Drive from Kargil to Srinagar
Due to the fact that the road over Zoji La pass is narrow, one-way traffic restrictions have been imposed and the army regulates the departure of the convoy from each side. It is imperative you check the convoy timings, out of Minamarg checkpoint on the Kargil side (and Gumbri checkpoint if coming from Srinagar to Kargil) so that you can plan your departure from Kargil to Srinagar accordingly.
Kargil to Drass
Just out of Kargil is the confluence of the Suru and Drass rivers which then wind their way to Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK). It is a scenic drive along the rushing Drass River, and if you are driving in the dark, as you often have to due to convoy timings, this journey takes on a magical quality with sound of the river beside you and the moonlight picking out the little waves!
Drass is the first major town along this drive and a few kilometers short of the town you can make two quick stops: one at the War Memorial, on the right hand side of road, which lies in front of the Tololing Hill feature occupied by Pakistan in 1999. Considering that this is just 3km from the road you cannot help but wonder how they managed to sneak up so close to us, virtually undetected. A contributory factor, could be the numbing cold since Drass is the second coldest inhabited place in the world after Siberia with bone-chilling temperatures below -40C having been recorded a few winters ago!! The other famous feature Tiger Hill is also clearly visible in the distance.
The other stop just ahead of the War Memorial, is a non-descript, open structure with three seventh century bas-relief statues of Maitreya, Pulmapani and Chotpei – testimony to the early Buddhist influence in the area.
Dras to Zoji La
The ascent to the Zoji La pass (11,578ft/3530m), which marks the division between Ladakh and Kashmir, is relatively gentle but one has to go as part of a convoy with light vehicles leading and followed by buses and trucks. Since the road is a strict one-way zone, with the descent into the Kashmir valley being very steep and narrow, it is important to ensure you are with light vehicles. Doing so you can avoid being slowed down and suffering the clouds of dust thrown up by heavier vehicles.
Zoji La to Sonamarg
If your convoy left in the very early hours of the morning, you would have crossed the unimpressive Zoji La, with its bad stretch of road, at dawn and now descend into lush green Sonamarg Valley bathed in the morning light – pretty as a picture-postcard! Your destination, Srinagar, is 84km away. Sonamarg (9000ft/2740m), means golden meadows and is a welcome break after the desolate Ladakhi landscape. There is also a less popular but shorter route to the famous Amarnath Cave from here – the track starts from Baltal village just a few kilometers short of Sonamarg.
Sonamarg to Srinagar
From here on the road to Srinagar is flat and with a good surface and runs through paddy fields with the rushing river by your side for part of the journey. En route do not be alarmed at the sight of the army patrols with mine detectors as also picked with light machine guns at regular intervals. The Kashmir valley is still a ‘war zone’ with army convoys being the target of militants. Fortunately, the frequency and intensity of attacks by militants has greatly diminished and travel on the main roads such as Zoji La to Srinagar, Srinagar to Jammu, Srinagar to Gulmarg is pretty safe.
Places to visit in Srinagar
Srinagar (5675ft/1730m), the capital of Jammu & Kashmir is a large town with a population of around 1,180,570. It is famous for the Dal and Nagin lakes and the houseboats on both of these water bodies. You can also visit the Shankaracharya Temple atop the hill overlooking the lake and the city or play a round of golf at the acclaimed Royal Spring golf course. An excursion to the Mughal Gardens of Nishat and Shalimar Bagh as also the Chashme Shahi spring is a must. After a gap of several years, flowers have been replanted at both gardens and with the water fountains in play, they have started regaining some of their former glory.
For wildlife lovers, a visit to the Dachigam Sanctuary, close to Shalimar Bagh, can be a very rewarding experience. Just beyond the entrance there is a large trout farm in a pretty setting, where you can see the fish at various stages of their life cycle. At dusk, you have an excellent chance of spotting the Himalayan Black Bear and if you are gone for a bit steep climbing with an experience guide, may be able to show you the rare antelope known as the Hangul. Permits have to be obtained from the Forest Department whose office is in the Tourist Reception center and are easily available. Srinagar has started attracting tourists in droves and it is best to make a booking in advance if travelling during the months of May, June or mid-September to end October.
Driving distances from Kargil to Srinagar
|Kargil to Drass|
|Drass to Zoji La|
|Zoji La to Sonamarg|
|Sonamarg to Ganderbal|
|Ganderbal to Srinagar|
photo credit: zuki12 dangerous road via photopin (license)