I am kind of sad to leave the wonderful landscape that surrounds the Ladakhi town of Lamayuru. I have stayed here for two nights. It’s time to move. There is a low road passing through town but there is no guarantee that buses from Leh bound for Kargil will come this way. I walk up to the high road on the slopes above town. I wait at the intersection where the two roads join. This is really the safest option. Doesn’t which route the bus takes, it will have to pass by this junction.
Because there is no telling how long the bus will be delayed or even be certain about the scheduled time, I arrive at the junction at 8 am. I wait for an hour. There is no sign of any bus. A convoy of army trucks heads my way. They are on their way to Leh. The leading truck stops at the junction.
‘Do you know if the road is open?’ asks the army jawan who is doing the driving. He points to the low road cutting through Lamayuru town.
‘I don’t really know. Looks like it is closed because I haven’t seen any vehicles coming up from there.’
So the man decides to stick to the high road, a treacherous road with many hairpin bends The entire convoy follows on the high road. A little later I see vehicles coming up from the low road. In this manner, I have unintentionally misguided an entire convoy of about 30 army trucks.
A little later a bus arrives from Kargil. It is on its way to Leh. I have no wish to return to Leh. I want to make a visit to Kargil and see if I can get to Srinagar. I wait for one more hour. Finally at quarter past ten a bus arrives. It is a private bus. All seats are taken up. I have to settle with standing my way through.
‘Two hundred rupees,’ says the bus conductor.
‘That’s too much,’ I complain. ‘Kargil is only 100 kms from here.’
We get into an argument. I refuse to pay him more than Rs. 150. I don’t care what happens next. I get off the bus. The bus pulls away groaning under the weight of its load. The road climbs uphill, turns and disappears behind mountain slopes. I am left with this solitary road, miles away from any village and surrounded by mountains isolated in each other’s company.
I find a flood path coming down on the slopes to my right. Over years, melting ice and snow and rainfalls have made this path. I take to this path not really knowing where I am headed. I see a road high above. This could be a shortcut to that road. I climb and climb. I never reach that road. It seems to have disappeared. I climb for twenty minutes, enjoying the views all around me. Finally I leave this path to come out on shrub covered slopes. I see the road now. It is far below.
I dump my backpack on the slopes and unpack my sweater. It is chilly even though the sun is out. I leave my backpack on the slopes and climb to the ridge. This is now the highest point on this mountain range. I can see 360 degrees around me. The landscape is stunning. I am mesmerized by scale of things and the little details they show or hide – shapes, forms, textures, colours, lines and curves. The colours alone are stunning – biege, yellow, purple, black, white, green.
On the other side, the steep downslope reveals a clear switchback. I am relieved. I return to retrieve my backpack, climb up to the ridge again and take to the switchbacks. I reach a small temple dedicated to Shiva. The road runs next to it. A painted board announces the landmark:
HT – 13479 FT
HIGHEST POINT THE
I wait by the road hoping for a ride to Kargil. Five unsuccessful attempts later I begin to give up all hope. I can see mountains stretching to the east all the way to Lamayuru. The settlement of Lamayuru is a visible patch in the far distance. If I don’t get transport, I should walk towards Lamayuru and spend one more night there.
Fotula Top is a chilly place. I bring out my gloves and my woollen cap. Buddhist prayer flags flutter in the wind. I unpack some biscuits and snack on them. A jeep passes by. I lazily put out my hand, not expecting him to offer a ride. Miracles do happen. He stops. I hop in and we are on our way towards Kargil.
‘I can drop you at Wakha,’ the man says. ‘You can get transport there to get to Kargil.’
‘What do you do?’ I ask him.
‘I am a contractor for BRO. Many of the roads in these parts are built by me,’ he replies. It appears that the Border Roads Organization contracts work to private construction firms.
‘How long has this road been here?’
‘During the Indo-China war back in 1961, this road was constructed. Before that we had to make a foot journey of 15 days to get to Kargil.’
We stop at some place on the way. The man meets some government officials and pampers them with a box of fresh and ripe apricots. He gives me a couple to taste. The apricots are ripe and juicy, better than the ones I had tasted at Alchi.
‘These are from Khaltse. They ripen earlier than the ones at Leh,’ explains the contractor as we continue on our journey.
Soon we pass by a place named Namkala. Nam is Ladakhi means sky and kala means pillar. In a landscape of undulating hills dotted with shrubs and gravel, a rocky outcrop stands boldly against the sky. This pillar of rock is quite unmistakable even from a distance. It’s rocky texture and precipitous rise is in contrast to the smooth slopes of the hill on which it sits. It is a famous landmark of the region.
I am dropped off at Wakha where I stop at a restaurant for lunch. The woman has nothing other than Maggi noodles. After finishing the bowl, I walk 2.5 kms to the next village, Mulbekh. Mountains are everywhere in Ladakh. One cannot escape their presence. Village scenes complement them. Some women are working in the fields. Others are transporting today’s harvest and wheeling them away on barrows. I taste some fresh peas of the region. I arrive at a place named Chamba.
‘This used to be called Aryamitti in Pali,’ explains the Buddhist monk at the temple here. The fame of this temple is a 60-feet stone sculpture chiselled on the face of a tall rock surface. It is an ancient piece of Indian art from the Kushan Period of the 1st century BC. It depicts the future Buddha, Maitreya. I am little surprised by the date. Could this be one of the earliest depictions of the Buddha in a human form?
Within the temple, the walls are painted beautifully. On some hang old thangkas. The priest is busy working colourful threads. He is interweaving them into beautiful broaches or lucky charms of some sort. A man walks in a little later with a complaint of cough and headache. The monk prescribes some medicine and hands out the powder.
At the restaurant facing the temple is a large group of foreign tourists having a late lunch. I stand around waiting for any ride to Kargil but nothing seems to be heading that way. I keep myself busy by turning the large prayer wheel outside the temple. Every turn is a blessing of some sort for the well-being of all sentient beings of the world. I don’t know if I believe in it but the act of turning the wheel becomes meditative after a while. I turn the wheel for a good twenty minutes. I return to the road and wait. Patience finally pays off. I get a ride to Kargil.