An Agonizing Drive From Padum to Kargil in Ladakh
Early Morning at the Ibex Hotel. When I say early, I mean early. A 3:00a wake-up to finish packing since we had to be on the road by 4:00a for part one of the very long drive back towards Leh that will take two-days. Stanzin #1 made arrangements with the Ibex Hotel to alert the night porter who would unlock steel doors barring the entrance to the hotel. This poor guy slept in a small room next to the entrance. TIP: Always carry flashlights with you for electricity outages. Mini flashlights will do the job the ones on key chains. Without them, we never could have found the front door let alone the porter’s room.
The night porter let us out of the Ibex Hotel into the chill to wait for new transport (Kargil Union) and crew to pick us up. Locals, and tourists were also walking down the street heading to the bus stop; the early morning public bus leaves for Leh around the same time.
Into the new jeep, now carrying less gear, and food than when we left Leh. Baikaji had packed breakfast and lunches to eat along the way. Before leaving Padum, Steve took a look at the tires on this 4×4. The tires were beyond pitiful and the spare had a chunk of treads missing. If, and when, one of the tires blew (which it would), how long would the spare last, five minutes? There was no choice but to get in, suck up whatever the Kargil Union dished out, and hit the “road.”
In the jeep. Out of the jeep. Try to stand up straight. Stretch while ground moved under our feet. Get back into the 4×4. Hour after hour bumping over the road, there would be no such thing as a “smooth” section until right before Kargil. Thrown from side-to-side, heads hitting the top of the 4×4 at times, and when back/knee pains became too excruciating to bear for another second, I’d scream, “Let me out of the car.”
Stanzin called a halt in front of the impressive Drang-drung Glacier to eat breakfast; gorgeous views while chomping on Tuna sandwiches. Lunch would be the exact same thing along with a hard boiled egg, boiled potato and candy bar. The first tire of the day went flat as we came down over the Penzi La Pass within sight of Rangdum Monastery. Now we’d have to drive on a spare tire with tread pieces missing? Wonderful. Count blessings that the tire didn’t go flat up there on the pass.
Trucks, 4×4’s and local buses all stop in little Rangdum with a few restaurants/hotels (“hotels” was a rather strong word for tin, corrugated structures) for a well deserved break. Thirty minutes sitting while the driver ate breakfast and we obsessed on whether or not the tire could be fixed before continuing on. It couldn’t and there was nothing to do but to throw that tire on top of the jeep and pray.
Flat Tire #2. Tire with hole in it lasted exactly 2-1/2 hours. We hunkered down to wait for another jeep from the Kargil Union to come this way who would lend us their spare tire. I photographed wildflowers while Steve sat “burning” over the entire situation. He asked Stanzin and Driver to walk to the cloest village to see if anyone there had a spare or could fix ours. Beyond frustrating, along came an Indian Army jeep chauffeuring the nicest Colonel Singh who offered us a ride to his base at Padika. Colonel Singh suggested we come with them, Baikaji and tire could drive to Padika in a separate vehicle to fix the tire and then meet up with us.
We sat while Colonel Singh plied us with Guava Juice waiting for Stanzin to return; nothing could be decided without his say-so. Just as Stanzin returned and agreed to this solution, a caravan from Zanskar was seen in the distance. One jeep lent us a spare and continued on his way towards Leh. Now Baikaji rode in the army jeep to Padika with the two bad tires, hopefully, to find a tire repair shop. We’d all meet up at the next checkpoint.
A 20-minute wait at the permit checkpoint along with other tourists. Clouds of dust as the Army jeep approached with cook Baikaji along with news that the tire repair shop in Padika was closed. Sigh…. Thanks to Colonel Singh for trying, crew threw the bad tire back on top of the jeep and we were off again uttering even more fervent prayers (if that was possible). FYI: It took 1-1/2 hours to drive 20 miles. Turtles move faster.
Into the small Muslim town of Sankoo that did have a tire repair place. Steve and I strolled down the one street to stretch, Salaam Alaikum’ing (“peace be unto you” – used as a traditional greeting among Muslims) all the locals who were very interested in the lone westerners that ever stopped in Sankoo. We waited while they patched the two tires. Swapped new tire for old on our 4×4, throw spare in back, borrowed tire on top of jeep to leave back in Kargil for the other jeep owner (complicated) and continued on.
The drive continued past ripe barley fields where locals were harvesting, small towns, and our driver (who I despised now) now thinks he’s Mario Andretti. He’s stomping on the gas, squealing around turns while cracking gum fast and furiously. We came this close to a major head on with a truck when he took a turn too wide and that did it. My nerves were shot and I had to be restrained from killing him with a blunt object. The driver didn’t speak English so we shouted to Stanzin, “Make him slow down.”
Passing trucks spewed black exhaust, dust has been blowing through the windows for close to 16 hours, and the lovely smell of kerosene in containers on top of the jeep has become nauseating. Salivary glands are shot, and my throat hurts. We have been on worse roads than this for eight hours, ten hours, but never for 16 hours. A beyond human endurance ride.
A brief stop in Kargil to drop off the other jeep’s tire. And, we don’t have to change vehicles because no one was at a checkpoint to notate this 4×4. Was that a good thing or a bad thing? Kargil is still 234 kilometers/145 miles west of Leh. This Muslim town was once a caravan transit point for China, Tibet and Kashmir. Tourists traveling between Zanskar, Leh and Srinagar usually spend a night here, before starting Day 2 of their journey but Lobsang didn’t want us to stay in Kargil with some unrest taking place at this time and insisted we head to Mulbek/Mulbekh for the night.
Dear Lord, “We’re not there yet?”