17.05.2009 - 19.05.2009 -5 °C
The journey out of Ladakh deserves it's own entry. We came back from the Pagong Lake on Saturday the 16th. Raja's trek started on the 22nd. I had counted one day to Kargil, one day to Srinagar, one day to Jammu, and one day to Dharmasala. 4 days in total, so if I wanted to go on the trek I had to leave on the 18th at the latest. Laura found out that there's a bus leaving at 3pm that went straight to Srinagar without stopping in Kargil. Since she wanted to go to Srinagar as well, we decided to take this bus on Sunday 17th. Fortunately I had gotten a good eight hours sleep in Leh after the sleepless night on the shores of Pagong lake. Thus we departed Leh after a lunch mostly consisting of rice and vegetables (don't take any risks before a long bus journey). In the Lonely Planet they say that the Zoji La pass has to be cleared of Srinagar-bound traffic by 5am to make space for traffic in the opposite direction. By leaving at 3pm we would arrive at the pass around 3am and have time to cross it during the night. To pass time during the night hours I had bought a pack of cashew nuts. We departed on schedule and stopped in a small village around 6pm. I thought that was dinner break, but the driver told us to just buy some crackers since we wouldn't stop long enough to eat. When asked when would be the next stop he told us very seriously “Only God knows”. On Indian roads this phrase takes a whole dimension more that just the timing of the next stop. So having dined on a pack of crackers we set out to Kargil, where we arrived sometime after 1am in the night for another short stop. A small Dhaba was open and I fortunately followed the driver's example and ate an egg there. We arrived at the pass on schedule around 3am. At this point i should mention that the buses in India are not only rather uncomfortable, but also very cold. There's no heating of course and the windows don't really close, so you have constantly a draft of air that cools you down. This is perfect in the South, where the temperature is usually unbearably hot, but in the Himalayan mountains it makes any bus ride during the night a torture. Armed with my pair of jeans, my fleece jacket and my Tibetan blanket (God I'm so happy I had that blanket!) I resisted the best I could, but lack of sleep and low temperatures always result in a cold with me. This time was no exception and by the time we arrived at the pass I had caught a cold. Not very dramatic, but upon arrival at the Drass camp at the bottom of the pass the bus had stopped in a big mass of vehicles that were waiting there in several long lines. We waited there until 12am. Unable to sleep because of my running nose and the cold I felt very miserable. In addition the trucks around us regularly started theirs diesel engines to keep them from getting too cold, each time filling our bus with diesel exhaust. Because of the amount of vehicles following this procedure and the cold air that trapped the exhaust gases under an inversion layer, breathing the air in the valley was like breathing in a highway tunnel. Somehow air pollution at cold temperatures is much worse than when it's warm. In the morning I had finished my cashew nuts (actually I made the mistake to tell our driver to help himself to them, which he did...). At 12am the vehicles finally started to move in a cloud of exhaust that still gives me a headache just remembering it. I tried to make some pictures but my rechargeable batteries were empty and the four normal batteries I had bought in Srinagar turned out to be empty as well. Damn Kashmiri thieves! We got up the pass and were stopped again near the top. The snow melting had created a small river that the small vehicles couldn't cross without being towed by buses or trucks:
By heating up some batteries I was able to take this and the next picture, but that was it. I'll ask Laura for some of her pictures to upload.
Well, having passed that obstacle as well we finally arrived at the top of the pass around 2pm where the vehicle line was stopped again by the military just 3 buses in front of us. After waiting for two more hours we asked the soldiers what the hold up was. Turns out they were waiting for a military convoy. But they didn't know where exactly it was, so they just decided to close the pass until it arrived. I love the military logic. Here's a picture I made from a truck arriving in the opposite direction through the pass. The military might be run by a bunch of morons, but they really do a good job of opening the roads and keeping them open.
The convoy arrived at 7pm. It takes just one hour to cross the pass, but we waited five hours just so the military convoy didn't have to wait at the camp on the other side. Well, we finally started to cross the pass. Our driver being rather corpulent, he must have been even more hungry than we were. This was reflected by the speed at which he drove the bus down the very narrow and steep road.
About mid-way we encountered a huge line of trucks that were coming up the other way. Obviously the military had not only closed the pass to all traffic on our side, but they had also stopped every truck going up from the other side for several hours. And then, when the convoy had passed they opened the road on both sides! So there were two columns of vehicles that tried to pass each other on this very dangerous road that was made for barely one vehicle. I couldn't believe it. That's just unbelievably irresponsible by whoever is in charge there. We were lucky to have been at the start of our line, so we met the trucks quite far down the road where there were more broader places to pass each other. It took a lot of time but we made it down to Son Amarg where we finally got to eat some rice with vegetables around 10pm.
We arrived in Srinagar at 1am the next day. I decided not to spend a whole day here but to take the bus that was leaving for Jammu at 7am. So after four hours sleep I took the bus to Jammu where I arrived at 4pm. I was lucky enough to immediately find a bus that was leaving for Dharamsala where I arrived at about 10pm.
So basically I spent about 50 hours (34 of those consecutive) in buses with a six hours break in the middle. That is a new record.
I am in Dharamsala now and the trek has been postponed to the 25th to allow for some more snow to melt. Figures... It's noticeably warmer now than when i left, but still ok compared to the cities in the plain further south. I dread going back to Delhi. While in Ladakh I have changed my future plans. I now intend to fly from Kalkutta to Rangoon and travel in Myanmar (or Burma) for one or two weeks. I'll then try to cross into Thailand by bus. I'll have to check at the Burmese embassy in Delhi if it's possible.