A fast tire drop off in Kargil for the Kargil Union driver to pick up on his drive back to Padum, and back on the road to Mulbek/Mulbekh for one night. Mulbek is only 34 kilometers/20 miles from Kargil on an equally bad highway that, would you believe, is Ladakh’s National Highway? It’s no wonder we’re ready to snap. Even the crew has become deathly quiet; as grueling for them as it is for us.
Sixteen beyond descriptive hours later (though I’ve tried to give a sense), we pulled into the J&K Bungalows/Guesthouse in Mulbek run by the Government. The J&K Bungalows/Guesthouse charges 400 Rupees for 2 people with attached bathroom, no meals served. There is another guesthouse opposite the Buddha statue but all rooms share a common toilet. By this time, neither of us would have cared if there was just a straw pallet under a tree.
Shaking like a leaf and unable to stand without help, Baikaji grabbed backpacks to help us into the J&K Bungalow/Guesthouse. An uninspiring room with a toilet, bed, doors that don’t lock, no towels nor soap, who cared! J&K looked like the Ritz-Carlton at this point. Fate or ESP led us to pack essentials in backpacks this morning. Toiletries, wet wipes, soap, meds, toilet paper. We also had the obligatory flashlights handy. Poor cook Baikaji prepared to cook dinner even though he must have been ready to drop with fatigue. Food was the last thing on our minds; we were going to bed. Forget dinner, forget clean clothes, just put us into a prone position.
We popped two Aleves for pains radiating through every body part. A minor wash up before throwing ourselves into bed fully dressed. Why even bother with niceties when another 7-8 hour drive was scheduled tomorrow?
Breakfast in Mulbekh. Our crew did exactly what we did last night. Unpacked all camping gear from the 4×4 and hit the sack, too exhausted to eat! Time spent talking to a geologist staying here working on explorations for the India Government about minerals, gems (large garnets around Drang-Drung Glacier), etc., before loading everything back into the 4×4 for the last leg of this journey.
As the driver stood on top of the 4×4 loading gear, we heard a tremendous explosion. Clouds of dust rose into the air behind the vehicle. Why? The newly repaired tire had just exploded. Not only did it scare the daylights out of me but we were back to square one; no spare for the day’s drive. The bright light in all this nonsense was that the “highway” to Leh is extremely busy. There would be many opportunities to get another tire if (ha-ha-ha), another one went flat. Shall we bow our heads?
Tires changed, we backtracked one mile to the Maitreya Buddha carved out of rock. This Buddha is supposedly from the 11th century. However, the geologist at J&K Bungalows thought it was only 300 years old because it was carved out of limestone. He felt that limestone was too soft to have survived 1000 years without significant erosion. Others think the Buddha is from the 8th century while a sign in front of the Buddha stated 1st century B.C. Whatever century the 9 meter/30 foot Buddha was from, it is beautiful and imposing from all angles.
Mulbekh Monastery is built on top a high rock, 200 meters/600 feet above the main road. It contains precious relics but we had no time or desire to see another monastery. The Future Buddha was enough.
Only about 70,000 tourists a year visit Ladakh, 40,000 Westerners, the rest Indian tourists. Contrast that with Paris, the number one tourist destination in the world with 27 million visitors each year.
Time to get underway towards the Fotula Pass that will eventually lead down and through spectacular Lamayuru Monastery.
Fotula Pass is 4,108 meters/13,478 feet above sea level, the highest point on the highway. We’d get all excited whenever a distance sign with remaining kilometers/miles to Leh appeared, and then we’d remember remember how long it takes to actually drive each kilometer/mile. Lamayuru was dead (figuratively) ahead…