After spending a couple of days in the lovely city of Srinagar, we decided it’s time to continue our Kashmir travel adventure. We wanted to take the cheapest way to go, and according to the internet that was the local bus. However, after speaking to the boat owner in the boat that we were staying in, he gave us an offer we could not refuse. He had a friend that was a taxi driver, and after some bargaining, we managed to lower down the price to 1000 INR ($15 USD) for the both of us.
The driver agreed to take us to Leh making stops on the way to explore the heavenly landscapes of Kashmir. That was a luxury we couldn’t afford had we taken the bus. Plus, the price difference between the bus and the private taxi was only 400 INR (a bit more than $5 USD). And to add on this, the other passengers were charged1,500 INR so it was a really sweet deal.
The road to Ladakh
We finished our kava tea made by our boat owner and we were on the way. As the sun was rising above us, Kashmir kept unwinding its secrets. Its beautiful landscapes were getting more and more magical as we were moving east. Like agreed, we made a few stops on the way.
Gulmarg is the best skiing destination in the region. Sonamarg for its famous valley known as the meadow of Gold. Kargil was the center of one of the conflicts between India and Pakistan. It seems like the city never recovered from the conflict but the nature surrounding it is outstanding.
Another place we passed by is Drass; a small village known as the Gateway to Ladakh. It was here where things took a turn for the worse. Drass is, according to the board in the village, the world’s coldest inhabited place. The Zoji La pass, the starting point of the Dras valley, is covered in snow throughout most of the year.
Being near Kargil, Drass was also under constant fire during the conflict between India and Pakistan. Therefore, there are still active terrorist groups in the surrounding mountains. And they have a lot of collaborators among the local people.
A robbery on the road
We had the bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. After making a lunch stop at Drass, we were exploring the area when we were intercepted by armed robbers. We were in the middle of nowhere when they came on their motorbikes and surrounded us. They were wearing masks and one of them had a gun. They started speaking in a very aggressive tone. I couldn’t quite understand what they were saying because they were speaking in Urdu. But it was clear what they were after.
After speaking to a few locals in the restaurant, they said that these things weren’t usual for the small village. They were convinced that I drew the attention, being a white foreigner wandering around Kashmir. As mentioned in my Delhi article, a lot of Indians have this perception that white people are rich. Luckily enough, most of our belongings, including our phones that were charging in the restaurant weren’t with us.
What happened next?
We continued the journey and we never regretted it. As we were driving to the East, every next landscape, every next view kept overshadowing the previous one. I started wondering if one of those robbers didn’t shoot me and I died and went to heaven…
It was already night when our car was at the checkpoint. The road was almost empty and it was just our car and a suspicious truck that was stopped by the army. One of the officers approached and told us to stay where we are for a while. What followed was a few minutes of shouting in a language I didn’t understand. It turned out that they were trying to smuggle a truck full of weapons across the checkpoint.
The last few hours of the journey were pretty scary, despite everything that happened before. The mountain roads in this region are difficult as it is in the daylight. However, because of the unplanned delays, we had to pass our last few hours on the road in the complete dark. No street lights, no other cars, and no fence to keep the car from falling down in case of even a moment of inattentiveness by the driver.
The amazing Ladakh stories
We finally reached around midnight. It was, indeed, one of the most epic journeys ever. And there it finally was; Ladakh– the land of high passes, great mountains, virgin beauty of shimmering lakes, gurgling rivers, mystic lamas, and loving people. Like I mentioned in part 1, Ladakh has only two terrestrial approaches: Manali- Leh and Leh-Srinagar Highway. Both of them, seasonal and open only in the summers. Therefore, Ladakh is literally cut off from the rest of the World, if the weather Gods decide to be violent.
The city is an amazing and peaceful place, and the people were even better. Our driver helped us find accommodation at his friend’s hotel: Mount Castle. The hotel was nice, but we kindly explained the circumstances to the owner. He had a lot of understanding and told us not to worry about the money. He wanted us to feel welcome in Kashmir and he proved that by giving us a room on 75% discount. I would definitely recommend this place to everyone traveling to Leh.
The next morning, we started exploring the area. Leh is an amazing place and certainly worth visiting, but as you go east, the state becomes more and more beautiful. The top two destinations there are Nubra Valley and Pangong Tso Lake.
Kashmir travel tips
Take at least a day to explore the magical town of Leh. Make sure you take out money from the ATM here and buy everything you need because there won’t be many shops on the way. Also, you will need to get a tourist permit for accessing the areas east of Leh. They cost around 800 INR ($12USD) and 600 INR ($9USD) for Indians. The permits are arranged by the hotel that you’re staying in. But if you’re a foreigner traveling alone, it gets a bit tricky. I had to wait an extra day because, for some reason, the authorities only give permits to foreigners in couples or bigger groups.
The cheapest way of commuting is renting a motorbike and driving on your own. But only do that if you’re really confident. The road is probably the worse one I’ve seen in my life. Public transport is unfortunately not an option here. Public buses were abolished because of a lot of accidents on the road. If you want to book a shared cab, that’s an option but you need to have a group big enough to fill the car or minivan in advance. Waiting for the taxi drivers to find enough people to fill the seats is not an option.
Luckily, the hotel owner was very helpful again. He had a friend heading to Nubra Valley alone and he said that we can go with him. We were supposed to pay him around 600 INR ($9 USD). That was a much better option than the normal cabs that were charging 1500 for going to Nubra Valley. 2000 INR ($12 USD) was the price for covering both destinations…
Read the next part of my Kashmir adventure here.