Zoji La pass gave our drivers a serious test today, which I’m glad to say they passed with flying colours. Our driver, Mukhter Ali, speaks good English and was very helpful about finding places where all four vehicles could stop so that we could stretch legs, take photos and do some geology/ecology too. Our first stop was just before Zoji La proper, where we could look down on all the colourful tents of the pilgrims doing the yatra to Amarnath – it looked just like a smaller version of Glastonbury!
The valley leading to Amarnath.
We saw plenty of helicopters ferrying people up the valley too, which seems a bit of a cheat – some of the pilots were staying in the Snowland Hotel at Sonanarg. Zoji La was pretty scary, though better to be going up than down, as last year. There are still substantial pockets of snow above the road. Helen and I distracted ourselves looking out for flowers growing in the most unlikely places.
Wild thyme growing on Zoji La
We stopped near the top for more photos, worryingly at a multi-faith roadside shrine dedicated to the army engineer responsible for constructing the road some 50 years ago, who perished when his vehicle plunged off the edge… We were all very relieved to reach the top and drove on till we reached the small memorial to the 1948 war with Pakistan, where we got out to look and stretch our legs. This whole area is very close to the ‘Line of Control’ which serves instead of a border between India and Pakistan here and has been the site of countless skirmishes between the two nations over the years. On the way down from the pass we had a car wash with a difference – Mukhter reversed under a pipe coming straight out of the hillside which seemed every bit as efficient as a standard one car wash.
One really obvious difference from last September is the number of nomad tents we are seeing everywhere – they must have left for lower pastures by that time of year. Sadly, one of the ways they make themselves most apparent is by the numbers of small children on the roadside with their hands out asking for baksheesh. We headed for where the road starts to drop down into the Dras valley and took a coffee break on a flat grassy knoll where we’d stopped last year with Tashi. Our new drivers carry flasks of kahwa tea as well as tea and coffe making facilities and delicious home made biscuits from the Grand Dragon Hotel in Leh, which is very welcome. I was hoping for good flowers and there were some, including Edelwiess, but the area was very heavily grazed and everything was tiny. We did find rocks covered with a good selection of lichens though, including the radiation-resistant Xanthoria elegans which I wrote about in ‘More weird and wonderful lichens‘. We were at about the same altitude as Leh here and no one seemed any worse for it other than being a bit light headed after bending down to look at flowers, which is good news.
Lichens, including Xanthoria elegans
We dropped down into the Dras valley proper and drove along towards the hamlet of Matayin. John wanted a stop to show people the Dras Volcanic rocks and, while he was talking, Helen and I realised that the meadow by the side of the road, in the river floodplain, would be well worth everyone taking a look at. Some of the same species we’d seen at Thajiwas were there, including the tiny gentian and sandwort, along with amazingly healthy clumps of Edelweiss, Potentilla microphylla, several vetches, Nepeta and Pseudomertensia nemerosa.
Edelweiss and Pseudomertensia nemerosa
We decided to have lunch there so that those who wanted to could have a go at surveying a quadrat in the meadow. The soil was quite shallow here, and slightly alkaline, so we discussed the likely efftects of these things on plant growth.
Quadrats in the Dras valley
Back in the car again, we saw the vegetation change as we drove down the Dras valley in a much more obvious way than in September last year. Even quite high up on the mountains there is a haze of green. In places there were swathes of the purple Iris kemaonensis which we saw yesterday at Thajiwas, whilst in other places the lower slopes were covered in the asparagus-like foliage of Prangos pabularia. Lower down the valley, its umbels of bright yellow flowers were out, and intermingled with the stouter ones of Ferula jaeschkrana. Some of the damper patches sported flushes of orchids which, as far as we could tell from the car, looked pretty much like common spotted orchids at home. By the time we reached Dras itself the valley bottom looked very fertile, with fields of barley replacing the rice paddy we’d seen around Srinagar.
We stopped here at Mukhter’s suggestion to photocopy a stack of the regsitration forms needed when you cross from one region to the other in this part of the world, so we can fill them in at our leisure and save time at the checkpoints. We also visited the war memorial to the 1999 Kargil war here – the Indians are very proud of having retaken the area around Tiger Hill from Pakistani insurgents, though not without substantial loss of life. We felt very sorry for the young Gurkha soldier standing by the eternal flame in front of the polished brass memorial in the full glare of the sun, as well as for the three guys pushing a huge roller over the grass. When we got back in the vehicles, the external temperature was registering 40 Celsius!
Memorial to the 1999 Kargil war
After Dras the road finally started to improve and we covered the remaining 50 km to Kargil in an hour or so. It’s hard to remember when you look at distances on the signs that you can be averaging as little as 10 or 20 km per hour at times – it’s only 120 km from Sonamarg to Kargil but it took us all day, albeit with plenty of stops. A highlight of the last part of the journey was the rose bushes covered in pink, and occasionaly yellow, flowers which appeared, sporadically at first, and then covering swathes of the lower slopes. I hope we’ll get a closer look at these when we visit Hemis. Our experience of the Zojila residency hotel at Kargil last year wasn’t that great, though we felt very sorry for the friendly manager with an empty hotel. This year, fortunately, is a different story though maybe it helps that we are coming from the Snowland Hotel at Sonamarg rather than the Grand Dragon at Leh! In any case we were recognised and given a warm welcome which extended to tea in the sitting area on our floor of the hotel. This gave us a useful chance to talk a bit about tomorrow. The manager also put the hot water on straight away for us and I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a shower so much! There is even limited wifi downstairs and I managd to send an email home, though I don’t think there is much chance I will get to post a blog! Dinner was good and noodles appeared on the menu for the first time today – a welcome addition to the usual range of curries.
We passed two Europeans on laden bikes today cycling up towards Dras in the afternoon heat and there are two more staying at the hotel but I don’t think even John is envious of them.