Even Janak Singh, our burly and redoubtable Sikh truck driver, looked apprehensive. Scant comfort this was to us, already on the edge of our seats in his massive yellow rig as we peered straight down almost 2,000 feet into the Sind River Valley, a mere strand of green thread from our mountainside perch.
Strewn behind us along this zigzag of a road up the Himalayas were the last six dozen trucks in our convoy of 200 taxis and buses, army vehicles and commercial lorries. In four hours we had traversed just 16 miles on our journey to the remote Indian frontier of Ladakh, along the 270-mile Srinagar-Leh road.
Our destination, the rugged and starkly majestic region of Ladakh along India's northernmost border, offers one of the subcontinent's greatest adventures, as we quickly were discovering. My friend and I had not expected the trip itself to be so exciting. But as soon as we had hitched a lift with Janak Singh and his engaging Nepalese assistant, Rambagat, the journey became a breathtaking joy ride.
"Very dangerous," advised a less-than-reassuring Janak Singh as we approached the Zoji-La Pass. At this precariously narrow stretch of the road, some years back, one truck had plowed down to the River Sind rather than over the pass. For most of the year the Srinagar-Leh road is snowed under, and even during the passable months the Zoji-La section often is washed away by rock or mud slides. On this drizzly day the road was mostly muck. Shivering men stood by ready to help push the vehicular behemoths -- laden with staples and supplies for Ladakhi villagers -- across the 50-foot slimy incline and, thus, over the Zoji-La Pass and into Ladakh.
We saw why the convoy had inched up the mountain at snail's pace -- some trucks took half an hour to barrel through. A few, including the gray plodder two ahead of us, could not make it at all that day.
Our turn came at last. I relinquished my valor and my seat in the truck and watched from the roadside. Janak Singh touched his finger tips to his ears, then to his eyes, and brushed them reverently across a picture of the ninth Sikh guru that hung above his windshield. He gritted his teeth and accelerated. The truck lurched forward, but not for long. It spluttered. And stopped. Rocks and a wooden block were thrust behind the tires -- just inches from the precipice -- to prevent the truck from sliding backward. Men hunched over to lend a shove.
Again, accelerate, lurch, splutter, stop. And again. Finally, like John Riggins crashing over the one-yard line, Janak Singh powered his machine up over the pass. My relieved companion, still glued to her seat, recited the 23rd Psalm. But Janak Singh, a 20-year veteran of this awesome road -- some of whose most harrowing stretches were still to come -- was too stoical to evince a sigh or a smile. As men on the roadside cheered his game accomplishment, however, he was not too proud to refuse an eight-ounce glass of rum he had been handed through the window and quaffed in a single gulp.
We had arrived in the land of Ladakh. But before we would reach Leh, its capital and commercial center 200 miles to the east, a total of 36 hours would be spent plying this road of scenic thrills and psychic chills.
It is not without just cause that nature's usually capricious draftsman made the overland route into Ladakh so trecherous and difficult. For this vast and spectacular region, cradled between the world's two highest mountain ranges (the Himalayan and the Karakoram), is dramatically truncated from the rest of India. And not just geographically, but culturally, socially, topographically and religiously as well.
India, of course, is known for its swarming masses, its debilitating over-population. Yet the isolated district of Ladakh, occupying 70 percent of the northernmost Indian state of Jammu-Kashmir, is one of the most sparsely populated regions in the world: less than four inhabitants per square mile.
The summer monsoons dictate the yearly cycle of life in India. But in Ladakh there are no monsoons. There is barely rain, for that matter -- less than 10 inches per year in most parts. The moisture-impregnated clouds that deluge the rest of the subcontinent are denied entry over Ladakh by the towering western Himalayas. So arid is Ladakh that less than 70 of its 37,000 square miles are cultivable, not more than 20 forested. With this extreme dryness, its austere mountains reaching above 25,000 feet and its lowlands seldom dipping below 10,000, Ladakh has earned the sobriquets "moonland" and "arctic desert."
Sitting high above the village of Lamayuru one day, we could see why. In one direction, rock formations seemed to have erupted from the earth's terrain like titanic ocher molars, bunched together in huge clumps. In another, barren and jagged mountains reached high into the sky, and below them were eerie, lunar-like series of gently domed mesas.
Watching the sun's rays dip in and out of these various formations is a lot like watching the Grand Canyon at sunset or sunrise; in both places the colors of the irregular terrain change by the minute and throw off hues of brown, purple, yellow, rust and orange. And then, amidst all these subtle, muted tints, one sees a sliver of brilliant green, a small oasis of vegetation fed by a lonely mountain stream, carrying the melted remnants of snow that survives during the warmer months only on the highest peaks of Ladakh.
As stark as Ladakh's terrain appears in relation to the rest of India's landscape, the contrast between its people and their compatriots throughout the rest of the country is just as astounding. India's population is 83 percent Hindu, 11 percent Moslem. But in Ladakh -- which shares a border with western China and the one-time kingdom of Tibet -- the predominant religion is Buddhism, the only region in the country where this is so. The Ladakhis practice Tibetan Buddhism, a branch known as Vajrayana, or the "vehicle of the thunderbolt." Because this form of worship is practiced few other places today, Ladakh has become the laboratory of scholars of Tibetan Buddhism.
Signs of the religion are everywhere: in the gentle demeanor of the people; in the fortress-like monasteries known as gompas that seem to sprout out of mountains and rock formations like multi-storied apartment buildings in practically every sizeable village; in the thousands of chortens, small religious memorial edifices that dot even the most barren Ladakhi landscape.
Ethnically the Ladakhis come from Mongoloid and Aryan stock. In fact, some believe the only pure Aryans still inhabiting the earth reside in three small Ladakhi villages. The typical Ladakhi looks more oriental than Indian; their round faces are smooth and ruddy, although they wrinkle at a young age because of the intensity of the sun in the region.
Walking through Ladakh, even in the city of Leh, I often felt as though I had been transposed into an earlier century. The dress of the people is so unusual that it often looks comical. Even in the hottest weather they wear dark woolen or velvet coats, with layers of lighter garments between these gonchas and their bodies. Women drape white goatskins over their backs atop the gonchas. And on their heads, quite precariously, stand burgundy, purple or black top hats, embroidered in gold, the sides folded upward like floppy ears.
They wear jewelry in profusion. On festive occasions women don headdresses known as peraks that taper down their backs, studded with a lavish array of turquoise. These headdresses have been passed down from generation to generation, and often are worth thousands of dollars. The traditional Ladakhi shoe curls up at the toe like the prow of a boat.
From the time India gained independence from Great Britain in 1947 until a decade ago, Ladakh was off-limits to foreign visitors. Its proximity to the Chinese and Pakistani borders -- frontiers that are still disputed today -- makes Ladakh a critical strategic and military district for India, and officials long were reluctant to allow aliens entry. Even today much of Ladakh is barred to non-Indians -- venturing more than a mile north of the Srinagar-Leh road is strictly forbidden -- and the region remains a major outpost of the Indian army.
Since the doors of this lofty region were opened to tourists in 1974, Ladakh, and particularly Leh, has lost some of its purity and charm. So long isolated from the rest of the world, its residents have fallen prey to the vicissitudes that tourism invariably brings to a cultural backwater.
Village women still come to the Leh bazaar every morning and afternoon bearing baskets of turnips, cauliflower, carrots, potatoes, cabbage and apples, spinning wool on tiny hand wheels and gossiping with neighbors as they await customers. But behind them are shops offering a whole gamut of Tibetan crafts, art work and religious icons, usually peddled by entrepreneurial Moslems from the Srinagar area, enticing every tourist to "just come in and look: you don't need to buy." Indeed, prospective buyers should beware, especially if they have an itinerary that includes Nepal, where the same items can be purchased for considerably less money.
The Ladakhis also have learned that they are marvelous subjects for western shutterbugs, and that they can earn modeling fees for posing. I got around this neo-capitalism with a little bribery of my own. I had bought pocketfuls of penny candy to dole out to children, only to discover that the sweetest-toothed Ladakhis were not the children but the old women who vend their wares from the curbs of the Leh bazaar and the burgundy-robed Buddhist monks. Everyday I'd walk up and down the main street of Leh's bazaar handing out candies to these folks. By the third day they knew me well and, seeing the camera dangling from my shoulder, asked that I take their pictures -- without the customary modeling fee.
One of the real treats of Ladakh is being able to visit the amazing village monasteries that hover over communities atop jagged mountains, prayer flags fluttering colorfully in the wind. But even here the convivial Buddhist monks, known as lamas, have learned that tourism is a real nirvana for filling the gompas' coffers. An entry fee of 10 rupees is requested at many gompas, 80 cents to the tourist and several days' food for a hungry lama.
Nonetheless, the monasteries are incredible attractions. Huge effigies of Buddhas, many painted gold and draped in beautiful cloths, can be seen inside the gompas, one of which, in Alchi, is almost 1,000 years old. Brilliant religious frescoes are painted on inner courtyards. And in dank and eerie prayer rooms, usually illuminated only by the tiny flickers of scores of minuscule oil or butter lamps, are libraries of centuries-old prayer scrolls, written on rice paper and wrapped in silk binders.
And then there are the monks themselves, who -- despite their recently discovered infatuation with the wonders of capitalism -- are warm, engaging and just as enamored with western visitors as the visitors are with them.
One day at the Tikse monastery, which offers grand vistas across one of Ladakh's rare fertile plains, the Indus River-nourished Shey Valley south of Leh, I received a real treat. The lamas were in their prayer room, sitting on long rows of cushions beside low tables, chanting prayers and beating on large metallic drums, when suddenly they all jumped up and raced out onto a sun-drenched courtyard. Some sat down and began playing instruments -- large cymbals, more metal drums, horns and trumpets, some 15 feet long. The rest, ranging in age from their early teens to their 70s, began dancing. If you could call it that. Apparently they were just beginning to rehearse for an upcoming festival, and these men and boys in burgundy robes under the scorching sun pranced about like drunken sailors, awkwardly attempting pirouettes and other smart steps, none of which they could master.
It is difficult to walk around the Leh area without bumping into lamas. One day in a small village nearby I heard the steady, monotonal thump-thump of a drum beat. Honing in on the sound, I found myself by a small complex of homes constructed of dried blocks of mud.
A young woman wearing the long and thick braids typical of Ladakh, toting a baby on her back, motioned me to follow her. She unlatched a rickety wooden gate and climbed a ladder that led to a small apartment on the roof of a home. Inside was a monk, chanting from written prayer sheets that were spread before him on a low platform. While he chanted he beat an overhead drum, and at times he would clap cymbals or ring a large brass bell that sat beside him.
He looked up, smiled and gestured for me to sit on the floor. As I watched him four young girls peeked from behind an open window to stare at me.
The old monk said something to the girls. They disappeared, and returned a few minutes later with tea and what appeared to be a bowl of brown, raw dough. I was invited to consume both with the lama. The tea was awful, spiked with butter, a Ladakhi speciality; and the dough was even worse, parched barley flour, a staple to Ladakhis but to me akin to eating clay.
It was not unusual in Ladakh to be invited by a woman into a private home. The Ladakhi female is more liberated and outgoing with strangers than her Hindu or Moslem sisters in India. Seldom will you pass a woman in Ladakh who does not initiate, or at least respond to, the traditional and melifluous greeting of "julay," a catchall salutation covering everything from hello to goodbye to thank you.
While Indian women traditionally have been treated as inferior to men, such is not the case in Ladakh. Until recently, as a matter of fact, polyandry was practiced regularly, with a woman often being mated to all the brothers in a family. And to this day the Ladakhi woman is treated with respect and has equal status to the husband in the family structure. Equality among Ladakhis also comes out in another important way: The caste system that has divided so much of Indian society was never imposed in Ladakh.
The primary crop in Ladakh is barley, as there is not enough water to grow rice, which flourishes in western Kashmir. One of the most colorful times to visit Ladakh is during the harvest season in September, or, depending on the weather, in early October. Those few patches of terrain that glisten out of the bleak surroundings like emeralds in the rough during the summer are golden brown in the fall. Whole families take to the fields. Stomping ox teams, led around in circular enclosures, do the threshing. Barley stalks are stacked in small pyramids across open fields. And everywhere there is singing among the workers.
In this land where ancient values are being confronted by the encroaching tentacles of a modern world that is no longer so distant, the pleasures of life still remain simple and uncomplicated -- for the local and the visitor alike.
The joy of travelling in Ladakh comes primarily from observing and mingling with a buoyant people and a rugged landscape that have learned to co-exist without taming one another. The sorrow comes in knowing that that delicate equation is likely to be knocked out of kilter by those of us who have come to experience its harmony.