The Long Road Back

Baltistan had been extraordinary – completely unexpected. To find a place so untouched by tourism, and in so idyllic a setting, was rare indeed. According to my guidebook, the furthest north it was possible to travel was Hunda, and yet we had gone 80km further to Turtuk – culturally and ethnically remote from the rest of India, and as far up the Nubra Valley as it was possible to go before entering Pakistani territory. Now it was time to retrace our steps back to Hunda and Diskit, and then try the next valley to the east. This ended in the Siachen Glacier, famed for being a high altitude battlefield where India and Pakistan periodically fired artillery at each other’s positions across the glacier. More troops on either side had died from the conditions than military action: in 2012 130 Pakistani troops died in an avalanche. We knew that as a military area we wouldn’t get far, but hoped to reach Panamik, which lay close to the border with Tibet and the disputed region of Aksai Chin. Chinese troops had set up a camp 10km inside Indian territory earlier that month, and tensions were running high. 

But these strategic issues were not the foremost thing on our minds. We were all suffering from a debilitating sense of fatigue – a mixture of altitude sickness, dehydration and exhaustion. The weather was unseasonably hot, with temperatures in the mid-30s, and Nubra Valley itself lies at an average of 10,000 feet, so any exertion left you breathless. My bike had developed an alarming rattle from the steering column – I watched the front wheel wobbling back and forth as I rode, and fervently hoped it would remain attached to the rest of the bike. We tightened it as best we could with molegrips and cranked the steering head bolt round almost one full turn. On a brand new bike you sort of expect it to be screwed together properly, but we had already covered some rough terrain. More was to follow. The road back to Diskit was relatively good, but there were multiple hazards to watch out for. Stones littered the tarmac from recent landslides, and the wind had blown sand in drifts across the road in places. It took every ounce of concentration, and the end result was that after a few hours’ ride we were shattered. 

Diskit hadn’t improved much in our absence. We filled up again at the petrol pump, which was hand-cranked into a five litre jug. We needed to photocopy more Inner Line Permits, as these were retained at army checkpoints, and we found a photocopier in the back of a fruit and veg stall off the main square. We were running low on cash as well. The only ATM in town was down an alley and then up a flight of stairs. Kitch had gone on ahead, and when I made my way up the stairs and into the doorway I saw the room was crowded with soldiers. “Two of them just had their hand in my bag,” he informed me, so I watched his back while he got cash out. Ahead of me in the queue were three local lads, one of whom had five different bank cards, and who withdrew 10,000 rupees (£120) on each one. Fortunately there was still cash left in the machine by the time I reached it. We headed down to a hardware shop in search of a bolt for my luggage rack, with no luck, and Kitch headed off to a workshop to get some welding done on his. Eventually we all congregated at the junction on the main route south, and set off once more. 

The landscape seemed almost dessicated, with every last drop of moisture squeezed out of it by the sun and wind. Rocks glittered with mica and the mountains shifted colour continually as cloud shadows drifted down their flanks. Riding through the desert we came across a gruesome sight – the carcass of a dog by the side of the road, impaled with a metal spear through its head. Later Dan reported having seen another one on the way up – a dog that had been speared. 

There was rarely a section of road that ran straight for more than a few hundred yards – the road followed the contours of the hillside so we were continually leaning the bikes over to negotiate the bends. But there was almost no other traffic, so we often used the entire width of the road. Round a couple of tight hairpins I managed to scrape the back brake pedal, and reminded myself that a Royal Enfield didn’t have quite the same ‘chuckability’ factor as an FZ6 Fazer. My steering rattle was much improved after tightening every bolt in sight, which was a relief. Coming round one bend I saw Kitch pull in to the side of the road, and rolled to a stop just behind him. It was an impossibly scenic location: a group of horses grazed knee-deep in a water meadow filled with lilies, the foliage across the valley floor lush in the strong sunlight, and in the background a line of snowcapped Himalayan peaks. It was a small oasis in a high altitude desert. We praised the scenery with characteristic enthusiasm: “Well that’s just bollocks. Don’t know why we bothered coming. No point taking any pictures – they’ll just be shit. Might as well turn round now and go home.” 

We entered Panamik dulled by fatigue, but decided to press on to see how far we could go. Not very, was the answer. Three kilometers after the last buildings there was a barrier across the road. As we approached there was a whistle blast from a nearby house, and I looked to my right to see a man wearing a tracksuit leaning out of the window and waving us back. We parked up at the roadside, and he came running out. “End of road,” he said. “Not possible to go further.” Then, curiously, “Where are you from?” England, we replied. “Ah, England!” He shook our hands. I showed him one of the Inner Line Permits, but he shook his head apologetically. “Not possible,” he said again. We said goodbye and turned the bikes round before roaring off back to Panamik. We followed the sign up to the hot springs, anticipating some sort of natural jacuzzi, but when we got there the whole place was distinctly underwhelming – a rather grubby indoor pool and a bored teenage attendant who asked us for cigarettes. We headed back down the track in search of a guesthouse, and soon pulled up at a neat house set back some way from the road: Nebula Guesthouse. A young girl was playing in the garden, and on seeing three bikers turn up she bolted indoors, yelling “Mum! Mum! There are guests!” A middle-aged Ladakhi lady emerged wearing a headscarf. “Please, come in.” She showed us a couple of rooms, which were beautifully clean – the cleanest we’d seen in weeks. The bedcovers had Snoopy on them. Pictures of Hannah Montana decorated the TV cabinet in the lounge, and the TV itself was covered with a lace doily. We sat on cushions against the wall, demolished a thermos of chai, and stared uncomprehendingly at piles of magazines full of pictures of celebrities. Walking into the bathroom (also sparklingly clean) I caught sight of myself in the mirror: a wild-haired, wind-burned and silvery-stubbled face with eyes that shone fever-bright with happiness. 

Later that evening a lone cyclist arrived at the guesthouse. We’d seen him earlier in the day out on the road, and admired his endurance. He was Slovenian, and was a policeman by profession. We all had dinner together in the lounge – the usual Ladakhi menu of dal, rice, some kind of greens and chapattis. “Do you have music?” he called to the owner. The owner’s son put some local pop on the stereo, and the two little girls danced in the corridor, giggling with excitement at being allowed to stay up late.

The next morning we all emerged from our assorted rooms feeling exhausted. But Kitch was still curled up on the floor. “You alright?” I asked him. “No,” came the reply. “I feel fooked.” He had a fever and a banging headache. I wasn’t doing much better myself. I found a nail in the front tyre of my bike, and rather stupidly removed it. The tyre went down with a hiss. There was a puncture repair shop at the end of the village, so we superglued the pump back together, blew up the tyre and I hopped on. I got to the end of the drive – a steep and bumpy dirt track – before it deflated again. Somehow I rode it through the village and found the tyre shop, which was a dusty compound full of old bike and truck parts. The owner propped the bike up with two rocks under the centre stand and removed the front wheel. Using a couple of large screwdrivers he popped the tyre off to expose an inner tube that had already been patched several times. I crouched in the dust, narrowing my eyes in the mid-morning glare, as he deftly patched the tube. His two small sons came over to watch as together we wrestled the wheel back into the forks. 

Now that I was mobile again, the plan was to explore the other side of the valley together with Kitch, while Dan and Denise headed back towards Leh. But we were still struggling with fatigue – almost as soon as we left the guesthouse Kitch dropped the bike during a U-turn: I saw it topple and he was only just holding it up, so I quickly stopped and ran over to help it upright again. We’d found a dirt road that appeared to head across the valley floor, but having gone a short way down it we saw that there was a channel full of water a few feet wide that cut across it. It seemed impassable. “We could just pile a few rocks across it,” said Kitch.
I looked at the head-sized boulders that lay around. “Mate, we can hardly stand up. And you want to start lugging rocks about?”
He laughed. “Maybe we should just go back to Leh. While we’ve got the strength.”

But there was a small obstacle. The Khardung La. 18,300 feet of it. When we’d tackled it a week earlier we had all been in relatively good health, and it had still been exhausting. I had got altitude sickness and wasn’t looking forward to repeating the experience. Now, after seven days riding in the Nubra Valley, we were just hanging on. But we had no choice – we had to get back to Leh. We stopped at a chai stall in the village of Sumar, collapsing in the shade against the wall. We downed a couple of chais, and then two bottles of Nimbooz – a kind of ready made Nimbu Pani lemon water. Into each we tipped half a tablespoon of salt, to try and replace the minerals we kept sweating out. Immediately we felt better. Not great, but better. It gave us the energy to get back on and keep riding. 

Snow had fallen on the Khardung La a few days earlier, according to some other riders we met, and we were concerned about meltwater running across the road. At first the surface was good, and we quickly overtook a convoy of people carriers snaking their way up the hairpins. But soon the surface deteriorated – we were back on a mixture of shale, sand and boulders which bounced the bike around and caused the rattle from my steering to reappear. Round one bend a line of vehicles had halted, blocking the road, and a crowd of people stood around. It was the first river crossing. A car had got stuck halfway across, in the shallow section. We surveyed the tumbling water that poured over the road before cascading over the edge and continuing on down the slope. It looked possible: large boulders jutted out midstream, but to the left of them, just by the cliff edge, there seemed to be a small shelf where the water was only a couple of feet deep. Threading our way round the queue of cars we entered the river, gunning the engines to stop water flooding up the exhausts. Kitch got halfway across before getting stuck on a boulder which blocked his back tyre: he accelerated but the tyre spun slickly on the wet rock and showered me with spray. I looked at the crowd who had switched their attention from the stalled car to ourselves and who were standing and gawping. “Push him!” I yelled. Nobody moved. Kitch began to rock the bike back and forward while still sitting on it, the water pouring around him in streaming white braids. His bike lurched sideways but he held it up and, fishtailing wildly, suddenly bounced across the river and up onto dry land. It was my turn. Making a note to avoid the boulder where he had nearly come unstuck I gunned the engine and immediately started bouncing over the rocks. One struck the front wheel and nearly twisted the bars out of my hands, my feet came off the pegs and I kicked out with my right leg to fend off a boulder – the water came up to my knee. But the Enfield kept going, and I careened across and out the other side, the engine coughing and stumbling. A few yards further on Kitch pulled over, and I drew up alongside, trying and failing to keep my own engine going. The bike stalled. “Just let it dry out for a few minutes,” he said. “It’ll be fine.” 

We looked back at the crowd on the far side of the river who were still gawping at us, and at the car moored in midstream. More vehicles were arriving on the other side. I took off my combat boots and tipped half a pint of muddy brown meltwater out of each, wrung out the yak wool socks and put them back on again. “Fag break,” I announced, so we had a smoke leaning against the bikes. After a few minutes, sure enough, I tried the engine and it roared back into life. We set off again. 

The road took all of our concentration, but periodically I would glance to my left at the panorama that unfolded at every turn. Streaks of snow against the black rock, a deep valley which plummeted away, scored by the faint trail of the road that looped back on itself, climbing steadily upwards. In the distance marched a long line of white peaks, set against a deep blue lapis lazuli sky. Down in one of the gorges lay the carcass of a burned out minibus. I was aware of my own ragged breathing inside my helmet, and I had the beginnings of a headache again. I had a raging thirst, and stopped to drink from the bottle of Ladakh Indus mineral water in my rucksack pocket – it tasted of warm plastic. Rounding a couple more bends I saw buildings come into view which marked the top of the Khardung La: a row of portakabins, a chai shop and souvenir stall. A line of Royal Enfields were parked up alongside the monument, which belonged to an Indian motorcycle club. They all looked remarkably clean – both the bikes and the riders.
“Are you going to Nubra Valley?” we asked.
Not today, they replied. Coming back tomorrow.
“What, so you are riding to the top of the world’s highest pass, then going back down, and coming back up it tomorrow and down the other side?”
Yes, said one of the riders, who was an accountant from Mumbai, and looked like it.
“Bollocks,” Kitch muttered. I could only agree. We later flew past them all on the descent. They were riding like learners, wobbling into potholes, getting in each other’s way and sitting a few metres behind other cars in the middle of the dust thrown up by the wheels. 

We hadn’t gone far after the summit before we spotted a long line of cars halted far below us. A traffic jam. Roadworks were being carried out – in this case trying to clear a house-sized boulder off the road from landslides. Unbeknown to us, Dan and Denise were ahead of us and stuck in the queue. We decided to stay where we were, a few thousand feet higher up the pass, and sat at the roadside overlooking the vast landscape. I lay down on the edge of the cliff and looked up at the blueness of the sky, feeling the heat of the sun and the coolness of the breeze. It was surprisingly quiet – only the sound of trickling meltwater and down in the valley the rattle of the roadworks. Then we heard more bike engines behind us. Three Indian bikers – two on Enfields, one on an Avenger. They pulled up and we chatted to one of them, who worked for the Electricity Board in Delhi.
“Oh, so it was you who caused that three day blackout across all of north India, was it?” He giggled, unfamiliar with our humour. “I expect you just pulled the plug out by mistake, didn’t you. And then went off for a ride up the Khardung La. ‘Sar, power is not there. Assistant Deputy Chief Engineering Officer also is not there. I am believing he is riding his motorcycle in northvesterly direction as quickly as possible.” 

I’d been aware of a pain in my wrist most of the way up, and now on the descent it got worse. It was like wires pulling under my skin. Using the front brake and accelerator had strained the ligaments somehow, and each time I crashed into a pothole a jolt of pain went up my arm like an electric shock. After one particularly rough section where I had been in the lead, Kitch overtook, and I saw that the luggage rack from his bike was hanging dangerously apart – a weld had snapped, and ran the risk of sending a metal spoke through the back wheel.
“We’ll have to load all the luggage onto your bike,” he said. “You alright with that?”
I sat on a rock by the roadside and said: “I can carry it, but you’ll have to load it on. I can’t use my right arm.” He loaded up the back of my bike with everything he had been carrying, tied it all down, and we set off again. I rode carefully at first – the extra weight on the corners was immediately noticeable – but after a while we started to come up behind the other vehicles that had been held in the queue. They weren’t very keen to be overtaken – they would veer all over the road surface looking for the smoothest route. One bus driver stuck a hand ambiguously out of the window when I hooted behind him. I spotted a narrow gap between the bus and the edge of the cliff, and went for it, temporarily forgetting the extra baggage that widened my bike: I scraped through by inches. We were just in a hurry to get down by now, and overtook a series of trucks and cars that were crawling around the hairpins. Soon the road surface improved, and tarmac appeared again. Down one stretch I looked into the valley to see a huge river of tumbling white water, and felt sick: how were we supposed to get across that? But as we drew nearer I could see that the road curved slightly and that the river was on the far side. We went back under the raised barrier where we had been halted a week earlier, and soon were entering the outskirts of Leh again. The traffic hadn’t improved – it was the usual slow motion free-for-all idiocy. We cut through it all like a couple of London despatch riders, horns blaring, overtaking, undertaking, sometimes going up the wrong side of the road altogether. The only thought I had by now was to get off the bike and lie down. We swung left into Changspa road, bumping over the speed humps, round the sharp left before Wonderland, turn right at the T-junction – where the usual idiot failed to indicate before cutting in front of us – and up the hill past Oriental Hotel to park up beside the wall opposite Lhari Guesthouse. I almost fell over sideways as soon as I stopped. Getting off the bike I tried to put it up on the centre stand, and realised I didn’t have the strength. Moving as if in a dream now I undid the ropes which had held the luggage on for the last time, and slowly staggered into the guesthouse and back to my room, utterly exhausted. I unzipped the Barbour jacket which was still covered in dirt from where I had lay down at the roadside at the top of the Khardung La, got my boots off, and climbed straight into bed fully clothed. I slept for 18 hours, and when I woke the bed was full of sand.  

 

   

  

Advertisements

Baltistan

Turtuk, Baltistan – 6th June 2013

Leaving Hunda we rode north some 80km towards the border with Pakistan. The scenery, which had been spectacular ever since crossing the Khardung La, reached new and unanticipated heights – there is a poverty of superlatives to describe such scenery, but epic was used often, as was “ridiculous”. We stopped in a small valley under an ultramarine sky, and spent half an hour just taking it all in. Not a single vehicle passed us the entire time. Enormous valleys one hundred miles long surrounded by 6000m peaks. Riding on we came to a small army post where we had to log our passport details and show permits again. The road ran alongside a fast-flowing river jade green with glacial meltwater. Ahead of me I could see the small figure of Kitch making his way along the opposite hillside, and behind me Dan and Denise were just coming over the brow of the hill. At a bridge we were halted by an army corporal – the name on his lapel was Jigme Wangchuk: disconcertingly similar to that of the King of Bhutan. We clanked over the wooden slats trying to avoid the splinters and twists of wire that would have immediately pierced the tyre, and bumped over gravel and loose stones on the far side. Two children walking towards us held out their hands for a hi five as we passed. I needed both hands on the bars at that point, but Dan and Denise responded, and later said the kids had tried to grab their hands and nearly pulled them off.

Eventually we came to a barrier which no permit would allow us to cross. It marked the end of Indian territory, and after ten kilometres of no-mans-land another barrier marked the frontier with Pakistan. We stopped at the chai stall and sat in a small room crowded with locals both male and female. The men looked Afghan, the women all wore salwar kameez and headscarves. We had entered Baltistan.

In 1971 the Indian Army launched a massive offensive northwards and captured four villages which had previously been Pakistani territory. Chulankha, Tyskhy, Turtuk and Thang were their names, and they were all part of Baltistan, the bulk of which – another 15 towns – lie in present day Pakistan. Many families were split and locals have relatives over the border that they have never seen. We were in Turtuk, which looked unprepossessing from the road – a couple of tented camps and a cheap guesthouse. But just across from one of the camps a path led up the hillside to the village proper. The ground levelled out in a kind of plateau overlooking the valley: look right and you are looking back into India, look left and you are looking at Pakistani territory. The valley split two great mountain ranges: the Karakorams on the far side, and the Himalaya on the other. Small streams trickled through fields of wheat and poplars climbed the hillsides. The village itself looked medieval: rough hewn stone houses and open drains. The first foreign tourists were only permitted into the area in 2009, so many of the people had never seen foreigners before, and reacted with a mixture of shyness and curiosity. The women in particular were wary of being photographed – even the little girls – and all wore hijab. I happened to be wearing my Afghan pakol hat, and it provoked a sensation: “you are wearing the hat of my people!” cried Rosh delightedly. “We call it a Gilgiti Itu.” I asked him what people would make of my wearing it. “They will love it!” They did. People would stare, then break out in slow smiles of recognition. “Afghanistan” I explained. It felt like discovering some anthropological missing connection – pakols are common in Pakistan, but on the other side of the country to this. There were other similarities: the ethnicity of the people ranged from European looking through to Tibetan features (or perhaps Hazara), with the majority resembling Tajiks – the same hatchet features and distinctively Central Asian look.

Children followed us through the narrow lanes, the boys acting with bravado protecting their little sisters, the girls giggling and hiding shyly behind their hijab. Two bubblegum princesses appeared, about fifteen years old, rather flirtatiously blowing bubbles, and tried out their basic English. After a while they flounced off swinging their hips in a parody of maturity, before giggling and running away. But most girls were far too shy to talk to us men, although Denise chatted to two ten year olds, one of whom continually hid behind the other. As darkness fell we headed to the only chai shop in town, lit by a single LED bulb, and sat in semi darkness eating local sweets as the social life of the village continued around us. It was an extraordinary and increasingly rare experience – to visit a place that has had almost no contact with outsiders – and despite all of us being very experience travellers, we all agreed there was something uniquely authentic about it. The owner of the chai shop came out of the kitchen to greet us and delightedly pointed at my pakol – he was wearing the same hat, but in an off-white colour rather than charcoal grey. “Mashallah” he exclaimed repeatedly while shaking my hand.

As in the rest of the Nubra Valley no cigarettes were on sale in Turtuk, but in the gloomy interior of the shop the owner produced a packet of bidis from under the counter. Widespread delight when I said “shukriah” for thank you – Urdu is taught in all the schools here rather than Hindi. Indeed the lady of the house in Hunda taught Urdu herself, despite being Ladakhi (and Buddhist). Later, on hearing that we had been to Baltistan, she said “women are oppressed there”. It was hard to believe. They seemed quite free and independent, despite their shyness, and the irony was that when she said it, she was herself wearing salwar kameez and a headscarf – indistinguishable from the women’s outfits we saw in Baltistan. Most of the Baltis were Sunni Muslim, but they also had a small Shia population in the village, and had built two mosques next door to each other – one Shia and one Sunni. The only two women we saw who had their hair uncovered were Ladakhi Buddhists who came and looked after the small temple on a voluntary basis. The schoolgirls we saw in Turtuk wore the same uniform as those in Himachal Pradesh: baggy trousers, long kurta blouse to the knees and a cardigan over the top; the only difference was that in Turtuk all wore a close fitting white hijab, just as I saw in Afghanistan. In 100km you cross an invisible ethnic boundary here, or perhaps more accurately a cultural and religious one. Srinagar is Sunni. Kargil is Shia. And 100km further on everyone is Tibetan Buddhist. Indeed in Leh you can sit and look at a Tibetan monastery on a crag above the town while hearing the call to prayer from the nearby mosque. But no ranting irate sermons from the mullahs here, unlike Srinagar.

Nubra Valley

Leh Ladakh – 31st May 2013

One of the problems of having travelled rather a lot is that places can start to resemble others that you have visited, sometimes in a way that detracts from their uniqueness. I found that the Fiordland region of New Zealand bore a distinct resemblance to Norway (unsurprisingly). Southland looked an awful lot like Galway on an unusually sunny day. Goa initially reminded me of Vietnam – something about buildings mouldering away in the tropical heat and a backdrop of palm trees – and later Mozambique: that colonial Portuguese influence which somehow pervades everything. But Ladakh reminds me of nowhere on earth; until today, that is. And it’s the strangest association, but it reminds me of Greece. The Greece of the early 1980s, before mass package tourism destroyed the place, somewhere high up in Meteora or in the little villages that lie in the hills of the islands. Tiny hamlets that drowsed in the noonday heat, to a backdrop of perpetually chirping insects, the frangrance of wild herbs crushed underfoot, or the bray of a donkey like a squeaky pump handle, tottering along under a bundle of firewood, followed by a woman in headscarf and baggy trousers. The deep blue of a summer sky, the craggy outline of mountains serrating the skyline, and the small dusty villages where every shop was shuttered against the noonday glare, and dogs dozed on doorsteps, and the faintest breeze rustled the leaves of the plane trees. Greece 1980 – Ladakh 2013. It’s funny how it happens.

I was eight in 1980 when we took that trip to Greece, and perhaps the reason it comes to mind is because of the two British boys of that age who we met yesterday at Shey Palace. Shey is perched on a barren hilltop overlooking a vast valley, with a shallow lake (a holy fishpond which a dog caused chaos in by doing a spot of spontaneous fishing) shimmering in the foreground. Small villages dot the valley floor, before the ground begins to rise again in brown folds scorched by the sun, then climbing abruptly upward to form a vast wall of snow-covered mountains. We climbed up the hill toward a small stupa bedecked with prayer flags, and there met the two boys. “Are you coming to the top?” they asked. “There’s a labyrinth!” They scampered off over rocks that glittered with mica, soon vanishing from view, and then reappearing on a ridge in the distance. “Come on!” one yelled, waving an arm. We trudged slowly upwards, gasping in the thin air. What they had described as a labyrinth was in fact the foundations of an old house – Shey was previously the home of the Ladakhi royal family, and this bleak hilltop was their residence. We rejoined the boys high on the hillside, and I tried to take a photo that did justice to the magnificent vista before us. “iPhone 5,” one said knowingly as I took out my camera. “You’re taking a panorama.” I was. “Where are you from?” they asked, and on hearing London, announced: “We are from Bath.” Soon they ran off exploring again, two eight-year-old British boys exploring a magical kingdom only partly of the imagination, 14,000 feet up in the Himalayas. I hope the memory stays with them forever.

Leh – Nubra Valley 4th June 2013

It happened to be a Monday morning when we headed off – a fact that none of us were aware of until we hit the rush hour traffic of Leh. We were heading over the Khardung La, which claims it is the world’s highest motorable pass at 18,000 feet, on three Royal Enfields. We slalomed through the traffic laden with panniers and jerry cans before turning off a roundabout and heading steadily upwards. The road surface was initially pretty good – a few patches of sand or debris from rockfalls, but nice riding. We hit the first checkpoint and showed our inner line permit – we had photocopied several with all the riders listed on each one, and had to later make more copies in Diskit in a back room of a vegetable stall. But the barrier remained down – there was a queue of cars waiting due to road maintenance higher up. We met two Dutch girls on a scooter who were wearing shorts and flipflops who intended to ride to the top. What about the snow, we asked them? The river crossings? They seemed taken aback at the thought. Happily it turned out that they didn’t have an inner line permit anyway, so weren’t allowed to proceed – no amount of wheedling entreaties would sway the Jammu and Kashmir policeman. Not in public, at least. After the barrier had been raised and we were halted higher up, we saw their scooter following the road upwards, so they had clearly got through. But how far up they got I don’t know. They were woefully unprepared.

The road surface soon worsened. I had got stuck behind a line of cars at the barrier and raced to catch up Dan and Kitch ahead, standing on the pegs and overtaking seven or eight cars and trucks in a row. One blue van refused to give way to Dan and nearly forced him to the road edge, which had a significant drop just next to it of a few thousand feet. My bike crashed into potholes and skidded on loose sand, but soon I got ahead and the three of us were well in front of the traffic. Then we were halted again. A digger was breaking up large boulders that had landed on the road. We were kept there some twenty minutes, while a separate gang of road workers used a jackhammer near where we waited. Small flurries of stones began to cascade down the cliff just next to us. We all looked at each other and decided to move forward, out of range of the next landslide. Eventually the digger moved aside and we carried on, the road becoming worse and worse. I hit five potholes in quick succession which knocked the bike out of gear and carried me alarmingly close to the edge of the cliff – my leg guard scraped a chunk of snow off the cornice that marked the beginning of a very long drop. I slammed it into first gear and kept my foot on the gear pedal, holding it in place while trying to get back onto solid ground. We had been expecting freezing temperatures, but the sun was hot and we were all sweating with exertion. I developed a thumping headache, and when we finally reached the beacon at the top of the Khardung La, when I climbed off the bike my knees buckled and I could hardly stand up. I did a slow shuffle to the chai stall, weaving like a drunk from the altitude sickness. Indian tourists who had come up by minibus dosed themselves with medications and ate samosas. The inevitable piles of rubbish littered the parking spots. We were becoming weaker the longer we stayed, so after tea with cloves we got back on the bikes and headed down the other side, into the Nubra Valley.

We were shattered by the time we reached the first small settlement, and stopped for lunch at a roadside dhaba – rice and chapattis with dal. The main problem was dehydration – we drank continuously, but at this altitude and in temperatures in the mid-thirties it seemed to have no effect: the entire valley was dessicated, and so were we. Nothing but the glare of the sun on bare rock, barren hillsides and jagged snowcapped summits surrounding us. Soon we mounted up again and headed for Diskit, the main town of the valley, and a real one horse dorp – a few run down shops and a high military presence in the town. Descending to the valley floor we all halted again, just taking in the view; a shallow lake, mountains surrounding us on an epic scale, and in the distance a yellow haze rising from the ground – a dust storm. The place was so spectacular that we immediately dubbed it Paradise. But the dust cloud was drawing nearer and we still had a few miles to go, so we pressed on, riding through blinding clouds of yellow grit up hairpins which led towards Hunda. Sand had covered the road in places, and all of us had a wobble at one point or another – I found myself sliding sideways around one bend and being carried inexorably towards a sheer rock face. A few metres from it I got traction again and made the bend; fortunately nothing was coming the other way.

Being two up, Dan and Denise were the slowest, and Kitch likes to go quick (relatively – we rarely reached 80km an hour), so the two of us usually went on ahead and waited for the others to catch up when we stopped to take pictures. But we all arrived in Hunda together, and made our way down little lanes to a guesthouse called Sand Dunes View – Hunda has dunes carpeting the valley floor, as well as a resident population of double-humped Bactrian camels. Sand Dunes View was basically a home stay, run by a couple who were both teachers. There were a couple of grandparents – the grandfather spent hours shuffling round chanting mantras to himself – and three sons, the oldest of which was at college in Delhi. The middle son was about twelve years of age, and the youngest about five; he wore trousers which continually fell down, occasionally sending him sprawling. We sat in the garden, through which a small stream trickled lined with buttercups, and restored ourselves with chai; after our second thermos full the wife said “chai monsters” and giggled.

The grandmother joins grandad under a tree in the garden and chants the mantra along with him for well over an hour. The wind shakes the poplar trees and sweeps across the valley – it is 4pm, time for the afternoon dust storm. The cows in the next compound are mooing to each other. Diskit lies 7km up the valley and is visible as a tiny collection of low buildings hugging the hillside – the valley continues on for miles into the distance ringed by vast mountains. The garden is divided up into small squares which are irrigated by the trickling brook; they can be flooded a plot at a time by making a breach in the low earth wall that surrounds them. A dark raincloud looms over the top of one peak and shadow spills down its flank as a few spots of rain begin to fall, pattering on the parched earth. A dustcloud envelops us and I narrow my eyes like a Bactrian camel (not a Bacterial camel, as one leaflet described them). In the sink I spit out a gritty brown mouthful of dust, Uzbek Camel cigarettes and masala chai. There are no cigarettes anywhere for sale in Nubra Valley – a state law or something – so we are rationing to ten a day. This is probably a good thing.