He had grown increasingly more anxious as our prospects for getting to Leh in time for the famous Hemis Festival began to look slimmer and slimmer. Air India was booked solid till the end of the month and the Srinigar-Leh Highway had still not announced its open date for the season. And so he had grown more and more discouraged. "We just have to get there somehow," he said, planning to walk over the passes if he had to. (See my post Kashmir)
As so often happens in life, the answer miraculously presented itself. We met a man who was planning to bribe his way on to the road before it officially opened. He had a contract with a German tour group, and said he was going "no matter what."
And so we headed off-- riding in a jeep at the head of a convoy of a dozen taxis full of German tourists.
The Srinagar-Leh Highway, built in the early 1960s, is probably typical of high altitude roads in that part of the world. A surprisingly smooth asphalt-paved "interstate," the road clings perilously to the side of the mountains. Rising up over dazzlingly high mountain passes, then descending into apricot-tree filled valleys along the Indus, it connects two very different worlds. (In the Himalaya, cultures are dispersed not be geogaphy but rather by altitude--so that similar culture zones don't necessarily exist side-by-side but rather at the same altitude on a mountain or valley somewhere else. This is something you really notice as these high-altitude roads rise and fall over and over again).
The most impressive transition ocurred at the very first pass-- the famous Zoji La. Rising up around 3500 feet, the pass is also known as the Gateway to Ladakh. It is the most beautiful mountain pass--you can see from the picture above that as you rise up, the green and very alpine valley of Kashmir spreads below like a beautiful dreamscape. Passing through the very narrow "gateway," however, you leave this alpine world behind, and --moving through the pass itself, which feels very much like Kawabata's tunnel in Snow Country-- you emerge into what is described as the moonscape of Ladakh. Utterly treeless and very, very rocky and desolate, I think it is too high up to get any rain. Surrounded in every direction with towering mountains, the landscape is very stark. Completely Surreal. A Moonscape.
The highest pass along the road is Fotu-la (4108 meters). Further on, however, on the road connecting Leh to Manali, there is an even higher pass which once had a sign reading:
Beacon Highway: Highest Road in the World.
You Can Have a Dialogue with God
You get the picture. From Fotu-la, the road makes a series of hair-pin turns to descend into Lamayuru-- one of the most remote and important Tibetan monesteries in Ladakh.
People don't walk in LA. I don't drive and always feel lonely being the only one out walking along the roads. In contrast, in the Himalaya--in what seemed at first to be such an incredibly remote and really desolate landscape-- I was constantly surprised to see people here and there walking. "Where in the world were they headed?" I thought, and yet, there they were. And like that, seemingly out of nowhere, our convoy of Kashimiri taxis was surrounded by a million goats.
And so we stopped. And watched as an ocean of goats filled every inch of empy space on the road around us. It was like the tide coming in. And, in the midst of this ocean of goats-- a man. And, I could not take my eyes off him. I think I actually gasped because he was so unexpected. Unexpected and yet familar. It was love at first sight (or Shazaam as the Shiek says).
Pure magnetism and when our eyes locked on each other through the car window, it was all I could do to stop myself from jumping out. I mean, thinking back now, I am sure it was only my intense dislike of goats that stopped me. I have an incredibly impetuous nature... but it is also entirely possibly that I am allergic to goats.
Nearly two decades have gone by, but believe me when I tell you, that he is as vivid to me now as if I had seen him yesterday.
But then again, maybe not. In fact, somehow over the years, I think he has blended in my heart with the figure of the incredibly dashing Mahbub Ali, from Rudyard Kipling's Kim. You remember in the book where we get that first glimpse of Mahbub Ali in the Kashmir Serai in Lahore, that "huge open space square over against the railway station, surrounded with arched cloisters, where the camel and horse caravans put up on their return from Central Asia."
Just like Mahbub Ali, my man on the road to Leh was a tall Pashtun with a "scarlet-dyed beard." And to say that he had an air of mystery about him would only be an understatement.
And, at last Dear Readers, I get to my point.
I have been reading back and forth between two books this week. Gavin Young's In Search of Conrad and Peter Hopkirk's Quest for Kim. Both are absolutely fantastic, and I would only recommend one over the other depending on whether one was a Kipling fan or a Conrad fan. The project of both authors is precisely identical: to go and undercover the places and characters of the books that so profoundly affected the authors' lives. And, indeed, both authors are very, very clear about the way these books shaped their lives. For Hopkirk, it was an early reading of Kim that would set him on his life's journey to study, read and write about the Great Game. He says:
To a highly impressionable, romantically minded schoolboy of thirteen-- the same age as Kim himself--the mysterious, if murky activities of Mahbub Ali and Lurgan Sahib were heady stuff indeed... so spellbound was I by this glmpse into the workings of the Indian secret service that I carried a copy of Kim everywhere...
I felt the same about the novel and agree with Hopkirk that it perhaps does emit "an intense luminiscence." For this reason, too, I am friendly to Hopkirk's suggestion that a reading of Kim could cure a "nasty bout of depression." Indeed.
Young is no less devoted to Conrad as Hopkirk is to Kipling. For Gavin Young it was a schoolboy reading of Joseph Conrad's story Youth which was to so dramatically affect his life. He writes on page 1:
My obsession with Joseph Conrad got into its stride after my headmaster read a passage from the story Youth-- a story that said in so many words, "Catch life on the wing--but hurry!"-A message I took at full length.
And so I email a book-loving Pasha across the ocean. I complain to him about the way it feels that books no longer seem to have that same magical power to affect the way we live; the way we fall in love; the way we make choices and see things. I mean, would that breathtaking man on the road to Leh have had quite the same impact on me if I hadn't already been in love with the Kipling's story? Real life is filtered through imagination like a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. Magical realism and Abracadabra. "The novel is dying," for they say nowadays people don't have the patience for stories; preferring more useful information-gathering instead. But if imagination and storytelling are de-prioritized, or viewed as a tool "ready at hand" to be used as a form of amusement or entertainment, would this not impoverish the possibilities of imagination to create real meaning in our lives? hmmm..