I wait for more than an hour at Jispa in a light rain. I stand by the road bundled in woollens. Dark mountains are playing with clouds catching the first light. As the light fills the valley in slow touches, snowy slopes brighten and put off the sombre mood of the mountains. The bus finally arrives. Normally people book their seats a day earlier for this long ride but booking can only be done over the counter at Keylong. I am prepared to stand my way to Leh but I am in luck. There are some seats left at the back.
Darcha is perhaps only 6 kms from Jispa but it takes us two hours to reach it. I am wondering if we will ever reach Leh tonight. To my right is a monk who is busy reading some Buddhist scriptures. He does not waste anytime looking at the views. I guess he has seen them all before.
There are many foreigners in the bus. They are required to get off the bus at Darcha and show their passports at the police post. Behind me is a Spanish guy, Alberto. In the seat front of me is a French couple. They are quite excited about visiting Leh. In particular, they have seen a documentary about some nomadic tribes in the Nubra Valley and they are keen to pay them a visit. There are other tourists at the front of the bus. Among them is a funny old man, obviously French, who often gets up, makes funny gestures and faces before settling back into his seat. There is a rumour that he has been hallucinating since Keylong. He seems to think he is levitating.
At Darcha, a party of trekkers board the bus. They take up the last few seats. Others squeeze into the long seat at the back. They bring in lots of luggage. One of them sits next to me. He is stinking. Clearly he has not washed himself for many days. His clothes are dusty. His face and palms are grubby.
‘Have you been trekking?’ I ask him.
‘Yes. We have just done a 20-day trek,’ he replies. I am amazed. I cannot imagining trekking for that long. I would probably get bored.
‘From where?’ I ask.
‘We started at Lamayuru and ended at Darcha,’ he explains. Basically it is the classic Padum to Darcha trek but it has been extended to a longer trek by starting at Lamayuru, a place that has its own share of stunning mountains and unique landscapes.
‘Don’t you get bored on such a long trek?’
The guy shrugs, ‘We do it for the money.’ Actually he is a guide. His trek party consisted of 3 guides, 5 foreign tourists and 4 horses. Such treks are common in Ladakh. There is no business in winter. Trekking season runs from May through September. In season, it is common for these guys to take just a few days break and push of for yet another long trek. They are hardy people.
‘How much do you get?’
‘Booking is done through an agency,’ he says. He doesn’t want to give me any numbers.
The road is bad at times. Once the driver negotiates a narrow road clinging to a steep precipice. Oncoming traffic forces him to backtrack a good distance. Only one vehicle at a time, or you can find yourself scattered among the rocks at the bottom of this gorge. The French couple are more scared than excited and hold their hearts in their mouths.
Baralacha La, ‘La’ being the Ladakhi term for a mountain pass, is the highest pass in Himachal Pradesh. Standing at 4890 meters above sea level it is a stunning place bound by snowy slopes and spectacular peaks. I believe this is where Himachal Pradesh stops and Ladakh begins. A little before reaching the pass, we are engulfed in fog. Through the shifting fog I spot a vulture perched on a rock. It is unperturbed by our sudden presence. Peering through the fog, it stands as if claiming to be the emperor of these mountains. A few paces from this vulture are dead sheep. Not even their thick woollen coats have helped them survive the deadly climate of Baralacha La. Wool torn from their ripped out coats cling desparately to the rocks. Pieces of red meat lie scattered. We move on quickly knowing that we don’t belong to this ghostly scene. We leave it to the emperor.
Soon after passing Baralacha La, we arrive at Sarchu. Vendors in this remote place are selling woollen caps and mufflers. I buy a packet of Good Day biscuits. There is a light rain and we move on.
The mountains here have a deep timeless silence though they were formed in anything but silence. The more I look at them the more secretive they get. The initial beauty and grandeur that they inspire are buried under shifting moods. Sometimes I think of their antiquity so far removed from our own times. Sometimes I think of nature’s raw power. The mountains stand quietly but underneath they are seething with fury.
In the foreground of these mountains are what are called loess formations. It is the most spectacular feature of the land. These are loose rocky features formed by years of erosion, particularly due to melting snow and ice. With the coming of each spring, the thawing of ice takes with it some of the loose soil. For a few kilometers these formations stay with us. The flat foothills of the mountains suddenly fall sharply to the river by these loess formations.
At Pang, another seasonal settlement on the tourist route just like Sarchu, I have a half plate lunch of rice and daal for Rs. 30. A full plate cost Rs. 50. A woman serves me a glass of hot water, a welcome drink in this cold place. What will I do without these roadside vendors? If my tour across India is so far a success, I owe it to them. A few guys who are on a jeep bearing the words ‘Self-Drive Expedition’ catch up with us at Pang and stop briefly for a late lunch.
After Pang, we keep climbing up and pass a few cyclists struggling uphill in the rain. The track is muddy and they are making slow progress.
‘Crazy,’ says the Ladakhi guide sitting beside me shaking his head. The French couple in front nod in polite agreement. I think he has no right to say that. Each one to his passion. If normal people can trek for 20 days continously, there is nothing crazy about cycling up a mountain.
‘Ki ki so so largalo. Ki ki so so largalo. Ki ki so so largalo.’
This shout suddenly fills the bus. It comes from the Ladakhi guides. They explain that we have just passed the highest point on this route. Their shout is some sort of a celebration and thanksgiving. From here it is a descent all the way to Leh. Indeed, a good part of the route is featureless and flat. Even the mountains seem to be at a distance. In the rolling mist, they seem to have disappeared. The lights of Leh flicker in the distance. It is late when we arrive into Ladakh’s capital city. It has been quite a ride and I am glad to have reached Leh for a good night’s rest. Thankfully, there is a lodge at the bus station, a basic affair that will suffice for the night. I think I will dream only of mountains tonight. Frankly, a whole with mountains has been quite a overloading sensory experience for the eyes. I am not sure if I want to see any more mountains in the coming days.