Thursday, August 13, 2015

Drive from Srinagar to Leh on NH-1D

I am not a fan of road-trips.  I prefer sleeping through road journeys, especially in hilly regions because I am terribly road sick.  Given my history, Ladakh seems like an unlikely choice of destination.

However, a road trip from Srinagar to Leh [though National Highway-1D] was on my bucket list for a very long time, more so as I had fed my wanderlust for Ladakh through tons of photos on social media.  Finally, I had no choice to succumb!

Thus began my bucket list road trip, from Srinagar to Leh, over two days, with a night halt at Mulbekh.

Here are the top 5 reasons why I recommend driving to Leh from Srinagar along NH-1D:

#5 As the road ascends gradually, it helps you acclamatize
#4 Pay tribute to Martyrs of Kargil war
#3 Drive through high mountain passes - Zoji La (11,575 ft) Namik La (12,139 ft) and Fotu La (13,478 ft)!
#2 Visiting ancient monasteries
#1 Drool over the stunning landscape which changes every few hours!!

Leaving my 'heart' in Srinagar

I spent a whirlwind day in Srinagar which took me from Chashme Shahi garden, to Old town (the other side of Srinagar) and ended up with a relaxing evening in our house boat at the picturesque and quiet Nigeen lake.

Shikara on Nigeen lake
After the wonderful Kashmiri hospitality and the luxurious houseboat, it was hard to leave Srinagar. The warmth of the people and the sheer beauty around is addictive.  However, Srinagar was just a transit and the real adventure was about to begin!

Choose your ride!
As we set off from Sringar, the drive was stunning - lush green fields, cozy wooden bungalows, mountains in the distance, wispy mountains hovering over them and river Sind to keep us company.

Wooden houses and lush farms

Driving along Sind river
Our driver stopped to eat breakfast and that gave us a perfect opportunity to sit by the Sind river and take tons of photos, much to the frustration for the guys in our group!

Touristy Sonmarg

After driving for 80 kms over three hours, we made it to Sonmarg.  This hill station is popularly known as Mini Switzerland.  The literal translation of Sonmarg is ‘golden meadows’.   Presumably, no trip to Kashmir is complete without a day trip/ night halt at Sonmarg,   However, I think otherwise.

A piece of Switzerland in India!
The moment we parked here, tour guides chased us to sign up for glacier trip, horse riding, trip to zero point etc.  Inspite of refusing several times, they followed us as we climbed up the hill to get a better view of Sonmarg.  Ultimately they gave up and instead tried to sell us pashmina shawls.

That’s not all; agreed Sonmarg is gorgeous, lush meadows and cute sheep a nice contrast to steep hills surrounding it, but the place felt impersonal and overrun by tourists.  We were so put off that we decided to just climb the hill in front of us and sit there admiring the view.  As I sat there soaking in the magical view, while ignoring the pashmina seller, I truly felt as if the journey to Sonmarg was more beautiful than the destination itself! 

By the time we descended the hill, it was already 1 pm.  We ate a tasty meal at Hotel Snowland (avoid the rajma here but definitely order butter chicken!) and set off towards Zero point.  

Maggi at zero point

We traversed through treacherous mountains as the green of the meadows gave way to shades of browns.  The road got narrower and was broken in parts.  We faced some unique traffic jams thanks to the herds of sheep and goats.  We also passed through a place called Baltal which is the starting point of Amarnath yatra (there is another route via Pahalgam).  
Treacherous drive!
Soon enough, the scenery changed again and the mountains now looked like inverted ice cream cones with striking white snow on top.

Our tempo traveller then battled the slush from the melting glaciers, huge potholes and as we ascended, the snow cover increased until we encountered snow on both sides of the road as well! The drive now got very thrilling as we saw a huge glacier in the distance which was zero point.

Deadly curves and non-existent roads!
Like Sonmarg, we were not very motivated to get off at zero point.  Our only inspiration was the one odd stall we could see in the distance on the brown snow (proof of tons of tourists walking all over the glacier!) and decided to take a brief chai break.  

Zero point
To our surprise, Maggi wasn’t banned here.  We hogged on chai/ maggi and basically saw other tourists make the most of their money’s worth as they sledged down the glacier.  

Maggi! Maggi! Maggi!

Zoji la 

Zojila Pass is 9 km from Sonmarg and an important link connecting Srinagar with Leh.  

I’m not sure if and when we drove through this.  I do have a photo of the board, but possibly I don’t remember the pass as the snow had given way to mud and slush and our sole motive was to reach a better road. 

However, it is the second highest pass after Fotu-La on NH-1D (between Kargil and Leh).  People claim that Zoji La is treacherous and prone to landslides.  In fact, our driver was stuck at Zoji La for almost 2 days once during one of his past trips.  We were truly lucky to pass through Zoji La without any glitch! But not without our share of stunning sight of passing through road with walls of ice on both sides!


Zero point and Zoji la: Your money’s worth?


To elaborate, if one takes a day trip to Sonmarg, they mandatorily need to rent a local car to visit zero point and Zoji la pass.  This is a clever move to incentivise local tour operators; however, it’s heavy on visitor’s pockets.  Car rentals from Sonmarg to these two points can cost INR 5,000 upwards.  In my humble opinion, it’s not worth the money, but I suppose you can make your own judgement about it!

Kargil:  Ode to Martyrs

Built by Indian army in Drass, this memorial is a fitting Ode to Martyrs of Kargil war which was fought between India and Pakistan and lasted for more than 60 days.  

It is a popular tourist spot on the Srinagar-Leh route and gives a chance to tourists to read about the war and interact with army personnel. 

We reached the memorial in the late evening.  I had heard that the memorial hoists a huge Indian, but we did not come across this, possibly, they had brought down the flag post sunset.  

This memorial complex houses an MIG aircraft, tomb stones naming soldiers who died fighting for the nation, op Vijay memorial,  a gallery housing details of events that happened during the war, including details of  Indian army personnel, who sacrificed their lives.  The letters written by the Indian soldiers to their families are especially moving.  Also on display were Pakistani bunkers captured during the war.  

We were moved by the details of the war and the sacrifice/ heroism of the Indian soldiers.  Perhaps, that’s why throughout the drive therefrom to Mulbekh, hardly anyone spoke a word.  

Mulbekh: Picture perfect village 

To make the most of the drive from Srinagar to Leh a night halt is recommended.  While Kargil has 
3-4 decent hotel options, we opted to spend a night at Mulbekh (40 kms from Kargil).  On the recommendation of Vinod/ Shaiza from Indian terrains, we stayed a night Dolma’s homestay called 
‘Maitreya guesthouse’.  We were very pleased the recommendation! 


Mulbekh is a picture perfect village – clear blue skies, puffy clouds, tall mountains and lush farms. However, its claim to fame is the huge rock-cut statute of Maitreya Buddha dating back to 2nd century A.D and reminiscent of typical Gandhara Art. This statue is a major draw and contributed to putting Mulbekh on the tourist map.  Hence, the village now boasts of a few guesthouses, restaurants and homestays. Most of the houses here are Kashmiri style, with generous use of wood and home gardens for fresh vegetables/ fruits.  
Mulbekh Monsatery
After spending a night at Dolma’s home and being warmed by her hospitality, we set off to explore Mulbekh.  

Maitreya guesthouse
Initially we just walked around our guesthouse while waiting for our driver.  Then we explored the 2-storied gompa housing the Maitreya Buddha statue. 

Imposing statue of Maitreya Buddha
The rock-cut statue is huge and imposing.  The mountain it is cut from is shaped like a Shiva linga. Also, unlike other monasteries we visited in Ladakh, this one was fairly peaceful.  

While most tourists stop at Mulbekh en-route Leh instead of staying here for a night, it was by far was my favourite village, especially as it is still untouched by touristy traps!

Fotu La: Conquering highest pass on NH-1D

We set-off from Mulbekh towards Lamayuru with clear blue skies and bright sun-shine.  

This entire circuit of the highway took us through smooth roads and gorgeous curves while providing stellar view of endless mountain peaks, deep valleys and tiny villages!  The shadow of the clouds on the mountain peaks was also a unique sight.  

Shadow of clouds on the mountains
The highway took us through Namik la and Fotu La [mountain passes].  

Whizzing past Namik La
After crossing Namik La, as we approached Fotu la, the weather worsened and it began to drizzle/ snow.  

But that didn’t deter us from stopping here for a customary board photo at the highest pass on NH-1D (13,479 ft above sea level).  We also met a group of hot bikers heading towards Srinagar – absolutely drool-worthy sight!  

Lamayuru: Of fascinating landscape and ancient monastery

100-kms short of Leh is another popular halt on NH-1D, the ancient town of Lamayuru.  It is famous for its landscape which resembles the surface of the moon and an ancient monastery.  

After the exhilaration of Fotu La, the highway eases into gradual descend until we arrive at a valley that is Lamayuru.  

First view of the Monastery from the highway
The highest point of the town is the hill on which stands the ancient monastery. We began our short leisurely hike to the monastery.  On the way we came across many guesthouses (with Wifi!) and home stays. 

At the monastery we met a group of monks chit-chatting with an Italian lady, while admiring photos clicked by her during the Lamayuru Monastery festival (held in June). 

She had come to distribute prints of the photos to the monks.  Needless to say they were delighted. She was also involved in fund-raising event in the town to buy winter clothes for the kids.  I felt a tad bit ashamed at the lack of my social work.  

View of Lamayuru from the monastery
Overall, the town is charming and the locals rather friendly.  Even the monastery is small but impressive, especially the views it offers - brown barren land and the only green accents being the trees in Lamayuru.  

As we drove further towards Leh on NH-1D, we asked our driver to stop at moonland (the stunning landscape of Lamayuru).  He replied that we left it far behind.  Moonland is supposedly around a hill at Lamayuru! Sigh! Perhaps I shall see this during my next trip, if at all!

In case you are visiting Lamayuru, be sure to ask for moonland!

A must have meal at Samyas garden restaurant, Khaltsi

After a 40 mins drive from Lamayuru, we stopped at a town called Khaltsi.  This stretch of the town was buzzing with small restaurants, grocery stores and vegetable vendors.  We saw a board for Samyas garden restaurant and decided to eat here.  

We first sat in the garden section - long tables/ plastic chairs and chirping birds – and then moved indoors for a quieter lunch where we had the entire section to ourselves. On the recommendation of a group of photographers we met here, we ordered classic north Indian dishes and tons of tandoori rotis/ parathas.  The north Indian fare was truly lip-smacking and fresh.  We were very pleased with our meal and personally thanked the chef!  I would highly recommend a meal here.  

Confluence of Zanskar and Indus rivers

The journey from Kaltsi is a blur. On the way we skipped sight-seeing at Alchi and Likir (mostly monasteries) due to lack of time.  We then passed a view point from where one can enjoy lovely views of the confluence of Zanskar and Indus but did not stop here.  I was asleep through all of this.
How could we drive through NH-1D and not see the confluence! To everyone’s delight we ended our epic 3.5 hours rafting through dangerous rapids of Zanskar river at the grand confluence of the two rivers.  

Indus on the left and Zanskar on top right
The mighty and swift Zanskar meets the gentle green water of Indus at this point.  What a lovely way to witness the confluence, even better than the view from the view point!

Disappointment at magnetic Hill

When I woke up from my sleep, we were on a beautiful straight road with mountains on our right side.  These were the famous magnetic hills! Just 30 kms short of Leh, we were among the crowd of tourists waiting to watch a unique phenomenon of gravity - an illusion that cars are able to drift upwards on their own.

This was an utterly frustrating halt.  There were sign boards announcing that it was illegal for car owners to try and drift their car upwards on the magnetic hill.  Some morons including my friends tried climbing the magnetic hill. They even threw coins (metal!) in an attempt to drift them upwards, but to no avail.  

Instead I choose to take some epic pictures and wait for the morons to return so we could make it to Leh around sundown! 

Pathar Sahib Gurudrawa

Our last stop on the bucket-list road trip was Pathar Sahid Gurudwara.  Built in 1517 to commemorate Guru Nanakji, today this Gurudwara is maintained by the Indian army.  

Gurudwara complex
There is an interesting legend associated with the rock/ pathar which is on display at the Gurudwara. This was the rock which a demon rolled down a hill with an intention to kill Guru Nanak ji who was in a deep meditative state.  Needless to say, the pathar softened with Guru Nanakji’s touch while he continued his meditation.

Meditation hall
We climbed a flight of stairs to reach the meditation centre at the gurudrwara.  Thereafter we prayed at the chamber where the pathar is on display.  We ended our visit here with prasad comprising of tea and boondi ladoos.

Juley Ladakh!

“Juley!” A signboard with this word announced our arrival in Leh. 

Juley is a magical and multi-purpose word.  Juley is the hello, goodbye and thank you of Ladakh. My biggest tip for anyone visiting Ladakh is “when in doubt use the word Juley!” Trust me it works!

Photos also by: Radhika, Ketaki, Soniya, Neelam


Cmde Harshad Datar said...

Wonderful blog. Stunning pictures, essential and minimum text and light humour. Immensely enjoyed reading it.

Soumyendu said...

Such beautiful pictures as can hardly be bettered! Even the new banner photo looks great. Looks like the travel bug has really bitten you big time, Preeti

Preeti Datar said...

Thank you Harshad Datar for the kind words.

Thank you Soumyendu for following my blog so avidly. Indeed the travel bug has bitten me bigtime!


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