Home > India > The Great Escape – survival on the non-existant roads of Ladakh

The Great Escape – survival on the non-existant roads of Ladakh

The Leh – Srinagar road was our last venture in Ladakh so we could cross into the neighbouring Kashmir. We hired a 4×4 which came with a driver to take us to Srinagar – we were told a 13 hour drive in good conditions. We said goodbye to Leh and left at 7am to start the journey. The

The confluence of two rivers near Nimmo

first couple of hours of the journey were really not too bad and we passed some beautiful monasteries; a magnetic hill where if left in neutral the car is pulled magically towards the hill; a confluence of two rivers meeting; and a few villages at altitude.

After two hours the road became quite rough and steadily became worse. Our driver at this point decided to tell us that of the 400 kms to Srinagar, more than half of way is unpaved and in bad condition with work going to restore and widen the snaking mountain roads. We settled in to look at the passing scenery which was gorgeous and the time passed quickly. For lunch we stopped at Kargil and sampled some local cuisine – Rista – mutton meat balls cooked in a rich yoghurt gravy. It was tasty and filling and prepared us for the rest of the six hour journey to Kashmir.

Look carefully and you can see the line of lorries parked up on the road in the centre of the photo

The trouble started almost immediately after leaving Kargil, when we climbed a mountain and at a pass, turned a corner to be met by a most arresting but frightening sight. Our driver had told us that the road coming up was the most dangerous in our entire journey. The mountain we could see ahead of us had the snaking road visible all the way down to the valley floor. What a beautiful sight I would have thought in any other circumstance but here and now the entire road had lorries parked back to back all the way down. There must have been six dozen lorries. The first lorry closest to us as we

turned the corner however was broken down at a narrow point where not even a car could pass.

Our driver said it was fortunate we had stopped here. I looked at him quizzically, for him to explain that if we reversed just a quarter of a kilometre, we will find a road

A broken down lorry at our alternate route!

which leads even further up the mountain and though not finished it was only a little more dangerous than the road blocked by the lorries. Two things he said struck me immediately:

1. reversing a quarter of a kilometre on a narrow winding road thousands of metres high on a mountain

2. the road we will have to take is only a little bit more dangerous than what he told us was the most dangerous road of our journey

The toss up was between spending the night on the mountain in the freezing cold or trying to get out. The driver chose the latter option and we found ourselves with our necks craned hurtling backwards on the smidgen he called a road for a few minutes before taking a steep road up the mountain. This came to an abrupt halt as others at the bottom of the valley had found the alternative route just before us and rounding another corner we found a lorry at the edge of a very narrow dirt track. Yes, it was broken down. At this stage we felt a Horses at the valley floorslight grip of panic. In desperation, our driver took off on foot towards the lorry to help push it but that wasn’t going to be easy. He returned with a road worker who explained to us that there was another dirt track just up from where we were and it was only used by road workers to bring materials up.

Beggars can’t be choosers. Slightly relieved and worried about the ever darkening sky, we headed off to where the road worker pointed and were met by the steepest zig zag of a dirt track we had ever seen. If you could even call it a track. It was exactly as wide as our 4×4 and at the hairpin bends, the driver had to use the entire extent of the steering column to turn whilst we gaped down into the depths of the valley open-mouthed.

After seven such hairpin bends we came to a narrow paved road which led us out of the mountains and down to the valley floor. After another hour we saw a village and stopped there and bought our driver a well earned cup of tea and onion bhajis. The rest of the journey was unremarkable and we counted our blessings for having avoided a disaster!

  1. Lisa T
    August 17, 2011 at 12:44

    Oh My God – I bet you were ready for a stiff drink at the end of that journey!!
    Glad you made it safe and sound : )


    • August 17, 2011 at 23:33

      Hey Lis, yes I was but having arrived in Kashmir there was no choice especially as it’s a 95% Muslim area with Ramadan currently on! Now in Punjab and all available! 😉

  2. August 22, 2011 at 13:06

    Lovely writing and pictures too. Brings back fond memories of my trip to Ladakh a few years ago. I know how skilled, creative and wonderful the local drivers are having experienced a landslide on our way to Lamayuru. The drivers sent our group members on a small trek down the valley to come back on the other side while they tried to get the empty vehicles to go through the landslide where the road had become sort of a quicksand area with the vehicles getting stuck in the fine powder like earth. They would place small flat stones under the tyres to get more friction to move ahead since it was a small patch. I went along with them on foot and realised my feet sinking in and suddenly when my leg came out it was without the shoe!!! Had to dig deep into the sandy earth to get it out before going ahead and giving them a helping hand in getting the vehicles out of that patch. You can trust most of the drivers blindfolded on these roads!!!

    • August 23, 2011 at 05:19

      Aadil – absolutely loved your story of quick-sand. What an experience!

  3. August 25, 2011 at 14:13

    Well, it wasn’t actually quicksand but just the landslide that made the earth a very fine powdery nature and the feeling was pretty much like quicksand when I stepped into it!!! The guys who drive these vehicles are really an admirable lot and I must say they know how to get out of any and every problem on these treacherous roads or even when there are no roads!!!

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