Another lazy start to the day. We had one last hearty breakfast at Leh and were off by 11:30. The road going from Leh to Srinagar is called National Highway 1 – and the highway lives up to the expectation. It was one long, even, stretch of tarmac across undulating desert hills.
(Leaving Leh town)
Just after leaving Leh we came across Pathar Sahib Gurudwara – it's an unmissable white structure with blue and yellow highlights. It has a rock with the imprint of a sitting man. As legend goes, the rock was thrown on Guru Nanak and turned to wax on impact (thus the imprint). Magnetic hill was a farce.
(Pathar Sahib Gurudwara)
(Long empty roads meandering through little hillocks)
(Just after Magnetic hill)
The roads continued to be brilliant and at many places we were running parallel to the Indus and other rivers. The landscape was as dry as it can get and the occasional farm adjoining river-bank settlements were welcome respites from the different shades of brown. The landscape changed dramatically (yet again) as we were approaching Lamayuru.
(Landscape at the start of Lamayuru)
Lamayuru has a monastery complex, a short climb from the main road. We stopped at a little hotel cum home on the road. It was run by a Ladakhi woman and her husband. The food was good and wholesome – chapati, rice, rajma curry, some saag that had potatoes and salad.
(Landscape after Lamayuru)
It was a day of easy riding so we took out time relaxing after that lunch before starting again. Within an hour we had climbed up to FotuLa, which is the highest point on the Srinagar-Leh highway. Effortless climb compared to our early climbs up passes. The frequency of settlements increased after this pass. Often, kids from these villages would run behind our bikes. If we stopped, the kids pestered us for chocolates. I gave away all the chocolates I was carrying to these kids.
(View from the top of Fotu La)
(Village kids from the area between Lamayuru and Mulbek)
At around 6:30, we reached Mulbek town, which has a statue of the Maitreya Buddha next to the road. The road then lost its pristine character here and the road was reduced to a dust field. By now a storm had started to form in the distance. Thankfully, it didn't rain - in fact it hadn't rained at all after the deluge at Rohtang.
(Cricket in the mountains)
I had lost contact with my friends in the stretch after Mulbek and by the time I rode into Kargil, I had no idea where they were. I rode through the length of the town, during which I realised how shabby the place is. I did eventually meet my friends, but the town really put me off. There was garbage everywhere.
We were asked to look for accommodation at the Dak Bungalow (which was basically the government guest house). It turned out to be on the top of a steep hill and was unsurprisingly full. There was a second wing of the Dak bungalow in the town below – that too was completely booked. In fact all the hotels we went to were full.
(Just after Mulbek)
While roaming around, I met a group of bikers. The guy I spoke to had come with a YHAI group based in Gujrat. They had biked all the way, most from Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar. There were around 10 bikers – most of them middle-aged Gujrati uncles with DSG riding gear. They had many support vehicles in tow for their wives. If they got tired, they too would hop in the car for a break. I could see that they were all drained from the experience – many of them had never ridden their bikes out of Gujrat. The heat of Rajasthan and the hellish roads at ZojiLa had taken its toll on them and to add insult to injury, their huge contingent couldn't find a hotel with enough rooms for all. We were probably the only two groups in Kargil left without accommodation.
In the end we ended up in the same hotel. They had booked two entire floors and we had one double room for the five of us. We had to pay 2500/- for the room –more than double of what we had paid for any accommodation in this trip. The main-in-charge was a short, thin guy in tight pants. He had the aura of a younger Dev Anand that had walked into Govinda's closet. He was very shady and I wouldn't be surprised if this hotel was a front for more sinister activities. We settled in our luxurious room and then went out for food. Kargil has limited options and after 10 your options are down to a handful. The place we went to was again very shabby and the only thing they had was rice and chicken fry. It was OK, not as good as what I have come to expect from Muslim joints. The owners spoke a very strange sounding language. Throughout our meal, we made guesses as to what it was and in the end agreed that it was Pashtun.
Kargil was a forgettable experience but the highlight of the day was the YHAI group. Got to admire their spirit. It's never too late to start exploring, not even if you are on the wrong side of 50.