The way to Leh is on the Leh-Manali Highway, “highway” being a very generous term for a road that is rarely wide enough for two vehicles and is often reduced to ruts in the mud or loose rock. Most alarming was when you could tell where a paved bit of the road had crumbled into the ravine beside it. The road itself is only 437 kilometers, 294 miles, but it takes at minimum 17 hours, and for us, a solid 20 hours, broken up with a night spent camping on a river in Jispa.
You can’t think of it as just a way to get from one place to another, though. Part of what attracted me to Leh was the trip itself: a harrowing trip, impossible once it snows, along a historical trade route, over some of the highest passes in the world, and through land that really looks and feels like it belongs to an alien planet, both in sparseness and strangeness.
I booked the jeep last minute with my friend Edo, and one of the only seats left was in the boot, which Wikitravel warns against in all caps (I quote: “by NO MEANS allow yourself to be seated in the boot”) -- the problem being not the back, but that the seats face inwards, meaning you have really nothing to brace yourself against when the roads are rough, which is almost always. Edo and I figured ehh, we could trade off. About 16 hours and two days into the drive, I got so exhausted that I curled up on the floor of the trunk (which was inexplicably carpeted in fake grass) and slept with my head lolling around the inward facing seat. This was kind of comfortable, actually, so I was pretty happy about the "boot" seat.
But it was hard to close your eyes for even a second for fear of missing out on the scenery, which really is hard to describe without just saying “some Lord of the Rings Shit,” which kept popping into my head every five minutes of the way. First, we passed tremendous green ridges flocked with grazing sheep and cut with tiny waterfalls, one of which poured off a cliff in a white ribbon and dissipated into mist, appearing to never reach the earth again at all.
Over the first high pass, past the white stuppa strung with Buddhist prayer flags, we were met with a panorama of snow-capped mountains: the Himalayas, in all their glory. In the valley, the lush green of Kullu was replaced with rocky cliffs, which then gave way to arid desert mountains of black and red and brown rock and mountains that appeared to have been churned like taffy. As we drove further north the temperature dropped and then we were above the snowline, snow still along the road, which had apparently been closed after three feet of snow fell two days earlier.
In typical fashion, I hadn’t really thought about the altitude of where I was going until the day of, when I bought some Diamox for 50 rupees (about 75 cents) at the drugstore just before leaving. (I’d read some scary stories on Wikitravel of people being evacuated by the Indian Army during their overnight at Sarchu, so thought I’d be cautious). Over the first high pass, I felt breathless without even getting out of the car, and when we stepped out at frigid Taglanga, the world’s second highest pass at 17,582 feet, I forgot where I was for a second and jogged in excitement before nearly fainting. Other than that, though, I did everything right – spent 3 nights at 6,000 feet and a night at 9,000 feet before coming to Leh. And the Diamox probably helped.
On the map, at times, it seemed as if we were hardly getting closer to Leh at all, which made sense considering the road consists largely of narrow switchbacks that wind up and down wild mountain passes, the road piling up on itself so that around some curves you caught a glimpse of the winding trail behind you.
Just over the first high pass, our driver Deepak pulled over and confirmed our fears: a flat tire, which would turn out to be the first of two flat tires -- not ideal on a road that is mostly unpaved, has few service stations and even fewer spare tires. I kid you not, when the spare tire went flat, Deepak put on the – I quote – less fucked up tire. Which was still kind of flat. When we made it to a service station -- a lone little place on the side of a scree mountain where in lieu of a garage you drive your car over a kind of ditch in the ground for it to get serviced – instead of getting a new tire, the mechanics just patched up the old one, which my eyes confirmed had seen better days.
My jeepmates were Edo, my Brazilian friend I met in Delhi; Ted, a baby-faced Chinese businessman on a 70-day trip to India (his third); Ted’s cousin Wan, who does not speak a word of English; Mike, an alcoholic South African criminal defense lawyer & big cats tour guide who splits his time between Udaipur, India, and Las Vegas. And of course, Deepak, our Tibetan driver, who can fix a flat in five minutes flat using an ingenious trick of driving the tire up on a rock to speed up the tire jack process.
Spending 20 hours in a car with strangers is a great way to turn strangers into friends, and when we arrived to Leh after dark on Saturday, the whole caravan – Edo, Ted, Wan, & Mike – followed me to the guesthouse Shirli recommended, where we have three rooms side by side. The family run guesthouse has a common room and restaurant and there’s an assumption that the five of us will eat dinner together every night at the guesthouse. Mike polishes off half handle of whiskey a day plus some beers and a bottle of wine if he can get his hands on it. Last night, Ted ordered a special cake from the kitchen in honor of Mid-Autumn Festival, the second most important Chinese holiday, and we celebrated on the rooftop in view of the moon (not as good as the Superbloodmoon, which I cannot seem to escape, even in India, but still, enchanting).
I email you using internet that has recently been restored to the town of Leh, Ladakh, isolated at 10,560 feet (about twice as high as Denver). Allegedly, the Indian government shut off internet access to the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir for the Muslim holiday of Eid and the days that followed to prevent Indian Muslims from chit chatting with their family across the border.
While I was still in Delhi, there were pop up goat markets on the streets, as the celebration of Eid includes the sacrifice of a goat – and, it seems, in India, the sacrifice of internet in the state of J&K. Mike was incensed.
Yesterday, Ted & Wan found out that they couldn’t join us on a trip to Lake Pangong, a stunning blue lake on the border of India and China, because Chinese & Pakistaki citizens are not granted the permit to enter the area.
On top of that, the police have been calling our guesthouse, following up on the whereabouts of Ted & Wan because of their Chinese nationality. (The family who runs the guesthouse was alarmed about how the police knew they had Chinese guests until I explained that when we’d entered Ladakh, we paid a 500 rupee environmental fee, showed our passports, and gave information about where we were staying – and since no one knew where they were staying except for me, they just put down Zeepata Guesthouse for our whole jeep. Thus, the police calls.) A few days ago when Ted was asking in a bookstore what country a book called Mao was from to see if it would likely be confiscated on his return to China, I was shocked. Now, it seems, my naiveties about the world are three less.
Leh is entering off-season, and a good half of the shops are closed (or tell you they are closing tomorrow in an attempt to get you to buy something). There are still a lot of whiteys around, in Mike’s words, but it’s hard to find enough people go on a trek or a trip out of town. Leh is a dry and dusty place filled with active construction sites, but makes up for this with immense charm and of course the views of mountains in all directions. Everywhere you go there are giant prayer wheels spinning, and little ones. According to Wan, via Ted, you have to spin them all,so yesterday, on the way to the Ladakhi festival, we did just that, walking in a big rectangle to spin all five dozen or so silver prayer wheels. Ladakhis are quick to laugh and quick to smile. The town, which is small enough to be walkable, is overlooked by a crumbling stone palace perched atop a cliff on one side and a white gompa (or Buddhist temple) on the other. This morning, I wandered uphill, where the streets give way to narrow stone paths along a network of irrigation streams, all lined with pretty poplar trees and roamed about by plodding cows. I like it here, a lot.
Tomorrow Edo and I head to Lake Pangong – without our Chinese friends, but with two Indian girls we met at breakfast who just finished a month long mountaineering course which culminated in summiting the highest peak you can see from Leh.
Then, the plan is to set off on a five-day guided trek with Ted & Wan, if we can square away plans for it.