Beware of Norboo’s smile; it portends the unimaginably sinister. And his ingenuity ensures that you’re always unprepared. For if using Ladakh’s public toilets constitutes an extreme sport, the one to which my local driver lures me at South Pullu surpasses Olympic standards. The extent of his treachery at this remote military outpost in the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir becomes apparent as we reach Khardung-La just minutes later. Along this snowbound mountain pass, supposedly the world’s highest motorable one, lies untold wealth: prefab public loos designed for a kindlier purpose than sending users into a coma. It’s clear that Norboo has but one agenda — revenge. And he’s been faithfully following it since my flight landed in Leh a day late, throwing my itinerary and his composure off course.
Unwittingly, I have committed many crimes. Frustrating my driver’s efforts to make up for lost time is the cruellest for a man so enslaved by the sacredness of routine. Every unscheduled halt of mine is, therefore, an affront, especially when prompted by my lust for mundane Ladakhi vistas: a splash of lake between lofty ridges; an explosion of vegetation, unreal like a Liz Taylor emerald, nestling against stark lunar contours; and rows of soaring ranges wearing coronets of ice or smooth as an ancient fort wall from the overflow of a glacier, long extinct.
There’s no hope of reprieve either, no sign that I’ll reach saturation point soon. My driver, on the contrary, has been hovering ominously close to his own since the incident at Magnetic Hill, where I had impulsively flung my dignity overboard, along with his, to savour the thrill of our car being towed backwards by the gravitational pull of the area’s natural magnetic field.
Queering a Ladakhi’s pitch is one thing; murdering his self-image and angering his god is another. That’s obvious, as overnight snowfall, responsible for a traffic bottleneck at Khardung-La, threatens to derail my trip to Nubra Valley, a wildlife sanctuary, unless the Border Roads Organisation clears the route in time. Divine punishment is meant to devastate. What saves me is this region’s mysterious ambience that keeps harsh reality at one remove. Every hurdle seems pregnant with thrilling possibilities, every challenge a sport. I feel like trilling à la Julie Andrews, “Climb every mountain!” If Ladakh with its unforgiving climatic conditions awakens my dormant lunacy in this manner, Khardung-La, just 39km north of Leh, the region’s largest town, keeps goading it to aim for centre stage. That’s inevitable in a place so rich with different versions of extreme.
It is here, at the “breathtaking” altitude of 18,380 ft, that the Siachen Glacier Base Camp, a tribute to human endurance, begins. It is here that temperatures and atmospheric oxygen plunge to subnormal levels, increasing the risks of high-altitude sickness (HAS). It is here that I watch a young biker quietly go mad, performing a striptease while his friend captures the moment for posterity. It is here, understandably, that tourists are warned not to linger.
Not fair, I grumble, as Khardung-La seduces with a flurry of snowflakes and drifting fog flashing a sliver of unreal lapis sky. Not fair, when locals relish the thin air and biting wind, catching up on gossip in a haze of misty breaths. Not fair at all that I’m given so little time to goggle at Norboo’s fleeting transformation from monster to man at this happening hotspot for networking among local drivers. It’s not as if the human in him hadn’t surfaced earlier on the way to other destinations, preening and tossing off a “Julley!” (hello) to fellow Ladakhis at scheduled halts like the Diskit Monastery or the confluence point of the Indus and Zanskar rivers at Nimmo. But Khardung-La’s surreal world makes my man bloom and glow as never before.
Charged with the voyeur’s anticipation of electrifying entertainment—a spectacular case of HAS, perhaps—the pass now teems with tourists. Most are queued up before a working toilet, looking like the desperate and the damned. A familiar scenario, given Ladakh’s vast distances, unpolluted by the presence of public “conveniences”— rare as the yeti and just as likely to crush your pioneering spirit when it springs a surprise in places like South Pullu.
Khardung-La’s loos revive that spirit in seconds. Exuding the bliss of reprieve, middle-aged Lotharios prowl the snows for rare game like the slick NRI chick who exhibits a veteran’s withering disdain for the sub-zero temperature. I can swear Colonel Chewang Rinchen, a much-decorated Ladakhi officer in the Indian Army, just winked at her from his likeness on a signboard nearby that lauds his military exploits in some of the world’s most inhospitable terrains. But before I can double-check, his fellow soldiers are signalling drivers to move on. The region’s lifeline, Khardung-La is now operational.
Leaving the snows behind us, I feel bereft. Nothing, surely, can offer the same kind of high — neither the vastness of the flat, pebbled valley into which we descend nor the Shyok River’s countless curves.
Waiting to prove me wrong in Nubra Valley’s Hunder Village area is the excitement of a ride, wedged between floppy double humps, on a Bactrian camel, one of a herd with ancestors that had travelled the ancient Silk Route from Central Asia. The thrill is over too soon, however, with my disgruntled mount abruptly dropping to its knees and nearly unseating me—camelspeak for: “Gerroff and scram!”
Ending with a whimper, I’m mocking myself, when rocks come crashing down the bare mountain before us. Within seconds, the landslide is over. A puff of dust floats blithely in the air. Thrills anyone, the ensuing silence teases. But after the Ladakhi toilet torture, every hazard looks tame—snowfall, thin air or landslide. Norboo, though, is beaming.