“It will cost 2000 rupees” Waseem, tells us. The travel agent puts his hands together, leans over the desk and stares at us, droopy-eyed. We both look back at him desperately. “Maybe we could do 1500?” I say, hopefully. “Or 1300…!” Cat, chips in. Waseem is silent. A long, sighing breath puffs through his cheeks until he quickly slaps the table and stands. “You know what. I’m bored. I’m bored of being in the office.” We guiltily shuffle our thumbs beneath him and I pick up my bag, preparing to dash. Then India gives us the unexpected that we expected at some point would happen. “I will take you, on my bike.” He beams a smile. “Free of charge.”
Flip-flops and parachute pants are quickly replaced by tight running leggings, hideous thermal tops and a beetle-black helmet. We are riding from Leh through Nubra Valley (150km). As the engine ignites, the weight of the motorbike beneath me lifts and I tightly clutch the seat. We speed forward like a firework through the mist.
Wind batters the tiny line of prayer flags which dangle between the handle bars on Waseem’s Royal Enfield. I am already addicted to the winding journey, where every subtle vibration and twisting motion thrills. Water from my eyes mixes with the storm hitting my face. Without the protection of a car, the scent of burning, damp air is inescapable and suddenly the speed in journey is made real.
Waseem and his friend, Chef, first take us from Leh towards Kardung La. After much perseverance, we are forced to stop at a chai tent because the rain is turning to hail and our bodies are turning to stone. I look at Cat’s red, raw face and shivering limbs and start to wonder if we’ll actually make it. “I’m not sure” Waseem says, “There’s snow up ahead. We might have to come back tomorrow instead.” Few motorbikes pass us as we sit in the tent, sipping sweet chai from small plastic cups, praying for sun.
30 minutes later, the first ray breaks through the clouds and Waseem concludes that it is safe to continue. I ecstatically leap over to the counter and buy a cover for my face, encouraging Cat to get some gloves. Himank labourers (Dumkas) crack stones on the side of the ascending road. Their eyes peer sternly through thin scarves while the mountains breathe sand around their hunched, hard-working bodies. Then the sand disappears. The smooth tarmac roughens into stony gravel and our bodies fly up on the seat; my tailbone occasionally hitting the metal bar behind. Thank God, we are nearing the top. Tiny cars deluded into believing they are four-wheel-drives roll backwards and need to be pushed by disgruntled passengers. We bounce on by.
The pass summit is a pit-stop into the valley. Each tourist takes their turn to pose in front of the bright sign boasting its great height, inhales a bowl of maggi (cheap noodle soup) and quickly moves on. High altitude and freezing temperatures aside, it simply isn’t that pretty up on the so-called highest motorable road in the world (apparently this statement isn’t even true). Prayer flags tangle in the snow which men colour with their piss. I don’t blame them. The tampon littered, shit splattered toilets, half of which don’t lock, are possibly the worst I’ve come across in India. It is all very well putting tissues in the bin to avoid blocking the toilet, but someday that bin needs to be emptied. We hastily return to the bikes and continue down the other side of the pass.
Our next stop is Diskit, the capital of Nubra Valley. After riding the bike for 5 hours already, I have forgotten how to walk and my legs are stuck squeezing an invisible beach ball. Flashes of red appear through dark windows as monks potter around the crooked, dirty-white Gompa at the top. It is the oldest monastery in the valley. We stand at the top, the impressive Maitreya Buddha statue rising up from the vast sandy plains. 32 metres high, it looks down onto Shyok river with an ever-smiling face; a golden sun.
When we return to the bikes, Waseem gently informs us that going all the way to Turtuk is impossible. The road this late is often flooded and it would be dangerous to ride, especially in the dark. But we can still make it to the next village, Hundar. We arrive here in the late afternoon, jumping from motorbikes onto camels and riding across the sand dunes at sunset. Looking back, it seems like just another kodak moment. But the journey was much more than that. Patting the side of the camel and watching the shades of sand fold over into the sinking sun, I turn to Cat and confess “This could be one of the best days of my life.” I had discovered two things I would never stray far from while in India: mountains and motorbikes.
Wheels go from sand-skidding into snow-crunching as we return to Kardung La, the next day. Waseem’s bikes struggles through the stubborn snow clumps. It is now inches thicker than before and nearly impossible to ride through. Cat has already leapt into the first available car and I am tempted to do the same. Spotting a couple of friends we made in Diskit, I take full advantage of their back-supporting passenger seat, toe-defrosting heater and sound system. Along with 50 other cars we wait in snow-stopped traffic for mini avalanches to be cleared by disobedient diggers. Rumours that a car has been hit by a landslide drifts through the jam, but no one is able to provide details about how serious this is. Trapped under the edge of an overhanging cliff, no one really wants to think about it.
Whether we are always conscious of it, mountains demand our trust. Their astonishingly almighty peaks are addictive yet, cruelly unpredictable. Who knows when the next rock will fall? We just share a blind faith with other explorers that we will not be underneath when it does. Descending from the pass, my heart begins to sink. Aside from escaping the polluting fumes and dust in Leh, the trip across Nubra Valley gave me a slice of bliss beyond any of my expectations. We were living in the moment. Without wi-fi beckoning us to internet cafes and the restless tides of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), we finally had space just to be. My mind let go. It is more than the sight of these earth-shattering shards, that draw wanderers to risky high passes and Everest-style summits. We are all bound by their energy.