Guest travel writer Sophie Ibbotson and Max Lovell-Hoare are currently researching the Bradt Guide to Kashmir, which involves everything from trekking to remote Himalayan caves, to playing football with mini-monks in Ladakh’s Tibetan monasteries. Here’s their first instalment from their travels in the Himalayas…
It’s often said that the Pamirs are the roof of the world, but they seem to be barely knee-high when you’re scaling the heights of Ladakh. This erstwhile Himalayan kingdom, often known as ‘Little Tibet’, has all the natural attractions of Nepal but with a double-dose of Buddhist culture and far less well-trodden paths. Over the course of the next two months we’ll be sharing with you a few of our experiences here and in neighbouring Kashmir. We hope our stories will inspire you to pack up your Mountain Warehouse gear and crack on with your next big adventure.
Perhaps it’s the natural competitiveness of humans, but we like to go further, faster and higher than ever before. Having previously broken the world altitude record for journey by tuk-tuk (though not being tempted to try it again), the opportunity to cross Khardung La, at 5602m quite possibly the world’s highest motorable road, was not one we’d easily let slip by. Due to its proximity to the not always entirely stable border with China, driving the road requires an Inner Line permit from the Indian government. The absence of a permitted alternative route out of the valley on the other side necessitates a double crossing of the pass. Such bureaucratic trials are par for the course, however: it was time to hit the road.
In Leh 4x4s in varying states of disrepair are easy to come by. If you’re really determined to push yourself to the limit then you can rent a mountain bike or Royal Enfield motorbike too. Even if a minibus doesn’t take you out, there’s a very real chance that altitude sickness might.
The climb to the pass starts gently, with poplar trees lining irrigated green fields, and the occasional crumbling white stupa or single-storey farmstead, fodder piled on the roof, varying the view. Soon enough, however, the tended fields give way to barren rock, sand and greyish scree that’s perpetually on the move. The road clings precariously to the rock face, often scarcely more than a vehicle’s width wide. It pivots back on itself with such alarming frequency that you scarcely know which direction you’re supposed to be facing. Every now and then a boulder, the size of a suitcase and sometimes larger, blocks the way, necessitating careful manoeuvring between the rock and death at the edge. Or you’d wait until such time that one of the Border Road Organisation’s (BRO’s) road crews come to the rescue with their clanking, fume-belching bulldozer.
Our car slowly limps to the top, the engine wheezing in the thin air almost as much as the humans. It takes an underestimated amount of effort to just put one foot in front of the other, despite having acclimatised in Leh. You huff and puff as though you’re at the end of a lifetime with a 60 a day habit. The headache, dull and at the base of your skull, feels at first like dehydration and no amount of water or sickly sweet tea will however quench it. As you spy (whilst quietly thanking the gods it’s not you) some poor sort shivering and delivering their breakfast back onto the earth from which it came, you remember it is the altitude to blame.
There are other more pleasurable things to take your breath away: two glaciers rise either side of Khardung La, hanging on there even in the warmth of August. Perched above the road, a nausea-inducing scramble away through a jumble of colourful prayer flags, is a small Buddhist shrine, pre-recorded sermons or similar blaring out through the sound system. Looking back towards Leh, Stok Kangri (6121m) pricks the horizon and dozens of other peaks, enticing if not always climbable, lie either side in wait. Taking a cup of tea from the army’s cafeteria in hand, sit back against your rucksack and survey the view.
The Bradt Guide to Kashmir will be available in the shops from June 2014 and also at www.bradtguides.com.