Though I travel a lot, it is mostly to places where I have been before. So while I do get excited, I don’t get EXCITED. This was to be totally new terrain for me. Delhi to Srinagar and then on to Leh by road. Till we reached Srinagar, we weren’t sure whether the crucial Zojila pass on that road was open or not. As usual Delhi soured my mood. However, once I got into the plane and had two nice Kashmiri gentlemen sitting next to me, I was back to being gung-ho and looking forward to the trip. These men had not visited Kashmir in a long time and so it was a full-of-beans trio that kept peering through the window to see if we have reached.
We had booked a room at the Hotel Swiss based on recommendations on Trip Advisor that though the facilities were mediocre, the hotel owner’s helpfulness was to be seen to be believed. We drove through Srinagar during afternoon prayers blaring from mosques every 200m. There was also a gunman every 100m pointing his gun, it seemed, directly at the imaginary bindi on our foreheads. I had to quickly tell my young photographer friend that she is NOT to shoot the gunman – they would have no hesitation shooting right back. She reluctantly put her camera away.
If you ignore the presence of the armed forces, Srinagar is really one of the most beautiful places I have been to. Flowers in profusion and the tall chinars give a graceful look to the whole city. Our hotel was on a back lane of the shore of the Dal Lake – we were to be in the middle of the action. Rouf John, the owner of Hotel Swiss, was everything and more than we expected from the Trip Advisor reviews. He first asked us to be seated and gave us some Kahwa tea and cookies. Then he asked us about ourselves and our plans. Reluctantly we told him that we could not spend more time in his beautiful city and needed to head off to Leh. Would he help us find a taxi? He told us how to go about it and also made a couple of phone calls to taxi drivers he knew. However, since it was not yet tourist season, none of them were operational. Finally he showed us to our room. And much later, once we were ready to go sight seeing, he asked us apologetically to fill up our details in his guest register.
We stopped first at the Lhasa restaurant for lunch and negotiated with a dilapidated auto to take us to the Shalimar Bagh. On the way we had the calm Dal Lake on one side. And after entering the gardens, I could well understand why Shah Jahan was fida about Srinagar. It was here he was supposed to have said, “If there is a paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this…”! Not in English of course, but that was how our school history book translated what he said. I could not agree more. I think that from this point on, my words and my photographs are going to do little justice to the natural beauty. You simply have to see it to experience that uplifting of spirit, that feeling of complete and utter joy, the jaw dropping and me not even noticing…
Shalimar Bagh is laid out in a straight, simple, symmetrical manner. It slowly goes higher as you walk inside. In the centre is a water body flowing from the highest point. There are small waterfalls where everyone stopped to take photographs. On either side are two rows of colourful flowers – pansies, lilies, rose lilies, daisies, phlox, poppies… Behind the flower beds, at regular intervals, rose bushes of every hue. On either side were grass lawns dotted with flower beds, some magnificent old trees and some benches. What tales those trees should be able to tell!
In the backdrop were the snow capped Himalayas. Well, to be strictly correct, they must be the Karakoram range. The whole effect was simply stunning. As we came out we noticed that the walls were covered with rose creepers with bunches and bunches of roses of the most vivid colours – red, pink, yellow…
Step out and you step down from paradise back on to planet earth with the souvenir shops and chai stalls. I guess those really complete the experience.
Our return journey was just as beautiful by the Dal Lake. This time we were able to sit by the lake for a while though we didn’t have the time for a shikara ride. The lake is perfectly still and reflects each shikara exactly.
We continued our search for a taxi to Leh and got quoted some exorbitant prices. To raise our low spirits, we went shopping (of course!) and came back to the Hotel Swiss to tell our tale of woe to Rouf. He made some phone calls and then said, “Come, let us find you a taxi. These prices are ridiculous.” He drove us to the taxi stand in his car and asked us to look out for a JK-07 vehicle as those are from Kargil and would probably be going back empty. They would be much cheaper than the taxis from Srinagar. We found one soon enough and then the negotiations began. It was fascinating to watch Rouf and the many drivers who collected around talk, walk away, share a joke and finally agree on a price. We, three south Indian women, would have never been able to do it on our own. (Later I realised that we were breaking the co-op effort set up by the taxi drivers of Srinagar, Kargil and Leh where fixed prices operated.)
We came back much pleased and sure that Rouf would give us a fat bill the next day. And very embarrassed when he refused payment even for the room since it was their spare room and not really fit for guests!! This country is amazing! It was only after much insistence that he took a payment for the room at all!
Rouf had explained the previous day that we are not to think that Kashmiris are like “North Indians”. North of the Jawahar Tunnel, people are again human was what he told us. I have experienced amazing hospitality everywhere in the world (even in Delhi) and Rouf was yet another example of that.
Setting out at 7 in the morning is not my idea of fun. But the driver insisted that unless we left early, we would be stuck behind many trucks on that narrow road. How do I even begin to describe the journey Kargil? We were soon out of city limits after going past the glassy Dal Lake. And we started climbing almost at once. Often the drop on one side would be so steep that I closed my eyes. The mountains were all snow capped and it looked like we were climbing to that snow. It was a shock how quickly we moved from the verdant valleys of Mulbek to stark Ladakh.
Soon, in the bright sunlight, we could see the snow drifting towards the aqua green streams that flow in the valleys. Our driver was in a hurry, but we just had to stop and take pictures of the snow drifting. It had picked up a lot of rubble on the way and was really dirty snow. And it was getting cold to step out of the car.
And then we were in the midst of the snow. On either side of us were huge snow banks towering above us. Zojila pass was marked with two army men covered completely and wearing snow glasses. We had some narrow meetings with trucks coming the other way and one point where the trucks had parked leaving no place for us to go past. We passed several army check posts. At each, one of the soldiers would come in and peer at us. I smiled and made small conversation with each of them – and usually got welcomed to join them for a cup of tea. What a life they lead. I am not in favour of war and the armed forces, but these men were extraordinary. They ensured these roads were kept open for at least six months in a year and stayed here in these lonely and frozen conditions. I will not go into the futility of their work – but their bravery and resolve I cannot question.
At one check post a very cheerful young man asked us where we were from. And our standard answer was Chennai. Hopefully he asked if any of us could speak Telugu and when I did, he beamed brighter than the snow around. He was from Hyderabad and had been here for nine months now. I was so touched that I immediately offered him some of the mangoes and murukkus that we were carrying with us. He refused it resolutely. Really! If someone were to offer me murukkus and mangoes in Madras I wouldn’t refuse. In the middle of a frozen desert? I would have broken down and cried! (I did that after a month in the Philippines and then being served alu puri on the Singapore airlines flight back!)
Once we crossed this army post, our driver relaxed a bit and we guessed that the worst bit was over. Soon we were in Dras which was worst affected by the Kargil war of 1999. We stopped to have some lunch and take pictures of the infamous Tiger Hill where the “enemy” first appeared. Of course we had to take pictures near the board that said “Second coldest inhabited place in the world”. Truly, been there done that.
Further ahead was the Operation Vijay memorial and we went around it thoroughly. War is of course futile, but that is for the heads of governments to take a stance on. The soldiers fight and die and in terrible conditions at that. I kept expecting to hear Barkha Dutt’s voice in a commentary, but was spared that at least! I was tickled pink to see a souvenir shop – caps and t-shirts with Operation Vijay written on them! Good for the armed forces!
By the time we reached Kargil, we were completely exhausted. The guide book says that Kargil was on the ancient route from Samarkand to Srinagar. While that evokes romantic images, let me assure you that it is dusty one-street town with honking cars. And it didn’t help that we were the only women in town who didn’t cover our heads.
After a bit of rest, we went in search of some vegetarian food and I got two thick rotis with enough butter on them to last me a lifetime. A taste of the famous butter tea and we were back to the hotel. A good night’s rest would have been useful. But the bed bugs came awake as soon as I slept. Of course I insisted that I be given another room, but that was the end of sleep for the night.
The next day’s drive was even more beautiful – if that were possible! The road was terrible and none of us had slept well – but the natural grandeur kept us awake and in raptures. We stopped at Dah for a cup of tea and found a bakery making fresh goodies – picked up an assortment of those. As we climbed higher, my head was paining ready to burst. As always I wondered at the effect on my companions of my exploding head spewing emptiness. It was a relief when I saw the sign “Fotula - 13479 ft – Highest point on the Srinagar Leh Road”. It had to be downhill from here. Sure enough we came down a 1000 ft rapidly and the rookie drummer in my head took a break.
And then the mountains started to change colour. This I have never seen before. To me mountains don’t have a colour of their own. Only of the vegetation that grows on them. But here, each mountain was multi-coloured in a different way. Pink, green, ochre, purple, maroon – I swear! The road continued to twist and turn and drop steeply. We didn’t notice – we were spellbound in the colours. Soon enough we saw some sand dunes justifying the label of “cold desert” – should that be “coldest desert”? I had on about seven layers of clothes and still wanted the car windows closed. I am exaggerating - actually only six layers were needed!
We stopped for lunch at Khaltse. Rajma chawal was becoming our staple. Good at some places, not so good at others. The meat eaters are of course luckier with a wider choice.
I took about a zillion photos (or at least as many as the memory card would allow) and really none of them come close to showing reality. These are bare colourful mountains. Everywhere you look. At times it looked like one large construction site. At others it looked ready for an afforestation programme. I expected at every turn to see a man in khaki shorts and topi say, “Let us just fill up this place with eucalyptus, shall we?”
Suddenly we saw a flock of sheep on the steep slopes. What were they eating? Stones? No, there is some plant life on these slopes, but so little that we couldn’t see it. We were also entering the land of monasteries. Perched on the highest point of each range would be a stunning structure. And the driver would mumble that it is … gompa. I didn’t catch any of the names that first day. Time enough for that.
At some points the wind and the snow had done weird things to the rocks. Looking at them, you could believe in extra terrestrial life. Surely this was neither human made nor natural. And as if to confirm my theory near the largest of these weird structures, the driver showed me a meteorite – kept in a cage. It was black, smooth and egg shaped. I could go off into sci-fi with that et egg!
Nimmu for tea and we were all excited at getting closer to Leh. Perhaps it was the tea and freshly baked biscuits, but it suddenly struck me that we were driving by the Indus now – the river that gives this country its name. And we were all suitably sombre for seven seconds.
Finally the road started improving. While most of it was like “Hemamalini’s cheeks”, some of it continued to resemble mine.
Further ahead we saw the aqua green Zanskar river merge into the muddy brown Indus – the play of colour here was just … I am running out of superlatives, now.
A board told us it was the Magnetic hill before we entered a wide open valley. Just a black road cutting across and the mountains all around. The colour, the snow caps, et al. Beyond were more vistas of the Indus – tiny still, but the melting snows would make it roar within the month.
And we were in Leh. But that is another story!
8th May 2010