Squeezed between Pakistan and Tibet is India’s far northwestern state of Jammu and Kashmir. With its area contested between India, China and Pakistan — a cause for violent past conflicts and animosity up to the present day — nowadays it is safe for visitors. It offers those who manage to scale this region’s highest-in-the-world mountain passes an insight into cultures from lands far away; a journey of pre-historic imagination, some of the world’s most fantastic landscapes as well as a taste of colourful, chaotic, classic ‘Incredible India!’
Tall pine trees all around. The road winds sharply left and right, moving steeply uphill. It’s unbearably cold — the sun came up an hour ago but with the height of these mountains it’ll still take some time for the day to warm up. And a mere 20km further on the landscape changes drastically. Archetypal, snowy Himalayan peaks all around. And it’s 400km more to reach the nearest, famous town of Leh — but it’s too much to take in on the move. You keep stopping, wanting another look, another breath. And a brief moment later it’s a whole other world — a vast, arid, moon-like desert.
Aside from an occasional army tent and a rare truck passing by, there’s not a soul in sight mile after mile. In the summer season, mini tent-cities with basic supplies are set up along the way. By mid-October, even those shut down, their owners leaving to escape the snow and freezing temperatures. The road, for the most part, is surprisingly wide and smooth, and on ‘warmer’ days thankfully not too icy.
And there’s another mountain pass ahead at 4,500 meters. Then another at 5,000 meters. Then another at 5,500 meters. With the road already closed for the winter, the temperature and height take their toll on a tiny, vulnerable human body.
Shivers, despite multiple layers of clothing; blurry vision, playing games on the mind; and in the rush to get to lower altitudes, to reach the streak of never-before-so appreciated sunlight peeking out from behind the mountain ahead, one suddenly wonders if it’s hallucinations or a fantasy.
Ahead is a prehistoric land. Eerie, mysteriously nature-formed spikes sticking out from otherwise smooth and sandy hills, with vast canyons and valleys — where you expect to see packs of dinosaurs seeking food, coming to the now nearly-dry stream, engaging in epic life-or-death battles.
Getting to Leh is a first step. But getting used to its altitude is an extra challenge. Snowed up, secluded and sleepy for most of the winter (quite the opposite in the summer season), Leh’s central landmark is the old, mysterious palace of the Buddhist kings of ages past. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to Lhasa’s Potala Palace, it stands in a state of quiet disrepair, nonetheless offering stunning views of the town and a teasing glimpse of the variety of fascinating landscapes all around.
Spread out in the vicinity of Leh are iconic, clay, Buddhist gompas (temples) and simple, quiet villages. There are also odd but welcoming attractions like a pack of donkeys curiously awaiting carrots from the occasional visitor to the colourful sanctuary on the town’s outskirts that they’ve made their home.
More reminiscent of Pakistan, Afghanistan or the other ‘-stans’ than India, the summer capital town of Srinagar is a mixed bag. Set in a picturesque valley much more populated than Ladakh’s key town of Leh, the city boasts a number of green and peaceful Mughal gardens reminiscent of many European highlights. There’s also the iconic Dal Lake with its boathouses that once served as residences to the elite. Today it’s a different story — more often than not the boats are little else but a way to trick unknowing tourists into parting with all of their money. And despite the menacing posters of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, despite the numerous black banners with Arabic, anti-American quotes from Ayatollah Khamenei, it’s a place that one wants to like. Despite fairly recent conflict, despite the unmissable Indian army presence, Kashmir today is peaceful and safer for visitors than it’s been in years.
The region is known for its special Kashmiri cardamom and saffron tea — very different from the Indian chai — and next to the extra-sweet gulab jamuns (fried curdled milk solids), the pastry shops sell amazing walnut pies. Among its hidden secrets are biblical tales of Jesus’s life, who by some accounts survived his crucifixion and lived and died of old age right here. Others tell tales of a secluded village of pure Aryan race isolated deep in the Kashmiri mountains, its people’s roots reaching back to Alexander the Great. This place is apparently sought by modern German neo-Nazis in hopes of bearing pure-Aryan race children.
With constant hassles from house-boat and related touts, with day and night Muslim laments roaring through the voice-distorting neighbourhood speakers, Kashmir is surely a place to experience, but one which takes time and patience to appreciate.
For a predominantly Hindu town, unlike the rest of the state, Jammu is surprisingly calm, organised and quiet. And if Srinagar is known for its gardens, Jammu boasts a number of impressive temples and monuments.
Its Mubarak Mandi palace, in a sad state of disrepair, offers a fascinating journey back in time. Once, in the colonial era, it was a grand royal palace hosting elite guests from far away. Today its paint is largely gone, its walls are mouldy, its staircases overgrown by shrubbery and its ceilings dangerously close to collapse. And it’s a magical journey of imagination not usually open to tourists, but a smile and a chat with the two aging security guards focused closely on a confusing game of cricket on their few-decades-old TV seems to be a good enough entry ticket.
Matt Dworzanczyk is a filmmaker, writer and a long-time Hanoi expat, currently on a cross-Asia motorbike journey from Hanoi. For more on Matt’s films and travels, visit EtheriumSky.com and follow his monthly trip diary in Word