Extreme Himalaya Highway – Srinagar to Leh Road #1

It was a road we thought we’d never travel. And mountain vistas that we’d never see. But it happened. By good luck.

Beginning the climb up the steep mountain road from Sonamarg towards the high pass into Ladakh.

The strategic 434 km Srinagar-Leh Highway, built by the military and the only route linking the Ladakh region with the rest of Jammu and Kashmir state was still closed. As it is, most of the year.

narrow road Srinagar Leh Highway India
First day traffic snakes carefully along the route towards the high pass on the Srinagar Leh Highway.

Blocked by winter snows. Cleared by army engineers in spring. And randomly open earlier or later depending on the snowfall each year and the progress of road clearance.

Srinagar Leh Highway mountain pass
One steep plunge straight down … Route towards the high pass. (NOTE: in a picture this size you can’t see the tiny vehicles on the road ahead).

But we got lucky. 

Earlier, I had impulsively booked flights from Cambodia to India when Wei said she was keen to go and sudden cheap tickets shone in my web browser. Done. Bought. We’re going, Babe.

(Such is the nature of THE CANDY TRAIL – nearly 30 years of often-spontaneous and random travel amid calmer periods of nomadic living and teaching).

Anyway, we were enjoying the tranquility of hanging out on a houseboat on Dal Lake in Srinagar in the Himalayan foothills of Kashmir, when our luck doubled again.


You see, the restrictive cheap-flight date and a limited Indian e-visa meant we had arrived at the wrong time of year, technically a bit early before the road usually opened.

And so with only a narrow margin of travel time for Ladakh, flying into Leh was our only option.

Srinagar Leh Highway
The Srinagar Leh Highway is one of India’s greatest road trips.

But amid one of the houseboats alongside us were an older, well-travelled couple who soon become good friends.

They were determined to try the road and had been waiting a week for news of its opening. They asked us about sharing a chartered jeep for the 2 day journey from Srinagar to Leh. We were keen.

ladakh ice trench on road
Wei dwarfed by the ice flows recently cut out from the road on route to Leh at the Zoji La Pass @ 3529 meters. It’s considered the most difficult and avalanche prone part of the route and remains closed for much of the year.

Lynn is a 70+ Australian guy with a head of white hair, still mischievous and living as colorful as life gets.

From his late-teenage runaway days fleeing the Vietnam draft to evolving into a 60s India overland backpacker truck-tour driver to a highly-successful businessman and then a hotelier in Bali and a father of two 20-somethings; yeah, he’s been around. And to flesh it out further, Lynn is also a gifted card player. Apparently scoring many prizes, including the winning of his wife in a poker game !

Crossing the valley after hazardous high pass road

Vivi is 15 years his junior. She is Danish and as a young woman was on her way to Australia from Bali to start a nursing job when she lost her game to Lynn. She was given an ultimatum: “Pay me or marry me.” The latter option was to prove a great choice.

The stunning snowy valley high pass on road across Ladakh. The mountains all around this region were a war zone when Pakistan and India fought the high altitude Kargil War in 1999.

We traveled in a hired 4WD with local driver and a guide from Mumbai as the 5th paying passenger – Sunny, who was returning to Leh to work in the coming tourist season – we were an excited, jovial team, delighted to be making this trip on the very-first day of the Srinagar Leh highway opening.

It was a journey of diverse beauty. A real mind blow. And thanks to Lynn and Vivi, we did it.

On the road as a traveler, life seems paved with luck.

kargil scenery srinagar leh highway
Lush valley scenery around Kargil, looking like northern Pakistan at about the halfway point on the Srinagar Leh Highway, as the start of the trip was thru Muslim-dominated lands.
kargil drass leh highway ladakh
TOP LEFT: Drass – looking like Tajikistan; TOP RIGHT: shepherds near Kargil; MIDDLE: Lynn about to throw a snowball at Wei (in Drass, 2nd coldest inhabited place in the world; well, not on this day. But I imagine the wind tunnel effect here in winter might be something else); BOTTOM: Leaving Kargil at beginning of day 2.
Srinagar Leh Highway ladakh valley scene
The high-altitude desert appears … complete with classic Tibetan villages amid fertile river valleys and stark arid peaks on the Srinagar Leh Highway in northern India.
buddha rock carving ladakh
That Tibetan feeling really begins … At Mulbekh, an ancient, 8-meter Buddhist rock carving and small monastery on route to Leh. The carving is over 2000 years old.
tibetan temple interior scenes
Friendly monk at the Chamba Gompa (monastery) at Mulbekh. RIGHT: pilgrim prays in the courtyard of the above monastery.

Srinagar Leh Highway  – TRAVEL ADVICE

The road is only open a few months a year. Beginning around late May or early June and closed by September. Winter is not the time to visit Ladakh unless you’re ice trekking, and then you will need to fly into Leh.

While shared jeeps – and occasional mini-buses – do this route they do it across a single 15+ hour day. This is unadvisable, since you really need to acclimatise slowly to higher altitude to avoid suffering AMS. So best to break the journey halfway, and stay overnight in Kargil.

Secondly, hiring a jeep with 4 or 5 travelers is roughly the same price as the public fare (after bargaining, around $40 each) but with a more comfortable vehicle and the freedom to include sightseeing and photo stops.

Like you need to be told but … take warm clothes. While it’s surprisingly warm/even hot during Summer; nights get chilly, and rain and wind will change the game.

READ part #2: Crossing Ladakh – “Little Tibet” on Srinagar to Leh Road #2

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