Ladakh and Zanskar - The Road Less Traveled

The journey was quite tiring, and it was nearly 11 am by the time we reached Padum. After freshening up, we had an early lunch. The next thing to do was to check out Reru, which lies further south from Padum and the end-of-the-road beyond it.

We left around 1 pm for Reru. We got lost at first. One has to go towards the older part of Padum, a Muslim dominated area, and take a left near the bus stand. The road runs parallel to the Tsarap Lingti, and the valley is pretty narrow.

First up is the Bardan Gompa, perched precariously on top of huge stone which protrudes into the river. The road till Reru is tarred, although not very smooth. But after this, the tar disappears completely.

Here we saw a bunch of lamas playing cricket in a wide, open ground. About 6 km from Reru, we came to a bridge to cross over to the right bank of the river. With the bridge now complete, we crossed over.

The road from here on is very narrow and is a complete dirt track with a steep ascent to the village of Itchar. I wonder how would normal traffic cross this stretch given its sharp ascents, tight U-bends, and narrow road.

A green patch of a village before Bardan monastery.


Tarmac all the way to Reru


Tsarap Lingti and Bardan


Another monastery complex beyond Bardan but before Reru (Meru was it?)


The beautiful green field of Reru


LPL - Lama Premier League


The dusty track beyond Reru


A bridge to cross over to the other side of Tsarap Lingti

It was here when our car started acting up again, losing power on the incline! It was very frustrating, stretches that were supposed to be done in 4H mode were now being done in 4L mode and at extremely high RPM. There was an option to turn back towards Padum as the scenery was hardly beautiful or enticing, but being spoilt, we had to see the end of the road before we could turn back. We crawled ahead, occasionally having to deal with the loss of power as well. The road was too dusty for me to crawl down and drain the sedimenter and decided that it would best be done on the way back.

The road continued like this for about 8 odd km from the bridge, before it came to an abrupt end where work was still being done. It was time for us to turn back. The drive back till Reru was again painful where I finally disembarked from the car and went down to drain the sedimenter. Once I was back on the wheel, the vehicle refused to start even after multiple cranks. Finally, I opened up the bonnet and primed the fuel pump a bit, and finally, Kiyang started with a sputter. It was a smooth ride from that point till Padum which we finally reached by about dusk.

This was the first detour that we regretted taking, the drive was neither beautiful nor worth taking, in our opinion. I would suggest further travelers to the region to avoid this drive until it’s complete all the way to Purne, which is about 15 km away from where the road ends currently. One could then trek to Phutgal gompa which I’ve heard is quite beautifully located, and the valley beyond Purne towards Kargyak and Darcha is very wide and spectacularly beautiful. Until then, it’s best to avoid the stretch.

We had to start early the next day as we were targeting to reach Kargil in a single day from Padum, so hit the sack early.

Day 13: Padum - Kargil (230 km, 11 hrs)

The day began very early at 5 am. It was the day we were supposed to bid adieu to Zanskar for some time to come. We were on our way back with Kargil being the destination for the night. We left our hotel by 6 am, admiring the beauty of the barren landscape in the morning light. We were a bit stressed about the car’s condition and thus wanted to reach Kargil as early as possible to see if something could be done to repair it. Although it was unlikely that any repair work would’ve been possible there, but still, as a wise man once said, “hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things”.

Bidding adieu to our hotel Gay-skit


The main Padum bears a deserted look so early at 5 am


The initial 20km is all tarmac! Not bad to begin with.


The road turns into gravel and stones immediately.


Pedestrian bridge over Stod at Ating.


Stod spreads wide near a village


A sleepy village


One of the few last settlements before barren lands begin.

Around 7:45, when we’d started feeling really hungry, we took Kiyang to the banks of the Suru, took out our little stove, and heated the only ready-to-eat packet we had left - Gajar ka halwa! It was pretty windy, and the stove had to be kept inside the car to keep it from getting extinguished. So, at 8 in the morning, on the banks of the Suru river, in the remote Zanskar region, the two of us, all packed up in sweaters and jackets, had a breakfast of piping hot Gajar ka halwa! And as someone rightly said: “Gar firdaus, ruhe zamin ast, hamin asto, hamin asto, hamin asto”. (Loosely translated: If there’s paradise on earth, it’s here, it’s here, it’s here). Tasty breakfast at such a picture-perfect spot. It felt as if things really could not get any better. Well, they did - Aarti allowed me to smoke a cigarette without shouting too much.

Some Chortens mark the road


Parking spot next to Stod for breakfast.


Away from the windy valley, the stove burns


To prepare an exquisite Gajar ka halwa

Thereafter, back on the road, we did not stop for too many photographs and just kept going. We were doing very well on time and had reached the Drang Drung glacier already at 10 am. Now that is a sight which you cannot help but a photograph, and so we spent a few minutes there, again taken in by the grandeur of the scene before us.

We march on towards Drang Drung glacier, populace thins out now


Few lake formations near Drang Drung


The ever-fascinating Drang Drung


Winds blow over a peak


Lakes at Pensi La

The descent to Rangdum was easy, and we were there by 11:30. We stopped at our friend Tashi’s dhaba for an early lunch, as we’d promised him we would three days ago. Then, after making another promise of sending Tashi his photograph, we hit the road again.

Rangdum Gompa, we meet yet again


Marmots start to appear again, this time they fail to excite us.


A shepherd on his daily chore near Rangdum


A beautiful white horse rests near Rangdum

On we went, our bodies now used to the constant rattling of the car on the un-tarred road, happy that we would make it to Kargil by 4 if we maintained our current speed. And then, when we were about an hour away from Parkachik, it happened again. Kiyang sputtered, and we looked at each other, not knowing what to do now. The only thing that could be done was to drain the sedimenter. So I got out out the car and readied myself to perform the now-familiar drill of lying down on a mat near Kiyang’s exhaust and unscrewing the sedimenter to drain the water that had accumulated in it.

Only this time, in my frustration maybe, I screwed back the sensor with a little more strength than required, and it came off! The bloody design is so flawed, I mean who in their right mind would make a plastic screw of a metallic component? That’s cost-cutting my dear friends, and that’s how Tata Safari is cheaper than let’s say a Toyota Fortuner (of course, there are many other factors as well and not just a plastic screw).

So there we were, stranded at 3500 m above sea level, beneath a glacier with diesel leaking through the sedimenter, and the only thing stopping the leak was my finger which was shoved up the sedimenter. And I, of course, was lying on my back on the ground. I stayed there for about 10 minutes, panicking and kicking myself for not carrying M-Seal or some adhesive that would’ve got me out of such a sticky situation. In this remote part of the world, help could be another hour or two hours away. I was resigning myself to be in an uncomfortable position when I heard the roar of a taxi. Aarti tried to flag it down, but the guy did not stop!

Now let me take a break here to explain, as I perceive, the difference between people on the Manali - Leh highway and those on the Leh - Srinagar highway (or in this case Padum - Kargil highway). Had this been the Manali - Leh highway, the taxi would’ve stopped without Aarti even having to flag it down and would’ve asked if he could help. However, on any other highway, people just pass through and don't ever stop! Such is the difference between camaraderie on different highways in India.

The first objective was, of course, to stop the leaking fuel. After a few minutes of panic, my brain started working again, and I remembered that the oil filter had a pretty similar screw to the one that had come off, minus the sensor for the sedimenter. Fortunately, I had kept an extra oil filter and was thrilled to see that the part did actually fit. With the fuel leak stopped, I cranked up the car again to see to my horror that the sedimenter light went on! The sensor connecting the sedimenter to the engine ECU was dangling in mid-air. This led to a high RPM and the manual suggested the driver not to drive the car for a long period in such situations.

I knew that there was no water there now, but it was only the sensor acting up. Upon closer inspection of the sensor, it became clear that the two strobes were connected by a drop of liquid which was conducting the required electric signal to fire the ECU sedimenter warning up. I wiped the strobes dry with a piece of cloth and then bandaged it well with non-conducting tape (electric one). By doing that the signal for the sedimenter immediately went off and the RPM was returned to a normal engine beat. So after about an hour of struggle, we were good to resume our journey.

Pinnacle peak where we were stuck again


This had become a usual sight during this entire trip. And it ain't pretty ;-)

Another hour later as we were crossing the Gumri glacier close to Parkachik, it happened again. The sedimenter warning went up and the RPM went wild again. I went down, again, to check on the strobes, due to a water splash the strobe was wet again and was conducting. The tape was unwound, the strobes wiped dry, a plastic was tied to the strobe so that further water splashing does not affect the strobes and we marched on. And of course, since I was down there, I drained the sedimenter again!

Gumri glacier near Parkachik

At Sankoo, 40 km before Kargil, we managed to locate the road that goes directly to Dras through Umba La. This road branches off from the main market in Sankoo. Had Kiyang not been unwell, we would definitely have taken this road and then stayed the night in Dras. Well, some other time I say.

We managed to reach Kargil, despite all these delays, by 6 pm. The casualty of all this was, of course, the peace of mind and photography. It’s difficult to shoot under such trying circumstances.

Aarti checked into D’Zojila, and I again went around to what seemed all the mechanics in Kargil to see if they could fix the sedimenter. But Safari spare parts are hard to come by in a small town like Kargil, and after several futile attempts, I returned to the hotel around 7.30. After a quick bath, we went into the market for a dinner of Kashmiri food.

Day 14 (22nd July): Kargil - Srinagar (230 km, 10 hrs)

Day 14 was a race against time. We had to reach the Tata service station in Srinagar by 4 pm at the latest to give them enough time to repair Kiyang. Being a Friday, we knew we were in a tight spot. If the car could not be repaired today, we would be stuck in Srinagar till Tuesday, for the next 3 days. So yet again we got up early and were on our way by 6:15 in the morning.

The first photo op was the Harka Bahadur Memorial, at the point which is probably the closest that the Srinagar-Leh highway gets to the LoC. Here, the mountain across the river IS the LoC. The Suru river meets the Dras river here to form the Shingo river which then flows into Pakistan.

We moved on, and were, for a while, accompanied by laden apricot trees on both sides of the road. As we approached Dras, we came across the relic of the five Buddhas, which we’d missed the last time. About 5 km before Dras, a signboard told us that to the left was some mythical stone that sounded pretty interesting. We decided to take the detour but were unlucky. We did not find the relic, and to be frank, did not try very hard to find it either. The detour re-joined the main road, but by then we’d surpassed the War Memorial.

The map next to Harka bahadur memorial, depicting its closeness to LoC


Harka Bahadur memorial


Harka Bahadur memorial


Apricot laden trees


Fantastic signboard


A mosque in a magnificent setting