Information gathered from a couple of credible local sources last eveningindicated that it would take about 5 hours to cover the 225 km from Kargil to Leh on the third day of the Trans Himalayan Expedition. Khardung La Top is also part of the expedition route. I reasoned that if I started early enough I would be able to cover Khardung La on the same day, leaving the following day for an uninterrupted drive from Leh to Manali. So it was to a 5 am start. Mercifully the water heater in the bathroom did a commendable job and I was ready in time for the intended start.
When I negotiated the first 50 km of the Kargil-Leh road I wondered if the estimate of 5 hours was understated. Some parts of the road were in extremely bad condition and it was difficult to negotiate it in poor early morning light. However, after the early hiccups, the condition of the road improved substantially and I reached Leh in 4 hours and 20 minutes, navigating 225 km! The feature of the drive to Leh was Fotu La, which at 13479 ft is the highest point on the route, higher than the Zoji La. All through the drive exceptional landscape was on offer showcasing Nature's art. The weather was well behaved too. It had been an awesome drive even though some of the roads are under construction.
The ‘smart drive’ to Leh encouraged me no end and I decided to do the Khardung la Top also that very day. I fuelled at a HP fuel station and confirmed from the fuel station attendant that the return trip from Leh to Khardung La could be done in 3 hours. It was alright at the beginning of the drive to Khardung La. But closer to the Top I experienced snowflakes wafting on to the windshield and then slight snow on mountain peaks. Then came the long queue of cars and trucks. The unseasonal snowfall had led to humongous delays and holdup on the way up to the Top with some vehicles getting stuck in muck and melted snow, wheel slipping being a major hassle. I took me close to 3 hours to get to the crest of the Pass. At 18380 ft the Khardungla Pass is the highest motorable road in the world. I was indeed excited to be there in my car. The thrill I experienced was very different from the first time I was here in 2008. This time I had driven to the Top.
Once I had got to the Top my idea was to take a few pictures and return to Leh. The souvenir shop was closed. But my efforts to get a few pictures done were thwarted time and again by insensitive tourists who felt they owned the place. They wouldn’t vacate the strategic point till after they had done their ‘perfect’ shoot. And that took a lot of time and keeping the temper in check required a lot of deep gulps of the cold air.
The return drive to Leh from the Top was a breeze. I reached Leh in slightly over an hour and started searching for the place I was to stay. Finally located the army establishment with a couple of jawans who were headed to the same Camp. After I got to the Mess there was some confusion about the allotment. In time it was sorted out and I had a commodious room all to myself in the large Mess. I worked on social media posts over many cups of hot tea. And dinner was an elaborate affair. In between I reworked the luggage and the eatables, cleaned the car and gave the windshield a proper wash. The J&K part of the expedition had gone off well and tomorrow I will be moving to Himachal Pradesh.