Our driver, Tsenzing, tried to be polite. But as we gasped for air, heads reeling, and whimpered about being nauseous, he couldn’t suppress a chuckle.
“Take deep breaths,” he said, rather superfluously, as he tapped his fingers on the steering wheel in time with ‘Sheila ki jawani’. “Concentrate on your driving,” I snapped back.
We were on the treacherous, snow-covered road to Khardung La, at 18,000 feet.
Rather terrifyingly, our cocky driver soon got his comeuppance; the vehicle veered and skidded, ending up with its front end buried in a bank of snow to the right.
As he turned off the radio and began to back out, my two friends and I silently prayed that we wouldn’t plummet into the gorge on the left.
He came to a halt, carefully, and we clambered out into a howling wind that instantly froze our noses, and waited to one side as Tsenzing fixed snow chains around the wheels of our SUV.
Eyes watering, we peered into the all-white expanse that surrounded us, the temperature at 20 below zero. The icy road, too slippery even to stomp about on for warmth, was deserted. I guess the others had more sense than to venture out in such weather.
But it hadn’t been like this when we set out — the sun had been a benignly smiling orb, with cumulus clouds skirting it reverently.
As a few flakes of snow drifted to the sun-kissed ground, we waxed poetic about the beauty of nature, sighed at the snow-covered mountains in the distance, shimmering in the crisp, clear air.
Then of course, in typically Leh fashion, everything changed.
And here we were an hour later, shivering, frightened, blinded by the glare of the uninterrupted white around us.
After what seemed like an eternity, the chains were hugging the tyres and we set off once again. This time, even Tsenzing’s smile had frozen. Sheila was gone, her gyrating beat silenced as he drove doggedly, squinting with concentration.
We moved at snail’s pace, our hearts pounding, lungs protesting, as we made our way ever upwards on the narrow, winding road. Along one side, a frozen river stared balefully at us.
It was with unspeakable relief that we finally spotted the tiny army café at Khardung La, an unpretentious tin shed with a signboard that declared it Rinchen Café, the highest cafeteria in the world.
The word ‘Julley’, Ladakhi for welcome, had never looked more welcome as we barged in, blue with cold. On the walls were painted the cheery message: ‘When everything freezes, courage moves on’. A group of truly courageous — and cheerful — jawans served us hot herbal tea and biscuits.
No one stays here for long, said one smiling jawan. “In summer, however,” he added, taunting us unknowingly, “tourists arrive in hordes and the café serves them hot tea, momos and sometimes instant noodles.”
As we sipped the tea and our fingers began to thaw, we looked around at the eerie, glowing landscape. Across the road, high up on a mountain, stood a small, deserted monastery; even its resident monks had fled to lower ground for the winter.
Except for the jawans — who live in makeshift tents near the café — there was not a soul in sight. From one window, we could see, way below, a road snaking its way to the Nubra Valley stretched out welcomingly beyond.
Then, our teacups exhausted and our hosts duly thanked, it was time to set off again, back down the snow-covered road. This time around, it didn’t seem quite so cold.