The Tricolour flew proudly atop the highest road in the world: beyond, lay India's own lands of Central Asia.
Out of the green, watered, plains of Leh we had climbed with our friend Urgain Lundoop The last time we had driven into Leh,Urgain had wanted us to continue over the hump of the Himalayas and into his valley on the far side. But early snows had balked our trip. Now. however, with blue skies over the capital of Ladakh we climbed into a 4x4 with our driver Angchuk. As a person who left nothing to chance,Anchuk always had a small booklet, printed in Ladakhi, propped upright above the dashboard. Clearly he was enhancing his skills by invoking the guidance of invisible powers: we were protected.
At 1215 pm we left our vine-hung Yak Tail hotel in Leh. At 1304 we saw tiny white pellets speckling the windscreen: it had begun to snow We passed a place called South Pullu - 15,300 ft and there were snowfields on the slopes. Icicles hung in crystal pendants on dark rocks and the wind had piled and sculpted the snow into bizarre creatures: manmamoths and hawk- women and bug-eyed goblins with tails wrapped around their heads. Then, groaning, churning and sliding through the thick slush of the road,we reached Khardung La.
It was all very festive and alive. Strings of prayer flags fluttered above the snow-cove red hillsides. A sign on a red board proclaimed.
Khardung La, 18300 ft. The Highest Motorable Road in the World
We did not feel the effects of either the altitude or the cold: it fact it was rather bracing like the early touch of autumn in our Himalayan home and we had very welcome hot cups of coffee in the canteen. Then we started on our way down the back of the Himalayas facing the great, cold, plains of Tibet and Central Asia.
Along this branch of the Silk Road had come plodding caravans of double humped Bactrian camels. As a boy, Urgain and his family had trudged up this frosty road carrying thick rotis, hard on the outside, soft inside. They had munched the charcoal-baked bread with lassi, mint chutney tsampa cake made of roasted barley, and churned butter tea as thick and salty as soup.
On the steep, frigid hillsides, where the wind had scoured away the snow, a black shaggy yak grazed on sparse grass. Its calf, with brown patches on its back, sought sustenance from between the rocks strewn across the slope. We turned a corner and there, far below, was the Shyok River: braided ice-blue streams flowing across a platinum-grey bed with the cold neon-flare of the sun glaring behind the distant hills. If ever there was a setting for fearsome bearded trolls and crag-haunting hobgoblins, this was it. To add to the eerie atmosphere, Lundoop told us the tale of a monastery that had once held an evil goat- footed monster-monk who devoured little children, The distressed villagers revolted and burnt him alive in his ill reputed sanctuary It now stands as an abandoned and blackened ruin atop a lonely cliff, cursed and shunned by every human.
It became a shade warmer when we reached a village ... willows bent in the breeze, a patchwork quilt of barley fields and vegetable gardens spread, flat-roofed houses staggered up the hillside. We spoke to bright- eyed schoolgirls and learnt that the medium of instruction in their village school was English with Urdu as the second language.
From the village we wound down to the die-straight road arrowing through the broad sandy bed of the Shyok river .. the stream, at this time of the year, apparently, flowed through another tributary. Parts of the bed were covered with thick stretches of seabuck thorn from which people plucked the nutritious Leh Berry to be processed into an excellent fruit juice.
We stopped on the sandy bed, and looked back. There, beyond the green fields of a village, and the cold quicksilver glint of the river, rose the bluing backs of the Himalayas. We were now standing in the submontane slopes leading up to the awesome black range of the Karakorums.
This was a legendary; almost mythical- magical, land and we felt a frisson of excitement ripple over us.
A little later we dove into Urgain's village of Tegar. The Yab Tso Hotel was a charming little double-storey building in the Ladakhi style with red plastic chairs and a colourful garden umbrella on the lawn, Our first-floor room had two ears of harvested grain hanging as a talisman, spreading the aura of the benign spirits of the field. In the stillness and peace, the whisper of the distant river could have been the sibilance of invisible guardians hovering over us. It was a strange but oddly reassuring thought in this gently alien place.
We slept very soundly at 10.000 ft and were woken by birdsong and the sun glistening on snow-capped peaks framed in poplar trees. A woman worked on the hotel's vegetable patch followed by a long-tailed magpie hunting briskly for his breakfast. Our breakfast could not have been better: oven-fresh Ladakhi nans with honey and butter, corn-flakes and sweet, hot, milky coffee, We were now fortified and ready to face a Nubra day
A sign outside our hotel assured us that we were on the Silk Road caravan trail. Before the high frontiers were closed in 1962, Trans-Himalayan traders would come plodding in, leading their Bactrian camels. We saw one of these double-humped furry animals in a yard: its ancestors could have galumphed down from the Chang-thang highlands. When the caravanners passed a spot that they felt was ill-omened, they threw a stone at it and these, in time, grew into chortens.
We passed one of these in its own, stone-walled, enclosure. It sat on a boulder platform and was roughly stupa shaped and crowned by a green bush. It was a Lhato: a spirit who, occasionally, possesses one of his devotees and turns them into oracles. But if you don't respect it, it's likely to turn on you. Belief in such unseen beings is fairly common in wilderness all over the world: a natural human response to the implacable forces of nature. In more urbanized communities, politicians play a more visible though similar role!
Stupas also enshrine the relics of revered persons and thus protect wayfarers and natural resources. Not far from the hot spring of Panamik, four stupas, painted white, yellow, white and blue, stood. They could have offered a reassurance to weary travellers along the Silk Road, or they could have been guardians of the thermal water bubbling out of the ground, offering a relaxing warm bath to people trudging down the caravan trail. Some of the water has now been fed into the PWD rest-house, the rest flows down a rill, staining it yellow though, strangely the mineral content in it does not have a sulphurous smell. It probably did, however; have an obnoxious taste. When we returned to the road, after touching the water in the yellow brooklet, a dense herd of long-haired goats with great, curving horns, and a few sheep, flowed past us. The soft pashmina wool, known as the expensive cashmere in the west, comes from the warm under-hair of these high-altitude goats so this herd was, in effect, a fortune in fabric-on-the-hoof!
There were about 200 animals being herded by Rinchen, one of a group of cooperating herdsmen who take it in turns to graze their combined flocks. We noticed that a few of the lambs and kids scampered down to the rill and tasted the water and then jumped back shaking their heads in disgust. Rinchen said," This is the first time they have come on this road. They will remember not to touch Panamik water again!" Obviously this is still a region where the seething fires of the earth have an effect on the surface: in fact, the great Himalayas are still rising at the rate at which a human fingernail grows, powered by internal pressures.
At the edge of a broad, green, soggy, plain a large outcrop of black, probably granite, rocks rose. Granite is a hard, crystalline, igneous rock formed in the deep furnaces of the earth. In the centre of this, was a pond called Lowan Tso, the Lake in a Rock, and, in all likelihood, it was filled with sweet water. But though we saw cattle grazing on the grassy, wet-Iand, PuI Thang, plain that led up to this riverside outcrop, we did not see them drinking any water from the small steam that flowed through it. We then noticed that the meadow was dusted with a white, crystalline, powder. Urgain hurried down and returned with some of this substance. He said that they add it to their tea to give it colour and that, for years, his fat her had collected it for the government. They call it 'soda' so it could be a compound of sodium, blossoming like tiny mineral flowers on the surface of the bog.
Though dromedary caravans no longer plod in from Central Asia, the old Silk Road is still, very much, in use. A grandmother, mother and little son waited at the side of the road for a bus, the style of their garments showing the swift passage of history, and convention. Boulders carrying the beautifully chiselled mantra Om Mane Padme Hum reminded passers-by of their ancient eclectic faith. It had been brought to Kashmir and Lakakh by the greatly revered Indian Buddhist missionary Padmasambhava. Here it had merged with the spirit worshiping Bon faith to evolve into present-day Tibetan Buddhism.
In the Sanstaling Monastery, Bihari and Nepalese workers were renovating the façade. The room where the Dalai Lama had once stayed, and the hall in which he had given a discourse, had been preserved unchanged. A stupa enshrined the ashes of a former reincarnated abbot, and a gilded and painted altar held an image of The Buddha Who is to Come as well as that of "A teacher who came from far away" as our young monk-guide described him: probably Guru Padmasambhava.
When we stepped out of the monastery, a breeze from the valley brought the musky, overpowering, scent of the wild roses they call skangba. We broke off a tiny piece of it and saw a smiling woman looking at us. "We want to take it home to Mussoorie and plant it so that, in time, it will perfume our cottage in the Himalayas" we said self-consciously. Still smiling, she shook her head "My daughter, she lives in Mussoorie, She has also tried; many times". Then she said something that encapsulated the hazards and rewards of our trip beautifully
"If you want to breathe the perfume of Nubra" she said, softly, "then you must come to Nubra