THE LAST TIME I wrote about my adventure in India I had acclimatize for 10 days in Kashmir, I was ready to head farther into the Himalaya. My goal was to get into the region close to Tibet.I would cross over into the Ladakh region, the remote monastery and city of Leh is the only Destination I could find a bus goes to. After getting at least six opinions from anyone I could communicate with I found the bus and the schedule. I was to be back to the bus corral at six the next morning. I remember thinking that nothing has been on time yet and now they were being very adamant about my not being late or they’d leave me.
I found out why the schedule mattered so much this time, this was going to be a 40 hour trip with the last part of it going over the Zojila pass. Zojila is one of the highest passes for vehicles in the world. It is the most treacherous pass in the world. The military bus that I would take over the pass look like it had something it was trying to say but I wasn’t able to speak the language of the old bus until we reached our destination when I had become one with the tired bus. Once I got on the bus I could feel the buzz of excitement and nervousness. This region I was heading into was cut off from the rest of the world usually for nine months because the Zojila is covered in deep snow for those months.
The months that the pass is open it is mainly to get supplies that they ran out of during winter and supplies to get ready for the next winter. Most of the vehicles going over were trucks carrying supplies, buses transporting people who would come to Kashmir, and some tourist on motorcycles. At first I thought how brave the people that did the 40 hour journey have to be on motorcycles, later as I was going over the pass I realized I was envious of the motorcycle people for that would be the way to go. On my bus there were two other Westerners, European travelers, the rest were Indians that seemed amused at my being on the bus. I realized once we got higher on the pass that the road turned to one lane dirt path with a straight up wall on one side of the bus and a straight down cliff on the other side. The harsh winter and the thaw with avalanches had reeked havoc on this road. All of that combined with the fact that to be a bus driver in that region meant you weren’t a real man unless you went as fast as you could and stop for nothing helped me to understand why other people on the bus would steal glances at me while laughing. I think they were betting whether or not I would be on the floor of the bus sick or may be crying.
BOTH OF THOSE things crossed my mind. I had my Walkman and my two cassette tapes and extra batteries. On a long trip like this I have learned to settle in and go into a zone that makes time be less important and I have the ability to be able to sleep in these situations that I have found myself in too many times. I had The best scenery in the world, my music and the rhythm of the bus to lull me into a trance. Along the way a few times we would be pulled over, sometimes for hours at a time while we allow a caravan like ours going in the opposite direction to pass. The caravan would be 30 or 40 vehicles long lumbering down the pass. During these waits I could get off the bus and take in the mountain air and someone always had a hot tea for sale. I could breathe a little easier on these breaks knowing that for an hour or so I definitely would not go careening over a cliff.
An average of 13 buses a year go over the cliffs. There is no way to recover the buses or the people on the buses so unfortunately I could see some of them thousands of feet below, I would have to go deeper into the zone to calm my nerves. I noticed there was never a change in drivers, I also noticed the farther this driver went the more erratic his driving became. He was using something to keep him awake, whatever it was had turned him into a madman. Even the people on the bus who were being amused by my being on the bus were now clutching anything around them tightly and some were hollering at him to chill out which seemed only to set him off even further into his raging desire to get to the end of this journey as quickly as possible. He and I were finally on the same page, let’s get this over with! We finally reached Leh, I couldn’t get off that bus quick enough and try not to remind myself that I would have to do that again in a couple of months when it would be time to get back to New Delhi for my flight home. Stepping off that bus and grabbing my pack when someone threw it down from the top of the bus was one of the most exciting times of my life. I could see the bluest sky I’ve ever seen with the Leh Palace built at the same time and in the same style as the Potala Palace in Tibet, White against the sky. I could see the Himalayan mountains all the way to Tibet.
Some say this region is more Tibetan than Tibet because many of the refugees from Tibet went to this area when the Chinese decided to burn the Tibetans out of their homes and religious temples. I never dreamed of such beauty. The Tibetan people that were in the streets to get supplies are very tough and resourceful to live in this harsh climate Leh is a city at 11,500 feet above sea level, the mountain folk I was seeing at the markets had come down from much higher points to get supplies for their villages. I was surrounded by 18,000 to 20,000 foot peaks that were calling my name. I would acclimatize a while longer then head up there. While in Leh I could see that the food in the markets was bussed in, nothing was growing on the slopes of those mountains. This area is high desert, there was literally no plant life, it looked like what I picture of the moon to look like. I walked lower into the Indus Valley were the Indus River flows. Along the river there were some grains being grown. Being this far up in altitude meant that one crop a year can be grown if the crop can be planted in June and harvested before the cold winds begin to blow in September. This crop is called grim which is naked barley which is an ancient form of domesticated barley with an easier to remove hull from which tsampa, the staple food in Ladakh is made.
I could see the barley being grown in every inch and in every nook and cranny that water from the Indus River could reach. tsampa is what I ate because that is what is offered. I had all derivations of it. It’s basically like porridge, hot cereal, it’s delicious. The grains are smaller and denser than oatmeal with a nutty taste without the gluey texture of oats. I would have yak butter with it which is highly nutritional and I was handed yak milk occasionally which is slightly pink and salty. Not a drink that we will soon be finding in the cooler at Chevron anytime soon. Out of necessity the mountain people figured out a way to survive agriculturally.
As long as there is some water someone will have figured out a way to grow crops using methods that are centuries old, methods that I would have called impossible such as bamboo aqueducts that with pressure of the running river could run water uphill for short distances that would give them more options to otherwise unusable land for agriculture. I always say that gardening is perseverance, but the Tibetans have taken perseverance to a whole new level.
I have used up all my space just getting to the point where my treck deep into the high mountains is beginning. There’s so much to tell about and I cannot do much justice to the sights and sounds and smells that come along with his untouched and unchanged place. I would suggest if you have 10 minutes to go to YouTube and look up crossing the zojila, There is a video that shows the Crossing.
You may end up wondering about my sanity after you see it. I wonder sometimes too, these were my goals at the time, the travel bug can be powerful. I keep my eye on this area because I loved that trip so much. Things aren’t going well in the crowded parts of India but in this remote area with that altitude they are doing very well. It’s looking like we are going to have plenty of time to spend at our own homes and yards with plenty of time to use our own ingenuity to create things at our homes that we need or just enjoy having. We have to remain patient and continue helping one another out as much as we can. I know a lot of people who are getting down and fearful of the weather changes and Americas divisiveness. A smile and a conversation might be all another person needs to pull them from an anxiety filled moment. Be there for each other.