3 December 2004
TRAVELS WITH MY CAMERA/ANU MALHOTRA
THE JOURNEY IS THE DESTINATION
I STARE dreamily at Dal Lake. Images of happy summer holidays spent in Srinagar float by- drifting easily in shikaraas or water skiing; family picnics at the Chashma Shai gardens or on the banks of a gushing stream in Pahalgam and Sonmarg; horse riding through pine forests in Gulmarg. Sigh! Today the lake looks the same expect, of course, the absence of tourists.
I feel a tinge of excitement as I sleep onto the luxury houseboat, where we will spend the night before driving onto Leh, in Ladakh. This is my dream trip, I think, while I drift off to sleep in the wooden bedroom.
Our mini van hits the road early next day. Srinagar to Leh is about 434 km and a two day drive. However, we intend to do it over four days of filming. The drive to Sonmarg is lovely, through green fields, and gushing streams, winding through mountainsides dotted with huts. We pass handsome people whose flushed red cheeks glow in these surrounds. Four hour later we drive into the single street of Sonmarg. We film the surrounding verdant green slopes, glistening in the late afternoon sun.
After dinning, I still in the lawns of the JKTDC rest house, looking up in the awe at the starstudded sky. Suddenly, I hear sounds of music and decide to investigate. I follow the music, to a little teahouse in the high street. It’s jam-packed with locals and jawans
who are all drinking and singing- but in English!! In the centre bench sit a group of foreigners dressed in orange robes, making music on tribal instruments like the wind flute, bongos, guitar and shakers. The scene is “mast” and completely surreal. Later on, I find out that they are a group of “Friends of the Planet”, who travel the world to spread the message of peace. Wow!! “Am I dreaming?”
The next day is misty and rainy, as the road begins to climb, wrapping itself round valleys. This route, one of the highest motorable roads in the world, is congested with mostly army vehicles carrying supplies to settlements in the Zanskar and Ladakh regions. Tourists mostly use the Manali route to Leh. We cross the Zojilla pass at 3529m and reach Kargil, Ladakh’s second town, which rises in a clutter of corrugated rooftops, from the confluence of the Suru and Dras rivers. Formerly, a major market on the old Samarkand –Srinagar silk route, the bazaar is today just a string of provision stores.
After a night in the JKTDC guest house, we speed on, passing the hamlet of Mulbekh, the first Buddhist settlement of Ladakh. The landscapes changes dramatically into a desertscape of cliffs and pebbly ravines. The drive from now is spectacularly spellbinding. I sit in the front seat of the van and stare at the scenery that keeps unfolding before me. It is nature’s greatest pass show on display. The roads crawls to Fatula (4091m), the highest pass on this route, from where the view are stunning desert mountains of every hue spreads across huge expanses of blue skies. Soon we reach Lamayuru, just in time to see the last sunrays light up the medieval Gompa. A major landmark on the old silk route, the Gompa was founded in the 10th
centuries, and is believed to have sheltered the tantric yogi Milarepa during his odyssey across the Himalayas. After filming, we settle down outside and watch the new moon smiling in pink streaked sky.
The next day is dusty and bumpy, via a nail biting sequence of hairpins bend, till we reach photogenic Alchi, in the Indus valley. We pass handsome men and women, mowing hay with cattle, chortens and low pagoda roofed homes. We film the “shos-khor”, the religious enclave, which harbours a wealth of ancient wall paintings and wood sculptures preserved for over a 1000 years inside five tiny mud-walled temples. As the sun sets in the Indus valley, we hit the highway again, for the last two hour drive to Leh. As I see the ray shimmering in the silver river snaking through the desertscape, I realize the journey has been the destination.
TRAVEL TIPS YOU CAN’T WITHOUT:
- There are frequent bus services from Srinagar and you can also hire taxis. Contact JKTDC (Jammu & Kashmir Tourism Development Corporation). Or a reliable travel agent to plan your trip.
- This route is usually usually open for about nine months of the year, depending on climatic conditions, but the best time to travel on this route is between June till September when the weather gets pleasantly warmer.
- There are few stopovers on this route –the JKTDC guest house at Kargil is a good place to stop for the night. Carry enough warming clothing and appropriate shoes. Sun blocks, hats and sun glasses are a must. Also take along food stuff and water.
You may experience mild altitude sickness, so carry an adequate first aid kit and drink lots of fluids. You could also ask for your doctor to prescribe you medication to prevent altitude sickness.
- Contact tourist information centre Leh for more information. Tel no. 019822
- To book packages, contact Dorjai at email@example.com
- To contact the writer, e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org