A motorcycle expedition to Ladakh figures in the wishlist of most Indians. I was one of those who lived that dream eight times beginning 1998 as a member of a motorcycle club. But I wanted to do more. Ride solo to Ladakh through the Mughal Road.
And so in 2013, five years after my last expedition with the gang, I decided to go on my own to India’s northernmost place called Turtuk beyond which is part of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). My only window for the trip was May-June because my son’s school would be closed and my wife wouldn’t have to bother about running from office to pick him up.
So what was my adventure like? In a nutshell, something like this: 44 degrees Celsius through the first two days, torrential rain near Sonamarg, landslides at Zoji La (pass), less than minus zero degrees at Khardung La, romancing the cold desert in Hunder, eating the world’s sweetest apricots in Turtuk and lots of momos – all these garnished with the kindness and hospitality of locals.
I started on the third week of May. Two days of riding through scorching heat brought me to Jammu. Only by the third day I began to enjoy the ride as I headed for Rajouri through a route I had never taken before and where the temperature was more tolerable. The caretaker at the Jammu and Kashmir tourism guest house turned out to be a turned out to be great company in an otherwise deserted facility as he gave me a commoner’s firsthand account of life under the then National Conference headed by Omar Abdullah.
The weather was great with just a nip in the air as I headed for the Mughal Road the next morning. Just outside Rajouri, the countryside began to unfold like a picture postcard. A short climb to a place called Thanamandi and then a long downhill stretch through a dense forest area brought me Bafliaz, officially the starting point of the Mughal Road.
Bafliaz, located by the roaring Suran river, has a primeval connect. It is named after the horse of Alexander the Great, called Bucephalus which is said to have died there.
For now, Bafliaz is small, quiet town. The Mughal Road’s greatest advantage to people in Rajouri and Poonch is that it has cut travel time to Srinagar by a day. So those from Rajouri, Poonch and Bafliaz heading for Srinagar need not drive an extra 200 km or so through Jammu.
Srinagar is 135 km away from Bafliaz. Pound for pound, no other highway in India comes close to the Mughal Road. It’s a highway motorcyclists dream of. Smooth road for most part and stunning scenery make for a heady ride. Little below the current road, are the ruins of Mughal architecture, mostly serais or inns that were built for the caravans.
Most people heading from north India to Srinagar prefer the Jammu-Srinagar highway so traffic on the Mughal Road is till sparse which enhances the riding experience. The jams I got caught in were those triggered by massive herds of goats and sheep as shepherds were on their annual migration mostly from
Rajouri to the Kashmir Valley. The shepherds normally stop ahead of Shopian where the Mughal Road ends and spend the summer selling dairy products and wool before heading back home ahead of the winter’s onset. Theirs is a tradition that has run for generations along the Mughal Road.
By time I reached Pir ki Gali, the highest point on the Mughal Road at over 11,000 ft, I was in Alpine country with lots of snow around. Named after a saint whose tomb also serves as the milestone for Pir ki Gali, the place is indescribably beautiful. Towering mountains with seemingly perfect ski slopes and sprawling lush green pastures on the other side of the road made me wish to stay put forever there.
By the time I rolled into Srinagar and found a small hotel near the backwaters of the Dal Lake, it was close to evening. Although I was tired after the day’s ride, I still went for a stroll along the Boulevard Road, Srinagar’s version of Mumbai’s Queen’s Necklace. Even at 9 pm, the place was chock-a-bloc with tourists, some haggling with souvenir sellers, others with shikara owners for a ride across the lake.
The next day I caught up with Arshad, an old friend whom I met after 18 years. We had worked together at Press Trust of India in New Delhi from the early to the mid-1990s before he returned home to Srinagar. Much of the day went walking down memory lane. Arshad also gave me an account of life is in the Valley, how the apparent boom in tourism doesn’t quite reflect the public disquiet and how the government has failed its people.
Arshad suggested that I visit Kaman Post in Uri which is where bus passengers bound for Muzaffarabad in PoK alight, cross the Friendship Bridge on the LoC and take another bus to reach their destination. He arranged an army pass for me and the next morning I headed for Uri. A Captain heading a Gorkha unit at Kaman Post gave took me through a guided tour of the place and told me of the protocol for the passengers. For some reason, I did not quite feel I was in one of the world’s most heavily militarized zones. But the outing at Kaman Post gave me enough food for thought about how partition and Indo-Pak hostility has cleaved a state and its population.
Back in Srinagar, I slept early that night because I wanted to wake up on time for my ride to Kargil. But it wasn’t to be my day. Rain stopped several times. By the time I was nearing Sonamarg, the rain was a torrent and it was impossible to ride. Around lunchtime, I checked into a spanking new hotel, haggled with the young manager to halve his room rent from Rs 2000 to Rs 1000 and then changed my clothes. The rain did not relent through the rest of the day.
By the evening I learnt that the army had closed the Zoji La for two days because of landslides. Left with no option, I returned to Srinagar the next morning.
Arshad and his friends convinced me to take a public transport to Kargil and Leh and then hire another motorcycle from Leh to complete the Ladakh leg of the trip. I was Arshad’s guest and did not want to offend him. So the next day I ended up in a bus with a young Kashmiri businessman named Riyaz as my co-passenger. A very interesting character, Riyaz can speak several languages including English, Hindi, Bangla and some Malayalam. He has shops in Bengal and Kerala too besides Srinagar and Leh which sell shawls, stoles and jewelry and so it helps that he knows different languages.
The weather was bright that day, but we still got caught at the base of Zoji La. A truck in an army convoy headed downhill had broken down and the military police had stopped the uphill traffic. We waited for two hours inside the bus a bitterly cold wind raged. Even after we were allowed to move, progress was painfully slow because of heavy downhill traffic and a couple of trucks that had broken down which made overtaking dangerous. The journey was made worse by the incessant chatter of a middle-aged couple sitting behind us.
By the time we reached Kargil, it was midnight. Early next morning Riyaz and I boarded another bus for Leh which also had many foreigners in it. Shortly after midday, we rolled into Leh. Riyaz helped me find a hotel near his shop in the heart of the town. I spent the much of the day in the room acclimatizing to the altitude before venturing out in the late afternoon to explore Leh after five years. Once an outpost on the ancient Silk Route, Leh is now a prosperous town with new homestays and hotels to accommodate an ever increasing rush of tourists.
The next morning I procured my permits to visit Hunder and Turtuk beyond Khardung La and then hired a motorcycle for a three-day trip. With nothing else to do that day, I spent much time with Riyaz in his shop that seemed to be a hit with foreigners. Riyaz picked up conversation with a Frenchman named Misha and tried unsuccessfully to convince him to convert to Islam. Among other visitors were a couple of Germans and a Japanese tourist.
At Riyaz’s shop I also came across a Malayalee man and a Romanian woman who had met on social media, became friends, fell in love and were meeting for the first time after woman flew down to India. The two had come to buy a stole, but Riyaz managed to sell them a shawl and some jewellery too!
The ride across Khardung La the next day was tough. Melting snow near the top of the pass, officially the highest motorable road in the world, had washed off much of the blacktop and made a mess of the road. Fog and cold worsened the situation. The road was equally bad on the other side of the pass for some time as my bike rocked, rolled and bucked. But the weather became warmer as I descended towards Diskit.
The Shyok river which breaks through like a blue ribbon the sandy plains is a sight for sore eyes. Diskit, the district headquarters of Nubra valley, is a green patch inside a high-altitude desert. By 3 pm I was in Hunder, about 120 km from Leh. I found a nice little homestay run by a couple.
The afternoon was spent exploring the sand dunes and talking to camel owners who make a living by ferrying tourists on joy rides across a vast expanse of dunes. Across Hunder, many tented accommodations have become a hit with tourists. Sadly, I noticed that tourists kept themselves insulated and hardly interacted with the locals. The woman at the homestay told me the same thing in as many words.
Hunder is a charming place, quiet place, lined up with eucalyptus, mulberry, poplar and walnut trees. I learnt that poplars are widely grown because they are used to build houses and act as pillars.
My ride the next morning was so exhilarating that I failed to notice when I moved into Shyok valley. I notice the mountains had changed colours from dark brown to almost purple and some with a tinge of orange. I went past the Thoise airstrip from where supplies are sent for soldiers in Siachen glacier and not long after that I crossed a bridge that once marked the boundary with Pakistan.
Turtuk is so nondescript that I could have gone past it had I not kept track of the distance (about 100 km from Hunder). Another homestay. Three Israeli tourists who were preparing to vacate a room when I walked in. I chatted up the owner and a couple of cops who were having snacks and tea. They told me to visit two villages nearby and meet Mohammad Khan Kacho of the Yagbo dynasty that ruled over the Baltistan region for almost a thousand years before the empire began to faded in the 19th century.
The small porch outside the building was a nice place to sit and listen to the magpies and the steady roar of the Shyok as it flowed between the mountains. By afternoon, I went to explore the twin village where barley fields swayed in the wind against a backdrop of mountains. Cobbled streets and an extensive channel system that carries water
An old grizzled man whom I met on the edge of Kacho’s village told me rather dramatically, “We slept in Pakistan one day and woke up in India,” when I asked him about the 1971 Indo-Pak war. I learnt there was no skirmish around that area because the Pakistani forces had retreated.
I finally found Kacho in his palatial house that had once been a small palace for the kings. Time has not been kind to Kacho and he has been reduced to a farmer who grows barley and raises chicken that he sells to an army camp nearby to make ends meet.
Elsewhere in the village, I met two other men – uncle and nephew – who regaled me with stories of Turtuk and insisted that it is better off than it had been under Pakistani rule. I bought apricots from the duo because they sell Rs 100 cheaper a kilo than in Leh. And yes, they are the sweetest.
That night as I sank in bed, I noticed that the red velvet bedcover has ‘Welcome to China’ emblazoned on it. I had travelled 1600 km through diverse terrain, some decidedly hostile, to achieve my dream of riding solo to Turtuk, but this was one sign I hadn’t expected to see in a place we had wrested from Pakistan!
(Sabir Hussain is a journalist with Hindustan Times. He is also a veteran of nine motorcycle expeditions to Ladakh, including a solo trip in 2013. His book ‘Battlefields & Paradise’ that chronicles his journey through the Mughal Road and Kashmir to India’s northernmost point in Ladakh has just been published by Westland.)