So I guess this is Heaven: at more than 3500 metres it’s certainly high enough, it’s spectacularly beautiful – one of the most stunning places I’ve ever been, and our hair-raising drop out of the sky was so dramatic and heartstopping that I wouldn’t be surprised if I’d died.
The day started badly: up at 4.30 am to get a taxi to the airport for 5. Our driver, a baby-faced teenager for whom this is clearly a before-school job has to be woken from his front-seat slumbers – I have little sympathy for his lack of zzzs, having had only an hour or two of sleep myself over the past two nights, a raging temperature , headache and bad cold. We drive precariously through rain-lashed streets, peering through a steamed-up windscreen and weaving between trucks to the terminal.
Unaware that this is simply the first of the day’s many survival tests, we too-gratefully pay the child and, congratulating each other on our still palpable pulses, queue at the Kingfisher Airline counters for our flight to Leh.
Nick has the window seat, I am in the middle next to a smartly suited Sikh gentleman who, on sitting down, voraciously clears his lungs, nasal passages, sinuses and anything else not firmly enough lodged within his skull into a large handkerchief, which he then proceeds to unfold, wafting its contents freely before refolding into a neat square. “OMG he’s deliberately trying to give me another cold,” I whisper to Nick, who ignores me. The man then commences loudly exhaling in great snorts through one nostril while pressing the other flat with his thumb. This he repeats with the other nostril, breathing alternately between nostrils in an endless pattern. “He’s making sure that every last germ goes my way and makes me sicker than ever. What the hell?” I whisper-shout at Nick. He explains that the Sikh is doing a yoga technique called circular breathing. This is deeply irritating, not least because Nick, who has never shown the slightest interest in my yoga classes, apparently knows some obscure and strange nose position that I’ve never heard of.
We take off under the control of our commander (rather than a pilot) and supersede the clouds for a calmish hour, if you ignore the circular breathing Sikh (which I cann’t). There then follows what I can only describe as aviation aerobics as our commander throws us into a terrifying battle with the Karakorums – the world’s highest mountain range, containing 7 of the 10 tallest peaks, including K2. As we narrowly miss smashing the wing against one mountain flank, I turn and see us swerve to avoid another. Frightening is an understatement. The circular breathing is pretty intense now, and I question the wisdom of flying with an airline that’s owned by the nation’s favourite beer.
By the time we’ve risen and dropped, banked and been flung around a few more unforgivably hard-looking rocky mountain walls, I am terrified and exhausted by the drama. Even the unfailingly cheerful airhostesses are now strapped down, pale and ruining their freshly painted nails with the strength of their grippage. Our commander, seemingly playing on a games console ahead, suddenly plunges us down at full speed to our certain death. We fly along the runway, our tyres presumably aflame at the speed (the very thin air makes it impossible to slow) and just as the mountain ahead seems to smash unstoppably into us, we stop. There is silence, then applause from the 200 souls aboard.
Stumbling giddily out onto the world’s highest commercial airport, I see it is incredibly beautiful – a rare flat spot surrounded by peaks. A desert in the mountains.
We are greeted by tribespeople who throw silk scarves around our necks in welcome, and by army officials (there is a huge base by the airport) who remind us that Kashmir is a militarily contested zone (later in the day, a car bomb blew up in the state capital, Srinagar), squeezed as it is between Pakistan and China (or, more accurately, Tibet) and demand more forms be filled.
A woolen-cloaked Ladakhi man with a large smile and no English drives us to our guesthouse, Glacier View, and hot masala chai is delivered to our room by our smiling hostess.
Struggling to breathe the thin air and with tingling, pins and needles and a spaced/stoned head, we decide to sleep before tackling standing and other exertions.
We emerge still altitude-sick but happy into our terrace with its delightful view of mountain peaks, Buddhist temples, mudbrick houses and castles and the odd cow. Prayer flags flutter from every roof and woolen cloaked men and women with brightly coloured sashes stand in the street gossiping. It’s so laid back that we are puzzled when our phones don’t work and we are told that “for security purposes, the government doesn’t allow any foreign sims network access in Kashmir”. But Nick has an Indian sim, we bought in Delhi, I protest. Ah, we’re a long way from Delhi here, I’m told. Thank goodness for Skype.
The sun is so bright, we have to apply sunscreen, yet at night, it dips nearly to freezing. It rains here about as often as in the Sahara – we’re in the Himalayan rainshadow – so water is scarce. It’s so much cleaner than outher Indian cities, and there is an eco store that does water refills so we don’t have to keep buying plastic bottles. Fantastic.