We woke up early in the morning the next day. It was a beautiful day and it seemed like the sun rays were tickling the clouds. Even though it was summer, it was still pretty cold and it kept getting even colder as we were approaching Pangong Tso. This lake was one of the main reasons to visit Kashmir for me. The stories about Pangong always described it as the ultimate mountain jewel, standing at more than 4,300 meters of height.
The journey to Pangong Tso
It was a long journey since the mountain roads weren’t in the best condition. Few monasteries and army camps later, we spotted a small frozen lake. That was strange considering it was the beginning of June and it was supposed to be summer. This just shows exactly how Kashmiri summer looks like.
My faithful companion for this trip, my headache stroke again, warning me that the air is getting thinner with every next meter of height. An hour or so later, I finally saw Pangong Tso peeping through the dry mountains. It looked so small from here, but the view was majestic. As we were driving down the hill, I started realizing how big the lake actually is.
Reaching the lake
Only small portion of Pangong Tso is actually within the borders of India and the larger part belongs to China. Pangong Tso is based in the centre of the conflict, Aksai Chin, but yet again the lake gave me that feeling of eternal peace. I’ve never seen a place like that before- that captivates the soul of the traveller with serenity and tranquillity.
I will always remember this lake as the one whose beauty leaves even the greatest wordsmiths speechless. Pangong Tso is like that beautiful girl that you gather the courage to approach with months and when you finally get the guts to do so, you suddenly forget how to speak. That’s the impression Pangong Tso usually leaves on people, and I was no exception.
After this experience, I have forgotten about all my worries and daily struggles. It was the closest thing to a nirvana, I suppose you could say. I was so relaxed, that I forgot that we almost reached China, and we barely have enough money to go back to Delhi! Tashi dropped us back to Leh and from here our financial situation only allowed us to take the local bus to Srinagar, as we couldn’t afford anything else. The local buses are sometimes so crowded, that there are people that ride on the top of the bus! I was just happy this wasn’t one of those times.
The surprising stop at Kargil
In the morning we slept in and we missed the first bus. I was frustrated at the time, but now I’m glad that happened. Our tickets were valid for the next bus and we got on it. This was looking like the beginning of the end of our Kashmir adventure. Or, so we thought.
The bus suddenly made a stop at Kargil. Initially, we thought we’re taking a break, but the bus driver told Rishabh that this is the last stop. We were shocked, as we paid for bus tickets to Srinagar. Apparently, the previous bus (the one we missed) was held captive near Srinagar by a group of armed protesters. They stopped the bus on the road, they stoned the bus and were holding all the passengers captive.
We kindly explained our bad luck to the driver and asked for a refund, which we eventually got after some bargaining. I must say I really didn’t enjoy the vibe Kargil was giving me. Historically, Kargil was known as the terrorist stronghold and the centre of the India Pakistani war. And the militant influence is still pretty strong among the local people. I don’t speak a single word of Urdu, but I could feel the aggression and hate in the voice of the preacher in the central mosque that had speakers that were echoing throughout the entire town. That was a really creepy feeling.
After a lot of bargaining and explaining, we managed to get one of the local taxi drivers to drop us to Jammu for the amount of money that we had left. While Rishabh was negotiating, I was just walking around the market acting as if we’re not together. I knew that if the taxi driver figured out that we’re together, the price would increase dramatically.
Going back to Jammu and boarding the crazy train
We were finally on the way. Our driver was savagely rushing down the hill, turning the 16-hour journey into a 10 hour one. I felt like our car might stumble down the hill at least 15 times. But finally, we reached Jammu. We shrugged off all the coins and pocket money and somehow managed to collect around 160 rupees, around $2.50 USD.
After that, we went straight to the Jammu train station and we bought tickets for the lowest class. And riding in that train is something I will never forget. It was a 13-hour journey to Delhi, but still, there were more than 100 people that were standing all the way to Delhi. The rule in this train is: if you find a free spot, then that’s yours. If you get up from your seat to go to the bathroom, that’s not your seat anymore.
When we got up all the seats were already taken, so we were sitting on the upper floor, where people would suppose to keep their bags in normal trains. In this train, there was me and 7 other people sitting in that area. I think I was the only non-Indian in the coach and I could tell everyone around me were really surprised. After 13 hours of sitting in the same position without even going to the washroom, we finally reached Delhi. That was the last chapter of this crazy Kashmir adventure.
Few final thoughts
Staying in Kashmir for two weeks and interacting with the local people made me see their part of the story. A story which is a lot different than the one we get to see in the media. And I’m not going to say that everything is perfect in Kashmir. But these stories didn’t stop me from visiting one of the most beautiful places I have seen in my life. And meeting some of the nicest people I ever met. Of course, we had our share of bad luck and things I can’t say that I would like to experience again, but this journey sure turned out to be a great story to tell.