My time in Leh was difficult. Going from the Gupta family’s extremely warm welcome to complete isolation from even a single familiar face was jarring and harder than I ever could have imagined. I was overwhelmed by the fact that I was so utterly alone, overwhelmed by the choking dust that swirls through the unpaved streets, by the intense and unwanted stares from the local men, and I hate to say it, by the painfully slow hotel WiFi tipped me past breaking point. I was doubly distressed because I’ve always had this romanticized image of myself — a capable, brave, and unabashedly confident solo female traveler. But there I was, alone and teary-eyed in the confines of my guesthouse bedroom — the total opposite of everything I had dreamed myself to be.
I left for Padum yesterday morning. The driver picked me up from the Jigmet Guesthouse at 6 AM sharp, and to my surprise, there was another woman in the car who was also headed to Zanskar. Her name is Lobzang Karmo, and as you soon shall see, she became my first and closest friend in the lonely Himalayas.
So we were off! The three of us, luggage strapped to the roof, headed to the valleys of Zanskar…or so I thought. Five minutes into the drive, we stopped by a row of shops. “Two ladies are coming,” Lobzang said. Before I knew it we were off again, this time with a total of eight bodies in the car — our faithful driver, three beautiful mothers, two toddlers, a baby, and me. I admit, I was actually very comforted to be joined by three women, and even though it was a tight fit in that dusty, old jeep of ours, I felt cozy and safe. And so, with a giant plume of white dust on our tails, our journey to Zanskar began.
Let me first preface this story by saying that I thought this was going to be an easy nine-hour drive. That was not the case. We left Leh at 6 AM and reached Padum at 1 AM. So if my math is not mistaken, and it usually is, that’s a nineteen hour jeep trek. Nineteen hours of what I can only describe as pure off-roading in the middle of the Himalayan mountains. Bumpy, perilous, and absolutely unforgettable.
The first leg of the trek was admittedly quite smooth. The Border Roads Organization, or as they like to refer to themselves, BRO, has done an impressive job of paving the otherwise rocky mountain path between Leh and Kargil. That said, the road still breathed a distinct air of danger. The road was a single stream of thin, twisty lanes that overlook unimaginable heights. One wrong turn and our little jeep would be smashed and rotting thousands of feet below in one of the deep cracks of the Earth. Every mile or so there was a new sign with a clever reminder about the fragile state of human mortality. “Life is short, don’t make it shorter, Bro,” or “Better late than never, Bro!” And so on. I felt a special, almost familial camaraderie with these warning signs.
Our driver was brilliant. I ask you to call to your memory a scene from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Harry climbs onto a magic bus, and a shrunken head dangling over the dashboard screams, “It’s gonna be a BOMPEEE RIDE!” The bus proceeds to speed ahead, narrowly avoiding all obstacles, and somehow manages to squeeze through a five inch-gap between two double-deckers. This is what the entire drive felt like…except we did it all on six-foot wide mountain passes. I have no idea how our driver was able to move that vehicle with the dexterity and precision that he did. Every time I was positive we were about to get pushed off a cliff by a giant cargo truck, or smash into a massive boulder, he calmly sallied forth without a scratch or a sigh. Meanwhile, I was clutching onto the seat, white-knuckled and wide-eyed, completely in awe.
The three mothers and their babies proved to be wonderful companions. Though our ability to communicate was compromised by language barriers, we shared jokes, mango juice, bubble gum, and too many smiles to count. The babies were so patient in their little woolly sweaters. Nineteen grueling hours in a bouncing jeep, and only a few tears were shed. I’m almost twenty years old and I felt like whining more than these kids did. The youngest, a beautiful baby girl, was so cute I had to actually restrain myself from quietly stealing her and raising her as my own. Huge brown doe eyes, teeny dimples, black wavy hair, a hat that looked like the top of a strawberry, and a smile that could light a thousand candles — she was perfect. We all stopped for a quick breakfast in a little village on the side of the road and the mothers helped me to order. I should’ve insisted that I have what they were having, but I got the tourist treatment instead: two squares of un-toasted white bread and a plain omelette. Oh well.
The mountains became my next best companions. Beautiful, ancient, and seemingly maternal in character, these massive mountain creatures kept me company every step of the way. Being in their presence made me feel as if time had stopped millions of years ago. As if all of history and all of the future exists here, not just the exclusive slice of time that we currently inhabit. They are raw. Untouched. And absolutely sacred. I was continuously taken aback by the vastness and enormity of it all. It was as though the giant bones of the moon had risen out of Earth’s crust to dwarf every living and non-living thing that the eye can perceive. I have never felt so small as when I was being cradled by these godly creations. Sprawling valleys of lush green cupped by high, snowy peaks lost in the clouds. It was surreal.
We passed hole-in-the-wall tea stalls tucked haphazardly into the side of cliffs, old women with faces as wise as the mountains themselves bent over in the fields, bands of wild horses, and colorful trucks carting oil and cargo that puffed out dense clouds of smog.
The second leg of the trip was wildly different. After the three hours of smooth roads between Leh and Kargil, we were not greeted with the same luxury as we ventured into Zanskar. There wasn’t a paved road in sight. We pumped along steep mountain paths and through desolate valleys for sixteen hours. We had finally descended into the belly of the Himalayas. I felt like I was in an episode of National Geographic! There wasn’t a soul for hundreds of miles. After several hours of traversing through Siberian landscapes, our butts and our backs were begging for a break. We reached a Himalayan restaurant in literally the middle of nowhere. Essentially it was a little room with short ceilings, an old woman behind a counter, and a giant pot of soup. We ate noodles and drank salt tea, which tastes exactly like you would think it would…piping hot sea water. No matter, I was grateful for the warmth.
When we began to drive again, darkness was upon us. We were still several hours from Padum, and we had many miles of dangerous mountain “roads” to traverse. I started to worry. Worry that we’d run out of gas, worry that we’d hit a wrong bump and go tumbling into the black abyss that lay threateningly beside us, worry that we were completely lost, never to be found again. It was freezing, too. The ladies gave me a thick woolly blanket that I graciously wrapped myself in. I tried to sleep, but being curled up in a tight space for an entire day, and having to crash through deep rivers every few feet didn’t make it so easy.
By the time we reached Padum, it was decided that it was too late for me to go to Zangla. So Lobzang invited me to stay at her home for the night — a white, clay structure on the hillside of Padum. How could I say no?
She fed me sweet tea and Zanskari rice soup, although I wasn’t exactly hungry. All I really wanted to do was stretch out and go to sleep, but it is Himalayan custom to provide your guests with tea and food upon arrival — hungry or not. We ate in the kitchen/common room area — a small space coated in mismatched oriental rugs, with a small stove, a wall of brass bowls, and one lantern in the middle of the floor. I ate silently next to a heaping pile of blankets that had a giant snore and hacking cough emerging from it. I didn’t ask. After food and tea, Lobzang took me to a little room with a thin mattress and the thickest blanket I’ve ever seen. I fell asleep, completely buried under the blanket, lulled by the sound of some creature gnawing at the walls.
I woke up to her two red-faced little boys peering down at me. I’ve come to accept the stares at this point. I drank about a million cups of salt tea for breakfast, a Himalayan specialty. I’m not salt-tea’s biggest fan, but Lobzang and her family kept insisting that I have more and I’m just too darn polite to say no.
So I’m writing this in Lobzang’s little shop in town where she sells clothes, shoes, and other daily items. I am so incredibly grateful for her friendship and hospitality; what a miracle it was that we crossed paths. She was born in 1993, so she’s not much older than myself! She wants me to come to Padum on my days off to teach her English, which I certainly wouldn’t mind. One of her friends even noted that apparently we have the same nose and look like we could be sisters. For some reason, that comment filled me with a bright light.
So I head out for Zangla in about an hour, and my heart is restored. I think the reason I was so distressed when I was in Leh was because I didn’t have any human connection. I was happiest with the Gupta family, and I was joyous yesterday. Despite how draining the journey was, just the company of the beautiful mothers, the babies, and our dedicated driver healed the sadness and doubt. Even though our verbal communication was limited, I felt like we bonded. Prolonged amounts of time in small enclosures tend to have that magical effect on people, no matter where you’re from. We laughed, played with the babies, bonded over how terrible the road was, shared food, and had an overall lovely journey with one another. All I needed was human connection. Isn’t that what we all need?
And so after a week of intense travel, I am almost at my final destination: the Changchub Choling Monastery in Zangla. I am eager to see what my days have in store.