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.