Uletokpo to Kargil

I slept really well last night and enjoy the sunrise through my chalet window – another room with a fabulous view – then walk down a steep slope to the Indus. We are at about the same altitude as Leh here so it’s reassuring to find that I can manage the climb back up fairly easily, albeit with pauses.

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River Indus at Uletokpo

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My chalet

Breakfast is the usual sort of buffet, but with the added bonus of some delicious apricot juice and jam produced from the trees which dot the resort. The only other people here seem to be a group of French trekkers, though there are quite a lot of permanent tents and chalets. It seems a shame to be leaving early as this is such a beautiful spot. If we’d been travelling from Srinagar to Leh, as originally planned, we’d have had a full morning here before the short drive to Leh. Hopefully next year….

We leave about 9.30 and drive on towards Srinagar. At first the road takes us along the Indus but then we cross and leave it after Khaltse. Now we really are en route to Kashmir. We have been told we might see children selling fossils at Kaltse but see no sign of this, unfortunately, and Tashi doesn’t really know what we are talking about when we try to explain. At one point we see a JCB in the river, obviously having come a cropper whilst carrying out road repairs, which is a bit worrying!

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After leaving the Indus we travel up the narrow gorge of a tributary towards Lamayuru, passing through the amazing landscape known as ‘Moonland’. This is a deeply eroded remains of the sediments which formed the bottom of a vast lake which used to occupy this area, before it was drained by tectonic movements.

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We stop at Lamayuru monastery, the oldest in Ladakh, which was founded in the 11th Century. At this stage the lake was still here – quite a thought. We get good views of the lake remains from the monastery walls. As most of the monasteries are perched on hill sides they do tend to provide great vantage points for looking at the geology, quite apart from their cultural and religious interest. It’s great having Tashi with us to explain what we are seeing.

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From Lamayuru we drive on over the Fotu La pass – the highest on the route. It feels fine, however, after our adventures en route to Pangong, as it is only around 13 000 ft high.

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The views are spectacular, none the less. We then cross the second, lower, Namika La pass and carry on down to Mulbek. Here we have our picnic lunch and use the facilities in a cafe opposite the monastery. This is built around an ancient, 9 m high Maitreya Buddha carved into one of the huge pillars which are a feature of the edges of the river flood plain here.

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Many look quite like meerkats on their hind legs to me! Unfortunately, I get stung on the neck by a wasp while we eat. Many of the Indus tributaries we drive along today are dry – Tashi says they will have water in during the monsoon. We wonder whether they are dry more of the time now than they were in the past as they are marked as proper rivers on our maps. Not long after Mulbek, on a much rougher section of the road, we join a shortish queue of stationary traffic. When we get out and investigate it’s clear it’s not going to be a short wait – it turns out to be about 90 minutes, but this is a lot better than last time I got stuck behind a landslide on this road…. Then we were in a rickety bus and had to sleep on it overnight while men with shovels cleared the debris. This time, apparently, they are doing road improvements. They have blasted material from an overhanging rock and are clearing it down into the river gorge using two diggers.

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Helen and I like this sign…

The road is, on the whole, certainly much better (wider and less terrifying) than I remember and Tashi says this has mostly been done over the last five or six years. It’s very dusty on this section of the road though, which doesn’t have a tarmac finish. This cloud has silver linings though – we get to stretch our legs and potter around the piles of sedimentary rocks at the roadside looking for fossils, though we don’t find any convincing ones. John thinks these may be very deep ocean sediments, which would make fossils much less likely. A trio of beautifully-dressed small girls practice their limited phrases of English on us and allow us to take their photos.

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They ask for chocolate and we remember Danish’s goody bags. When we bring some chocolate biscuits back to the girls we are rewarded with huge smiles! When we do get past the hold up we realise how lucky we are to be going this direction – the queue of vehicles going towards Mulbek is enormous, with cars and trucks double parked along the road for some distance. It’s not far from here to Kargil, fortunately, and we arrive more or less at dusk.

Kargil is set against the spectacular backdrop of the Pakistani Karakorams but has llittle otherwise to recommend it. Our hotel is just by the river Suru but a much less romantic setting than last night, just by a big hydroelectric dam. We’ve been rather spoiled with the views till now! The Zojila Residency hotel is fine and the staff friendly but the north-facing rooms are big, echoey and a bit cold and we have to wait till 6.30pm for hot water. John and I spend the intervening time trying to work out which rocks we went through today and what we will see tomorrow en route to Sonamarg. I’m disappointed to find no wifi here as I’ve been faithfully writing my blog, as I promised Yasin, but am unable to publish it. The hot water is worth it when it arrives and we all feel better after showering.

We are more or less the only people in the large dining room but tuck ourselves in a corner so it doesn’t feel so odd. There is a large television on showing Bollywood films and John is entertained by the young man who comes in eat with a girlfriend and spends most of the time turning round to watch TV rather than talking to her! The food is again good – a selection of curries. We are in Muslim territory now and, when we arrived, the manager asked if we’d like beer with our meal. When we said yes, it was clear someone would be sent out to buy us a four pack of tinnies and, sure enough, that’s what we get. Can’t fault the staff on effort! We do feel sorry for the manager – he was clearly a bit desperate for custom and very chatty, telling us he was forced to open a month late this year, because of snow, and that now there are no tourists on the road between Srinagar and Leh so he has had lots of cancelled bookings at this end of the season too.

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