Guest post - Ladakh in 1981, Ali Zaidi

An old friend wrote up an account of his trip to Ladakh back in 1981... and it makes for a very compelling read. We've put it up here for our readers. Thanks, Ali!

The other day, I received an e-mail asking me to like the Facebook page of Nomad Travels (“We know and understand India, and like to show it off”), which I promptly did as the agency is run by old friends from university days. On the page, I came across the itinerary of a seven-day road trip to Ladakh, a remote district in the Himalaya Mountains. At $1,100 a head for a party of two it sounded excellent value. I read on and the eloquent description of the wild beauty of a landscape “that is the closest most of us will get to the moon” took me back 30 years to the summer of 1981, when I travelled there on my own and spent perhaps $100 over two weeks. 

The Nomad trip starts in Manali in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh and takes you more or less straight north to Leh, the capital of this “Little Tibet.” Leh, with its lamasery on a hill overlooking the town, is a sort of miniature Lhasa (capital of Tibet proper). I came the other way, from Srinagar, the capital of Jammu and Kashmir, southeast up the valley of the Indus (one of the five great rivers of Punjab, from which India derives its name).

I was with my mother and sisters spending the summer holiday with family friends who had moved to Kashmir and had a large house. One day, passing the Srinagar bus station, I was hailed by a friend from university in Delhi. “What are you doing here, man?” I asked; we talked like that those days. It turned out he’d just returned from Leh and was now catching a bus back to Delhi. “It’s brilliant, man, and very cheap; you ought to go.” Returning home, I begged a couple of hundred rupees or so from my mother and set off the next day, promising to return in a week...

We were standing beside our bus at the entrance to the Zoji La- a pass at 11,500 feet where the road is so narrow and dangerous that it’s one way only, and we were waiting for a convoy of buses and trucks to cross from the other side, after which we in our turn would cross in convoy the other way. Suddenly, a young guy I’d exchanged a few words with on the way up from Srinagar came running up, wild-eyed. “We’re all going to die! The driver’s smoking a joint!” he cried. “Is he?” I asked and went to see for myself. There he was, leaning out of his window, smoking a cigarette with the aroma of finest Kashmiri Attar wafting from it. I decided I would change my seat to the front of the bus.

There were two drivers, standard practice in the mountains. The one who wasn’t driving sat rolling joint after joint and passing it to the driver. And they weren’t passing it back and forth; the man at the wheel smoked steadily, the other rolled for him. This was such strange behaviour in the India of those days that I became more and more puzzled. And then they swapped over after we had negotiated the pass, with the second driver now doing the smoking while his mate did the honours for him. Both men drove with care and concentration.

Slowly it dawned on me what was happening. Practically every kilometre or so we would pass a plaque on the side of the road stating that “Lieutenant so-and-so of the Border Security Force laid down his life at this spot building this road,” or “Sergeant such-and-such made the ultimate sacrifice here.” While writing the previous paragraph, I googled pictures of Zoji La and experienced a jolt of fear: Did I really do that? I do remember the woman in the seat ahead of me, a Swiss tourist I think, recoiling from the window as we rounded a bend and the road fell away in a breathtaking drop of thousands of feet down into the valley far far below. At the time I said, “Wow, man.” Today, even remembering makes me dizzy.

The Zoji La is considered one of the 10 most dangerous roads in the world, what with avalanches, snow, and dizzying drops into the abyss. And these men drove these and other treacherous roads on a regular basis. This was how they kept their nerve. Alcohol would be fatal, hashish actually helped them to stay calm and concentrate. It was a sobering thought.

We spent the night at Kargil, now known for the 1999 fighting there between Indian and Pakistani troops that nearly erupted into full-scale war, then a little medieval town that seemed to have been dropped in whole from Central Asia, with cobbled streets, stone bridges and people wearing fezzes. I learned later that it was once a prosperous junction on a spur of the Silk Route.

The next morning, after negotiating an even higher pass, the Fotu La - a posting on Flickr speaks of a freshly tarmacked road that it’s a pleasure to drive on, but we had to get out of the bus and walk the last half kilometre to the top because the air was so thin the engine couldn’t handle our weight - we came down to Lamayuru, where a gompa or monastery perches on a cliff that looks like a giant anthill. Suddenly everyone is Tibetan, looking like they’ve stepped out of the Middle Ages.

The Vale of Kashmir is pretty as a picture, green and verdant. Ladakh is a mountain desert, almost completely barren except down in the valley of the Indus, the valley floor itself at 9,000 feet or so. On both sides massive walls of rock, fantastically sculpted and coloured, rise to snow peaks from 18,000 to 23,000 feet high. It is like stepping into a landscape designed by Dali on acid: One mountainside slashed vertically with giant blades of rock, one bright red and another black and yellow and green, in the most mind-blowing patterns and textures. I have been searching images of Ladakh, most of which are dramatic enough, but none conveys just how surreal it all is when encountered for the first time.

Leh was a bit of a let down. I booked into a cheap hotel, and after having walked several kilometres to a celebrated monastery whose name I forget, watched a lot of solemn monks tuck into lunch on a terrace while tourists took pictures. I was hungry and thirsty and wished they would share with their visitors, but not a word or gesture of invitation, thank you.

After that there was little to do except walk about in the streets of the not very bustling town, or hang out in little hotelis (dhabas) drinking chhang and eating mo mo (dumplings). Chhang, a rice beer similar to busaa, was popular with particularly African students and there was a whole street of dhabas in the Tibetan refugee camp a longish walk from Delhi University (“and a short flight back…”) It was cheap and you could get credit; it was there I first heard Fela Kuti… Anyway, up here in Leh, in the thin dry air, it rapidly dehydrated you and wasn’t much fun at all. I went walking out of town but if there are any scenic walks in the immediate vicinity of Leh, I didn’t discover them.

Nevertheless, for some reason I cannot remember, I prolonged my stay in Leh till my money ran out. The owner of the hotel was a nice man and he fed and housed me for a few days while I sent off a distress telegram to Srinagar. In return, I lettered signs in Old English script for the hotel — “Dining Room,” “Ladies,” “Gents” and so on. When the money arrived, he suggested I save on the bus fare by getting a lift on a truck some friends of his were taking back to Kashmir the next morning.

At 4.30, when it was still dark and cold, we assembled at the truck, I was introduced, we all had a strong cup of tea, and I was helped up into the “tool box,” a sort of open-top wooden crate bolted to the roof of the truck cab. The drivers and a friend were to ride in the cab, while their young assistant joined me. We had a thin mattress to sit on, and I had been warned that the ride would be a bumpy one. Unlike on the way up, the truck would be returning empty, as Ladakh basically exports nothing, and the shock absorber effect of a full load would be lost.

So I anticipated discomfort. What I did not anticipate was epiphany.

The road on this section was relatively wide and smooth, though high above the river. At first light the driver took off like a bat out of hell, and as we braced ourselves in the tool box, the sun came flooding into the valley, setting the snows high above us afire. All around us a vast bowl of achingly blue sky, multicoloured mountains and glittering peaks arching away till you felt you could see the curvature of the earth, and we were flying through this like birds, mouths agape, eyes stretched…

This was nothing like riding in a bus. It was the most exhilarating and bruising journey I have ever made.

The rest of the day was spent alternately wriggling into more comfortable positions and lying back staring in holy awe at the jaw-dropping spectacle of creation around us.

We again overnighted in Kargil, and I have no recollection of the next day, probably because by then it was more agony than ecstasy…

Ali Zaidi