If you’ve read my posts on India, you probably know already how much I dislike this country. It’s true, I don’t like India. BUT, there’s one thing I have to say. There, I had one of the most grueling yet most beautiful and fascinating road trips – the Jammu-Srinagar-Leh-Manali circuit across the Himalayas.
This is the journey that made me fall in love with what I think are the most peaceful parts of India, and because of that, I have to admit that there’s just a little bit of India that I do like and enjoy.
I started this trip from Delhi, making a quick stop at Amritsar to jump to McLeod Ganj, where the Dalai Lama lives and where the official road trip began.
From McLeod it was a 7 hours public bus to Jammu, where as soon as I jumped off the bus I got offered (in a rushed and exhausting manner like in any typical Indian city) an 8 hours jeep ride to Srinagar for 500 rupees (which was considerably cheap compared to the price of the bus). I was tired already, of course, but I had no business in Jammu, so I decided to endure the back-to-back rides.
There’s one thing you need to know about Indian schedules; if they say it’s going to take 5 hours, it’s really going to take 7 hours. They say 8; it is 9 to 10, and so on.
Once in Srinagar, I swear I felt like I left India. Where were the annoying rickshaw drivers? Where were the beggars? Why didn’t I have 50 sweating bodies jumping and trampling all over me? This was Srinagar.
To this day, Srinagar is my favorite place in India. It is situated in the Kashmir Valley and lies on the banks of the Jhelum River. I believe the most iconic things about Srinagar are the Dal and Nagin lakes, colored and populated by their houseboats. Just laying eyes over it I could see why they have called it the “Venice of the East” and “Kashmiri Venice”. People row peacefully on the lake, hopping from houseboat to houseboat in a slow pace.
Silence made a deafening appearance for the first time in my stay in India. I could hear the sound of the water as people rowed by, I could hear the birds, the slow hum, the lack of motorboats, the leaves on the trees as they moved with the wind. Just, everything.
After a couple days of absorbing this peaceful environment, it was time to take the road again on a slightly more challenging journey – the road from Srinagar to Leh.
While Srinagar is my favorite place, the Srinagar-Leh road is the most beautiful I’ve taken so far (this road is open only from early June to November due to its high altitude and weather conditions). It was 15 hours+ on a jeep (costing about 1,500 rupees)… a loooong ass ride… but the scenery and the nomadic scenes I saw along were beyond the level of beauty and authenticity I was expecting – oh, and not to mention the adventure.
The 434 km journey started –very early in the morning– with a simple introduction of tall mountains surrounding the lakes, then a few snow-capped mountains, and then the iconic unpaved, bumpy road lined by steep mountain walls on one side and cliffs on the other.
As if the road was not bad and narrow enough, we had to maneuver (the driver, of course) the tight space with the hundreds of construction and cargo trucks that transit this road everyday (why is this a cargo route, again?).
I swear there were moments when I felt we would just fall of the cliff as the driver literally drove inches away from the edge. Since I was next to the window, I would open it and look down just to see a car tire flirting with the last few inches of irregular road and hundreds of feet of precipice below. Won’t lie… got scared a few times.
And of course, what can you expect when hundreds of cargo truck ride this challenging road? Breakdowns! At least two of them broke down, leaving everyone behind them stranded until they were either fixed or towed by the military.
If that is not enough, landslides are a common sight during monsoon season, which I so “cleverly” chose to visit India. Again, we had to either wait for the military to clean it a bit or take the chances of riding over the debris, hoping it would not slide all the way down with us. This part, on the other hand, I found really exciting.
After a few landslides and truck breakdown dramas, I found myself in the middle of nowhere – almost literally. Ahead of me was a serpentine road winding up and down the Himalayas; behind, the same. To the sides there were more mountains, as far as my eyes could see. Snow sprinklered here and there the top of the mountains while green grassy fields served as a more welcoming contrast at the bottom.
There was no sign of civilization. Still, this road has its own political tensions. The road skirts the Line of Actual Control between India and Pakistan, which in certain occasions has made it the target of Pakistani shelling and crossfire.
We continued our way and not much farther –out of nowhere– thousands of goats blocked the road, and as we got closer they began to surround the jeep as If they didn’t mind us being there. They were not there by themselves; nomads were walking them, maybe to the nearest town for commercial purposes?… I’m not sure. This scene happened over a dozen times for the next two to three hours. It was like an exodus – as if nomad families were making their way to their new temporary destination.
The farther we went, the more I questioned myself, “where are they walking to?!”. There was nothing for miles, and miles, and miles!
We then passed through Drass, supposedly the second coldest inhabited place on earth (just the though of it makes me shiver), followed by probably one of the most dramatic parts of this road – the ascent up the 11,500 ft. (3,505 m.) high Zoji-la, the pass in the Great Himalayan Wall that serves as the gateway to Ladakh.
A nomad camp here and a nomad camp there sprinklered the green, flat grassy fields that eventually became dry sandy fields. In a matter of hours we crossed from forest, to snow capped mountains, to green pastures, to the desert – all encompassed in the Himalayas.
There was not much more to do for the rest of the day than to keep enjoying the dry scenery as it shone brightly with the sunset’s golden rays of light; slowly turning darker until no light could be seen, except for the full moon and the jeep’s headlights.
In just a few more hours, I would be arriving to Leh, the former capital of the Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh.
Road trip continued on the next post.