Longitude: 77.2 E
Latitude: 28.4 N
Altitude: 700 feet
From Manali we head south and soon see our first traffic light. A broken traffic light, yes, but still … a turning point of sorts. By Sunday afternoon we are in Chandigarh—le Corbusier’s planned city on the Indian plain. Imagine Celebration, Fla., but run by the Indian government instead of by Disney. (Result: fewer matching shutters; more dung.) From here, a few hours’ train travel brings us to Delhi and journey’s end. So—should you go to Kashmir? Or at least to Ladakh, the part of Kashmir where they’re not shooting at each other?
From your breakfast table back home, these conflicts can seem much worse than they are. For instance, I went to Zimbabwe last year. If you listened to Western media reports, you might have assumed that upon arrival I was 1) doused with gasoline; 2) lit on fire; and 3) brutally gang-raped as I burned alive. Yet somehow these events did not transpire, and in fact I had a lovely time.
Similarly, after all the travel warnings and press coverage, one might be a tad scared of India. Few want a guided tour of a nuclear war. Even to me, two weeks on Nantucket sounds nicer than melted eyes. But for our entire time here—Delhi, Ladakh, and back—we were never scared of violence. Jeep accidents, yes. War and terrorists, no. That’s not to say it couldn’t happen. There are constant military brush-ups (one just as we were leaving). You never know if this is the day that war breaks out. But when you are here and you talk to people, it seems silly to be scared. This stuff has been churning for decades. It hasn’t ruined Ladakh. There are plenty of tourists there still, from France and Germany, Israel and Holland. And they’re not just fearless backpackers, either—there are middle-aged tour groups about. In fact, I’d be more concerned with the travel itself. It is far from easy. Just going to India at all you risk “Delhi belly.” They seem to give it out at the airport, like leis in Hawaii. And the altitude is harsh, as I found out.
Even if you aren’t prone to carsickness (if you are, stay away from these roads), you might try a walking trek. We ended up spending the bulk of our time with each other in a jeep riding from one stunning viewpoint to another. Our trek was designed as a scenic journey, not a cultural one, and I might have preferred more cross-cultural exchange. But we had too few days, and too far to go, and little time to just hang out and make new friends.
If I did it again, I’d take more time here and see less. I could have spent a whole week in the Nubra Valley. Of course, when you airdrop into a foreign place for 13 days, attempts at cultural analysis are asinine at best. So I’ll make no attempt. But I will say this: There was a distinct feeling in Leh. A wonderful feeling. And I think Tibetan Buddhism has something to do with it. Partly, it’s the very things we heard the Dalai Lama speak about—selflessness, openness, compassion. People all smile in Leh, and there is warmth you rarely feel elsewhere—even up there in the cold Himalayan air. I will remember it quite fondly. Would I go back? Back to the mountains, the deserts, the flood plains, the yaks? Good question. I think I’d like to. For the time being, though, my troubles with altitude prescribe a sea-level existence.
I do know that if I never returned, I’d never find anything like this again in my life. It is the Himalayas, after all. You don’t see them every day. I’ll look back at my pictures and remember. But to stand atop an 18,000 foot pass—the roof of the world—while Gurkha soldiers are handing you warm cups of tea, and Germans on motorbikes laugh light-headedly, and the air is so thin it’s just space, and Buddhist prayer flags snap in an ungodly wind … Or to kneel among 20,000 as his holiness offers blessings, not far at all from Tibet, where he may never go again … Or to follow a smiling monk as he opens a door, and you kick off your shoes, and you walk with bare feet on a smooth wooden floor into darkness …