NH 1D... From Srinagar to Leh

Saturday, August 02, 2014

It would be unfair to document a Ladakh trip in one post. This is the first in the series
of 6 posts that I would do, documenting the entire 15 days of our travel to Ladakh.
It is a dream road trip for travelers around the world, a lifetime experience, when one covers both the Srinagar-Leh and the Leh-Manali highway while entering and exiting Ladakh.

The Srinagar-Leh highway, of course, provides a gradual ascent, helping the body to acclimatize properly to the altitude of Leh and in fighting any chances of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). Arriving at Leh through this route is always advisable than taking the Manalli-Leh route which causes altitude sickness to most, due to its sudden ascent. Also, if you have not traveled from Srinagar to Leh by road, you have missed one of the most beautiful routes of India - Hands down!

I had been planning a full circuit Ladakh road trip for eons. But the circumstances every year were so adverse that I had started to think Ladakh is jinxed for me. But one day everything fell into place. I contacted a friend who had experienced similar failed attempts to travel to Ladakh. He contacted another friend of his. She contacted a few more. And in this way, we were 6 people meeting at Delhi airport on 29th of June 2014 for our flight to Srinagar.

Day 1, 29th June 2014, Sunday : Our Ladakhi driver bailed on us at Srinagar airport. He couldn't make it there due to some permit issues of Ladakh number plate. Srinagar airport is heavily guarded and the guards constantly interrogated us about our missing driver, whom we could connect to only after half an hour as only one of our phones had signal.

After fixing a meeting with our driver for the evening, we took a prepaid to Dal lake (Charges - Rs. 600 for an SUV). Nishar bhai, the driver of the cab took us to Shikara ghat no. 17 and referred us to Dongola Palace houseboat, where we bargained the 3 bedroom houseboat for Rs. 3000 for the night. We paid an extra Rs. 500 per person for dinner and asked Riyaz, the owner's son to prepare some Kashmiri non-vegeterian food, which he happily agreed to arrange.

We took a Shikara ride in the evening in the beautiful Dal lake. The shikaras are colorful and can comfortably fit 4 people and Riyaz didn't even charge us for the ride. 

Clockwise from top : A shikara on Dal lake, Dinner at houseboat, Dal lake at night,
Houseboats lined up next to each other, View from Dongola Palace
The Shikara dropped us at Ghat No. 17 after sunset as we wanted to try some Kashmiri kababs. We had some yummy seekh kababs at a nearby restaurant. Back at Ghat 17, we met our driver Mr. Haji. Once he left, we had to wait at the ghat for a long time as all the Shikara guys had gone for Azan. If you wish to travel back and forth from your houseboat freely, check into one that has a road access.

The dinner was served as soon as we were back at the houseboat and it was delicious. The menu had Dum Oluv (Dum Aloo), Lyodur Tschaman (Paneer) and Mutton Roganjosh with rice and roti. We later got to know that it was the first day of Ramzan and while we gorged on all the food prepared by Riyaz, he and his family were on fast till the wee hours of next morning. We spent few hours marveling at the far away lights on the ghat reflecting on the mirror-like Dal lake and chatting with Riyaz, before we hit the bed.

Day 2, 30th June 2014, Monday : As per Haji's advice, we checked out very early in the morning. Everyone traveling on Srinagar-Leh highway prefer crossing the Sonamarg-Zozila stretch as early as possible due to the chances of trucks causing traffic jams in that route. By 7 a.m., we were at the Shikara ghat with all our luggage. Haji tucked them one by one in the overhead carrier and secured them with a rope. Once we were seated, he flew. Yes, almost that. And so started the first leg of our road trip on the Srinagar-Leh Highway, or the National Highway 1D.

We passed a check post at Kangan and stopped for breakfast at a dhaba by the side of the Sind river. Our next stop was after an hour or so at the beginning of Sonamarg, where we stopped to click some pictures of the beautiful valley. 

Our happiness was short-lived. All vehicles except those of Amarnath yatris were stopped at Sonamarg by the Army and we were told we won't be allowed to pass before 2 p.m. And it was just 11 a.m. then! It was a major blow. To waste 3 hours on such a route is unthinkable. We even thought of feigning devotion, saying 'Bum bum bole' and pass, but apparently Amarnath yatris carry some documents of proof which we obviously didn't have. With no options left, we waited, had beer that we were carrying with us and then lunch at one of the restaurants in the Sonamarg market. Sharp at 2 p.m., the army guy signaled opening of the road. 

We spotted Baltal valley from top where thousands of Amarnath pilgrims have put up camps. As we started ascending towards Zoji La, the landscape changed drastically. The green Sindh valley gave way to a much arid  landscape. The roads became dusty and at places, non-existent. To that, added the woe of crossing flocks of sheep that needed to walk on the road as much as we needed to drive on it. What followed was lot of honking and bickering with the shepherd until he moved the sheep so that the cars could pass. We drove through glacier melts at several places that were flowing right across the already treacherous road.

Clockwise from Top Left : Sonamarg, Dusty road to Zozila, Shepherd and his Sheep, Glacier melts at Zozila 
After much ado, we reached Zozi La - finally!!! 'La' means Pass, hence it would be wrong to say Zozila Pass. At an altitiude of 11,649 ft, it is the second highest mountain pass on Srinagar-Leh highway and connects Kashmir valley with Ladakh. And of course, we had to stop there for some pictures. There we got our first hit of altitude sickness - a feel of blood rushing to our heads. 

Post Zozila, we were welcomed to Ladakh by a signboard on the right side of the road. The road started to improve once we crossed the Zozi La stretch and the landscape became harsh and arid. We had tea at Gumri and continued our journey.

Dras Valley, after crossing Zozi La
Dras is the first village that we passed after Zozi La. Dras is known for 3 reasons - 

1) For being the second coldest inhabited place in the world, after Siberia. We didn't have to put on extra layers of sweaters and jackets though. That welcome board from J&K tourism claiming the severe cold holds true only during the winters. 

2) This quaint little village had experienced heavy shelling by the Pakistani army during the Kargil War, until India recaptured the surrounding peaks and Kargil. To commemorate the victory and the Indian Army soldiers who laid their lives during the war, Dras War Memorial was built by the Indian Army here, at the foothills of Tololing Hill where the Battle of Tololing was fought. The memorial, which is also known as Vijay Path, has a sandstone wall which has names of all the Indian Army martyrs of Kargil war, a Pak sentry post captured at Tiger hill, a Pak living bunker captured at Tololing, a giant Indian flag at the foot of Tololing, a real fighter jet, a cafeteria and a souvenir shop. We could even see Tiger hill from a distance.

3) Dras is also known as the 'Gateway to Ladakh'.

Dras War Memorial; Bottom (mid) : Tiger Hill
After crossing Dras, we saw small patches of terraced cultivation on both sides of the road. That was the first 'green' thing we had spotted after long. At times, the landscape resembled a gorge with the Dras river flowing beside the road. Within an hour, we reached Kargil and started our hunt for a hotel or a guest house, since we were staying the night there. 

NH 1D after crossing Dras... Approaching Kargil
Kargil is a transit town, where most people travelling from Srinagar to Leh halt at night. Very few prefer to stay at Dras too due to the availability of vegetarian food there. We attempted to book rooms at the J&K Tourism Dak bungalow which are dirt cheap, but we found it completely booked for the night. Our driver who was from Kargil helped us get a room at Hotel Jan Palace in a discounted rate of Rs. 1500. Even though Kargil is a small town, the prices of accommodation and food can be quite high. 

At night we browsed through many restaurants for dinner. Some were empty, some shady and some too expensive. In the end we headed back to the restaurant at Jan Palace, where the food was decent. Before we hit the bed, we noticed one more thing about Kargil (and it was to stay with us till Manali) - No Fan!!

Day 3, 1st July 2014, Tuesday : Our driver was at the hotel at 8 a.m. and we were soon heading out of Kargil. The town of Kargil lies in the Suru valley, beside the Suru river and dangerously close to the Line of Control. I asked Haji whether he was in Kargil during the war and he said yes. He then told us about the shelling that happened at Kargil market. The town was not evacuated during the time of the war.

Kargil, across Suru river
After crossing the Suru river, the road leads through a sandy plateau and then through a narrow gorge. Soon we reach Mulbekh, which has the Mulbekh Monastery with the huge figure of Maitreya Buddha (Future Buddha) carved on a stone. Here for the first time, we turned a huge prayer wheel - several times and clockwise.

Mulbekh Monastery
The road then climbs up to Namika La (Altitude : 12198 ft). It is a tradition for Ladakhis to tie prayer flags at places they regard as holy. Most of the passes we cross hence would have tons of prayer flags.

Namika La
Up we went from Namika La to Fotu La (Altitude : 13479 ft) - the highest pass of Srinagar-Leh Highway. It was here that for the first time, the feeling of insignificance hit us, while we were surrounded by these mammoth mountains. And never have we seen, so barren mountains in life. Barren and yet so majestic and beautiful!

Top : Road to Fotula; Bottom left : Fotula Top, Bottom right : View from Fotula
It was downhill from Fotu La, or rather down-mountain. We were soon at Lamayuru monastery, one of the largest Tibetan Buddhist Gompa of Ladakh. Lamayuru is actually situated up a hill and not right on NH 1D. As we descended from Lamayuru and started driving towards Leh again, we spotted the lunar landscape or moonland, as it is called. In fact, for it's sake, every other thing in that area has "Moon" prefixed to the name - be it Moon Land hotel, Moon guesthouse or Moonland restaurant.

Left (Top and Bottom) : Lamayuru Monastery; Right : Lunar Landscape
After crossing Lamayuru, weirdly, the mountains started to change color. It was something we had never seen before. From its usual ochre to green, pink, purple and what not! Don't believe me? Check out the pictures below. We passed bikers who waved when we waved. Sometimes they waved and we waved back. We started to understand how people come and unite in Ladakh. There is a sense of friendship and camaraderie that is synonymous to Ladakh.

We stopped for lunch at Khaltse. From there the road followed the Indus river, till we were on the famous straight road. The pitch dark road runs straight for few kilometres on a vast plain plateau.

Next came Nimmu, where the Indus meets the Zanskar river. This confluence or sangam is a striking view as the turquoise colored Indus merges with the mud color Zanskar. Next comes the Magnetic Hill. When you place the car in a box marked on the road adjacent to the hill and leave the car out off gear, it appears to move uphill. This however is an optical illusion. You can read about it here. Soon afterwards, along a flat plain landscape, comes the Gurudwara Pathar Sahib. The topography throughout this stretch is out-worldly.

Top : Indus-Zanskar confluence; Bottom left: Road by Magnetic hill; Bottom right : Gurudwara Pathar Sahib
The gompas of Alchi, Likir, Phyang and Spituk come on the way to Leh, but for each one of them one has to take a different road, thus diverting from NH 1D. The Phyang and Spituk monastery however can be glimpsed from the highway. 

At one checkpoint we had to pay an Environmental Fee of Rs. 200 per person (and Rs. 300 for our French friend). It is a fee charged from Indians and foreigners entering Ladakh to protect the ecology and bio-diversity of Ladakh. Before entering Leh, we went through a large army camp. Leh, the capital of Ladakh, welcomed us with dark clouds hanging so low that we felt we can stretch our hands and poke them.

The landscape of Srinagar-Leh highway becomes more and more breathtaking as you travel from Srinagar to Leh. This is one more reason why one should enter Leh through this route and not leave by it.

Some tips for fellow travelers - 

1. The Srinagar-Leh road generally remains open for traffic from early June to mid-November.

2. Only postpaid numbers of other states work in Jammu & Kashmir (unless you buy a prepaid from J&K which requires a lot of formalities). And after entering Ladakh, only BSNL and Airtel postpaids will work. In remote areas like Pangong only BSNL has coverage.

3. Try to avoid the Amarnath Yatra season. We however did not have an option as we wanted to attend the Hemis Festival, that's celebrated in and around the same time.

4. Leave Srinagar as early as possible in the morning.

5. Halt for the night at Kargil since it has more accommodation options. 

6. Drink lots of water to curb the altitude sickness symptoms.

7. Stock food and water in the car - That would help if the car unexpectedly breaks down at remote places.

8. It is not advisable to drink or smoke at such high altitude until you are fully acclimatized.

9. Liquor shops shut down for an entire month during Ramzan.

10. Last but not the least, always help stranded travelers, if you pass any.

Contact Numbers -

Sonam Tsering (Driver, Ladakh - one who got us in touch with Haji) - +919419372817

Nishar Bhai (Driver, Srinagar) - +919622900295

A big thanks to http://devilonwheels.com/! One hell of a site helping fellow travelers to find anything and everything they might need to know about Ladakh.

This is the 1st in a series of 7 posts documenting 14 days of our travel to Ladakh. You can also read:

Day 4: 
How I Got Leh'd
Day 5 & 6: On the Silk Route to Heaven - To Nubra Valley, via Khardung La - a part of the ancient Silk Route.
Day 7 & 8: Speechless at Pangong
Day 9: 3 Reasons You Should Skip Hemis Festival 
Day 10: 
'Dolce Far Niente'... A Buffer day spent in Leh.
Day 11: Tso Moriri - The Road Less Traveled

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  1. Awesome pics & great description!
    Really wanna visit...

  2. I can't believe this is India! This is seriously incredible. I'm happy to have read this post (although not read every bit of it), because now I know that Srinagar-Leh route is better than Manali-Leh. Kashmir has been on my radar for quite a while now. Time to tick it off now!

    1. Both routes are amazing... what I said is entering Ladakh through Srinagar-Leh highway is more advisable... We left through Leh-Manali highway which was beautiful in its own way.

  3. Nice account.. Look fwd to the next part of the series!

  4. I reall enjoyed reading about your detailed journey to Leh from Srinagar. One can't get enough of beautiful mountains and splendid natural landscapes. I have been planning to go to Ladakh in the summer of 2017. And was thinking to travel from Leh to Delhi by bus and to take Leh to Delhi flights while on my return journey.