Sunday, 26 August 2012

Overview Of Suru Valley & Zanskar Valley Jeep Safari – Ladakh

The journey along road to Leh is approached from Srinagar or Manali, after post winter, when mountain passes along these routes re-open. Normally Srinagar-Leh route re-opens earlier around second week of May (this year it opened on 22nd April ) and Manali–Leh route by second week of June. Thus, May onwards, more road bound tourists arrive at Leh from Srinagar. En route tourists take a few days break to see some famous destinations in Kashmir valley. On Srinagar–Leh route, they take a night halt at Kargil and resume their journey the next day. The total Srinagar to Leh distance is 435 km; from Srinagar to Kargil 205 km and Kargil to Leh 230 km.

Kargil as such not offering to tourists much of a sight-seeing, it rarely sees anybody staying for more than a day or two. A few tourists take a four days jeep safari from Kargil to visit the destinations in Suru valley and Zanskar valley located in Western Ladakh. From their point of view, the opening of Zoji-la pass for arriving at Kargil is as important as opening of Penzi-la pass for taking them to Zanskar valley. Penzi-la pass is normally cleared by July but this year it re-opened in May itself as we visited those places (Suru valley & Zanskar valley) in first week of June. One can keep track of the mountain passes opening dates by checking on website

Kargil in particular and Ladakh in general have topography totally different from Kashmir valley. Kargil district has high rocky, rugged brownish mountains. The vegetation and greenery is scarce giving it an arid desert like environment. The winter is extensively snow bound. The entire region is located in high altitude above 9,000’. 

Transportation for Suru Valley and Zanskar valley from Srinagar is done in two stages. In first stage journey to Kargil play a significant role of one’s planning. The cheapest way to travel to reach Kargil is to take a state transport bus from Srinagar bus stand. Buses run on all days except Monday and Thursday at 7.30 am. The journey takes almost 10 hours. Jeeps / cars can be hired from Srinagar Taxi Stand. Cars like Tavera / Sumo / Innova is expected to cost around Rs. 5000/- to 6000/- and can carry 7 to 10 passengers. Sharing taxi for the individual will also be available. The rates quoted at taxi stand may not coincide with one given in the above mentioned website. In second stage to and fro journey from Kargil to Zanskar valley via Suru valley is done in four days. On day 1 the 140 km journey is from Kargil to Rangdum. On day 2 the 131 km journey is from Rangdum to Padum. The third day is spent in sight-seeing in and around Padum. On fourth day the entire journey of 271 km from Padum to Kargil is concluded. In this route about 40 km of road ahead of Kargil is asphalted and the rest is mud-track. The total cost of hired car like seven seater Tavera will be around Rs. 24,000/- for 4 days including sight-seeing.

a) Kargil : Few good hotels are present in upper part of the town. But, one needs to do online booking. If one wants to stay near Bazaar and jeep stand, without recourse to online booking, there is City Guest House located in a lane opposite to jeep stand, which is reasonably good. Double room without attached bath will be Rs. 700/- per night.
b) Rangdum: There are only two places where one can hole up during night, both located in same compound. The Dak bunglow offers room with beddings at Rs. 200/- per room. There is Alpine Hut which was closed when we arrived.
c) Padum: Unlike Rangdum which is a randomly spread habitat, Padum is a typical Ladakhi town consisting of well laid asphalt roads, many hotels, J K Tourism guest house, shops and restaurants on either side of the road. Most of the hotels do not have running water in bathroom. We located Chamling Kailash hotel with excellent rooms, clean beddings and bathroom with running water.

Sight seeing
Suru valley: 1) Rock cut Buddha statue at Khartse Khar 2) The Suru river and valley 3) Nun and Kun mountain peaks 4) Sankoo village 5) Panikhar village 6) Parkachik village and glacier 7) Rangdum monastery 8) Penzi-la pass   
Zanskar valley:  1) Penzi-la glacier 2) Statso / Langtso lake 2) Drang Drung glacier 3) Karsha village & Gompa 4) Stongdey Gompa 5) Stagrimo Gompa 6) Bardan Gompa  

The four days exploration trip to Western Ladakh covering Suru Valley and Zanskar Valley can be viewed by my video recording by taking the following link:

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Sonamarg To Kargil Road Journey – The Transition In Topography

(The Sonamarg to Kargil journey by road is an unique experience of seeing the transition of mind soothing green of Kashmir valley to rugged brown beauty of Ladakh region)

On 31st Day of May, 2012, around 10.30 am, we left behind Sonamarg for our onward road journey to Kargil, about a distance of 120 km. I was thinking, ‘We planned our road journey from Srinagar to Leh via Gulmarg, Pahalgam, Sonamarg, Kargil, Suru Valley, Zanskar valley, Kargil at least 3 months in advance. We had no idea, when the Zoji-la (11,649’) pass will open on national highway 1D. Our contact at Leh, told us that Srinagar – Leh route will open by second week of May. So our plan of reaching Kargil on 31st of May was considered quite safe. We came to know that this year the route has been opened on 22nd of April. Will there be enough snow on the route? With snow melting in early summer, what will be the condition of the road?’

Beyond Sonamarg our first sightseeing place was Zoji-la at a distance of 23 km. As we progressed, the green meadows, the pine trees and the overall greenery was getting thinner. The car soon took on a winding hill road and the speed came down drastically. Some portion of road was a mud-track where the weather had taken its toll. Around 12.15 pm, the accumulated snow was visible on both sides of the road, with hills still covered with thick layer of snow. On way side could be seen clinging to rocky hill surface, thick layer of crystallized snow covered with dust and grime, with edges showing the sign of melting in the bright summer sun.
Snow deposition and melting on road side
The snow melt made a portion of the mud-track slushy. Where ever, there was a pool of water, it becomes difficult for the driver of the vehicle to judge the depth in that portion. Hence he has to be extra careful and negotiate at a lowest possible speed. The small vehicles like Indica and Alto would be at a disadvantage in this track because of their low chassis height. Hence we found most of the vehicles were Tavera, Innova or Sumo plying on this road. Some portion of the road were surfaced with prefabricated cement paver blocks, some asphalted and some just mud track. In about a month’s time, the entire snow on road will perhaps disappear, except at highest elevation. We were lucky to be on this road in early summer. 
Snow tunnel
Nearing very close to Zoji-la, we entered an ice tunnel with around 10’ of snow wall on both sides of road. We were approaching deeper into Ladakh, where the winter usually is more severe. The road now is covered with stone chips, the left-over of damage done to the asphalt road with tar being swept away by the combination of snow melt and pressure of tires of the vehicles passing over it. Time was around 1.30 pm. We came to a large snowbound area, where some vehicles were halted and tourists were walking on snow. Our driver informed that actual Zoji-la pass was slightly ahead.
Frolicking on snow by road side
It was drizzling and we were a little worried. At high altitude, the weather can turn from good and bright to bad and gloomy with rain and snowfall at any time. Around 1.35 pm we reached Zoji-la pass. The rains relented by this time and it was encouraging with dark clouds clearing with glint of white clouds and blue sky appearing. There was some grassy portion by the side of the road and then snow all the way up on the hills.
Memory photo shoot by sign board of Zoji-la
We decided to take a break at the Zoji-la pass to stretch our legs and make some photo shoots. A number of vehicles were parked, with tourists scattered all around. All the signboards with Zoji-la and Project Vijayak written on it were heavily in demand for a memory shoot for the tourists. The Project Vijayak of Border Roads Organization (BRO) works on various projects on National Highway 1D in Kargil district including clearing of Zoji-la pass of all the snow accumulated during winter months to open it for vehicular traffic as early as possible. We also came to know that Zoji-la pass closes around 1st of December due to snow accumulation and BRO starts snow clearing work from March onwards from both sides of the pass.

A young girl was giving a one legged pose like a gymnast after finishing her acrobatics, against the back drop of the snow covered hills. This in essence showed the excitement of being at Zoji-la for all the road bound tourists from Srinagar to Leh by highway 1D.
One legged pose for photo shoot
Back to the vehicle, some distance ahead we saw more of the grassland covering a large area around the road with snow covered hills on the back drop and small one storied cottages looking scenic. A bluish-green rivulet running parallel to the road between the snows made the scene even more enticing.
Rivulet carrying the snow-melt
The car slowed down at some point where gushing snow melt coming down the hill and flowing across the road. Our driver nonchalantly drove across the stream.
Stream of water flowing across the road

By 1.50 pm we were on descent on much easier terrain with snow around diminishing. The asphalt road appeared to be in good condition and dry. By now the hills were barren and rugged brown with only the top portion splattered with snow. By 2.50 pm willow trees appeared on both sides of the road which must have been planted on the fringes of Drass town. Nearing Drass, we found many vehicles parked by road side and buildings on both sides of the road including JK Tourism Tourist Bungalow. It is a typical one street town of the hills, with shops and stores lined up on both sides of the road.
At Drass town
We decided to skip lunch and thrived on fresh fruits and dry fruits which we carried. We avoided a break here to spare some time at Kargil War Memorial which lies ahead of Drass town. Because of afternoon sun, we were not feeling too cold. Drass in winter is one of the coldest places on the earth. 
At Kargil war memorial
When we arrived at the Kargil War Memorial at around 3.40 pm, it was drizzling but we did not want to let go of this opportunity of visiting this memorial. The large plot consists of a central pathway called Vijay Path going upto the Amar Jyoti flame - one soldier standing in attention position by the side. Behind Amar Jyoti, on the sandstone wall are written the name and details of Kargil war martyrs in black paint. 
Kargil War Memorial
Quote from one of the writings on the wall, “Operation Vijay – In May 99, 56 Mountain Brigade was inducted in Dras to evict Pakistani intruders occupying strategically important heights of Tololing, Tiger Hill, Point 4875 and Mushkoh Valley. Considering the enormity of intrusions, balance of 8 Mountain Division was also inducted by June 99. What followed was the saga of unparalleled courage, valour and sacrifice. A fierce battle was fought by the Indian soldiers, to smother the nefarious designs of the enemy, in one of the most treacherous terrain on the earth. The enemy was disgracefully evicted by 26th July 99. This memorial is the testimony of the supreme sacrifice by Indian soldiers while restoring the izzat of our motherland” Unquote.
Operation Vijay Gallery*
There is a single storied structure on right hand side of the memorial named as “Captain Manoj Pandey Operation Vijay Gallery”, displaying remnants of munitions, articles captured, Kargil Kalash, Vijay Kalash, the newspaper cuttings of the media coverage during Kargil war and other memorabilia. 
Inside Vijay Gallery*

We were back to vehicle for our day’s final destination to Kargil. A couple of hours later around 5.45 pm we reached Kargil. This town appeared to be much more populated and larger in area compared to Drass. We tried to look for Hotel Caravan Sarai supposed to be one of the good hotels with some-what lower tariff which we found from net. From the jeep stand, we took to the road going uphill and reached cleaner part of the town, with most of the best hotels located there. On enquiry, the reception informed us that they would not be able to give any accommodation unless we have advance online bookings. Disappointed we came back down to the bazaar area and our driver took us to a hotel near a Masjid. On inspecting the rooms we were disappointed and thought of scouting some more hotels. I just made a casual enquiry with a guy standing near a jeep about a good place to stay overnight at this place. He suggested City Guest House, in a lane opposite to jeep stand. As luck would have it, we got a decent looking big double room with clean beddings, a small dining table with chairs, for three of us for Rs. 700/- per day. Hotel agreed to provide with extra mattress. However the room did not have any attached bath. But two common baths were very close to our room with running water. The hotel staff promised to provide us with hot water in morning. 
City Guest House - Kargil
We were on streets of Kargil after having a cup of tea. We thought making some phone calls from PCO as Raj’s cell phone did not get any signal. After making calls to our respective homes, we headed to scour the town. It is alike any other hill but densely occupied and not so clean. There is main road as well as number of smaller roads with too many shops selling all types of commodities. I could get some Sony AA cells for my digicam at same rate which I would get in any other city in India. The fruit market was well stocked. Sachin made his purchases of mangoes and bananas for our before dinner binge.

Kargil happens to be overnight halt for tourists going to Leh from Srinagar. So, there is no dearth of tourist once the Zoji-la pass is cleared of snow. However, we had different ideas. We were planning to visit Suru Valley and Zanskar valley, located on western part of Ladakh, which we could not cover in our 2009 Ladakh visit. Rarely tourists visiting Ladakh, tour these two places. Why is that so? The answer hopefully we will be finding in next few days.

Returning to hotel, we told the hotel staff to look for a jeep and driver to take to our planned destinations. The driver named Maqbul turned up in the evening. He promised to bring his Tavera car, next morning at 7 am. The four days travel to and fro to Suru Valley and Zanskar valley and all sight-seeing places would cost us Rs. 24,000/-. Pretty steep a price to pay; but the road to Suru valley and Zanskar valley being not in best of condition, the driver would not budge. So, we had no option but to hire the jeep and had our reasonably good vegetarian dinner supplied to our room and after packing done for next day went to sleep. The next blog will be on Suru Valley and Zanskar Valley.

Readers may see recordings of some portions of Sonamarg to Kargil road journey by taking the following captioned link:

Road Journey Through Zoji La Pass 

Kargil War Memorial at Drass, Ladakh 

*photo by Sachin Vaidya

Friday, 3 August 2012

Sonamarg – Nature’s Bounty Unlimited

On 30th May 2012, at around 10.15 am, we left behind Pahalgam for our 140 km journey to Sonamarg. A few km of drive brought us to a place which is the starting point for rafting on the river Lidder. The river being very close to roadside and flowing parallel to it, gave me opportunity to capture some rafting action in my Handycam. The rafting companies generally pick up the rafters from their hotels, in their jeep and station the inflated raft on the car roof and arrive at the boarding point. As I settled down on roadside grass land sloping towards the river, on opposite bank six rafters wearing life jackets, boarded the raft along with two instructors cum paddlers from rafting company. The starting stretch on river Lidder with flowing water creating waves and some easy rapids looked ideal for beginners. Some footages later we resumed our car journey. 
Rafting On River Lidder, Pahalgam
At 12.40 pm we reached Pampore, famous for Saffron fields. We once again visited the same shop which we had visited earlier during our onward journey to Sonamarg, to do some more buying. The shop sold, apart from Saffron, dry-fruits, shilajeet, honey and Kashmiri Masala. Drivers of the hired cars have their own favorite shops to take the tourists. Our car driver, munching some dry fruits picked up from shop, the liberty readily granted by shop keeper for the customers he generated, watched us do the shopping.
Shop At Pampore
Our journey was once again retreating towards Srinagar and then taking off towards Sonamarg. We did not have much to do except relax on our journey. Nearing Sonamarg around 4.45 pm, we found some glaciers on the roadside and molten snow in the bright summer sun, forming rivulets and joining the main stream of Sind river. Entering fringes of Sonamarg was eye soothing experience. No haphazardly located cluster of houses or dirty roadsides of a typical hill town. The green meadows on both sides of the roads with large flock of sheep grazing, with back drop of towering hills, the green environment, will be any tourists delight. As we passed the jeep stands a few hotels were seen but we had in our mind of trying our accommodation at Tourist Reception Centre managed by J. K. Tourism. We passed the army camp located on sloping meadows and came to a habitat containing hotels, restaurants and shops. We found our way to Tourist Reception Centre, which was housed in a huge plot of land. I entered the office building and made inquiries for dormitory room beds for three persons. The person at the desk offered us three beds in a 20 bed dormitory, which did not have a single occupant, at a price of Rs. 500/- each. So we had a huge room at our disposal and occupied the bed of our choice. Each bed unit had a lower tier and an upper tier. There were two toilets, one had some broken fittings and the other was usable. There was piped water supply for hot water through electric geyser. What more could we ask for? 

Sonamarg incidentally is second starting point for Amarnath Yatra. The devotees reach the holy cave via Baltal which is much shorter route compared to Pahalgam route. The enhanced room capacity here which tourist will notice, is to cater to the deluge of yatris expected during late June to end August during Amarnath Yatra season.

TRC, Sonamarg
At 5.30 pm, after a cup of tea, we thought of exploring the town and came to the main street. The adjoining plot to Tourist Reception centre was J K Tourism plot containing a few buildings and one under construction. I realized we have made a mistake of landing on TRC managed by Sonamarg Development Authority and not J K Tourism. That did not really bother us. Walking away from the dwelling, we came near a bridge over river Sind, with blocks of crystallized snow stationed in the river on upstream side. The top of snow block was covered with dust and dead grass.  From shape of snow blocks, one could make out, they were periodically disintegrating and the melt adding to the water content of the river. Some villagers were walking over a glacier possibly to reach for their home on the adjoining hill through a shorter route. 
Glacier At Sonamarg
As luck would have it, I was shooting the river and had my handycam pointed towards a huge snow-pile, suddenly, a big chunk of it cracked and separated from mother snow-pile and fell with a loud bang on the river. It further broke into smaller pieces and lighter ones floated along with the current of river stream. The video clip looked really interesting in LED screen of my Handycam. 
Broken Snow-pile
Some moments later a rafting company came with jeep carrying rafters and one inflated raft. Thus it was worthwhile waiting near the bridge observing four guys carrying raft on their shoulders and take it to the Sind river making it ready to float. The rafters came one by one with each one carrying paddle and looked like they had some experience in this water sport. They sat on the raft and photo session continued for some time followed by guidance from the instructors.  The group with the raft took off and went bobbing up and down along with the waves and river current carrying the raft below the bridge in aquatic turbulence. Emerging from below the bridge on downstream side, it took a bend and traveled rapidly further and we watched and shot some clips and frames till it disappeared from our vision. We were pleased to have a second experience of watching rafting action in a single day.
Rafting At Sonamarg
Returning to our dorm, I was ruminating, “Tomorrow we would be visiting Thajiwas glacier which is about 5 km trek from this place. The Sonamarg township is divided into two segments. The entry to township portion of the segment has a signboard indicating the direction to the Thajiwas glacier. As we were at the farthest segment of town, we have to do an additional walk of 1 km. We have to decide whether the walk could be over the Bugyal (green meadows) by-passing the army camp or over the asphalt road – a slightly longer route.” With some deliberation with fellow trekkers Sachin and Raj, we decided to go through the road without taking any risk of wasting our time in case we got to a wrong track over the meadows.

Next day, we got up early as has been the practice in all our trips to Himalayas and around 6 am hit the trail. Early morning did not see any living soul on road. We just went towards the other segment of town by the asphalt road to locate the signboard indicating direction to Thajiwas. We found the board and an asphalt road going up the hill, which was surprising. This indicated presence of hotels and retreats on upper reaches of Bugyal.
Signboard At Sonamarg
At 6.45 am walking for 15 minutes, we got the first glance of huge looming snow splattered hill. Walking on a road free of vehicular traffic and early morning nip in the air was an ideal way to begin the trek. We generally undertake treks in Himalayas early in the morning in case we are likely to encounter glaciers. The foothold on snow in early morning is much secure till the solar heat melts the top layer and it becomes slippery with chance of falling.
Road Going Up Towards Thajiwas
Deviating from asphalt road and walking towards the direction of snowy mountain along a mud trail through meadows, we sighted some elegant looking dwellings at a distance. The pine trees and snowy hills in back drop - the scene was a picture postcard of a beauty.
Landscape On Way To Thajiwas
At around 7 am we were near a plush looking Sonamarg Club – the tourists staying over there must be enjoying  some of the best landscape they will ever see anywhere in Kashmir. 
On Way To Thajiwas
We took to the left hand side of the club fencing, through a narrow stretch of mud track towards the general direction of the Thajiwas. JK Tourism dormitory structure located in a large compound came to our vision. This place surrounded by meadows and overlooking snow clad mountains is definitely an additional classic retreat for discerning tourists.
J K Tourism Dormitory
We forged ahead along asphalt road constantly following the snow splattered hill which was looming closer and came near a signboard indicating a camping site - there was fencing all around but no tents were in existence. Behind the camping site a few village shacks were visible. Some more walk and the road came to an end. We found a tempo standing over there near a tent where villagers were in process of cooking their meals. We enquired the trail to Thajiwas and one guy showed us a trail running on hill side. We went between the boulders on a mud-stone terrain and after crossing a narrow stream by stepping over stones, we were finally on a broad mud track which would take us to the glacier. It was nearly 7.40 am. We must have walked for 4 km on almost level ground. This could perhaps rank as simplest of all my treks with maximum rewards. The ice cool stream running parallel to the track was snow melt from Thajiwas glacier. At a distance the snow could be seen at the ground level going up to the peak. We encountered the first wooden bridge over the flowing stream. Sachin and Raj had a photo session there with the back drop of the glacier. 
First Wooden Bridge On Way To Thajiwas
The second wooden bridge was more of a thick wooden plank supported on wooden props on a small flowing stream. Some leafless tall trees with branches and twigs looked stark having recovered from the latest winter onslaught. A dozen of colorful tents were on right hand side. Around 8 am the sun had risen on top of the hill beating down harsh. With chilly winds blowing across, we were not distressed. 
Third Wooden Bridge On Way To Thajiwas
The third wooden bridge we came across a broad stream was bent like a bow on one side. One could not hazard a guess when it will give away. The load of snow-pile on the bridge in the winter must have taken its toll. We carefully walked on right edge of the bridge not to load it unduly on left hand bend portion and came near another set of tents serving as eateries and selling mineral water, soft drinks and snacks. Coffee mug in  hand, we watched, on left side, on a patch of green, flock of sheep with the back drop of glacier. 
Sheep Flock And Glacier
We crossed one more wooden bridge and a small stream by stepping over stones strategically placed and stepped on snow. The snow was crystallized and on harder side. So, our feet did not dig in at all and being on plane it was not slippery. We forged to about 50 metres observing the wooden battens dug in at various locations. Some tourists who preceded us along with sledge operators went up the slope, after spending some time haggling for prices. We were content of watching and capturing the action in lens. One of the sledges slid down the slope and came to rest. Sledge is basically a wooden device with flat bottom and space enough for two persons to seat. The sledge mover seats in the front and pushes the snow beneath with his feet and then allows it to slide down the slope. 
On Way Up The Glacier For Sledging
Around 9 am we retreated and commenced our return journey, immensely satisfied with our small and easy trek. By now inflow of tourists started. It was easier for us to travel along a trail taken by horsemen carrying tourists along a shorter route and walking on green meadows and we approached Sonamarg. Around 9.45 am, standing amidst a lot of goats grazing around us in green meadows, we got a top view of Sonamarg town.
Upper Bugyal At Sonamarg
Instead of climbing down the meadows towards the town, we continued along the upper Bhugyal in general direction of our TRC. We saw one horse was being tamed by a group of villagers, for carrying out fixing of horseshoes. Thereafter it was crossing a small stream of molten ice from hills by hopping on the rock placed over it and passed by the side of upper fencing of army camp. We descended the slope towards the TRC landing very close to it. Time was around 10.30 am by now. We hurriedly entered our dorm to get ready after a hot water bath and a quick breakfast for our journey to Kargil nearly 120 km away. The next blog will be on Kargil.

* Author recommends the readers to view the following Sonamarg videos captured by himself.
1. Sonamarg At A Glance 2. Thajiwas Glacier Trek  
3. Sind River & Crashing Snow-pile
4. White Water Rafting Over River Sind