Gateways to heaven are said to be adorned by beauty, incomparable with even the best of jewels or materials that anyone can buy. But what does one say to the roadways that lead you to some of the picturesque locales in the north of India? Are they indeed our gateways to heaven? Because I, for one, have seen so many that I wonder whether heaven resides right here in India.

Ladakh, is one such place which gets me thinking – How am I to absorb such wonder in so little a time? Welcome to the arms of a small town, happily hidden from the world in the embrace of the Himalayas. I cannot really say it’s hidden anymore, because almost everyone has either been there or else have Ladakh as a part of their bucket list. Ladakh is one place in India that everyone knows about. So today, I thought I should start with one aspect of Ladakh and then speak more about this town over two to three short articles.

Ladakh is the more commonly referred destination while what people actually mean is Leh. Leh is the capital of the district, and Ladakh has a lot more to offer than just Leh.

Most people fly to Leh, but the true adventure lovers prefer to drive into town. There are two ways to drive to Leh – either from Srinagar or from Manali. The Manali route is the more popular one, but if you are to ask me, both are extremely picturesque and one needs to travel through both routes to really enjoy and appreciate the different sceneries that nature puts on display. I opted to drive in from Srinagar and drive out through Manali. That was because I couldn’t resist revisiting the true firdaus (jannat) on earth, Srinagar, once again.

Day 1(Srinagar To Kargil) :My drive started early in the morning with the weeping Chinars and a waking city. We crossed the city in no time and stopped at Sonmarg for chai with maggi (everyone’s official ‘comfort food’). The imposing Zoji La was looking down at us. Sonmarg is where the Kashmir valley ends and as we climbed Zoji La, we entered Ladakh. La, in the local language means mountain pass. They are considered as the guardians of the mountain. In the olden days, when most travel was on foot, one would reach the top of mountain passes and as a gesture of thanks, place a series of stones to create a personal chorten (a small shrine) and tie prayer flags.

SONMARG – The Hill Station in Kashmir

The road up Zoji La was treacherous, and with rains beating down, it was muddy too. The danger of shooting stones was perennial all through the ascent. Finally we reached the top. The roads were perfect – the Highway to Heaven had begun.

Zo Jila – High Mountain Pass in Jammu and Kashmir

Our first halt was at Drass, two hours away from Zoji La. Here, we visited the imposing War Memorial erected by the Indian Army, to honour their fallen comrades, while defending Pakistani intruders in 1998. During our entire drive on Day 1, we were to cover the locations of the Indo – Pak war of 1998. The well segregated army memorial was truly magnificent, a reminder of the sacrifices of our armed forces. Very well designed and maintained, it gave one a complete sense of the terrain, the challenges faced and the extreme weather (winter temperatures in Drass are a bone chilling -45 degrees).

The feeling that one got when we came out was that of pride, and I was no less proud of the valour of our army men. We spent some time speaking with the jawans stationed there, understood their daily routine under such harsh circumstances and presently left with a feeling of humility.

A refreshing cup of chai and we were off. The drive to Kargil took three hours, if one was lucky. The National Highway is two-laned, and even a single break down could cause a cascade of vehicles – along with the private vehicles that honked away. But the real cool cats in such situations tend to be the truck drivers. They make the most of such long jams by just taking out their cooking stoves and cooking their evening meals.

It was early evening and we stopped at the outskirts of Kargil for some parathas and chai. For those daring to explore, I would recommend that you try the Tibetan Butter tea. It is an acquired taste and there is the likelihood that people may not take more than a few sips, but made with tea leaves, yak milk and salted yak butter, it is the natural way of fortifying ourselves against the biting cold.

Tibetian Butter Tea

We checked into a simple yet beautiful hotel named Hotel Greenland in Kargil. It hadbeen a long tiring day, but the scenery was too inviting. So, we kept our bags and stepped out with our cameras. We were keen to mingle with a few locals and understand a little more about their culture. Our guide Jhangoo, being a local from Leh, had friends around and therefore was probably more eager than us to step out and explore, not to mention that thanks to him, very soon we received warm invitations to their homes.

We spent a delightful hour with them. They told us about their traditional way of life, which included farming in the summer (June – Sept), followed by the harvest of everything, and finally appropriate storage for the winter. In such inhospitable terrain, every natural resource is precious and therefore recycled to the best possible extent. This to my mind was a wake up call for city dwellers. For the locals here, recycling has always been a way of life. Over momos, they also shared their family photo album, with pretty pictures where people wore colourful clothes for social occasions. Before I forget, the momos were delicious – stuffed with vegetables and served with a pungent red chutney.

Well, it was time to return to our rooms. We were tired, and dinner was a forgotten affair. Carefully noting down my experiences of the day, lest I forget them, I was lost to the world as soon as my eyes shut. Day 1 was gorgeous and I knew there was more to come.

To be continued…….

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