“We are going to cross that???, my driver tells me pointing way up ahead and beyond, and my heart sinks without a trace. Glaring down at us was the Khardung La – at 5578 meters, oblivious to the fact that my heart had stopped beating. “Go slow???, I say harshly to the driver.
For someone who loves to travel but only inside his head, I have done a fair amount of physically traveling and had always been glad of doing it; but always after it was over. This was my fourth trip to Ladakh and the first one to the Nubra valley. I did not have much choice. After having boasted so much to them, Danielle and Francois, our guests from France, I just couldn’t back off.
I am not really sure when it was that fear abandoned me – as briefly as it did, but it must have been somewhere around the time when we drove right into a patch of cloud drifting over the winding roads, as we started the steep ascend. The car stopped and Francois jumped out with his camera, trying to photo freeze the sight of the barren mountains, patches of a green valley glistening in the shafts of sunlight beaming through the clouds and the road snaking up the valley.
The 37 kilometers of drive from Leh to Khardung La takes a better part of our morning, including a stop for breakfast at Ganglas and many more for photos. We reached Khardung La and whooped, giving each other the high-five; we had just reached the world’s highest motorable pass (and we had to do the world’s second and third highest in the next three days, but that’s another story). The driver points out in the general direction and tells us where the Karakoram Mountains and the Zanskar Range were but the temperature was sub-zero and a blizzard was setting in. Francois changed from his shorts to a pair of jeans and in the process lost two film rolls. We all huddle into the room where the army serves gratis tea to travelers and in a bowl leaves sugar granules, offerings made to a local deity.
Fortified, we start our descend into the Nubra Valley; the first few kilometers are dirt tracks owing to a landslide and my stomach churns more than once. As the road dips on its way to Khardung, a mere 32 kilometers from the pass, I start to breathe again. We stop for another cuppa chai. Francois disappears with his camera and Danielle wanders off into the fields. As for me, I rest – stretching myself out on a bench.
Latish afternoon, we reach Khalser, a picture-postcard village along the banks of River Shayok. The driver and the guide give the packed lunch a miss and vanish inside a dark tent. For Thukpa and Momos – they tell us later. I feel betrayed, having had to munch on sandwiches and boiled eggs – all washed down by the popular Leh Berry juice. Time to move and we start our hunt for Francois and find him behind a boulder, shooting pictures of Ladakhi children.
We drive along the Shayok River for a while and the sight is stunning. The chatter inside the car dies out as we stare out. The road is lined with Leh Berry bushes, mountains at the tip of our fingers and the river rushing about its business. We cross the river and head for Tirith where we camp for the night, all relieved at the prospect of a warm bath and a place to rest our weary and tired bone. Only the spirit remained exalted.
Late afternoon, we head out for Panamic and Summor. The drive is relatively easy now, a flatbed alongside the river. The hot spring at Panamic was where travelers on the Silk Route rested before starting their journey into Leh. We reach Summor just as the evening prayer was starting. This gets somewhat interrupted by the arrival of a cow in a truck, a gift from a village in the valley for the monks. The animal looks distraught and that is quite understandable; it had traveled over a hundred kilometers through the winding mountain roads. It is lead off into the meadows to graze and “calm??? down.
In the night we polished off the last bottle of our wine and leave a bit at the request of the camp manager. The next day, after breakfast, we head for Diskit and Hunder. The drive is relatively easy today and on reaching Hunder first, I decline a ride on the double-hump camel. Danielle and Francois don’t and come back after an hour raving about the view. I tell Francois he had missed an opportunity to shoot the mating of a pair of camels for which I am sure the animals were grateful. Francois is visibly upset.
At a village, we supplement our staple diet of sandwiches and eggs with some hot noodles and soup and after a lazy walk through the market where Danielle buys few scarves, we head for Diskit. After much panting and innumerable stops, I reach the courtyard of the main Gompa – much after they had. As I wait to catch my breath, I take in the view. The valley – emerald green, the white washed chortens, the flags with prayers written on them fluttering, carrying the prayers across the land – blessing each one it touched.
The festival of the Gompa was coming up and we get the rare opportunity of seeing the monks at work – making a Mandala with the main deity of the Gompa watching over them. Done by tapping crushed semi-precious colored stones through narrow pipes onto a board in a specific pattern, the Mandala often depicts a palace with four gates guarded by angry door keepers; to reach the eight petal lotus resting on a bed of jewels inside the palace, a meditating person must cross four outer circles at the fringe of a Mandala.
The return journey is uneventful with more than sporadic halts for pictures. Francois and I compare notes while Danielle insists I couldn’t be as bad with my camera as I claim. They are both thrilled with the trip and it shows on their face. That somehow makes me happy. We pass the Khardung La again and this time the blizzard is worse and I am convinced the car will slip. It doesn’t. By now Phuntshok, our driver, knows me and refrains from making attempts to overtake other vehicles.
We sit sprawled out in the lawns of the hotel back in Leh. Francois reads the newspaper, three days old while Danielle writes out postcards. I mull over the miracle; for someone who has a mortal fear of heights, I have done pretty well. This place does that to you; takes you apart in bits and pieces and puts you back together again but you are never the same. Over the next one week, it would do it again. Its mountains, people, religion and its gompas are an eternal reminder that you are just an invisible speck on the face of this universe. “Juley???, a familiar voice calls out and I drift back. It’s our waiter with a tray of tea and cookies.
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