A spectacular (and at times spectacularly scary) highway
Sometimes, the journey is the destination.
Overlanding is still the best way to get anywhere, because it gives you a sense of perspective, how places fit together and because the view from the road is much, much better than the view from a plane.
This journey also shows you the diversity of India. Culturally, you will go from Sunni Muslims with European facial features (Kashmir) to Shia Muslims with Asian features (Kargil) and end up with Buddhist Ladakhis who are virtually indistinguishable from Tibetans. Like getting three countries for the price of one!
420 km between Srinagar, in Kashmir, to Leh, in Ladakh. (The road is also known, less prosaically, as NH 1D.) Map.
The road can be done in either direction, but from an altitude point of view, it's best to start low (e.g. Srinagar, 1800m) and end high (Leh, 3500m). Srinagar has an airport with direct flights from various Indian cities. Otherwise the nearest railhead is in Jammu, from where you can take a bus to Srinagar.
From Srinagar, regular buses and shared taxi jeeps ply the road to Kargil and Leh. You can charter a whole Jeep, if you like to travel in style (or have friends to share costs with).
In 2014, a Jeep to Kargil was 6400/900 INR (whole vehicle/seat in a shared vehicle) and 13000/2100 INR to Leh. If you decide to travel only to Kargil on your first day (as I recommend) onward transport is easily found.
Ignore whatever fantasy number Google Maps comes up with in terms of how long this trip takes.
As you can see, Google thinks it takes just over 8 hours. Ha! The fastest you could possibly do this road is 12 hrs- driving non-stop. But what's the point of traversing one of the most beautiful places in the world and not see any of it? Also, due to the precarious nature of the Zoji La pass, where traffic is one way, hold-ups do occur frequently. It's not uncommon to take 12 hours just from Srinagar to Kargil.
It's better to stop and take breaks, and break the journey in some interesting spots. I spent 4 nights between Srinagar and Leh and could easily have spent more.
Actions speak louder than words... so here's a video report of this trip.
Some of the highlights of this road:
Yes, you may think of bombs and unrest. But I think of the tranquillity of Dal Lake's backwaters, beautiful wooden mosques, and verdant Moghul gardens. Check my post here.
|Srinagar: Backwaters of Dal Lake.|
This is a mountain pass at 3528 meters that's scary enough to soil your pants...
- So narrow that traffic is only one way? Check!
- No tarmac, just rocks? Check!
- 1000 meter drops? Check!
- Reckless driving? Double check!
The Indian Army and the Border Roads Organisation do a remarkable job keeping this pass open (only from May till September) but it will remain a hair-raising experience. Don't look down. At least not too often.
|Zoji La- getting ready to pass.|
Known by most Indians due to the 1999 border scuffle, the Pakistanis have stopped lobbing grenades across the border (for now) and this is a good place to break the journey. The local people look asiatic and are Shia muslims, so don't be surprised to run into pictures of the infamous Ayatollah Khomeini. (Probably best not to bring any of your Salman Rushdie books.) Few official sights, except for snow-peaked mountains and the world's best dried apricots (seriously!)
|Kargil: The Ayatollah is watching you!|
This is where you know you've entered a different land: Ladakh, with its Tibetan buddhism. A 1000 year old Maitreya Buddha carving stands surrounded by a little temple and prayer flags. Breathe. You've entered something close to paradise where the skies are blue, the oases green, and the rocks, well, brown I guess.
|A 1000 year old carving graces the side of the rock, with a small Buddhist temple built in front of it.|
The first major Buddhist monastery and its medieval village. See my post here.
|Lamayuru Gompa sitting pretty in the high-altitude desert that is Ladakh.|
The Valley contains Many villages and Buddhist gompas (monasteries) located in a stunning setting. Something out of Star Wars with prayer flags and green oases. Good places to visit include Likir, Aichi, and Basgo.
|A Ladakhi family in an Indus Valley village.|
A small village in the Indus valley where you will find the best hotel between Srinagar and Leh. No temples or monasteries, but 'fairy chimney' rock formations that remind you of Capadoccia, and the only ATM between Kargil and Leh.
|'Fairy Chimneys' in Nimmu.|
The end of the line.... or the beginning.
Exercise your calf muscles by climbing up to Leh Palace and the fort.
Drink endless supplies of ginger-honey-lemon 'tea'.
Buy backpacker-clown pants and eat banana pancakes.
And if your appetite has been whetted, Leh makes a great starting point for other trips throughout Ladakh.
|Leh Palace dominating the old town.|
- The Leh-Srinagar road is only open a few months in summer. Updates can be found on Vistet's blog.
- Be sure to read up on Altitude Sickness.