Our cab arrived right on time and we set out for Kargil by 0800 hrs. It promised to be a rather long drive… I was rather apprehensive of the road conditions since most of the passes had just opened thus leaving little time for the Border Roads Org. to maintain them.
The journey up till Sonmarg was very ordinary. In fact, there was rather a lot of traffic on the roads and excepting the verdant paddy fields, there was little to see. As we crossed Sonmarg and went further ahead towards Baltal (which is the Amarnath yatra base-camp), things started changing. The traffic was still heavy, but the flora and fauna were certainly showing a marked shift towards the drier and scrubbier side.
Ascending the Zojila pass is quite an experience! The road is very steep in places and is non-existent in others. Less than half way to the highest point of the pass, the mountains from being lush green turn a dusty brown and very rocky. Miniature glaciers and a very fine sprinkling of grass at random wet spots is the topography of the place.
This picture was taken almost at the highest point of the pass and is one of the most breathtaking landscapes I have set eyes on! Nothing really grows there, but even the light smattering of grass on high steep mountainsides and the frozen rivulets are awe inspiring in their beauty!
Imagine my surprise when I found a grey wagtail (male) happily chirping away there along the road-side oblivious to the passing vehicles! In fact, we kept seeing little brown birds zipping across the road which we could not see clearly enough to identify. How frustrating that was! We also saw some redstarts but weren’t lucky enough to get decent shots then.
Descended the Zojila and the landscape altered even more. Gone were the green oasis-like edges of the little rivulets flowing through the valleys. The terrain was at once vibrant with colours… shades of blues, purples, pinks, browns and greys that the mountainsides wore, and at the same time very barren, desolate and bleak.
Crossed the Namkila and we descended towards Drass. Along the way, we saw Red and Yellow billed Choughs. My first sightings and thus, we stopped to take some pictures. Our cab driver certainly thought we were nuts since he couldn’t understand why we so desperately wanted to photograph ‘Kawwa’! Little did we know that they were abundant henceforth…
|Red billed Chough|
|Yellow billed Chough|
The mountainsides were dotted with sheep and a few goat scrounging around for the wee bits of grass they could nibble at on those unproductive hillsides.
Drass is the second coldest inhabited place in the world. In winters, the temperatures dip to as low as -60˚C. Drass is a quaint little settlement with just the one street catering to the tourists’ requirements of food and beverages and the little grocers for the locals.
Moving forward, we had our first sighting of the Black billed magpie which are also plenteous in those parts.
|Black billed Magpie|
A night halt in Kargil had been planned and therefore, we looked forward to relaxing after a long day's journey.
Kargil is a beautiful little town .. the busy waters of the Indus flowing with the backdrop of Apricot orchards and snow capped peaks in the distance... makes for a very picturesque canvas!
The drive from Kargil the next day towards Leh was dotted with lots of stops for sightseeing.. the first one being the monastery at Mulbekh for the monolithic statue of 'Maitreya', the future Buddha.
About an hour's drive ahead is the monastery of Lamayuru which is nestled among the mountains and seems to be growing out of the very mountainsides it resides on. A few hundred metres ahead of it is a place variously called 'boiling milk' or moonscape. It is a pure clay formation made by water probably over hundreds or maybe thousands of years. A beautiful place indeed!
Descending into the valley beyond Lamayuru gave us our first glimpse of the white capped water redstart and the handsome Chukar. It very shyly scampered across the road, turned to look at us at the edge of the cliff and then quickly went out of sight. I was thrilled to have spotted one of the more famous though fairly common birds of the area. The common rosefinch and the Oriental Turtle dove also gave us good sightings.
|White capped water redstart|
|Oriental Turtle Dove|
The view of the Zanskar range from this point just short of Nimmu is something that will stay with me forever. The magnificence of the Himalayas and the breathtaking beauty of the majestic mountain range is eternally etched in my memory.
At Nimmu, we decided to halt for lunch. A sumptuous lunch of thukpa and momos later saw us at peace with the world and in no tearing hurry to reach our destination.
Arrived at leh and rested for the evening so we could be fresh and well accimatised so we could start on the next leg of our journey through the 'Land of Gompas and Passes'.............. report in the next instalment :-)