One morning the boss, Director P&T Jammu & Kashmir rang me up to inform me that he was leaving for Leh two mornings later and that I would have to accompany him. It was a rather short notice as there were certain pre-visit formalities that had to be completed. Ladakh was not open to any and everybody fifty years ago. One had to obtain permits from the state government stating the reasons for the visit. Tourism had not till then commenced in Ladakh region.
So, two mornings later the departmental car arrived at my gate to pick me up. We were to travel up to somewhere near Sonmarg in the departmental vehicle and then get into an Indian Army jeep. We were required to be in one of the convoys that used to move from Kashmir to Ladakh every other day. A private vehicle could never go beyond Zojila Pass. It was a huge convoy of scores of several types of military vehicles that included trucks carrying supplies. Thankfully, the jeep in which I was to travel was almost at the front behind the one in which the Director was travelling.
It was past mid-morning when the convoy started. After around half an hour our two jeeps sort of peeled off and turned right leaving the convoy. My companion from the Army said that we were heading towards Baltal. The place had a signals unit which was of interest to my boss who was a Telecom man. It was a small unit with three or four Army men in what was perhaps one of the most beautiful places in Kashmir. Baltal was a incredibly beautiful green meadow surrounded by hills of varying heights with an occasional white snow-clad peak peeping from behind green mountains. There was a bungalow of sorts on top of a small hillock. The Signals men said that Indira Gandhi was reported to have honeymooned here. She and her husband must have spent their honeymoon in splendid isolation with Nature at its best all around them. Even the noise of the groaning Army trucks climbing up to the Zojila Pass would have been absent in those early years.
They also said that Amarnath Cave was only eight miles away but only the sturdiest of the intrepid uniformed men could make it. The way was treacherous and the climb was steep with some icy portions which had dangerous crevices. Baltal has, in fifty years, become the second or an alternate route for Amarnath pilgrims. The way to the cave must have been made easier for ordinary mortals. In doing that, one can be sure, the surrounding area must have come under alterations to suit the needs of the pilgrims that were destructive of the environment. A huge tented township is erected every year at the time of the pilgrimage for accommodating hundreds of thousands of people. One can imagine the environmental rot that is set in every year with a huge, unsupportable human and pony population that induces ceaseless motorized traffic. I am sure Baltal is no longer the same Baltal that I had seen fifty years ago. The courageous J&K Tourism, nonetheless, markets the ravished Baltal as a tourist site.
I was sorry to leave this captivating valley as we had to move ahead and immediately negotiate the Zojila Pass. The tortuous continuously climbing and winding road necessarily slowed us down quite a bit. Besides, there was the traffic ahead of groaning trucks climbing up that we could hear in the Baltal valley. After laboring up the mountain for better part of an hour or more we came up at the Zojila Pass
The Zojila is at an elevation of more than 11000 ft. and separates Kashmir Valley from the Ladakh Region. With it we leave behind the green Kashmir Valley and enter the arid region of Ladakh. The Pass is at a lower elevation; the mountains on two sides tower over it. It is just about 15 kilometres from Sonmarg and yet it took so much of time to get to it. It is here that Gen. Thimayya had surprised the Pakistani raiders in 1948 with tanks. He had had the tanks dismantled and conveyed them over this road, presumably, on trucks and had them assembled then to take on the raiders. He saved Ladakh from getting cut off from Kashmir. The Pakistanis had captured the pass that was wrested from them in battles in which tanks were used for the first time at such an elevation. Now a tunnel is being constructed to cut short three and a half hours’ travel on the mountain road to only 15 minutes to bring Kargil and Leh closer to Srinagar.
After tarrying at the pass for a while we moved on again. The landscape progressively became stark, bald and rugged. Trees became a rarity as the road took the spurs with either a mountain on one side or a valley with precipitous falls on the other. While we were at a lower elevation than that of Zojila yet we were consistently at arounf 10000 ft barring when we had to cross over on to another range.
After about two hours we were at a place which was bare but had, once again, a Signals unit. It was known as Drass and was only a few ranges away from the border with Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. The Signals men said the Pakistanis were in occupation of the heights commanding the highway that we were travelling on. These very heights like Tololing, Tiger Hill, etc. became famous during the Kargil War of 1998-99 and were recaptured from Pakistani infiltrators at great human cost.
For miles one could not see any settlement apart from the tents of the Army men. Their’s is a difficult life as the place is recognized as the scond coldest inhabited place in the world. They said that in winters the temperature frequently goes below minus 30 degrees Celsius and water used for washing hands freezes as soon as it hits the ground. After the Kargil War the TV news channels extensively covered the battles making Drass and Kargil household words. Drass since then has become a tourist spot and some structures have come up providing facilities. Otherwise there is hardly any population.
After a brief stay we resumed our journey. Sun was on its way down and the bare mountains were acquiring different hues. The treeless landscape was interesting and yet was monotonous and tiresome. As darkness fell millions of stars seemed to emerge from behind a dark curtain even though a less than half a moon was up in the sky. Fascinating there was no other woed for it! We reached Kargil after driving for more than couple of hours most of which was in the dark hours of the evening.