By Kalinga Seneviratne
The Himalayan Regions of India’s Kashmir and Ladakh have often being described by travellers as a paradise on earth – a Shangarila. This story is about how a dream of over 40 years was finally realised, but, only to be spoiled by “mystic” Indian police officers.
My interest in the region was rekindled last year when I met a Buddhist monk from Ladakh at a conference in China, who convinced me that it is not only one of the most scenic regions in the world, but also historically significant as the home of the longest surviving Buddhist community in India, the homeland of Buddhism.
Ladakh is known as the land of several passes and it is located in the Indian part of the Himalayas between the two highest mountain ranges in the world. To reach its capital Leh – which is a barren plateau lying at a height of over 3000 metres – one has to navigate some stunning passes travelling from Manali to the south which could take a good 2 to 3 days. But, this road is usually closed between September to April due to heavy snow falls. The other route is via Jammu and Srinagar to the west which also has many passes to navigate.
I took an overnight train from Delhi to Jammu and an Air India flight from there to Leh. The flight was only 45 minutes and if you are lucky enough to get a window seat on a sunny day what you see is unbelievable. Initially I wasn’t sure if I was seeing snow-clad mountains (after all we are in the summer months) or rocky clips with sandy tops. However, I took my mobile phone camera and started clicking widely the amazing scenery I was witnessing. The green hill tops changing to white and then to a brownish colour as we started the descent into Leh.
The descent to Leh could be unnerving for a first timer as looking out from both sides of the aircraft you see mountains that seems higher than the height we are flying at. The pilot is navigating between an airborne pass to reach the huge valley where Leh is situated surrounded by brownish rocky mountains with many of them still to melt down its winter snow cover.
Leh has a population of some 10,000 but my hotel manager said most of them close up the hotels and businesses and flee to the relatively warmer climate of Punjab or Delhi or further south to escape the harsh winters, where the temperature could go down to as low as -40 deg centigrade.
This city developed as a trading post in the ancient Silk Route, where merchants from Central Asia, China and India met and traded in tea, silk, salt, household items, semi-precious stones and so on. The camel caravans used to camp here, thus linking Leh with Afghanistan, Central Asia, Tibet and China.
Buddhism travelled to Leh via the Silk Route and it has taken root here over the centuries. Today, this is one of the few places in India where Buddhists are in the majority. Their numbers have been swelled by Tibetian refugees fleeing across the border over the mountains since the Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1959. Sometimes Leh is refered to as “Little Lhasa” because of many Tibetan style temples you find on mountain slopes.
The houses here used to be built in mud but today there is a building boom in Leh where concrete and bricks are being used, yet, their traditional architectural style is preserved and the modern buildings looks impressive with the traditional wood-carved windows and doors. The small Buddhist stupas known as chortens are found everywhere. Traditionally built with mud and painted white, these are today being built with bricks in more ornamental style but still preserving the traditional architecture.
A trip up north (towards the China-Tibet border) along rocky roads with mountain passes could take you back to the winter even in the middle of the summer. Khardung La is only 39 km from Leh but navigating the mountain passes which gradually becomes white and snowy takes a good 2 to 3 hours to reach the point. As you reach Khardung La you are virtually on the top of the world as this road is the world’s highest motorable road at a height of over 5600 meteres. Be prepared for a bumpy ride up the road – most of which is not tared – where your small vehicle would have to squeeze through the narror roads that are also used by convoys of trucks that take daily supplies to the army camps and isolated communities in the valleys further up.
However, my adventure started the next day when I decided to hire a taxi to go to Srinagar 430 km to the west. The trip was estimated to take 8 to 10 hours with most of the route taking you through mountain passes. These are within missile firing range of the Pakistani army across the border according to my taxi driver, who is a former Indian soldier and fought in the famous Kargil War between Indian and Pakistani forces in 1999.
We started from Leh at 5.00 am and the driver said we should reach Srinagar by late afternoon. Thus allowing us to enjoy the stunning scenery during daylight. As we started early morning we drove along the winding mountain roads with endless tortuous hairpin bends snaking through steep slopes, that followed the Indus river, thus enjoying the great scenery of green valleys and farming land with rocky brownish mountain backdrops. Indus river which starts in the Tibetan plateau and flows through Pakistan into India has been the lifeblood of the farming communities for centuries.
The Buddhist flavour of Ladakh was evident along the route with chortens dotting the road alongside the huts and houses with occasional Gompa (Buddhist temple) on the slopes such as at Lamayuru. A stop over point for travellers for 1000 years, it is a spectacular setting with its wooden and mud-brick white buildings on a rugged clip surrounded by blackish slopes and green valleys below.
About half an hour later you reach Mulbek, where a 9-meter high image of Maitreya, the future Buddha, is carved into a rock on the roadside. It is believed to have been carved during the Gupta period 8-9th century of the CE. As this is a popular tourist stop there are a few cafes and even overnight accomodation available here.
Mulbek marks the point where Buddhists gradually give way to Muslim communities as we head towards Kargil and Srinagar. The chortens are being replaced by white and green mosques on the valleys and communities of women in head scarfs and bearded men in turbans or scull caps. The next 30 km takes you downhill to the valley on the Wakha river, a tributary of the Indus, where Kargil is located.
Throughout the journey, as you drive further away from Leh the regularity of army camps increased with the occasional police checkpoints. The traffic is often slowed by convoys of army trucks transporting goods and personnel between camps. Around Kargil you find a cluster of army camps and also a huge war memorial for some 1400 Indian soldiers killed during the Kargil war.
Kargil, with a population of over 16,000 is the first town you reach after Leh (6 hours drive) and it is a pre-dominantly a Shia Muslim town. You find many billboard in the town with the picture of the Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Kohmeini.
It is just outside Kargil that we reached the first major roadblock when Police said that we could not proceed until a convoy of vehicles reach the point from the other direction. They said that only one-way traffic was allowed on the ZojiLa pass about an hour away, which is regarded as one of the most perilous passes to negotiate anywhere in the world. When we reached the checkpoint at around 10.30 am there was only one other vehicle held up and by 5.00 pm we were still there with a que of some 60 other vehicles. There was no sign of a convoy of vehicles coming from the other direction. However, occassional vihicles pass through the checkpoint in both directions.
An irate young Indian who has been waiting for police clearance to proceed for over 5 hours told me angrily that it is not an issue of road safety but peoples’ refusal to play game with corrupt police. “Did you notice those vehicles that were flagged to proceed?” he asked. “Someone got out of the vehicle went into their (police) room and when he got back to the vehicles the police flagged it to proceed. We are here because we refuse to pay”.
Finally when we were allowed to proceed it was past 6.00 pm and the sun was begininng to set. The next hour along a winding road on the banks of the river we drove through stunning scenery in the glowing red light of the setting sun. On the way, the driver told me that the police asked him for 5000 rupees to allow us through and he refused. “The police here are theives, I will not encourage them” told the former army officer.
As the day was darkening into night we reached another checkpoint at Dras where there was already a que of vehicles waiting to pass through. The police said that the road has been closed for the night due to government safety regulations and we will have to wait until daybreak to proceed. This small town lies in a valley surrounded by tall mountains and it is believed to be the coldest inhabited place in india and the second coldest place on earth after Siberia. During winter 10-15 meters of snow is suppose to fall on this place. There was no snow here as it was summer time.
Soon the whole convoy of vehicles that were help up at Kargil arrived here. Most of them with Indian holiday makers enjoying their summer school vacations. There are only two hotels in Dras, with very basic facilities. The driver suggested that we sleep in the vehicle (a 10-seater van) and he will switch on the motor when it needs heating. We set the alarm for 5.00 am expecting to proceed to Srinagar at daybreak.
When the alarm woke us up we were basically freezing inside with the windows covered by snow. There was a heavy snowfall outside with temperature having dropped below zero. We waited for the snowfall to cease, which don’t seem to. Thus, by 7.00 am the police said that Zojila pass will not be opened for the day as there was already over a meter of snow cover on the pass. The driver said that these snow falls will most probably continue for the next 3 to 4 days. Thus, we decided to drive back to Leh.
We started the drive back at snails space surrounded by white lanscape reflecting sceneries of a ‘White Christmas’ you see from Europe. But, within an hour the snowfalls were gone as we approached the Kargil checkpoint where the police just flagged us through. Most of the return drive was under blue skies except in a small strecth of passes before Lamayuru where there was a slight snow fall surroundede by snow-clad mountains.
We reached Leh about 3.00 pm almost 35 hours since we last left the town. I was still keen to go to Srinagar, and a local travel agent said there was a seat available on the weekly Air India flight to Srinagaer the next morning and it will cost 10,000 rupees. I was left with no other choice but to take that option.
On the hour long flight to Srinager I wondered whether giving into police corruption would have been a cheaper way for me to reach Srinager!