Long And Winding Road To The Land Of The Mountain Mantra
16 January 2005
London: It takes a week to reach, and the altitude makes you sick when you arrive, but Ladakh proves a slice of Himalayan heaven to Carol McDaid. Ladakh seems mythically remote to me. One horizon away from Shangri-La. Where northernmost India rises from the Indus and at 3,500 metres collides with Pakistan and China in a heavily fortified nirvana. Only 100,000 people live in Ladakh and between November and May, when the temperature drops to as low as minus 20, they are snowed in. Buddhism thrives in the thin air. You can fly year-round from Delhi to Leh, Ladakh's capital, in an hour. On arrival the advice is to lie down for a day, until your body catches up with the altitude; rush out like Julie Andrews and you risk ending up in hospital strapped to an oxygen tank. Or in the summer, when the road is open, you can cling to the notion that some places really are remote; acclimatise slowly and go overground. The excellent Wild Frontiers do a 16-day Ladakh trip, half of which is spent en route. Two days in riveting Delhi - it's 43 degrees and someone is carrying a neatly wrapped corpse down the dual carriageway - then we leave it all behind on the night train north to Kalka. There are nine of us: a retired colonel and eight women, including a first secretary at the foreign office, a Glasgow social worker and an army commander - all that's missing is a camera crew - plus our two Bond-like guides: writer and Wild Frontiers founder Jonny Bealby, and Johnny Patterson, approached on this trip by at least one prospective father-in-law. In a few days' time we'll be trekking at altitude and dropping like flies. For now, we cross platforms at dawn to the waiting Himalayan Queen (narrow-gauge, 1903, flowery curtains) which climbs from Kalka to Shimla all morning, quite close to the edge of plunging green ridges as Bollywood favourites swirl from the PA. Fresh pakoras are served with a smile by a train guard several of us capture on film. Once the finest hill station of the Raj, Shimla is half-timbered, half-palatial, and it's raining. The Gaiety Theatre smells musty, the Anglican church is locked. Open are shops full of umbrellas and whisky: Bagpiper, Ambassador, Honey Bee. There's thunder and lightning over the Himalayas and a street fight over a girl up on the esplanade; monkeys everywhere, working the rooftops. I'm quite glad to leave, by queasy local bus along the Kullu valley to Manali, where they're boxing up apples by a tumbling river of ice melt. In the forest we're offered photo opportunities with white angora rabbits the size of toddlers. In the old town, quiet stonewalled lanes climb past ornate wooden balconies with a bony cow beneath. Women spit on their way back from the water pump, a little girl plays with a hoop and stick. Wherever you look, cannabis grows wild. We, though, are on the move, in a small convoy of jeeps north to Leh. From May to September there's a mad dash into and out of Ladakh before winter closes in again. The traffic is mostly fuel trucks, billowing noxious fumes with the gods on their side - painted on: gaudy Shivas, and birds and more individual touches: 'Oh God, Save Me' over a wheel arch; a tailgate with glossy red lips framed by a giant skewered heart. 'A state ment,' speculates Johnny P, 'about where lust will lead you.' The only road to Leh is a feat of engineering characterised by blind bends, vertiginous drops and a pun at every turn courtesy of someone somewhere at the Border Road Organisation's sign department: 'Be easy on my curves'; 'Divorce speed'; 'Darling I want you, but not so fast'. Heedless, truckers do this perilous journey in as little as 16 hours. It takes us three days. Day one: alpine valleys, a glinting whiplash of river and Lata Mangeshkar, the nightingale of India, on vocals. Mid-morning, a convivial mudslide to walk through. Roadworkers even now are trying to hold things together. Bent over acrid boiling tar, men from Bihar, the poorest of India's poor, hundreds of miles from home, where their wages are sent. The famously stunning Rohtang Pass (3,980m) is lost in mist. Instead, it's the apparition of miserable ponies roped together, eyes half-closed, carrying hunched Indian tourists into the tail-end of the rainy season, that is indelible. People from Calcutta (Kolkata) and Bombay (Mumbai), says Yassin, our local guide. They come to touch the snow, unable to imagine what it feels like. We eat delicious dhal in a roadside shack with its own complaints box. There are, explains Yassin, 32 types of lentil. That night, the first symptoms of high altitude: breathlessness, even after a few stairs, and thirst. Day two: sun. We're high and dry. Rock, in this wind-blown terrain, is not solid at all, it is worn down to scree; marbled bath-salt slopes that cloud shadow glides across. Nothing else for miles but the occasional chai stall under an old army parachute. The colonel gets talking regiments with some magnificent Sikh soldiers who seem more fascinated by our 6ft blonde literary editor. Several people later cite Sarchu, a campsite on a high, lonesome plateau (4,100m), as a low point. I love it here: the clear light; the circular tents - one each - like Agincourt before battle; the emptiness. Sheep eat quivering, spiky grass; four men play cricket by the road; guy ropes hum. A few of us go for a little walk, then have to turn back and lie down. When the sun drops it is bitterly cold. We huddle inside the mess tent with splitting headaches. As always the food is great - chefs travel with us - and for afters, Jonny B dishes out the drugs ('Nytol, Karen?' 'Ooh, yes please.'). But the commander is sick into the early hours, the art conservator can't sleep because of spiders and the charity worker can't breathe, and is driven at first light to Leh, where a panic attack is diagnosed. Day three: the Tanglang La (5,300m), highest pass of them all. Nothing between us and the majestic Himalayas now apart from 50 empty oil barrels all in a row and, pointing to the horizon, an arrow marked 'urinal'. Late afternoon, a glowing pink ravine; past some inspired new signs - 'Don't gossip, let him drive' - then the road veers left into a wide, sunlit valley. Golden fields of barley. Strange two-storey houses with flat roofs, a jaunty fringe of hay on each - fuel for the winter - and a cheerful string of prayer flags. Children wave. Everyone appears to be beautiful - Tibetan features, brown skin, rosy cheeks - and everyone is smiling. This is Ladakh. Viewed from its gratifyingly dangerous hilltop palace ruins, Leh looks medieval. Downtown, it's all systems go: honking 4x4s, tourists and the army in equal numbers; internet cafes, veggie guesthouses, a women's co-operative. 'You feel you could be alone here forever and courteously welcomed and not hassled,' says the only practising Buddhist in the group, a retired teacher, for whom this day has been a long time coming. Our Ladakhi guide - we still have the others, too; I stopped thinking for myself days ago - is Punchok Sonam. He's about 40, a father of five (his eldest daughter is studying medicine); small, gentle, concerned, patient, softly-spoken, doesn't know who David Beckham is. He laughs easily and always notices if someone goes missing in a monastery. Punchok takes us around several - dark, ghee -lit palaces of sandalwood and dust, harbouring fragile Tibetan treasures. Except for the room where 'no bags, cameras or women' are allowed, all visitors are more or less free to wander, while monastic life goes on around them. Little shaven heads gathered around newly marked homework. Bright red cloth jammed in an abandoned sewing machine. Adolescent monks alone, or in twos, gazing into valleys, hearing the camera shutters. You can overdo monasteries. I want to get out and smell the hedgerows. Hear nothing but birds, the odd scythe. Our long and winding journey to Ladakh has only sharpened my anticipation of finding a timeless rural idyll on our three-day trek along parts of the old trade route between Kashmir and Tibet. 'Match your footsteps to your breathing,' Johnny P is saying. This is the rule for walking at altitude. My breathing is quite rapid, though, so I'm taking small steps, like someone convalescing. Jonny B is striding ahead. Johnny P is strolling. Most people are somewhere in between. This is one of the loveliest places I've ever had a nosebleed. Van Gogh-yellow fields, valleys of poplar, rippling grey hills. Butterflies, yaks, thistles, and clear water trickling in grassy streams. Workers sing as they thresh. On stone walls everywhere, carved with amazing skill and care and just left there for the breeze to carry away, the words ' Om mani padme hum ' over and over again. Punchok has brought his horse along, in case anyone gets tired, and hugs each of us individually every time we make it to the top of a steep pass. Inevitable prayer flags add to the festivities, and up here the social worker will always sit down quietly and have a cigarette. That first night, we all camp by a river under a full moon. After this, the group unravels slightly through a combination of sickness, fatigue and an infected Foreign Office finger. Only some of us make it to Rizong monastery's extraordinary kitchen, lit by a single shaft of light from above. Then down through a valley of wild rhubarb to Hemis Shukpachan, where half the village are happily walking around under their own weight in hay, and Punchok's simple, perfect house looks out to the mountains. He shows us inside his prayer room and serves tea in china cups - his wife isn't home - before his mother rushes in from collecting wood. After this, to Timisgam, where apricots fall out of the sky. 'Punchok means wealthy,' explained Punchok when we first met him, 'but I am not.' I think he knows otherwise, he's just far too polite to say so. Factfile Carol McDaid travelled with Wild Frontiers (020 7376 3968) on its 16-day Ladakh Lamyuru Trek (the next one is 19 August, £1,950; price includes full-board accommodation, guiding and transport). She flew with British Airways (0870 850 9850), which has flights to Delhi from £550 return. Wild Frontiers has two other Ladakh treks: the Marka Valley (14 days, 3 June, £1,850) and Zanskar (14 days, 6 July, £1,795).