Shangri La

Leh Ladakh – 29th May 2013
I awoke in the morning to snowfall – thick, downy flakes spiralling softly downward. Nothing could better illustrate the isolation of Ladakh, both geographical and spiritual, from the rest of India. It is 50 degrees C down on the plains, and the bulk of the subcontinent is baking in the summer heat. But here in Ladakh snow is falling, covering the rooftops of the Tibetan monasteries that perch on craggy ridges above a landscape that resembles Mars as much as planet Earth. An Indian family who had flown in from Pune last night emerged blinking into the snow, laughing delightedly like children – it was the first time they had seen it falling. In Srinagar Indian tourists pay to be driven up to the snowline, where they are photographed standing on a pair of skis. But their excitement this morning was infectious – they photographed themselves repeatedly, standing in T-shirts and flipflops, the children viewing the stuff suspiciously before picking up lumps of it and flinging them at each other.

We left Chachoo Palace at 6am, hoping to catch a rickshaw to the taxi stand for a jeep to Leh. There was a time where I felt that I wasn’t properly awake unless I’d had a couple of mugs of strong coffee and a shower. These days I seem to make do with a few swigs of tepid water and a couple of cigarettes. The night before, three Sikhs had turned up, and one had stood proprietorially on the terrace clad only in a string vest, Y-fronts and giant orange turban; his legs were so skinny he resembled some giant orange-headed stork. This morning I spotted him emerging from his bedroom, thankfully fully clothed this time, and bade him good morning, getting a grunt in return. Together with Graham I set off down the road, my daysack on my chest, backpack on my back. Graham’s backpack was clearly designed for the business class of backpacker as it had wheels, so we rumbled down the road until we found a solitary rickshaw at a junction. Somehow we inserted ourselves inside, with our backpacks on our knees, and set off through the deserted early morning streets of Srinagar.

We found a jeep at the taxi stand which was bound for Kargil, halfway to Leh. There were two locals in the front seat already, one with a pointy Islamist-style beard, and a girl in the back that I recognised from Hotel Swizz. We took our seats, myself occupying the bench seat in the boot, and waited for more passengers. We sat there for 45 minutes or so before reaching an executive decision: we would buy the remaining two seats ourselves and therefore have more space for the eight hour drive to Kargil. Despite there being a free seat in the back next to me, the two locals up front preferred to sit almost on top of each other in the passenger seat. They eyed us curiously for a while, especially the girl, but it was more curiosity than anything else. Their names turned out to be Bilal and Bilal, both from Srinagar and working as welders in Kargil, and they were a bit like a comedy duo, with the unbearded Bilal keeping up a continuous commentary in rapid fire Kashmiri, a language which seemed to consist entirely of consonants. Occasionally he would switch to English, which was slightly surreal: “Ice is off!” he would yell. “Here is Kashmir! Ice falling and road is boom!” And so on and so on, for the next eight hours. It was all very friendly, but I couldn’t help but feel that in the UK he would have so many acronyms stuck on him, ADHD, OCD, ASD etc., that he’d be a walking textbook of behavioural disorders. This was never clearer than during one pee stop where he decided to take off his shirt and start doing press ups on the road at 14,000ft. Graham was unimpressed and decided to assist his training by sitting on him, which provoked hilarity from all concerned. Bilal the bearded, who strongly resembled a jihadi, in the nicest possible way, turned out to be the nicest possible bloke, and laughed along at his friend’s antics, as well as offering us some vile-tasting chewing gum repeatedly; I discretely chucked mine out of the window as soon as I could.

We drove through small villages that were lined with poplar trees, past traditional wooden Kashmiri houses that looked almost Alpine. One thing I noticed was that despite their ornate facades, nearly all had corrugated iron roofs which glinted in the sun. The road began to climb, and the scenery too became Alpine – small green fields with dramatic snowcapped peaks in the background. We went up and up, and the landscape became progressively bleaker at every kilometer. The colours changed to monochrome: black rock and white patches of snow, with muted greys from the lowering clouds. The road climbed in a series of dizzying hairpins, meltwater streams cascading over the road, and we navigated our way around huge boulders which had crashed down from the surrounding cliffs. This was the Zoji La pass – the highest point on the Srinagar – Kargil road, at 12,500ft. “Zojila! Kashmir!” yelled Bilal the Unbearded. “Road is ice and too much yet!” Yet? “Watering coming downfall ice! Road is washing!” Ah, wet. We halted briefly at police checkpoints where the driver handed the day’s newspapers to the police, and a stream of banter in Kashmiri took place, carried on at increasing volume as the checkpoint fell behind. Soon we entered a wide Alpine valley with hundreds of horses grazing upon it, and a glacier gleaming in the background. We were entering the town of Somaguri, where we stopped for breakfast. This was two roundels of Kashmiri bread with an omlette sandwiched between them, and at Bilal and Bilal’s insistence, we tried the Kashmiri tea. It looked like regular tea, and even came with milk, but at the first sip I recoiled: it was full of salt. “Yes! Namak! Made in Kashmir!” Well, it was disgusting, but by adding a couple of spoons of sugar I turned it into a sort of tea flavoured rehydration drink, which wasn’t too bad.

Soon we were back in the jeep and heading onwards. The road grew increasingly worse; at one point, while trying to take a photograph through the window, I am pretty sure I turned a complete somersault. A snowdrift blocked the road completely at one point, but an Indian Army bulldozer had just cleared a path through it. We passed a collection of low Nissen Huts and a sign in rocks saying “High Altitude Warfare Training School”. It was a bleak location. Approaching the villagfe of Drass, pronounced “Dross”, the driver cauutioned us aggainst taking photographs: Pakistan lay just the other side of the mountains, and there was a large military presence. Drass announced itself with a sign saying “Second coldest inhabited place on earth” – a record low of minus 60 degrees C recorded in 1995. It had a hunkered down sort of look, with low, Siberian-style dwellings surrounded by rugged moorland and jagged summits. We stopped for another chai, this time without salt, and drew curious stares from the locals. And rightly so – who in their right mind would come to Drass? Only those mad enough to head to Kargil, it transpired.

Huge craggy mountainsides dropped down to a tumbling mountain river. Round one bend we saw a cairn on the far bank with the green and white flag of Pakistan – the river was the border. Approaching Kargil we saw tunnels into the mountainside – underground military bunkers. Kargil itself lacked charm. It felt Central Asian but badly knocked about; the only reason it is Indian territory at all was because of a huge push by the Indian army northwards – otherwise it is essentially part of Baltistan. The people are all Shia, and pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini decorated the walls – just next to a poster advertising emigration to Australia. We managed to locate the Crown Hotel, which the Rough Guide had stated was a run down but acceptable place to spend a night or two. This was rather wide of the mark, as it was possibly the worst hotel I’ve ever stayed in. It had clearly never been cleaned, and I made the mistake of paying 100rs more for an attached bathroom. The toilet had socialist inclinations, as it was slanted firmly to the left. But its presence was almost unecessary, since somebody had decided to take a dump in the corner of the room, which had only partially been cleaned away. On flushing the toilet, water gushed out of the pipe at the back and swirled around the floor, thus turning the entire bathroom into a giant toilet bowl. I turned on the tap only to find there was no more water. There wasn’t any power either, but that is to be expected. Closing the bathroom door as firmly as it was possible to do, I headed back to the bedroom. The bed was about as hard as a barn door, with large holes in the mattress. But I was luckier than Dan and Denise – they lasted 15 minutes before being driven out of the room by swarms of bedbugs. They ended up camping outside, and were woken by a large group of giggling local women leaving the hotel at half one in the morning. Rooms appeared to be rented by the hour. In the morning we stood in a small, miserable and itchy group outside, united by one solitary thought: let’s get the hell out of Kargil.

We had commandeered another jeep taxi, again paying a little extra to get the luxury of space. We headed out of Kargil into a narrow valley with mud brick houses climbing the hillsides. Women wore headscarves, men sported gigantic turbans; it looked just like Afghanistan. Soon the landscape changed again – we saw the first Tibetan-style buildings, bedecked with prayer flags. We climbed more and stopped at a gompa with an incredible background – a panoramic view of the Himalayas. We had a local passenger with us, and he cried out: “There is my home village!” It was a low gathering of mud brick houses down in a valley, near a sign saying “Altitude: 12,500ft”. A small group of women crouched nearby, looking wind flayed. We passed groups of Indian road workers who swung pickaxes and shovels tiredly – any exertion at this altitude is exhausting. Round the hairpins we went, dropping down towards Lamayuru, which had a huge monastery perched above it. A stupa split the road near a barrier, and we filed into the police post to fill out our passport details – as we did so Dan roared past on his Enfield, having got it working again after it got temperamental at 12,000ft. One of the policemen sitting outside on the bench posed for a photograph, and pulled a smile a millimetre wide when being asked to do so.

The sky cleared as we approached Leh through a lunar landscape, and the landscape was painted in tones of light brown, yellow and beige, beneath a deep blue sky. Huge military camps lined the road, and soldiers walked around wearing enormous fleece hats. We got pulled at a police checkpoint on the outskirts of Leh, and stood around in a small group smoking furiously as the driver negotiated with the policeman; we noticed that our cigarettes seemed tasteless, and speculated whether it was the altitude. Entering the town proper we headed up to the district of Changspa, dominated by the enormous Shanti Stupa on the hilltop, and checked into the Oriental Hotel – mercifully free of bedbugs, with a soft mattress, and a piping hot shower, which was badly needed after four days on the road. Stepping out onto the terrace I ordered a masala chai, which arrived in under a minute, and looked out at a line of poplar trees, with a magnificent view of snow-covered mountains beyond them, and I offered up a silent prayer of thanks that I had made that spontaneous decision back in Dharamkot that I head to Ladakh – a journey that I knew was going to be long, difficult, exhausting, but which I am incredibly glad that I decided to undertake. Welcome to Shangri La.