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


  1. Thank you for taking pains for remembering and penning down the minutest details. Drass is the second coldest inhabited place in the world – next to Siberia. However as it is on national highway, the drastic drop in the temperature might have got noticed. I guess that there can be other places in Kargil District [e.g. Rangdum] which may be witnessing the same or more severe drop in temperature during winter. During our night stay at Rangdum, night temperature dropped below zero during first week of June.

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  3. Informatics Post. I am always reading your blog. Thank you for sharing valuable information about Sonamarg To Kargil Road Journey – The Transition In Topography. Your journey experience was unique and wonderful. I would also like to share something about Sonamarg Hotels. Check out best Hotels in Sonamarg.

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  5. A trip to Kashmir,is incomplete without a visit to Sonamarg.Thank you for sharing the post with wonderful pictures of Sonamarg and Kargil. As we know, Sonamarg gives rise to The Three Sisters (Kashmir). It is a popular tourist destination, nestled with in the imposing Himalayan peaks.In late April when the road transport is open for visitors,there are many places to visit in Sonamarg,which makes it one of the favourite tourist spot.

  6. Thanks to share you valuable experience with us. Article and photos are very beautiful.

    Sonamarg and Kargil is hill station in Jammu and Kashmir, The road distance from Sonamarh to Kargil is 123 and expected travel time is 2 hour and 30 minute (when no snowfalls)

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  8. I have been to Leh couple of time with my family but not by road, I flew from Delhi to Leh which took only 1 Hr 15 min, I am a Army lover from my child hood, as I too wanted to be an Army Person, but time had something else stored for me, I too want to see those war memorials and place were Indian Army showed their great courage but thought that travel to Leh by road is not safe, but after reading your quote I am planning too. The most special thing I want to see is Tiger Hill, Tololing Top and how does the highway looks from tololing top. JAI HIND

  9. I had visited to Sonamarg and Kargil last year, its really very nice hill station Thanks to share you valuable experience with us.

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