The alarm went off at 1:30 this morning in time for a 5:45am flight to Leh.  The view of Delhi I got from the bus taking us to the airport was far more what I expected of India.  The embassy district was dead quiet, but that seemed to be the only part.  The rest of the city was a hive of activity, even in the middle of the night.  The streets were full of people going about their business as if it were the middle of the day, and there was even a bazaar of some sort taking place under a motorway flyover, full of shoppers!  I guess people must do things at night to avoid the heat of the day – as a result it really feels like Delhi doesn’t ever sleep.

Looking at some of the people wandering along the side of the road got me wondering – where are they going?  Along the road to the airport we saw groups of women in Saris and Hijabs carrying babies or leading children by the hand.  Men wandered slowly along the side of a dual carriageway, chewing on big mouthfuls of betel nut, paying no attention to the traffic.  I assumed some going home, but where was that?  We saw whole families labouring on roadworks at the airport, maybe they were among these vagrant wanderers of the moonlit streets.  When you see a homeless person in the UK they're typically alone, and often male.  For some reason seeing people of all ages roaming the city at night gave me a real sense of hopelessness – it’s horrible to think that in cities all over the world millions of families don’t have beds to go home to.

In a city that never goes to bed, of course the airport was busy at night.  Shop fronts blazed bright with fluorescent lights, and unofficial teams of porters waited at the doorways, eager to carry a lazy tourist’s bags for a few rupees.  The locals looked so relaxed in the still stifling heat, their light linen shalwar kameez floating in the breeze as the proffered moisture-wicking properties of my own clothes struggled to keep up with the torrents running off my body.

We had a battle to get all our gear through the airport, waiting at the check-in desk for an hour while various officials argued in Hindi.  I don’t know if there was a genuine mix-up or whether they wanted a little baksheesh money, but eventually we arrived at the gate with moments to spare.  Once in the air I was disappointed by the heavy cloud cover as we flew north towards the Ladakhi capital, Leh.  It was just a matter of waiting for the first peaks to show through the cloud, and sure enough they did.  Eventually cols and ridgelines began to show, and finally the cloud dissipated altogether, revealing a jagged panorama stretching all the way to the horizon.  In the distance, one peak in particular stood taller than all the rest, and there were whispers that it might have been K2.  The shape certainly matched, but I’m not sure if that’s just wishful thinking considering that it seems unlikely to have been on our flightpath.

 

As we approached Leh, the snow at the top of the mountains was replaced by a brown-grey moonscape, with scree and boulders covering all but the highest summits.  The landing was a little hairy: we flew directly at a large mountain, before taking a drastic left turn down a valley, the walls of which were far too close for comfort.  The landscape opened up to reveal green pastures and a riverbed, quite a shock after the desert on the other side of the pass we had just traversed.  We passed an outcrop right next to the runway with less than 50m clearance, and hit the deck with a thud.  The air brakes struggled in the thin atmosphere and the plane careered down the runway at a hell of a speed before the pilots finally managed to reign it in.  I got off the plane with my heart still thumping, and I’m not sure it was anything to do with the altitude.

We took taxis through Leh, to get to our hostel, and had our first experience of Ladakhi traffic.  The town feels like it’s in a bit of a time warp.  Cows and dogs roam the streets and the pace of life feels generally slow and relaxed.  This seems to be unknown to the taxi drivers, who overtake with inches to spare, as if every second has life or death importance.  Our driver really loved my attempts to speak some of his language, and every ‘Jullay’ (Hello), or ‘Khamzang’ (How are you?) got a big grin.  The remoteness of this place hit me today while waiting for taxis at the airport.  Signs point to the nearest major cities, Kargil and Manali, as being over 300km away, and on these roads that distance is truly vast.  We will have a three-day bus transfer to get to base camp, over 600km by road, so any emergencies are going to have a great deal more urgency to them than out in the hills in the UK.

Published by Sam Nunn