India

A Khardung La-ugh

Tom reunites with Sai and others in Leh, and decides to take on one of the highest motorable roads in the world.

The end of another crackle-magic, clove-laced cigarette sparkled to death in my hand. It was one of the charcoal hours, somewhere between three and four in the morning, so I guessed. From this cramped, acrid yellow box full of hunched, coughing monsters the only measure of time was the amount of stubbs in the ashtray.

The glass swing doors bowed me out of cubicle and back under the dismal halogen glow of the Ghandi International Airport.

On the slow, travellator crawl back to my gate (seemingly miles away from all the shops), I noticed the wide corridors had begun to fill with soldiers. In an otherwise deserted airport, we had ample time to eyeball one another. Only two in the swelling crowd of desert fatigues and shades weren’t sporting the archetypical military moustache. They were probably the type of men to wear floral fragrance and shave their armpits. I hoped they’d grow moustaches sometime soon.

I was curled up on a bench, trying to sleep despite the penetrating hum of the air conditioning, when the whinnies of stampeeding white people caught me. In the current of morning tourists I bumbled onto the plane, took my seat and enjoyed the tiny meal that was given to me by a beautiful, if a little serious looking air hostess, even though I thought 7am was a little early for chicken curry.

The mountains crept through the canopy of clouds and the plane rocked sharply between barren, craggy cliffsides as if it thought itself a fighter jet. Patchwork shrubbery carpeted the valley floor while tarmac veins threaded their way along lines of least resistance. Within no time at all we touched down and the view that captivated then encapsulated, the mass of mountains rising up around the tiny airport.

After the poison air of Delhi, the hotboxed smoking room and the recycled bacteriosphere of the flight cabin, the first of Leh to fill my lungs struck like a menthol rock. It impressed and surprised me – I’ve never been impressed by air before. It was the absence of another, probably more interesting thing. Despite it’s thinness at 3500m, you feel like you’re swimming in it. It was an entity of itself.

And so I sat drowning in the thin air, waiting for Sai to come and pick me up and wondering whether he’d remember to bring bungee cords for my bags.

There was no phone signal, sat on that wall. When he didn’t show up, I gave the cursory overlap time before jumping into Tengzin’s taxi, a funny fellow who’d been chatting to me after spotting my cast. Together we managed to find the hostel Sai was staying at, his bike outside, and Sai himself smiling and hungover and sat outside taking in the bleach-white morning sun. It was good to see him again and the fact he’d had a big one last night made it easy to forgive the missed pick-up.

In that whirwind first day in Leh I met Younes, the ‘moroccan backpacker’ again and lumbered, already a full day sleep-deprived, to 3am. Even so, the leap in altitude robbed me of sound sleep and ensured I was dazed as I explored the city with a brand new cohort of company. Our hostel sat on a hillside, connected by narrow walkways alongside man-made brooks to a lively, bakery-lined street at the heart of the Isreili quarter – something that I’d begun to realised was a commonality with all northern Indian towns. Between typical Pashmina shawls and knitted jumper stalls, cafes brimmed with people sipping coffes and playing card games I couldn’t quite figure out.

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Chris and Varun in the Thiksey Monastary

The majesty of Ladakh, especially the sunsets traced from deserted hilltop monastaries, was not lost on me. But I was distracted. In their waiting, the others had hatched a plan. That plan was tugging at my sense of adventure and stretching my sense of reasonableness.

 

The plan felt all the more unreasonable as I looked down at the gory, franken-fucking wound left by the surgery from a bench in a minor operations ward two days later. The staples, lopsided and in all stages of self-removal, were meant to all come out at fifteen days post-surgery. But the plan would take me far from a hospital or clinic, so the doctor recommended I’d take half of them out now to minimise the risk of infection. I obliged and watched as the little steel worms were wriggled from my numb skin.

So it was happening. Three days after arriving in Leh and two weeks after reconstructive surgery I was blowing off the the cobwebs from my scuffed kneepads and boots,  and pulling my waterproof jacket on as far as it would cover my cast. We were riding to Turtuk.

Nestled at the far reaches of the Nubra valley, Turtuk is a small village 7km away from the border with Pakistan. Younes, Gosha and Sai (with me on the back) would be on the bikes for two days each way, while a jeep would ferry Noa, Chris and Adi and Omer in one single push.

With a less stressed timeframe, the bikers could afford to leave a little later. What we didn’t account for was the time it’d take to arrange Younes’ motorbike rental. After a leisurely lunch, sorting out bike beaurocracy and filling up the tanks at a nearby fuel station, we were on our way.

It was close to five in the afternoon.

Breaking out of Leh on rough gravel roads, the ride quickly improved and the unbroken coil of black bitumen rose ever highwards to the pass of Khardung La – the contested highest motarable pass in the world at 5’359m (it’s not really, even if the sign says it it…).

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Younes riding ahead as the mountains stretch our ahead.

With a broken arm, I’d gently slid into a state of accepting uselessness. Sitting on the back with no locus of control added a little sting. I never liked being a passenger much. When we came across a stranded Enfield halfway up our ascent I sprung into action, eager to restore a little masculine pride. A rock had smashed into their front mudguard, jamming a narrow section against the forks and pressing in on the tyre, smoking the edges of the rubber tread. Loosening the fixing bolts and slotting a road-side stick in the spokes, I used the weight of the bike to shunt the mudguard into its proper place, watched them leave and returned to my backseat with a sense of accomplishment.

Thinking about how great I am kept me smiling for most of the ascent, or at least until the rough gravel began and I was forced to fight off shots to the coccyx from the unsprung bleacher of a rear seat instead. Where Sai was leading the convoy on the road, the others leapt ahead on the rough stuff, the extra weight on the bike jumping the bike around too much to go fast.

We had no clue about how close we were to the summit of Khardung La pass, the mammoth road had chewed through the clock aplenty since we left Leh. Mountain shadows stretched their way across the valley around us as the sun retreated lower in the sky. It was clear by now that we’d be benighted before getting down the pass on the other side, it was just a question for how long.

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Gosha nearing the top of the pass 

The horizon was on fire as we finally rounded the summit and all hues of peach and rouge stained their way across the sky. The transformation of day to night was palpable, so despite the crystal clear view across the valley we decided to descend on the other side without stopping for photos. We were on full headlights, quickly stuffing our warm jackets over our motorbike gear only minutes later. Then the valley went black.

Sitting behind Sai I was sheltered from the worst of the wind-chill, but the cold was creeping through the open left sleeve of my jacket and into my cast. Younes and Gosha hadn’t bought riding gloves with them (well, Gosha had bought one glove with him…) so I could imagine their discomfort as we needled our way along the worst roads we’d ridden yet. Similar to the way up, the road returned to tarmac at a lower altitude, resistant to the frosts and unlikely to be destroyed by landslides. Following a prolonged stop at a roadside brazier, the only spec of light amongst a sea of darkness, and huddling around a gas stove while waiting for chai we decided that we’d be best stopping short of Hunder or Diskit, our intended destination for that day. We’d stop sooner, in Khardung village at 3’975m, and get up early to ride. It also meant we could appreciate our surroundings instead of just freezing to death in the night…

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All tucked up in our gueshouse in Khardung. Note – what lovely velvet curtains. 

And so ended my first day on a motorcycle since my accident – the four of us, Gosha, Sai, Younes and I, gossiping under the starlight on the roof terrace. It had been a hairy descent, and not one of us were immune to tiredness, but we were happy. My arm was still in one piece, Sai had proven to be an amicable pilot and tomorrow we’d reach everyone else in Turtuk to discover the wilds of Nubra valley.

The time for moping around was truly over – Badventuring was back on the cards.

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10 comments on “A Khardung La-ugh

  1. Dave O'Leary

    I was there!! Never went over the far side though. Just did a round trip from Leh and back. Looking forward to the next installment!

    Dave

  2. Rita McFall

    Amazing read Tom. Take care xxxx

  3. Glad to see the dreams still alive and kicking, keep up the great reports, Top guy that Sai. 👍

  4. Sorry above post from me n Julie, having a senior moment.

  5. Glad you’re back on track looking forward to next post. Take care!!

  6. Hi Tom,

    Two accidents already !

    Keep safe

    Paul.

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