17th July, 2008.
Route: Kargil – Drass – Zozila Pass – Sonamarg – Srinagar.
Distance Covered: ~204km.
The day of remembering Kargil war heroes.
We started early morning from Kargil at around 7am; thankfully breakfast was included in the room rent. The plan was to reach Srinagar by evening, considering the road we have had been on the previous day we had no hopes for good road today as well.
The scenery was becoming more and more greener as we were moving further. After crossing Kargil, we saw sign boards on the road that read “Careful, you are under enemy watch” and then at places high walls, made of rocks and secured by metal nets, along the road. We reached place called DRASS, the 2nd coldest place inhabited in the world. It has Kargil-war memorial. One has to embark upon such journey just to get feel of what cold harsh conditions the solders at the Indian borders might be undergoing; and this was summer. The solders there were eager to show around the war memorial, tell stories of the Kargil War, showed us the famous Tololing Hill, Tiger Hill, Rhino Horn and many more posts of prime importance where India fought war with Pakistan in 1999. The tololing hill is a huge hill and one can see almost 35km of national highway from the top, hence those signs “enemy watch” were put up on the road during the Kargil war to alert army convoys passing through. Few solders were painting letters engraved on a board at the war memorial that told story of the Kargil war; they allowed me to paint few words.
The roads were never better, somewhere during noon we reached Zoji La Pass, at an altitude of 11570 ft (not much compared to the previous passes we had crossed so far) this pass was unique. On one side was the high mountain carrying the narrow road that brings one to this pass, other side was a deep valley. There were huge green mountains of Sonamarg on the other side. The most beautiful mountain range and scenery we had seen so far on a mountain pass. We realized why Kashmir is called “Heaven on the Earth”. Sonamarg is an amazing place, Himalayan scenery at its best. The roads are narrow that trucks go in only one direction in the morning and another direction in afternoon. Zozi La Pass has the steepest and the worst descent I had seen so far. The road had already disappeared; the gravel and loose sand coupled with uneven rocky patches had taken its place. To add to the difficulties, we had to ride in 1st gear, no accelerator and with continuous brake applied. The 8km descent of Zoji La ranked worst of all passes on Manali-Leh-Kargil-Srinagar route. One slight mistake and you are 1000’s ft down in the valley; there is absolutely nothing between.
Descent from Zozi La brought us into the Kashmir valley. Sonamarg was the most beautiful town I had ever seen, huge mountains, greenery all over the place, river flowing in the valley, clouds hanging in the air, mist and snow capped peaks. Almost everything an artist/painter could imagine. We took a short informal break just to look at the scenery, forgot about all problems Zoji La posed during the descent. From the Zoji La top we had seen colourful tents in the valley, many, in fact the valley was completely filled with tents; later we realized Sonamarg is the base camp, and these tents were for the pilgrims, of the Amarnath Yatra. We stopped at Sonamarg for Lunch. It was around 2.30pm.
Driving from Sonamarg was a breeze, it continued for the remaining distance. We reached Srinagar by 5pm. We settled into a house boat in Dal Lake. It was the most luxurious stay of our trip and of-course the costliest as well, roamed in Dal Lake on shikara. Ever since we left from Kargil there had been steady security along the road, it increased as we entered Kashmir valley and in Srinagar there was a CRFP or J&K Police was standing guard every 50 steps. The plans to start early tomorrow were abandoned; the trip was coming to an end. Today was the evening to relax, the first after many days.