It was just a few minutes after 2 am that I was shaken out of my deep sleep by prayers in a nearby mosque. The loudspeakers sounded as if there were focused into my room. Any further sleep was out of the question. Before going to sleep last night I had kept the alarm for 3.30 am, but this sounded like one from the One above. I decided to get ready and leave for Leh. When I came down to the reception just after 2.30 am the receptionist could not believe his eyes. And I could not too, as a car was parked just behind mine in the hotel portico. That had to be removed if I had to leave. Fortunately, by the time I settled the bills the security guard returned with the owner of the car. I apologized to him for waking him up at that hour. Before leaving the hotel I told the receptionist that I would be back for some more rest from Leh later in the day and that he should retain D-3 for me. He agreed, as had the young man who had allotted the room to me the previous night.
By 2.45 am I was on the road to Leh. I had only the lights of the car to guide me and it was pitch dark. Moreover, the road for 30 odd km till Mulbekh was quite bad and I had to be extremely cautious. Thereafter, it was very good till Leh. The second corner was ‘captured’ by 7.30 am; 220 km took me nearly five hours, but that is to be expected in the hills. The toughest of the four corners was thus over.
Yesterday, on the way from Srinagar, which is at 5200 ft, I had passed Zoji La at 11865 ft and stayed in Kargil which was at 8800 ft. On the way to Leh this morning I passed the Fotu La top at 13479 ft, which is the highest point on the Srinagar-Leh road; Leh is itself at 11500 ft. Since the drive to Zoji La had been slow, though excruciatingly so at times, it helped my body to gradually acclimatize to the altitude. But this morning the ‘climb’ from 8800 ft to 13000 plus was faster and I suspected that I was a bit affected. I shrugged it off as a ‘psychological illusion’ and continued onwards to Leh. The descent of about 2000 ft from Fotu La to Leh in quick time certainly calmed the ‘tremors’.
Instead of going to the local police station for log sheet attestation I went to the premier hotel in Leh, Golden Dragon. I had stayed at this hotel in 2012, thanks to my late friend, George. I had been ceremonially flagged off from there on 11 June 2012 by the hotel’s owner, Mustafa, my friends George and Tashi, Avinav of Muthoot Finance and Mishra and his CRPF constables to start my North-South solo drive from Leh to Kanyakumari. Therefore, I thought it appropriate to drop in and renew an old friendship with Mustafa. Unfortunately, I was told that he was away in Delhi on a business trip. I dropped a couple of books at the reception for him and got the log sheets attested. Thereafter, I proceeded to the restaurant of the hotel for a hot breakfast. Mustafa is an exceptionally gifted painter. He neither sells them nor does he gift them. Many of his paintings adorn the lovely hotel reception and rooms. The subject is mostly local landscape and life.
I was off in an hour from Leh after a few photographs at the ‘foot’ of the Leh Palace from the erstwhile Polo Ground, which had been converted into a massive parking facility. The dust and grime in Leh was certainly a turn-off; the result of some haphazard town planning works like drainage and road widening. After topping up fuel in one of the fuel stations in Leh I made haste to Kargil. I afforded myself the luxury of brief halts to admire the confluence of the Indus and the Zanskar rivers, the Fotu La top, Lamayaru monastery and the Magnetic Hill. Later, closer to Kargil, I met Nazeer and Rinshad. They had planned to leave at 6 am for Leh, but that had stretched to after 9! The winding roads added to the lack of sleep; the sleep forgone, in the excitement of getting to the second corner, was catching up and by the time I reached PC Palace at 1.15 pm I was extremely sleepy. The receptionist handed over the key to the room without a demur, even though the official check out time was well past over. I took a nap in the comfortable room for an hour and before 3 pm I readied for the ambitious drive to Srinagar.
The SIMs had been non-functional since Sonamarg yesterday. I had to ask the DIG if he would be able to accommodate me in case I drove through to Srinagar this day. Alternative plans had to be discussed with Rajiv Shah too. Therefore, from the hotel reception in Leh I got through to both of them. The DIG told me that VIPs are due to visit the camp this day and that accommodation would be scarce. However, he told me to check with him after I got to Sonamarg.
In an hour from leaving the hotel in Kargil I passed Dras; temperatures in winter drop to minus 45C here. And then the ordeal began. Humongous hold ups took place in the narrow reaches between Dras and Baltal, which included the Zoji La. The drive to Sonamarg was causing concern; I had to pass the checkpoint before 5pm. Sometimes traffic hardly moved. Good Samaritans and sensible drivers saved added blushes. Poor maintenance of such strategic road linkages is a matter of concern. And it also began to rain. Fortunately, MapMyIndia guided me without any glitch from Sonamarg, even though the lonely ride in some places was spooky. In the meanwhile, the SIMs kicked to life and I had news from the DIG that he would be able to accommodate me overnight in the guest house, where I reached well past 9 pm. Over 650 km of one of the most challenging roads in India had been done in the day and was deeply satisfying. More satisfying was the fact that the schedule was back on track. No loss, No gain! And, there was just one more day of anxiety to go in J&K – the balance two corners could be done under far less stressful conditions, I knew.