I’m driving a motorcycle along makeshift tracks hammered out by the passage of Indian army trucks. Soldiers patrol this disputed border with Tibet, staring down their Chinese and Pakistani equivalents and driving with a fatalism that would be admirable were it not so dangerous for everyone else on the road. Ahead is a caravanserai marked by a scribbled cross on the map, a transient summer camp 4,500 metres into the sky. At this altitude the colour chosen by the cartographers is white: white as an ice field, as a polar plateau. But we are closer to the tropics than the poles, and there is no ice on the road.
My breath comes in gasps that seem to fill but never satisfy my lungs. There’s a trembling ache in my arms from holding the handlebars and I’m fighting back the nausea of a headache that drills at my temples. It’s not altitude sickness yet, but will be if I don’t descend soon. My wife Esa sits pillion behind me, and I realize she’s been silent for the past hour. Her weight is negligible among all the steel and luggage that ballast us, and a sudden panic stabs through my mind – perhaps she has fallen off. I take my left hand from the handlebar and reach back to touch her knee. She squeezes my hand in return. I keep hallucinating her absence; the lack of oxygen is playing tricks with my mind.
The bike with its fuel and luggage, together with our weight, comes to nearly half a tonne. All day I’ve steered that weight through riverbeds, across landslides, up boulder-strewn sidings and over a pass of 5,400 metres. Fatigue trickles into my limbs like molten lead, scorches at the surface of my eyes. I hadn’t thought we would make it this far, but at each gruelling stage passed the thought of turning back is always worse than the idea of going on.
We approach a series of gorges, and as the track drops into them the luminance of the sky shifts from quartz to a dull ruby. We’re accelerating downhill, negotiating a labyrinth of rock passageways and swift-running riverbeds, racing the advancing flood of night as the air thickens a little and my headache begins to recede. The grandeur of the Himalaya around us falls away as the mountains – only an hour ago so vast – fade to voids within a canopy of stars. We’re edging forward, the headlight feeling its way over the rubble like a blind hand, when ahead I see the glow of two tents.
As we approach a military truck coming the other way glances the side of the bike, ripping open the saddle bags and throwing the frame into a spin that jolts us off the road. There is a crunching sound, the roar of the engine, a crushing weight on my leg. I lie in the rocks, breathing hard, then feel a pull on my arm. ‘Are you alright?’ Esa’s voice seems thin, as disembodied as the air.
I pick myself up as she chucks stones after the receding tail lights. After a few tries we manage to start the motorbike again and ease it carefully, limping as we go, back up onto the road and towards the tents.
This is the Himalayan equivalent of a roadside motel. Nomads have climbed up from the Zanskar valleys to offer beds and blankets, brew noodle stew and tea, and skim money from travellers like us on the road to Ladakh. We park the bike nose-down on a slope in case it has to be jump-started tomorrow. My muscles are so stiff that I can barely heave it onto its stand. An old woman comes out to meet us, her face lit by a hurricane lamp, the wrinkles on her face like some ancient, undeciphered script. Her grey hair hangs in long braids over a traditional Tibetan robe and apron. Sleep here? she asks, by placing prayered hands to one cheek. Eat? she asks, by touching bunched fingers to her lips. Universal human needs and gestures. Esa nods dumbly, still trembling with shock, and she leads us inside. Sums of money are mentioned, in Hindi and English. They are surprisingly reasonable given that we have no other choice.
An Indian boy at the stove is preparing noodle stew. We are high above the clouds but even here there is an obvious caste divide. He looks barely fifteen, round-cheeked and dark, with eyebrows like parentheses over restless, inquisitive eyes. He darts around the space, cooking and cleaning, while the pale and angular Ladakhis sit and talk, wrapped in their blankets. Theirs is a dialect of Tibetan, a language related to Burman and Chinese, rumbling and percussive like a riverbed in flood. The Hindi the boy speaks is lighter, airier: it sings and splashes along the surface of his voice. He grins and gives me a nod of fellowship. ‘My name is Arjun,’ he says in Hindi, touching his right hand to his heart. When it becomes clear I am stumbling in his language, he adds in English ‘I am not from this place.’ He puts me to shame; later I hear him speak Ladakhi, and even some Chinese.
His noodles are delicious, but the butter tea is rancid. We gulp it down anyway as fortification against the cold. When we hand the bowls back he nods towards a small cubicle, separated from the open tent by some grimy curtains. A stack of blankets is piled against one canvas wall, and he shakes two of them out. Plumes of dust obscure the light from the hurricane lamp. We wind scarves around our faces like masks and, still wearing all our motorbike gear, wrap ourselves in the blankets and lie down.
It is dark. The sounds are the hiss of the stove, the murmur of Ladakhi, a gentle wind flapping the canvas. No one beyond the walls of this tent knows where in the fastness of the Himalayas we have buried ourselves for the night. The thought wheels in my mind that we almost died today. The realization that we did not brings a great sense of peace, like a silk parachute settling. The grandeur of the Himalayas sleeps in darkness, and after an hour or so of sneezing, coughing and gasping, so do I.
A dream: I’m in a hall, preparing to give a lecture. The murmur of the audience falls away as I step up to the lectern to speak. Just as I’m making an introduction the double doors swing open and a Brahminy cow enters, its hide splattered with Hindu swastikas, its horns draped with talismans and bells. Then a snow leopard, low and sleek with eyes like jasper, pads in noiselessly behind it. Finally a dragon’s head, one of those snake-like puppets that parade at Chinese New Year, with spiral eyes and a protruding tongue, juts through the doorway then withdraws.
The Brahminy cow and the snow leopard reach the lectern and circle me before walking back up the steps towards the dragon waiting at the exit. Together the three of them move off out of sight.
After a moment’s hesitation, I leap up the stairs to follow.
I came to the Himalayas not because of a dream of mountains or of animals, but because of a map. I first encountered it in the municipal library I visited as a child. It was a looming sandstone affair, the type beloved of Andrew Carnegie, ornamented and buttressed in a grand Victorian style. You entered directly from the street through varnished wooden doors heavy with brass and glass. There was a grand corridor, a cool mineral smell, and stairs of pale granite scuffed by a century of soles. Thanks to the indulgence of my parents, as well as the egalitarianism of the Scots library system, I was given a ticket to enter the adult library from the age of eight. Once there, I’d often sit down on the scratchy brown carpet tiles and lose myself in the reference atlas.
One of the most astonishing features of the atlas was that nearly half of it was index – an infinity of names, in microscopic print, of towns and villages, rivers and mountains, that I could never hope to see. Even at that age I knew it was unlikely I’d ever walk the streets of Télé or Tele, or wake up in Telele or Telén*, though I still held out hopes for New York, Cairo, or Montevideo.
Along the bottom left-hand corner of each page there was a key to altitude, a palette of colours indicating metres and feet. At sea level the palette used a soft but youthful green; it spread across lowland Africa and the pampas of Latin America like new beech leaves or freshly mown grass. At a couple of thousand feet the green tones gave way to dusty ochre, a colour that deepened into the spine of Japan, and the Alps. By ten thousand feet – the high country of the Rocky Mountains – it was russet. But at thirteen thousand feet, four kilometres above sea level, the palette switched to a grey that grew paler as it ascended through the clouds.
I would usually flick through to the maps of the Arctic and the Antarctic at the back. There was a pristine purity about them, palely magnificent, virtually unmarked by the tiny place names that seethed over the pages of the rest of the world. I could find only one other map that was as blankly white as those polar regions: the one showing the broad expanse of the Himalayan and trans-Himalayan ranges. If Mount Everest was ‘the Third Pole’, as I had heard it claimed, then it seemed obvious that the Himalaya and trans-Himalaya must be the third Polar Region. Altitude and latitude were brought together through the strange alchemy of the atlas.
As adolescence dawned I visited the atlas corner less often, but began to promiscuously browse the Travel shelves. The authors who wrote of the Himalayas described an almost mystical transformation in perspective afforded by the mountains; that high altitude had gifted them some glimpse of transcendence, a clarity of mind that had somehow remained elusive on the plains. The Himalayas and the plateaus that lie beyond them are so immense, so colossal in terms of their mass, that they pull the earth’s gravitational field out of shape. It was then that they began to pull on my imagination.
* in Mali, Democratic Republic of Congo, Tuvalu and Argentina respectively.
Featured photograph by rohanmoitra
In-text images by Gavin Francis