We were delighted to find that the cars from Leh had arrived safely during the night, though not until the small hours, and equally delighted to find that the lead driver is the lovely Tashi who drove us in 2014.
We had another early morning departure, via the back streets to avoid any possible problems and were relieved to get to Sonamarg and into the area controlled by the army, where the protestors have much less chance of causing trouble. I never thought I’d be relieved to get to the bottom of Zoji La pass!
The early morning light picked out the layers in the rocks around the valley beautifully and we stopped at the same place as last year, above Amarnath, for photos (see On to Kargil). People were glad of a break and an opportunity to stretch legs though I do think its much better going up Zoji La from the Sonamarg side than it is going down, the way we did in 2014.
We stopped again at the top of the pass proper and enjoyed watching a Lamergeyer circling the surrounding peaks as well as the bizarre sight of snowmobiles racing around on the tiny pocket of snow there.
We’d intended to stop for a tea break where we did last year, above the Drass valley, but there were a lot of nomads camped nearby so we pressed on to the meadow at Matayin to avoid the hassle of having to deal with hordes of children. We’d hoped to sample the meadow vegetation for diversity, as we did last year, but had underestimated how much drier it would be a month later in the year. Most of the species we saw last year had dried up beyond easy identification. However just beside the road was a huge patch of Gentianella moorcroftiana so some of us sat down to look at the pollinators here after our Ladakhi-style tea break (including delicious Grand Dragon Hotel biscuits). Others found an interesting boulder to study!
We saw plenty of beautiful butterflies, but the main things actually doing the pollinating seemed to be ants, bees and beetles – not the flies we’d seen in Srinagar.
Most of the area was very dry but a patch of ground had been fenced off to protect and irrigate young willow saplings and this was also full of legumes – their own private supply of fixed nitrogen.
Two of the vetches found amongst the willow saplings
We carried on down the Drass valley after our break –as last year, I was struck with the fertility of the valley bottom. We saw barley being harvested and stacked in stooks in fields all along the road.
We stopped again at the memorial to the Kargil war after Drass – with Shahid accompanying us we realised we’d broken a lot of rules about dress code last time. He was very keen we had our legs and feet completely covered, to show respect.
Indian Migg fighter with Tiger Hill, recaptured from Pakistan during the Kargil war, in the background
Shahid was clearly moved by the memorial – it’s very sad how much life has been lost in conflict between India and Pakistan over the years. It was baking hot so our visit was brief and we drove a little further to a pleasant spot where we could lunch in a grove of pollarded willows. The temptation to paddle in the cool stream was too much for some of us but Dave was working too hard on his S104 materials…
We drove on but then it turned out the drivers wanted to stop for their lunch at a café a little way down the road so the rest of us had a cup of tea there while we waited for them.
Our hotel, the Highland Mountain Resort and Spa, turned out to be up the hill from where we stayed last time in Kargil – it looked very grand from the outside. It didn’t quite maintain the illusion once we were inside, but did have working wifi and good showers… and beer, which makes up for a lot! Some people wandered into town to try and find and ATM but we just relaxed. I’ve realised that the reason I had face cream all over the inside of my wash bag at Sonamarg was not, as I’d thought, because I hadn’t put the top on properly at Srinagar but because the pressure decrease had loosened the lid. Unfortunately the same thing has happened to my insect repellent and travel wash – a lovely combination!