Beyond the Himalayas

Austere frontier

Beyond the Himalayas

And yet, this is the wonder of it all — we never left India. It was all thanks to our friend Urgain Lundoop. On an earlier visit to Ladakh he had said, “You’ve come so far. Why don’t you come to my village in Nubra?” “Where’s Nubra?” we asked. Pat came the reply, “It’s behind the Himalayas.”

Deep into the Nubra valley

We live in the Garhwal Himalayas and anything beyond, leading to the high, cold, deserts of Tibet was definitely terra incognita. Therefore, very attractive and challenging. We looked up at the high mountains rising behind Leh. Dark grey clouds roiled angrily above them. We said “Perhaps next time, Urgain.” He nodded and smiled because he knew we meant it. This was ‘the next time’. At 12.15 pm we left our vine-hung Yak Tail hotel in Leh. At 13.04 pm we saw tiny white pellets speckling the windscreen. It had begun to snow. We passed a place called South Pullu at 15,300 ft and there were snow fields on the slopes. Icicles hung in crystal pendants on dark rocks. Then, groaning, churning and sliding through the thick slush of the road, we reached Khardung La.

It was all very festive and alive. Strings of prayer flags fluttered above the snow-covered hillsides. A sign on a red board proclaimed, ‘Khardung La 18300 ft, the highest motorable road in the world’. The Army has become tourist-savvy. We bought a plate commemorating the road for the souvenir wall in our dining room. Then we started on our way down, facing the great, cold, plains of Tibet and Central Asia.

Along this branch of the Silk Road had come plodding caravans of double humped Bactrian camels. As a boy, Urgain and his family had trudged up this frosty road carrying thick rotis, hard on the outside, soft inside. They had munched the charcoal-baked bread with lassi, mint chutney, tsampa cake made of roasted barley and churned butter tea as thick and salty as soup. We turned a corner and there, far below was the Shyok river;  braided ice-blue streams flowing across a platinum-grey bed with the cold neon-flare of the sun glaring behind the distant hills. If ever there was a setting for fearsome bearded trolls and crag-haunting hobgoblins, this was it. Our 4x4 clung to the Himalayan road and carried us deeper into the valley.

It became a shade warmer when we reached a village. It had willows bent in the breeze, a patchwork quilt of barley fields, vegetable gardens spread and flat-roofed houses staggered up the hillside. From the village we wound down to the road going through the broad sandy bed of the Shyok river. We stopped and looked back. There, beyond the green fields of a village and the cold quicksilver glint of the river, rose the bluing backs of the Himalayas. We were now standing on the slopes leading up to the black range of the Karakorums.

This is a legendary, almost mythical-magical land and we felt a frisson of excitement ripple over us. A little later, still elated, we dove into Urgain’s village of Tegar. The Yab Tso Hotel was a charming little double-storey building in Ladakhi style with red plastic chairs and a colourful garden umbrella in the lawn. In the stillness and peace, the whisper of the distant river could have been the sibilance of invisible guardians hovering over us. It was a strange but oddly reassuring thought in this gently alien place.

We slept very soundly at 10,000 ft and were woken up by a birdsong and the sun glistening on snow-capped peaks framed in poplar trees. Our breakfast could not have been better — Oven-fresh Ladakhi nans with honey and butter, corn-flakes and sweet, hot and milky coffee. We were now fortified and ready to face a Nubra day. A sign outside our hotel assured us that we were on the Silk road caravan trail. Before the high frontiers were closed in 1962, Trans-Himalayan traders would come plodding in. When people who were  caravanning, passed a spot that they felt was ill-omened, they threw a stone at it and these, in time, became ‘chortens’ and bell-shaped stupas grew out of them.

We passed one of these in its own stone-walled enclosure. It sat on a boulder platform and was roughly stupa-shaped and crowned by a green bush. It was a Lhato — a spirit who occasionally possesses one of his devotees and turns them into oracles. But if you don’t respect it, it’s likely to turn on you. Belief in such unseen beings is fairly common in wilderness all over the world — a natural human response to the implacable forces of nature. In more urbanised communities, politicians play a similar role!

On the mountain top

Stupas also enshrine the relics of revered persons and protect wayfarers and natural resources. Not far from the hot spring of Panamik, four stupas painted white, yellow, white and blue, stood. They could have offered a reassurance to weary travellers along the Silk road or they could have been guardians of the thermal water bubbling out of the ground, offering a relaxing warm bath to people trudging down the caravan trail. Some of the water has now been fed into the PWD rest-house, the rest flows down a rill, staining it yellow though, strangely, the mineral content in it does not have a sulphurous smell.

It probably did, however, has an obnoxious taste. When we returned to the road after touching the water in the yellow brooklet, a dense herd of long-haired goats with great curving horns and a few sheep flowed past us. The soft Pashmina wool known as the expensive Cashmere in the west, comes from the warm under-hair of these high-altitude goats. So this herd was, in effect, a fortune in fabric-on-the-hoof!

There were about 200 animals being herded by Rinchen, who is part of one of the groups  of co-operating herdsmen who take it in turns to graze their combined flocks. We noticed that a few of the lambs and kids scampered down to the rill and tasted the water and then jumped back shaking their heads in disgust. Rinchen said, “This is the first time they have come on this road. They will remember not to touch Panamik water again!” Obviously,  this is still a region where the seething fires of the earth have an effect on the surface. In  fact, the great Himalayas are still rising at the rate at which a human fingernail grows, powered by internal pressures.

Though dromedary caravans no longer plod in from Central Asia, part of the old Silk road is still in use, although not as a camel caravan trail. Wheezing buses, laden to the roof with cheerful Ladakhis have replaced the plodding Bactrians. In the Sanstaling Monastery, Bihari and Nepalese workers were renovating the façade. A gilded and painted altar held an image of The Buddha — “A teacher who came from far away,” as our young monk-guide described him, “probably India.” In this austerely beautiful frontier of India, ‘India’ does seem to be very far away.


    

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