By Lalitha Sridhar
All you need to know about one of the great Himalayan drives
The legendary 467-km Srinagar-Leh national highway NH1D traverses the lush valleys of Kashmir, the ridges of the Great Himalaya, and the rust-brown landscapes of Ladakh. It climbs along the Great Himalaya and Zanskar ranges across high passes, including Zoji La at 11,575 ft, to deposit a well-acclimatised traveller in Leh.
The road is in good condition for most of the way, except for a rough patch around Zoji La, a few kilometers of untarred surface between Thasgam and Kargil and a narrow stretch with overhanging rocks between Lamayuru and Khaltse that is prone to rockfalls and landslides when it rains. Traffic jams, especially around Zoji La are frequent, and it’s not uncommon to be stuck for an hour or two (always carry snacks, energy bars, dry fruit, drinking water and medication for mild headaches and nausea). A sturdy four-wheel-drive vehicle and an experienced driver is highly recommended for this trip, as you encounter steep ascents, hairpin bends and rocky overhangs as you wind across the Great Himalayan and Zanskar mountain ranges.
On a beautiful Srinagar morning, we set off on the adventure of a lifetime, following the highway north to Ganderbal. From here, NH1D follows the Sind River through lush valleys via Manigam, Kangan and Mamer to Sonamarg. Here, we avoided the tourist-glutted trail, and hiked up an expansive meadow to take a closer look at the Thajiwas Glacier, a notable sight in this extraordinarily picturesque valley.
The ‘highway’ hereon may get frequently scrunched to a single-lane of wet rubble but it’s a massive tribute to the Border Roads Organisation that they have such a lifeline up and running through such hostile terrain. A short and steep 8 km ahead of Baltal — the tipping off point for the Amarnath Cave — we ascended the famed Zoji La (11,575 ft). From here, the ornamental prettiness of the Kashmir Valley falls behind with every mile as Ladakh’s massive mountainsides of shape-shifting, colour-changing slate and rock take over. Just beyond Zoji La, you’ll pass the Machoi Glacier, source of the Sind. The road careens, dips, tumbles and climbs over icy landscapes literally at arm’s length. Then you follow the Drass River past Gumri to Drass. We stop at Drass to have a piping hot lunch of rajma and rice at the second-highest inhabited place in the world. A half-hour down the road is the War Memorial. Then we were moving on to our night halt at Kargil.
TIP Do not take photographs near sensitive military/ border areas (Army bases, checkposts, bridges), especially around Kargil and Drass.
The following morning, we are sorely tempted by the four-hour detour to the Drogpa villages of Dah and Hanu, but we decide to stick to our primary route along NH1D to Mulbekh, and its prayer flags, quiet monastery and a rock-carved Buddha by the road, our first glimpse of Ladakh’s many Buddhist treasures.
The tranquil gompa of Lamayuru comes next — a visit made all the more memorable by a delicious meal at the monastery’s Niranjana Guest House. En route we also crossed Namika La (“the pillar of the sky”) and Fotu La passes in the Zanskar Range. Fotu La is the highest point on the highway at 13,479 ft.
We reach the Indus River at Khaltse. Leh is less than 100 km away. We turn right and follow the ageless river as the road turns broad and smooth, running along a vast flatland, through charming poplar and apricot country. We drive past Nyurla, Uleytokpo, the Saspol Caves and the bridge to Alchi, the magnificent Basgo ruins, the dramatic confluence of the Indus and Zanskar, and finally Spituk Gompa, which heralds our arrival in Leh.
We are exhausted and breathless from exhilaration but not altitude sickness. Ladakh has led us gently into its unique magic.
You could do the Srinagar-Leh drive leisurely over three days, stopping for the second night at a hotel in the Sham region of Ladakh. But it’s easily done in two.
Zoji La is closed between 4 pm and 4 am, hence buses and taxis start from Srinagar at 5 am and stay overnight in Kargil. Hotels in Kargil range from basic to comfortable, with attached baths and running hot water. Book in advance.
Try Caravan Serai (Tel: 01985-232278, Mob: 09419176538; Tariff: ₹13,900, with two meals); Hotel Greenland Kargil (Tel: 232324, Mob: 09469357777; Tariff: ₹3,300-4,400, with two meals); Siachen Hotel (Tel: 232221, 233055, Mob: 09419176032; Tariff: ₹2,900-3,900); D’zojila (Tel: 232360, Mob: 09469682355; Tariff: ₹3,000-4,500, with meals); or Hotel Ruby (Tel: 232343, Tariff: ₹300). Kargil also has two government-maintained Tourist Bungalows and a Circuit House. These are much cheaper (₹150-500) but book ahead (Kargil Tourist Office Tel: 01985-232721, 232266).
If you reach with plenty of day light left, walk around Kargil’s bazaars, and visit the hilltop Central Asian Museum in Munshi Enclave, a tribute to the legendary ‘resham raasta’, or silk road.
Inputs by Vandana Mohindra
Tips for the road
Departure Time When driving from Srinagar to Kargil, start between 8-9 am, as it takes 2-2½ hours to Sonamarg, where you have to wait at the barricade till 11 am or noon when one-way traffic is allowed through to Kargil (timings are subject to change, so check locally). If you don’t reach in time, prepare to be stuck overnight at Sonamarg. From Kargil to Leh, it’s best to start around 7-8 am so you have enough time before sundown to see all the sights along NH1D
Petrol Petrol stations are available at Srinagar, Ganderbal, Manigam, Kangan, Gagangir, Sonamarg, Kargil (just one pump about 5 km ahead of the town), Khaltse and Leh
Acclimatisation Visitors driving to Leh may fare better than those flying into Leh, but rules of acclimatisation still apply: drink plenty of water, avoid over-exertion and get medical help at the first sign of symptoms. If altitude sickness is severe, the only solution is to descend immediately. Medical dispensaries en route are at Drass (01985-274016) and Shergol (Tel: 01985-277037). There’s also the District Hospital in Kargil (Tel: 01985-233527, 232208)
Outsourcing the drive Our Srinagar-Leh road trip was organised by Cox & Kings. Taxis (Sumo/ Qualis) from Srinagar (Tel: 0194-2452527) to Leh charge about ₹12,950. A full taxi with a night halt at Kargil costs ₹14,000; shared taxi costs ₹1,850 per person. JKSRTC buses (Tel: 0194-2455107) to Leh from Srinagar start at 8 am and halt overnight in Kargil (₹1,050). Book with JKSRTC a day in advance. In Ladakh, taxis are affiliated to local tour operators’ associations, so you may be asked to switch to another vehicle at Kargil
ROUTE AND DISTANCES
Srinagar to Leh 467 km
Srinagar to Ganderbal: 20 km
Ganderbal to Mamer: 27 km
Mamer to Sonamarg: 79 km
Sonamarg to Baltal: 14 km
Baltal to Zoji La: 8 km
Zoji La to Machoi Glacier: 9 km
Machoi Glacier to Matayan: 11 km
Matayan to Drass: 21 km
Drass to Thasgam: 24 km
Thasgam to Kaksar: 16 km
Kaksar to Kargil: 27 km
Kargil to Durkit: 20 km
Durkit to Mulbekh: 14 km
Mulbekh to Namika La: 14 km
Namika La to Bodh Kharbu: 16 km
Bodh Kharbu to Fotu La: 21 km
Fotu La to Lamayuru: 15 km
Lamayuru to Khaltse Check Post: 22 km
Khaltse Check Post to Nyurla: 15 km
Nyurla to Uleytokpo: 13 km
Uleytokpo to Saspol: 9 km
Saspol to Basgo: 19 km
Basgo to Patthar Sahib: 17 km
Patthar Sahib to Spituk: 18 km
Spituk to Leh: 8 km
When to go The Border Roads Organisation usually opens the snowbound Srinagar-Leh road (NH1D) in the last week of April and works at keeping it going till mid-October. It’s ideal to plan this trip between end-May and late-Sep
What to wear Wear a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen at all times, as the sun is sharp. Also carry a windcheater, jacket, thermals, woolly cap and sturdy walking shoes, as the weather, even in summer, is very changeable
Permits Indians need Inner Line Permits and foreign nationals require protected area permits to visit certain ‘restricted areas’ in Ladakh. Although none of the places along or just off the Leh-Srinagar highway require permits, the remote valleys of Shakgar-Chiktan and Darchiks-Garkhun, located north of the highway and accessed from Kargil or Khaltse, do require them, so don’t plan detours to these unless you have pre-arranged a permit through a Leh- or Kargil-based operator. Alternatively, apply directly to the Deputy Commissioner/District Magistrate in Srinagar (0194-2452180/ 82). Carry your ID/ passport and permit as well as 10-12 photocopies of each at all times, as permits are examined and photocopies need to be submitted at various checkposts en route
Tourist Reception Centre, Srinagar, Tel: 0194-2452691, 2472449,
District Tourist Office, Kargil, Tel: 01985-232721, 232266
Tourist Reception Centre, Leh, Tel: 01982-252297, 252094, Website: jktourism.org, STD codes Leh 01982, Kargil 01985, Srinagar 0194