The day though began with a lot of excitement. The first visit to any place is special, especially when it finally happens after a long wait and several failed plans. Visiting Kargil- Leh- Ladakh was one such trip I wanted to do badly but could not due to one reason or the other.
It was around 7.30 in the morning; the sun was playing hide and seek with a few scattered clouds over Srinagar. The deep blue sky above the Zabarwan mountain ranges was brightly reflected over crystal clear waters of Nigeen Lake. We, yours truly and another friend had quick breakfast at our houseboat and boarded the Shikara to reach the vehicle which was already waiting on the other bank of the lake. It was at last happening, yes, I was finally on my way to Leh (and beyond)! I was extremely happy and why not, the trip was finally happening after a long wait, my earnest desire to visit the Ladakh region would finally going to be fulfilled. The rhythmic sound of oars over the quiet waters was taking the excitement to another level. We disembarked from the Shikara, said goodbye to Maqsood Bhai, our oarsman and boarded the vehicle, an SUV.
As the driver switched on the ignition and pressed the peddle, the vehicle slowly inched forward and our journey began. Soon we crossed the Hazratbal Dargah on our right. The light morning traffic helped us to cruise. We were out of Srinagar city limits in time and were passing through numerous small villages sandwiched between beautiful mountain ranges on one side and furiously flowing Sindh Nallah on the other. We crossed quite a few valleys on this route and after around good two hours reached Sonmarg. We stopped at a small roadside dhaba for a quick tea break. The tea was great, maybe the scenery of snow-capped mountains opposite the tea stall was making the tea even better. The driver informed us the road ahead would be difficult as we would start ascending the mighty Zoji La (Zojila Pass, as it is commonly called) shortly. I have gone through a lot of stories, mostly negative about huge traffic snarls in this mountain pass hence a bit apprehensive of the same.
Thus, we started our onward journey to Zojila pass after finishing our ‘tea with a view’. The pass remains closed for almost six months due to heavy snowfall in the area. The unstable nature of the mountain makes it prone to landslides for the remaining time. I prayed silently, I think everyone else might have prayed too! But the task of crossing this dangerous pass is of course rewarded by stunning views it offers. We did encounter traffic jams a few times because of landslides but were not held up for long because of it. In fact, these small stops gave me enough opportunity to capture the breathtaking beauty of this mountain pass on my camera. It appeared that luck was finally with us.
It took us nearly two hours and we were out of the scary segment of the Zojila pass. We could now go ahead with little ease. Once crossed the pass we found ourselves on the road walled by mountain ranges on both sides with varying heights, some of them still snow-capped, except for some army posts, hardly any civilian localities were noticed. This road is full of stories of acts of valor of our defense forces personnel. We stopped at the Zojila War Memorial, dedicated to brave soldiers who fought Indo- Pak war during 1948. After paying tributes to the brave soldiers we stopped at the small canteen run by the army serving both defense forces as well as civilians. We had excellent tea and hot samosas. We deserved it after crossing the mighty Zojila pass!
Within hours we were at Drass. It is known as the second coldest place after Siberia. But it was late summer, everything around us was beaming with colours. We stopped there for lunch. It was simple yet tasty. Soon after that, we reached the Kargil War Memorial.
I think before the summers of 1999 when India fought one of its bloodiest wars with Pakistan not many probably knew or even heard of Kargil. It became all famous because of the huge media coverage of the war, especially by electronic media. As we entered the memorial we were greeted by a huge national flag flapping with the direction of the wind. It is a memorial dedicated to the soldiers who laid down their lives in the defense of this land. The war trophies like arms and other articles captured from the enemy were exhibited for everyone to see. The names of war heroes were engraved in the wall and the stone plaques beside that. The experience was a mix of pride and somber feelings. After spending more than an hour there we again started our journey. It was an overwhelming experience. One has to come here to experience the same. We were all quiet for the remaining part of the journey.
There was a chill in the air even though it was quite sunny at the site of our tented accommodation for the night in Kargil. Surrounded by high mountain ranges from all sides Kargil is a beautiful small town on the NH 1D, connecting Srinagar to Leh. Our stay for the day was arranged at this camp just outside Kargil town on the higher grounds beside the Suru river. The burbling sound of the fast-flowing Suru River down the valley was composing a unique melody with the sounds of wind. At some distance, some young kids were busy playing hockey in the small open space beside our camp. I walked towards them holding my camera. Unperturbed by my presence they continued their game. Their equipment was simple – hockey sticks were just any other stick they could lay their hands on, a tennis ball and goal posts marked by stones, that’s it. The clear lack of equipment was more than compensated by their innocence, spirit and enthusiasm for the game. While I was experiencing breathlessness even when walking with the slowest possible speed these kids were running around with ease at 11,000 feet plus height above sea level, in these oxygen-deficient areas. Well as a lowlander, as they call the people coming from planes I was not expected to perform better either. I could hide behind this excuse for the moment to satisfy my battered ego.
Their innocence lifted the mood and I got myself busy taking photographs of colours and shades of these beautiful mountain ranges. Of course, I covered the game like a professional photojournalist! It was going to be a long evening before I could satiate the thrust for taking photographs. I was not in a hurry too!