I am sending this out to EVERYONE, just to let you know that I’m okay, on the other side of an Internet blackout that has lasted over a week. Ladakh is now cold, rainy, snow closing in and parts of the country are under curfew and martial law.
This is a recent exploration into the countryside of Ladakh. It’s in two parts… Internet willing!
Stanzin is from Nubra Valley, the green, lush valley floor that gives way to the stark, bare rock of the highest mountain range in the world. Nubra Valley was the inspiration for the mythical “Shangri-La”, from the movie “Lost Horizon”.
Traveling from the capital of Leh, I have to travel across Khardung-La (“La” means “pass”), what is advertised as “The Highest Motorable Road in the World”. (Another road in China lays claim to the title. To my oxygen-starved lungs, I think a few dozen feet is irrelevant.)
Getting to Nubra Valley was one ordeal… getting to Stanzin’s mother’s village was another. From the town of Hunder, we go up the Dok river. Six miles of the roughest road I’ve ever seen.
There’s only one driver in the entire area who will risk the journey. His vehicle is filled with spare parts – if something goes wrong, he has to fix it, or abandon his vehicle on the spot. My bag clunks onto a spare generator; there are extra chassis springs in the back.
We cross the river in the vehicle (its early morning, so the snow melt is not yet high enough to swamp us), then up the wildest, narrowest gravel and rock road I’ve been on. For three miles. Then, he stops, unloads passengers, bags and supplies, then turns around and leaves us for the rest of the journey on foot.
Three miles on foot isn’t too big a deal for me. The thing that concerns me is ELEVATION. My breathing has never fully adjusted to 12,000+ elevations. I do okay on level ground, but resort to panting (and frequent stops) when going up. So, before the journey began, I questioned Stanzin extensively about how much “up” walking we would have to do. She answered matter-of-factly: “Half up, half down”.
About two hours into the walk, I realized that it had been ALL UP. During one of my panting breaks, collapsed against a rock (I was afraid to sit down… I didn’t know if I’d have the strength to get back up), I gasped to Stanzin, “This is all up! Where is the ‘down’ part?”
She said, “In 3 days, when we go back.”
I sputtered, “Why didn’t you tell me this was all going up?”
“Because you wouldn’t have come.” And she was right.
The last hour of the journey was simply unbelievable. We could SEE her mother’s house, but were separated by deep ravines that fell to the river, now a few thousand feet below us. We would descend into the ravine, hugging the cliff face, the path narrowing to less than 3 feet wide.
At one point, Stanzin is 50 feet in front of me, standing on 2 feet of rock, jutting out above the river ranging 1,000 feet below. Then, she turns the corner and is gone. I’m all alone in the Himalayas, above a wild river, a narrow piece of rock separating me from certain death.
I said out loud, “I can’t do this”.
But, I could. When Life doesn’t offer you a choice, don’t act like you’ve got one. Going back was not an option – my legs didn’t have 10 kilometers in them. Standing still on that narrow path wasn’t an option, either.
So, I went forward. Remember the scene in “The Matrix”, when Neo was instructed to go out the window and walk on the ledge to escape the bad guys? That would have been EASY compared to that ledge I had to walk.
And, I did it. (I still have dreams about that ledge.)
Then, the last ascent… I have no idea how I made it. My strength was gone – my legs were like jelly. My water was gone – my throat was raw from my gasping for breath. Stanzin had been offering for some time to take my pack – I had been adamant that I wasn’t going to let a 7-month pregnant woman carry my backpack. This time, I gave it to her…
A few hundred feet from the house, when I knew that I could make it the rest of the way, I allowed myself the luxury of sitting down, to the most spectacular view of a steep alpine meadow, plunging down into the river below. (I had stumbled several times on the ascent through the meadow – now I could see what a stumble could mean.)
Once at the house, I encountered the legendary hospitality of Ladakhi villagers. Water, food, tea (including the (in)famous salted tea, with floating gobs of yak butter), accommodations… all available with a smile.
[Continued in Part Two…]