There are lower hells, and then there are higher hells, almost 16,000 feet to be more specific, not far from Tanglang La. After eight days or so we arrived at an intersection of the Manali to Leh road. Tashi helped Nanette and Mari get a ride back to Leh and he took off for a yearly gig with a group of Stamford geologists. He said he would catch up to us in a week or ten days, though it turned out to be much longer than that. He left me in the generally capable hands of his cousin, also named Tashi, and his assistant, though I didn't know he was leaving until the start of the trek. Tashi #2 had been doing the cooking for all of us, but now he and Dorje would guide as well cook for me. They spoke only a little English, making all but short conversations difficult. Mostly, I would have to keep myself company.
Back to hell. We hoofed it up the road a couple of miles until we got there. As hells usually do, it smelled. In this case, of tar and asphalt rather than sulfer. It was a more or less permanent camp of road workers, for six months that is, while the road was open. They were living in basic quonset huts and shacks, even some tents, while melting down shale to make tar, and also chipping away bricks by hand out of the nearby granite. They would then move out to various spots along the road to repair and maintain it. We camped above all of this, well above it at my insistance, but you could see the smoke from the bubbling tar from miles away. All day long we witnessed a steady stream of trucks and men moving in and out of camp. We could also see them walking around, black from soot and tar, hanging up their tattered laundry to dry whenever there was a few minutes of sun.
Photos of Road Workers, taken by Mari a few miles from Hell
We expected to be there one night at most, enough time to meet up with our next horseman. Except he didn't show up. The weather continued to be wet and cold, precipitating in every which way. We waited another day, and still no horseman. There was nothing to do but try to stay warm and dry. By the third day, I knew we had to do something and I spoke to Tashi #2. He and I agreed to try and get a ride to a small town down the road, several hours away as it turned out, to call Tashi #1. He had made the arrangements for the horseman and was the only one who knew how to get in touch with him.
We were able to pay someone in the road camp to take us there, and as we descended the clouds began to break up. We got to our destination early afternoon and of course, Tashi #2's cell phone still had no service, but we found a small shop with a land line and we reached Tashi who was back in Manali. He managed to contact the horseman who said that he had been at the place we agreed to meet the day before we arrived, but when we didn't show up on time, he left for a couple of days, but was now on his way back. He would meet us there. A comedy of errors all around.
We had a nice lunch and relaxed in the warm sunshine and lower altitude. No one however, seemed to want to give us a ride and the one person who did, wanted an exorbitant price. We stood out on the main street with our thumbs out and eventually, Tashi #2 was able to get a gasoline truck driver to take us for free. It was a big rig and we sat up front next to the Sikh man who was driving. He had massive arms and it didn't take long to see why. The Manali Leh road is nothing but a series of hairpin turns with huge drops on our side. The old Tata truck had no power steering and somehow the driver had to crank the steering wheel around at precisely the right moment and then turn it the other way as we came out of the steep curve, or we could easily have gone right over the edge. It obviously took a lot of strength, and we were sitting high up in that cab, so I had the pleasure of staring into the void each time we came around. It didn't feel any better to know that we were carrying thousands of gallons of gasoline.
I got into a conversation with our driver, Arun. His English was good, and it was a distraction from the road and my imagination that had us sailing into space and landing with a fiery conflagration. He told me It took approximately 30 hours to make the complete run from Manali to Leh. Usually he would stop and sleep here and there for a few hours. He made this run two to three times a week with one or two days rest in between.
"It seems kind of dangerous," I said.
"Yes," he agreed, You need to watch road all the time, but money is good."
"Do trucks go off the road?"
"Yah. Every year there are a few."
"How long have you been driving?"
Arun told me he lived in near Manali with his family and I told him where I was from and that I was on a long trek. Probably thought I was crazy, but of course, he didn't say.
Towards dusk we arrived back at our campsite, and needless to say I was relieved. I certainly didn't want to be driving in the dark. It had taken almost four hours to get back, longer than the trip down because the truck had to go so much slower. I could see that the horseman had already arrived and we would be able to leave in the morning.
The next several days were enjoyable trekking. The weather returned to normal, dry and sunny, and a bit on the hot side in the intense glare of high altitude. The views were expansive on the wide plateau. A typical day was six or eight hours of hiking, often with a two hour lunch and rest period in between. It was usually hard boiled eggs, chapati, sometimes canned tuna, a piece of fruit, nuts, and some chocolate. When we got to camp for the night Tashi and Dorje would set up the big mess tent and then my separate smaller two-man tent. They would prepare fairly elaborate meals on a kerosene stove. Usually some kind of homemade soup, rice, dahl, vegetables, soy protein, momos, or dumplings, sometimes fried potatoes, occasionally chicken if we were near a resupply site, all nicely spiced (usually curry ) and dessert, chocolate or rice pudding, and even chocolate cake. Things got more simple as we got further out, but they could do a lot with a small number of items. After dinner we would sit around, attempt to talk a bit and look at the night sky. Cards were out because of the language problems though Nanette, Mari and I did play during the first part of the trek. Tashi 2 would boil water for the copious amounts of tea we drank, and also for the next day. I got to fill my Nalgene which I used as a hot water bottle in my sleeping bag. Highly recommended if you've never tried it.
Eventually we came to the head of the valley and had to ascend our highest and toughest pass yet. The horseman had continued on as had Dorje, while Tashi 2 stayed back with me. However, we managed to lose the trail and by the time we located where we needed to go, it was already three in the afternoon. I asked Tashi how much longer, and he indicated that it was one of our longest days on the trail and was probably still another five or six hours. That would bring us there after dark, and I began to have second thoughts. I didn't want to be walking on a steep pass, especially on the descent in the dark, just using headlamps. I let Tashi know my concerns, and he agreed that given the lateness of the hour, maybe I was right. That meant that he had to go on alone and try and catch up to the others since we had no supplies with us, only day packs. He seemed to think that without me slowing him down, he might be able to reach them and get back within a few hours. That sounded good, so I made myself comfortable and stretched out on the grass to wait for him, chewing on the last bit of candy bar I had left. The first few hours were enjoyable, as long as the sun was out, but about six or seven it went behind the mountain and things got cold quickly, as it often does up high. Despite this, It was beautiful evening and I spent much of the time staring at the fields of wildflowers and then watching the alpenglow. Then it really got cold, and I put on every thing I could from my pack and constructed a little shelter of rocks so that I could get out of the wind.
How long would it take Tashi to get back here? He thought by eight, but it was already past that now. What if he couldn't catch up to the others and climb back down in the dark? Would he even find me down here? I probably wouldn't freeze to death, but I was already pretty uncomfortable. By now the stars were brilliant and I looked up at the constellations trying to identify as many as I could. The silhouette of the mountain in front of me was just visible in the faint starlight. No moon tonight. I noticed that there were some herdsmen camped out in a makeshift tent about half a mile a way. I could go over there and try and join them if I got too cold, but how would I explain it. Some white guy who just shows up in the dark who doesn't speak their language. What would they think? I continued to huddle behind the low rock walls of my tiny shelter, trying to stay awake so that I might see Tashi's light on the slopes above. Why had I opted to do this? How could Tashi 2 have lost the trail, and why had Tashi 1 abandoned me?
It was after midnight before I finally saw a dim light moving down the dark mass in front, and then about fifteen minutes later there they were. Tashi explained that he had to go almost to the top of the pass to catch up. Dorje and he had then returned, mostly in the dark, while the horsemen continued on to the next campsite. They had brought a tent with them and a sleeping bag and some food, carrying as little as possible to try and make better time. After they set up my tent, they went over to the herdsmen and spent the rest of the night with them.
The following day was clear, the sky blue-black, but it was a long walk up and then steeply down to the next camping spot. Hiking uphill at altitude is a little like breathing through a straw. A few steps, and then a lot of shallow breaths. Another few steps, and so on. You just have to keep going, S L O W L Y, almost as an act of will. It's as much mental as physical. Even a few hundred feet of vertical gain can seem insurmountable, and you can't allow yourself to think about how far you have to go to reach the height. When we arrived, permanent snowfields covered much of the pass, and there was a small glacier in the center of the cirque. Two large rock cairns, tattered prayer flags stretched between them, stood atop the flat area. OM MANI PADME OM. I gazed out at the ice and rock, munching on a chapati. I felt a sense of accomplishment, but that quickly dissipated. The sense of vastness, of INFINITE SPACE, is always a felt presence here, overwhelming in its intensity. It is humbling.
On the descent, we were able to skirt the snow and stay on the rock ridge, but it was scary for me, even in bright sunlight. It took more than six hours to do the hike, though as always going down was much faster. Last night was difficult, sure, but It was the right decision.
After a few more days we got to Zanskar, a place I had really wanted to see the last time around. It is one of the more remote sections of Ladakh and used to be a separate Kingdom, though now it sees trekkers on a regular basis. Part of it is high grasslands, good for grazing in the summer, and home to some nomadic tribes. Upon entering the Kingdom, as some still call it, we came upon a group of about 50 Zanskari women living in tents. The men were nowhere to be seen. I assume they were out in some other pastureland with the sheep and goats. Some of the women had children. Most were dressed colorfully, in native costume with necklaces and rawhide accessories, tending to small cooking fires around the encampment. As we walked by they smiled broadly, sometimes toothlessly, and did not seem to mind when I took pictures. Some were even seemed a bit coquettish, almost as if they were flirting, perhaps because their men were not around. For all I know, its similar to Eskimo culture regarding sex, though I didn't stick around long enough to find out.
Later we came to the center of Zanskar which consisted of small villages on top of a plateau intersected by a river. In places the river was several hundred feet below, in other places, almost level, but the stone houses were surrounded by green lands, flowers and vegetables growing everywhere. The river was being diverted to provide the irrigation for the crops. It was idyllic, though it wasn't long after we got here that Tashi 2 told me they were building a road to Zanskar, now about thirty miles away. The good news was that they had been building this road for several years, but it was getting closer, and one day it would arrive. Pave Paradise and build a parking lot. We hiked along and through these villages, and at one point I suggested to Tashi that we stop, and perhaps with his help, I could ask the villagers what they thought of the road. Although the translation was cumbersome, everyone I talked to seemed to think it was good idea. Easier to sell their vegetables and pick up the things they needed in a town, which was now a few days walk to get there.
I happened upon a well cared for house and there was man sitting outside. To my surprise he spoke near perfect English, having been educated in Kathmandu. He invited us in for tea and we spoke at some length about Zanskar and the coming road.
"Yes," he admitted, "almost everyone is for it. You can't blame them really. They have so little and this will probably bring in some very needed cash so they can buy a few things.
"I understand, but do they realize all the changes the road brings might now be good."
"Yes, I think they understand that there will be some bad things, but they are simple people and the economic benefit to them is more important.
" But their whole way of life will change. In time there will be ugly concrete buildings here, and cars and trucks. "
"That's true, but it will take a while, and then their children won't even remember what life was like before the road."
I knew what he meant, but to my western eyes this seemed like a tragedy. But who was I to talk. I had everything I needed and came here to get away from all that materialism. As Pico Iyer points out, people in the west, come east to find peace and spiritual enlightenment, whereas what most easterners want
are some of our material goods.
"So what is your opinion,?" I asked my host, Tenzin.
He smiled in an enigmatic way. "I can see both sides, but you see I am one of the few people here with an education and I don't even live here most of the time. I just come back to visit my family for a few weeks in the summer. The rest of the time I live and work in the city so I don't have to live like a villager. And it is beautiful and unspoiled here, but very poor. Life is very difficult, especially in winter when the villages are cut off, and the only way in and out is to walk on the frozen river. Not long ago we had absolutely no electricity, but now, as you can see, we have these little solar collectors so some houses have one or two lightbulbs. Even that is a big improvement, but there is still no heat. If the road can make people's lives easier, who are we to say no, that it is a mistake. "
You"re right," but then I thought, that progress does not benefit all equally. Probably some will profit far more than others and most will stay poor. How self righteous of me. I was certainly not willing to give up many of my own creature comforts and live the way these people do. And yet I didn't want the place to change. To become corrupted. I wanted places like this to continue to exist and they were disappearing all over the world. How much more impoverished all of us would be without them. I wanted my own children to be able to see them unspoiled. I thought about the isolated places I had seen in South America 35 years ago, and how much they had changed when I went back eight years ago. They had become more homogenized somehow. That would happen here too. Roads would bring TV and the internet, Hollywood, Bollywood, etc. and even Mickie D's. Well probably not here. Too small a population base.
It was as if Tenzin could tell what I was thinking. We sat in silence for a few minutes drinking our tea, sitting on cushions on the floor. I looked at the Thangka paintings on the thick walls and the beatific face of the Dalai Lama.
"Some things will be lost," he said after a while. "But that is the way. Nothing stays the same. Everything changes."
Yeah, yeah, I thought to myself. Changes alright, usually for the worse when it comes to development. Don't give me that Buddhist shit, though I sometimes thought of myself as having Buddhist learnings. I always had trouble with the notion of giving up all desire (fat chance) and non attachment. That seems too much like death, but I guess to a true Buddhist, death is just a transition to another life, or better still, a step on the way to nirvana, beyond life, beyond death. I guess I'm just a scientific positivist at heart. Death is just death to me. An absence of everything. Nothingness. Emptiness. I remembered studying the stages of emptiness in one of my Shambhala classes. Impermanence though, that's hard to argue with.
"Everything certainly does change, but knowing that doesn't always make it easy to accept," I said, thinking now of my own bodily aches and pains as well as the lovely villages of Zanskar.
This time he nodded. "What choice do we have? It's how or whether we want to suffer. Do you know what the Buddha said about suffering?"
I nodded again. As it happened I did know. What was this, the land of nod? Were we both in some kind of trance? It was beginning to feel like that when Tashi 2 breezed in. He had been outside smoking a bidi.
"Time to move, Jon. We have two hours before we get to camping place."
That certainly ended the trance in a hurry. We said our goodbye's, a little sadly on my part, and set off.
When we got to the road head after another few days of walking, they were blasting through the rocky terrain. This was rough country and It was easy to see why it had taken so long to get even this far. We walked along for several miles until we got to Padum. Here our horseman took his leave and we checked into a funky guest house. We needed to pick up more supplies and were hoping we could reach Tashi 1 to find out where and when he would meet us. There was however no answer on his cell when we tried to contact him.
Padum is a dusty ramshackle place and it seemed as though most of the shops were largely empty of food and supplies. A number of routes were apparently closed coming from other larger towns because of a dispute between Moslems and Hindus. There had been some rioting and demonstrations, hence the road closures. Padum is the town where Ladakh starts to become more Moslem and less Buddhist as it is closer to the border with Kashmir. We picked up what food and we could, which was also limited by Tashi 2's lack of cash and then got a ride about ten miles out of town. Here we had to pay for the privilege of camping, but it was a beautiful spot amidst green fields, some full of vegetables tended to by village women. Rock walls surrounded and dissected the fields. The main Himalaya range spread out before us, glaciated and snow covered. Horses could not make it over the next part of the trek because of the snow and ice, so there was no choice but to wait for Tashi to arrive from his village with porters who would help to carry our things. He had said that he would meet us in there if he hadn't caught up with us earlier.
The weather remained fair and I spent the time taking distant photos of the locals, reading, and just hanging, but after three full days and no word from Tashi, I began to get frustrated and tired of waiting. Who knows when, or even if he would show. Maybe all of the roads were blocked and he couldn't get to the mounains to cross them? I told all of this to Tashi 2, who could make no promises. In addition our food stash was starting to run low, and that was starting to present a problem. Finally I decided I would leave the next day and try to get a ride to Kargil and then back to Leh. Kargil was a good days drive away on a back route. In the morning, Tashi 2 and I walked down to the road where I hoped to flag down a car. Luckily, I had held onto $50 US in cash and could use some of that to pay someone to take me.
It was a long wait. There was almost no traffic on the road. In early afternoon an SUV came along that was going in the wrong direction, but they stopped and agreed to take me back with them, for about $30 US, a ridiculous price, but what choice did I have. They said they would be back in an hour or two, but it was close to 5 before they returned. It turns out that two of them were some kind of elections officials in Kargil and the reason why there was even less traffic than usual was because the road was actually closed. Apparently this was the policy on the day before and the day of the election to prevent fraudulent results.
The dirt track was not in good shape, rutted and narrow, but we didn't have to worry about traffic. No gasoline trucks here. They wouldn't have made it. The views were stupendous of the high Himalaya, much wetter than the other mountains of Ladakh. After a few hours it was dark. One of the officials, a fat man with a big mustache asked me about my background. When I told him I was American, he asked if I was Christian. Without really thinking I answered, no, Jewish, even though I am about as secular as can be. Oh, he said, that's interesting, I thought everyone is Christian in your country. Most are, I added, and then asked if he was Buddhist?
"No, we are all Muslims here. Kargil has some Buddhists, but it is more Moslem."
We sat in silence and I wondered if it had been a mistake to tell him I was Jewish. Who knows what he might think. We continued on further and deeper into the mountains. There were no lights and no towns. Finally we arrived in a small settlement. We would stop here to have a bite to eat, but I could see no restaurants and the town was completely dark, no one about. We drove through a few muddy alleys and got to a mud hut.
"This is the place," the fat man said.
A man with skullcap and flashlight came out. "Asalaam Alaykum, he said to all of us.
Without thinking I answering, "Shalom Aleichem." Then I realized that was really stupid. Why not advertise my Jewishness? I ducked down to get into the small door and we all sat down on the dirt floor while they cooked up some Ramen noodles. Meanwhile, I started to get really paranoid. What if they were actually extremists and were going to kidnap me, here in the middle of nowhere. No one would ever find me. Who even knew where I was? Only Tashi knew I was on my way to Kargil, and he wouldn't know that anything happened. Wouldn't even suspect it. It wasn't long before the noodles were ready, but it seemed to take forever in my present state. I said to the fat man that I didn't have any rupies, which was true.
"Not to worry," he said. "Eat, eat my friend. We still have several hours to drive."
He seemed friendly enough, but what if they wanted to put me at ease before leaving me? I slurped down my food, thankful to be putting something in my stomach after so many hours.
The owner, or whoever he was smiled at me and said something to the fat man in Urdu. At least I think it was Urdu.
"He wants to know if you want more."
And then I started to relax. They wouldn't act this nice if they were about to kidnap me. Probably, no one noticed that I said Shalom Aleichem. How ridiculous that I was so suspicious.
Soon it was time to leave.
"Alaykum Salam," most said. I mumbled, "Salam."
We didn't arrive in Kargil until three in the morning. It was a real town, with some, at least a few, streetlights. They dropped me off at a dumpy looking hotel, but not before waking up the kid in "reception" to get him to take me to a room. It was the worst, dirty sheets, streaked, cracked windows, but I was in no mood to shop around after a ten hour bone jolting ride. I got my pack out of the car and took out my sleeping bag.
It wasn't until the next morning that I realized that I was missing my fleece and my rain jacket. Had someone taken them, or had I just left them in the car? Hard to know, but they were gone. I still had most of my things and should be thankful. No kidnapping, and I arrived in Kargil in one piece. The first thing I did after breakfast was to hunt around for a decent place to stay because I knew there was no way I was going to get out of town today. After walking around a bit, I found one, more expensive than it should be, especially on my very limited funds. Many shops were closed due to the elections, but there were some restaurants and food stalls that stayed open. Unlike in Padum there didn't seem to be any shortages. There was a phone in town and I managed to contact the hotel in Leh where Nanette was staying. Call back in a few hours, she's out the desk clerk said. I wandered some more. This was the most civilization I had seen for a few weeks. There were mosques, and it seemed only men walking around or drinking tea in the stalls. Very different from Leh which was about the same size.
I did manage to contact Nanette later that day, and naturally she was surprised to hear from me. It's a good thing I reached her as she was about to take off for Dharamsala for a week or two. We discussed various options, and because I had already been to Dharamsala, she would wait in Leh, and when I got there we'd both go to Rishikesh, a place neither of us a had visited.
Next morning, I went down to the bus station. Still no buses because of the election, but there were some cars that would make the five hour journey. I didn't have enough money to hire the car by myself, but after hanging out a few hours a couple of other people showed up who wanted to make the trip. They would go now if I was willing to pay for three people since usually they waited for a full car. Otherwise it was possible they wouldn't even make the trip today. I counted what money I had left. Just enough.