My share taxi was due to leave at 5:00 am from about 40 minutes walk from the hotel so it was an early start with the alarm going off at 3:45 am. I had a quiet, dark walk through the back streets before heading out to the ‘Boulevard,’ the main road along the lake. There wasn’t much activity anywhere, just the occasional three-wheeler goods-carrier (a rickshaw with a flat bed behind the driver instead of seats). One, empty, stopped and offered me a ride to the taxi-stand for 100 rupees. Twice the daytime rate and I didn’t even get a seat but it seemed like a good idea.
The taxi driver (Ali, all of eighteen years old by the look of him) arrived punctually at 5:00 am, but just to tell me he was going off to do his toilet (I think he had slept in the taxi – most of the other share-taxi SUV-type vehicles had bodies in them). Then we drove around a bit, to pick people up (why wasn’t I offered this courtesy? I would have had an extra hour’s sleep). But I had a window seat in the middle row so all was good. We were under way shortly after six.
Almost immediately after leaving Srinagar, we were into beautiful pristine mountains, which didn’t look that different from parts of British Columbia near my home in Canada. But this road (National Highway 1) wouldn’t have passed muster in Canada; one and a half lanes wide and pot-holed. After about an hour, Ali stopped for breakfast. I sensed a day with regular stops (unlike the ride up to Srinagar which had been an ordeal) but that was fine: it was nice to get out, stretch my legs and regain some feeling in my bottom.
My fellow passengers were four young men, Kashmiris, who were working in Leh and a Ladakhi couple returning to Leh after the man, Tashi, had been in Jammu for work-related meetings. The Ladakhi couple had not been able to get a flight back to Leh and had opted for two long days of taxi-rides, separated by a day of sight-seeing in Srinagar.
There was livestock on the road; there seemed to be a sumer migration to higher pastures in full swing.
This shepherd seemed to be doing an admirable job of controlling his flock from the comfort of the ‘highway’ by whistling.
Road-building was a work in progress as the road climbed up towards the Zoji La pass (3527 m, 11640′) with gravel roads on either side of the pass. Westbound convoys of vehicles meeting those eastbound caused occasional jams, which were an opportunity to get out and stretch legs. Enjoy the cool fresh air (apart from the diesel fumes, that is). Regain feeling in nether regions.
The traffic was mainly large trucks and shared taxis, no cycles in evidence! But it would be a spectacular ride.
The white SUV squeezed tightly in to the sensible (away from the drop) side of the road is our share-taxi. Somehow, the vehicles get past each other and ‘normal’ progress is resumed.
A truck waiting at a passing place on the road below.
There is a lower ‘old’ road, still in use. Mainly by the military, it seems. Perhaps there will be an eastbound road and a westbound road sometime in the future that will improve traffic flow.
And now dropping down (initially) into Ladakh.
The futher east we go, the drier the landscape becomes. But the scenery remains enthralling:
A rare section of perfect highway proves too much for one vehicle. Ali, our driver, stops to give assistance. Although it’s more of an opportunity to give instructions than to actually get his hands dirty. But, another chance to stretch! And observe a tyre-change, Ladakhi-style.
A rock is placed behind the flat tyre. And the vehicle is backed up on to this rock, no doubt causing more damage to the already sorry-looking tyre. The reason? To reduce the amount of handle turning on the jack! But it did save a good thirty seconds. The spare was virtually bald but we were soon on our way again.
Kargil is the normal place to break the journey if travelling between Srinagar and Leh by bus. It is a mainly Muslim town, whereas most of Ladakh is Buddhist.
Kargil is very sensitive militarily, being close to the borders of both Pakistan and China, both of which have ‘liberated’ land from Ladakh since borders were established in 1947. The military takes care of school bus duties.
Not all vehicles can make it past each other. The truck facing the camera has its front wheel on the crumbly edge of the road about a steep drop. There is still not enough room and the truck has to back up to where the road is wider.
The scenery continues to astound. Most of these pictures are taken from the bouncing seat of our taxi but still manage to show the grandeur of the landscape, I think.
Tashi, very kindly, phoned a guesthouse that he knew to be clean and economical and arranged a room to be held for me; it would be close to 9:00 pm by the time we arrived in Leh. He called his driver (he has a government job, I think, and senior enough to warrant a driver) to pick us up, take us to his home for a cup of tea (where I met his three year old son and parents- and brother-in-law) and then had me taken to the Jig Gyas guesthouse. Clean and comfortable, with a lovely lady who brought me tea and made me a meal. I already know that I’m going to like Ladakh!