Taking Kashmir’s Deadly Roads to Nirvana

Longitude: 77.27 E Latitude: 34.35 N Altitude: 10,464 feet Today’s audio update

Siachen Hospital

To come to the Nubra Valley we need an “inner line permit,” which allows us to get (perhaps too) close to the line of control. Last night, we heard military jets flying up to the Siachen Glacier. This is the big chunk of ice on which India and Pakistan have battled for decades—lobbing shells each summer when the snows end. (It’s not clear what they would do with the glacier if they ever managed to win it.) Not far from our hotel is the Siachen Army Hospital, where they chopper in the casualties.

As those jets roared past, our photographer/field producer Jonathan was staying up late, calculating satellite azimuths. He’s balanced our collapsible uplink dish precariously out of his window, searching for a decent signal. This morning, as we drink tea and pore over trekking maps, Jonathan carefully captures a panorama of our surroundings. Jon has assured his wife back home that she shouldn’t fear Pakistani terrorists; rather, she should fear a jeep accident. He’s right about this. The roads here are deadly—none of them wider than 1.3 lanes, all of them switch-backing up frightening slopes. Often, a mile-long convoy of trucks—lugging army supplies—will barrel down the mountains at high speed. When they reach a blind curve, the lead truck honks—kindly alerting any oncoming jeep that it will shortly be rammed with great force, thrown over the precipice, and spun violently down to a slow, fiery death at the base of the mountain. Quite thoughtful, really. We hit the death roads this morning to reach the 500-year-old Diskit monastery. It is wedged up into a mountainside, 600 feet above the valley, on a lonely promontory squeezed between two canyons. Across one canyon is a neighboring perch, upon which they’re building a home for the Dalai Lama, who will live here for a few weeks each year. The other canyon has a waterfall and rushing rapids. This is where the monks get their drinking water. There’s an endless, rickety wooden ladder along the canyon face that they used to climb down carrying buckets. Now they have a pump and some long rubber pipes. It’s hard not to feel some sort of spirituality up here. It’s humbling, staring out at the mountains across a deserted valley. The only sounds are the waterfall, the flapping of prayer flags in the wind, and the pleasant bells of the prayer wheels as they spin. There’s no one here to let us inside, because the monk with the key is in Leh to see the Dalai Lama. (His holiness will be there for several days, and with luck we’ll see him this weekend.) The only other souls here are a handful of quiet tourists and a junior monk, who is silently building a short, steep staircase. A mural on one wall shows the four guardians—of the north, south, east, and west. One guardian holds an umbrella in his right hand and a small mongoose in his left. Our Ladakhi guide, Phunsook, says when he shakes the umbrella, the mongoose vomits a jewel. I may need to clarify this at some point. The locals tell us that tourism this year is 10 percent of what it once was. Good news for us. The monastery, which is meant to be peaceful, is exactly that. Phunsook says that in past years, 15 jeeploads of tourists a day would flood its grounds. We imagine them chattering loudly, eating snacks, and squeezing past each other on narrow stairways. Ugh. Thank God for imminent nuclear conflict.

A Bactrian camel breeding center near the village of Diskit is a magnet for tourists

Next we go to the camel place. This is the place with camels—the two-humped, Bactrian kind that once marched the Silk Road from Central Asia. You can ride the camels around in their little pen for 100 rupees ($2), but we take a pass. Mostly the camels just lie there and look dopey—until a woman comes out with food. Then they crowd around and steal food from each other’s mouths and bite each other on the neck. Flies that live on the camels begin daring sorties into our eyeballs. This place is like a very poor, possibly destitute man’s Busch Gardens.

Tusdem, the happy monk in charge of the Hundar gompa at Chemis

Then we ride to another gorgeous monastery—the Hunder gompa (“gompa” means monastery). An extremely jolly old monk—bald-headed, scantily toothed, bouncing on his toes—greets us at the door. He plays a small joke on Jonathan, pretending he’s not allowed in. Then he tells us we must pay five rupees per photo. This seems fair, as you’ll rarely see a more photogenic monk. Inside, the only light is from a few oil lamps and skylights carved in the ceiling to shine sun streams down on the huge Buddha statue.