Travelling between Srinagar and Leh can be an adventure in itself. Of course the easiest option is to book a direct flight between the two cities which if booked in advance can be managed for less than $100. However, if booking a flight one misses out on what might be one of the world’s most amazing mountain drives. Keep in mind when planning a trip that highway generally remains closed for about 6 months starting from November to May due to heavy snowfall (Check current conditions before making any plans).
Its a 434 km journey from Srinagar to Leh on National Highway 1D (Leh Highway) which generally takes about 14 hours in total to drive. The highway follows the Sindh drainage on Kashmir side and then the Indus River on the Ladakh side as it crosses three high mountain passes; Zoji La (3528 Mtrs), Namki La (3815 Mtrs) and Fotu La (4108 Mtrs).
The route is of prime strategic importance to the Indian army which is obvious by the many check points and numerous guard posts and military convoy trucks. Tourist only have to check in at two points and it’s a quick and painless procedure where only the details of the passport and vehicle are recorded. Given the rush nature of the journey on a shared taxi most travellers will enjoy the extra opportunity to get out and stretch ones legs.
The first option is bus services operated by J & K State Road Transport Corporation (J&K SRTC) which offers both an ordinary bus and luxury bus service. All buses make an overnight stop in Kargil before continuing on to Leh the next day. The second option is a shared taxis which start travelling the route around 5:30am with the last taxi leaving Srinagar by 7:00am. Seating in the taxis is usually 2 in the front, 3 in the middle and 2 in the back. The cost varies from 1400 to 2100 Rs depending on the seat you get and your ability to bargain. Keep in mind that taxis only leave once all the seats are sold so if you are buying the first seats you might have to wait a bit for the rest of them to fill-up.
Srinagar to Sonamarg (80 km)
Sonamarg (80km) from Srinagar is the first stop on the Journey. It is in a beautiful alpine setting although the continuous traffic and people hopping on and off buses and taxes make it less then relaxing. However a few hotels and camps are set back from the road and if travelling in one’s own vehicle it makes a good place to stop especially if you want to visit Thajiwas Glacier which is about a 3km trek. Sonamarg also makes a good day trip from Srinagar and is the starting point for the Great Lakes Trek.
Sonamarg to Kargil (120 km)
Heading onwards from Sonamarg it is another 26km to the top of Zoji La Pass (11,578 feet ) and the military checkpoint where you need to register your journey. The road up the pass is not hard surfaced and consists of numerous switchbacks and the dramatic views while one looks thousands of feet down from the narrow road to the Sindh River valley below.
Continuing from Zoji La Pass it’s another 39km to the small settlement of Drass. Drass is known as the second coldest inhabited place on the planet and is also famous for its war memorial.
Kargil is the muslim “capital” of Ladakh and another 55km from Drass is the halfway point on the journey and the overnight stopping point for buses. Kargil is not just the halfway point but its also marks a key cultural boundary and the rest of the villages and settlements on the way to Leh are primarily Buddhist and the people speak Ladakhi. Numerous accommodations exist in Kargil and the better ones can be booked online before commencing the journey. Kargil itself is a picturesque city sitting along the banks of the Suru River. There is not many options for excursions but if one is a glacier freak like myself an interesting option if one has several days might be to take the Kargil – Zanaskar Road to Pensi La Pass and trek one day to the 23km long Drang Drung Glacier the largest in Ladakh after Siachen Glacier (Inquire With HimalayanWonders for Arrangements).
Kargil to Mulbekh (40 km)
Continuing from Kargil its another 40km to the small settlement of Mulbekh. Its a good stopping point for lunch if coming from Srinagar and the small settlements claim to fame is the immense figure of Maitreya (the future Buddha) located just adjacent the national highway.
Mulbekh to Lamayuru (70 km)
Continuing from Mulbekh the road winds through the mountains for a distance of 70km crossing over both Namika-la pass (12,200 feet or 3719 m) and Fotu-la pass (13,479 feet or 4094 m) before reaching Lamayuru. The Lamayuru monastery hugs an impossibly steep slope and is the oldest in Ladakh. Norapa one of Tibets most important monks is said to have mediatated here for a number of years. Lamayuru is a popular day trip from Leh which is now just another 125km away. Several accommodation can be found here and its good stopping point if you are in your own car or visiting from Leh.
Lamayuru to Leh (125 km)
The road from Lamayuru makes a dramatic drop down into the canyon of the Indus which gradually becomes a broad valley as one approaches Leh. Several attractions are passed on the final leg which include the caves at Saspol, the monastery complex of Alchi, the fortress of Basgo and Phyang with its 16th century Gompa. All in and all its a captivating drive which is best described as a once in a life experience.
Distances Along the National Highway between Srinagar and Leh:
- Srinagar to Sonamarg (80 km)
- Sonamarg to Drass (65 km)
- Drass to Kargil (55 km)
- Kargil to Mulbekh (40 km)
- Mulbekh to Lamayuru (70 km)
- Lamayuru to Leh (125 km)