By any standards Ladakh or ‘the land of high passes’ is stunning, a high and mountainous plateau, barren, remote, sparsely populated, sprinkled with magical Buddhist monasteries, and views extending to the High Himalaya. Leh is its capital which once thrived as a lucrative link to the Silk Road from China. That has been closed for a long time and shut completely after Tibet was taken. Now the capital, Leh relies on the Indian Army as the largest employer, which also boasts the highest golf course in the world, and an expanding tourist market.
But this is about the journey from Leh to Srinagar, an unmissable experience in my view. Since 2006 the route is called rather grandly a National Highway, NH1D and crosses some of the most treacherous terrain imaginable, from the barren plateau, through winding gentle valleys, over very high passes, along precarious roads to the picturesque saffron and fruit-growing Kashmir valley which lies between the Great Himalayas and the Pir Panjal mountain range. Religiously one shifts from a largely Buddhist people to a predominant Muslim community, both in J&K State. At each end there is a massive military presence. Why so? From Leh, China is not far away, a mere one hundred kilometres as the helicopter flies, and troops make regular incursions into India marking its territory across the disputed boundary and even crossing the very long Pangong Lake. And in Kashmir the Indian Army is holding the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan and trying to keep militant separatists calm. There is a lot of recent history here not least at Kargil which practically touches the LoC and was at the centre of the 1999 war with Pakistan.
The start is fairly ordinary, a normal road out of the city, past the airport, the war memorial then tracking the low contours above the Indus valley until the popular tourist stop where the Indus merges with Zanskar River. The two-tone water as one river joins the other is remarkable and it is from here that one can see the jagged mountains of the Zanskar Range in the distance. This section of road is good and around midmorning we peel off to Alchi to see one of the very few monasteries that is in a valley and not perched on top of some impossible mountain. It is a delight. After wandering through many stalls, women peeling apricots, everything is green except for the white painted walls of the shrines and assembly hall which contain some of the finest frescoes painted in the 12th Century and now unique and intact. This painting style was once widespread in Asia but only at Alchi has it stayed untouched. It’s dark inside and photography prohibited but once accustomed to the dim light the exceptional quality reveals itself. Most striking for me were walls showing for example the Akshobhaya Buddha on one tall wall with one thousand ‘seated manifestations’ and each one only about 15 cm square, collectively gently very impressive in a quiet way and individually a valuable Buddhist catalogue. The two ‘must see’ parts of Alchi, once part of a small ancient Tibetan kingdom, are the Sumtsek (three-storeyed temple) and the Dukhang (assembly hall) the largest and oldest monument in the complex. What a morning and a well-deserved coffee to follow.
When in Leh we had an excellent overqualified young guide to show us round the monasteries and he comes with us for a lift home. Suddenly the driver stops and the guide gets out. There are no buildings and he tells us that he will cross the rickety footbridge over the Indus, up a steep ravine and after half an hour on foot will reach his hamlet of ten houses. There is no road or obvious path and for much of the year it is snowed up. The wonderful snow leopards are common neighbours. Then the treacherous terrain becomes apparent so one wonders why this road is there at all. The scenery is outstanding as are the geological formations, the shallow rivers strewn with boulders, the spectacular Lamayuru Gompa backed by towering mountains, and the river Indus which generally follows the route, sometimes wide with goats grazing. The road twists up the mountains to the Fotu La (13,479 ft.) the highest pass between the two cities and a spot where motorcyclists take a break to be photographed next to the bold yellow marker stone. Then a slow descent to Mulbek for a chai and a look at the monumental 8th century Maitreya Statue of Buddha (the coming Buddha) carved out of the rock face. The light is fading as are we, after 40 km we arrive at Kargil and are relieved to find our rather sleazy hotel and resolve to bring our own sheets next time. The food is good thankfully.
ThIs is the halfway point.