One morning the boss, Director P&T Jammu & Kashmir rang me up to inform me that he was leaving for Leh two mornings later and that I would have to accompany him. It was a rather short notice as there were certain pre-visit formalities that had to be completed. Ladakh was not open to any and everybody fifty years ago. One had to obtain permits from the state government stating the reasons for the visit. Tourism had not till then commenced in Ladakh region.
So, two mornings later the departmental car arrived at my gate to pick me up. We were to travel up to somewhere near Sonmarg in the departmental vehicle and then get into an Indian Army jeep. We were required to be in one of the convoys that used to move from Kashmir to Ladakh every other day. A private vehicle could never go beyond Zojila Pass. It was a huge convoy of scores of several types of military vehicles that included trucks carrying supplies. Thankfully, the jeep in which I was to travel was almost at the front behind the one in which the Director was travelling.
It was past mid-morning when the convoy started. After around half an hour our two jeeps sort of peeled off and turned right leaving the convoy. My companion from the Army said that we were heading towards Baltal. The place had a signals unit which was of interest to my boss who was a Telecom man. It was a small unit with three or four Army men in what was perhaps one of the most beautiful places in Kashmir. Baltal was a incredibly beautiful green meadow surrounded by hills of varying heights with an occasional white snow-clad peak peeping from behind green mountains. There was a bungalow of sorts on top of a small hillock. The Signals men said that Indira Gandhi was reported to have honeymooned here. She and her husband must have spent their honeymoon in splendid isolation with Nature at its best all around them. Even the noise of the groaning Army trucks climbing up to the Zojila Pass would have been absent in those early years.
They also said that Amarnath Cave was only eight miles away but only the sturdiest of the intrepid uniformed men could make it. The way was treacherous and the climb was steep with some icy portions which had dangerous crevices. Baltal has, in fifty years, become the second or an alternate route for Amarnath pilgrims. The way to the cave must have been made easier for ordinary mortals. In doing that, one can be sure, the surrounding area must have come under alterations to suit the needs of the pilgrims that were destructive of the environment. A huge tented township is erected every year at the time of the pilgrimage for accommodating hundreds of thousands of people. One can imagine the environmental rot that is set in every year with a huge, unsupportable human and pony population that induces ceaseless motorized traffic. I am sure Baltal is no longer the same Baltal that I had seen fifty years ago. The courageous J&K Tourism, nonetheless, markets the ravished Baltal as a tourist site.
I was sorry to leave this captivating valley as we had to move ahead and immediately negotiate the Zojila Pass. The tortuous continuously climbing and winding road necessarily slowed us down quite a bit. Besides, there was the traffic ahead of groaning trucks climbing up that we could hear in the Baltal valley. After laboring up the mountain for better part of an hour or more we came up at the Zojila Pass
The Zojila is at an elevation of more than 11000 ft. and separates Kashmir Valley from the Ladakh Region. With it we leave behind the green Kashmir Valley and enter the arid region of Ladakh. The Pass is at a lower elevation; the mountains on two sides tower over it. It is just about 15 kilometres from Sonmarg and yet it took so much of time to get to it. It is here that Gen. Thimayya had surprised the Pakistani raiders in 1948 with tanks. He had had the tanks dismantled and conveyed them over this road, presumably, on trucks and had them assembled then to take on the raiders. He saved Ladakh from getting cut off from Kashmir. The Pakistanis had captured the pass that was wrested from them in battles in which tanks were used for the first time at such an elevation. Now a tunnel is being constructed to cut short three and a half hours’ travel on the mountain road to only 15 minutes to bring Kargil and Leh closer to Srinagar.
After tarrying at the pass for a while we moved on again. The landscape progressively became stark, bald and rugged. Trees became a rarity as the road took the spurs with either a mountain on one side or a valley with precipitous falls on the other. While we were at a lower elevation than that of Zojila yet we were consistently at arounf 10000 ft barring when we had to cross over on to another range.
After about two hours we were at a place which was bare but had, once again, a Signals unit. It was known as Drass and was only a few ranges away from the border with Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. The Signals men said the Pakistanis were in occupation of the heights commanding the highway that we were travelling on. These very heights like Tololing, Tiger Hill, etc. became famous during the Kargil War of 1998-99 and were recaptured from Pakistani infiltrators at great human cost.
For miles one could not see any settlement apart from the tents of the Army men. Their’s is a difficult life as the place is recognized as the scond coldest inhabited place in the world. They said that in winters the temperature frequently goes below minus 30 degrees Celsius and water used for washing hands freezes as soon as it hits the ground. After the Kargil War the TV news channels extensively covered the battles making Drass and Kargil household words. Drass since then has become a tourist spot and some structures have come up providing facilities. Otherwise there is hardly any population.
After a brief stay we resumed our journey. Sun was on its way down and the bare mountains were acquiring different hues. The treeless landscape was interesting and yet was monotonous and tiresome. As darkness fell millions of stars seemed to emerge from behind a dark curtain even though a less than half a moon was up in the sky. Fascinating there was no other woed for it! We reached Kargil after driving for more than couple of hours most of which was in the dark hours of the evening.
Next morning in Kargil was taken up by official work and at noon we had to attend an interesting session with the local Brigadier. He had organized a lunch on the banks of the Suru River that flows by Kargil. Suru is a tributary of the Indus and it originates from a glacier. Covered with a lot of foliage, the banks were very pleasant. The Army bandobast made it more so. The occasion was a visit to the Army establishment by a Parliamentary Committee headed by Nandini Satpati, who later became Chief Minister of Odisha.
While the lunch was typical army fare the discussions were interesting. The Brigadier seemed to have a congenital dislike for the netas and he let loose his artillery barrage at them. That the Army fifty years ago was operating under great stress with shortage of men and material couldn’t be gainsaid. Then, the general inefficiency of the civilian control over defense matters made it worse. The Brigade Commander obviously had a lot of grievances and he did not mince his words.
I couldn’t see much of the town. Whatever little I saw of it appeared to me more like Central Asian towns we had seen in pictures. The people were more or less of Central Asian stock and were mostly Muslims, very courteous and hospitable.
Next morning we left for Leh. About 10 miles away was a town called Mulbek. It was at that time the last outpost of Muslims and after Mulbek it was all Buddhist country. Quite a few miles after Mulbek we came across a bridge over a small river guarded by three soldiers – two on one side and one on the other. For miles around there was no sign of human life. We were told that these guards would be changed every month and sometimes the relievers wouldn’t turn up for days. Their isolation, particularly at night, was so oppressive that one wondered how these soldiers kept their mental balance. In the overbearing cold it should be worse and unbearable.
After another few miles we crossed Fatu-la, the highest pass on the route,. The pass is at more than 13000 ft. We had not even got over the fact that we had crossed the highest pass on the way when we came across a descent that was most interesting. Called Hungroo Loops the road descended to scrape the bottom of the valley taking eleven loops only to climb again another ridge. Vehicles do have a tough time on this road climbing up and down on rough roads in rarified atmosphere.
After Hungroo Loops there was something more stunning that was in store for us. In a valley on the right side of the road were some Buddhist structures the tops of which were at the road level. The rest of the structures were in the valley. The place is known as Lamayuru. Here the mountains all around are stark and bald, and not a blade of grass grows; the place is just devoid of greenery barring a few patches of green at the bottom of the valley. The mountain sides are, however, of brilliant beige colour. It has a monastery which is famous among the Tibetan Buddhist. Legend has it that in prehistoric times the place had a water body. The water just happened to disappear leaving the place for the small town to come up. Sounds far-fetched but fossilized stone fragments could be picked up from the road even fifty years ago.
What was once a sleepy Buddhist settlement has now become a thriving tourist site. There are special buses for Lamayuru from Leh and hordes of motorcyclists, the adventure tourists, throng the place. Hotels and home-stays have since come up bringing the place up in the tourist map of Jammu & Kashmir.
Lamayuru to Leh was more than a hundred kilometers and it was a good three hours drive. By the time we left Lamayuru after a very brief halt it was already late evening. Soon it was dark and with no mountains to keep us company on the sides it appeared as if we were speeding down a road on the top of the world. We hit Leh around 9 o’clock in the evening.
We got two days in Leh that were mostly spent in official work. There was no time for sight-seeing. The town was like any other Buddhist Central Asian town. The Old Town was dominated by the Leh Palace built in the 17th Century- which the tourists now flock to Fifty years ago it looked lonesome and isolated and Leh itself was not a bustling town like it is reported to be today. In fact, one did not ever think of Leh as a tourist spot then as, firstly, it was a prohibited place and secondly, travelling to it was not easy. Planes were only from Chandigarh and mostly for armed forces.
I remember two things about Leh. The Army people had a farm that grew vegetables. I had never seen such magnum sized cauliflower, pumpkins, radishes and numerous other kinds of vegetables. These were all consumed in the Army mess. Then there is one thing I must make a mention of and that is the moonshine in Leh. The moon was only about three days away from maturing into a full moon. I happened to wake up very late one night because of the bright light falling on the bed through the open window. It was the moonshine – very bright, almost dazzling. At more than 11000 ft there was nothing in the atmosphere to obstruct the moonlight. I went out to the verandah and took in the sight in front. The whole plain in front was bathed in bright moonshine – a fabulous sight.
The same verandah of the Signals Mess offered a very good view of a maidan that seemed to extend to the mountains beyond. Sitting there one morning after breakfast I saw a caravan of fully loaded yaks and ponies trudging from one side to the other. The men driving the animals were dressed up like the Mexicans I happened to have seen in Wild West movies many years ago. Their high boots kicking up a lot of dust and their what seemed like rough leather jerkins resembled what the Mexican roughnecks would wear. I was told these men were Tibetans and were on their way from one of their settlements to another. Ladakh has a substantial number of Tibetan refugees.