Truckking – did you think I meant trekking?
Ladakh is the high mountain, I mean Himalayan, desert region on the eastern side of Kashmir. We lived in California then. We hiked 2,000 foot mountains, several of them for what seems like months now, hoping to trek the Himalayas. At 1,8000 feet in Leh, capital city of Ladkah region, we realized there was no way we were going to breathe and walk at the same time. Trekking was clearly out.
Renting a 4-wheel drive vehicle would have been an excellent option, but we were feeling adventurous. We took the bus instead. There was one every 6 hours, worked for us. We hopped from one village to the next by the early morning bus. Thinly padded seats, bone weary rides, school kids of all ages with not one blue jersey matching another in color, women and goats going to the market, men folk sitting on the roof - we loved it all – it was home turf.
After the first two bus rides, we realized that a time table was followed optionally. Somehow, the villagers knew when the solitary bus would arrive – as if they had a pact with the driver. But for the rest of us, going from one village to another, separated by 20 kilometers, took half a day. The 6 o’clock could arrive any time between 5 and 9. I guess it wouldn’t matter to the school kids – teachers reach the school at the same time as they.
Someone suggested hitching a ride on a truck. Why not, we thought, after all, there was only one road to bind them all. We couldn’t get lost. We hitched with one. The drivers were two skinny young men badly in need of a shave and shower. In a place where porcelain toilets are a luxury and hot water scarce, we weren’t complaining. They sat us in the front cabin which was more comfortable – at least it had thinly padded seats – out back we would be riding with the goats. They bought us apricots at the village. As they sat spitting the seeds out of the front window, we realized we were riding in a truck without the windshield window – that’s life, the view was clearer, and the August air was cool on the skin.
After the first ride, we stuck to hitching with trucks. We even rode a petrol truck. Sometimes we traveled with other passengers, mostly army men. They talked of border skirmishness, usually about their families they hadn’t seen in years. Wherever we stopped, we would drink a cup of tea. Innumerable cups of chai is part of the Ladakh experience. Made with condensed milk, tea tends to be super sweet. We tried the salty chai, more like tea soup. No yak butter though, just some regular butter.
Ladakh is gorgeous – Yosemite multiplied hundred times. Some of the most exciting views can be had when the trucks make hairpin turns on the narrow road. On one side the mountains rise 2,000 feet high and on the other side, the drop is 2,000 feet. It is a harsh way of life. We didn’t blame them for wanting all that we were getting away from – hustle and bustle, modern amenities and entertainment.
Hitching a ride with trucks is generally not a safe thing to do. Roads are unsafe, the drivers race each other, and there are no seat belts. Many drive 48-72 hours without sleeping or sufficient rest. They also constitute core transmitter populations for HIV and STDs. I think we got lucky. The fact that we spoke Hindi and some Punjabi made our experience significantly easier. On the positive side, Srinagar-Leh Highway is the only major road connecting all the major tourist spots, so chances of getting lost while hitchhiking is rather low.
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