How a two-day 258 miles bus ride through Kashmir served as my price of entry to Ladakh.
Each time he coughed, a fog of rancid death gripped my seat. From the vapors, I imagined blackened teeth and gray tongue and was reminded that the mouth is purportedly a much dirtier place than the anus.
As I turned an eye back behind me, I noted the culprit, a man sitting behind me wrapped in a pheran, scarf and other bits of South Asian alpine exotica apparel that appeared not to have been washed in their several decades of existence. I wondered where he’d come from, where he was going. And Why? What was his story?
Then, I smelled his breath again. And I wondered, “Why am I here?”
The Super Deluxe Bus
“It’s a difficult journey. You must have Super Deluxe,” the attendant urged. According to the signs behind the ticket desk at the Srinagar bus station in Kashmir, there were three distinct levels of service to Leh, the provincial capital of Ladakh: Super Deluxe, Deluxe and — by process of elimination yet not explicitly offered — Squalid. The Super Deluxe two-day journey cost 1050 rupees ($17) each. At a premium of only a few dollars, this seemed the wise option. In these parts, a little luxury and deluxe-ness can sometimes go a long way.
“It’s a very good bus.” Given that we were not only in India, the land of dubious bus journeys, but further still in Kashmir, the only word of his I trusted was “bus.” We had a ticket with a seat number and this alone constituted victory as we imagined what the scrum would look like the following morning as the bus doors were flung open.
But our ticket read a foreboding seat assignment: #13.
The following morning at the bus stand a young middle-class Indian couple from Mumbai, also on their way to Ladakh, stood waiting. “Do you know which is our bus?” they asked, pointing to a collection of ramshackle, wheeled heaps strewn amidst a sea of passengers, hawkers, bystanders, and passers-by.
“That one, I think,” Audrey pointed to the bus marked “Super Deluxe” whose appearance was neither super nor deluxe. But it was the only one headed to where we wished to go, Ladakh.
“But they told us it would be super deluxe,” our young Indian friends echoed a sentiment we’d held fast to only 30 minutes earlier. We’d since moved on, accepting our fortune and embracing that it was now our turn to help others — even Indian tourists who ought to know better — to accept their fate.
I almost hugged them and said, “It’s OK. We’ll get through this together.”
Flat Tires and Samosas
In the world of transport, troubling is no better defined than by a stop ten minutes into a two-day journey in order to hammer a shabby panel of sheet metal onto the undercarriage of one’s vehicle. As our co-pilot banged away in the dirt outside of a dilapidated service station, I noticed that our bus was precariously perched atop a small rock at an angle, leaving him one slight wrong move or one good gust of wind away from being flattened under the weight of our bus.
What is life if you refuse to live it on the edge? I imagined a t-shirt sporting such inspirational words. I turned away and noticed one of the passers-by from a local village wearing instead a shirt that read, “If you’re bad, I’m your dad.”
After all the passengers, men and women, peed at the edge of the irrigation canal along the rice fields out behind the garage, it was time to hit the road anew.
Thirty minutes later, we paused again, this time to fix a flat tire or perhaps to reinforce the spare.
Either way, I bore the pause no ill will as this service station included two young men hovering over a wok encrusted with ancient mustard oil. They dished out samosas and offered us bottles of cake-grit, windblown hot sauces.
We ordered two samosas, drowned them in red and green hot sauce, knowing full well this would set us either on the path to digestive hell via the bacteria inside, or digestive heaven due to the prophylactic effects of hot peppers and spice that would annihilate anything inside of us.
Then we ordered two more.
I could feel the fresh little microbes cruising around my guts. They would have to do battle with the guys that had just entered from Mumbai. I pitied the ones from the sushi we’d eaten in Japan only days before. They didn’t stand a chance.
Pakistan is Near
After meadows and green fields rapidly yielded to ever-growing mountains, that’s when the hills came alive — alive with men, men in fatigues and big automatic weapons creeping and lurking in the shadows of trees. While crouched Indian soldiers in the hills left me vaguely unsettled, the other passengers appeared totally unfazed.
I looked down at my map; we were right next door to Pakistan. Places like Skardu made famous as a site of a school (and a bridge) in Greg Mortenson’s now somewhat disgraced fictive memoir Three Cups of Tea were only some 110km away as the crow flies. Meanwhile, towering peaks and unrelenting landscape placed it more than six times further away, 725km by passable road.
The song Kashmir by Led Zeppelin crept into my head. You know, it’s not a song at all about Kashmir, but rather about Morocco — or as many other Led Zeppelin songs probably are, about something we’ll never know.
As we approached the village of Sonamarg, mountains yielded to meadow and dried open plain. Dust kicked up and the number of vehicles grew around us like a crowd. We were no longer alone.
“Why do you think those shepherds have so many horses?“ Audrey asked pointing out the window at gatherings of scarf-bedecked gypsies leading their steeds in circles.
The horses, it turns out, are ready-made for leagues of Indian tourists who descend on the region in summer and like to ride out to the glaciers on horseback. The flocks are aided in part by an Indian government program that provides Indian military families and government workers all-expense paid trips to Kashmir as a benefit of their service.
A perfect conflict juggernaut, I thought. Kashmir, wrapped in beauty and insecurity, will likely prove to be one of the world’s key — yet forever geopolitically misunderstood — flash points.
Fear Boulevard and the Ice Penis
As much as our bus moved forward, it also lurched. Like a ship in a storm, it swayed to the road’s swells, axles bending but thankfully never snapping, much like you’d expect of a well-constructed building in an epic earthquake.
The road out of Sonamarg could for me be named Fear Boulevard and ascended quickly on the approach to Zoji-La pass.
The rapid elevation gains not only boggled the mind, but also deprived it of much-needed oxygen. That such a narrow road, scraped off a mountain face and in a seeming state of constant erosion and rubble could be engineered — should be engineered — gave me wonder. 3500-foot drops stagger the mind and challenge the photographer to communicate the extreme. You know you are in thin air. What you don’t know is exactly how to capture it. And the whole thing lasts for a slow drip of about 20-25 miles.
Not only was this road long, perched and precarious, but it was also packed with vehicles, sometimes three and four abreast, which through the winding was a cause for genuine concern. At one point, we found ourselves above the valley by what looked about 4,000 feet. No guardrails. The roads (a term of generosity) were in horrendous moon-like shape — boulders strewn, ditches cut, water running from one steep pitch over and through our path and off the cliff. I imagined our bus becoming one with those rivulets and sliding right off the mountain face.
Coincidentally, we would hear news days later that a six-person jeep fell off a similar road across the region, taking with it the lives of three people. Spine-tingling, yet thoroughly unsurprising and reasonable.
Jeeps sped around us, threading the needle-like chain of supremely colorful “Goods Carrier” trucks. Many of them featured Muslim prayers — prayers timely and ironic as death by accident feels fresh, close at hand. The so-called Border Roads Organization (BRO) responsible for maintaining these feats of man, placed signs along the way that imparted such wisdom as “Be Mr. Late, not Late Mr.” and “Darling I like you, but not so fast.” But no one heeded them much attention.
At one point, amidst stunning landscape, our bus pulled to a long halt behind a traffic jam. Audrey got out to enjoy an absurdly edge-loving closer view of the sheer drop, something she does not only because she enjoys it, but also because she secretly knows it terrifies me. Almost immediately, the co-pilot adhered himself to Audrey, as he did anytime when I was the safe distance away of more than one meter.
He explained that Armanath Cave, a holy Hindu place, was located in the valley below, just beyond the white speck tents in the distance. “In a couple of weeks there will be 10,000 or 15,000 Indians here each day for the pilgrimage. They go to the cave to see the ice lingam inside.”
I shook my head trying to imagine 15,000 people on these roads. Apocalypse.
Then, I imagined the ice lingam. Or, for the uninitiated, a penis-shaped ice stalagmite.
This is no ordinary ice phallus, however. It’s a supposed representation of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction. And it’s one that attracts scores of pilgrims, to the tune of over 600,000 each July and August. But due to lack of preparedness and acclimatization and miserable road conditions, over 100 of them on average die annually along the way.
The entirety of what I’d just considered allowed me to reflect again: we humans are an interesting lot.
Now it was now our bus’ turn to thread the needle of traffic through the cargo trucks. As I admired the full motion video of peaks and drops, I realized that one of my internal organs had been shaken loose. Maybe it was my pancreas. My palms were sweating. Were it not for the beauty, I would damn my eyes. It is an astronomically long way down.
This, I tell myself, is the price of adventure, the price of passage through Kashmir, the price of entry to Ladakh.
Crossroads in the Middle of Nowhere
Drass is said to be the second coldest inhabited place on the planet. Regardless of the verity of this claim, bleakness and crispness of air seem to prevail, even in summer. Parachute tents stand nearby at the ready all year round. Drifting shepherds look as windblown from afar as they do windworn up close.
I feel slightly bad for people that live in Drass, not so much because it is cold, but because the name of their town expresses such grimness to me. Drass.
We stop for a tea break. The shops in Drass look like wooden boxes turned on their sides, strung with the latest produce from the last passing truck. Up here, this high, this cold, this remote, bananas seem a luxury. But everyone needs energy, especially the shepherds emerging from far-flung hills and gorges.
Drass is the sort of place that underscores that Kashmir is a crossroads culture. Traditional trading routes have split hither and yon; they invite the willing, the needy, and the courageous to enter this region and to cross its unforgiving landscape. From Persia, the Mughal Empire to Hindustan and Tibet, Kashmir has taken them all. You can see the net of this migration and interbreeding in some Kashmiris: the lightness of the color of their eyes, the shade of their skin and also the tint of their beards.
This place has seen its share of traffic.
Kargil: A Place to Stop for the Night?
Kargil is a way station, the likes of which I imagine will someday serve as backdrop for a space age film telling of the post-apocalypse. Kargil is gritty and basic; it looks like a trading post, bartering at the end of days.
We pass by all manner of shops. Pots and pans are well represented. The Kargilis liked to cook apparently. Either that, or Kargil serves as the Great Mall of Kashmir and Ladakh.
It was also our stop for the night.
The first item of business: to find a room. As a gaggle of men engulfed upon our exiting the bus, we defensively partnered with the young Indian couple from Mumbai. They could speak the language, and he offered to maneuver and negotiate for us. Secretly, I think they also felt safer with us. They were a long ways from home, too.
We headed up the hill into the streets of Kargil, backpack-laden, following a middle-aged local man who ran a cheap guesthouse. He led us into a courtyard and up the stairs of a building that seemed mid-construction, cinderblocks stacked up on the side of the second floor in lieu of a wall.
“It doesn’t look unhygienic,” Kiran, our friend from Mumbai, offered optimistically as he entered the first hotel room.
I had to laugh. It was possibly one of the most unhygienic holes I’d seen in seven years, maybe only outdistanced by the huts in the Sikkim hills where rats fell from the rafters onto our shoulders as we slept.
“Not unhygienic?!” But I was tired and feeling ill. Who was I to argue?
I can say with almost complete confidence that the bed sheets, in their uncountable years of service, were never once washed. In the bathroom, a painfully dim fluorescent bulb dangled from a ceiling wire and cast the place in the pall of a horror show sanatorium. Atmosphere teetered between bleak and grim. I’d have to go with grim on TripAdvisor.
The room next door was the same size, only it was home to about ten men, all lingering under one lone light bulb.
My imagination kicked in. This looked like the sort of place where outlaws gun-running for the mujahideen might hole up for the night before making their way eventually to the mules waiting at the Khyber Pass.
This was a smugglers hotel. A flophouse. The stuff of lore. And I was living it.
Of Bed Bugs and Morning Ablutions
I awoke the next morning to the unsettling beep-beep-beep of the alarm at 4AM. Instantly, I knew I’d been food; my waist and back were lined with bedbug bites. I know, I know: bedbugs are hygiene agnostic, they enjoy filth as much as they do luxury.
But I know: smugglers and gunrunners across the Himalaya and the Hindu Kush, they must all be bedbug infested.
Our bus was scheduled to leave at 4:30AM, but as all good schedules in this part of the world go, it was missed generously, offering us the opportunity to watch closely as the man with bad breath performed his morning ablutions in the bus parking lot. With the aid of a small tin of water, and an inventorying of his nostrils with blackened fingers, he expelled an astounding amount of sputum into a small puddle on the ground.
In Kashmir, the land of desiccation, it was the only moisture for miles. The ground devoured it almost instantly.
The Bend in the Road at Buddhism
Later that morning, we found inspiration in the village of Mulbekh, a crossroads within a crossroads. It’s low-slung skyline set against the hills and bends in the road tells a story of a region that has known many religions in its history. Mosques and Buddhist temples coexist, as do the Muslims and Buddhists who visit them. Appearances begin to shift. Wide faces with high cheekbones replace the darker, more chiseled features of the Kashmiris.
Breakfast, too, lifts our spirits: a simple yet dazzling truck stop thali. Giant cauldrons stew egg curries and lentils and greens; three dishes with rice run us a cool 60 rupees ($1.20 or so). It was the egg that cost extra.
Landscapes shift into moonscape rocks. Our environment now looks like the Ladakh I’d had in my mind. Lamayuru, a town inset in mountain stone served as foundation to monasteries built on top of the hill. My imagination stretched to consider what it must have taken to build this place.
From the side of the road, we picked up a Buddhist monk wearing black, wide-rimmed, photo-gray glasses. He looked like a young Dalai Lama. It didn’t seem out of the realm of possibility that he could have been a close relative.
We dropped him off an hour later in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, a narrow dirt road snaking nowhere discernible into the hills.
Where are they coming from? Where are they going? I wish I knew.
Leh: My Why, My Way
The bus entered Leh, the capital of Ladakh. It had taken two days to advance 258 miles (416 km). I felt on top of the world and also, because of the nature of the journey, very much deep inside of it. Srinagar to Leh via a wobbling bus was my gateway through worlds, from one to another, unto each other.
As we turned into the Leh bus terminal station, the man behind me seemed to let out a gasp as if to close the trip, to bookend it with one last hack. As much as I cursed the roads, the bus, the bed bugs, and the bad breath of the last two days, I wouldn’t have traded any of it for the ease of an hour-long flight.
An experience such as this defies a flyover. It also fit as the final segment of a quest, one that began over fifteen years ago in San Francisco with a photo on a neighbor’s wall.
Though the road was rocky, it was the journey that mattered – because it helped me understand where I was and why I’d come all this way.