NAPOLEON’S LAST STAND: Kashmir to Ladakh.
The reputation of this bus journey preceded it by several (karmic) lifetimes. Or, at least, by millions of grey hairs standing on end as though confronted by Boris Karloff in a dark Kashmir alley during a particularly scary riot.
This was 1986. Kashmir had yet to explode into a World Hot Spot. It all sounded adventurous; those people who had the inclination to fly from Srinagar to Leh were sneered at by the serious travellers as though the former were on a package holiday to Benidorm and were wearing flares. It wasn’t money that motivated us here – we could all afford the plane fare, even the bribe that had to accompany it if those magic letters OK were to appear on the ticket in the Status box. No, it was much more than that.
After all, who wants to spend a whole forty minutes searing over K2 marvelling at the snowy peaks and the rusting Coke cans when one could for a couple of dollars sit on over the rear axle on a decrepit bus for two days wrestling with death and choking back tears?
So, the adventure.
I took the bus, even letting myself be conned into this ticket for the seat over the outside back wheel.
By the time we’d knocked the second peasant and his goat off their bicycle my buttocks had been stripped of all flesh and my small intestines shaken, not stirred, into a cocktail which slopped in its glass somewhere beneath my ribcage. What’s worse, the bamboo umbrella was sticking in a nerve, creating a humdinging headache that was to last for, oh, several years after. In fact, I feel it coming on again now...
We were a motley crew: mostly European, some Americans, and a Canadian. An assortment of yak herders and chang brewers dotted our map, along with the odd (and I mean, odd,) Kashmiri or Hindu. But that’s another story.
These diverse Indians were easily distinguished from one another, and we all knew the drill from earlier bus journeys. Within a few miles, the buddhist Ladakhis would be snuggled up to us, sleeping like babies, heads on our shoulders, knees on our laps. Friendly people.
The Kashmiri women (moslem) would have to sit with other women, or on their own, in case us men attacked them or signed them up for the Church of Decadent Satanism. The hindus would sit next to us and at some point ask us to hold their sack of squabbling chickens, and then mysteriously disappear for the rest of the day. Returning only to collect their living dinners from us as we stepped from the bus much the worse for wear. And with a friendly wave, beg us to visit their uncle’s carpet factory. “Very cheap!”
The cunning thing about the Srinagar to Leh run is that for the first couple of hours everything goes well. Everyone has fun; laughing, eating, joking, and, of course, playing the blues on a harmonica. This is mandatory if you are travelling, enforced at random checkpoints by the BHP (the Blues Harp Police), and punishable by even-slower death for those not participating.
Then the mountains loom up out of the pastures around Sonnamarg, and that hedge sparrow you thought you saw twittering about in the distance turns out to be a bloody great vulture licking its beak. It’s been told that we taste like chicken, and is already planning the sauce, choosing a light white wine.
Within minutes, the clouds have come down level with your eyebrows, and a collective air of doom descends closely behind them. The clouds and the eyebrows, that is. When the bus stops for a toilet and tea stop (mercifully frequent this early in the ordeal), small boys wrapped in goatskin waistcoats run up to us holding out little plastic bags containing what we initially think to be sweetmeats.
After much gesticulating the cartoon light bulbs above our heads spark-up in unison and we look at each other in disgust, mouths curling downwards. The appetising little balls in the bags are, well, balls. Somewhere, a musk deer is limping into the woods with a higher voice than it had before puberty. The men in the party instinctively reach for their groins in a protective, reassuring gesture to themselves.
After checking that all is present and correct, the bus moves off, tackling steep inclines regularly, until steep inclines are all there is. Soon we’re hundreds, then thousands, of feet up the edge of a Himalayan mountain range. Someone spots a glacier, someone else a snow-capped peak. An aeroplane flying north on a 40 minute hop...
Whoever built the road never took a tape measure with them when they did so. It’s been laid so that one tyre of any vehicle travelling upon it is always in mid-air. You can imagine them now, these sadistic bureaucrats and engineers sitting around their icy blueprints and ledgers, thinking aloud: Let’s build the Beacon Highway just six inches too narrow! What a scream! Just think of those whiteys kneeling in the aisles praying to Jesus for their lives! Hilarious.
It was said by a certain traveller, Izzet Ullah, in 1812, that this ‘road is difficult and rocky, so as to be impassable to a mounted traveller’. Mounted as I was upon the levitating rear wheel of a sick iron horse, it still rang true.
The road is enveloped in cloud, although the valley below is cruelly clear. So although we can’t see a yard in front of the bus, we can see, half a mile below, the mangled scrap iron of Indian Army vehicles which came a cropper. Lying upended, bellies to the sun, like ensnared crabs in a Brighton rockpool.
I’m sitting over the back wheel, then. Looking down from the window, there’s not a molecule of road to be seen. I’m floating somewhere above the Indus river, eagles staring me in the face and, I swear to God, laughing.
Transfixed by the proximity of the sky, it’s some minutes before I’m alerted by some atavistic yelp, and turn around to see that the whole aisle of the bus is occupied by Australians, French, Israelis, kneeling in prayer; hands together and knuckles white as plain flour. They’re mouthing many words, some of which I took to be God, Jesus, die, and beg. Rosary beads were crumbling to dust with the extreme wear they were getting, falling as grit, in sympathy with the roadside beneath them.
Tears were liberally falling onto the goat dropping and dust on the floor of the bus. I saw a young woman run to the seat behind me and vomit out of the tiny window. It all fell like rain onto a jeep chassis clinging to the side of whatever mountain we were negotiating at the time. I began to laugh, wishing I had a crow-bar with me so I could prise my fingers from the seat-rail.
It was the kind of laugh that mad old women in rocking chairs make from their attic rooms in ancient Hollywood movies. Perhaps Hitchcock was hiding in the dashboard with a camera, and any moment would yell ‘CUT!’. So we could all go home and take up knitting.
This went on for miles and miles and miles. Sometimes the road flattened out, and we thought it was over. We were alive, God was in His heaven, and clean underwear was but an Indian tailor’s away.
The whole stretch of highway between Srinagar and Leh is single lane (minus six inches). Broken into lengths, time is allotted each day to northbound and southbound traffic. Much time is spent waiting for the next part of the road to open, and this means sitting at the side of a track catching typhoid from warm tea. Water ‘boils’ at a much lower temperature at this altitude, and bacteria love it. Every cup of Earl Grey here is a typhus germ’s jacuzzi. They get to bubble about a bit in tepid water working on their tans rather than going up in a 100° steam.
One passing place for traffic – commercial and military – is at a vast empty place called Drass. (We could have guessed that a dozen or so years later India and Pakistan would be flirting with nuclear war at this very place.) This ‘village’ (read: wilderness) is renowned for being the coldest habited place on Earth outside Siberia, and we’re stuck there for hours and hours. After the first dozen cups of sweet milky chai, some of us are getting desperate for action, if only as a device for thawing our extremities. Our ears are turning blue – a bad colour for ears.
Blue is for Bluebirds, blue sky, bluebells. Blue is not for bodily appendages – they’re reserved for shades of pink and brown.
The Pakistan border is only a few miles away, and after the second dozen cups of cool bilharzia-swimming chai we’re all praying for war to break out, just to shatter the monotony of the place. (Which as I say is what in fact happened sometime later. Who says prayer doesn’t work?)
Then, as if by the sweep of a ghostly wand, horns blast and drivers call, and we’re back on the bus, looking forward to the end of the first part of the journey. Imagining the hot bath, the gourmet meal, and the soft cotton sheets that no doubt await us.
At the end of the first day we’re all shell-shocked as the bus rolls into some godforsaken hovel called Kargil. it’s pitch dark, and we don’t even see the welcoming poster as big as a house, until later. This says something like: Welcome to Kargil, gateway to the beautiful Zanskar Valley. Beneath this friendly message is an addendum: Go out and kill an Israeli child today! The late Ayatollah Khomeini stares out at us from the board, and we limp unsteadily to the cockroach-infested, bedbug-partying luxury hotel we’ve rented in the dark for a nickel a night, lice included. (We were done.)
Kargil is a Shi’ite stronghold, short on neighbourliness, humanism. You don’t borrow a cup of sugar from your neighbours here. You haggle for grenades from street urchins.
Kargil to Leh begins at 4am next morning with a honking of the horn and a rattling of the exhaust system as it hits the tarmac and is promptly tied back on to the chassis by our very capable driver, with a piece of bootlace or tandoori spaghetti.
This early in the day he’s still sober, so it doesn’t take too long. By elevenses his eyeballs will be rolling around in their smoky sockets as he pulls on another joint as big as the pine tree he’s almost wrapped us around earlier, whilst simultaneously taking a shot of Kashmiri ‘whisky’.
It’s downhill from here, (in more ways than one), which means that we can save diesel by switching off the engine and coasting around each corner at breakneck speeds, sliding around u-bends like Olympic skaters, and only staying on the road by the grace of gravity. And the extra friction that French vomit beneath the bald tyres produces.
Of course, switching off the engine means that the bus loses both power steering and the power assisted brakes. We get whiter, and the French women lose their breakfast. Again.
Just before the Fatu La pass (at 12,300’ the highest on the route) we stop at the first buddhist village of our journey, Mulbekh, and the beginning of Ladakh. We all get off the bus and wander around a small temple, our bare feet sticking to the wooden floor, which has been liberally smeared with rancid yak butter for some assuredly profound reason.
We get another cup of tea and a plate of dal bhat, and sit quietly looking up at a huge statue of Maitreya looming over the temple. It’s freezing cold, but a wonderfully evocative introduction to a wonderful land and its wonderful people.
Ladakhis pass us on the road, smiling and shouting their greeting, Jullay! Mountains connect with silver clouds, a ladder unto heaven.
These mountains turn into valley, and those sheer cliff faces that do exist are at least dotted with scrub, signs of life, and washed by an icy river straight out of the Himalaya. Rope bridges span gorges, women with haystacks on their backs cross sure-footedly, unafraid of the rapids, the swell, dozens of feet below them.
Stops become more frequent, whether for tea or for government check points. Every time a white monastery comes into view we all shout at the driver to stop and let us look. He takes little persuading, even though the day is drawing quickly to an end, and to travel through the mountains in darkness would be suicide. At one of these temples, Lamayuru, I make a mental note to stop the night on my return journey. Which I do. (I almost die from the cold, which is sinister, deadly.)
Someone spots our first yak, and the French girl stops vomitting for a few minutes in order to whip out a camera and capture it on film. The last few miles are across flat land, branching off from the Indus. A large Army camp spreads out alongside the road to our left; the track to a Tibetan refugee camp forks out from our right. It’s 8.30pm. We left Kargil that morning at 6.30; a distance of less than 140 miles.
The bus station in Leh is swarming with people. Many of them are boys advertising their family guest houses; others are smartly dressed Indians holding up cards showing pictures of their tourist hotels. We all split up, agreeing to meet for a banana pancake later in the week at the Dreamland restaurant.
I’ve made friends with the Canadian, Doug, and we take up the offer no-one else seems to want: a guest house with no name. A dollar a night for a twin room; although it’s occupied that night we can sleep on the kitchen floor for free and his mother will make us some dal and chai to settle our stomachs, which are still turning like a freshly-oiled motor.
The French girl looks pale, defeated - mesmerised. It’s been a hard war, Us vs The Bus. That battle of nerves; of all five senses. But one, ultimately, worth it. We lost all the battles, but won the war.
Another monkey in Kuala Lumpar