We changed plans at the last moment before leaving Amritsar; I am acutely aware of potential problems with our proposed itinerary due to political unrest in the Kashmir region and wanted to have some kind of ‘backup’ route surveyed. I came to the conclusion it would be more time efficient to check roads and hotels between Amritsar and Rothang La before embarking on the long Kashmiri sections, it also meant we could survey them in the direction we might need them if unrest were to interfere with our plans. We were both astonished at the vibrant growth in the hills leading to the Himalayas. At this time of year with the rain easing and temperatures still warm we see a flourishing increase of everything green. The landscapes too are more abrupt and steep as the hills just get more and more intimidating. We had our first experience of any real altitude on this trip, as we crossed Rothang La the GPS registered 3985 metres which equates to 12,951 feet. Of course, at this level we are well above the ‘tree line’ with just a bare rocky landscape and isolated snow scraps amid barren tundra. Another noticeable change was that of the local population, not only does it become less crowded and chaotic but the features of those around us become more Tibetan and Nepali, we begin to see the far eastern influence in the blood of the indigenous population.
I was not entirely happy with options we’d surveyed towards Manali so for the return journey we detoured on more minor roads and what we found was two particularly scenic sections on narrow winding roads, in some cases, with precipitous drops into the fairytale valley below. We also visited the colonial hill station of Dalhousie where a crumbling mansion of a property has been welcoming guests for more than 100 years and still exudes a wonderful sense of history.
The road leaving Jammu north is famously busy and unpleasant combining a very poor road surface with a never-ending stream of over-laden trucks and true to form the first 100km was horrid taking us more than three hours to cover, making any headway was hard work; I shall certainly have some explaining to do when I arrive at the ‘Pearly Gates’! However, after a check-point where we got permits to travel in Kashmir the conditions improved and once clear of the Jawahar Tunnel the scenery began to take on an altogether larger dimension. Arriving late and exhausted at one hotel I was ushered towards a parking space immediately outside the foyer, the sign in my headlights announced ‘Lessabled Parking’! It brought a smile to my tired face.
Continuing north, exiting the steep valleys the road begins to open out as we neared Srinagar with frequent small villages dotted along the route. As dusk fell we arrived in the town with an appointment to inspect a property in the evening; the palace certainly has a welcoming entrance hall with polished stone floors and pillars. We ate well in their restaurant before finding more humble accommodation. Lally has been working tirelessly checking services and inspecting competing hotels but imagine for a moment the interaction between an Argentine and an Indian all conducted in stilted English; I have been requested to act as Argentine/Indian interpreter on more than one occasion! Another of the hotels we visited was surrounded with tight security involving many Indian army soldiers and repeated searches of the car and x-ray scanning of all baggage. Surely this cannot be the norm, we asked each other? On entering the lobby, Lally hastily exclaimed, “That’s Zubin Mehta”! On further enquiry we found he had given a concert in the city the evening before and was a guest at the hotel. We spent a full day in Srinagar attending to administration and garnered more detailed information of the route ahead using local knowledge.
This district has a large Muslim following, the girls are covered from top to toe, the men favour shaggy beards and prayers are broadcast over poor quality sound systems at deafening levels, for one less in tune with the faith it appears odd to be woken at 5am in such a manner! From Srinagar, we turned east towards higher mountains climbing steadily all day; Zoju La at 11,544ft (3552m) is considered the main entrance to the Ladakh region although we had to wait a couple of hours to cross while earthmoving equipment cleared a landslide. The military presence also steps-up a notch with large encampments, facilities for high altitude warfare training and army personnel everywhere.
We surveyed a marvellous section on lonely gravel roads climbing to 14,240ft (4382m) before we came across a badly washed-out culvert after 52km. I drove 150km to the opposite end to survey the rest of the road because I was fairly certain it was not abandoned. Sure enough we came upon teams of men wielding sledge-hammers to break huge rocks down into manageable chunks, they are then manhandled to an area where women and girls as young as twelve were breaking them down further into regular sized and graded gravel; this gravel is then used to repair the road surface. No rock crushing technology other than hammer and chisel. Further to that, you may be able to guess I have been inspecting various mechanical contraptions with a passing interest during this recce and the archetypal two-wheeled camel carts drew my attention. They nearly all use a large diameter, very heavy duty, split-rim aircraft type wheel and tyre from the same application; it must come from an Avro Constellation or suchlike.
We have taken interest in the earnest agriculture going on in what appear unfertile heavy clay soils; however, stopping to interact with locals and seeing firsthand the produce coming off the land we were very impressed with the harvesting and drying of a bumper rice crop.
Lally has spent many months poring over reviews, recommendations, and hotel websites to single-out the best on offer, nevertheless our overnight in Kargil at an hotel with very dubious credentials reminded me of an episode in Brazil whilst survey with John Brown when we had to spend the night in a brothel as the only accommodation available; I specifically remember the mirrors on the ceiling in that particular lodging! Whilst surveying we occasionally need to overnight unexpectedly and Lally and I found ourselves close to the only guesthouse for many miles just before dark one night. We approached the shabby-looking homestead asking for a bed and meal and came away well rested with full stomachs. The engineer in me was particularly impressed with the reflection cooker in the yard, a most delicious device using a large concave reflective dish to concentrate the sun’s rays on the cooking vessel above.
I was hugely happy to find a lovely mountain road between Drass and Kargil on brand-new super smooth twisting tarmac with not another vehicle in site; a real pleasure to drive. As we travel through this stark and beautiful landscape I look up into the high clefts between summits and can see small glaciers forcing new paths into the hillside.
Leh is the capital of the Ladakh region and centre for all manner of tours and activities. Whilst Lally attended unending meetings with suppliers I had the chance to edit and update GPS mapping documents and write some words to keep you informed. Khardung La is less than 100km from Leh and we decided the planned rest day in Leh could include a trip to the stunning Nubra Valley taking in this high pass. We crossed Khardung La which at 18,380ft (5649m) was the highest motorable pass in the world until 2003 when Marmik La near Pangong Tso Lake took that accolade by a paltry 200ft; this road is absolutely outstanding, the scale of the mountains with colossal valleys dividing them is beyond description. We arrived in the tiny, quaint settlement of Diskit to enjoy the main bazaar in full swing on a weekend.
We have more roads to survey while here before we begin south and east towards the Spiti Valley but this video gives a view of crossing the world’s highest roads.