From the dizzying heights, the valley below is fast reduced to a distant speck of green, set in a bowl formed by towering snow clad peaks. A chalky, steel-grey river rushes through the valley, fed by glacial streams that tumble out of unknown crevices hidden high up in the lap of the mountains.
Rough, narrow, treacherous and strewn with enormous boulders, the road finally winds its way up to the Zoji-la, which, at almost 12,000 feet-high, is the only motorable pass leading from the verdant Kashmir Valley below to the icy wastes of Ladakh beyond. Salim, our driver, insists we move on, but I plead with him to stop for a bit. I clamber out of the van and stand at the edge of the road, overlooking a sharp precipice.
The scene is stunning — dizzyingly tall peaks soaring up into an empty, turquoise blue sky; crags upon crags, till as far as one can see, labouring under who knows how many hundreds of feet of frozen snow; a massive eagle majestically sailing over the heights till it suddenly swoops down into a deep ravine, having spotted an unknown prey; the icy winds that howl and hurl and hit themselves with an irrepressible fury against my face.
Towards the roof of the world
But Salim orders me in. Here, at 12,000 feet high in the inner Himalayas, where I had expected I would savour a few moments of bliss in silent meditation, a noxious traffic jam has formed behind our van. Drivers snarl and hurl angry abuses at me, furiously pressing their horns. “What the hell are you doing? Get back to your van and move on! We’ve got tourists with us who need to reach Leh soon!”, they bark. 20 years ago, the last time I travelled on the same road — National Highway 1D — my bus was one of the few vehicles I saw on the way to Zoji-la. Today, literally hundreds of them — trucks, buses, vans and cars — race up and down the Zoji-la every day. No longer is crossing that pass into the ‘roof of the world’ as daunting and thrilling an adventure as it once was.
Descending the Zoji-la, we chug through a massive, kilometre-long corridor, bounded on either side by giant blocks of ice. It is mid-June — the peak of summer — but the ice remains solid, firm and deep. We stop for tea at Drass. ‘Second Coldest Inhabited Place on Earth’, claims a signboard at the entrance to the town. Drass and its environs were the scene of a bloody, though short-lived war, between India and Pakistan just over a decade ago. Memorials to fallen Indian soldiers and a war museum dot the town, and Salim indicates particular points — certain Dardi villages, the Tiger Hill and the Tololing Valley — that witnessed fierce bombardment during the war.
By early evening, when the sky turns from salmon-pink to ashen grey, we arrive in Kargil town. There isn’t an awful lot to see here — it is just a drab, one street-town. The next day, I board a minibus heading to the village of Pannikhar, 60 kilometers and a five-hour drive to the east. The road — if it can at all be called that — is a narrow, untarred path, pock-marked with yawning craters. It skims along the energetic Suru river that hurriedly rushes past till it disgorges itself into the Indus somewhere in Pakistani-administered Baltistan, not far ahead.
The Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Department’s guesthouse in Pannikhar is a neat little wooden six-roomed cottage. Bashir, the amiable caretaker, gives me a warm, thickly-carpetted room, and brings me a pot of lemon tea and a bowl of noodle soup, which I ravenously consume to keep out the bitter cold. At 200 rupees a day, I could hardly ask for any more luxury. I am the only occupant of the guesthouse, the first visitor this tourist season, and I bask in the solitude that I so desperately crave.
I spend the next four days in and around Pannikhar. I wake up each morning to the exciting chatter of the khushkmoru, a massive bird (half the size of a peacock), which Bashir tells me is found only on this side of the Zoji-la. I spend days walking around the village, drinking salted butter tea and sampling tsampa — a dish made of crushed barley and yoghurt — with village folks, who are warm and welcoming. I wash my clothes in the stony bed of the river, and although my fingers turn all wiry and blue in no time, it is a wonderful therapy for my soul.
I spend hour upon hour staring, as if in a stupor, at the stunning Nun and Nun, sister peaks, both over 7000 metres high that frame the northern part of the valley, together forming a giant glacier-laden massif. In the afternoons, when chilled winds rush down the slopes, I trace the dance of clouds whirling around their summits till they blot them out completely from view and it begins first to drizzle and then to snow, the ice coming down in soft feathery flakes.
One day, I trek all the way to the settlement of Sankoo, where high up on the slopes, far in the distance, I am rewarded with the rare sight of a party of curly-horned ibex leaping from crag to crag. I also spot a band of Himalayan marmots — big, beige-hued beaver-like rodents — chasing each other on the banks of a glacial stream. When darkness falls and I intend to walk back to Pannikhar, I am given a lift in a truck by a man who insists that it is not safe to go on foot. Bears and wolves prowl about at this hour, he warns and sometimes snow leopards too.
After almost a week in the isolated hamlets of the Suru Valley, where few outsiders care to travel, I head back to Kargil and then on to Leh; to cars, buses, hotels full of noisy tourists and shops bursting with glossy goods; to a lifestyle that I detest, but which, I perhaps cannot do without.