Waking up at 4am to catch a bus was not a part of the ideal travel recipe but in the mountains where the roads are precarious you start early and try to reach early. This is the simplest road rule. When a driver who has years of experience of driving on the mountains tell you these things, it makes your journey a lot more intimidating.
It was still dark, when I walked out of my hotel. The horizons brightened only when we began climbing up the winding mountain roads out of the valley. It was a government bus. Forty seats fully occupied; few standing and three people stashed in a two seater. It was supposed to be a long journey from Kargil to Leh but people kept hoping into the bus like they were on for a short ride.
We stopped for breakfast around 7 am at a small roadside dhaba. From there on we began to notice the cultural shift. Firstly, small gompas and prayer flags and then the monasteries. We drove through miles and miles of barren mountains, rocks loosely hanging together. No one lived on the mountains and at times the open space and the desolateness was comforting.
The only settlements were at the lower valley, mostly near a spring or a river. After driving miles and miles we arrived at Lamayuru. It is a small village by the Sringar-Leh highway and known for the revered Lamayuru monastery. Had I known any better I would have loved to stop a night at Lamayuru. The monastery dates back to 14th century and the village is considered as a Buddhist cultural centre in Ladakh. The monastery was uniquely built on a rise that looked more like hardened sand dunes and not at all like a rock. A big congregation had assembled at the ground for a Buddhist ceremony. Foreign tourists usually stop here. Lamayuru monastery is one of the most picturesque places I have seen.
Some of the sights along the road cannot be ignored. The Lamayuru Moonland is few minutes drive from Lamayuru village. The name derives from its resemblance with the moon surface. This strange rock formation was a sight out of nowhere. Something I couldn’t have made up on my own. We were engrossed with the landscape when suddenly we heard screams. Then we saw people running towards us, out of a thick dust that clumps the road ahead. Our bus abruptly came to a halt. There was panic in everyone’s breath. The driver recomposed and drove us out. The dust was ballooning towards us and we couldn’t see a thing in front. It was a bright day and we hadn’t expected landslide on such day but rocks hung loosely, exposing the uncertainty and dangers along the way. Luckily there was another way round but it was high up on the mountains, more dangerous and hardly a two way road. We escaped unscathed but the road was blocked for few good hours.
The view of the mountains and steep cliff from that road was terrifying but it was rewarding as well. We would have missed out on many beautiful sights had we not been intercepted by landslide. The rock formation and the colour of the mountains, shaped by the wind, rain and the minerals made an engaging sight.
It took us great deal of time to come back to the valley, but from there the road was much safer. Few patches of green adorned the riverbanks and they were a stark contrast to the sight we had seen throughout our ride. We stopped at Khalsi for lunch. It is a nice town with an ATM and nice clean restaurants.
We passed though the Magnetic Hill before entering Leh. Contrary to the popular belief that the hill has strong magnetic properties; it has been dismissed as an optical illusion and nothing more. But still the name makes the place so much more interesting like some place from a science fiction film. Than we passed through a vast stretch of valley before driving into Leh; a city that looks more like an oasis in the middle of a desert.