The roads to Ladakh cutting through the Himalayan mountain ranges are some of the most treacherous, especially the mountain passes like Zoji La (Zoji pass) notorious for being one of the riskiest mountain passes in the world. Although at an altitude of 3528 meters above sea level (11,578 feet), the Zoji pass is much lesser in altitude compared to other mountain passes we had to cross in Ladakh subnsequently, the khardung La for one is above 18,000 feet, the Zoji pass hold the distinction for being the most treacherous and is being billed as one of the riskiest mountain routes in the world. Well I got to find out for myself why.
June 9, 2015, we left Srinagar after breakfast embarking on the National Highway 1 D which is more popularly known as the Srinagar- Leh highway. Coming from Delhi, this is a slightly more circuitous route than the Manali -Leh highway but I had chosen this route over the latter for the simple reason that the gradual ascent offered more time for aclimatisation to the higher altitude. Moreover the former is also famous for the magnificent vistas it offered of the beautiful Kashmir valley. True to the word, we passed through some of the most beautiful and picturesque locations offering magnificent views of snow capped mountain peaks amid lush greenery and foliage. Sonamarg which translates as “The meadows of gold” perhaps getting its name from the gently sloping meadows turning golden when the grass ripens, sits pretty on the slopes of the Himalayas, merely 85 kms away from Srinagar. Being a tourist hotspot, the place was crowded which was quite a put-off and we stopped only long enough for a quick photo shoot. From then on we clambered up the slopes of the Himalayas heading for the formidable ZOJI LA !
Leaving Sonamarg, the landscape began to change considerably. The green turned to grey, the two lane metalled road soon transformed into a single lane gravel and dirt road filled with slush and mud at intervals.The high point of this route is that the mountain trail is an engineering marvel of the olden days which was carved onto the steep mountain walls of the the formidable Zoji pass following the Indo-Pak conflict of 1947 to connect the isolated Ladakh to Kashmir. In the days of yore, Ladakh was an important post falling in the famous ancient Silk route providing passage from Central Asia through the Karakoram pass and down the Shyok river and then to Tibet via Demchok (on the Indo-China border). Following independence, these routes were sealed and Ladhak was choked off from the rest of the world. As an urgent measure a route was forged through the Zoji pass to join the Kashmir basin with that of the Drass basin on the either side of Zoji La effecting a road link between Srinagar and Leh. The pass became the gateway to magnificent Ladakh. Subsequently Ladakh was connected to Himachal Pradesh on the south eastern side through the Leh-Manali highway which is also of no less repute as it also passes through a number of formidable passes. Turning back to the mortifying route on notorious Zoji pass, we were now abreast with our first petrifying challenge of the trip. The hairs on the back of our necks were by now quite stiff and erect, a tingling sensation of fear slowly creeping up the spine. I told myself quitely “Fear is good, fear keeps you alert”. My co-passengers who were snoring until some moments ago were now quite awake but rather quite. I guess nobody wanted to speak much and left me much to myself to focus on my driving and the perrilous road ahead. Intermittently a word of caution would come from the back if I ventured too near the edge. Here there are no barriers to keep you from slipping off the edge into the 90 degree fall into abyss. The edge itself is crumbling at various places leaving you prone to being swept down the slope if one went too close to the edge. The high altitude, inclement weather and snow have played havoc on the route; landlides, rock falls, mud and slush being a permanent feature of the road. The BRO is being constantly engaged in keeping the road motorable and passable which opens up for traffic in the latter part of spring and closes off before the onset of winter when it is completely shut off by heavy snowfall. However commendable the efforts of the BRO, it did very little in terms of safety and convenience. The road is still what may have been in the ancient Silk route days ! We slowly inched up the 9 kilometers long crumbling dirt trail, negotiating through the hairpin bends and narrow ledge of a road; sometimes perched precariously to let an oncoming vehicle pass by and sometimes not able to move ahead at all because there just isn’t any space left to let anything by. But negotiate we did and managed to finally emerge on the other side that is the Drass basin with a big sigh of relief and an experience to cherish a lifetime.
Ladakh is one of the remotest and least populated region of Jammu and Kashmir (India), ensconced deep in the high mountain ranges of the Himalayas. A dream that have held my fascination for a very very long time. So come summer, I was finally decided upon taking a self driven road trip to this secluded and rather desolate realm in the Himalayas. Despite various odds and difficulties, I along with three of my childhood friends, finally embarked on the trip from Delhi on 7th of June 2015 with much gusto, anticipation and fair share of trepidation. Yes, trepidation because a self driven road trip to Ladakh is considered one of the most difficult and riskiest road journeys one can hope to come across, taking you through some of the most dangerous routes in the world and a very inhospitable and arduous terrain of the Himalayas. To top it up I intended to drive the whole stretch (we cloaked a total of more than 4000 kms) alone ! But what is an adventure without a little risk. So off we went.
The first stretch was a rather easy yet strenuous drive of nearly 900 kms from Delhi to Srinagar. We had been delayed by one day and had to make it up by skipping the planned halt at Pathankot. We started off from Delhi in the evening around 1700 hrs, drove the whole night and the whole of the next day with pit stops at Chandigarh, Pathankot and Panitop. We finally hit Srinagar as the sun went down. We headed straight for the pre-booked Houseboat at Nagin Lake, which is an extension of the famous Dal Lake but slightly more exclusive and less crowded. Here is a glimpse of the beautiful Dal Lake.
At the break of dawn the following day, we set off on a Shikara (boat) ride from Nagin Lake to Dal Lake and back, chancing upon glimpses of a number of migratory birds that make Dal lake their temporary home. Besides the birds, the lake is also home to local population and even has a floating market where people venture in small canoes to make their daily purchases. We even stopped the boat by a coffee shop to have a nice steaming cuppa to top up the experience 🙂 Amidst the birds, tourists thronging the lake and local populace going about their lives, we also came across an old man whiling away the morning, enjoying a hookah in the middle of the lake !
What you see here are pictures of seemingly normal and regular landscapes that has hardly anything of interest other than being a picturesque scenery. But appearances can be deceptive. These are pictures of a very unique and fascinating wildlife sanctuary in Manipur (India) called the ‘Keibul Lamjao National Park‘ which is the only one of its kind in the whole world, the distinction being that it is actually a floating sanctuary !!! The grassland you see above is actually a massive bio-mass of various vegetation, soil and organic materials in various stages of decomposition and so thickly intertwined that it is almost like a landmass but actually floating on water! Secondly, it is also home to the very rare and endangered species of deer called the ‘Cervus eldi eldi’ or the ‘Brow-antlered-deer‘ that is endemic to this floating island and found nowhere else in the world.
The Keibul Lamjao National Park covers an area of approximately 40 square kilometres of which roughly 26 sq kms comprise the floating habitat of the magnificent Sangai (local name for the ‘Brow antlered deer’). The waterbody on which it floats is the largest freshwater lake in the whole of Northeast India. Known as ‘Loktak Lake‘, it hold special significance for the people of the region and is listed among BBC’s 14 most amazing bodies of water on our planet. Seen spread across the lake are smaller phumdis and on slightly bigger ones, one would come across hutments of fishermen that populates them. The phumdis are also used for fish farming by the local populace.
The only means of commuting in this massive waterbody amid the floating phumdis are the slender fisherman canoes that slices through in the narrow pathways between the phumdis . Perched on it precariously, we set off to find the very shy and elusive ‘Sangai’. Scientifically named the ‘Cervus eldi eldi’ after the British Officer Lt. Percy Eld who reportedly discovered it in 1844, this very rare species of deer was almost driven to extinction due to rampant poaching and neglect. Until a few years ago their number had dwindled to an alarming two digit figures numbering around 80 only but recent conservation efforts and growing awareness have brought the figures up again to three digit figures of 208 according to the last census in 2013. Even then occasional poaching incidents still continue to haunt these fine animals and checking it is a herculean task for the highly understaffed forest officials. At the time of the visit in March 2015, there was only 1 Ranger and 5 forest officials on regular employment who were aided by 27 other casual employees. These understaffed and unarmed forest guards often have to go up against heavy odds and even fight against armed poachers. Undoubtedly it is their love and regard for the magnificent animal that has been the diving force behind their dedication to the protection of the almost extinct animal. It is of utmost importance that measures are taken up to spread awareness and safeguard the conservation of this rare species that is found nowhere else in the world.
Coming back to our expedition,we were able to spot around 8 of the elusive animal which is a very good figure but unfortunately they were too far away for a clear shot (obviously camera 🙂 ). We were told that a large number had gathered at their playing ground near Pabot ching (a hillock in the middle of the sanctuary) early in the morning but by the time we reached there they had all retreated to the tall grasses that shelters them. A very far away shot zoomed in optimally could only get me a very hazy picture below. Even then it was exhilarating to see the fabled ‘Sangai’ in person, knowing the fact that it actually is in existence still. Of course there will be another day for our rendezvous and I shall be ready.