October 26, 2015
There is a popular saying - opportunity seldom knocks twice and whenever it knocks at our door we have to grab it. This is what I did when Yuva Brigade, an organisation formed a year ago to mobilise and channelize youth energy and inculcate nationalism and patriotism, arranged a tour of Jammu Kashmir and Leh Ladakh aptly titled “LoC Sahas Yatra”. Conducting tours of various places of India known for their historical, religious, cultural, and political and military significance is one of the objectives of Yuva Brigade to acquaint youngsters with our country and its unique culture.
As the title suggests visiting LoC and other border areas was planned and a Youth Hostel friend had buzzed me in advance about the opportunity for others like me to be part of the group. The tour included visiting Srinagar, Uri (LOC) Kargil, Khardungla Pass and Pangong Lake Leh Ladakh, visiting army camps, air defence base and interacting with soldiers. To top it all it was an opportunity to feel the thrill of traversing on Asia’s most adventurous road way. I was the lone lady in a group of 115 and need I say I enjoyed every minute of this 15 day tour. Food is the major challenge on a lengthy outstation tour and credit goes to Vikram Travels which arranged the tour so meticulously and without any shortcomings and with timely food.
A group pic in KWM
A glimpse of Ladakhi Culture
A group pic in KWM
After Sindhu Darshana
At the gate of Aman Kaman Bridge
Atop Khardungla Pass
Camera Pose in NH 1D
Few Mangaloreans with Chakravarthy
Floating Boats in Dal Lake
The very mention of Line of Control or LoC - the military control of line between Indian and Pakistani controlled parts of Jammu and Kashmir conjures images of violence, conflict, deaths of our soldiers and civilians, military infiltration, ceasefire violation, civilian protest and so on. Most of us get only to hear and see visuals through various media when situation escalates following firing, militant activities or other incidents. To see is to believe goes a popular saying and that was the main intent of this tour.
The actual tour on train began on October 1 and the group reached Udhampur and reached Srinagar. Some of us started late as we travelled by air to land directly in Srinagar. By October 4 evening the entire group was in Srinagar and the excitement was quite palpable in the team because this was an adventurous tour of a different nature. On 4th evening a few of us decided to explore local market and the first thing our eyes searched for was for military personnel. Contrary to the impression we carried, we could not find many of them on the streets. We headed to the once notorious Lal Chowk area, which is now bustling with lot of activity selling everything from winter clothes to wooden artefacts. Of course there were a few gun holding military men around the Lal Chowk. The evening gave us an opportunity to get a taste of the much acclaimed Kashmiri street food but we exercised restraint considering that we had a long tour ahead. After going around the city, those who harboured any fears about the situation in Srinagar definitely heaved a sigh of relief.
Local sightseeing was the first day’s programme. On October 5 we visited the famous Nishat and Shishma Shai Mughal Gardens where colourful flowers of diverse sizes and colours were in full bloom. It is the best place for photographs and we had plenty of them. For a short period I became “Kashmir ki Kali” by wearing traditional Kashmiri costumes paying 100 bucks. The ancient Shankaracharya temple located on top of a hill was our next destination. After going through tight security check we climbed the 243 stairs to reach the top to the temple dedicated to Lord Shiva to see the beautiful Shivalinga. Our eyes feasted on the beauty of Srinagar in all its gloriousness from top of the hill. The group spent some time praying meditating in the divine environs of the temple premises.
Afternoon was reserved to visit the famous Dal Lake the jewel of Srinagar, familiarised to all Indians by late Shammi Kappor. Shikara (ride in a boat) in Dal lake is quite a bracing experience and I could instantly recall Shammi Kapoor wooing an young enchantress in Sharmila Tagore in the song “yeh chaand ka roshan chehra” when she is on the Shikara. .Floating boats approached us everything - jewellery, costumes, eatables, flowers and vegetables. It was a perfect sojourn as the golden rays of the evening sun reflected on the cool waters of the Dal Lake and we could feel the evening chill enveloping us slowly.
The connecting bridge
Srinagar was like a transit point and the actual tour began on October 6 as we rose early morning to go to Uri town in Baramulla District along LOC. We had a special permission to visit here from defence ministry and army. Along the road we across the beautiful Chinar and Kashmir Willow trees. As we travelled we realised we were travelling along the actual LOC. We first went to Vasanth Sainik Institute in Uri and were received with great warmth by the sainiks headed by Brigadier Piyush Gupta and we were offered refreshments. The soldiers were quite overwhelmed when the group gave them packets of sweet carried to give it to them.
It was our first interaction with the soldiers and we soon moved to reach the friendship bridge known as Aman Kaman Setu. It is the bridge on the LoC launched in 2005 that connects the two sides India and PoK and is open for trade and civilians. Just as we reached Kaman Post, the last military post on the Indian side and were waiting to get inside we saw garishly decorated Pakistani trade trucks coming into India. We then went close to Aman Kaman Setu and were excited to come near the LoC from where we could see PoK at a distance of 75 meters. Army men from both sides keep tight vigil on the bridge. From this side I could see movement of the white flag closely followed by movement of people. Only later did we realise that the Pakistani army had become vigilant on seeing such a large gathering resulting in our men showing the white peace flag.
A lunch with army men was another exciting aspect and an interaction with them answered most of the queries we had. When Yuva Brigade leader Chakravarthi Sulibele explained to them that the group came to visit them and see the conditions in which they work, a sense of gratitude enveloped them. “Only our enemies and best friends visit this place. You have demonstrated you are our true friends”, said one of the soldiers.
We came back to Srinagar and in the evening had an interaction with a Kashmiri Journalist Rameez Makhdoomi. On October 7 we travelled to another most awaited destination - Kargil. Travelling a distance of 230 kms NH 1D which connects Srinagar to Leh Ladakh is quite an stimulating experience. NH 1 D is one of the only two roads connecting Ladakh with Srinagar and the rest of India, the other being the Leh-Manali Highway. For most part the road managed by Border Road Organisation (BRO) runs through an extremely meandering and treacherous landscape. This road is open to traffic only from June to October end every year as it remains cut off due to heavy snowfall in some of the highest passes enroute. While many sat on the edge of their seats with a pounding heart covering deep ascents and hairpin curves for me it was an awe-inspiring and thrilling. The road is so narrow in some places; one of the tires of the vehicles is almost on the edge of the pebbled road on the side of the deep valley down – a situation like getting caught between devil and the deep sea.
After travelling about 80 kilometers passing through some of the breathtaking scenes, hills and peaks and wooden bungalows we come to the fascinating Sonmarg, the land of the golden meadows. It is feast to the eyes to see the meadow flush with golden hues. The journey through Zoji La pass was the toughest and most adventurous in the entire journey period. Steeply high ascents, broken and patchy roads with blind curves and high rise mountains on one side and steep deep valley on the other leaving space for only one vehicle to move, is enough to make anyone sit on the edge of the seat with eyes closed. Not many of us are aware that there was a Kargil war in 1948 against Pakistan wherein our great army general Thimmyya’s bold and daring decision to deploy Stuart light tanks at the very Zoji La pass at 12000 ft above sea level, had vanquished the enemy resulting in India recapturing the pass from Pakistan.
Kargil - Sacrifice not forgotten
Having passed through the tortuous terrain it was bliss to reach village Dras in Kargil district where we are reminded of the Kargil war of 1999 and the gallant sacrifice of our soldiers in safeguarding our territory. Drass actually means hell and it is an irony that it houses the Kargil War Memorial. Here we were once again greeted with warmth by the army officials. They had made arrangements to enable all members of the group to pay homage to the martyred soldiers who died defending the motherland.
In Kaman waiting for Pakistani Trucks
In Lal Chowk
Interacting with Soldiers in Vasant Sainik Institute
Kargil War Memorial Full View
Kargil War Memorial
Meandering Road on NH 1D
NH 1 D Highway
On the way to Khartungla Pass
Painting Offered to Soldiers at Kargil War Memorial
Paying Tributes to Martyrs of Kargil
Posing for a Pic
Queue for Lunch
Sonmarg - Food for thought
Spe Pangong Lake
Visit to Kargil War Memorial
With Army Officers at Vasant Sainik Institute
With Light Weight Helicopter Dhruv in Ladakh Air Base
With Soldiers in Kargil with Army Base Camp
With Students Near Nehru Kunda in Mughal Garden
Walking through Vijay Path and reaching the memorial with the mighty Tololing top overlooking the memorial, sent shivers down my spine. “Your supreme sacrifices not forgotten”, I managed to mutter when my turn came to pay tribute to the martyrs. A look at this vast hill and many such enemy captured posts and I could imagine the unfavourable position faced by Indian soldiers in Kargil war and the daunting task they had on hand. Tololing top was the first peak captured by Indian army during the Kargil war, facing Pakistani offensive against great odds and that success was the turning point of the war. Enemy army had captured vital posts and were directly targeting NH 1 D with the diabolical plan to cut off Ladakh from Srinagar. When soldier Vishal Chhetri of Gorkha battalion explained the details of the Kargil war in a ten minute briefing giving details of the war we were in tears and were surged with a feeling of gratitude to the soldiers. The memorial has a huge epitaph containing names of officers and soldiers who died in wars.
The War Memorial also houses an MIG aircraft, Major Manoj Pande gallery, a museum showing photos and other details of the war. Captured Pakistani bunkers are also part of the war memorial. After having tea and snacks with army officials a special painting carried from Bangalore was handed over to the army officials and we took their leave with a heavy heart. Walking back on Vijay Path I read epitaph on the entrance of the memorial “for their tomorrow, we gave our today” – a true reminder of the sacrifice of our soldiers.
Every day dinner was followed by a bithak chaired by Chakravarthi Sulibele popularly called “Anna” by yuva brigade members. In the Bithak members shared their experiences and Anna briefed us what to expect on the next day’s tour. So, all of us knew in advance what to expect on the next day.
On October 8, it was 40 kms journey to Leh from Kargil and enroute we saw the rock carved Budha statue, visited Lamayuur Buddha Monastery, witnessed the sangam –the confluence of Indus and Zhanskar rivers and Gurudwara Pathar Saheb. Of course the journey enroute was simply mesmerising as we were greeted to Leh by the beauty of its peaks in all its hues – red, purple, bluish green, brown, pink and golden yellow and lot more. The beauty of the peaks is different, distinctive, something that words cannot explain or cameras cannot capture doing full justice. It just left me speechless and stupefied.
Ladakh’s unsurpassed beauty
We reached Leh at around 9 pm and the biting cold was quite a challenge for us. The next day a big misfortune awaited us as two of our tempo travellers completely got burnt. The incident occurred in the wee hours at around 3.30 am and no harm was done to any persons. Fortunately, drivers could remove other vehicles which were parked in a row and save a bigger tragedy. The cause of the fire is not known though short circuit could be a reason. However, considering the mistrust between Srinagar and Ladakh people there were a few who talked about sabotage. In fact vehicles from Ladakh are not allowed to move around in Ladakh and the same holds true about vehicles from Ladakh in Srinagar. Hence, prior arrangements of local vehicle were arranged by Vikarm Travels.
October 9 was our tryst with Khardungla Pass, a journey through the highest motorable road in the world. After going through another meandering journey we reached Khardung La pass - 18,380 ft above sea level. Some were feeling dizzy, as the oxygen level decreases at higher altitude. This road is an important connectivity to India as men and materials are supplied to Siachen glacier through this route. A few of us climbed the ice clad peak and got enthralled by the surrounding beauty of lush green valley and imposing peaks. We were advised to spend only 30 minutes here as a precautionary measure to avoid altitude sickness.
The esoteric beauty of Khardungla pass remained etched in my mind even after our return. Members of the Ladakhi cultural organisation of Tibet entertained us showcasing their culture and tradition in dance form and we enjoyed the 1 ½ hour cultural extravaganza that gave us a glimpse of Ladakhi culture, tradition, and costume.
Ladakh is breathtakingly beautiful and we feel its hills and mountains actually speak in a language of their own. On October 10 it was another 160 km journey to Pangong Lake, the lake where the final scenes of “3 Idiots” were shot. The crystal clear and colourful water of this lake is seen to be believed - the water takes the colour of the peaks those envelopes it and colour keeps changing constantly. It was the best destination for photography and we indulged in it with delight. Only 30% of this 135 kms long lake comes under India and the remaining under China. A few kms from this area actually forms the border with China.
Local sightseeing in Ladakh was on the last day October 11 and our schedule was jam packed for the day. The first programme was Sindhu Darshana and to go with the significance most members were seen clad in traditional jubba panche. A pooja was conducted on the bank of Indus river, the very river that gave India its name. Visiting the Sindhu river bank has great religious significance for Hindus and naturally members were in a jubilant mood having touched the sacred waters of the Indus.
In Ladakh we visited Indian Army and Indian Air Force base. In the army base we saw military weapons namely Rocket Launchers and Radars and an official explained to us on how they work, its range, operation etc. In the air force base we saw helicopters that take regular supplies to fellow army men stationed in Siachen glacier. We got a chance to know the working of Chethak, Cheetah and indigenously built Dhruv Helicopters and we were even allowed to get inside it and their role especially in Siachen Glacier.
From army base we moved to the Hall of Fame. Though lunch time had already passed we did not realised as we were fed on the heroic stories of our soldiers. Hall of fame gives a bird’s eye view of the achievements of soldiers of Kargil Leh Ladakh region in the form of pictures, drawings, comparison details of Indian army vis-a-vis others and the various programmes conducted by the army for the civilians.
Finally we visited Tikshey monastery and unfortunately had to abrogate our visit to another historically important Hemis Monastery because it gets closed by 5 pm. Hemis Monastery has historical significance because it is widely believed that Jesus Christ had come to India and was in Hemis during the lost years between 17 and 30. While in Ladakh we took great pleasure in greeting all saying “julle”, meaning Namaste or even goodbye.
On October 12 we were to return on the same route in the TT’s we had come from Srinagar. Interestingly we had received an invite to visit Kargil army base camp on our return and that was what the group wanted. We reached the base camp much later than expected as two of our TT’s had their tyres punctured midway. We found army men waiting for us without having tea and snacks. We missed the helicopter aerobatics the soldiers were to perform for us as part of their practice. We were given a warm welcome by the officers and soldiers. We saw the largest contingent of soldiers here and we were eager to photographs with them. They were happy to receive sweets from our group though we told them the sweets may not be sufficient to all. “Even if you give us a grain of sugar one of us will eat and we all will feel the sweetness”, said Sameer Jafer, the officer at the base camp.
It touched our heart when he said “all we ask is modern weapons and nothing else so that we can deal with the enemy effectively”. Once again we bid adieu to the soldiers and began our return journey. On the way back just an hour before reaching Srinagar we visited Kheer Bhavani Temple one of the very few Hindu temples remaining in Srinagar. The temple is guarded by a strong contingent of CRPF men and all the poojas and other activities are conducted under security vigilance. It was evening when we reached the temple. The temple premise is filled with huge Chinar trees and the chirping of the birds was like treat to the eyes and music to the ears. It makes one go into a trance immediately.
That was the last day of our tour in Srinagar and and we did not want to return without tasting Kashmiri Wazwan and kahwa tea. So three of us (non vegetarians) headed to the famous hotel and finally tasted Wazwan the famous Kashmir dish prepared with all mutton items and the must taste Kahwa tea.
Those travelling by train left hotel early morning of October 14 at 4.30am and our flights were scheduled for the afternoon. Due to security reasons air travellers have to get down from taxi and check luggage and then put back luggage in taxi and travel another kilometre to reach airport. So by 11 we were asked to be ready with luggage to go the airport. I reached Bangalore same night and travelled by night bus to reach Mangalore on 15th morning.
It was our good fortune that Vikram Travels had made arrangements to provide fresh and homely food for the members. 7 cooks and 6 tour managers were part of the tour to cater to 103 members of the group and it was one of the highlights of the tour.
I have undertaken many adventurous tours but this was a different kind a tour that gave us opportunity to see the borders from close range, to interact with soldiers, listen to them, see their working conditions, get to know more about the army, about the sacrifices made by them to safeguard us, the extreme weather and difficult terrain on which they have to work. It was an adventurous tour in its own way and I treasure that patriotic feeling surging in me every time I met the soldiers and army officials. The pulsating drive on NH 1 D and the antiques of our TT driver (Desi Mr Bean) added more punch to our fun.
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