“Hello! You are from England?”
“Yes! You speak English?!”
“Yes! I learned it!”
“Fantastic! Where did you learn it?”
My basic get-you-through Hindi has been coming along nicely, but since Kashmiri, Dogri, Punjabi, Urdu and Hindi are all spoken here, the language barrier is a little tougher – cue lots of sign language, patience and smiles, which thankfully the people of Jammu & Kashmir have in spades.
The overnight night train from Delhi pulled into Jammu just over a week ago, and it’s like we landed in a completely different country. A lot of Kashmir looks like a war zone, exacerbated by the omnipresent Indian Army/Military Police that punctuate the highways (there’s still a bit of a spat with Pakistan), but a great deal more looks utterly spectacular.
After nearly 10 years clocking up 100’s of driving hours on some challenging roads, Dumball made me match-fit for the drives that were to come:
1. The drive from Jammu to Srinagar: like driving in the mountains/on the roads of Albania, Hungary, Monte Negro and the Western Ghats all combined.
This is the ONLY way to reach Srinagar by road, so that makes it their M1 and main supply artery. Chuck in A LOT of Trucks, traffic, herds of goats, horses, shepherds, all competing for the road (in both directions), a few landslides to dodge, hair pin bends, pot holes, dramatic drops, gridlock, men at work, assertive aggressive overtaking (on blind corners, obvs), military police presence, a toll booth! (fifa) with opportunistic tradesmen taking full advantage by trying to sell us Cricket bats (for reals), boxes of cherries, strawberries, pashminas… You know, all the things you need 6 hours into a 12 hour journey – this is the life force of India that just never goes away, and I love her more for it.
2. The drive from Gagangir to Leh. Just six little words. Looks like an awfully small affair doesn’t it? Completely belies the spectacular 12 hour/350km journey that climbs and crosses the Himalayan Zoji La Mountain up and over into Ledakh – a road that grunts and grinds, climbs and zig-zags relentlessly, sometimes slicing through the glaciers and snow drifts.
The narrow passes, perilous drops and occasional (often) bad condition of the road means there ain’t too much room for two way traffic, so you have to wait at the bottom in a somewhat orderly queue with no real idea of what’s going on until the last of the descending group of traffic has passed by the Traffic Officials, indicating your turn to make the ascent.
The condition of the road elicited some squeaky-bum-time considering I was in a Jeep that was fit for purpose, and then an idiosyncratic massive Indian truck hurtles past in the opposite direction, it’s customised metallic decoration glinting in the sun like its throwing a metaphoric “fuck you”, all guns blazing, not giving a shit and showing us all how it’s done – how the bejesus did that thing even fit up here?!
We watched the vast, enormous landscape change and grow from the dirty back seat windows of our very bouncy Mahindra jeep, being thrown left and right, both hands on the Jesus handles.
The peak of the pass is at 11,650ft, and surrounded by Himalayan snow capped mountains. No sooner had we hurtled past that than the landscape changed up again to mountain ranges of epic Tolkien-esque proportions with Mars and Lunar-like terrain, and it just didn’t stop either.
The drive to Leh was one of the most challenging, varied, awe inspiring roads I’ve ever had the pleasure to survive/drive on, with the most phenomenal, uninterrupted mountain landscapes I’ve ever seen. I’m out of superlatives. There’s almost nothing in between except for an abundance of Tibetan prayer flags adorning various stupas, flapping in the wind to remind you in which direction you’re headed, and to give a bit of moral support. Not much hope of a wee stop around these parts.