India: Srinagar - Leh highway: a roadtrip on steroids.

What? 
A spectacular (and at times spectacularly scary) highway 

Why visit? 

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!


Where? 
420 km between Srinagar, in Kashmir, to Leh, in Ladakh. (The road is also known, less prosaically, as NH 1D.) Map. 

Getting there:

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 2016, a Jeep to Kargil costs around 9000/1400 INR (whole vehicle/seat in a shared vehicle) and 18000/2900 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:



Srinagar

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.


Zoji La

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. 


Kargil

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!

Mulbekh

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. 


Lamayuru

The first major Buddhist monastery and its medieval village. See our post here. 
Lamayuru Gompa sitting pretty in the high-altitude desert that is Ladakh. 


Indus Valley

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. 


Nimmu

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. 

Leh

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. 

Useful links:
- 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.

13 comments:

  1. So awesome. Thank you for posting!

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  2. I did this trip the other way - Leh to Ladakh by car (flew up by plane to Leh). It's nice to read this and see the photos that bring back the memories. I went there in 1986 I believe and I see it's changed a little. The cars are newer (we went in those old British cars) and more traffic. That trip through the pass is etched in my mind. When we went through it we were shrouded in fog and the driver could barely see much past the front of the car. Seeing what it is really like in your photos just made me realize how dangerous it was for us then with limited visibility. But I am still alive to reminisce so...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Luis, Thanks for the comment.

      I think many things have changed- at the same time much hasn't changed at all.

      Yes, modern cars, cell phones, more tourists.

      At the same time the road through Zo Ji La pass is still a dirt track, no guard rails, no fast food service stations... And Ladakh, especially compared to the rest of India, is quiet and unspoiled.

      Have you got any plans to go back?

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  3. Hi! Wonderful post :)
    Was wondering if you have any contacts for a Jeep from Srinagar to Leh?
    I'm intending to do a trek in Leh in June and have only a day to get there...are there also fixed timings to leave from Srinagar?
    Many thanks in advance!

    Regards,
    Youwen

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    Replies
    1. Hi Youwen, Jeeps from Srinagar depart from Taxi stand No. 1. There are no fixed timings- are there every in India? the Jeep leaves when it's full... you can book the whole Jeep and then it will leave immediately- or wait for others to show up, which may take a while.

      One day for the whole journey is not unheard of, but when I attempted it was impossible. I only got to Kargil by 6pm or so. I would not want to do the last 4-5 hours in the dark with a driver who's been going at it all day. We had to wait three hours before we were allowed to pass Zo Ji La- you need flexibility.

      Also, from an altitude acclimatization point of view, a stopover in Kargil is much preferred.

      Delete
  4. Very insightful article. I will be doing a partly similar journey in June where I'll be traveling to the Zanskar region from Srinagar, via Kargil. Looking forward to it :-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Glad you found it useful. Let us know how it went!

      Delete
  5. Stumbled across your site and found this very informative so thanks a lot! I am travelling the same route from Srinagar this summer and wanted to know how safe you found the city when you were there?

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    Replies
    1. I had no problems at all with safety. You'll find 1000s of Indian middle-class families holidaying so it doesn't look at all like a threatening place.

      To be frank, when people ask about safety in India, whether it's malaria, terrorism, or rape, I always like to remind them that the number one risk is bad driving- many more people die in traffic accidents every year than from the 3 threats listed above...

      Having said that, Kashmir is obviously a volatile region. Violence does flare up occasionally- and unpredictably. When it does happen, it tends to be directed towards the armed forces, not foreign tourists.

      So in short, if you have already decided you want to take the risk of the overland journey from Srinagar to Leh, i think staying in Srinagar does not in any way increase the risk you're exposing yourself to. But do check the news before your departure for any unrest.

      Delete
    2. when will you be going BTW?

      Delete
  6. Yes, I agree. Travelling anywhere in Asia or any other continent poses a risk to safety. I will be flying into Delhi at the end of June and then catching a train to Jammu before a bus or shared taxi to Srinagar.

    ReplyDelete
  7. > Travelling anywhere in Asia or any other continent poses a risk to safety.

    Well. most people die at home so you could argue travelling is safer than staying home!! ;-)

    ReplyDelete

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