Two Days on the Srinagar-Leh Highway

We left Srinagar bus station early in the morning, on one of two buses making the first journey of the season to Leh. The first part of the ride is through the green Kashmir Valley. The scenery is beautiful, minus the army bases. The bus moved quickly as the road is in good condition, we pulled over a few times for huge army convoys racing down the highway as if there was actually a war going on. Within a few hours we had already reached Sonamarg where the army coordinates vehicular traffic over Zoji La, the pass that separates Kashmir from Ladakh and that is only wide enough for one vehicle at a time. Apparently the army wasn't aware that government buses had been given the approval for travel. We waited for hours on the side of the road without any briefing from our bus driver who was busily drinking tea, unconcerned with the fact that if we waited any longer we would be crossing the pass in the dark. This prompted a rallying of the English speaking foreigners, led by an absolutely nutty German woman. We actually managed to get a meeting with the General of the army camp, who granted us permission to begin our trip over the pass. In reality I don't believe the meeting did anything, we had been waiting almost 3 hours and eventually they had to let us through (although the soldiers were telling the German lady we might be stuck there for 2 days, most probably to watch her lose it, which was a pretty unbelievable sight).

For the first few kilometers of the pass I didn't understand what all the fuss was about, but the road quickly became narrow and uneven. At some points we traveled with huge walls of snow on either side of us, the army had simply cut out chunks of snow about the size of an army truck. I felt much safer between two snow walls than I did without anything separating our huge rickety bus from the gorge only feet away. Our driver crossed the path slowly and carefully but there were some true 'hold your breath moments'. As we cleared the path we came face to face with an oncoming army convoy, which, had we met only a few kilometers earlier would have caused a great lot of difficulty, most probably involving driving down a large section of the road in reverse. Tourists in the other buses praised the 'coordination' of the army, assuming that there were walkie-talkies or radios in our bus (as we were the head of the tourist convoy), but we assured them that our safe passage was completely random. Passing so close to the line of control we stopped no less than seven times to register our passports at army checkpoints. As we waited in line at one checkpoint, in the small town of Matayan we were greeted by a crowd of young children eager to see the first busload of tourists passing through their town, even if only to register at the army checkpoint. They poured out of their homes across the field when the spotted Yann taking photos. The checkpoint officials proudly exclaimed that they were inhabitants of the second coldest inhabited place on Earth (second only to some place Siberia). That might have explained the happiness on the locals' faces, as our arrival must officially announce the end of their long, harsh winter. The whole day's drive was worth it for the fifteen minutes we stopped in Matayan. The last hour of our day was spent driving down the highway in the complete darkness, heading for our final destination town of Kargil. Once we arrived in Kargil we all shuffled into budget hotels near the bus station, Yann and I shared a single dorm bed in a packed hotel. Our departure the next morning was scheduled for 5:30 but we awoke even earlier to the sound of Islamic chants. Kargil is a Shiite Muslim town and we had our morning tea under the watchful gaze of Iran's Shah Ayatollah Khomeini from the restaurant's giant poster. Our bus got delayed as we scoured the city for the lost passport of one of the foreigners on our bus, which we were quite certain had been stolen (and weren't too refrained about expressing this belief). Our drivers kept threatening to leave, but the foreigners, who made up about one quarter of the buses passengers managed to stall until the foreigner found his passport in his breast pocket. The second day's ride was just as long as the first, but the road was less scary. Kargil was the last major Muslim town we passed as we entered into Buddhist Ladakh. Almost all greenery disappeared and the scenery became desert-like. We arrived in Leh in the late afternoon and the spectacular entrance was marred by the giant army base spread out right in front of what would have been one of the valleys most spectacular monasteries. We had apparently arrived before any of the supplies had, most restaurants and shops hadn't yet opened for the season. The word however was out! The first buses had arrived from Srinagar, and that meant that very soon the Coke and Pepsi products and maybe even Lays potato chips would start arriving in the city, things that are apparently much more exciting when you have been deprived of them for 8 months.


Anonymous said...

salut,vous deux,juste un p'tit mot pour souhaiter une bonne fête à Yann.Comment c'est 26 ans à l'autre bout du monde? Et surtout à l'indienne..Je vous écrirai plus tard.Gros bisou.Matante Chantale,Sylvie,Ericka et alex.XOXO

mom said...

Happy birthday to our dear Yann

2par4 said...

"Shuggled" Cool word.


YandE said...

Ok... Its supposed to be shuffled, but I think shuggled is a pretty good word too, it a mix between snuggled and shuffled. and... so you know f and g are right next to each other on the keyboard

2par4 said...

Google's a word. I thought you had intentionally used it. It's now part of my lexicon. ;-)


Josh said...

Bonjour Yann et Émilie,

Yann, je sais que ton anniversaire a été le samedi 2 juin 2007, mais je voudrais te souhaiter un bon 26ième anniversaire!



paradiso(angry) said...

Bonne fête en retard Yann. C'est de ma faute de ne pas avoir écrit. On m'a averti mais les préoccupations ont bouleversé ma cédule.

Très drôle la description de la femme allemande. Et la photo de la jeune fille est spectaculaire. Ca ressemble à la petite afgan à la une de National Geographic il y a dix ans.


Super-Mario said...

Salut à vous deux,

Très bon blogue! je me demandais lorsque vous décidez d'entreprendre ces expéditions si vous considérez tous les risques.
Soyez prudent!

Papa xoxoxo