Predominantly Tibetan-Buddhist Ladakh is a beautiful, high altitude area of mountain deserts, little accustomed to heavy rain. So when hit by cloudburst and torrential storms on August 6 the area suffered dispoportionately heavy damage.
Essentially that damage was caused by very sudden rising in water levels in rivers and streams washing large amounts of debris down the steep slopes. Roads, TV and phone links were cut across much of the area adding a sense of doubt and panic amongst those unable to contact relatives and friends. Phone communication to mobile phones has now been partially restored (not yet to land-lines) although it's still infuriatingly patchy. News is thus becoming more readily available and it seems that the damage, while very significant, is more localised than previously thought.
Leh airport has reopened but the main access roads to Ladakh remain under repair with bridges and sections of road washed away that will take at least a few more days to repair.
Area by area what we know:
We’ve pieced together the following snapshots of where the problems lie by interviewing fellow travelers, phoning friends and contacts and from our own author who escaped the worst-affected area a few hours before communication was lost.
Flying in/out of Leh
The airport is open and functioning normally having been cleared of mud and debris. Don't believe rumours that airlines are jacking up their fares to profit from the situation. Prices are undoubtedly very high, but no more so than they were directly before the cloudburst - already very expensive due to people avoiding the alternative flights to/from Srinagar which, while vastly cheaper, require facing the uncertainties of the Kashmir Valley (curfews, strikes, stone-throwing - see below).
At present the Leh-Srinagar road is closed anyway so will not be an option for a few days more.
a) Leh to Lamayuru
Talking to Leh drivers on 11 August, it seems that there are three bridges still out at Basgo/Nimmu, one at Saspol and one at Khalsi - all places between Leh and Lamayuru. The practical upshot of that is that any trip heading west of Leh will be essentially impossible for at least a few more days.
The Khalsi-Lamayuru sector is reportedly passable but with the 'new' road still closed for building work, traffic is using the very windy, somewhat perilous 'old' road. Doing that 27km section took nearly a day earlier this week due to landslides and road slippage and one traveller coming that way suggested that parts of the road looked liable to fall if not shored up soon.
Several of the villages in side valleys off the Leh-Khalsi road have suffered very badly and remain cut off. Phyang for example has suffered several casualties. The wonderful guesthouse there is currently up to its windows in mud.
b) Lamayuru to Kargil
When I went through this section back on Friday there was a landslide at Bodh Khambu - at the time we managed to slither through after some time while trucks were being helped through with assistance from a JCB bushing their rears! Reports suggest that the road there later became totally blocked but since 10 August vehicles are getting through here again.
Video footage shown on a loop on TV here purports to show Leh damage but actually mixes in pictures of Kargil which suffered a cloudburst of its own. The Suru River was appallingly high and powerful when I was in Kargil on Saturday morning and some buildings fell into the water near the central bridge. There were fears that that bridge would collapse but it seems that it held out and since Monday night (August 9) transport has once more been reaching Srinagar from Kargil. All such transport departs in the afternoon so as to arrive in Srinagar late enough to miss potential trouble with strikes/curfews.
Meanwhile getting anywhere within Kargil town is a complex process with sections of the main waterfront road destroyed and a complex loop required to get past blockages. The ATM in Kargil was not functioning as of Saturday due to the cut communications lines and I haven't heard that it's been restored.
d) Kargil to Srinagar
The Kargil Srinagar road is open but the Zoji-La pass remains extremely muddy, trucks often getting stuck on the way up causing long delays. In any vehicle the pass is rather hair-raising in its current state.
The narrow road to Zanskar was cut at several points between Phanikar and Rangdum. On 8 August some travellers managed to 'escape' by walking around 20km and crossing through the worst blockages by roping themselves together while wading torrents. By August 10 with water levels reduced there were shuttle arrangements taking stranded folks between the blockages and drivers told me today that some vehicles are now making it out of Zanskar. Indian TV is reporting that over 80 travellers have also been brought out by helicopter. However in at least one case I have heard first-hand, the helicopter landed beside two western hikers, checked they were OK, verified their identities then, by mutual agreement, left them to continue their trek.
Both of the usual access roads (from Khalsi and via Chitkan) had already been knocked out when I tried to take them on August 7. Nine foreign visitors were stranded in Dha for several days. They were finally able to leave on 10 August when the army granted exceptional permits and provided transport along the normally secretive closed road via Battalik. Even that required two changes of vehicle between areas of destroyed road. Access to Dha is unlikely to be restored any time soon given the greater priorities of the main Leh-Kargil road.
Leh and Choglamsar
Most news reports focus on the damage to Leh but are often sketchy in their details. I had already left Leh before the cloudburst but the worst damage is apparently in the area of the bus station and from there down into Choglamsar, the predominantly Tibetan area near the Indus. The city hospital is reportedly in ruins and much of Choglamsar has been wiped out but reports suggest that a road of sorts now crosses the mess and that one can access Thiksey and beyond. Reports suggest that most of the traveller areas have survived relatively unscathed and that there is no pressing need for people to leave town but getting phone connection to receive confirmation from contacts in Leh has proved infuriatingly difficult.
Indian TV reports had suggested major devastation in Tyakshi and Turtuk (around 90km down the Shyok valley from Hunder, areas that had only opened to foreign tourists since June 2010). However, I have managed to contact the guesthouse in Turtuk who assures me that the village is fine and the casualties it seems were in fact limited to advance military posts near the Pakistan line of control. Reportedly the rest of Nubra is OK. So for tourists it’s just a question of when permits will be issued again to head up that way.
There is confusion as to whether those with pre-reserved treks should still attempt to continue with their holidays. Obviously the situation will vary greatly according to where the trek is but even if trekking remains possible it’s worth remembering that the rain-softened tracks can be unstable, and that there will likely be considerably more difficult river crossings to negotiate. Treks may be totally blocked by landslides at key points in narrow river valleys necessitating long detours or return trips. And it’s likely that pack horses may have been stranded in the wrong place for a while so may not make it to the planned start point when you are expecting them.
Of course you’ll also need to double check whether you will be able to reach the starting point for the trek yourself. If it’s from Lamayuru you won’t (yet) be able to get there from Leh, but access from Srinagar is possible at present (see above). For the Markha Valley I haven’t been able to get confirmation as to whether the road to Chilling is open. It starts east of Nimmu (where the Leh-Lamayuru road has its most significant blockage) so should theoretically be accessible from Leh. However, a landslide had already blocked the access to the Markha trek river crossing a week before the cloudburst when I was there and repairs to clear that are likely to have been vulnerable to further rain damage.
Situation in Srinagar
While the situation in Ladakh grabs the headlines (see above), the Kashmir Valley continues to suffer a debilitating series of strikes and protests that have left the city virtually shut down for weeks. There is no need to entirely avoid the city but it’s well worth understanding what you’ll be facing if you head this way.
The army-imposed curfew that had been in place for well over a week was cancelled Sunday August 8. However strikes have been called for most of this week, except Thursday 12th August. Strike days are somewhat less draconianly restricting than curfew days but wild cat stone-throwing incidents can still break out from time to time. These are not only aimed at army but also have been directed at those who break the strike including drivers. So there is some danger of going anywhere on a strike day. There's a perception that most stone throwing activities occur by day - thus it's usually possible to get a taxi ride if you leave around dawn or late at night. Western tourists are not specifically targeted, indeed are likely to be relatively safe compared to locals. However yatri (Hindu pilgrims) heading to Pahalgam face a tougher time especially at Anantnag which has a reputation as a particular hotspot.
Flying to/from Srinagar
The good news is that Srinagar-Delhi flights are very good value - currently averaging under Rs4000 (ie under 70 Euros) even when purchased just a day or two before flying. However, accessing Srinagar's shiny new airport is a slight conundrum. It's wise to leave around 6am to avoid possible stone throwing incidents on the road during strikes or curfews. However as the security gates only open at 7.15am you may wait a while with minimal shelter and, unless your taxi waits with you, you'll have to walk the last 1.3km from the security gate to the terminal with your luggage once you've done the first checks. Beware that without a ticket you can't get close to the airport terminal so make sure you've made a print-out of e-tickets and don't assume that you can rock up to buy a ticket there. There's no sales point at the security gate, only in the terminal which, catch 22, you won't reach without the ticket! If all agencies and internet cafes are closed for strike and curfew, you can still book online and print out your ticket through certain guesthouses. For example the Hotel Swiss where I am staying today is one such place that is very understanding of traveller problems and a great help with good free internet, printing etc.
Money in Srinagar
Be aware that many ATMs have been running out of cash in Srinagar and banks are closed semi-permanently due to strikes and curfews. If arriving here bring plenty of rupees to be safe. Don't be trapped into exchanging money on the Boulevard with freelancers who recently have been offering apparently good rates but handing out forged Indian banknotes!
Should I come?
Overall the security situation here seems less daunting on the spot than reports might suggest and if you just want to unwind on one of Dal Lake's houseboats you might not even notice the trouble. The lakeside promenades out of town are reputedly safe to stroll too. However, with almost all businesses and all restaurants closed it is not exactly an ideal holiday destination at present and when strikes or curfews extend many days in a row there can be practical problems just getting food, money and essential services.