The road stealthily winds its way out of the lush pasturelands of Baltal, in Kashmir's northern Ganderbal district. From the dizzying heights, the valley below is fast reduced to a distant speck of green, set in a bowl formed by towering snow clad peaks. Rough, narrow and treacherous, and strewn with enormous boulders, the road finally winds its way up to the Zoji-la, which, at almost 12,000 feet high, is the only motorable pass leading from the verdant Kashmir Valley below to the icy wastes of Ladakh beyond. Salim, our driver, insists we move on, but I plead with him to stop for a bit. I clamber out of the van and stand at the edge of the road, overlooking a sharp precipice. The scene is stunning: dizzyingly tall peaks soaring up into an empty, turquoise blue sky; crags upon crags, till as far as one can see; a massive eagle majestically sailing over the heights till it suddenly swoops down into a deep ravine, having spotted an unknown prey; the icy winds that howl and hurl and hit themselves with an irrepressible fury against my face.
Descending the Zoji-la, we chug through a massive, a kilometre-long corridor, bounded on either side by giant blocks of ice. It is mid-June, the peak of summer, but the ice remains, firm and deep. The corridor opens out into an enormous snow field, interspersed with giant rocks, and then on to a gently undulating green pasture. Further down, the road passes through tiny settlements of flat-roofed mud brick buildings set amidst fields bursting with buckwheat and lined with apricot trees. Their inhabitants are, for the most part, Dardi Muslims, said to be of Afghan descent. It is a picture postcard scene of perfect serendipity, but Salim grunts that we cannot stop, not even for a photograph. We have to get to Kargil town by sundown, he says.
We stop for tea at Drass. 'Second Coldest Inhabited Place on Earth', claims a signboard at the entrance to the town. Drass and its environs were the scene of a bloody, though short-lived war, between India and Pakistan just over a decade ago. Memorials to fallen Indian soldiers and a war museum dot the town, and Salim indicates particular points幼ertain Dardi villages, the Tiger Hill and the Tololing Valley葉hat witnessed fierce bombardment in the fighting. The landscape is austere and stark: range upon range of naked mountains, and tiny valleys of such high altitude that even grass struggles to grow in miserable, mangy clumps. Yet, the two nuclear neighbours continue to squabble over this coveted piece of real estate.
Crossing Drass, we enter Kargil proper, the land of the Baltis and Purig-pa people, Mongoloid by race and Shia Muslim by faith. I've consciously decided to avoid the touristy parts of Ladakh有eh and its surrounding gompas, Buddhist monasteries, which I've already seen twice before. This time, I choose to travel about in the Kargil district, which, together with Leh, makes up the sprawling Ladakh region of Kashmir. Ladakh covers a massive 70 per cent of the state's area, but accounts for less than two per cent of its people. Most Kargilis are Shia Muslims, relatively recent converts from Buddhism.
By early evening, when the sky turns from salmon-pink to ashen grey, we arrive in Kargil town. There isn't an awful lot to see in Kargil town, the largest town in Ladakh after Leh. I do a hurried visit of the town, and make some necessary shopping for the trip ahead. At mid-day, I board a minibus heading to the village of Pannikhar, sixty kilometers and a five hour drive to the east. The bus coughs and splutters as it chugs its way up the mountains.
The Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Department's guesthouse in Pannikhar is a neat little wooden six-roomed cottage. Bashir, the amiable caretaker, gives me a warm, thickly-carpeted room, and brings me a pot of lemon tea and a bowl of noodle soup, which I ravenously consume to keep out the bitter cold.
I spend the next four days in and around Pannikhar. I wake up each morning to the exciting chatter of the khushkmoru, a massive bird, half the size of a peacock, which, Bashir tells me is found only on this side of the Zoji-la. It has a white body and a long black tail and wears a black feathery veil over its face. The birds are all over葉raipsing around in the bed of wild flowers that have sprouted in the little plot of parrot-green barley outside my room, hopping in the slender, leafless poplars, and even marching into the kitchen, where Bashir feeds them grains or left-over noodles. There are other birds around, too謡oodpeckers, sparrows, doves and swallows, and a whole host more, brilliantly-hued creatures which I cannot identify.
The days I spend walking around the village, drinking salted butter tea and sampling tsampa, a dish made of crushed barley and yoghurt, with village folks, who are warm and welcoming. I wash my clothes in the stony bed of the river, and although my fingers turn all wiry and blue in no time, it is a wonderful therapy for my soul. I sit on a grassy patch and stare into the towering mountains that enclose the village. I spend hour upon hour staring, as if in a stupor, at the stunning Nun and Nun, sister peaks, both over 7,000 metres high, that frame the northern part of the valley, together forming a giant glacier-laden massif. In the afternoons, when chilled winds rush down the slopes, I trace the dance of clouds whirling around their summits till they blot them out completely from view and it begins first to drizzle and then to snow, the ice coming down in soft feathery flakes.
One day, I trek all the way to the settlement of Sankoo, where, high up on the slopes, far in the distance, I am rewarded with the rare sight of a party of curly-horned ibex leaping from crag to crag. I also spot a band of Himalayan marmots, big, beige-hued beaver-like rodents, chasing each other on the banks of a glacial stream.
It is with a heavy heart that I tear away myself from Pannikhar. After almost a week in the isolated hamlets of the Suru Valley, where few outsiders care to travel, I head back to Kargil and then on to Leh葉o cars, buses, hotels full of noisy tourists and shops bursting with glossy goods葉o a lifestyle that I detest, but which I perhaps cannot do without.