The Srinagar – Leh highway is another highway leading travelers who wish to admire the beauty of the region from window of their vehicle or the visor of their motorcycle helmet. Many people will say that the Srinagar Leh highway is not as beautiful as the one from Manali to Leh. I would strongly disagree to that. Though the roads are marginally better and the drive or ride not as challenging, the charm and laidback-ness of this highway makes up for what it may lack in dynamic-ness of landscapes and the sense of adventure. Mind you, that is not to say that the landscape are not stunning, its just that they are not as constantly changing on ths 450 km long stretch .
The journey begins in the city of Srinagar, the state capital of Jammu and Kashmir, the city itself deserves a day or two. With its beautiful Mughal gardens, the calm and serene Dal Lake with mountains as a backdrop, Srinagar is well worth a visit. As one follows the road along the periphery of the Dal Lake, admiring its beauty, one is soon on the highway with little Kashmiri villages popping up here and there. And as one gets close to the Sonmarg, the mountains make their presence felt. With alpine forests making the mountain their home and gushing river flowing parallel to the road, its a wonderful drive up to Sonmarg, a town, 85 kms away, which serves as base camp for pilgrims climbing Amarnath.
As one leaves Sonmarg, the altitude gains are visible as the road climbs with sharp turns every now and then on its way to Zozi La. Zoji La is to Srinagar Leh highway what the Rohtang La is to Manali Leh except for the tourists. The first and the only real challenge on the road to Leh, Zoji La is either gravel and stones if the skies or sunny or slush and mud if the rain gods have their way. The views in any case are beautiful with lush green valley below on the side of Sonmarg. While on the otherside to Leh the descent is not much. However the grassy mountains with hundreds of sheep grazing among them is a sight to watch. At first one will wonder what are the tiny specks of white, brown, black on the green mountains but as one realizes them to be sheep a smile forms on the faces. And until one reaches Drass, another 60 kms from Sonmarg, such sights are a common place. Sometime, led by their shepherds they descend down the mountains on to the highway resulting in a short traffic jam of sorts.
From Drass to Kargil, a journey of another 60kms will be your chance to hear stories about the Kargil conflict of 1999. Army camps every few kilometers along with bunkers across the river that flows along side, offer you the tension that exists between two neighbouring countries. A chat with the army folks will have you reliving the war with the jawans an officers pointing out mountains of strategic importance which were infiltrated and had to be captured at the cost a brave officers. And there will be signboards informing you that you are being observed by the enemy.
Kargil to Lamayuru sees a slight change in the landscape. The roads are narrower and villages are closer. One can also hear the gushing river but cannot watch it at all times as its away from the road. Every once in a while there are Tibetian chortens along the road. 40kms down the road from Kargil is the sleepy little town of Mulbek which houses a a giant statue of Maitreya Buddha – the future incarnation. A 9-10 meter long statue supposedly carved in somewhere in 7th of 8th century AD. The roads might not be up to the mark in this section due to the road widening measures being taken.
A short while after Mulbekh will be your encounter with the next pass on this highway. Namika La at 12200 ft asl is a scenic pass that offers some amazing views of the valley below. But as soon as one descends this pass its time to climb the next one in line, the highest on the Srinagar – Leh road – Fotu La is the highest pass standing at altitude of 13500 ft. The scenery keeps turning better and better as one goes along with villages with a strong Tibetian influence, loads of wheat and barley fields and kids shouting ‘Julley’ – the Ladkhi greeting meaning both hello and goodbye – as you pass by. The scenery is a treat to the eyes as it leads you to the Lamayuru which houses one of Ladakh’s famous monasteries – Lamayuru Monastery.
Most of this section has fantastic roads and Indus will continue to keep company until 40-50 kms before Leh. With sharp turns every now and then and tarred roads, it will be a well deserved prize putting your pedal to the metal. The mountain just on the outskirts of Lamyuru will be sight to remember. Partly looking like elephant skin and partly like a the surface of moon you cannot help but marvel at these rock formations.
Also an interesting phenomenon on the road will be Magnetic hill near 40kms before one hits Leh. The Magnetic hill is supposed to have magnetic properties that pulls vehicles uphill. However, some say its just and optical illusion. Whether the legend be true or not the debate definitely makes it an interesting place.
The journey from here on to Leh is akin to the More Plains on the Manali Leh highway except that a black top road exists and the altitude is close to that of 11000 ft asl. It will be a great feeling as one drives to Leh waiting eagerly for what’s in store for them in this charming little town
Times innumerable has Kashmir been called as paradise on earth by poets, explorers and kings and rightfully so. A Journey from Srinagar which lies in the Kashmir valley to Leh therefore called a journey from one heaven to another!