Already the sun was quite high in the sky, it was 5am, blinking I unzipped the tent flap door, tentatively stepping outside, still half asleep. I was relieved to find that my tent was where I had pegged it down the evening before, it hadn’t been washed away by the torrents of water that had cascaded past the tent in the aftermath of the previous night’s thunderstorm.
Immediately I realised what it meant to wake up on the roof of the world. With all its stunning beauty and majesty, crystal-clear blue skies dotted with the occasional cloud, Nimaling, nestled 5000 metres up is pretty awe-inspiring. God, this sounds trite and clichéd, and yet… well I’m not going to apologise – quite simply if I had to pick one moment to encapsulate all that was good and memorable about trekking in the Indian Himalayas, high up above the Markkha Valley, that would be it. It was simply breathtaking.
India was always a place that I wanted to visit. Ladakh, or ‘Little Tibet’ as it is known, struck me as somewhere different. Somewhat off the beaten track, away from the hordes that travel through Kathmandu, into the Nepalese region of the Himalayas. In contrast, Ladakh was somewhat more peaceful (at least in terms of tourist numbers), primarily due to its proximity to the disputed province of Jammu and Kashmir, a subject of tension practically ever since Pakistani independence.
‘Little Tibet’, as the name suggests, for centuries has always been heavily influenced by Tibetan culture with Buddhism flourishing in the region.
Monasteries are found in almost nearly every other village, whilst Stupas, with offerings for safe passage over the mountains, are found throughout the Valleys. Such ties have grown even closer ever since the Chinese occupation of Tibet which has prompted refugees, some relatively famous, to flee from their homeland with the Dali Lama having a summer palace near Shey.
The more populated areas, such as Leh, the capital of Ladakh, are something of a melting pot of different cultures and religions, with Buddhists, Christians and Muslims living side by side, but not always peacefully. A fact vividly illustrated by the imposition of a curfew on our first night in Leh, following a disagreement over allegedly rotten fruit, sold by a Muslim shopkeeper to a Hindu customer.
Apart from the first few days of acclimatisation, the majority of the time spent in Ladakh, was spent trekking through the Markkha Valley, walking through spectacular scenery often reminiscent of the Grand Canyon, but often in gruelling heat.
All this built up to an attempt at an ascent of Stok Kangri, which at over 6,000 metres, is roughly equivalent to three quarters up Everest, (the highest I’d ever been before was Mount Snowden, at just over 1,000 metres, which seemed ever so slightly lower). Making it to the summit was, in truth one of the most physically draining things I’ve ever done, (and that includes both the bleep test and laying up a newspaper).
If the trek and the ascent of Stok itself were memorable, then what one might term an eventful return journey to Delhi, continued in the same vein. Unable to either fly out of Leh or travel South by road due to mudslides, the small matter of my flight home meant that reaching Delhi within three days was imperative. The answer was not ideal -a two and half day road trip, at night, in an unlit vehicle, through Kashmir to Srinigar, beckoned. Bearing in mind that driving in India is shit-scary at the best of times, i.e in daylight on straight, relatively well-made roads; driving in the pitch black with headlights switched off (out of fears of being kidnapped) along mountain roads didn’t fill you with confidence. Add to that that at the time Kashmir was the Foreign Office’s second most dangerous place on earth, then the trip was not exactly what the Guidebooks recommended.
My overriding memory of my road trip through Kashmir is the brief time spent in Kargil. Largely due to the fact that what had been the town’s top hotel (and probably still was) had a metal corrugated roof, after its original roof had been lost several months previously, in the last armed altercation on the border. It was deeply depressing that an area once prosperous on the backpacker route, had seen its economy devastated by the twin threats of fighting and tourist kidnappings. As a consequence our presence was something of a rarity provoking a mixture of curiosity and resentment.
During my stay the tensions were clearly at boiling point. The War on Terror has done nothing to cool these tensions since my visit. My journey gave me an acute sense of the realities of people living on the edge of safety and civilisation.