Sitting in a beaten-up Land Rover, being choked with dust, whilst perching perilously over a mile-high canyon is not everyone’s idea of fun: however, this was the situation I found myself in on the infamous Srinagar to Manali Road.
I was in the ‘Himalayan India,’ the polar opposite to the scorching plains and ‘India on steroids’ of well documented Rajasthan and Delhi. Having flown in directly from Delhi, I had no idea what to expect of Kashmir. A region infamous for political tension and violence, I half expected to be hearing machine gun fire in the distance. Yet, surprisingly, Kashmir is the epitome of calm and tranquillity. At its heart is the city of Srinagar, its ‘summer capital.’ Flanked by the pine-forest clad foothills of the Himalayas, Srinagar is a small British colonial city built on the famous ‘Dal Lake.’ The ‘thing’ to do here is to stay on a houseboat, remnants of when the British used to holiday here. A sort of ‘Quasi-Venice,’ Srinagar offers the opportunity to really get away from it all, with the only reason to leave your houseboat being the necessity to get to your next destination.
Skilled in the art of canoeing, sellers arrive bearing all sorts of goods, ranging from bananas to sapphires, and you can pick and choose whatever you like. The calmness of the lake, resplendent in lilies and the surrounding backdrop of the magnificent Himalaya, is echoed within the people. Principally Muslim, the citizens of Srinagar are calm and serene. With no blaring car horns or in-your-face street sellers, it is hard to imagine that you are in India at all. The only noise made is the call to prayer; an almost otherworldly sound in an otherworldly place. And if you can ever be tempted to leave your houseboat, which believe me is a challenge in itself, then the nearby Dachigam National Park provides the ultimate entertainment: Himalayan Black Bears and Leopards, so rare elsewhere, are a common occurrence. But the greatest thing about Srinagar is the fact that it is so un-touristy: Get there before this inevitably changes!
Moving onward towards Ladakh and its capital, Leh, requires some guts. The hazardous journey is beset by high mountain passes with dizzying drops: terrifying when your driver finds it amusing to drive as fast as he can in an attempt to get there before nightfall: with no headlights! But the reward is one that you won’t forget in a hurry: Leh is possibly one of the most scenic towns on the planet. Flanked by snow-capped mountains of over 6000 meters, the town is dwarfed, and it’s hard not to feel awe-inspired. The predominantly Buddhist culture of Ladakh is the antithesis to the hectic chaos of most of India, and Leh is the perfect retreat to escape to if that all gets a bit much. But for the adventurous, there is plenty still to do. Regular white-water rafting trips on the nearby Zanskar River, treks deeper into the mountains, and the cycle down the ‘world’s highest motorable road’ provide ample entertainment for the active traveler.
Following on from Leh, comes the 16 hour traverse to Manali and Himachal Pradesh. More a ‘track’ than a road, this is another example of Indian motoring gone bonkers. But if you’ve survived the journey from Srinagar, what’s to stop you from getting to Manali?!
© Sam Hopkins