‘Warning: you are under enemy observation’ the road sign reads. I can only assume, as our jeep passes the third one, that it is meant for the army – unless, of course, nasty Rebecca from primary school has stationed herself behind a boulder with a sniper rifle.
The road from Leh to Kargil is frightening in every way: hairpin bends on a track that seems to cling to the sheer rockface of the mountains on a whim that seems certain to change. Below – no, much much further below – the ruins of trucks and cars lie horribly mangled where they fell. The road is planted with posts and signs bearing patriotic slogans, rousing one-liners to the glorious soldiers (or, more often, to the glorious dead solders), as well as self-praise for the Border Road Organisation, and driver warnings. The warnings are usually presented in rhyming couplets and they include such gems as:’Use horse power, not rum power’; ‘Use road safety, have home safe tea’; ‘Speed thrills but kills’; and ‘Overspeed is a knife that can cut’. Our Ladakhi driver sing-chants his Buddhist mantras for at least 30 minutes, praying for safe passage.
The signs also provide interesting and mindboggling information about our journey as we cross the 4100 metre pass, including pointing out the magnetic mountain ‘which defies gravity and causes water to flow uphill’, and the world’s second coldest inhabited place (after a village in Siberia) where temperatures drop to -60C.
We pass shepherds and donkey herders, and ponymen who look as if they rode here from Afghanistan. We see two Himalayan foxes, eagles and kites, and children eating apples straight from the trees.
These are welcome distractions on a trip that involves 12 passport checks, too many weopon sightings to mention, dozens of near-fatal encounters with wide-eyed crazy truck drivers coming the other way along the single track, most of whom have been driving for more than 12 hours solid so as to clear the pass in time. Most of the people we see are dressed in military garb, fighterjets crack the sky overhead and evidence of shell damage is everywhere. The road passes uncomfortably close to the Line of Control. The ceasefire between India and Pakistan is little reassurance. Apparently, a favourite game for bored snipers on both sides is to take potshots at the other side when they wander out to take a shit across the glaciers.
We arrive at Kargil, a frontier town of the most skittish kind, in the afternoon, both of us doing our best to look unIndian and unJewish, as recommended by the security documents I read. Images of Ayatollah Khomeini are everywhere. We stay in an overpriced, miserable room, eat and sleep.
The next morning we head to Srinagar, over another, more frightening pass before descending into the Kashmir valley. The houses switch from mudbrick and flat-roofed to stone with high-pitched corrugated steel roofs, and then to brick as we come lower still. The people are a mix between the darker north Indians and the light-skinned, fair-haired, blue-green eyed Kashmiris who are supposedly descended from Alexander the Great. The Tibetan appearance of Ladakh is nearly absent here.
The climate is warmer and wetter when we’ve crossed the pass. People are starting to harvest the fields, two weeks later than in Ladakh, and the crops are different: there is wheat and barley, but also rice and many other vegetables and flowers. The rivers and streams are full here and the glaciers come quite low into the valleys. At times, we are surrounded by white peaks. The temples and rock carvings to Buddha have gone, replaced with mosques, but quite different to those elsewhere – there are no minarets to the mosques and they are of a simple, square design here.
We pass several memorials to the dead of the 1999 war, but aside from some aggressive ‘toll-collectors’ in one dusty town, we are unhassled. People stare, they are perhaps surprised to see tourists, and the women begin to disappear as we approach Srinagar – veils become longer, burkas appear and the men to women ratio on the street escalates noticeably.
Entering a cafe in Srinagar, I feel less comfortable than I have in a while – there is no separate ‘family room’ for women diners as there was in Bangladesh, but I am conspicuously the only female, and dressed head to foot in black as I am, I still elicit stares that are a mixture of curiosity (fine) and hostility (not fine).
We say goodbye to our lovely Ladakhi driver and head to the shining jewel of Srinagar, the heavily polluted Dal Lake on which empty houseboats wait forlornly for tourists. We will only spend a night here before heading to Delhi.
And from there we fly into the Dark Continent: our adventure continues on Wednesday in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.