The side of Ladakh you rarely see: And how it taught me to embrace both chaos & peace

Written By Shona Walton


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You know, for me, travel has always been more than just an escape—it’s like stepping into a living classroom. It challenges the assumptions we carry about different cultures and societies. It’s a privilege, and with it comes the responsibility to bridge gaps and foster understanding.

We first made contact with Sanjay in the year 2011 when the company was still called Expeditions on Wheels. He arranged a car and a local friend to accompany us. Before visiting Manali, Keylong, Jispa, Leh, Kargil, Srinagar, Udaipur, and Amritsar, we joined a small three-car convoy from Delhi, traveling through Chandigarh and returning to Delhi.

It was hard to drive and became especially challenging when we were at high altitudes. The roads were in an awful condition at that time and usually blocked with lorries stuck deep in the mud – each jockeying for the next inch of the road – but Sanjay’s friend and my husband leaped into efficient action with their radios handy and organized the traffic so that the roads could be cleared.

At the same time, I nursed an enormous altitude headache. Throughout this, and at all times, Sanjay was calm and proactive, thus earning my nickname for him: Sanjay ‘there’s-no-such-thing-as-a-problem’ Madan!

This trip has stayed with me over the years, owing to several remarkable experiences that have etched themselves deeply within my memory.

A Spiritual Intervention

One evening in Leh, we were enjoying the sweeping views of the valley from our excellent vantage point of the Sankar Monastery on the hillside, which at 7 p.m. had just closed to visitors. We were spinning the prayer wheels and admiring the substantial traditional architecture when I heard the sound of a child chattering and spotted a tiny orange-clad elbow on a top-story windowsill. I thought it would make for a gorgeous photo, so I took the camera and sat to wait. Soon, a little face peeped out just to see over the sill. I waved, calling out ‘Julley’, which I hope meant hello. He made an oddly formal gesture that seemed so unlike a six-year-old. He returned to the window a few times afterward, looking down upon us curiously.

This is when a group of five women and children came clattering down the staircase beneath the window and saw me looking up: they followed my gaze and immediately turned to bow and made the namaste gesture, to which this solemn little creature replied with the passing of his hands across their heads. Our guide, Mr Soni, asked them what had just occurred. “This is the Venerable Kushok Bakula, the senior incarnate lama of Ladakh, and it is a great blessing to see him, and we are overjoyed,” they replied.

As Mr Soni explained this to us, a young monk carrying milk, a parcel of shopping and curiously, a pair of serious-looking arrows walked by. Mr Soni asked him about opening times and the young gentleman we had seen, relating the little scene aforementioned. This personage was none other than the Dalai Lama’s attendant, and the young man deemed himself supremely fortunate to have been chosen for this office. By what action of his verbal dexterity Mr Soni brought about the next event, I am at a loss to decipher, but the young monk took us to the apartment and asked the child if he wished to see us.

I was keen to know the appropriate protocol to follow in the situation (to remove our shoes and kneel simply). As we knelt in an unadorned corridor, this young child – to a Buddhist, the very representative of God on Earth – was sweet enough to make time from his allotted playtime before evening prayers and came through the shabby door curtain to lay his hand on the heads of two nondescript English tourists and their eccentric guide.

Though slightly shyly, he did it with the motion of learned behavior sidling along the wall as he returned to his play. We thanked the attendant and left. And believe me, I turned a few prayer wheels on the way down!

Employing Method to Madness

Another occurrence that left an indelible impression on me was that of us crossing the Rohtang Pass. This was the day I experienced my first Himalayan dawn, damp and swirling in mist. It also happened to be Indian Independence Day (15th August), so there was much congratulatory shaking.

The drive north from Manali to Marhi is a bit like driving up to Treak Cliff Cavern in Derbyshire (UK); craggy and touristy (in a Himalayan way), with decent roads. It was also short. Once at the town, every shop is numbered, but they all sell cagoules, salopettes, woolly hats, crampons, or offer for-hire Royal Enfields to enable the strong-hearted and foolhardy (if you ask me!) to cross the mountains on two wheels.

The road climbed steadily to the first dhaba, where the typical tourist – having finally made it to the Rohtang Pass – developed a huge appetite. More bijoux bivouacs appeared in unlikely and steep spots throughout the day, selling the ubiquitous chai and Mirinda sodas.

In my opinion, the Indian Army post at Palchan announced the state of the road to Koksar as green, where grey would have been more accurate. At first, it just looked like a queue to cross some narrow road, but it took us ten hours to arrive at the little cluster of dhabas, shops, and a police post on the northern side of the pass.

Several factors combined here to cause this unique brand of chaos: the weather, which was displaying a fickle nature for the time of year, and the fact that the pass is only open for four months of the year, thus leaving the trucks supplying the army bases at Leh to conduct regular shuttle runs for the duration.

Imagine the scene – a craggy Himalayan pass with notoriously unstable geology, three hundred brightly-painted Tata and Ashok Leyland trucks, several hundred white SUVs, a smattering of Toyotas, countless motorbikes revving up a melody, a thousand meters of gradient with (on both sides), a couple of hundred hairpin bends, scores of landslips in various stages of decline and repair, miscellaneous organic hazards (mule trains, wild horses, volatile and vindictive mud), souvenir shops (one, closed), five km of snow, one manic Brit snowballer and fifteen km of foot-deep slurry. Do you get the picture?

Until the police arrived, Adrian and Mr Soni assumed charge; at 4,000 meters, dashing around in military organizational mode, getting people teamed up for pushing two-wheel drives hopelessly mired in slime, deploying sensible coves to manage local traffic control and generally having a lovely time.

Such activity is not guaranteed to enhance the health of a 57-year-old person. But it was not he who seemed to suffer the ill effects, but I, who had sat calmly reading throughout the mayhem. Only the photos can do justice to that day, which even the leaders admitted was at least 20 percent worse than they’d ever experienced before.

My advice for travelers to visit that particular region is to sort out their response to altitude and find an appropriate remedy or mitigation. Adrian saw a lady GP who persuaded him to have a look at me. I had been sick again and felt wretched. She told me I didn’t suffer from severe ailments but was not suited to function at high altitudes.’

To Companionship and Beyond

In all this and so much more, the one person who has made life memorable is my husband. Brought up in various odd parts of the world, without him, I would not have embarked on any of our more unconventional travels. He is still the world’s best-traveling companion and my best friend.

Although my husband and I have visited over 80 countries worldwide, without Sanjay, we would not have attempted several more challenging environments with such confidence or had such incredible experiences.

Through all these adventures, my constant companion has been my husband. He’s the one who opened the door to these unconventional travels, turning life into one big adventure. But, let’s give credit where it’s due—Sanjay played a significant role. He’s this fantastic mix of wisdom, persuasion, and social grace, making our journeys exceptional. And let’s not forget Tushar, the unsung hero working behind the scenes. They turned hurdles into stories and obstacles into triumphs.

As told to Adventures Overland by Shona Walton

Published On: 8th July 2011


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