HIGHWAY TO THE HIMALAYAS: ROAD TRIP TO LADAKH (PT III) – Revisiting the Kargil War

Crossing the notorious Zoji pass, we started descending to the Drass valley in the Kargil district of Ladakh, a short journey from one of the most dangerous passes to one of the coldest places in the world. The valley lay claim to being the second most coldest place in the world after Siberia, with temperatures plummeting to minus 70 degree centigrade, so a signboard claimed. Although the figure seemed a little hard to digest, it is indeed one of the coldest place in the Ladakh region with a sub-arctic climate. We confirmed from quite a few sources that the temperature would easily go down to about −50 °C during peak winter. Compared to that it was quite a pleasant climate we were having. As we descended from the Zoji pass, the topography changed, turning from the ominous grey to a slightly green valley which is traversed by the Drass river drained from the Machoi glacier in the nearby Zoji La. The Drass river joins the Suru river further down at Kharul (7 Kms north of Kargil) and forms a tributary of the Indus river. The dirt trail up in Zoji pass is now transformed to an excellent double lane metalled highway that ran alongsided the Drass river. The highway from Drass through Kargil, except for a few patches, was an excellent stretch of road and coupled with the picturesque landscape, it gave you the most wonderful driving experience.  The road was good all through Kargil, Lamayuru, Alchi and right up to Leh.

It was already dusk by the time we entered Drass township and it was drizzling a bit. It was cold but still bearable and the drizzle didn’t dampen our spirit. Our planned halt was at Kargil which was still a good 65 kms away. But so as not to miss the scenic view en route, we decided to halt at Drass which had a small settlement. Hotels and restaurants were scarce unlike Kargil which offered a variety of accommodations. A few phone calls and we managed to find a place good enough to hang up our boots for the night. A few shots of heartwarming malt, a sumptuous dinner in a nearby restaurant and we hit the sack with the prayer for a bright and beautiful tomorrow.

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Drass Valley

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Drass River
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Drass to Leh Highway

Our prayers were answered the next morning and we resumed our journey to Leh from Drass with kinderred spirit. Our first stop is a short drive of about 5 Kilometers where the Memorial for the Kargil War has been erected. The small nondescript township of Drass is deceptively of high strategic importance as it is situated at the base of the Zoji pass which offered a trade route in the ancient days of the Pan-Asian trade. Drass was then a trading post settled by a highly resilient inhabitants who specialised in transporting trade merchandise across the Zoji pass even in extreme conditions. Although the ancient Silk-route is no more existent, the valley still holds its strategic value today because of its close proximity to the LAC between India and the Pakistan and the fact that the main lifeline of Ladakh, the NH 1D, passes through it. It serves as the gateway to the Ladakh region. Controlling Drass would effectively control access to huge region of the Ladakh valley which is precisely the reason for the belligerent Pakistan’s intrusion in 1999. As winter receded and the snow conditions became more favourable for the Indian army to return to their military positions along the LOC from where that they had retreated from during the last winter, India found itself in the most flummoxed situation of most of its strategic locations like Tololing peak, Tiger hill etc  along the 160 kms ridge which overlooks the NH 1D, being occupied by the Pakistani army in the guise of Mujahideens.The Kargil war that followed was the biggest face-off between the armies of the two neighbouring countries in recent history. Perched atop these high locations, the intruders began shelling the neighbouring areas including Drass which still bears the scars. The Indian soldiers responded with promptness and extreme bravery by scaling the cliffs against extreme odds, neutralizing the enemy and chasing the intruders away and reclaiming the lost territory. A number of Indian soldiers laid down their lives in the campaign codenamed “Operation Vijay”. The Kargil War memorial, about 5 kms from Drass, in the foothills of Mt. Tololing has been established in honour and memory of their supreme sacrifice.

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KARGIL WAR MEMORIAL at Drass; Tolloling peak at the backdrop
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KARGIL WAR MEMORIAL @ Drass
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KARGIL WAR MEMORIAL @ Drass

In a short distance of about 60 kms, we soon hit the town of Kargil which proved to be a very lively town and quite crowded as compared to other places in Ladakh. Passing through the town we found there was no place to park the vehicle and even got stuck in the traffic as we were trying to cross an iron bridge to exit the town. We decided to skip the planned breakfast and move on. Luckily, however, we were informed of a military canteen and a gas station some few kilometers further down the road. Climbing up to a tabletop, we came across a long stretch of road where we came across the military canteen on the right. We stuffed ourselves with vegetable Momos, choley Bhature and hot cups of coffee and drove a little further down to fill up gas at the station, recheck our air pressure in a tyre repair shop and then made our way for Leh.

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KARGIL TOWN, 65 kms from Drass on NH 1D
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KARGIL TOWN

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