Time to move on
We checked out the rustic bus stand on a road leading out of Leh to determine our options.
Our general direction was Kashmir. We toyed with idea of exploring the Zanskar Valley accessible via a stop in Kargil. Actually we bought tickets to Kargil. The ticket vendor told us we would be in Kargil by 8pm with our bus departing around 3pm and we thought we could break our journey overnight, explore Kargil and continue on to either Zanskar Valley or Srinagar. I forgot to mention that both Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh are favorites for bikers from all over India wishing to escape the sultry monsoon weather in more southern parts of India. In addition these states have stunning scenery made famous by many movies. Our bus had a passenger who had been on motorcycle tours of Ladakh.
The road leading out of Leh is one massive and endless string of army camps.
This is true for all the border states. The roads in Ladakh are decent and very scenic, often following raging rivers and weaving through green little hamlets full of apricot and apple trees and old-style mud houses.
Monasteries dot the countryside perched high up on cliffs and visible from quite a distance.
Srinagar bound it seems
Security is strict in Ladakh and as the only foreigner on the bus the driver was obliged to stop 4 times in Ladakh to register my passage through the territory. Our 8pm ETA turned into an actual 11pm arrival at which point we decided to bypass Kargil and the Zanskar Valley and stay on the bus until its final destination of Srinagar. We continued on through the night stopping at the entrance to Zojila Pass at about 1pm. At this point the driver turned off the engine, brought out his sleeping roll, and had a much needed rest until dawn arrived and the pass opened. I was much relieved to see our stellar driver get some shut eye. It is worth waiting for dawn to witness the beauty of Zoji La Pass which lies at an altitude of 3,528 meters (11,578 feet). The extremely narrow almost one lane route is heavily trafficked especially by heavy trucks including army vehicles. Construction is underway to make tunnels and repave the crumbling road with cement bricks. Shepherds with their flocks can be seen grazing below in the increasingly green valleys.
Army camps dot the route as well. The closer you get to Srinagar, the greener it gets and the closer it resembles Switzerland.
At one point after descending the pass, a lush green and very scenic valley is suddenly full of large hotels with parking lots closely crammed to each other marring the otherwise beauty of this once tranquil valley. With the Pandemic the face of tourism in India is changing rapidly with a shift from international tourism to local tourism resulting in a crush of tourists descending on every location as well as a huge boom in unsightly tourist buildings to cater to the demand.
A short interlude in Srinagar
As with Leh, Ladakh my visit to Srinagar was a repeat from my trip to India in late 2019 to attend a photography workshop. When the workshop ended and at the recommendation of Eva Erdmann I booked a houseboat in Dal Lake for 5 days. The New Bulbul group of houseboats was a family run establishment where I willingly retreated for five days watching lake life glide by me and talking to the two sons who ran the establishment. My infrequent forrays off the boat and into town convinced me that the houseboat was the best place to be in Srinagar. The town was crowded, polluted and economically depressed not to mention the overwhelming presence of Indian military and equipment on almost every corner. This visit we stumbled off of the bus from Leh a bit worse for the wear after a 19 and ½ ride. We sought refuge in a cheap and cheerful lakeside hotel making the most of the bathroom with hot running water and a comfortable bed.
When we did venture out we found a path around the lake that serviced local residents thus avoiding the onslaught of an army of touts who patrol the main road which lines the other side of the lake. Children whizzed by us on bikes and neighbors chatted in the street. From time to time we could glimpse the boats and the lake and very often we were offered rides on the many tourist boats which ply the lake.
The locals were friendly and kind and encouraged us to explore the pathways beyond the closed gates.
Women paddled boats laden with vegetable and/or floral cargo.
The next morning we opted to explore the town. The town was fairly deserted when we ventured out at 6:30am with only dogs and street sweepers to be seen.
In addition the Indian military was very much visible at very regular intervals. This long early morning walk convinced us that it was time to move on. Many had suggested that we visit the Pahalgam Valley if we wished for a more rural setting.
Pahalgam bound via Anantnag – shared taxis and changing scenery
In India transportation can be challenging. In the cities and between cities there is inadequate transportation for the vast population needing it. Buses and shared taxis rule. We tried to find a shared taxi to Anantnag the midway point of our journey. Finally we caught a crowded bus that took us a little ways out of town to a point where the shared taxis to Anantnag were found. The shared taxis in this part of the country are jeeps with two front facing rows and a back seating area which seats 4 with the seats facing each other. Technically the capacity of the jeep should be 10 passengers (2 next to the driver, 3 in the middle section, and 4 in the back). However, the scarcity of transportation and the shorter distances that most passengers travel means that the capacity is frequently overridden with an extra passenger placed on the right side of the driver in the front, up to 4 or 5 passengers placed in the middle row, and when absolutely full, passengers riding on the outside standing on the back bumper and hanging on the roof luggage rack. No matter how packed the vehicle gets, passengers remain good natured and cooperative. This willingness to bear a bit of discomfort to benefit others is something I admire in India. As the journey began the countryside immediately appeared fresh and green.
What a relief! A short hour’s ride later we were in Anantnag and a helpful fellow passenger led us along busy streets lined with fruit and vegetable stalls to the other taxi stand where we would find a taxi to our final destination, Pahalgam. We were in luck and an almost full taxi was waiting for us with a young driver who drove like a cowboy and played cheerful upbeat music. He knew how to pack a taxi to its capacity! We soon found ourselves following a road with a lovely canal on our right full of greenish/gray jade colored water. Eventually the wide and raging Lidder River appeared on our left. We went from gentle plains to dramatic forested mountains enclosing us on either side. We reached an area that looked like a small town with a number of tourist oriented stores lining the road but our driver told us to stay put. Finally when all the passengers had departed and we had taken on two young backpackers waiting for the return ride, we stopped in a large gravel parking lot with nothing but a few stores, the river and a bridge nearby. This was ‘the end of the line’.
We had determined our destination…upper Pahalgam!