I have been trying to write this post now for the past three days. I don't know if it's the altitude, writer's block, or the fact that it is just impossible to translate such an intense experience into mere words (I'm beginning to feel this will be a theme in India - the inability to describe the ineffable). But seriously, our journey to Ladakh was ridiculously out of this world. Both good and bad. Someday I'll take the time and write a longer story about this one, but for now I'm gonna have to keep it brief...
It was supposed to be a "smooth" 2-day bus ride from Manali to Leh. With a overnight stay in the desolate Himalayan town of Keylong to break up the journey, and to help us acclimatize to the high altitude. Leh, the capitol city of Ladakh, is situated at about 14,000 ft high in the Himalayas. Until the last few decades, it was pretty much isolated from the rest of the world. It is one of the highest and driest regions on the planet, only accessible about 3 months - for the rest of the year the valley freezes over, and the few road passes are all snowed in. To reach Ladakh, you must journey up to 17,000 ft, over the second highest road on the planet.
Very excited, and with a sangha of friends from the Heart Sutra course at Tushita, including Glen our teacher, and soon to be tour guide and fearless leader, we packed onto the government bus with a few other Westerners and several Indian families. Now, we had already overheard a few broken hearts and horror stories at Manali restaurants, about how the roads had closed due to a recent avalanche. One girl told how their bus had broken down on their way back to Manali and they had to ditch the bus, walk several miles to find horses, ride the horses back up the mountain to gather their gear, and horseback ride all the way back down to Manali - all the way to the table next to us on "date night" at People's restaurant. Char and I looked at each other wide-eyed in agony for these people, but we assured ourselves the road will be clear and safe by tomorrow, nothing like this would happen to us...
Well we didn't have to ride horses. But we would have paid to! The landslide was in full effect when we arrived at the pass on Day 1. As we pulled up to the tiny little trucker stop town of Marhi at 11,000 ft, we could see the blocked pass above, lined with hundreds of jeeps, buses, and trucks, stacked behind each other like red and white dominoes all the way down the mountain switchback road. We had only been on the road for about two hours, and already had been delayed twice. Now we were to "wait it out" until the road cleared. As we gathered for chai and lunch at one of several small dhabas, we learned that there was another problem: a truck had nearly fallen off the cliff and was stuck, half blocking the road. Still we waited...all day... until nightfall, when with sunken heads we all gathered back on the bus and dreadfully headed all the way back down to Manali. Spirits defeated, we were almost back at the Manali bus stop, when ptsssssssss one of the back right tires went out like a kick in the stomach. To add injury to insult, our sister Emily twisted her ankle in the busy street as we were searching for a guest house.
The next day we all headed back to the bus stop, a little less enthused, but still optimistic about the road ahead. There was still no word about whether the pass was clear. The government bus office sent their P.R. rep on the bus to give us a big pep talk, a motivational speech ha! To get everyone riled up, "No one is coming back to Manali tonight!!" Shouts and applause from the bus... Those words proved true... but I would have really liked to see what this guy would have had to say, oh about 10 hours later, when we were stuck waiting again in Marhi. He wouldn't have gotten off the bus so easy...
Back in Marhi we waited.... and waited... and waited.... still no word. Ladakh melted further and further into an imaginary realm beyond our reach. The domino line of vehicles was still stuck in pause. By mid-afternoon, the 11,000 ft altitude hit Charlotte and she began to feel uneasy and lightheaded. Everyone was getting restless. There was talk about ditching the bus and walking 5km with our bags over the pass... We learned that some cars had passed through, thinking the landslide was done. One car got slammed by some big rocks. One person died. Tension on the bus was getting high. Some wanted to walk, some wanted to stay the night, others wanted to go back to Manali for fear of sleeping at such high altitude.
We ended up staying the night in Marhi, after waiting around for over 10 hours... with still no promise that the road would be cleared by morning. Some had left the bus, taken a taxi up the hill and walked across the pass into the night. Who knows what lay ahead. We found a "place" to rest for the night. Behind each dhaba restaurant, through the kitchen, was a path through the tiny village to a toilet. So many toilets. We stayed in the toilet village, in a tiny little shack with bunks. Give thanks for sangha, again and again. However that night our sangha grew to include a few tiny hairy little friends. As I lay our sleeping bags on the top bunk, a big rat raced above my head across a wooden pillar. They would multiply throughout the night... But it actually wouldn't have been so bad, except as soon as I lay down for bed, the altitude hit me, hard. My head was throbbing. Tossing and turning, heart pounding, it was incredibly painful. I could barely breathe - I didn't know if I'd make it through the night. I crawled into Child's Pose and focused on my breath. Laying back down into Savasana, I finally drifted asleep... for about 2 hours.
We were awaken abruptly, dark and early by Glen at our "window" door, "WE'RE GOING! WE'RE GOING!" Absolutely startled, we jumped out of bed. Banged my head. Char's glasses fell. We could hear the bus engine starting. "WE'RE GOING! WE'RE GOING!" We all ran out to the bus as quick as possible dragging our things behind. No one was on the bus. It was chai time.
Finally on the road again, it took us over five hours just to get through this little pass. The truck was still stuck, but one by one vehicles were being squeezed by. A group of saintly Indian man stood on the edge of the earth all day pushing trucks and buses like ours through the muddy rocks. It was quite a scene. But finally, like a newborn, we pushed through that motha!! After hours of amazing fresh mountain landscape, we made it to Keylong, two days later... Finally, we were making progress. We were told that we would stay at the finest hotel in Keylong. Which in India means we stayed in tents in the front yard of the finest hotel in Keylong. With no showers. We climbed up the river and took a icy cold Himalayan bath.
We were back on the bus the next morning, late, at 5am, for what would be the longest most difficult day yet. We had over 250km til Leh. We were tired, weary, excited, and a bit loony. Did I mention this day was long? We covered some of the most amazing land I have ever witnessed. The diversity of the landscape and geology was insane. From the lush green mountains and trees of Manali to rugged stone scapes, dry desert plains, frozen tundra, snow like Siberia, to red rock like the Grand Canyon. It was unbelievable. All in all we drove over 17 hours that day. And I felt every single bump. We were, by the way in the very back of the bus, and could literally feel the road. Numerous times we hit a bump in the road and was sent flying off my seat, slamming my head into the luggage compartment. Once in particular, my head already throbbing from the altitude, I felt my brain do a little jiggle.
But I was really doing fine, until we hit the high pass, 17,000 ft, and stopped for a photo shoot. I began shaking, and shivering, my body weak and cold, I stumbled back onto the bus. Then flushed with hot flashes. Then again cold, hot, cold, and hot...my head was absolutely throbbing. I felt worse than ever. Finally, the little Indian ladies got back on the bus, and we began our descent. I started to feel a little better, but those last four or five hours were so uncomfortably painful. Just about everyone on the bus was looking more and more like death. People were throwing up. Every five minutes an Indian woman would let out a hideous moan, sending shrills down everyone's spine. We were almost there. Beautiful white stupas began appearing through the dark night of the dirty bus windows. I could almost feel the sheets of the guest house bed ahead of me. And then ptsssssssss - deja vu - the same tire went flat like a hospital life-line. We were stuck in the dark somewhere in Ladakh. After an hour or so, the tire was fixed. Back on the bus, we were in Leh in another hour and a half. Like tourist fresh bait, we were swarmed by taxi drivers and guest house owners. Somehow we made it to a bed that night, not the soft down comforter I had dreamed about, more like a wooden plank, but we had arrived.