At Kargil the valley is quite wide and the Indus River heads North West across the Pakistan border, along the all-weather road through Skardu to Gilgit. This remains closed both ways after the 1948 Kashmir War. In 1999 Pakistan made a dramatic incursion from the north to try and gain control of outposts on the mountain peaks. This was the violent Kargil War and the town was much damaged until India regained control. This accounts for the centreless unattractive town and bland buildings which sit oddly on a rounded plateau in the valley and abutting sheer barren mountainside. Yet it is important being the second largest town in Ladakh and is a District Headquarters. Centuries ago the people were of Tibetan Buddhist belief and now 90% of the population are Shia Muslims which accounts perhaps for the incoherent building types. Times are changing.
We have to make an early start to reach a difficult, narrow, and un-metalled section of road that is notoriously dangerous . Throughout Ladakh there are occasional signs on the few highways advising with good reason that drivers should travel with care. They are in striking yellow and are noticed. Examples are: “Darling I like you – but not so fast”, “Don’t gossip let him drive”, “Be Mr Late me not Late Mr”.
Our road heads off and up the Great Himalayan Range through Drass to the highest point, the dramatic Zoji La (pass – 11,575ft). Soon afterwe hit the infamous long one-way road which zigzags for miles and the traffic goes one way in the morning and the opposite way in the afternoon. In theory this is fine but at lunchtime dynamite is placed in the mountainside to blow up rock to widen the road. Whoever was in charge today overdid the explosive and vast quantities of rock cascaded down the mountain and left the road blocked.
The Military Police tried to control the build-up of traffic so small vehicles could pass but the track was too narrow. After a long time a couple of bulldozers came and started to nibble at the broken rock, a precarious business. The very few MP’s had trouble stopping vehicles from coming the other way. The debris dropped on to the track below which became blocked and the dust followed an upward airstream; it was alarming yet mesmeric. And it was very hot.
One MP wanted our driver to move nearer the edge but we could see that the road was undercut a few yards ahead and a 1000 ft. drop below; eventually he said we could stay put. It took four hours to clear by which time traffic had started to come the other way. Complete chaos which seemed to take forever to resolve. It was only the pack ponies and their leisurely drivers that got through as they had for centuries. When we were released the drivers steered down the perilous zigzag rough track with relief and as rapidly that safety would allow to the Sind valley and along the river bank road to Sonamarg. We were treated to a very late but excellent lunch then. Our nerveless driver does this trip several times a week and he knew Dal Lake but did not know his way to Nageen Lake. After some guidance using cell phones we reached the right landing stage we were taken by shikara in the twilight to our Mascot houseboat.
Once on board we were enveloped by the tranquillity of the lake and quickly soothed. Here we first met our host Yaseen Tuman over a refreshing cup of kahwah. Within an hour we had relaxed and were talking about the first hydroelectric power station in Kashmir, a matter of some interest to me as my grandfather had worked on that in 1908. By chance ‘Kashmir Life’ had published a long article in 2012 called ‘The Mohra Marvel’ which covered this historic phenomenon. I resolved to go back and find it. A good end to an amazing day.