Cold air blew in through a busted vent. The floor was littered with biscuit crumbs, and the smell inside the vehicle suggested that the collective sweat of previous tourists had become one with the seats. I sat in the front, plugging the vent with a gloved hand. Beside me was Pittu, our driver. Behind us were two couples from Germany, and behind them a couple from Thailand. We were on our way from Manali to Leh in a much driven and creaky Tempo Traveller.
Pittu was a man of few words, the few words being expletives aimed at anyone who halted his progress towards Leh. His eyes — the anger in them steady like the rain outside — darted, always searching for gaps to move ahead in the traffic. As we climbed the slippery roads, carved in between mountains and clouded by fog, occasional road signs like Peep Peep Don’t Sleep would remind us of the need to be alert and the Border Road Organization’s propensity for puns.
“Hum Leh jaa rahe hain!” (“We are on our way to Leh!”) Pittu justified as he overtook a long line of cars parked on Rohtang Pass. Rohtang, in Tibetan, ominously stands for ‘pile of corpses,’ but to Pittu it simply meant a pile of tourist vehicles blocking his way. “Why is he so angry?” asked one of the Germans when Pittu stepped out and shouted at another driver for almost nicking our van. I looked around at the unmoving vehicles, the mass of giddy tourists in their snowsuit attire, and a shepherd maneuvering his herd of sheep on a weather-beaten road shared by too many. Driving for a living here could drive anyone nuts.
At one point, just as we were about to escape the maddening Rohtang Pass, Pittu braked hard, sending the Germans flying from their seats. He turned around, stared angrily at the four of them picking themselves up, and said, “Please!” They laughed nervously, unsure how it was their fault, and the Tempo continued on its creaky way.
Leh is very high, 11,500 feet above sea level, and on the way there we would go through Taglang La, the second highest road pass in India at 17,480 feet. In order to minimize the risk of altitude sickness we stopped for the day at a campsite in a small village called Jispa. Thanks to Pittu’s overtaking, we had reached early in the afternoon and had many hours to kill.
“What can we do here?” asked one of us.
Pittu looked baffled. He muttered that we could eat, sleep, and sit by the river. “But whatever you do, be ready by four tomorrow.”
“Four in the morning!?”
“Yes. Bad weather. Long way.”
“Chaar baj gaye?” asked Pittu when my alarm rang at four.
“Haan,” I grunted.
He got up, turned on the lone bulb in our tent, and within seconds was on his way towards the kitchen tent.
“No breakfast!? Arre behenchod!”
His voice carried clearly in the quiet morning. Armed with a flashlight and all my winter clothing, I walked out of the tent. A quarter moon was visible. So were snowy mountains set against a cobalt blue sky. In the beam of my flashlight, I saw my fellow travelers heading with their bags towards the van. I followed suit.
“No breakfast?” I asked Pittu as he started the van.
“Behenchod so raha hai!” he said, referring to the campsite manager who had promised us food in the morning but was now fast asleep.
We stopped at a roadside stall on the way for some chai to quiet grumbling stomachs. He gave us a minute before he began shouting “Chalo, chalo!” from the driver’s seat.
“Aa raha hoon. Bahut garmi hai,” I said. What I had meant to say in my less-than-fluent Hindi was that the chai was really hot. Instead, dressed head to toe in winter clothing, I had told Pittu that it was really warm outside.
He allowed himself a rare laugh. He then revved the engine and asked me to hurry up.
The first rays of the sun struck the mountaintops, colouring them yellow. On either side of the road were snow covered mountains and frozen lakes. I watched transfixed at a Himalayan setting straight out of a Nat Geo documentary, and hoped that we would stop to take some photos. My wish came true, albeit in not ideal circumstances. A lorry got stuck in a ditch and halted traffic for an hour. While Pittu fumed, I silently rejoiced. And took photos.
Soon after the journey resumed, we were stuck behind a lorry again, this time in a place called Killing Sarai. Keeping with the cinematic name of the location, suddenly and out of nowhere, an army contingent showed up. Weather hardened men in uniforms; some with thick beards, some with trim moustaches, some clean-shaven; all of them with straight postures and an aura of confidence. Within seconds, shouts of “1–2–3-Oy!” rang loud as they pushed the lorry away from the main road. Passengers of the Tempo cheered and applauded their effort, while Pittu yelled at them to move out of the way.
“Side aana behenchod!”
“Chalo, chalo!” was the anthem of the day. We were behind schedule and Pittu was antsy. During restroom breaks, he honked and revved the engine if he felt we were taking too long. I considered telling Pittu that life was about the journey, but my tongue-in-cheek comment might have pushed him over the edge. The only times he slowed down were when we drove past a temple. He would honk once, fold his hands in prayer, and then zoom ahead upping the gears.
Welcome to Paradise of India read a sign. It didn’t sound like an exaggeration. Turquoise blue streams flowed in between enormous rock formations of varying shades of brown and red. But for the rough and rocky road leading to Leh, Ladakh felt otherworldly. We hit one hairpin bend after another, and Pittu turned the steering wheel with precision every few seconds.
“It’s too quiet,” Pittu suddenly said in Hindi. “No one’s talking.”
I was surprised - I figured silence would suit him.
“How long have you had this job?” I asked.
“Eight to nine years.”
“Did you have any training?”
“No. They gave me the car and said ‘drive’. You saw me overtake 150 to 200 cars at Rohtang Pass? When I first started driving, I wouldn’t do that. I was too scared.”
“What were you scared of?”
“That I would get stuck in the snow or that I would fall to my death if I made the wrong turn. And the road to Leh never seemed to end.”
The road to Leh did seem impossibly long. We had been driving for hours and the destination was nowhere in sight. And this was the less strenuous two-day ride from Manali.
“Do you get to choose between the one-day and two-day trips?” I asked.
“No. They say, ‘Bhai, jaa na’ and I go. The one-day trip is very hard. I need to leave at 2 a.m. from Manali and reach Leh by 7 p.m. that day.”
I looked out the window. We had hit a stretch of good road, finally, and it was bright blue skies and mountains as far as the eye could see. As a first-timer in Ladakh, the scenery blew me away but I wondered if even this feeling of wow diminished after a point.
“Do these mountains still look good to you?” I asked Pittu.
“It’s boring. How many times can I see the same thing? That’s why when people want to take photos, I think, ‘Let’s go, madarchod.’ Photo, photo, photo. Shee!”
He made yet another tight turn as we neared Taglang La.
“Does your arm hurt from all these turns?”
“Not with the power steering. But it used to. This job, what can I say, it’s my bad luck.”
“What do you mean?”
“I should have been in the army.”
“I tried and failed three times. I passed everything but in the medical, I failed the colour balance test. I’ve been interested in the army since my childhood. My uncle was in the army. And now so are his sons.” He then clicked his tongue. “We even studied together.”
Pittu pulled into a parking lot crowded with other tourist vehicles. It was 5:30 in the evening - he had hit his target time.
“Hum Leh aa gaye,” he announced. (“We’ve reached Leh.”)
I thanked and tipped him as we shook hands. He resisted the tip, but I insisted. Smiling, he then helped us find a cab and suggested where to look for accommodation. As I walked away, I felt the emptiness of a sudden goodbye.
I turned around, but he had already left.
This piece was originally published in my People in Ladakh photo-essay series.