Contact with the outside world has been very intermittent over the last ten days; firstly, because of flooding in the west of Kashmir and an unfolding civil disaster relating to those floods, but also because the very simple accommodation we’ve been using has not had reliable internet connection. Further to that I have found myself involved with more pressing issues relating to road conditions as well as a number of mechanical breakdowns but I must point out, Tim Foate has proved himself a master of breakdowns in the bush with limited resources, time to make repairs and only a very simple toolkit.
Our rest day in Amritsar was used by most to visit the Golden Temple and then later in the day to make the short drive west to the Pakistani border where the comical display of closing the border takes place; the entire display is amateur in the extreme but that may be what makes it such a spectacle.
However, by lunchtime I was fed-up with the conflicting information we were receiving from the flood damaged regions of Kashmir and could contain myself no longer. I asked the ever practical and willing Stephen Friend to join me in a dash north to assess to true situation. We traveled quickly making a short rest in Jammu before pushing on for what turned into a slog over congested roads and tunnels littered with creeping trucks with very little in the way of a planned relief effort. We arrived late and tired at our beautiful hotel which, situated above the town, had not suffered direct contact with the muck and water but was functioning on a restricted power supply. I checked the roads we hoped to use leading east out of the city and was happy to report back that we would be able to revert to our original plans. Lally, had been holding everything together as the face of ‘Jingers Jaunts’ and was therefore elated to pass-on the news that we would enter Kashmir from the south-west as formerly intended.
As crews arrived in the northern city after a good deal more than twelve hours in the car I could see many were extremely stressed and tired. I was glad to have the group safely off the nightmarish roads and recuperating from the unpleasant driving conditions.
From here the views and vistas’ turn truly spellbinding with high passes surrounded by towering majestic peaks on all sides. The first of the high passes, Zoji La, was just over 11,600ft (3552m) before descending towards Kargil and our simple resting place. Traversing these ranges is not undemanding with the constant threat of landslides at this time of year. The ‘Sweep’ crew arrived at one such landslide to find the entire group stranded except for the ‘Admin’ vehicle which had passed through safely a few hours earlier. We must have been held up for a couple of hours which meant our exciting option to cross a very rugged high pass on gravel roads had to be bypassed because daylight was failing with some distance still to be covered.
On the morning of Wednesday 24th September we woke early and everyone was on the road by 07:00 for a shorter day to Leh where we needed to obtain permits for those wanting to drive India’s highest motorable road crossing Khardung La at 17,631ft (5374m). Most of our party made the decision to drive this outstanding road, indeed, I think only one crew preferred to relax in the markets and bazaars’ of the high altitude town of Leh. It’s a full day’s drive and the pass itself, a solitary wind-swept place. Descending into Diskit we ambled through the streets viewed the monastery and gathered for an impromptu ‘smoko’ at a desert camp just outside of the township. With a four hour return drive to Leh and the last check-point closing at 16:30 everyone was keen to get moving and what a good job! As we ascended the pass from the northern side a fresh weather front moved in enveloping the road in a brisk wind containing snow and ice. As common in these situations, it’s all very well to have a 4×4 but you can only travel as far as the last 2×4 blocking the road. Large trucks and tiny cars were skating around, bouncing from side to side, and slithering off the track but we somehow managed to weave a path passed these skidding contraptions to crest the pass where tumbling down towards Leh showed us a better surface while snow fell on the highest point now behind us.
Poor Andy & Shelagh Marshall developed a dramatic leak in one of the bladders supporting the air suspension of their G4 Range Rover Sport. Discussions were held with the only feasible repair in this remote corner of India, to strip the suspension, invert the bladder and apply some form of vulcanising solution to the leak. We were not able to find tyre patches with enough compliance and therefore chose to use polyurethane windscreen sealant. Having let the repair mature overnight, we reassembled the suspension and let the pumps refill the system. Happily it retained air supporting the vehicle as normal but how long our ‘Heath Robinson’ repair will last remains to be seen.
Travelling south from Leh the roads become excruciatingly high and the air pathetically thin. We were all away before 07:00 climbing to over 17,000 feet crossing Tanglang La with a further three passes over 15,000 feet throughout the day. The views and scenery in this region are quite stunning, impossible to describe here, and even the most adept photographer would struggle to capture the majesty and grandeur of these mountains. Jispa is a gaggle of simple buildings with a couple of straightforward hotels where we chose to stay because the high altitude camps, although romantic, are a good deal higher and the thought of everyone sleeping under canvas with the threat of altitude sickness was a concern I didn’t wish to address. Richard Smith decided it was a little to rustic for his tastes so pressed-on to Manali and better accommodation although, personally, I think the risks involved cannot justify that decision.
The next two days took the rest of the group into the remarkable Lahaul ranges and the Spiti valley brushing against the Tibetan border. The scenery here is quite special, a once in a lifetime opportunity for most and far more adventurous than the well trodden tourist path over Rothang La to Manali. Calling these monstrous mountains foothills is an injustice; we spent the day gaping at sheer mountainsides, snow-capped peaks, and gushing blue rivers topped with white foaming spray.
Sorry, but the infamous Hindustan-Tibet Highway, noted as one of the top-ten most dangerous roads in the World, is a puppy by comparison to the roads we had traversed in the preceding days. It makes me realise that marketing is behind every aspect of our modern lives; anything for a good story and a story is exactly what it is!
Lord Kitchener’s Wildflower Hall is such a throwback to colonial times; what an idyllic place to rest after the high roads and thin air of the preceding days. We have three nights sojourn and an opportunity to repair ailing machinery as well as the chance to recuperate before beginning south once more into the heart of this vibrant land.