I do not exactly remember when did this whole idea of going to Ladakh pop up. We had been discussing about it for quite a while now, and had been postponing, owing to reasons like weddings, relocations, new businesses, new houses, business trips and so on. Realizing that we may never get to Ladakh by this rate unless we initiate the planning, we finally booked ourselves on the Srinagar-bound flight, way ahead in March.
The next three months are kinda blurred in my memory, as they were spent in heavy duty planning, discussing, re discussing and then discussing some more :).
And finally after all this, we were on the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, Mumbai on a wet morning of 19th of July, 2014.
Landing upon Srinagar airport, we were picked up by the pre-booked innovas, and our journey to Leh started. Of course, not without some customary stop-overs. Lunch at Srinagar proved to be quite disastrous, (with the stale Rogan Josh haunting us for the entire trip!) and we were only happy to be on our way to asap. Mission Sonamarg!
Luckily, majority of our group had never set foot in Kashmir and had never seen Himalayas before this in their life. I say luckily, because I have been to Himalayas thrice before this, one of them being Kashmir itself. This most definitely leads you to sort of expect what to see, and you are never overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of landscape. Hence it is always good to have a first-timer with you, unexposed to this before, and you can see the beauty all over again with their eyes. So, customary stopovers for clicking the flowy river, the lush green meadows, the mountains and the breathtaking views were all taken, along with one for having a delicious Kashmiri Kahwa by the riverside.
Dusk was already falling by the time we reached Sonamarg, and it had started getting chilled. The little cosy resort of JKTDC was modest but well-equipped. It provided us with necessary amenities, including super thick blankets ,24-hour hot water, and basic fresh food. Sagar and Jatan were taken by their stomachs by this time, and looking at the need of early morning start the next day, all of us were inside our beds by 11pm. The next day was going to be a bit strenuous (and amazing as it turned out to be).
Having a light sleep is sometimes a boon, but mostly an annoying thing. I have sleep issues since a long time, and they continued for some time here as well. I was up at sharp 3am, thanks to the azaan outside(it was the month of Ramazan) and inspite of my efforts, was still up at 3-55. Deciding not to be the lone sufferer, I promptly woke everybody up at 4am, under the pretext of early start, much to their reluctance and cursing. Not paying any heed to it, we were finally successful in leaving Sonamarg cottage by 540 am, braving the road to come. Specifically Zojila.
You know, we had heard of zojila in such outright exaggerating terms, that we had crossed the stage of being scared and in fact were eager to see what the hell this Zojila was. Yes, it was scary, (not helping was our drivers' decision of taking the car as close as possible to the edge) evident by the lack of sufficient photos. But thankfully, no jams, no army convoys, and no knowledge that we were passing through Zojila, till it was half-done! Satisfying the minute religious streak, if any, we could also see the Amarnath pilgrims, the helicopter rides, and the way to Amarnath.
As we cross Zojila, the landscape begins to change. from the lush green and blue landscape, we progress towards rather vast valleys, muddy mountains and in general, a lunar, brown landscape. It is wonderful to see that progression, and it completely amazes you that such a stark difference can exist within a span of 50 kms. Breakfast halt was at Drass, the second coldest inhabited place on earth(temperature in winters in minus 60), and followed by an immediate sight-seeing stop at Kargil war memorial.
It is a fuss-free, minimalistic and yet a very touchy place. An amar jawan flame, a national flag of Olympian measures and a golden plaque behind it, displaying the names of all those, who laid their lives here during operation Vijay. One also listens to a soldier narrating the whole story of operation Vijay, and the details absolutely bring goosebumps to you. The names you have only listened only on national television, be it kargil, drass, batalik, tiger hill, tololing hill, are right in front of you, reminding you of a very brave chapter in India's war history and making you deeply aware, that it takes an infinite amount of courage and conviction to fight for your country, in such a and die serving it. We are, only because they were.
Leaving this emotional moment behind, we started our journey ahead, and had an extended journey, crossing ranges after ranges of mountains, passing the bumpy patches and smooth roads built by BRO, with almost no sign of habitation, witnessing the vast and giant lunar landscape all this while. The road is unbelievable, and it is an experience worth taking.
The lunch halt was at a little village called Lamayuru, known for the oldest monastery in that region. This monastery visit would always be remembered coz of a young Lama we met, who was sitting in monastery at peace, and reading harry potter and the order of the phoenix!!
More monasteries were yet to come in the remaining trip, and hence we immediately proceeded ahead.
Roads all this while, were exemplary, as smooth as a slab of butter, built by the mighty BRO. I fell in love with their motto: impossible may take time, difficult will be done immediately.
In fact, we also thought of smuggling some BRO guys back with us and assigning them a contract of building the roads in Pune!
As we got close to Leh, Dusk had started falling. We were on road for good 14 hours by now, and were eager to reach the hotel at earliest. Finally, the Innovas found their way through the crowded Bazar, we checked in at oriental hotel, freshened up, had the buffet in Hotel and were off to sleep!
A landmark was reached after a journey of two days. Journey of thousands of kilometers from Home, a journey passing through several different regions, geographies, weathers, and altitude. The wonder that is Ladakh was going to unfold from tomorrow, and we were excited!