At last they entered a world within a world—a valley of leagues where the high hills were fashioned of the mere rubble and refuse from off the knees of the mountains…”Surely the Gods live here!” said Kim, beaten down by the silence and the appalling sweep and dispersal of the cloud-shadows after rain. “This is no place for men.”
Kim, by Rudyard Kipling
The day began with promising snatches of blue over the jagged Ladakh mountains. Mumtaz, our lean laconic driver, wove steadily out of Leh, heading up the only road to our destination–the remote village settlement of Turtuk in the Nubra Valley. Turtuk is close to the Line of Actual Control (LOC) between India and Pakistan, and actually was in Pakistan until the plucky paramilitary force, the Ladakh Scouts (aka, Snow Warriors), nabbed it just before the ceasefire in 1971.
A cluster of villages that straddled the Silk Route, Turtuk’s population was converted to Islam in the 8th century from Tibetan Buddhism after an invasion led by a 20-year-old Syrian chieftain brought the region under the dominion of the Caliphate of Damascus. The locals still feel strong cultural connections with Tibet, and even invited the Dalai Lama for a visit in 2010. The place was opened up to foreign visitors only a couple of years back, and even today non-Indians can’t visit without a Protected Area Permit.
We had our permits firmly in hand. But there was something else between us and Turtuk. The Khardung la Pass–the highest motorable road in the world as those who cross it like to boast–that reaches to an oxygen-impoverished 18,300 feet before plummeting into the Nubra Valley on the other side. Although we were well into June, the weather was proving unpredictable, with bright mornings descending into brooding afternoons. At the first check post, Mumtaz got out of the car and, as was his habit, immediately fired a large globule of spittle onto the dirt road. The soldier manning the post informed us that one hundred and fifty vehicles were stuck in two major landslides higher up.
We killed time with a short unremarkable hike, hoping that the weather would clear later that day. It didn’t. That afternoon we learned that four hundred people had spent a head-splitting twelve hours trapped inside their vehicles on the pass. The army had ferried up oxygen cylinders and set up emergency medical posts for those suffering the effects of the high altitude. It took them until eleven that evening to clear the road and escort everyone down to safety. Still, Tsering, our travel agent, remained optimistic. “One hundred per cent you’ll get over the Khardung la tomorrow,” he reassured us when we returned dejected to his office. It was the second week of June after all. There were no snowstorms in June. We booked Mumtaz again for the following morning and sipped rounds of coffee at a rooftop cafe run by an urbane-looking Sardar who told us that the closure of the Khardung la had made national news. “People come here without knowing what they’re doing,” he complained. “Every year we have a few mishaps,”– ‘mishap’ being an Indian-English euphemism for fatality. “They think they’re having a family outing. They don’t respect the mountains.” We nodded solemnly, hoping he thought us respectful enough.
There are signs all along these Himalayan mountain roads, with words of caution for motorists, painted in rhyming whimsical aphorisms like these. BE SOFT ON MY CURVES. DRIVE ON HORSE POWER. NOT RUM POWER. DO NOT BE RASH AND END IN CRASH. DRIVING FASTER CAN CAUSE DISASTER. NO RACE NO RALLY. ENJOY THE BEAUTY OF THE VALLEY. The signs are maintained by BRO, the Border Roads Organization, that I envisaged as a group of gentle upstanding individuals bound by oath to protect those who drive its tortuous lengths with generous doses of kind humour and loving wisdom. Occasionally the signs veer off from road safety into the valley of philosophy. IF YOU WANT HAPPINESS FOR A LIFETIME LEARN TO LOVE WHAT YOU DO and RUDENESS IS THE WEAK MAN’S IMITATION OF STRENGTH.
I figured that the Indian authorities wouldn’t let the Khardung la remain closed any longer than necessary. The pass is strategic to India’s border security, being the only land supply route to the Siachen Glacier (18,875 feet), a slice of the Karakorum range that Pakistan and India have been wrangling over since the mid 80s. Both sides maintain a costly, lonely, and dangerous presence there (just two months prior 135 people were killed in an avalanche that hit a Pakistani military camp). Ironically, military activities on both sides are threatening the very existence of the glacier, that is believed to be receding partly due to chemical blasting in the construction of outposts. I could see the sign. THE HIGHEST BATTLEGROUND ON EARTH. MAKE YOUR STAND AND PROVE YOUR WORTH.
Early next morning, Mumtaz pulled his jeep up outside our guesthouse, spat on the road, and mumbled something about bad weather. I held firmly onto Tsering’s prediction, along with permits, maps, snacks and Diamox. We sailed past the first check post a few kilometres outside town, but at South Pullu Mumtaz hung back, allowing forty or so trucks and cars to overtake us. One hour later, just beyond the mini check post of North Pullu, the vehicles ahead of us began dissolving into the fog like Alka Seltzers. Soon, we couldn’t even see the road. Another ten minutes and we had ground to an adamant halt. Burly snowflakes began to whirl outside the window. Mumtaz got out, spat emphatically into the snow, and went into a hand-in-pockets huddle with the other drivers. Half an hour crawled by. I slipped out of the car to answer the call of nature, propping my back against the mountain side door so as not to be seen. Greatly amused by the sight of a woman peeing standing up, Siddhartha tried to take a photo, but clicked too late.
When I climbed back inside, his jolliness had faded. He was looking pale and restless. “I don’t feel good,” he murmured glumly. We were at 18,000 feet. The upper limit of the category ‘very high altitude’ and the lower limit of ‘extreme altitude’. I could see mild panic in his eyes. I told him to keep breathing slowly. “Your body is telling your brain it can’t breathe properly but there is enough oxygen, it’s just thinner up here. Don’t worry.” My words that were meant to calm him down merely irritated him. Siddhartha motioned to me to stop talking and tried to lay his head on my lap. I offered him a hard candy which he sucked on reluctantly. I reminded him that we had done everything right. We hadn’t flown straight to Leh. Had driven for four days from Amritsar giving ourselves plenty of time to adjust to the increased elevation. “Do you want to take the Diamox?” He shook his head and put his finger to my lips. I ditched my plan to distract him with talk of the 10,000 camels that crossed this pass annually in bygone days, laden with dried apricots and fine pashmina wool, on their way to China’s oasis city of Kashgar.
We’d been stuck for over an hour now and I began to wonder how much longer we’d be there. It was snowing harder and getting darker. Siddhartha was looking dramatic, holding his forehead and seemingly unable to speak. I slipped out into the snow where the thin air literally took my breath away. I cautiously worked my way up the line of cars, every step an effort, knocking on windows and asking if anyone had an oxygen cylinder. No one did.
I now thought I understood why Mumtaz had held back at the check post. He’d anticipated the situation we were now in. Had made sure to be in the last group of cars in the jam for an easier return. I guessed that he’d known from the moment he picked us up in Leh that we wouldn’t make it through.
After a clumsy dance of wheels and axles, the road behind cleared enough for us to make our descent. The army bus at our rear began a slow clunking turnaround, with the help of six drivers all hollering out instructions. “Pichey. Pichey. Tora agey. Roco! Bas! Bas! OK. Ceedar. Ceedaaar. Bas!!!…..” After dozens of inching forwards, backwards and straights, the bus headed back down the valley and we did the same. We had been just one and a half kilometres away from the summit. Siddhartha sat up and the colour returned to his cheeks. I checked my travel notes for a suitable sign for the occasion. One that the fine folks at BRO had conjured up to make travelers feel better about failed ventures like this one. Aaah, there it was.
A DEAD END IS JUST A GOOD PLACE TO TURN AROUND.