The rhythmic wailing was all too familiar. I had heard it being blasted from every bus, every train and almost every mobile phone throughout the country; Hindi pop music. Irritably I turned over on my bed of rocks and chicken wire and buried my head in one of the cheesy blankets. The unshaven Punjabi truck driver, amused at my reaction, increased the volume on his tinny phone and took a sip of his tea. It was 4 AM and I was 3,432 metres above sea level in makeshift shelter called a ‘dhaba.’ These structures usually consisted of one ‘room’ acting as a restaurant, hotel and temporary home for the owner.
My second hand Royal Enfield motorbike was parked outside the tent and my Colombian companion was trying to ignore our noisy customer and feigning sleep beside me. I was nestled amidst snowcapped mountains somewhere along one of the world’s highest roads stretching from the Himalayan foothills to the mountain city of Leh, capital of the ancient kingdom of Ladakh. I was lost in the northeastern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir whilst my sensible friends back home were doing summer internships in city banks.
We were tackling 437kms of sand, pot holes and sparse gravel, on a highly unreliable 350cc motorbike. Along this road, civilization appeared in its most basic form only every hundred kilometres or so, at most in the shape of ten white dhabas. These structures, made from tarpaulin, branches and corrugated iron, served as restaurants, ‘chai’ (tea) stops and hotels for lorry drivers and the few intrepid motorcyclists en route to Leh. The restaurant benches were covered in blankets at night time and thus transformed into beds.
The dhaba I was occupying was owned by a Tibetan refugee called Rigzin who offered twenty-four hour food and drink services. He would sit upright in a semi-conscious trance and as soon as a rumbling engine was heard approaching the desolate cluster of tents, he’d rush outside barking ‘Chai? Chai?’ More often than not he’d triumphantly return with a weary looking lorry driver whose business he had won over the six competing tents offering the same service. This strange ritual happened four times that night and each fatigued driver would come in, consume one ten rupee cup of tea and leave. This meant that Rigzin was passing up a sound night’s sleep for a grand total of 46p. His enterprise also meant that we had our slumbers frequently interrupted by curious truck drivers sitting on our feet, or like the 4 am character, amusedly observing our reaction to loud Indian pop music in the small hours.
Despite having a predominantly Tibetan population, Ladakh retains unmistakable echoes of India, not least in its driving habits. The Manali – Leh highway is peppered with signs aimed at keeping road accidents to a minimum. The sober truth that ‘dangerous driving kills,’ is disguised in a series of appalling puns, wild alliteration and doubtful rhymes. The first sign I passed implored me not to be ‘Silly in the Hilly.’ The next told me that ‘safety on the road means safe tea at home.’ I imagined a boardroom of suit-clad Indians in Delhi applauding the English language graduate who had come up with that. Whilst genuinely quite impressed by a more sinister signpost reminding ‘It is better to be Mr. Late than late Mister’ I was utterly bewildered by ‘Are you going to a party? Then why drive so dirty?’
The signs continued seeming to inject a taste of the unremitting strangeness of India into a landscape that at one moment resembled the moon and at the next Mount Rushmore. I found myself bewildered by the odd merging of mountain and desert, of India and Tibet and of the burning heat interspersed with biting cold. The deep saturated blue of the sky met the orange brown of the mountains slicing the composition exactly in half, the sunlight overstating the outline of the land. The only signs of greenery came in the form of occasional straggly bushes clinging heroically to the bare mountainsides.
At that height the sun sears your skin leaving it red, raw and peeling after ten minutes under its rays. However when it hides behind a rare cloud, the cold is so unforgiving that your whole body starts to quake and chatter instantaneously. Unfortunately the day we unsteadily left Rigzin’s tent to tackle the second highest pass in the world at 5,328 metres, a carpet of grey clouds chose to obscure the sun. Having ‘freshened up’ in the outside toilet, a hole cut into the brown earth and revealing beneath it what appeared to be a decade’s worth of human waste, I had tried to prepare myself for the day ahead by putting on almost the entire contents of my backpack: two pairs of trousers, four shirts, one jumper, a jacket and scarf. With my arms almost horizontally extended from my body I let Felipe take the handlebars and sat panting on the back, already dizzy from the oxygen shortage. With just under 1000 metres still to climb before we reached the Tangala pass I knew that it would only get colder and more airless.
Above us the steep winding road presented itself in tiers and we could see another motorbike weaving its way downwards towards us. The owner of this bike turned out to be a smug German obviously relieved to have managed the pass and finally to be descending into warmer regions. The oval of his red face was framed by a tight plastic hood hiding his hair and forehead. His face looked so weathered that in different circumstances I’d have expected him to have just returned from fifteen years at sea. ‘You do not seem very prepared for the cold’ he observed from underneath professional plastic trekking clothes. We responded with nervous smiles. I determinedly wrapped my cotton scarf tighter around my neck and we began the great ascent.
The road upwards seemed eternal and with the sun hidden away the naked earth looked dismal. Near the top, life finally presented itself – endless brown was interrupted by bright orange tents belonging to Indian road workers who lined the dusty road and erupted with greetings as we passed. Tibet and India seemed to gaze each other benignly in the face at the mountain’s summit. A painted stone sign informed us that we were 17,582 feet high, with a wonderfully Indian interjection designed to rouse the weary traveller’s appreciation, ‘YOU ARE PASSING THROUGH SECOND HIGHEST PASS OF THE WORLD – UNBELIEVABLE IS NOT IT?’ Draped around the sign fluttered Tibetan prayer flags and beside it stood a Buddhist temple where fat, white mice stole the edible offerings and rolled them across the floor into the cracks in the walls. Opposite stood a concrete structure housing some of the Indian workers whilst others sat outside attacking a pile of heavy rocks with hammers and chisels. As they laboriously chipped off tiny fragments it became clear that they were hand making gravel for the road. With cheerful Indian diligence they only paused from their work to wave at us as we photographed the Tibetan temple.
Two days later, exhausted, dusty and in dire need of a shower we rolled into Leh. On the outskirts, Indian soldiers were running up a hill to the command of a whistle. Inside the city, shy Tibetans sat in front of turquoise jewellry stands underneath a mural reading, ‘Fifty years in exile, thank you India for welcoming us.’ Along the streets of Leh insistent Indians would shriek, ‘Come here Madam and see nice Kashmiri pashminas,’ whilst in front of their shops quiet Tibetan ladies sat on the pavement selling bunches of carrots and fresh apricots. Neither seemed to mind nor even really notice the other.
A twenty year old Tibetan man told me the story of his flight from Tibet as an eight year old boy – no member of his family owned a passport so they all crossed the mountain border on foot in the middle of the night. When I asked him if he missed his country he responded, ‘India is now my home, the Chinese have destroyed the Tibet of my parents.’ Covered in white stucco stupas and hilltop monasteries, Ladakh fulfilled my idea of the old Tibet. The Indians didn’t seem to mind that to an outsider this area resembles a country which is not their own. On the contrary they are delighted and have even erected a road sign saying, ‘Ladakh – pride of the nation.’ The only question is – which nation?
Photo credit: Olivia Acland