12th September 2015 (Saturday)….Sonamarg to Panikhar…200 km
Got up quite early as usual. Two cups of tea and I was on my way. There were still some lights on in Sonmarg when I left for the next destination. I was not sure which was going to be the destination for the day. Surely it was not Kargil, it has to be either Sankoo or Panikhar in Suru valley. I had missed going to Zanskar Valley last year due to sudden floods in Kashmir and had to return back from Leh to Amritsar via Rohtang Pass.
Drive to Baltal (9000 ft, ASL) was very good. Road was good and so was the scenery. The entire drive was along side beautiful Sind River. I stopped at Baltal viewpoint for few minutes to click pictures. I remember the first time I was in Baltal was around 30 years ago, in 1985 when I trekked all the way from Pahalgam to Amarnath Cave and then to Baltal. Baltal is a beautiful pasture and a camping ground. The route seen in the picture is a 14 kilometer trek to famous Amarnath Cave.
From Baltal there is a steep ascent towards notorious Zojila pass (11575 ft, ASL). The road quality decreased too. Since it was too early in the morning there was hardly any traffic on the road. The pass is notorious for worse traffic jams in summer months when the road is slushy and traffic is at its peak level. I remember when I crossed this pass in 1994 on my Yamaha RX100, there was one way traffic and we had to wait for over four hours in Meena Valley while returning back from Leh.
This time it was a cakewalk though. There was no traffic, road quality was much better than what it used to be in 1994, no rains, no slush, no snow. It was too easy infact. I had not expected it to be so easy, may be because I had already crossed one of the toughest pass and dreaded road in India during this trip. After crossing the pass I stopped at a roadside tent for a cup of tea and then moved on.
The nomadic lifestyle of Bakarwals rearing sheep and goats at such a height has always made me feel respectful to them. They walk high up in the mountains grazing their herd, living in makeshift tents and caves, cooking for themselves, facing all kind of natural and man made challenges. This nomadic camp and resting herd as seen from Zojila pass was an amazing sight.
It was good to see that most of the road on Zojila pass was tiled now and it was quite wide too. Must be a great relief for commuters in summer months I suppose. The descend to Ghumri army camp from Zojila was steep and swift. The road quality was much much better. Infact it was heavenly driving on the smooth and tarred road.
As I was approaching Dras, the road and landscape became even better. Meandering turquoise blue Sind River and snow clad mountains started presenting a beautiful sight. It became sunny and warm. Driving on this road was a sheer joy now.
A patch of green cover started visible from a distance as I neared Dras. Dras (10760 ft ASL) is said to be the coldest inhabited place in India. It also came into limelight for 1999 Indo Pak Kargil war. The place is surrounded by 16000 ft to 21000 ft high mountains, including famous Tiger Hill or “Point 4660”.
Dras is a busy little town and has many migrant labourer colonies. It has few small eating points and a bustling bazaar. I took breakfast in one of few punjabi dhabas and then drove further. Dras War Memorial also called Vijaypath located on the foothills of Tololing Hill was my next stop.
The memorial is built in the memory of the soldiers and officers of the Indian Army who were killed during the 1999 conflict between India and Pakistan. The memorial has a huge epitaph with names of all the officers and soldiers who died in war.
The main attraction of the whole memorial is a Sandstone wall, which has names of all the Indian army personnel, who laid their lives during the Kargil war, inscribed on it. There is a museum and a gallery showing various peaks around the area and pictures depicting the valour of Indian army.
Walking through the neatly kept war memorial with fluttering national flag and flower filled lawns and saluting those stone memorials with names of each and every martyr inscribed on them, was a very emotional moment. Few lines from famous poem Pushp Ki Abhilasha-A Flower’s Desire by Makhanlal Chaturvedi inscribed on the memorial were very touching.
There was a neat toilet cum bathroom, a canteen serving tea/coffee and snacks and a souvenir shop for visitors. After a good round of the memorial, freshening up, tea and snacks I drove further towards Kargil. Kargil, situated on the banks of Suru River, at an altitude of 8780 ft, is a district headquarter and the second largest city of the region after Leh. Majority of population of Kargil is Muslims and rest are Buddhists.
Since I was to divert into 250 kilometer one way, 500 kilometers in total, Suru/Zanskar valleys from Kargil and there being no diesel filling station, the first thing which I did was to get the fuel tank of my car topped up. I felt my car could run 350-400 kilometer with full tank in this terran and might need extra diesel. So I bought a 10 liter jerry can and got it filled too.
Soon I was on my way to Sankoo. The road to Sankoo was single but tarred. Traffic was sparse but landscape continued to be beautiful and green. Some school girls waved at me and took lift till Sankoo. On asking they told me that they have to take lift most of the time as local transport was very sparse. It was still daylight when I reached Sankoo. It has good market and few guest houses but I did not feel like staying for night there and drove further to Panikhar.
The road continued to be good. It deteriorated a little few kilometers before Panikhar. Majestic Nun Kun peaks and the landscape presented a great sight from the main road. I turned right and after crossing few houses reached tourist bungalow. The whole bungalow was booked and I was offered a bed on the floor of an unused room.
The entire tourist bungalow was occupied by a group of students who were undertaking a govt program. The group comprised equal number of girls and boys from various schools and colleges of Suru Valley. There were some teachers too. On noticing red car bearing punjab registration number many students came to me and asked what was I doing solo in that remote area. On learning that I was retired and driving for joy they became curious and asked lot of questions as to what it takes to become successful in life.
I was quite impressed with the knowledge and behavior of some of the students especially a young girl named Fiza. She was so intelligent and had such wonderful habits. I asked them about their dreams and goals in life and like most, majority of them were not very clear except Fiza. She told me at length what she wants to do in life. I was very impressed with her focus and intensity.
The students were invited by some locals for dinner. After sometime they left for another guest house where they had their dinner. I was now alone in the entire tourist bungalow. The caretaker cooked food for me only. In between there was time for few drinks and walk in the wilderness.
This was not the first night in I was in Panikhar. I remember fondly the first time I was there with YHA in 1989. We had camped near river bed and had nice time singing and dancing around camp fire with the local people.
For a change I was solo this time 26 years later but feeling much much better. I was young and unmarried at that time and was not very sure of what future had in store for me. Now I was retired and living my dream. Body has grown bit older but I don’t feel old enough instead feel much younger and excited about life.
The best thing is I feel much freer and joy filled than I used to be.