Monday, August 18, 2014

Tales of Fire, Rock & Ice

The vast majority of trekkers in Ladakh are European and, therefore, so have been most of my companions. One of the unexpected pleasures of this trip have been the other tourists I’ve met - from the very south of Italy to cold, dark Norway. There’s something about Ladakh that attracts those with a liberal outlook here; most of them would spend the evenings complaining about the way their countries are shifting to the right of the political spectrum. Backpackers are infinitely more fun company than folks who travel in large groups and on fixed itineraries. And… if I ever go to Europe again, I think I could save a bunch on hotel bills.

Still, their being nice does not in any way force me to be anything more than my usual nasty self, so I would tease them about their “white-people problems” whenever they had to take a break to apply sunscreen. Of course, it was all show. I may not need sunscreen but the sun's almost as harsh on my skin as theirs. There are times when I feel a hole's being burrowed into my neck. After three months in Ladakh, I resemble a colour wheel (well, at least, one embodying the brown-to-black spectrum): no one part of my body has the same colour as anywhere else. That’s the odd thing about Ladakh: if you’re in the shade, you need about three layers on clothing on but if you step into the sun to warm up a bit, you feel like you’ve been bunged into an oven like those three blokes were by that emperor. No middle ground, that’s the trouble with Ladakh.


The Europeans would get their chance for revenge when, in the evenings, I’d be thoroughly cold and miserable. It was their turn to bait me with “brown-people problems.” There are many things that are hard about trekking in Ladakh: the difficulty of breathing in these high altitudes, the exhaustion from trekking up high passes and over long distances (villages are far apart in these sparsely-populated mountains) with a heavy backpack, the pain from walking on trails that barely exist and, above all, the sheer terror of walking on ledges a few inches wide and high up a gorge. But even with all that, I never feel as lonely, as out-of-place, as marooned in a vast and alien landscape, as when I walk after dinner to the nearest stream to wash up. There isn't a sound about save for the howling of the wind - none of the variety of insects and animals that we from the tropics are used to - just to add that bit of the unaccustomed to the already disheartening experience of taking tiny, halting steps in the freezing cold... a cold multiplied several times by the stiff wind. And that is before I dip my hands in waters that melted from a glacier in my line of sight. And that is still before I cup the waters in my hand and splash them on my face.


One of the more interesting villages I visited was Turtuk, in the Nubra valley. Along with a couple of other villages, it was in Pakistan's Baltistan until the 1971 war, when it was captured by India. The people here have a language distinct from Ladakhi, called Balti, and some still have relatives across the border whom they haven't seen in decades. I was pointed out the remains of another village nearby where they moved over to Pakistan when India took over, but the people of Turtuk refused to give their homeland up. If being separated from the people they share a language and a culture with - owing to a conflict that has nothing to do with them and that has no resolution in sight - is a source of sadness, you wouldn't get to know that by their demeanour. Their hospitality is matched only by the beauty of their little village by the Shyok river... and it doesn't hurt that they're the most attractive people I've seen anywhere!

Well, ok, this was taken from a smartphone, with maximum zoom on.
That said, I'll forever remember this trip for my first proper sighting of K2. It’s hard to say how near I was to the mountain. Google Maps doesn’t have Turtuk marked accurately - it's shown as way closer to Leh than it actually is. K2 seems to be about 215 kilometres from Leh as the crow flies (do crows fly that high, though?), and using markers such as Diskit Monastery, Turtuk is probably around 170 kilometres or so from Leh, which means that I was around 50 kilometres, give or take, from K2. Still, that little detail won’t stop me from beginning conversations like this for years to come: “The blizzard struck just as I was beginning my final ascent of K2. No big deal usually but I was hampered by the baby - left behind by a climber who’d just remembered that he’d left the gas on at home - and the snow leopard - who’d gotten her paw stuck under a falling serac - both of whom I had to carry in my backpack, on either side of my iceaxe, and so it took me a couple more hours to the summit than I’d bargained for…”

I guess my fascination with K2 has something to do with my Geography teacher from school, who was obsessed with the peak. But its Wikipedia article fully justifies my fascination. It is, of course, full of interesting facts: that it is regarded by mountaineers as the world’s most difficult and dangerous climb, that one in four die in the attempt, that it has never been climbed in winter, that its steep, exposed nature makes retreat all the more difficult in case of the extreme storms lasting several days that it has a propensity for. But most of all, rather unusually for Wikipedia, the article also has a soul befitting such an iconic mountain.

Consider its discussion of the many names K2 is known by:

K2, however, appeared not to have acquired a local name, possibly due to its remoteness. The mountain is not visible from Askole, the last village to the south, or from the nearest habitation to the north, and is only fleetingly glimpsed from the end of the Baltoro Glacier, beyond which few local people would have ventured. The name Chogori, derived from two Balti words, chhogo ("big") and ri ("mountain") has been suggested as a local name, but evidence for its widespread use is scant. It may have been a compound name invented by Western explorers or simply a bemused reply to the question "What's that called?"

It shows where its heart lies by throwing its weight behind the most commonly-used name, the surveyor's notation, by quoting the Italian climber Fosco Maraini

... just the bare bones of a name, all rock and ice and storm and abyss. It makes no attempt to sound human. It is atoms and stars. It has the nakedness of the world before the first man – or of the cindered planet after the last.

Wouldn't you like to see the Savage Mountain for yourself now?

P.S. - I'll be loading up a pony with a few essentials and travelling to Manali, thence to Dharamshala and the southern villages of Amritsar and Delhi, and finally to Bangalore and Cochin so many thousands of kilometres away.

To be honest, I've heard horrible stories of the lands across the Himalayas... that instead of simply taking a horse over a high pass, you folks travel to other villages in metal beasts that darken the skies and melt our glaciers... that instead of growing everything you need, you copy the ideas of the lands of the dying sun, where they exchange little bits of paper for what they need (and very often don't need) in places they call "supermarkets"... that you would lie and kill for these bits of paper... that you take great pride in and collect things of no value that you call "electronics"... that your bellies rival Annapurna and Nanga Parbat because all you ever do is sit in one place, doing things that cause this thing called "stress" but are really of no practical value at all... that you do not know how to smile anymore and that neither do you look strangers in the eye when you pass them nor do you greet them with a warm "jullay."

Still, these and other stories do not discourage me at all from my desire to travel and to see your lands. Besides, these are all surely exaggerations: things cannot possibly be that bad in your lands of which we've heard so much here. See you in a few weeks!

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