Friday 9 August – The room was hot when we woke, a sign of what was awaiting us outside. The standard misunderstanding when ordering anything resulted in two omplettes and two rounds of toast. We don’t eat breakfast normally but seen as we’d skipped dinner last night we needed something for energy. Luckily omelettes aren’t the thick doorstops filled with things that I’m familiar with, but more like pancakes, as I had to make an attempt to eat the second one too.
The same hotel manager that said we could get the motorbike fixed today directed us to the mechanic after breakfast. He was the one who told us it was Eid today too and added Srinagar would be very busy. We followed his directions only to find it closed, as was everything else along the street. A gent carrying bread commented ‘special day, everything closed for three days’ he gestured to the top of the hill and said ‘yes, yes open’ so off we went up the hill, hoping it was open. It wasn’t and there was barely anyone around. Again we were given the same story ‘everything closed, special day’ We stood stranded for less than two minutes before we were surrounded by a small mob that appeared from nowhere. They found our predicament a bit of a laugh as usual. Only on this instance the ring leader was inquisitive and wanted to know the problem. Paul indicated to the chain and they began to do exactly what we started doing yesterday, only this time they seemed to get the chain a little tighter. Some token kids joined to watch what was going on too. The main wannabe mechanic took it for a test ride and came back with the nod of approval. He was happy with his work and so were we. I dished out some baby wipes to the Flash Gordon team. It didn’t go down too well with the manly men of the team. We thanked them all, for the help and dished out chocolate to the kids and then filled up with petrol before making tracks for the day. We’re a bit behind considering the distance we need to cover today is quite considerable and we left Kargil at 10.30.
By this time the streets had filled with people, everyone is celebrating Eid by buying food so progress is slow. Then we reach the first police check post and fill in our details as standard. There is a visible jam ahead anyway and the road condition is really poor as there is construction. I read back in Leh there had been serious landslides in this area and they had killed a few people just outside Kargil so I suspect this is the debris and they are repairing the road. Beyond Kargil, the road follows the Dras river through a steep-sided valley hugging the LOC [Line of Control – the line which marks the disputed territory between India and Pakistan]. At the roadside, a large yellow sign read ‘WARNING – YOU ARE UNDER ENEMY OBSERVATION’ This inhospitable and windswept valley has a real feel of military tension. The army now all carry huge riffles which must be mandatory in this region and the camps are more and more frequent
Not far into the journey it quickly became apparent that our step-in mechanics work was very short term and once again the chain was completely loose. The journey today however is most in descent so the chugging up hill is less of an issue.
As we pull away from the border, the landscape opens up into a beautiful more asian esque scene of yellowing grasslands and mulit-coloured mountains. The houses look more like alpine lodges with slanted aluminium roofs. We drove through Dras [which claims to be the second coldest town on Earth having recorded a temperature of -60ºC in January 1995] a little hard to believe in the height of summer. As we passed the town lots of waving kids ran along with us, this happens quite frequently on this road. All very sweet until one of the little buggers decided to shoot at us with his BB gun, he was just showing off in front of his friends.
On the last bend out of Dras we were flagged down by a group of motorcyclists. We wouldn’t normally stop for strangers but they were definitely touring, their luggage a sure indication. They needed fuel for one of the bikes and wanted to know how far the petrol station was – it was in Kargil about 70km away. Two were riding solo on Enfield’s then the other two were riding two up on a sports bike. The man was the pillion and the woman was the driver. We offered them our spare fuel as the tank we had would make it to Srinagar.
Inevitably we attract the attraction of the local kids who come over wielding little BB guns which they let off for amusement. We got a little group photo before setting off again. The group were from Mumbai. They insisted they pay us for our fuel even though we were offering it as a favour. We’ve been helped more than once for nothing so why not help them out. They told us the road ahead didn’t really exist and again reiterated that there had been some landslides.
As per what the Indians told us the surface disintegrated completely and was pure gravel for miles. I thought we lost the empty canister of fuel over the bumps. Later in turned out Paul had taken both out when we stopped and left the full one behind – never mind. There was barely any civilisation in this area, only tiny villages with no more than six houses.
There was a sign at the end of the gravel saying ‘Goodbye and welcome to Zojila’. This marked the start of perfectly surfaced road, flanked by nomad camps in the else but little else. The perfect road ran right up until the last ridge of the Himalayas and tricked us into thinking the journey would be a breeze from there on in, We’d convinced ourselves that the bit before the sign was the ‘under construction’ part. We couldn’t have been more wrong.
The first tell tale sign that it was going to be bad was a road that was paved with bricks rather than tarmac. Which was easy to ride on but not a normal road surface outside of a town. It began quite quaint with nomads roaming the roads and herding yaks. Plus the addition of settlements with men and boys wearing thick eyeliner decked out in the attire that always seems to be depicted to the Taliban. Then we reached a mini-bus which was stationary at the side of the road and two roads which curved round the mountain – one above the over. We stopped as we didn’t know which to take, a passing lorry was indicating the higher road and so were some of the people from the bus. Two Southern Indian men were stood taking pictures of the scenery then they turned the camera onto us. One of them suggested I get off the bike and ask his driver which way to take as he was a local but I was already pleased with the indication we had from the lorry drivers, but he insisted. So I ran off, which left a space open the back seat. The driver confirmed the same as the lorry driver just as I thought he would. When I was making my way back, I saw why the guy wanted to get rid of me. He had mounted the back of the bike, and practically Paul too. He proceeded to fully embrace Paul in his bulging arms from behind for a tight squeeze, his plump belly fully thrust against his back. He then moved his hands to be positioned on Paul’s hip and one on his shoulder, a nice seductive pose. I thought this was hilarious and luckily had my camera to hand to capture the romantic moment.
What ensued after this, was not quite so funny. The Zojila pass was THE scariest road of the entire India journey, and I doubt we will encounter much worse for the rest of the journey. It sits 3,500 metres up. Whilst not the highest we have passed, it feels higher as we could see the bottom. This pass is referred to as a ‘lifeline’ to Ladakh used for transport of lots of important goods therefore its imperative it remains open. The road is crumbling in massive proportions, prone to gigantic landslides which continually block the route and wreak havoc on the surface. It’s not wide enough in many parts for two vehicles to pass so we continually have to pull over for lorries and 4x4s.
The sheer drop that we can see is what adding to the feeling of danger as we’re constantly be pushed closer to the edge. The complete mix of surfaces only adds to the difficulty. Then we reached sand. I have never drove a motorbike, but I have rode a push bike in sand and therefore know you can’t control your front wheel once you hit the soft stuff. We’d already passed through sand a couple of times on this very pass but the last patch took us down. The road dictated the speed so we were going slow so it was a small tumble that happened slowly. Slow enough that I put my foot down to floor and managed to stay upright but Paul’s foot got trapped underneath the bike, which he shouted at me to lift off. Thank god that it’s a pretty light bike as I definitely wouldn’t have been able to lift the Yamaha by myself. As this happened a lorry was coming around the corner. I guess it was fortunate that only a snail’s pace was possible on this road. He stopped to check we were ok, as Paul was still lying in the sand, assured we were he went on his way. The motorbike was unscathed and Paul’s foot was a little sore and cut but no serious damage.
We made it down to the bottom with no other incidents, the road remained challenging though only improving in a couple of patches. As we crossed a bridge we again become part of someone’s holiday snaps. We descended into a green and wooded landscape that looked like Canada. Apparently before this area was famous for war and terrorism it was renowned for its benign alpine beauty.
We stopped for lunch in Sonamarg, which sits in the middle of the beautiful alpine valley, although feels very odd as the main drag architecture is alike to that of most of India lined along the dusty roadside. One particular thing we noticed was the amount of men that looked to have died their beards Red. It was already 15.00, and there was still 100km to go but we were assured the roads improved from this point and therefore it was a maximum 2 hours.
We left the small fly ridden cafe and follow a beautiful river to start embarking on Srinagar. As we approached there were large gatherings of people everywhere which was a bit of a shock to the system after the serenity of the mountains. We got to some sort of monument with a fairground ride which was little more than cages filled with kids being manually pushed around, it looked like a pilgrim site with the masses of people flocking up the hill it was absolutely chaos.
In the flat forestry region around Srinagar the military presence increased even more. Only this time it was more hidden. Snipers are mounted on top of vans, buildings, in trees basically everywhere. There has been a recent killing of Pakistani militant so it’s a tense time and threat of attack seems imminent.
As we neared Srinagar the celebratory atmosphere is getting into full swing and there are young men whizzing around 3-4 up on mopeds everywhere, some with Halloween masks on. Music is blaring from lots of crammed vehicles all on a mission to get somewhere.
We stopped to ask an elderly gent directions which involves saying the name of the town then pointing your arm in the direction until you get a nod. Only sometimes you get a nod for every direction. That’s exactly what happened, we waited until someone else was passing and they gave us directions to Dal Lake in English. Sometimes we follow the white person in a taxi as its pretty much guaranteed they are going the same place we are.
Once in Srinagar we were heading for the Swiss Hotel near Dal Lake but we must have been spotted from afar as we are quickly approached by a pest of a man trying to get us on his house boat. We couldn’t escape as he too was on a motorbike and knew his way around a lot better than us so led us down a one way street. It was pretty late and this day was already long and he was really the last thing we needed. Then Paul’s left footpeg came off. We didn’t stop to repair as we were so close, yet the traffic around the Lake was horrendous and we couldn’t find the hotel. Everyone I seemed to ask didn’t know where it was, though finally we made a breakthrough and went down the right street. So now we can relax for a couple of days before making the long journey towards Delhi.