Fingers claw at hardening clumps that used to be white. Some desperately try to shape it into pellets of ammunition, others delightfully press their hand against its cold, crisp surface. Stuck on the 434km-long road between Srinagar and Leh, waiting hours for rocks to be cleared from a recent landslide, is apparently mind-blowing. At least for those used to living under the shelter of palm trees in Goa. But, if you have spent freezing winter months in England plonking carrots into crumbling balls of snow and ruining your dad’s favourite scarf, black ice on a mountain road is fairly underwhelming. The real Himalayan snow is still to come. I see it, temptingly melting down the mountain cones; thickly dripping into the hazy horizon.
Our journey on the National Highway is long and hazardous. At any moment, cliffs can crumble or the J&K (Jammu and Kashmir) police will insist on making you wait 3 hours at one checkpoint for the pilgrims to pass. But its juxtaposing views are outstanding. Hard, yellow stone punctures the great firmament above. Pierced rainclouds leak, causing a swarm of grey mist and droplets to hang over the sandy shards. From the snow-trickled mountain ranges beyond Sonamarg hill station into the vast and rocky desert plains on the climb up to Fotu La, the highest pass on the Srinagar-Leh road; these sights make me wish I didn’t have to blink.
We pass numerous villages on the highway, but none are as intriguing as the Tibetan Gompa, Lamayuru. Disappointingly, all our jeep driver can afford is a 5-minute stop. But a month later, I return on a scooter trip with a friend to stay the night and explore Ladakh’s oldest Monastery. The residence is surrounded by buildings which grow out of the rocks, their crumbling bodies camouflaged among the red stone.
It is dark when we arrive in Leh, 17 hours later. The much-fretted altitude of 3500 metres, has little effect aside from minor light-headedness and the constant urgency to wee. Walking down Changspa Road for the first time, we find ourselves without a room at 1am, sipping mint tea despairingly in an isolated guesthouse garden. But I had a good feeling about Leh. The manager guilty of giving away our pre-booked room eventually offers us a couple of free mattresses on the ground. It is a large space, with two bulging sofas and a mantel piece full of faintly ornate crockery. “Madame, this room only for special guests, family” he tells us, “No smoke, no drink…”
I’m fast asleep, having dreams I can’t remember, about to live dreams I’ll never forget. We are finally in Leh: the kingdom capital of Ladakh, a Tibetan haven in the mountains, soon to be one of my favourite places on earth.