In the quietude of the Aravali hills and far removed from the madding crowd, stands an ancient Jain temple that is not only a sanctuary for the believers but also an architectural wonder in itself. The Ranakpur Jain temple, with the quite countenance of equanimity and peace, is unlike most temples one would encounter in India. Made entirely of marble with intricately carved motifs and sculptures, it is an embodiment of magnificence and ancient artistic skills. Dating back to 15th Century, it is said to have been built by a wealthy merchant named Dharna Shah, a follower of Jainism with the support of the then ruler of Mewar, Rana Kumbh, after whom the temple and the village (Ranakpur) has been named. Owing to its intricate architecture, the temple reportedly took 65 years to complete. Legend has it that the Great Mughal emperor Akbar was quite enraptured by the artistic work that he put up…
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.
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.
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.
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.