There’s really no way around it, road tripping in India is tough going. Even when you learn how to navigate around the wayward livestock and doe-eyed cows peering through the car windows at the traffic lights, the roads with their sinking potholes and rubble surfaces take some getting used to. In Ladakh, they are so treacherous that when we arrived back in Delhi, even the cobbled backstreets felt serene. If bad roads aren’t enough, there’s the issue of roadside toilets. I learnt in India many years ago that the ability to hold your nose and squat on an Indian loo (euphemism for hole in the ground) was priceless when driving cross country. And that remembering to carry a roll of loo paper in your backpack was just about the best advice I’d ever been given. Well, we spent a week travelling in and around Leh and the ability to muck in and keep smiling was never needed more.
Travelling around Ladakh is not for princesses, but these times generally bring out the best sides of our humour. Being so high up, you can’t do much on your first day in Leh, except that, lay around. We felt dizzy walking around the hotel and after a shower laughed at our exhaustion levels. The trick to combat this is lots of water, but that and long road trips don’t work together so well. On our third day after driving for about 4 hours towards the 18,000-foot hike to the Khardongla Pass, we stopped for a roadside chai. Bursting to find the loos, we followed the sign to a one-metre high open tin shed perched precariously on the side of a dusty hill, only to find the hole in the ground also on a slant and we’d forgotten the loo paper.
We drove 20 hours over the next 2 days, so we had plenty of time to get the loo routine down pat. On some of the roads, the going was so rough that we asked our driver where he was actually driving, the roads had disappeared under melting snow and though we were right on the cliff edge, he’d still swerve close to the brink for fear that a random boulder might cascade off the mountain. He didn’t seem to think that there was more chance of that happening to us. We bounced around the car, holding on to every handle we could reach, almost jarring our heads against the windows. When the other gal heard my grimacing, she turned to the back seat where I was sitting. It had been 7 hours of being unglamorously hurled around the car and when she saw the “I’m done” look on my face, her response was splendid; I needed the reassurance that just around the bend it would get better, her empathy that even though I knew India well, there were times I’d choose to play the foreign “I’m not used to this” card…so she did the only thing possible, laughed her head off, a full throttle hilarious laugh and so I laughed too. In any case, we’d just passed a sign that said Leh 94 km. I was hopeful again, until 10 minutes later and the sign said 96…
As we kept driving we took every opportunity to take in all the local things to do, driving ATV’s across the world’s highest sand dunes (except my guide was more interested in getting my number so I could teach him English over Whatsapp), white water rafting down the Indus River and take a camel ride. We arrived at a fresh water stream where right on cue, the Bactrian camels sauntered along in anticipation for their rides. My gosh, we’ve never seen an uglier rabble of camels in our lives; their moulting winter fur looked like their coats were being randomly picked off by crows and those 2 proud humps? They flopped on either side and we laughed wondering how perky their humps needed to be to find each other attractive.
By the time we’d finish these long days, we were so zapped that we’d call it a night, even before the sun went down which strangely never seemed to happen. Every day we thought we’d watch the sun reflect off the mountains as it set against the Himalayas but by 8.30pm it was as glaring as midday and we couldn’t match its stamina. We were overwhelmed by the grandeur and magnificence of this beautiful part of the world, poetically still referred to as Indo-China. We’d click a dozen photos, only to feel that the beauty was just too big to fit in a single snapshot.
It might not be for the faint-hearted but it is certainly for everyone who appreciates Ladakh’s Buddhist culture, her cheerful people and the sheer grandeur of passing your days at the crest of the Himalayas. For us, every day was breathtaking. So with our eyes and minds full of grateful memories, we headed back to Delhi. And here’s why I say India is the gift that keeps on giving. Even knowing that we were departing Kashmir, we passed 7 security checks at the airport and were frisked 3 times. After all this, we were still required to search through luggage piled a story high and identify our bags. Like much of India it was crazy but somehow, despite everything, comes together beautifully in the end. So pack your loo paper, disconnect with the world for a bit, keep your humour close by and let your journey with beguiling India begin! Your view of the world will never be the same again.