The road to Leh

The once-forbidden road from Srinagar into the Himalayas began for us along the shores of Dal Lake. As we threaded past tuk-tuk scooters and Tata trucks– avoiding children, scrawny dogs and sleepy cows– ghostly boatmen in gondola-like shikaras drifted through the dawn mist, mirrored in the still water. Leaving the lake, the pitted road wound up through scruffy villages clinging to the hillsides and crossed the Sind River swollen with snowmelt. Above us, achingly white against an impossibly blue sky, were the foothills of the highest mountains on earth.

Our driver, Bhuti Nibbe, was a great driver but insisted in passing what he could or tailgating in exhaust fumes in the hopes of doing so

I’d been warned of the road ahead by the writer Andrew Harvey, who asked a Frenchman who’d travelled the road to tell him what to expect. ‘I have been down the Amazon,’ he told Harvey. ‘I have walked across the Kalahari. I once spent five weeks in the Sahara … and they are nothing like those two days going up from Srinagar to Leh. Find a patron saint and pray to him; don’t look too closely at the side of the road or you’ll faint or be sick. Take opium if you can get some. It helps.’

As we rose higher and higher the air chilled, valleys fell away beneath the scrabbling wheels of our Toyota Qualis and white, insanely high peaks closed in around us. The road became a snaking, hairpin ledge hacked into mountain flanks. Glaciers shimmered in high valleys as we stopped for a picnic lunch beside a river. The water was so cold my hands were instantly numb as I dipped them in to wash.

In a valley far below was a huge gathering of tents. Evidently there’s a cave there with an eternal ice lingam (penis) that Hundus worship, and they were doing it in vast numbers.

As we busied ourselves with food packs, some scruffy but beautiful children approached shyly – sons and daughters of poor shepherds whose rough, plastic-covered huts we’d passed. We handed out some food and one youngster regarded the hard boiled egg in his hand with a wonder long lost to children of the urban lowlands. It was clearly the first egg he’d ever seen.

 Up the Himalayas

As we climbed into the Himalayas, Leh seemed an awfully far away. Along the crazy road with no side barriers between us and doom was the occasional sign with exhortations to take care: ‘Road is hilly, don’t drive silly,’ ‘If you’re married, divorce speed,’ ‘Speed and safety never meet’ and, rather puzzlingly, ‘Leave nothing, even your footprints.’ Beside a particularly appalling section of track a sign read: ‘In process of making a world-class road.’

For more than half the year the road is under deep snow. In 1947 this was the route of thousands of families moving between India and the newly proclaimed Pakistan. Looking around, the death rate must have been appalling. In the partition more than a million people were killed and Kashmir became a contested state.

Beautiful beyond measure but remote and vulnerable – the most sparsely-populated region of India – it was invaded by both China (1962) and Pakistan (1947, 1965 and 1999). By 2002 a million soldiers were facing each other across the Indo-Pak border. War was narrowly averted,though insurgency continued (Two weeks after we left soldiers were killed in a border skirmish along this road.)

As we crested a watershed and dropped into the Himalayan rain shadow, the scenery changed abruptly from forests and streams to the harsh rock of the world’s highest ice desert. Nothing I had read or imagined prepared me for the splendour of that phantasmagoria of ice and stone. The vast rock wind palaces had been fashioned by time and immense forces into shapes that were impossible to believe. When we stopped, the silence was truly stunned and sound-swallowingly breathless.

No rain falls here and for more than half the year it’s blanketed by snow. There was hardly a plant in sight, but the colours of the earth’s rocky bones went from volcanic black through reds, browns, oranges and greens to the eye-searing yellows of an area named, appropriately, Moonland.

We drove into Kargil in mid-afternoon, making our way down the busy main street to the Spartan but clean Hotel D Zojila. A Buddhist monk in Leh once told a traveller who inquired about the village: ‘I have no enemies. But if I did, I would wish them reincarnated in Kargil.’ The Rough Guide describes it unkindly as a place of ‘grubby hotels that fill up at night-time with weary bus passengers, who then get up at 4am to career off under cover of darkness.’ It’s there that the fiercest skirmishes of the Indo-Pakistan war took place. I rather liked the place, especially the clusters of women and old Ghandi-like men sitting outside little stores who stared at me unselfconsciously with no hint of judgement.

 Beyond Kargil

We left Kargil early after a breakfast of jammy japatiswith strong tea at Hotel D Zojila and hit a traffic jam that would scare the hell out of a Gauteng minibus driver. The road is the only link between Kargil and Leh and is traversed by creaky busses, massive transport lorries and army trucks.

Indian drivers are good, make no mistake, or they’d be dead long ago. But they’re hooter-besotted tailgaters who think nothing of driving mere metres behind a truck on a narrow hairpin track tooting to pass. I think it’s the one who hoots first who gets right of way, but can’t be sure. Trucks do move over, graciously allowing you to pass on blind rises or round sharp corners.

I looked into the deep valleys and saw no wrecks, so the system must work. Amidst all this, army convoys blasted through, leaving everyone covered in fine dust.

Spitok marked a change of feeling. We had entered the Buddhist area and it was tangible. We stopped at a gompa (monastry) , spun a giant prayer wheel, gazed at a huge stone Buddha and wandered into the building. Lamas, ignoring our presence, chanted and struck gongs beneath ancient, watchful Buddha statues and colourful prayer flags. I sat beside an old fellow, closed my eyes and was swallowed into mindful emptiness by the deep resonance of his hypnotic drumbeat. My co-travellers had to drag me back to the vehicle and material reality.

At a bleak place named Futala we reached the highest point of the journey – 4000 metres. If I did more than walk slowly it was hard to breathe. The marker was festooned with prayer flags and standing around it was a group of hardy bikers on single-cylinder Royal Enfield motorbikes. I wondered how they’d empty their lungs of dust.

Dras, which appeared several hours later, had a sign that proclaimed it the second coldest place on earth. We stopped at a restaurant and I used the restaurant toilet and wished I hadn’t. Nasty!

 Into Leh

It took us a few hours to get down Snake Pass, the next challenge, and it’s well named. The pass is a sinuous wonder of quixotic engineering which produced a monstrous traffic jam when a descending truck got stuck on a tight bend just as a military convoy was coming up. Finally disentangled, we cruised down a wearingly long valley lined with military camps and beneath mountains dotted with beetling monasteries into Leh.

The medieval town owes its existence to the old Silk Route over the Himalayas, connecting Tibet, China, Afghanistan, Punjab and Kashmir. It’s sustained by the proximity of the Indus River, which waters crops in summer and freezes in winter to provide an ice road to the lowlands. Leh is an ethereal, mysterious place on a cream-coloured desert plane rimmed by saw-toothedsnowy peaks.

The first mention of the region seems to have been by the Greek historian Herodotus in the 5th century BC, who describes it as a land of wonderful ants. They were nearly as big as dogs and ferocious, he said. When they burrowed, they threw up gold, which had to be fetched at night, when they slept, and carried away on especially fast horses.

After centuries as a vital crossroads,its importance slowed with the partition of India and ended with the closure of the border in 1962 during the Sino-Indian war. It is easy to imagine, though, how the old trans-Himalayan traders must have felt as they plodded in on caravan routes from the Himalayas: a mixture of relief at having crossed the mountains in one piece and anticipation of a relaxing spell in one of central Asia’s most scenic and atmospheric towns.

We found our hotel and then went exploring.

 Leh at last

When China invaded Tibet in 1950 and crippled religious life, Ladakh remained a centre of traditional Tibetan Buddhism. It’s a harsh land, but everywhere are small marks of human love and prayer.

At 3600 metres, Leh takes its toll on your stamina. It was hard just walking up the road. Now I know what an asthmatic suffers.  My first impression of the town was the strangely purple-blue sky (we were quite close to outer space up there). My second was the size of the surrounding mountains. Leg is on a desert plain cupped by massive, jagged edifices tipped with snow.

 On each house, bridge or hilltop ragged flags blow their prayers into the wind. Chorten shrines, looking like oversized white chess pawns and containing holy relics, bless the countryside.

Everywhere there are prayer wheels, a few huge, many small and embedded in walls for passers-by to spin. High, wide mani walls, some a kilometre or more long, some short – all enclosing nothing – are everywhere. They were constructed over centuries and consist of polishedmantra stones, each painstakingly carved with prayers orOm Mani Padme Hum (Praise to the jewel at the heart of the lotus).

On a hill above the town is a huge, ruined, 17th century palace towering over a warren of red-mud houses and markets selling finely crafted Tibetan and Kashmiri jewellery, clothing, carvings and food.

As I strolled around the town, people seemed peaceful and happy. They’re tolerant towards their old people, their children and each other. There’s almost no cruelty or theft and a bag or cellphone forgotten in a shop would undoubtedly be there the next day. They’re taught by their priests that every living thing has been their mother in a previous incarnation and must be respected as their mother. It’s hard to imagine a better belief for our environmentally aching planet.

The monastries

Leh is surrounded by large, ancient gompas and we visited several– Lamayuru on the Kargil–Leh road is surrounded by soaring mountains, Spituk (a thousand years old) has a brooding presence and a roomful of devil masks, Thikse, built in the 15th century, contains a 14-metre gold-clad Buddha-to-come (there are said to 1#000 Buddhas – 999 to go) – and Stok Palace, a museum, is where now-disenfranchised royals once lived. On the gompa walls were paintings of wrathful and peaceful Tibetan deities in sharp, intense reds, whites, blues and golds, staring at us with tender or terrible faces.

Our prime goal, however, was to attend the ‘devil-dance’ festical at the Hemis monastery. Its the biggest Buddhist monastery in Ladakh, some 45 kilometres southeast of Leh. The ceremony is held on the 10th day of the Tibetan lunar month (late June or early July), it’s a celebration of the birth of Guru Padmasambhava, who is said to have rid the area of demons.

The gompa is nestled high up a valley backdropped by snowy peaks. To get there the head lama had evidently walked – sometimes through chest-high snow – for 40 days to get there in time.

The two-day pageant attracts around a hundred thousand locals and a few tourists. We wandered up to the gompa walls through busy market stalls, gulping the thin, breathless air (altitude 3#650 metres). Inside, a huge crowd had gathered round a courtyard centred by a flagpole. The crush of people was scary, but the gentleness of the Ladakhis was assuring.

Huge horns sounded, drums rolled, cymbals clashed and the chham dances began. Lamas robed in colourful garments with startlingly frightful masks performed mimes representing the progress of the individual soul and its purification in the triumph of good over evil. I ended up on the sloping ledge of a crumbling rooftop and tried not to think about the huge drop behind me as people pushed past.

The dances ended with the ritual destruction by the dance leader of ahuman figure made of dough. Its pieces were scattered in fourdirections, depicting, perhaps,thedestruction of the troublesome ego or the cleansing of the soul after death. The festival’s a photographer’s dream.

 Back to India

 We left Ladakh on a commercial flight from the nearby military airport. In the thin air, the plane took ages to lift off the ground and just cleared the mountains surrounding the valley. As it climbed, the Himalayas unfolded their tortured white peaks all the way to the distant horizon.

I had one more thing to do before leaving India – a pilgrimage to the Taj Mahal. We took a bus south from Deli on a hugely crowded road to Agra in Uttar Pradesh. The city was the capital of all India under the Mughals.

The Taj effortlessly transcends all the frippery and commercialisation that surrounds one of the world’s most famous buildings. It was described by the poet Tagore as ‘a teardrop on the face of eternity’ and volumes have been written about its marble perfection. But few words can do it justice – you simply have to see it and be amazed.

It’s said to have been built by Shah Jahan as a tomb for his beloved wife Mumatz, but is also thought to have been designed around the Sufi notion of heaven. See it in the soft glow of dawn before the crowds get there.

Across the Yamuna River is the spectacular Red Fort, built of carved sandstone in the 17th century as the seat and stronghold of the Mughal Empire. It’s enormous, filled with elegant buildings, beautiful stone carvings and intricate marble mosaic work. From its ramparts you can see the Taj Mahal reflected in the river waters.

 Stuff you need to know

 Getting there

This is a Getaway Adventures trip organized by Albatros Travel. For more information or to book, e-mail Getlo1@getaway.co.za. It costs R25#955, which includes flights from Cape Town or Gauteng, all internal flights and vehicle transport in India, all food and accommodation and a trip to see the Taj Mahal and Red Fort.

 When to go

The passes to Leh are under snow in winter, so you can visit only between late June and late October. Temperatures can range from 36°C to -40°C. Take appropriate clothing.

Entry requirements

A visa is required to enter India. It can be obtained from the Indian Embassy in Pretoria and takes about a week.

 Health and food

Be careful about what you eat and drink. Use only bottled water (easily obtained) or purify tap water with chlorine tablets. Eat only what you know to have been recently cooked and avoid salads, ice cream or fruit you haven’t just peeled. Food in four or five star hotels can generally be trusted. Don’t let these precautions deter you from trying spicy Indian cuisine – it’s among the most exciting and flavourful in the world.

It’s advisable to have Hepatitis A and typhoid shots before going and use malaria prophylaxis in hot, lowland areas. Carry medication for diarrhea and a general antibiotic. In the Himalayas, travel up slowly to acclimatise or take medication for altitude sickness.

Travel tips

When shopping, you are expected to bargain. Always ignore the first quoted price, but keep it lighthearted and not aggressive.

India is a safe country for travel with little crime, but in crowded areas keep a lookout for pickpockets and lock your luggage.

Most towns have an Internet café and you can buy Indian cellphone cards quite cheaply, but ask which areas the cards cover.

The ATMs work well and most hotels will take credit card payments. US dollars are easily exchanged, but shop around for a good exchange rate.

Tipping is expected and constant, so add R1000 to your budget expectations just in case.

If you want to travel the loftiest road in the world, with a pass of nearly 5#000 metres, it goes from from Manali in Himachal Pradesh to Leh.