The Perilous Road to Kargil - 12 Hours You'll Never Forget

The word is that Kargil will soon get an airport. Probably the flight will be a perilous affair, involving planes dodging snowy peaks as they search for a landing strip in the thin air of a 10,000-foot elevation.

In other words, flying to Kargil will be a lot like driving here, except that driving takes a lot longer. From Srinagar, the provincial capital, the trip is only about 120 miles. But it makes for a dozen hours you won't soon forget.

Leaving Srinagar, the road leads through the paddies and hills of the valley of Kashmir. Because of the decade-long separatist movement here, there are a lot of troops along the road and plenty of checkpoints. Cars, buses, and trucks churn past goatherds and shepherds trying to keep their flocks from becoming road kill.

The highway is under the care of a corps of military engineers called Beacon, whose resident poets offer up a little encouragement every once in a while. "India is a bouquet/ Kashmir a rose in it," reads one sign.

Then comes a stop at Sonamarg, where the road becomes one way. The military allows two convoys to move in each direction every day, and Sonamarg is the staging area for the Kargil-bound trips. They are only possible five or six months a year, when the snows recede.

From Sonamarg, the road climbs steeply, switching back and forth up Himalayan slopes. The paved surface quickly gives way to dirt, and the only way vehicles overtake each other is very, very carefully. There are thousand-foot drops, no guard rails, and occasional markers remembering those who have lost their lives building or maintaining the road. Their successors have to hack their way through house-sized clumps of snow and ice - miniglaciers melting their way down the slopes.

Out the window, if you can stand it, are views to remember: icy, sharp mountaintops, mossy slopes, and silvery blue-green ribbons of water below.

Closer to Kargil, in the Ladakh Valley, lies a desert, cold and snowy for at least half the year. The colors here are beige, the mountains covered by a rocky scrabble, and the vegetation sparse. One town, Drass, claims to be "the second-coldest inhabited place in the world."

There's still plenty of military around, especially since Kargil is the close to the "line of actual control," the de facto border that divides India and Pakistan. In the Ladakh Valley, the Indian military performs a normal function: defending the country against the bad guys on the other side of the border. Back in the valley of Kashmir, where the Indians are putting down an insurgency, they mostly just protect themselves.

Reaching Kargil is an anticlimax - it's a grim, fast-paced town that exists because of the road, government subsidies, and some surrounding agriculture. Most visitors proceed to the Ladakh city of Leh the next day.

The faces of Kargil are Tibetan and Indian, and the religion is Islam. As night falls, the call to prayer rings loudly against the hard sides of the mountains all around.

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