We breakfast at 8 am this morning on tasty omelettes and, less appealing, cornflakes with hot milk – the latter takes me straight back to the Plateau Hotel in Jos! We are leaving at ten to go to the Central Asian Museum so venture out for a short walk after breakfast but head in the wrong direction for the centre of town, unfortunately. It’s nice to stretch our legs anyway but I feel much too conspicuous in shorts and change into a long top and leggings on our return.
We leave at ten and Tashi has a somewhat hair-raising drive to the museum through the narrow backstreets of Kargil, which turns out to be closed, unfortunately. They are waiting for a curator to come from Srinagar to help them sort out some exhibits, apparently, and it doesn’t look like this will happen any time soon.
From Kargil, we set off towards Sonamarg. Tashi points out the high wall lining the road as we leave the city, explaining it was to protect Indian vehicles from Pakistani fire during the 1999 war. The cease fire line is very close here.
John manages to match up the rocks we see along the route more easily today but shortly after Drass we notice the vegetation starting to creep up the hillsides. There is much more flowing surface water around and properly developed soils along the roadsides now. The houses change too – sloping tin rooves and chalet style buildings, some very grand, replace mud brick walls and flat roofs. These are to deal with the increased rainfall and snow, Tashi says.
We picnic at top of the pass before Zoji La amidst more spectacular scenery – I’m worried I’m getting a bit blasé about my surroundings! Now the bare ground of Western Ladakh has largely been replaced by alpine type closed cropped vegetation – a tiny white-flowered cress and pink-flowered saxifrage predominate here.
And now I remember…. the descent down Zoji La is terrifying. The narrow road snakes down the sheer face of the mountain – it doesn’t help that you can see the bends to come from some distance away!
The road surface is very bumpy, sometimes with water flowing across it, and there is often not room for two vehicles to pass comfortably. Unfortunately, because the road was closed last week, there are lots of trucks coming up in the opposite direction to us. It’s a good thing we are so confident in Tashi’s skills! Helen is sitting in front today and does better than I would have, I think. As compensation, the views down into Kashmir are spectacular. Trees, mostly pine and the white birch for which the area is famous, hang on all over cliff faces and the birch are starting to show their gorgeous autumn hues.
After we descend, we follow the river Sindh for a short distance before arriving at Sonamarg. The first things that strike us are the big military presence and the enormous number of new hotels being built. At the hotel, Snowland Resort, we meet Tahir – Yasin has sent him to accompany us for the rest of our trip. He works for the charity SOS wildlife, as well as leading adventure holidays.
The hotel is nice, right next to the river and we are back to lovely mountain views, but there is no hot water or electricity till 6pm. Tahir takes us for a walk, first to old village then to the market and we all enjoy the chance to stretch our legs.
Nomad camp at Sonamarg
Sunset from the hotel
As we walk, Tahir is continuously hailed by local people, apparently asking where he got us from! There are no tourists around here at the moment and, as at Kargil, people are a bit desperate. We are the only people in the restaurant for dinner and the food is good though the menu is limited, understandably, because of things not coming through from Srinagar.