Clearing the head in Ladakh

Last Updated: Wed, Dec 26, 2012 19:31 hrs

To describe the experience of Ladakh in words is not easy. Those who have travelled through this enigmatic, and often treacherous, corner of India would even claim that it’s impossible to experience Ladakh through words. There’s no arguing with that reality. However, Vikramajit Ram does come pretty close to painting an accessible and lyrical picture of this mystical cold desert that remains cut off from the world for almost six months.

His book, Tso and La – A Journey in Ladakh, is much more than a travelogue, as the title might suggest. His insightful observations and a keen interest in history, architecture, botany and zoology make the land of tso (which means lake in Ladakhi) and la (mountain pass) come alive in the pages.

It all begins with an unexpected offer of a trip to Ladakh from Manoj Bawa, who’s more of an acquaintance than a friend until then. And Mr Ram, who’s struggling with writer’s block and wants to get as far away as possible from the novel he’s unable to write, jumps at the offer. After some weeks of toning and careful planning – a good thing because you cannot and must not set out on a road trip to Ladakh otherwise – the two start from Bangalore for Ladakh. Taking them on this journey is an SUV, curiously called P Singh — the name being a “nod to the part-Sikh roots of his owner,” that’s Manoj or “Man”, as Mr Ram refers to his companion in the book. Much like its owner, the SUV – which is always referred to as though it’s a flesh-and-blood person – is hardy, indefatigable and cantankerous.

The first stop is Man’s house, which sets the pace for the journey and offers the first glimpse into Ladakh — the land that doesn’t leave you for a lifetime once you’ve experienced it. The proof of this lies in the eyes of Man’s ailing father: they light up at the mention of Ladakh as though he’d returned from it only yesterday. The old soldier’s album has pictures of Ladakh when he was posted there during the India-China conflict from the late 1950s to early 1960s.

Carrying these images in his head, Mr Ram sets out to find his own Ladakh. The journey from Srinagar, over the 11,630-foot-high Zoji La, through the lunar terrain to Drass and Kargil where over 500 soldiers died during the India-Pakistan conflict of 1999, finally to Leh is as thrilling as it gets.

On the way, Mr Ram’s determination to visit the medieval Martand Sun temple, much to Man’s irritation at the detour it would involve, also shows how unpredictable the journey can be. It’s with some effort and a great deal of uncertainty that they manage to reach the limestone temple, a specimen of exquisite architecture. Here’s where you get the first taste of the author’s remarkable ability to recreate in words all the colours, forms, textures and aromas he experiences during this journey.

Tso and La takes you into the homes of the locals, their kitchens, their culture and their language. For example, in the guest house of one sullen Ladakhi – there aren’t many sullen Ladakhis you would come across, though – our travellers discover that the food is strictly non-vegetarian and rich in mok mok (mutton). There are several other words also that you pick up on the way, along with a local recipe that Mr Ram diligently reproduces in the book. You learn that villagers are called yulpa, egg is thul and traditional Ladakhi dress is goncha. Of the many amusing conversations between the travelling companions is one about the mountain dog.

…what’s the word for dog? Zip-something? Zorry?’
Man frowns, negotiating a gentle curve. Khardung La doesn’t seem at all as treacherous as it is made out to be. Not yet, at least…
Zhankey’ [Man]
That’s right. Zhankey… Have you noticed how the zhankey in these parts have dreadlocks and yellow eyes? Yolk yellow to be precise. Fine in an egg but evil in’
Please shut up.’ [Man]

Mr Ram knows his animals well. On spotting the Asiatic wild ass (Equus hemionus) in the high reaches of Ladakh, he compares it to the animal he’s seen in the Rann of Kutch: “Equus hemionus on the little Rann of Kutch were all compact and white. Here, their taller relatives are packed with body suits of pale-jasper and white.”

There’s only one problem I have with the book: it’s more tso and less la. Mr Ram spends a lot of time on the lakes — Pangong Tso and Tso Moriri deserve it, but I wish he hadn’t raced through the magnificent mountain passes. The one he does complete justice to is Khardung La, the world’s highest motorable pass where he decides to break away for good from the fiction he’s been working on and instead write about the trip that made him look at everything afresh.

However, I would have liked to read more about the Gata Loops, the 21 hairpin bends that take you way up in a few kilometres, or get a better feel of the roller-coaster ride over the other strenuous passes — Baralacha La, Tanglang La, Nakee La and Lachulung La. It’s a bit disappointing that the exciting 473 kilometres between Leh and Manali fly by in a breeze. But the author does delightfully capture the stand-off between stubborn motorists, which is not uncommon on the high Baralacha La in the Zanskar range. Maybe if the two travellers had made the road trip from Manali to Leh and then Srinagar rather than the other way round, la would have enjoyed more space.

Vikramajit Ram
240 pages; Rs 325

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