Flying Blind, Take 2

Longitude: 77.40 E Latitude: 34.10 N Altitude: 11,550 feet Today’s audio update

Editor’s note: Yesterday a mixture of altitude-addled brains and shaky satellite uplinks caused the team in Kashmir to transmit an incomplete, abandoned draft of the first dispatch (click here for Seth’s explanation). Slate duly published that version, but we are now able to remedy the error. Below is the complete dispatch. 

Delhi in monsoon season

I am currently trying to write through a mortar blast headache born of altitude sickness. Yet I am grateful. We are lucky to be here at all.

Our plane left Delhi yesterday without a hitch. But after a long, ear-popping ascent, we found ourselves stuck in some Himalayan valley, circling through a bowl of impenetrable clouds, unable to land. So we turned and went back to Delhi, collected our checked baggage, shuttled to the airport hotel, and vowed to do it over again the next morning. This is quite common on the flight to Leh—the northern Indian village I’m writing to you from now—which is home to one of the highest airstrips in the world. Pilots fly up through the mountains with great hope, but when they fail to find a hole in the clouds to pop back down through, they just turn around and fight another day. No instrument-only flights here—our guide, Stan, tells us “IFR landing” stands for “I Follow Road.”

Weary travelers

It’s an annoyance—facing the fuss of airports and planes only to end where you started. But for my girlfriend, Rebecca, whom I’ve dragged along, despite her intense highly specific fear of flying into a mountain, it is a nightmare: circling blind as Himalayan peaks loom invisibly in all directions.

When we board the plane this morning to try again, Rebecca is armed with a triple dose of sedatives and scotch. And though we make it to Leh this time with no problems, I must admit it’s a shrewd bit of self-medication—quite appropriate. For this is the pants-soilingest landing I’ve ever seen. Our approach calls for weaving through hunks of massive mountain—one narrow, winding passageway after another—as snow-dusted crags tower over our fragile wings. When we touch down and ease to a stop, the burst of applause from the passengers’ cabin is loud and clearly heartfelt.

The  16th-century Leh palace in the distance 

We move quickly through the airport, which boasts a heavy military presence. (The deadly battle for Kashmir rages on not far from here. But these men seem mostly charged with stopping us from taking pictures.) Within half an hour, we find ourselves sitting in a garden of yellow chrysanthemums, shaded by a sun umbrella, drinking tea.

From our hotel, which tends this lovely spot, we can see a gorgeous palace perched on a hilltop, with Buddhist prayer flags flapping from its towers. At the edge of the hotel grounds, a canal of fast-flowing glacier melt is bubbling and washing downhill with a powerful rush.

The stupa and giant prayer wheel on the outskirts of the Leh bazaar are a focus for Tibetan Buddhists 

The tiny village of Leh is a magical place. OK, it could well be light-headedness from the thin air (so thin I swear I can see discrete oxygen molecules). Or perhaps it’s an interaction between my anti-malarial drugs and my anti-altitude-sickness drugs. But there’s no doubt I’m getting a wonderful feeling here. This region, Ladakh, is more Tibetan than Indian, and Tibetan Buddhism flavors everything we see. A giant prayer wheel is next to the road, waiting to be spun, so we spin it, and with each turn it rings a melodious bell. Everywhere monks walk in pairs, and one young monk buys a Walkman at a street-side stand. The women have beautiful, sun-reddened skin, and long black braids, and shawls in colors so bright they look lit from within. The light is so intense here (at 11,500 feet—more than two miles above sea level) that all colors seem more vivid than in other places. My brain feels like an overexposed roll of film.

And the town is all the better for the lack of tourists this summer. All those travel warnings from the India-Pakistan standoff have scared your average traveler away. There are still a few backpackers around—particularly Israelis, many of whom motorcycle fearlessly into the mountains all the way from Delhi (reminding us that when you come from Jerusalem safety is a relative concept).

Seth and the holy cow, which steals veggies from street vendors, roaming the streets 

After watching a woman shoo a giant, lazy cow from her vegetable stand, it is time to walk back to our rooms. You can only do so much this first day before the thin air gets to you. Stan tells us we can expect to wake up gasping in the middle of the night, desperate for oxygen. “It feels like you’re dying,” he says with a friendly laugh.

Tomorrow, with luck, I’ll have adjusted to the altitude (with help from the pills), and this headache will be gone, and I will tell you all about Stan. He’s one of the pioneers of Himalayan trekking, having first toured Nepal in the 1960s, and he now lives in Katmandu, which I think is really cool. And I’ll tell you more about Ladakh, known as Little Tibet and only opened to foreigners starting in the mid-1970s. And I’ll tell you about whether we’re insane to be traveling in India at all, given the always-present threat of Pakistani nukes. But for now I must sleep and pray for the throb in my skull to slowly subside. I look forward to waking up gasping, fearing death. Check back tomorrow for the next dispatch from Kashmir.