Though most travellers visit Leh from Srinagar by flying in to the capital of Ladakh or by driving in a car, a bus trip from Srinagar to Leh is an experience which is quite unmatched. I did something like this alone for the first time back then, but don't regret even a minute of it, even though many things went wrong! Here is the story of my experiences below.
|Collage of my memories...|
I was in Srinagar for a project to document a local craft and actually finished it a little before time...so had more than a week to roam around Jammu and Kashmir. I had already done a bit of meandering in buses around Srinagar, inviting love of the locals and wrath of the army (I had long hair and beard, and looked like an often misunderstood image of a Jihadi). So my plan was to escape from the valley to the other part of the state - Ladakh. Flying was not an option so had to depend on the local bus to reach there...a long, arduous, yet stunningly beautiful journey that takes two full days. As luck would have it, for me it took three days :)
|Finally on my way :)|
I was traveling alone (yes, I have been doing it for years), and just hoped to find some good company on the way. Just as we inched into Sonmarg, news came in that a bridge ahead on the river had broken down and so all traffic on the road had to stop. There was no question of returning back, as all roads on both sides of the road were jammed.
|Traffic stuck for kilometers, no escape in sight...|
Thankfully we were close to Sonmarg, so I got out and started exploring the town. Apart from me, there were only two more people who took any interest in looking around, they were also fellow lonely travelers :) As I found out later, Christine was from Germany and Ti was from Korea. We bonded over multiple cups of India chai and a hike to a nearby glacier (that's the thing about Kashmir, all these exotic things are just a few kilometers' hike away). By the time night came, we were already thick friends. Because of the way I looked, they initially assumed that I was a local Kashmiri as well, a feeling I often got from locals as well. Anyway, the chaiwalla gave us shelter in his tea stall, while Christine stayed with a local family. My road trip had barely begun, and I already had a gang :)
|Hiking to the glacier (my first ever) was great, but it was even better to see snow horses :)|
|Ti looking grumpy in the tea seller's tiny house - we all had to share blankets and bed!|
The bridge was temporarily built overnight by the army and the traffic started inching forward the next morning. We decided to sit together and share stories. I think that's the best thing about such long road trips - you have so much time to talk, and without mobile phones etc, all you can do is look outside and make conversations. For me the most amazing part of the journey was passing through snow covered Jozilla Pass. Its a strictly controlled army zone and you are not allowed to take pictures (of course, I did), and not allowed to stop as well. Checking is through at both the entry and exit of the pass.
|Bonding over tea :)|
Our bus was, at best, rickety and moved at snail's pace. I was often left awed that it could actually climb up the hills. But it moved on and ahead. Since it was so cold, it would stop every couple of hours when someone would have to pee. Initially women tried to hold, but later gave in :) Lack of greenery after the valley is intense - there are only a few shrubs to hide your modesty. There were multiple tea breaks as well...
The night of the second day we stayed at Kargil in a small hotel. Many men shared a room together, and slept wherever there was space available - bed, couch, floor. I slept on the floor and actually had a great sleep. The journey started again the third day and this is when you actually see Ladakh in all its glory. Its a long day, and gets rather hot in the afternoon. But our dear old rickety bus chugged along. I made many other friends in the bus, including a local monk who helped us find a perfect home-stay later in Leh. Everyone was also curious about us - 'People who travel alone, and then make a gang when find other similar types' :)
|Dinner conversations (apart from tea) is great for making friends :)|
|Early morning views from Kargil hotel window...|
We passed through Lama Yuru, Magnetic hill, drove along the mud filled and scary looking Indus, and loved every bit of it. Every sight from the bus window was an experience for me - the people, the language, food, tea, clothes, landscape...
|Green patches like these are a rare sight in Ladakh|
It was late in the afternoon of the third day when we actually reached Leh and everyone was absolutely exhausted. I wanted a bed for myself and some hot Ladakhi tea, while the locals wanted to get home quickly! I had never done three day long road-trip before in life but after this one trip I was determined now to do many more such trips in future. I am yet to do such a long trip again, and actually aching to do one now - but in my car (or maybe a bike), though bus has own multiple advantages.
|And finally the majestic views of Ladakhi mountains...|
But what drives me to these moments on the roads? I think it's just my love for roads, people, places but most of all the journey itself...
So where would my next trip be? I can think of many - a long road-trip in North East, a trip along the entire western Ghats - Maharashtra to Goa and multiple such journeys. Any suggestions? :)