"Let your life lightly dance on the edges of Time like dew on the tip of a leaf" ~ Rabindranath Tagore


Journey to Ladakh - Part II

Ashley Pearson recounts his unusual adventures as he finds his way from Srinagar to Leh

I walked to the bridge, examined the icy torrents of blue and stared at the impoverished tribal people camped nearby. They stared back, children with wild eyes and hair, playful rugged scamps. Parents squatted under sodden canvas, mothers stooped over smoky piles of cooking. Back at the bus, the boys were excitedly playing cards; they threw their cards down enthusiastically as if to say this wasn't going to last for long. Pacing around, I decided to take a precious photo, so I set up my shot, with orange truck, mountains and TF all set for the big adventure. It turned out to be one of those mental snapshots of the everlasting kind that you read about, but can never perform yourself.

More on J & K
An Overview

Ladakh: Part I
Road to Khardung La

This was fortunate, as water later soaked the film and the actual result was rather disappointing. Stormy sky, Indian crew around the their Bedford and TF wrapped up to look as unfeminine as possible, a scarfed, woolly pirate. The whole print had been washed out, making us resemble 1960's travellers from a faded hippy overland travel manual.


Shabir and his entourage had bucket loads of faith - "We leave at 8.00 tomorrow', he'd emphatically declared, discarding all the odds stacked against him.
Shabir was all electric smile, exhorting us to believe in our luck and trust in the good fortune of choosing him to hitch a lift with.
But things were afoot, there were signs of life on the road, and it appeared as if we were being allowed to start. I knew the acid test would be at the first army checkpoint, but merely starting was a blessing that had been an age in attendance. So with whoops and cries, the orange entourage started off, if a bit incredulously. We had pride of place, sat in the front, but I was soon gagging from the fumes arising from the jerry can at my feet. Shabir was all electric smile, exhorting us to believe in our luck and trust in the good fortune of choosing him to hitch a lift with. He himself trusted in repeatedly kissing the middle of the steering wheel, embossed with the Indian TATA emblem.

Our lorry was now in close cahoots with another, and as we progressed, different companions would drop in to greet the Westerners, Indiana Jones style. Different appendages and colours of salwar kameez dangled from the windows as they hopped from one stunt to another, maybe not performed at anything approaching a land speed record, but reckless nonetheless. We didn't get much chance to think about escaping before we drove up to the first checkpoint and everyone dutifully gathered around the army tent and a grey phone.

Soon, everyone else seemed to have caught us up and were swilling en masse, animated discussions flaring up and catching pockets of the small crowd. As well as lorries bringing the supplies to Leh, some new Maruti jeeps had escaped as well and everyone piled the pressure on the beleaguered officials. The 4 x 4's looked sparkling new and worthy of a glossy advert spread. I slowly looked from their plush seats to the overhanging part of the lorry roof where I had previously been hoping to escape to.

The rumours continued to fly over the heads of the haggling drivers - who was going with their wares to Leh first? Were we going to have to wait for a local bigwig to press through first? The road was open? Then, it appeared to close again. I still had faith in Asian skullduggery and the bribe machine, but things were looking as if they were in a bit of an impasse, as TF looked despondently at me and I regarded the moustachioed impassiveness of the army bods. I was concerned now about the rucksack gamble; should we leave them up there when we might have better luck with the jeeps? The way ahead was more accessible for them, but the lorries may get priority. I decided to go for it, and trying not to feel embarrassed as Shabir's gaze burned into my back, I retrieved our baggage for what seemed like the umpteenth time. Steeling my face for a hopeless look, setting my face to advertise that we were lost little lambs, I crossed over halfway between the two owners of our salvation.

It transpired that Said was driving two jeeps to Leh, spanking new Maruti affairs, an unholy alliance between a Suzuki engine and Indian-made bodywork. We had caught drift of him in the tea house in Sonamarg and had made some preliminary enquiries, but had eventually been convinced by Shabir that he was in with the soldiers and would be first off. But, here, as the kerfuffle gained momentum, the white radiant vehicles looked very attractive. Inside the tent it was still a stalemate, the army officers stood resolutely behind the phone for protection, as if it gave them the authority to hold off this mob.
But just as I had imagined myself sprung loaded to comfort and safety with Said, there was some invisible signal and everyone stopped waving their arms and ran back to the trucks.

The device itself had not contributed to the debate and looked as if it needed winding up. But just as I had imagined myself sprung loaded to comfort and safety with Said, there was some invisible signal and everyone stopped waving their arms and ran back to the trucks. A tray of eggs had tipped the balance it seemed, a rather delicate backhander I thought.

Shabir was maniacal with glee, how did we ever come to doubt him? But no matter, we were on the roof and no-one was budging us. A much safer place to sit and admire the view, with plenty of time to jump to safety and no awkward, interminable smiling exchanges over leaky kerosene tanks either. We were off again, perched on the forward part of the Bedford that bulged over the cabin. Behind us was a cargo of unknown identity, although some clues could be found underneath us as we tried to get comfortable. There was Chinese crockery and rather a large number of dodgy looking Sino-butane gas bottles; were we actually sitting on a gigantic bomb? I slipped the tarpaulin and blankets back again and tried to forget about it, this whole excursion was charting unknown territories of self-denial. The pleasures of open top riding soon overcame me however.

The exhilaration of removing oneself from most of the pains of Third World travel by riding 'up on top' cannot be underestimated. Crying babies, chickens, mad people, beggars, blaring radio, overly-talkative Westerners, lack of leg room and fresh air can all be avoided by the roof approach. It may involve some discomfort and hanging on, but there is much more opportunity to stretch out and move. The open vista usually makes it a winner, as well as being in a better position to avoid touts on dismounting. And in this case, mountain spotting from our rooftop den was starting to send me dizzy and full of rash, gung-ho ideas about departure and arrival.

We soon had our first obstacle to encounter, however, getting over the Zojila pass. The mountains soon started to fill our view and it became difficult to say anything meaningful or otherwise, eyes wide and roaming. We just had to try not to miss any of it, craning my head around constantly to absorb the all-encompassing scenery. It wasn't such a problem, the speed we were travelling, but I didn't want to miss a bit of it. As we started to climb out of our valley, others came into view, and we saw treelines and green verges alongside rivers far below us, giving way to grey and brown hillsides, before snow-blushed peaks.


The track was fast disappearing into a transitory path that had been cleared by the bulldozers, a scraped line on the side of the mountain. As we rounded another tight switchback, the vista above suddenly seemed rather shifting, the way ahead a grey scree slope reminiscent of a slag heap. My eyes traced a wandering line ascending upwards and out of sight that I had previously thought was a goat path, but now realized was our zig zag to the Zojila.

Supressing a touch of panic at this point, we made some embarrassing farewell commitments and tried not to look at the tyres shifting gravel below us. Crawling up an immense helter-skelter of a sandcastle, which was defying gravity just being there, without having a laden truck trying to disturb it - I silently saluted the driving force of the Indian entrepreneur and prayed for Shabir's steering. I mused over the madness of trade, what were we sitting on in real terms, lettuce and gas bottles? How many other commodities around the world had to make insane excursions like this one to get to the consumer? We were such stupid travellers to be not even in it for the money.

Occasionally, the cleared path opened out for half a mile or so, breaking the chain of zig-zags so that we felt really exposed and vulnerable. Locked into our side of the ascent, it was like skirting over a precipice and our true place in the world order was revealed - a dinky toy truck in an enormous quarry, lurching in order to reach the next series of turns. The rain lay in pools on the path, making the going quite treacherous and just as I wondered how long an engine can labour in so low a gear, we actually ground to a halt and started to toy with the idea of lurching backwards.


After another quick prayer for the handbrake, I jumped down to join the bus boy, who was frantically searching for rocks of suitable size to cram under the back wheels. This soon became derigeur for some stretches, as we scrambled around to provide traction and trotted up behind the panting orange behemoth. This faintly ridiculous behaviour was much more like it, I grabbed this farcical element and used it to keep me onward and upward. Shabir was nonplussed, this was obviously part of the routine. His gleeful grin was still going in the side mirror, maybe the driver challenge was what it was all about.

The diesel engines ground on and we continued to corkscew into the sky, looking over snowy crusts. Meringues of ice flanking over frosty torrents. Higher up, we spotted colourful chains of more traditional travellers, isolated dots, lost in the white as they tramped with pack animals across the snow. Feelings of guilt arose as I compared their human endeavour to ours, our choking diesel next to virginal expanses of white. Vistas and features worthy of school geography textbooks continued to abound as we finally got to the first summit, the first hurdle unscathed, and looked down on a snowfield.

A passage had been cleared by an army bulldozer, but from here it seemed more as if a kindly giant had waded in, arms ablaze. We slipped down into a snow tunnel, melted water and gravel underneath, with the top of the drifts clearing our rooftop perch by some feet. The lorries were completely enclosed and the temperature quickly dropped. We slowly chugged through the world's slowest tobaggan run, although the treacherous potholes underneath eventually spelt disaster for one of our convoy. It had lurched sickeningly into a large dip, not a particularly auspicious change for a tyre or wheel change. We all decamped, everyone lit cigarettes and looked at the stricken vehicle, whilst eventually some shovels got into action. It was starting to get very chilly inside our icy highway and now we could be stuck for hours. Spotting our downcast faces, more than one bus boy tried to cheer us up, but I took peace in the turquoise overhead. Way above the snow conduit, all was a furious blue...

There was a kind of passing place cum ford further on, where one of the army bulldozers was waiting and we went forward to let in an army truck to haul out the offending vehicle. In this case, the army was great news and we continued, hoping that nothing would befall our axle. If we had undertaken the more independent option of getting thus far, by hiring mules in Sonamarg, the army would have been the unknown risk factor. But for now, we waved them goodbye and continued along the snow melt, trundling ponderously in and out of the ditches.

It was only months later when we met a fellow traveller that TF had met previously that we realized how risky that could have been. He had pitched a tent in order to get over the pass and been attacked by unknown attackers in balaclavas who threw rocks at his tent. He had spent a truly terrible few weeks recovering from his injuries in a makeshift bed somewhere and he has inherited a long scar down his face. It had been a truly awful moment as we had met at a café and twittered on about our 'ordeal', suddenly noticing his face glaze over and the poor traveller's facial disfigurement.

We didn't trundle for very long however, until another checkpoint at a bridge and more haulted vehicles - the Zojila was over. There were army tents and much more smoking in groups and of course, the familiar air of confusion. No one was going anywhere that much was clear. There was a BEACON bulldozer, with a reversible cabin that rotated so they could drive in both directions if need be, helping the passage and creation of this very long single carriage 'road'.


This set me thinking about the traffic in the opposite direction, what happened to the traffic coming from Leh? The answer was that on the 'difficult ' stretches, morning and afternoon traffic were separated, Shabir explained. The classification of 'difficult' stretches were beyond me, I had merely been making comparisons between dangerous, bloody dangerous and 'thanks world, I've had a good life'. Here, we learned how far we had come, some 30 kilometres after about 4 hours, not the fastest hitch in traveller history. Was this all leading to a night in the cabin I mused, or a bedding down with the military? Everyone got out and milled, whilst I got gradually more and more mesmerized by the view and then slowly appalled by all the trash and detritus associated with encampments and roads. Food cans, ubiquitous plastic artefacts, barrels of forgotten solidified tar and bitumen scarred verges. Nothing much was ever going to decompose up here, despite the harsh sun. We were intruders again, guilty suspects in the lofty desert.

It transpired that further ahead the potholes got worse, as did the landslide damage. For the moment, the way ahead was declared no go for the lorries, but the jeeps were given permission to press forward. Yes, Said and his motor fleet of two had caught up with us and we sidled over to do business. Amazingly, there were 2 spaces free in one of them and TF and myself managed to strike up an acceptable price for the remaining journey, without losing too much honour.

We were still very much a spectacle though, and I desperately tried to imagine how everyone perceived us, army, trucker and bus boys alike. Rich foreign aliens, who strangely dressed in rags and liked riding on the roof, and who had no loyalty for fellow lorry voyagers. I waded through the discomfort, aided by the fact there was little time for fond farewells, Said was itching to be off before the soldiers changed their minds. So, it was goodbye wilting greens, kerosene, pink salt tea and fighter plane-emblazoned cabins, holy shrine dashboards and sloganed lorry plates. So no more prostrations to the steering wheel TATA!


Waving our goodbyes to Shabir and co., we were heading for an altogether more comfortable car advert. I couldn't believe our luck, there were a miraculous four people in our vehicle, a normal load for an Asian moped or push bike. Sultan was our fellow passenger, a very gentle, educated young man from Kashmir who wouldn't have looked out of place in Oxford, managing to look more dapper than I had for years.

He was going ahead to prepare his uncle's vegetable stall in Leh market, and had the air of an academic being coerced into the commercial life. Obviously much more at home with his books, he proudly showed us one on the history of carpet making and stitch design. So, being groomed for the summer entrepreneurial bash, he would have to devise the ultimate mark up for a carrot. Said and he were still getting to know each other and exchanging gags in different languages, breaking into one and then streaming into another. Some of the scattered 'hindish' breaks in Said's banter were hilarious, English phrases emerging out of the babble, colonial phrase take-over still much in evidence. We navigated more of the awful treacherous ditches, which would have clearly spelt disaster for the trucks, but the jeeps dipped in and out of them with aplomb, Said taking it easy.

I couldn't imagine more of a baptism of fire for a new car, he definitely should have got in touch with the manufacturers for some publicity shots. The way was certainly getting easier, however, and I watched the speedometer approach the unbelievable heights of 20 miles an hour at one point as we entered a more track-like scenario. At the side of the roadways, usually at tight turns, there were monuments to the dead workers who had constructed the road. Before the pass, they were eblazoned with BEACON, now the road agency was called HIMANK; I dreaded to think about the toil involved in carving a way through for us and the resulting death toll.


Craning our heads to see out of every possible window now, we had ample leg- room in our luxury fleet. I could sit back and REALLY enjoy the view. Before long, we had passed Drass, the second coldest place in Asia during winter, and had sped on to Kargil, just before halfway to Leh on my photocopy of a sketch map. It seemed like a minor metropolis to us, people lined the streets staring at our new jeeps. It was time for lunch.

We tumbled into a dark eatery and were confronted with the usual dearth of vegetable options for us. Although, us hardened vegetarians didn't mind so much, it was just quite pleasant to be in a position where we could have ordered something fantastic if it was available. As we dashed out into the light again, there was quite a crowd around the new jeeps, youths scrutinising them carefully, or looking at their hair in the side mirrors.

There was no time to lose though, and we continued on our ascent, climbing a 'proper' road, iced with tarmac, that looped and looped itself into the sky. Said pointed out the way to the cease fire line with Pakistan, that lay over the next valley at one or two points. Pakistan was also on my itinerary and it was a deceptively close. Clamber up a valley or two to get there now, compared to going all the way back to Amritsar and crossing the land border there. I decided to pass the closer examination of a cease fire as I was having so much fun on our scenic tour.


Tfter endless switchbacks, we suddenly skidded to a halt and I realized that this was as high as we were going to get. Everyone had a quick toilet stop and looked out over a moonscape, blinding in the sunlight. No trees, just desert and incredible rock formations. Past the convoluted brown valley fingers, we saw an altogether different vista from the other side, no greys, no gravel, no vegetation, just smooth undulating desert. Beyond, we gasped at the distant crowded, snowy peaks. So, this was what a High Altitude Buddhist Kingdom looked like. This was where the people put sugar and butter in their tea, consulted possessed oracles and were safe to practice Tibetan Buddhism, free from the cruel clamp downs and destruction of the Chinese State.

Again, there was no time lost in musing, we headed downwards at top speed. Agape and aghast at the scenery, I couldn't say anything meaningful. Undulating valleys tortured the way ahead, their fingers and spurs encroaching on our passage. And then, a tiny hilltop monastery floated into view out of the stark background, sat astride a lofty pinnacle; we really were here at last. Spared any awkward nights with the bus boys or soldiers, no enforced camps, I saluted the sun, elevated and elated.

The colours of the valleys around soon revealed themselves to be fantastic, marbled combinations of pink and purple. There were gigantic boulders, lying strewn after some giant's sport, some unfeasible large to be so close to a road. There were patches of ripening barley and strips of poplars following the Zojila and Indus rivers. The view became plainly unreal, as all the normal perspective cues went haywire in the thin air. Our scraps of guide book waxed lyrical about this 'elephant skin' landscape, likening the valleys to wrinkles, but my mind had blown a fuse at this point, pleading sensory overload. In the back of the Gypsy Jeeps, I gave up craning my neck this way and that to catch a new vista, my engorged retinas were satiated. We'd been truly blessed and that was enough.


The journey was now a fairly straightforward run to Leh, along the course of the Indus, between the Ladakh and Zanskar mountain ranges, past enclaves of historic monasteries and buildings that we had to leave to the darkness. Another quick dal and rice stop and we were nearly there, Said able to drive much faster now, with no accompanying traffic. The 249 kilometres from Srinagar to Leh was finally over at little past midnight, as we crept out of the faithful vehicles in a bit of a daze. It seemed like days since we had set off, but had actually been an Asian land speed record at the finish. Said and Soltan dropped us off a friendly guest house on the outskirts of Leh and we murmured our heartfelt thanks and sleepy goodnights.

Journey to Ladakh - Part 1

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Editor: Romola Butalia       (c) India Travelogue. All rights reserved.