Some journeys often come with the respite of a long awaited vacation; some take you far and wide; some change your perspective of the world around you; and some end up in increasing your social circle. But then once in a long while there comes a journey, a road, and a destination so mystical that you start questioning yourself. You start questioning your beliefs, your surroundings, your dreams, and your purpose. You tend to ask so many questions that you get lost in that magical place. And when that happens, you finally end up finding a new yourself.
Riding the Srinagar-Leh Highway is every biker’s ultimate dream. And the one thing I can guarantee you is that this road is in no way overrated. It offers all the challenges and curves needed to make the drive a mesmerising journey. Thousands of adrenaline junkies and routine travellers take this route every summer to reach the city in clouds, Leh. The journey starts from Srinagar, the summer capital of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, India. One can rent bikes, Enfields, and SUVs from Srinagar itself.
We kicked off our journey in Srinagar with damp clothes and hopeful spirits. Rain accompanied us all the way to Sonmarg, a green little hill town which marks the end of the cheerfulness of Kashmir, and the start of the barrenness of Ladhak. The two hour journey was highlighted by a cattle caused traffic jam, which kept us waiting for about a half an hour. We called it a day at Sonmarg, as the road ahead was snowed, and our clothes still moist. Though we weren’t able to explore this shepherd country to its fullest, we sure did enjoy the magnificent views of the Himalayas.
This is where the interesting part begins. As you begin to leave Sonmarg, the surroundings change drastically. As eerily and nimbly as a teenager on seeing his mother. As we took the road to Leh, we were greeted by thick pale mist. It must have been around five minutes of zero visibility when poof! The lush green mountains had completely converted into huge chunks of black mass. It was as if an innocent child had been brainwashed into believing that his dreams were unattainable and taboo. Oh but little does the heart care about puny little things such as the brain; and there still were some patches of a little green here, and a little yellow there.
The black, gloomy stretch of the highway is known as the Zojila Pass, also the ‘the worst road in the world’ or more musically, ‘the highway to hell’. For one thing, it lives up to its name honestly. It is one of those areas of the journey where you need find out why this road is not specifically for the faint hearted. At such high altitude, with immensely chilly winds gushing through your face, rendering the cheeks frozen and pink; with a cliff on one side and a hoard of cars following you like the little lamb following Mary. And don’t forget the part where you’re passing through a gate of unsteady snow, and the vendors stop you in between selling you overpriced tea, and artificial oxygen in the form of chips packets. Simply amazing.
Then it happens again. In just a poof, the black in covered in a white mist, and beyond that lay the brown, barren mountains of Ladhak. This whole journey is simply a treat to the eyes. I was just awed by this raw, sullen beauty. It’s as if the mountains are speaking to you; calling out for you. Oh and when the mountains call, you’d be a fool to not listen.
The road then subtly leads to the Muslim-dominated city of Kargil, passing through some major landmarks such as the Drass Valley, and the Kargil War Memorial. We stopped for the night in Kargil. This yellow valley is always bustling with bikers and mechanics alike. This is the most popular stop over destination while travelling from Srinagar to Leh, and lives up to the name of a busy town.
Next morning we made the final run on the stretch to reach Leh, the capital of Ladhak district. The road follows the trail of the Indus River and the rocks often spot a mixture of various colours. You have mountains hued with red, green, blue, and brown. All of this just adds to the serenity and mystique of the place. Once you leave Kargil, the air becomes more and more calm. It’s as if Buddha Himself resides in this part of the country. The road passes through some of the oldest and some of the newest monasteries. It winds through villages where Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu kids go to school hand in hand. It curves through some of the most surreal and unfathomable landscapes.
You won’t ever feel that the road is affecting you in any way. That’s the beauty of it. Everything just slowly creeps inside you. It crawls inside your skin, swims in your bloodstream, punctures your heart, and finds a place inside your soul. As the air gets thinner, the questions get deeper. And by the time you reach Leh, the tiny speck of white and green from the hill above, looks nothing short of an oasis in an everlasting desert. And it’s when you reach the city that you realise the essence of it all.
This highway is a journey into your heart. It begins with a bright lush green outer shell, ever-smiling; then it moves into black part, where all the dark stuff hides; and finally it breaks through the last layer, barren, cold, harsh, yet truthful and innocent to the very last drop.
Some journeys take you outwards; some journeys take you upwards; some journeys take you downwards; but this one takes you inwards. And at the end of it I’m pretty sure you’d step out of the car doing either of the two things; believing in yourself, or questioning yourself.