College had finally ended, and I did not want to waste the 5 odd weeks lying before me before I joined my company. And so, I decided to do the journey of a lifetime, the Ladakh circuit. Much has been already written about the beauty of Kashmir and Ladakh, and so in this blog I would try to concentrate on the cost aspect of the trip, and how you can complete the circuit without shelling out too much. And no, we did not sleep on footpaths or starved ourselves to cut costs. The post will be pretty long, so please bear with it.
Leh can be reached either via the Manali-Leh highway or the Srinagar-Leh highway. The latter is preferred because it reduces the risk of altitude sickness as the increase in altitude is gradual than the Manali-Leh highway. Since the Manali route was not open that time, we decided to enter via Srinagar and exit via Manali. This was our initial plan.
Delhi -> Udhampur -> Banihal -> Srinagar -> Doodhpatri -> Pahalgam -> Aru Valley -> Sonamarg -> Kargil -> Leh -> Pangong Lake -> Nubra Valley -> Tso Moriri -> Keylong -> Manali -> Kiratpur Sahib -> Delhi
I had left out Gulmarg as I had already visited it during my first visit to Srinagar in 2012. Our family was accompanying us till Sonamarg, post which me and my 2 cousins would proceed to Leh and my family would go back to Delhi. The journey was to begin at 22nd May.
Day 1 : Delhi -> Udhampur (23rd May)
The first task at hand was to reach Srinagar. Daily flights depart for Srinagar from Delhi, but since we were on a budget, we decided to complete our journey by road. The cheapest way to reach Srinagar by road is as follows.
Board a train for Udhampur, preferably Uttar Sampark Kranti (12445) as its timing is the most suitable. The fare per person for sleeper is ₹370. Just outside the railway station, buses leave every 30 minutes for the bus stand, more popularly known as the MH chowk (₹20 pp). Be wary of auto valas as they charge ₹200 for one auto and might tell you that there are no buses for the bus stand.
Once you reach MH chowk, you need to find a bus for Banihal. Direct buses to Banihal are available from Udhampur, but with a very low frequency. If you are unable to find a direct bus, you can do your journey in parts. From Udhampur, board a bus for Ramban, which has a good frequency (₹110 pp). The stretch till Ramban is dusty at few places because of the ongoing 4-laning of the Jammu-Srinagar highway, however it is mostly traffic free and took us 2 hours to cover. You also pass through the Chenani-Nashri tunnel, India's longest road tunnel.
Once you reach Ramban, you can find many buses leaving for Banihal (₹50pp). The journey till Banihal is quite picturesque with the Chenab river flowing along side the road. It also began raining as we neared Banihal and we encountered a massive traffic jam. Even though Ramban to Banihal is just around 30 kms, it took the bus more than 3 hours to cover this stretch. As we reached Banihal, it started raining more fiercely and we had to take shelter in a shop. Once the rains receded, we hired a Maruti van to drop us at the Banihal railway station (₹30 pp), around 6 kms ahead of where the bus drops you.