Driving on Top of the World
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Aug. 15 2002 5:09 PM

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Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson
Seth Stevenson, often found shopping for Slate, recently filed a "Diary" from Bangkok.

Longitude: 77.36 E Latitude: 34.38 N Altitude: 10,520 feet This morning's audio update This afternoon's audio update

We knew there would be glitches—this is a mildly insane project. But we'd hoped they wouldn't hit on the very first day.

As it turned out, a mix of altitude-addled brains and shaky satellite uplinks caused us to send the wrong draft of yesterday's dispatch—an incomplete, abandoned version, which Slate duly posted.

This is somewhat mortifying. No one wants the world to see his rough drafts. (No one wants the world to see doofus-y pictures of him, either, but that can't be helped.) So, I sincerely hope you will, out of compassion (a trait much smiled upon by Tibetan Buddhists), go back and read my first entry as I intended it. We've posted it here. It's worth it, honest—many, many improvements and additions.

I wake up this morning feeling wholly better. No altitude headache. Of course, this afternoon we'll be climbing another 7,000 feet. But we'll worry about that later. For now, I've got an independence party to attend.

Children play out the struggle for independence
Children play out the struggle for independence

The Ladakh region of India—where I'm writing from—feels far more Tibetan than Indian in almost every way. Ladakhis speak Tibetan, dress like Tibetans, and are Tibetan Buddhists (not Hindus, or Muslims, or Sikhs, like everyone else). So the Aug. 15 commemoration of Indian independence is a bit muted. But it's the biggest thing going on today in Leh and not to be missed.

We get to the polo ground, where the celebration is staged, by following a rampaging pack of Ladakhi children. They dart through dark winding alleys, shrieking and laughing, bumping their shoulders into our knees, and sure enough they eventually lead us right to the heart of things.

The polo ground is filled with thousands of locals. They are raptly watching a series of little skits, which seem to be a comprehensive depiction of the events that led to Indian independence. But here's the fun part: All the roles are played by adorable 10-year-olds.

This is an inspired casting decision. First, the cutest little Jawaharlal Nehru you ever saw gives a rousing independence speech, memorized from the original text. With each sentence he gestures dramatically, spreading his cute little arms, and he strains his little-boy voice to be heard through the crowd. Then, a pack of darling little protesters marches out onto the field, carrying tiny "British Go Home" placards. They are met by a squad of charming little police, who pretend to beat them with sticks. Seriously, this is the cutest thing ever. The crowd is eating it up.

The rest of the fair is traditional singing and dancing, which is pretty neat but not nearly as adorable. Our gaze drifts off to the mountains that frame the polo ground. It's a spectacular setting for any event—the locals must look for excuses to gather here. We people-watch for a while, but soon enough it's time to get in the jeep and climb much higher.

I have mixed feelings about this. At 11,500 feet, I formed an atomic headache that didn't subside until I got a full night's sleep. Now, we are driving to 18,300 feet. This is higher than the base camp at Mount Everest, I am told. Fabulous. The road we're on is an endless series of horrifying switchbacks, and occasionally, below us, we catch a glimpse of a bashed-in truck that lost its footing long ago.

When we finally get to the bleak and windswept pass, at the promised 18,000 feet plus, we are stopped by army officers with guns. This is a checkpoint—but an extremely civilized checkpoint. They give us free cups of tea, with milk and sugar.

High tea
High tea

A sign says this is the highest motorable road in the whole wide world. I walk over to this sign, about 10 yards away, and by the time I get there, I'm short of breath and my heart is pounding loudly. I am in fairly good shape (really, I am—altitude sickness doesn't care about that), so this is troubling. If the army guys hold us here too long, I fear I will soon retch onto their polished boots.

Fortunately, they let us through without me requiring oxygen, and we head down the other side of the giant mountain. In time, the air gets thicker, and I breathe again.

Every few minutes along the road, we hit another army checkpoint, hauling out our passports. It's a reminder that about 70 miles from here you reach the line of control—where various Indian and Pakistani military groups are killing each other. Of course, change course slightly and you'd hit the long-disputed border with China, in just about the same amount of time. And you wonder why there are so few tourists? By the roadside, there is a military vehicle graveyard, and someone has made a hut out of a rusted helicopter.

Gurkha soldiers spend three months at 18,000 feet
Gurkha soldiers spend three months at 18,000 feet

But despite the nearby danger, we feel safe. Mostly, we are just awed by the mind-blowing scenery. When anyone mentioned the American Rockies, I used to dismiss them in a snotty manner, just for fun: "The Canadian Rockies are much more impressive, you know. Have you seen Banff?" Now, at last, I can out-snot myself. You have not seen mountain ranges until you've seen Himalayan ranges. And you've not seen stunning countryside until you've seen yak-dotted floodplains stretching out beneath snowy peaks. Forgive my gush, but it's true.