A week ago I left the Muslimopolis of Srinagar with the intention of taking the two-day drive to Buddhaville, the town of Leh in Ladakh. But no share-jeeps were going all the way to Leh; they were only going half-way, to Kargil. This led to all sorts of wacky travel meanderings. Somehow, after 25 hours on bone-jarring goat tracks that pass for roads here, I'm still two long days drive from Leh.
Although Srinagar is attractive, the road out of it into the high mountains is spectacular. Broad green valleys with jagged snow-capped peaks on either side lead to barren high desert passes where you can't imagine a road being built. The valleys were lined with the low and broad tents of the wild-looking nomadic Muslim goat herders, able to carry all their earthly belongs on a few horses. Because Allah is merciful, when our jeep broke down we weren't far from a town. And two hours later, after it was repaired, we only drove ten minutes before it broke down again, so were still close to a town. Two thumbs up for the most merciful dude.
We arrived in Kargil, which is only five miles from Pakistan, and the northernmost point of India. You'll never hear India say that, however, since they think all of the former Kashmir kingdom, including what's been controlled by Pakistan for the last 50 years, is rightfully theirs. Kargil's proximity to Pakistan has led it to be bombed over the years, and 18 people were killed in 1997.
I decided to postpone the trip to Leh by taking an overnight trip down the road leading to the Zanskar region. What I knew for sure was that I wouldn't go the 14 hours to the end of the rugged dead-end road, which is where I'm writing from. The first section of the road, where travel speeds average about 10 miles an hour, is 100% Muslim. What passes for a suitable greeting there is "Hello one pen." Some soft-hearted, well-intentioned travelers, at some point, have corrupted the place and turned the kids into beggars. When you say no pen, they go down the list: one rupee, one chocolate, one biscuit - pause, repeat ad nauseum. It's irritating, and I wanted to say, "You're Muslim. Act like it!" Fortunately I never tried to get that message across.
After staying four nights where I planned one, I caught a ride with a busload of Buddhist Ladakhi pilgrims, mostly beuatiful old women with leathery faces and sweet smiles. We came across a spot where the road was totally washed out, covered with boulders and thick mud over a wide area. A jeep managed to go cross-country and cross downstream a bit., which looked inpossible to me before he started. When our bus driver started down the same route, I was shocked that he would even try. He got across the stream, but bottomed out in a gully on the other side. While I was secretly thrilled by the drama of it all, the old women started picking up big stones to place under the wheels. At home women this age would be in their rockers playing bridge, but these hardy souls just got busy. No one complained - they just got to work. Five minutes later we were back on the road, such as it was, and I was reminded, yet again, how little I can rely on my judgement of how things will turn out.
The road to Zanskar was only completed in 1981, and it crosses a pass at 14,500 feet (which isn't impressive here.) But the valley has been inhabited for at least two thousand years. It boggles the mind to imagine life here prior to roads and the sporadic electricity they now enjoy. Even today, most of the area is snowed-in during the winter, and the only way out is by flight for about seven months a year.
As I arrived yesterday at the official end of the road (which is gradually being extended,) I took walk towards a distant village. I came across a beautiful old couple leading a tiny little donkey by a rope. We only had one word in common: "jule," (pronounced zhoo-LAY,) a Ladakhi word which means hello, goodbye, please, thank you, and what's up. They gestured for me to walk with them, and we meandered down the road, with me occassionally helping the nearly blind old woman navigate obstacles. I was unreasonably happy, and greeted the passing children with a big, dopey, and genuine smile, feeling warm and content and seeing that warmth reflected back to me. "Jule! Jule!!" It's these small moments that are the most precious for me when I travel. When I saw the Taj Mahal on my first trip to India, what I remembered most was the homeless kid in the train station with elephantiasis. One foot was twice its normal size, and his toes wobbled like foam rubber since they had been pushed well off the bones. The Taj is magnificent, but it's that kid that I remember.
So I walked down the road with the old couple, holding the woman's arm, not able to talk with them but not really needing to. We all seemed content, like there was nothing wrong and nothing needed doing. The moment was complete. Which raises the question: are there moments which aren't complete?
There are 11 photos below:
If you look carefully, you'll seee trucks lined up in the lower left of the photo.
One of the Muslim goat herders. What a face.
We came across this goat herding family while waiting for the car to be repaired.
A young Muslim boy.
The town of Kargil, with a mosque on the left.
On the road towards Zanskar.
I love this boy's innocent expression. I couldn't get a smile out of him to save my life.
On the road towards Zanskar.
Every bit of green is a result of an intricate system of irrigation, fed by ditches that divert the streams from the mountains.
The washed out road. You can see cars in the distance. Vehicles crossed downstream, to the left of the photo.
An old man in Padum, Zanskar, wearing a typical hat.