM. The interesting thing about these places is that you have daylight till 8 PM. Lamayuru was to be our actual destination after Pangong Tso, had we not lost a day. Now, to make up for one lost day, we had to try to reach Kargil. Lamayuru has a large monastery that is perched on one of the hills. Thanks to great roads, great landscapes, you get a view of the Gompa from almost every possible angle. From Lamayuru town, you get to see the beautiful Gompa from below. As you start riding away from the town you come across some zig zag climbing which take you to a greater height, that gives a view of the town and the Gompa from the top. With the sun just setting, the sky was turning orange and with all the hills, the monks, the monastery, the roads, Lamayuru was picture perfect.
Something different about today’s ride was that, today we were riding through a lot of crevices unlike all these days, where we would ride on mountain tops. For the first time in days, we were feeling it was quite dark at around 6 PM. That was because we were always under the shadows of the mountains. Actually, the ride was quite scary as the mountains looked like they could tumble any minute. A little after Lamayuru, the roads got from bad to worse and then from worse to worst! We had planned to make our next meeting point as Mulbekh which was about 70 kms from there. We took more than 3 hours to cover that. We reached Mulbekh around midnight and went straight and crashed into the only hotel we could find there. The first time we put sleeping bags to real use, since there were just 2 rooms in this Hotel, and we were 16 of us!
Day 15: 29th June, 2011
We were about 250 kms from Srinagar. We again started riding very early. The roads were very bad till Kargil and then it was manageable. We tanked up in Kargil, had breakfast there and again hit the road. The Kashmir we were seeing today was totally different from what we had seen so far. The muddy and rocky mountains were getting replaced with lush green ones. The rivers and streams were becoming much more beautiful. The place was shedding its Buddhist touch and was starting to acquire an Islamic one. We couldn’t see the monks clad in orange who were omnipresent till yesterday. The Gompas were replaced with numerous Mosques. The people no more had little eyes, they had bright Arabic eyes. Men no more wore snazzy brands, they wore Pathan suits and women invariably had veils covering their heads. The languages that sounded very eastern till yesterday were replaced overnight with languages that sounded similar to Hindi, Urdu and Arabic. It was a whole new Kashmir we were witnessing and for me this cultural kind of acclimatisation was more exciting than the earlier weather acclimatisation that we had.
We passed Drass, which is supposed to be the second coldest inhabited area in the world (after Siberia). The lowest recorded temperature here was -60 degrees. I met a fine gentleman here by name Abdul Kareem and had a very interesting conversation with him. Here I got a first glimpse of the passion and the pride the locals have for their place. From Drass, we could see Tiger hills which was the focal point during the Kargil war. We finished our snacks and moved on.
Up ahead was Zoji La pass. It is a very less talked about pass. Partly because most bikers go back from Leh to Manali and partly because after all the passes we had crossed thus far, bad roads, river crossings and snow become just a topic of mild conversation. Zoji La was great till the climb. Then, we descend to Sonmarg, which is the last town for people going to Amarnath. Amarnath is open only for a month or so and this was the season. The descend from Zoji La for me was one of the toughest. It was extremely sloppy and the roads were probably the worst. The brakes were rendered completely useless on the way down. As the descend begins, you get a totally stunning view of the Sonmarg town. The view is an amazing cocktail of fantastic rivers, a town that looks like a collection of boxes of all fancy colours, lots of army convoys, helicopters, winding roads, folks taking their horses for the Amarnath Pilgrims, etc. Riding doubles on this patch was very very tiring.
Just as we crossed Sonmarg, it started to rain quite heavily. We continued riding and were witness to some of the strongest parts of the rivers. These rivers were roaring right next to the roads and looked like they could come onto the road any minute and wash away all the traffic in a jiffy. The rest of the ride was taking us closer to Srinagar and the change in climate, culture, cuisine, fragrance, scenes, ethnicity, people was getting stronger and stronger. We reached Hazratbal in the evening around 4 PM and were amazed by the security cover provided by the army along the Sonmarg – Srinagar highway. We spent about 2-3 hours finding a good place to stay, when one of Mohan’s friend Ovas, who resides in Srinagar came to our rescue. He arranged for a house boat stay option at a very reasonable price. Till then, we had seen multiple options and each person had different stay preferences. Till then, it looked like different sets of people would stay in different places, which created a complex situation.
One look a the houseboat and all of us decided to stay there. We took 2 houseboats which had 2 bed rooms and a hall each. In addition to this, we took another boat which had one room, where Manju and Somanna would stay. Me and Nam were staying in one of the rooms in one boat, Moms, Pops and Shubra in another room of that boat and Mohan and Vatsala in the hall of the same boat. All the other guys were staying in another boat. A commitment from the boat owner had misfired. He had assured a different house boat for Mohan and Vatsala as it was their wedding anniversary the next day. But that boat was quite basic and not very attractive. They did not want to stay there and in the last moment decided to stay in the hall of our boat. I insisted upon them to shift to our room, but they were not agreeing to it. I was feeling really bad that they had to sleep on the floor in a hall on their wedding anniversary. This was despite that he was instrumental in securing all of us such a great place to stay in.
The order of events this evening may not be clear as a lot of things were happening parallely. The driver turned out to be a nut case and was behaving very erratically. He went almost crazy towards evening, as he wanted to leave the same evening back to Leh. He was not willing to get the car till the houseboats so that we could unload the luggage, he tried getting some local goons, tried going to the cops and accused us of man handling him, etc. Ovas had great local knowledge and connections, which was of great help in these circumstances.
Srinagar and Hazratbal are like twin cities and are very crowded. To add to that, today was a special day – some muslim festival and there were road blocks everywhere. Getting to any place was a nightmare. Either there is too much traffic or traffic is totally diverted by cops.
Amidst all this chaos, we managed to settle down in our rooms. Moms and Pops wanted to have some fruits or something light for dinner. Me, Nam, Vatsala, Mohan, Manju and Somanna went to the Hazratbal mosque and market area. The others went to a local restaurant to dine on some very special and authentic local cuisine. Me and Nam bought some fruits and took it to Mom and returned. We wanted to take Shubra with us as we were feeling that she was spending very little time with us.
But she had already gone with the others. So, we went and joined the other guys in the restaurant they were in. I was a little surprised to see that all the restaurants there serve only non-vegetarian food. To add to that, today being a festival they were all serving only mutton. This festival calls for a special dish called Wazwan which the others were relishing. Since Vatsala is a vegetarian, Ovas took her to the only place where vegetarian food was being served – inside the Mosque. First of all, there were hardly any women around and those who were there were dressed in chudidars and had their heads covered. Nam and Vatsala were wearing Jeans and T-Shirts and were grabbing all the attention. Since me and Nam don’t eat meat and had missed the mosque dinner and we were very very hungry, we needed to find food. And find food, we did. Tried practically everything that the street vendors were selling from some fried vegetable to an exotic dish called parantha halwa. This is like a large poori – almost a meter in diameter, made out of some maida dough. This is fried in an equally large frying pan. They then tear it and fill in a yellow sweet that looks and tastes a lot like the South-Indian Kesari Bath. It was very interesting to see the guy prepare such a large “poori”. We tried the local sweets, kulfi, salads, everything. We had long conversations with the locals, most of who were looking at us as if we were aliens. Ovas shared with us a lot of information about the place, the culture, the people. This was the most authentic part of the journey and we returned to our rooms at midnight. We were the first ones to wish Mohan and Vatsala on their wedding anniversary and went to bed. I gave it one last shot trying to convince them to exchange rooms with us, but in vain.
Continue reading the story here: The Himalayan Sojourn 1.0- Part 9- Srinagar and Beyond
If you missed out on reading the previous story, you can read it here: The Himalayan Sojourn 1.0- Part 7- Chang La & Pangong Tso
Pictures from these two days of riding: