The last time I wrote about my adventure in India I had to acclimatize for 10 days in Kashmir, I was ready to head farther into the Himalayas. 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 that a bus went 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 discovered 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 and the most treacherous pass in the world. The military bus I would take looked 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. When opened, the pass is mainly used to get supplies for the next winter. Most of the vehicles going over were supply trucks, buses transporting people headed to Kashmir, and some tourists on motorcycles.
On the bus with me were two other Westerners, European travelers and the rest were Indians who seemed amused at my being on the bus. I realized once we got higher on the pass that the road turned to a 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 wreaked havoc on this road. All of that, combined with the fact that to be a bus driver in this region meant you weren’t a real man unless you went as fast as you could, and stopping 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, sick or maybe 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, making time less important. I have the ability to sleep in these situations 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.
A few times along the way we would pull over, sometimes for hours, to allow a caravan traveling 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. Someone always seemed to have 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.
Annually, an average of 13 buses go over the cliffs. There is no way to recover the buses or the people 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 amused by my presence were now clutching tightly anything around them. Some were hollering at the driver to chill out which seemed only to put him 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 tried not to remind myself I would have to do it all over again in a couple of months when it would be time to get back to New Delhi for my flight home.
Stepping off the bus and grabbing my pack, which was thrown 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 came to this area when the Chinese decided to burn them out of their homes and religious temples. I never dreamed of such beauty.
The Tibetan people, who were in the streets getting 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 seeking supplies for their villages.
I was surrounded by 18,000 to 20,000 foot peaks calling my name. I would acclimatize a while longer, then head up there.
While in Leh I realized why the food in the markets was bussed in. Nothing was growing on the mountain slopes. This area is high desert. There was literally no plant life. It looked like what I pictured the moon to look like. I walked lower into the Indus Valley where the Indus River flows. Along the river some grains were being grown. Being this far up in altitude meant only one crop planted in June and harvested before the cold winds begin to blow in September could be grown. This crop is called grim which is naked barley, 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 was 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 and without the gluey texture of oats. I would have yak butter with it, which is highly nutritional. 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 was some water, someone would have figured out a way to grow crops using centuries old methods that I would have called impossible. These included bamboo aqueducts that, with pressure of the running river, could run water uphill for short distances. This would provide 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 trek deep into the high mountains is beginning. There’s so much to tell about. I cannot do much justice to the sights and sounds and smells that come along with this untouched and unchanged place. I would suggest if you have 10 minutes, go to YouTube and look up the video of crossing the Zojila. 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 as far as the COVID goes.
It’s looking like we are going to have plenty of time at our own homes and yards to spend, using our own ingenuity to create things we need or just enjoy having, as it appears COVID will be around for a while. 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 pandemic. A smile and a conversation might be all another person needs to pull them from an anxiety- filled moment. Be there for each other.