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Originally published Friday, September 21, 2012 at 10:00 AM

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It's high adventure on N.W. India's ancient roads

In mountainous northern India, narrow roads corkscrew into the Himalayan mountains, and the snow piles high.

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DRIVING IN India is not for the faint of heart.

In the urban crush of Indian cities, smoke-belching buses and trucks mix it up with swarms of cars and motor scooters laden with families of four. On rural roads, villagers and sacred cows wander in front of perilously overloaded trucks and cars, forcing them to a screeching halt. In mountainous northern India, narrow roads corkscrew into the Himalayan mountains, and the snow piles high.

At Zoji La, an 11,581-foot pass on the Srinagar-Leh highway in northwest India, a horse/mule caravan plods through towering walls of snow and ice. The 275-mile road, with some sections of gravel and hairpin turns, follows a centuries-old trade route, connecting the regions of Kashmir and Ladakh.

In Kashmir, the city of Srinagar once was a fabled lakeside retreat and beloved tourist destination until territorial disputes between India and Pakistan brought violence and military occupation to the city. But adventurous travelers flock to the peaceful city of Leh, in the starkly beautiful high-country landscape of Ladakh, where a ruined 16th-century palace of Buddhist kings presides over the dun-colored city.

Few tourists take the highway all the way to Srinagar, but it's traveled — during the half-year when it's not closed by snow, and military checkpoints permitting — by buses and trucks, cars and motorcycles. And the occasional four-footed caravan.

Kristin R. Jackson is The Seattle Times' NWTraveler editor. Contact her at kjackson@seattletimes.com.

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