Down it came, in torrential sheets, the monsoon rains of New Delhi, clattering against my window, swamping the balcony, and sending children scurrying in high-pitched glee through the flooded streets. The humidity got into my lungs where it took up residence, and the daily blast of heat sapped the last of my concentration. I was subletting a room in Jangpura Extension, one of the relatively bucolic neighborhoods that sprang up in the years after Partition, when a few nights before, unexpectedly, the room’s regular occupant emailed to say he was returning early.
Traveling to Ladakh was all accident that summer. One morning, while dithering about where to go, my eye drifted up the map to a dot marked Leh. A small name for a giant dream. I had always wanted to travel there, the capital of the ancient Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh. Remote, virtually unreachable, a land as much of myth as of reality, home to tales by Kipling and the epic feats of long gone Buddhist monks, a place better dreamed of than traveled to. I knew little about it, yet for years it had held a tenacious grip on a corner of my imagination. Quietly, I had been telling myself that one day I must go there.
And there it was, on the map, so why not? I booked a ticket on the Howrah-Kalka Mail, and a further train to Shimla, reputedly one of the most beautiful train rides in the world, from which, somehow, I’d take buses to Manali or Srinagar, both gateways to the ancient kingdom.
The night of my departure I arrived at the station to discover a sense of widening chaos and shock. An hour outside Delhi, the Howrah-Kalka Mail had been involved in a head-on collision. The worst wreck of the year. Seventy-five dead, hundreds seriously injured. I found a television and watched footage of the rescue efforts. Men and women swarmed through the wreckage. I checked the number of my sleeper berth on the ticket. It was thrown up at a wild angle over another carriage and hung eerily in mid-air.
So much for the train. I returned, depressed, and lay for a couple days on a friend’s couch, not knowing what to do with myself, and finally decided there was no way I could not go. I would take the direct route this time and travel by bus. It felt like an admission of failure, for I had wanted to take the long way round, and at least part of the way to travel by train, but here I was, another backpacker on a bus, taking the easy route. I packed my bags a second time and took a taxi to the bus depot at Kashmir Gate.
I soon found myself wandering through an archipelago of half-ruined concrete structures that had been set adrift sometime in the 1970s in a sea of mud while ship-like buses lumbered tortuously through the grimy channels. I was looking for a “Deluxe” Volvo AC operated by the Himachal Road Transport Corporation. At one end, beyond a barrier of congealed construction debris, I found rows of HRTC buses. Mine wasn’t among them, though a couple were headed for Manali, the first major stop on the road route to Leh. I walked, I asked, a light rain started falling. Nothing. I stood under the dim orange lights and waited. Time passed. I walked away and found the “Deluxe” in a hidden corner, a bemused orphan left alone, and pinned to its lapel a note: MANALI. It looked no different from the other Volvo ACs and I learned I was late to the party. It was almost full and ready to leave.
The seats were battered, the windows grime-covered. Flies buzzed. No tourists were in sight. It was packed front to back with rows of the stolid, imaginationless Indian middle classes, all, like me, suckered by that word “Deluxe,” and all carrying enough food to feed a small island nation for several years running. I’d forgotten food, and the plump lady next to me, seeing my desperate state, offered chips, then snacks, then sweets.
In the early hours of the morning, the kid behind me started mercilessly kicking at the back of my seat. With each swing of his leg, his foot found the small of my back and dug painfully into my spine. After an hour, I turned and asked his mother to please tell him to stop.
“This sweet little boy,” she sneered in an angry chirp, “kick like that?” She clicked her tongue. “You must be dreaming!” She yanked the little monster out of the seat and found an empty row for both of them where he could kick to his heart’s delight, while she burned holes into the back of my head with her eyes.
India’s reputed beauty spots are never far from visions of the tragic, and Manali, the “Honeymoon Capital,” was no different. The mall, where lovers promenaded in the evenings, was a mud- and trash-filled boulevard whose center was torn up by “improvements” that had been going on since the start of the Kaliyug and would no doubt not be complete until another age had come and gone. Music blared from shops, garbage filled the ditches, touts and dogs roamed the streets, a steady drizzle kept us company, while the blast of car horns and the smell of urine kept the air lively. Through it all, incongruous young newlyweds and illicit lovers walked hand in hand, dressed in their finest, the fringes of the women’s saris caked in mud, and all no doubt telling themselves that at least this was more beautiful than Delhi, which it was.
After a day’s rest, to adjust to the altitude, I boarded a second Deluxe bus, this time Non-AC, run by the Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation. The journey to Leh would take two days, with an overnight stop in Keylong, where we’d sleep in tents. The Manali-Leh bus service ran for only two and a half months out of the year, from July to mid-September, and only a single bus departed every other day. The rest of the year the roads were too dangerous or washed out or blocked by snow.
Our party was mostly foreigners. An Argentine music teacher who couldn’t stop talking, a petite French ultra-marathon runner, a Swedish couple with teenage daughters who looked still furious at having been yanked out of their beds in Stockholm and dragged halfway around the world, a pair of Indian honeymoon couples, one who, through all the hardships on the trip, helped keep everybody’s spirits up while the other sniped and refused to even acknowledge the existence of their fellow passengers, a failed Mumbai financial journalist, and various others, young men and women from Brazil, Spain, Japan, and finally three Aussies, a couple, both personal trainers, and my seatmate, a reality television producer.
The other Aussies sat across from us and were traveling to Ladakh to volunteer at an experimental campus teaching local methods of sustainable development. It was all very laudatory and civic-minded, I thought, but I dreaded any talking to them, or with the other backpackers on the bus. My dread was well-founded, for soon they descended into the narrow tracks of backpacker conversation: the places they’d visited (and they’d all visited the same two dozen places), the restaurants they’d eaten in (they’d eaten in the same two dozen of those, too), the places they planned to visit (ditto two dozen), the complaints they had and slights they’d felt (ditto), and the bland, unsalted porridge of insights they’d consumed and were happy to regurgitate for the first hapless ear who came along (ditto ditto ditto!).
On they chattered, in vapid circles that never reached beyond the common ground of hostels stayed in, borders crossed, beaches experienced. The road ascended sharply out of Manali, rising into high mountain meadows which in the late morning sun shone richly green. One switchback quickly followed on the heels of another, and as the bus spun through the tight turns, we caught sight of a grand vista of snow-capped mountains hovering in the distance. The sky was blue and dotted with clouds, and at the source of the River Beas, a local pilgrimage spot, paragliders hovered high above us, seeming to challenge the mountains themselves.
One of the Aussies leaned across the aisle and asked for my thoughts on arranged marriage. It was an out-of-date tradition, I said, that in my experience often led to loveless and sometimes cruel marriages. I’d yet to see a successful one. She looked at me crossly, and said I obviously didn’t know what I was talking about.
“My guru has told me all about it,” she explained. “They’re the only truly perfect marriages. India is the only country in the world where the man worships the woman!” She added, narrowing her eyes, “And in India, my guru said, there has never been one single case of a true divorce. The few that do happen are always forced or some accident, or it’s people lying because they never got married in the first place and want to trash the country’s image!”
She sat back, smug and triumphant, and soon was talking about the better beach shacks of Bali.
Like Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan to the east, Ladakh was one of the ancient Buddhist kingdoms of the Himalayas, with its own language, distinctive dress, culture, lineages of kings, its history wreathed in mythical tales of Shangri-La. Ladakhis even looked different, and it was easy, as I would learn, to distinguish one from a Nepali or a Tibetan.
Modern Ladakh, no longer a kingdom, was incorporated, after Indian independence in 1947, into the state of Jammu and Kashmir. It sits on the Chinese and Pakistani borders, both of which are heavily disputed. To the north lies the Siachen Glacier, home to some of the fiercest fighting in the 1999 Kargil War, when Pakistani troops and irregulars attempted to take control of the Indian side. The glacier, and all of Ladakh, remains a heavily militarized zone, and throughout the journey, we stopped constantly at military checkpoints to present our passports.
Eating breakfast at a roadside dhaba, we heard rumors that the way ahead, on the near side of the Rothang Pass, was blocked by a rockslide. This was the highest pass we’d cross on the first day, rising to a not particularly lofty 13,000 feet. The following day would bring the real challenges, with passes topping out at almost 18,000 feet. The highest was the last, at Taglanga, which would be followed by a rapid descent into the high plains surrounding Leh.
Soon enough, rounding a steep switchback on a long muddy stretch of road, we found ourselves facing a convoy of trucks, local buses, vans, jeeps, tourist cars, and so forth, all of them with their engines stilled and tires sinking into the mud. It was early afternoon and the sun was out, and despite the piercing cold, the view was spectacular. A nearby mountainside presented a glacier for our enjoyment, and local entrepreneurs, aware of how tricky this section of road could be, had opened a tea and chaat stall near the cliff edge. Donkeys roamed, burying their noses into the trash. I found a plastic chair and settled down, looking out across the valley as the clouds danced like birds in slow motion against the mountainsides.
The day lengthened, the clouds moved in, and an icy drizzle began to fall and we were sunk in a cold mist. The rocks had been cleared away, but before we could continue, a military fuel convoy from the other side had to be allowed through. These high mountain roads were built by the military as an alternate supply route from the road through Srinagar and only recently had civilian traffic been permitted to use them. As such, the military made the rules, and all local traffic deferred to military needs. We waited another hour for the trucks to lumber through the narrow passage and dusk was soon upon us.
It took us an hour to round a single switchback, where we were stopped again, and sank deeper into the mud. The road was a great, sloshing river of the stuff. Half the day had now had gone by, and my fellow travelers were growing restless. It was easier for the men. We could walk outside and take a piss whenever we wanted. There was not so much as a bush or rock to crouch behind for the women. Eventually, someone organized a red sheet which two women held up on the slippery hillside. Behind it, a third woman relieved herself. For the next two hours, the bus inched forward, moving 20 feet, then halting again for a quarter hour.
It was pitch dark when we finally set off on an open road, and we had hours yet to go before we reached Keylong. A heavy rain was falling and the roadway became a river. This didn’t deter the driver, who was making up for lost time. He took the turns at speed, used the horn with maniacal gusto, and overtook anything and everything that found itself unfortunate enough to be in our path. I had grown tired of the chatter of my seatmates and moved to an empty seat near the back. Here the violent jolting of the bus was vastly magnified. Each time we hit a bump, I was thrown halfway out of my seat or banged my head against the luggage rack.
The bus plunged headlong into the dark and our wheels kissed chasms as we spun on tight hairpins taken at great, nerve-shredding speed. I gripped the armrests tightly and forced myself to keep looking out through the window. If I’m going to die, I told myself, I want to see it happening. The rain had stopped and the moon was out and the ghostly shapes of mountains rose on the far sides of obscured valleys—eerie, dark colossi that haunted the edge of my vision. At times, they towered directly overhead, majestic and unsettling, blotting out the night sky. It was hard to square all that beauty with the terror of the ride.
I was heartened when the muddy river of a roadway gave way to a rock-strewn surface. It forced the driver to slow down. Finally, some semblance of tarmac returned and we found ourselves on the bottom of a wide, flat valley and I could breathe more easily. It was midnight when we reached Keylong and we ate a hasty dinner and were shown to cold tents with folding cots already prepared for us. We’d have to start again at four, the driver told us, if we wanted to make Leh by nightfall the following day.
The next morning, the failed journalist was the first among us to walk to the front and squeeze into the driver’s cab. I’d learned a little of his story. He’d quit his job, he said, at a financial newspaper and was going freelance, though it sounded more like he’d been fired and didn’t want to admit it. A proud Mumbaiker, he could wax poetic for hour upon hour on the glories of that city. His father was a bigtime cop there who’d been in prison in the 1990s for what the journalist called “political reasons,” though admitted later it might have been because his dad was a master at “encounter” killings — routine murders of suspects by cops which were staged as shoot-outs so the cops could claim the suspect had resisted or tried to run away.
Within five years, the journalist said, he’d be a politician himself, a genuine Mumbai big shot! “I’m going to be prime minister of India one day,” he waxed dreamily.
He was soon matey with both driver and conductor, often stepping back into the bus to relate stories he’d heard. This was their first time on the Manali-Leh route, and their first time driving at such altitudes — a fact I was glad not to have known the day before. The landscape had transformed overnight. Gone was the lush green of high mountain meadows. In its place were barren and scrub-covered hills that more often than not disappeared behind a veil of low mist. Large patches of snow were splashed across the ground. When the clouds parted, high vistas of snow-covered peaks showed themselves. Small shrines dotted the roadside, grouped piles of rocks, with brightly colored Buddhist prayer flags, drooping from the wet air, strung between them. We climbed on tiny roads, no wider than the bus itself, licking the rock face.
The roads in this part of India, and in all the nation’s extremities, were built and maintained by the Border Roads Organisation, or BRO, as the countless roadside signs identified them. Hand-painted warnings cautioned drivers of the dangers at these altitudes, with a sense of humor that was equal parts macabre and Benny Hill: OVERTAKER? BEWARE OF UNDERTAKER and BE GENTLE ON MY CURVES and BE LATE MR, NOT MR LATE and LOVE THE NEIGHBOR, BUT NOT WHILE DRIVING.
A couple hours outside Keylong, and a thunderous crash roared through the cabin. Glass flew everywhere. The bus lurched to an ungainly stop.
The conductor shook his head and stepped out to inspect the damage. We’d scraped the side of the mountain and the high windows were smashed along the left side, while the main windows remained largely intact. For the remainder of the trip, whenever we hit a bump, showers of glass rained through the open windows and peppered our laps.
This was only the first of our disasters that day. Soon we had a flat. We were lucky that it happened on a valley bottom and not a cliff edge, where the tire would have to be changed overlooking a yawning drop. Driver and conductor stared at the enormous burst tire for some time. The air was thin and it was growing difficult to walk. Some of us pitched in and eventually a new tire was fitted. The conductor climbed bodily onto the lug wrench and used his weight to tighten the bolts.
Within an hour of being back on the road, a coolant pipe exploded. For a third time, we lurched to an unexpected stop. This was bad, as the bus carried no spares. Half an hour later, patched up, we limped into a small camp with a couple of tea houses covered in blue tarpaulin sitting in a wide, featureless desert ringed by mountains.
It was ten in the morning but it felt like two in the afternoon, we’d been on the road so long. The clouds had gone and the sky had changed color. The blue was so splendid it hurt the eyes. I was falling in love with the landscape, the slate gray of the mountains set off against the crisp white of snow glinting in the early sun, the sheer scale of everything, the surrounding peaks which now soared, piercing the sky. Wrapped in thick blankets against the cold, we ate a lazy breakfast and as soon as the bus was more thoroughly patched up, the driver informed us he was eager to get on the road.
When he said go, he expected us to jump instantly to our feet and sprint breathlessly to the bus. The conductor clapped his hands wildly and shouted at us to hurry up. The moment the last passenger’s foot flew free from the ground was the moment the driver kicked the accelerator, not bothering to wait for the door to shut.
We were soon climbing again, securing a foothold in the Zanskar Mountains, and crossed our second pass at Baralacha-la, which rose to over 16,000 feet. The caution the driver had exhibited after the coolant pipe burst was gone. Now he barreled forward, making up for lost time. Similarly, I’d lost my fear. The scenery was too staggeringly beautiful to worry about anything else, and I stared in awe, speechless and happier than I could possibly say. After the pass, the land fell away, but by only a thousand feet or so, and the road flattened out, following the curves of a high valley.
Around a wide turn, we came upon a convoy of stalled trucks and jeeps and SUVs, sitting jumbled together in a green bowl with a river at the bottom and a small army base nearby. The spot was called Killing Sarai, though what was actually being named—the river, the army base, the valley, the mountain?—I wasn’t sure. It was late morning and the sun was high and once again we lurched to a stop amid an unruly sea of vehicles.
A short bridge spanning the river had been damaged by an overloaded truck hauling marble. The truck sat there, tipped over at a wild angle, two wheels sunk into the floor of the bridge, blocking traffic in both directions. There was little to worry about, however, as a second route had been forged through a low point in the river. Every few minutes, a bus or truck made the slow crossing, then up the bank on the far side, to continue on its way. We’d be stuck for less than an hour if the slow exodus continued unabated.
We were up above 15,000 feet and the air was thin and moving and breathing had become difficult. Several of my fellow passengers reported headaches and nausea, the first symptoms of altitude sickness, and my Aussie seatmate complained of worsening migraines. We were running low on water, too. We only had what we carried with us, and soon that would run out.
At such an altitude, even walking ten meters was strenuous, and when I took a stroll to inspect the damage done to the bridge, I had to stop and rest continually. The short journey took me 20 minutes to complete. All around, people sat on rocks gawking at the trucks diving into the river and emerging on the far side, looking festive and bored at the same time.
The truck had created a long gash in the bridge and one whole side had sunk down below the roadway. The truck had been overloaded to twice the bridge’s rated carrying capacity. The driver had run away in terror. Five soldiers carrying submachine guns were sent into the hills to search for him and bring him back. A bulldozer had already tried to dislodge the truck and failed, and now an army tow truck arrived. An hour passed while it was set up to make an attempt to raise the truck free, but ultimately it failed too. A group of monks in saffron robes appeared and stood next to the disabled truck and spent an hour discussing what to do. They too finally walked off, disappearing into the hills. The quiet stillness of the early afternoon settled on the scene while we sat lazily, too exhausted by thin air to do anything else.
Things had grown ugly by the river. One truck after another foundered in the water and got stuck. The bulldozer waded in and shifted each one free. It took half an hour to free one truck, and soon over two hours had passed since we’d been stranded. An SUV attempted the water. It made it ten feet before its nose plunged into a deep trench and there it sat for a good while with everyone sitting and staring. The bulldozer finally freed it too, but not without taking its pound of flesh. The whole rear end was torn to shreds when it emerged on the far side, the engine flooded and useless.
The vehicle’s passengers stood looking like sad little lost children, not knowing what to do. They were on the wrong side of the river, and soon enough they’d learn how truly stuck they were. The dirt ramp leading out from the narrow river valley on their side had become so degraded by all the new traffic that one truck after another started rolling unceremoniously back down before it could reach the road. That poor old bulldozer would push and push, but soon enough, even it couldn’t get them up and out to the road. The last trucks tucked their exhaust pipe between their back wheels in shame and made the crossing back over to our side. Only the SUV with the flooded engine was left on the far side, looking lonelier than ever.
My Aussie seatmate had curled herself into a ball. Her head was throbbing in agony and she could no longer stand. Other passengers on the bus were similarly incapacitated. Above 5,000 feet the first signs of altitude sickness show themselves. We were already three times that height, in the danger zone for severe symptoms. Without proper acclimatization—requiring a gradual ascent over several days—hypoxia can result, in which the body is deprived of sufficient oxygen. No two people are affected alike, and being physically fit is no guarantee of immunity.
Someone produced a checklist for symptoms of serious altitude sickness and we read them off for the distressed. Other than headaches, these included shortness of breath, pins and needles, tachycardia, and nosebleeds. If you exhibited at least four, it was strongly advised to descend, and descend immediately and rapidly. The most serious cases could worsen rapidly, resulting in death by cerebral or pulmonary edema. Those sick on the bus each claimed three symptoms. Either way, there was little we could do except give them water and painkillers and hope the bridge would get fixed soon.
After the failure of two different army tow trucks and the bulldozer, groups of drivers were dragooned into unloading the truck to lighten the load. I walked over and sat down and watched the process unfold. A row of drivers sat in front of me, rolling balls of hash between their fingers. It took ten men to unload and carry each slab, and about five minutes per slab. I counted the slabs. There were over 80. The math wasn’t on our side. I returned with the bad news and we sat around, playing card games on the grass.
The Argentine music teacher, who up to now had seemed a docile if chatty fella, displayed a completely different side to his personality. Competitive is hardly the word. Each time he won, and he won almost every round, he jumped to his feet, performed a little hand-clapping dance, and sneered wildly at all of us, calling us a bunch of lousy losers.
The sun was sinking fast when I walked over and watched the tow truck return to make a final, and successful, effort. The truck was still loaded, but most of the marble had been removed. The day had now passed and we were out of water. Some passengers were panicking. Up the truck came, the wheels shockingly intact. It was pulled free from the bridge and pushed over to one side, away from the road. The news was greeted with great relief back at the bus, and within an hour we were on our way.
The Mumbai journalist learned from one of the officers that there was an army field hospital nearby where the sick could get treatment. The bus driver refused to make the detour, which would send us a whole six miles out of our way. An army ambulance was stationed on the far side of the river, but by the time we crossed the bridge, it had disappeared. We caught up with it a few miles down the road and the journalist persuaded the bus driver to wave it down and stop.
The producer moaned softly in pain and found it harder and harder to breathe. The ambulance was headed back to the hospital, but the driver refused to take our passengers. They were off duty, their day was done. Our sick were our problem.
An argument erupted, and ten minutes later, with the journalist riding shotgun in the ambulance, three of our fellow passengers climbed into the back of it and were gone in a great flurry of dust. I promised to find accommodations for everyone, including the four who left for the hospital. We would spend the night some miles down the road at Sarchu, little more than a grouping of tents used mostly by adventure tourists. It sat in a wide, windswept plain, mountain peaks ringing the horizon, and was affectionately known in traveler lore as the “Vomit Hilton” because of the number of tourists who succumbed to altitude sickness here. Once we got there, the conductor had warned, we were on our own. They had repairs to the bus to think about.
After much walking back and forth, several to and fro negotiations in several broken languages, we secured tent beds for most of the passengers, but three of us were left over, and I still hadn’t found beds for two of the people who’d gone to the hospital. We walked down the road a half mile and crossed the Tsarap Chu River, spanned by another rickety bridge, to a tea house we had been told about. Inside was gloriously warm and there was food and it was run by a Ladakhi woman who was happy to brew cup after cup of thick, milky tea. There was room for all of us, including any who’d gone to the hospital and might return. The charge was 100 rupees, about two dollars, which was high but only because of the remoteness of the tea house.
The roof was made from an old silk parachute which kept the heat in and the beds, such as they were, were arranged on a concrete bench which circled the outer edge of the tea house. A ramshackle kitchen dominated the center. Several large pots sat on the stove, bubbling and filling the air with gorgeous aromas. Great mounds of thick, furry blankets were piled in a corner and we chose what we wanted.
I walked back across the bridge and along the road to wait for the others to return from the hospital. In the dark the stars shone with an unaccountable brilliance I had not seen since I was a kid visiting my parents’ village in Punjab. The Milky Way wheeled overhead and I felt a giddy joy at the wild, untamed beauty of the night.
The sick passengers had spent an hour lying in oxygen tents and a stern-faced doctor told them all to drink more water than they imagined in their wildest dreams was good for them. While they lay there, dozens of truck drivers and soldiers had filed through, all similarly struck down. With everyone settled in tents, the journalist and I helped the producer make the half-mile trek to the tea house. She’d sleep there with us. The ill effects of the thin air were still weighing heavily on her and several times she dropped to her knees from exhaustion and sat, unable to stand, while all around we were surrounded by total darkness. On we walked, making short stages, and after the better part of an hour we spotted the bridge, and beyond it, around a corner, the welcome lights of the tea house.
When I woke next morning I found an empty bottle of Royal Stag whiskey lying open on my legs and my pants stained through with alcohol. There’d been visitors in the night but I’d been too exhausted to notice much except a few raised voices and someone sitting on my legs while a party of locals carried on.
We drank tea, ate a hurried breakfast, and were thankful that this time the bus picked us up. Back inside, we learned that two truck drivers had been found dead in their cabs that morning, slumped over the wheel, both brought down by complications due to altitude sickness.
The highest pass was still ahead of us, Taglanga, and when we finally reached it, a fierce wind cut through our heavy jackets and great drifts of snow crowded in all around us. A concrete marker on the spot was festooned with prayer flags: TAGLANGA, ALTITUDE: 17582 FT. YOU ARE PASSING THROUGH SECOND HIGHEST PASS OF THE WORLD. UNBELIEVABLE IS NOT IT?
Those of us not sick were giddy at this point, and ran out of the bus and out along the high ridges. Heavy clouds obscured the nearby peaks, but the lack of a clear view did little to diminish our excitement and sense of accomplishment. The Japanese student, who lacked even a single word of English, jumped up and down and let out cries of joy and I shanghaied someone into taking a photo of me standing in front of the marker. Maybe it was the thin air talking, because all we had done was ride along in a bus and not get killed, but arriving here felt like a genuine achievement.
We truly had made it, or almost: all that remained was the long descent into the valleys surrounding Leh. My seatmate remained curled into a ball, her face blue, her head pounding out a ceaseless drumbeat of agony. For an hour I moved up front and sat with the driver. Arrayed at his feet were several empty bottles of whisky, while a last one stood within reach, half finished. He took slugs and grinned at me and blasted the horn, and must have been drinking the whole long ride through these treacherous mountains.
The wide windshield of the bus cab opened out onto the degraded road and we sped downhill and the world before us seemed to open up. So far, we had passed through little more than the foothills of the Himalayas. Beyond Leh, the real mountains waited—great, unforgiving peaks that had only been conquered within the lifetimes of our parents. I had softened to my fellow passengers, even to the backpackers, and though I knew we would all disappear into the streets and alleys of the town once we arrived, I felt kinship with them in these last hours as the bus descended into Ladakh itself.
We arrived late that afternoon, and at the bus depot, the driver sourly evaluated the dusty, unremarkable town, and proclaimed, “We went through all that for this piece of shit?!”
The driver was right. It didn’t look like much, and all the excitement, the pent-up years of desire to travel here, evaporated and transformed into a rising disappointment. The town looked like any other backpacker ghetto. Students, foreigners, guys with dreadlocks, women with a face full of piercings, the smell of pot cutting through the air, Bob Marley flags fluttering from shop windows, psychedelic peace signs peppering the walls, and everywhere restaurant boards advertising Pizza! Was this it? Did one come to a street like this at the end of every road in the world today?
I shouldered my bag and walked slowly on, battling the thin air, wondering if there was another city behind this city, a different Leh hiding under the bruised, modern skin of the backpacker city. My own skin felt bruised, and I felt small and defeated, but as I passed from streets to narrow lanes, and from lanes to hidden alleys, I began to sense that another city did indeed hide here, and that in this place, at what felt like one of the last true far reaches of the earth, a larger and much deeper mystery must surely reside.
Header photo, on the road to Leh, by Ranbir Singh Sidhu.