Reaching Jammu - all about optimization!
The first leg of the journey was the long and arduous drive of 3,125 km from Bengaluru to Jammu via Mumbai - Surat - Ratangarh - Pathankot. The bridge across Narmada was our first test of grit, navigation ability and patience. We set out from Bengaluru on Saturday at 4 am and managed to reach Jammu on Monday by 6 pm. The whole stretch was about covering distance, balancing speed with mileage and sleeping as little as possible. To save time, we had packed 50 jowar rotis and chapatis with chutney powder, jam, pickle, etc. Instead of stopping frequently at dhabas/hotels we would have this packed food while the drive was on. Occasionally we would stop on the roadside to take a quick leak. That's it! Ratangarh was the only sleep over - on Sunday night. Saturday night we had slept only 3 hrs in the car itself - on the side of a highway off Surat. Only such grit and optimization helped us cover 3,125 km in a span of 62 hours - including a good night's rest!
Reaching Srinagar - preview of a heaven!
A whole day's journey lay ahead of us from Jammu to Srinagar. We went through tunnels. Crossed over deep & threatening bridges. Waited for hours in traffic pile-ups on mountains. Enjoyed the fragrance of pine trees at Patnitop. Wondered at the significant number of girls who attended schools despite having to walk long distances! Noted women working hard in the fields without waiting for a man to assist. (talk about empowerment!) Encountered hidden army personnel in mountains carefully watching over the security of the travelers on the highway. (only then we realized how tense Kashmir was!) One cannot explain Kashmir - it has to be experienced. No judgment. Just observing as we go. Srinagar wowed us with its idyllic beauty and pristine environs. The lake beckoned. We had arrived - this was heaven!
Crossing Zoji La to reach Kargil - danger at every curve!
Srinagar - Leh highway offers a unique experience unlike any other in entire India! The landscape changes like a chameleon in colors, terrain, vegetation, altitude, road conditions, and what not! The Zoji La is the highlight of this stretch. The mountains here are dry and the rocks powdery. No tarmac. No roadside balustrades. A roaring river waiting at the bottom for the careless traveler to plunge to their death from the soft surface that is easy to crumble under the vehicle's weight. The hurry of the taxi drivers and other tourists makes this stretch even more treacherous. Sometimes snow melts and creates a water crossing on this stretch and it requires very careful navigation. Otherwise it is quite uneventful in reaching Kargil from Srinagar. :-)
Kargil to Rangdum - the road we should have avoided!
It was quite late in the day when we arrived at Kargil and finished our lunch. However, we were still upbeat about reaching Rangdum the same night. We started off 3-ish in the afternoon and managed to reach half way to Purtikche. That is when we came across a water crossing that had a nice waterfall feeding it from the mountain's side. Two of us got down from the car and guided Neetan to drive across safely in the turbulent waters. Just when we thought we had done it and were starting off we looked back - and saw a Maruti 800 getting stuck in the water. The driver had two very young kids - a boy and a girl - both less than 8 years of age. The car turned off and refused to get started again. We went back to the car and tried to push it, but the icy cold water and the pelting pebbles in the stream made it an impossible task. So, we got the kids out of the car and carried them to dry land where another villager had come by. We tried a lot to help the car start or move, but it was stuck obstinately in the freezing waters. To their luck, a construction truck came by and immediately we got our towing hook and rope from our car, attached it to the Maruti 800 and got the truck driver to pull the vehicle out. This whole adventure took 2 hours off our charts and we realized Rangdum would remain a dream to explore another day. So, instead of returning to Kargil the same night, we continued up to Purtikche. Found the HPTDC guest house and stayed the night there. It was raining when we slept - probably, the whole night. But we were too tired to realize that. Plus, the cold made us snuggle deep into the thick blankets provided by our gracious host.
Purtikche to Kargil - the unexpected happens!
We set out the next morning from the guest house to visit a glacier nearby. We could actually touch and feel the glacier. It was a bit muddied since it was quite late in summer. However, it was one thing I could tick off my checklist of TO-DOs in life. It was almost 11 am by the time we came back to the same water crossing that we had successfully crossed the previous evening. Again, two of us got down and Neetan navigated across the water. This time, our car got stuck! We brought out the heavy wooden planks that we had carried with us for situations like this and put it under the wheels. The water force was so strong, that it just smashed them across the stream and carried them away! The icy water and the constantly pelting stones on our numb feet made it impossible for us to expend all our energy in pushing the car. The front left wheel was stuck in a crevice and refused to budge despite our best efforts. Meanwhile the cabin of the car started filling up with icy cold water from the stream. We started panicking. There was 3" of water inside the car already and our food was being threatened next! Luckily for us, another construction truck came by - and we repeated the trick from the previous evening and our car was out!
But not so fast. We had to bail out the water from the car cabin using paper cups and it took 2 hours for the 3 of us to complete it - plus wipe the insides clean with newspapers. Finally, we were ready to move on. Just as we did, the car started screeching like a banshee! We freaked out at the loud noise and got down to check. We realized there were pebbles from the stream stuck between the wheels and the brake discs. We managed to pull them out - and only then we realized that there were many more on the inside of the front bumper and engine bay as well. Another hour later, we had rid the car of all pebbles and finally moved on. It was almost 3:30 pm by the time we almost reached Kargil - only to find a huge pile up of vehicles on the highway!
A friendly Military Police informed us that the cloud burst of the previous night had caused landslides in 7 points across a 10 km stretch on this highway around Kargil. We got down and watched the Border Road Organization personnel bring the earth movers and heavy diggers on trucks - and assemble them on the spot. The BRO started the work in all earnest within an hour - really fast! By then it looked doubtful that the debris would get cleared - and we asked the Military Police how long it will take. He then realized that we were tourists stuck on the road. He informed us that it will take at least 2-3 days to clear a way big enough for vehicles to move through the debris! We were left aghast. He then asked whether we had had lunch. We said no. At that instant, he offered us his lunch box and water. We were so touched by the selflessness of our armed forces at that moment! Here they were, working on a thankless job for people who hated them, in conditions totally hostile and treacherous. Despite the hard work - they managed to smile and retain a kind disposition to strangers and offered their own food & water without caring about their own basic needs! Hats off to our armed forces!!
We refused to take their food. So, he helped us get a secure parking location nearby for the car. Advised us to carry minimal luggage and walk the next 7 km to Kargil. It was easier said. The roads were filled with knee deep muck. Totally slippery - and the high altitude did not really make it easy for physical labour. But we managed to arrive an hour and half later in Kargil and checked into a hotel for the night. 2 days later, we continued to Leh.
Kargil to Leh - magnetic hill and silence!
The road from Kargil to Leh is pretty much dry. No vegetation on either side of the road. The mountains have barren rocks that change colors and hues from hill to hill. The whole journey was like a penance - silent, meditative, contemplating the meaning of life, feeling small in the vast wilderness and feeling the might of the mountains along side. The magnetic hill - a point little before the Leh, felt supernatural after such a trip leading up to that point! A car parked here - in what seems like an downward slope - actually starts rolling against the slope, and locals attribute that phenomenon to a strongly magnetic hill nearby. Of course, it is bunkum! But after the kind of journey we go through from Kargil to Leh - it is hard to not believe in the myths.
38 km later, we arrived at Leh.