Thursday, July 30, 2009

Of salad days in Srinagar and lingering summers in Leh

| part II of the kashmir chronicles ...

The bus to Leh takes a slow, winding (and sputtering) route to Kargil, along the banks of the Indus river. I met a couple of American backpackers on the bus with whom I was to share much a friendship later, a couple of Indian travellers with whom I was to share much a smile, a triad of Portugese with whom I was to share hardly a nod, and the bus driver and its conductor who became my guide on the long ride.

Now I have this zest for photography, nothing serious, but a whimsical fancy that comes to the fore everytime I travel. Early into the ride, not content with getting an aisle seat, I managed to secure a place right next to the driver, that gave me an expansive front view of the route. The seat also bought me the cameraderie of the driver and his chummies, who spent the ride explaining the intricacies of the way.

Baltal from Zoji LaThe road to Leh snakes its way up the hill via Sonmarg, up the Zoji La pass and downwards on to Kargil. The route is dry and barren, but with a stunning scenery of exotic grey-brown and enormous mountains and the blue indus river snaking beneath. At many a section along the route, it seems the road is exposed to firing from across the border, something the driver took great glee in pointing out to us grave-faced folk (but of course, these are peaceful times). And at many a point along the route, are memorial stones of Indian soldiers who have laid down their lives in the multiple wars that the two nations have fought.

DrassEnroute Kargil, is the infamous town of Drass, epicenter of the Kargil war that took place a decade back. Today, the town is yet another small township, with a small teashop, a quiet police station and an exquisite J&K tourism board indicating that the town is the 'second coldest inhabited place in the world' - bloddy hot in summer though, I must admit. Outside Drass, and enroute the town of Kargil are military memorials to the decade old war (yes, it occured exactly a decade before - 1999 was the year).

Kargil townThe Kargil township itself is a narrow, though bustling, market intersection with a bunch of shops and houses crowding the hillside. This was our night halt. Interestingly, the place has quite a few decent hotels, cybercafes and restaurants serving everything from Mughlai to Chinese cuisine and playing old Hindi songs.

Early in the morning at 4 am, vary of my keylong morning dog-chase last year, I made my way, with trepidation, in the darkness to the bus. Thankfully, Kargil had quite a few early birds, up to catch buses, none of whom were dogs.

And what a roar the Indus makes in the quietness of the morning twilight!

S-curves enroute LehIt was another day's journey to Leh, a day through dry mountainous passes, through 21S-curved roads, along the edge of tall gorges, with exquisitely shaped mountain ranges colored in red, green, blue and yellow!, through a monasteric Ladakhi landscape and along the omnipresent Indus river. The apricots were sweet, the weather hot, the driver amusing, the company interesting and the ride, unforgetful.

This is a ride people must undertake, if only to realize that beauty exists even in the dry barreness of mountains and in the craziest, remotest of places. As I was to realize later, Ladakh would remind me of this over and over again.

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