7 August – A convoy towards Leh

It was a fitful night sleeping and not just because of the freezing cold and lack of oxygen.  Every time I woke up in the night, I was thinking about what I would say to Khandro-la when I saw her in the morning.  It turned out that I had to swallow my words.  Soon after getting a bite to eat for breakfast, we were told that the mayor is organizing his big open dump truck to take anyone to Leh that wants to go.  We would likely have to stand the whole way in the crowded back and we could not take more than a day’s clothing but it was our way out.  We were trying to think of the pros and cons of this option – if there was room for us and we would only go if we were not taking the place of a Ladakhi – when we heard that several other villagers who had cars were going to follow the truck in a convoy and they may have space for people too.  Not long after that, Khandro-la said to pack up.  We were joining the convoy!  Yeehah!
After some very disorganized packing, a last look around town and quick goodbyes to many of the villagers we had grown to be friends with, we piled into the cars and headed out.  Before you join us on what turned into the most epic ride of our lives, keep in mind that last 15km of “roads” into Korzak were just dirt tracks.  The majority of the rest of the road to and from Leh is a thin, two-lane black-top road either hugging the mountainside or hovering meters away from a fast-flowing river or hugging the mountainside AND hovering meters away from the river.  We were told that we would only know the road conditions once we got to each curve and that we needed to expect delays and detours.  Ladakh is a poor desert area in the high mountains and we were in the most sparsely populated area of northern India.  Roads are luxuries and safety concerns are not part of the highway code.
Soon after departing we found out that in could really be a rough ride.  There was an army check-point just a couple of kilometres north of Korzak and they gave us advice about roads, where they were clear or washed away as well as offering a suggestion that we stay in Korzak for a while.  I think they also took names, just in case we went missing.  One important piece of advice was to avoid the road along the side of the Indus River.  This was the road we used coming from Leh and along the path where Justin had left his rented motorcycle.  He was worried whether he could recover it and return it before his large deposit would be forfeited.  This road was also the best road back normally but we were told that the Indus River was overflowing its banks and in several places the road was under water or washed away.  The alternative route was through a crescent route left instead of a crescent route right but it also went through valleys between mountains alongside a smaller riverbed.
Another kilometre or two took us to our first stop.  A large 2-2.5m boulder had rolled down the hill and planted itself right in the middle of the track that acted like a road there.  The cars were not able to get past either on the hill side or down the gulley to the right.  By the time we got there, Ladakhis from the dump truck were already attacking it with a sledge hammer.  I got a few whacks in too but I think they thought I would hurt myself before damaging the boulder.  Eventually they wrapped a chain around it, attached the other side to the truck, and then got it moving while many of us pushed from the other side.  Once there was momentum, we struggled but were able to roll it off the track.  That stop took about an hour and we could still see Korzak.
There were plenty of more boulders on the road over the next few kilometres but these were smaller or on the side of the track and we could dodge them.  There were enough though that when we could get off the track, we did and started to cross the flat areas of the desert.  For a while, this looked like a good strategy.  We had to move slowly but we had more room to drive around obstacles.   After a good half hour of progress though, we hit some wet parts and cars were sinking in mud.  Several times we had to stop to push or lift a car out of the mud.  Only twice did I get involved in this messy work.  The drivers were taking off their shoes, rolling up their pants and sometimes up to their knees in mud.  Naturally, cars were also spinning their wheels and spitting mud backwards on the people pushing.  I offered advice from experience in driving in snow and suggested rocking the car by reversing and going forward, again and again, a little further each time which helped in some occasions.  Some of these stops were just a few minutes each time.  Other stops took longer.  At one stop, one car got pushed out and then everyone walked back to get into their cars only to find that now several others had sunk into the gunk.
When we could get back onto the main road, we did but by then, it was the only option.  We were now going through a valley with hills or mountains on either side, a small but fast flowing river running down the thin valley and a single lane two direction blacktop road hugging the flattened out or dug out riverside.  We were able to make some speed here but we lost track of the slow moving dump truck.  We could have used the help from their passengers.  At one point near a bend in the river and road, the river had completely washed away the road.  The drivers from our two cars, as well as the ones from the two other cars still in our convoy got out and assessed the situation.  They figured that the only way forward was to build a “road” over the base of the hill at the bend.  There were no steep parts but the ground was very rough and had several streams running perpendicular to our path.  We got to work finding the largest, flattest rocks we could carry and laying them into two parallel tracks for the width of the tires on a car.  Our new road turned out to be about 100m long and took under two hours to build.  It worked like a charm too as all the cars made it through without getting stuck.
As best as I can tell, that trip described above took us 80km – less than half way to Leh – in 10 hours.  That is an impressive 8km per hour – twice our normal walking speed if we are carrying our backpacks! As we didn’t make it to Leh, we needed a place to sleep for the night.  The drivers knew of a place nearby so we headed towards the interestingly named Wild Ass Homestay parachute tent.  As there were many people in distress similar to us, there was not enough room for all of our group in the big tent.  Melanie and I ended up sleeping in the car, laying across the second and third row of seats.  Kanya and Justin slept in a small camping tent.  The “bathroom” was a three-sided shed built on stilts over a hole, a hundred meters from camp, facing the nearby monastery on the hill.  I think the positioning was to provide entertainment for the monks with good eyesight.

By the way, there were no photos today because my camera was buried under everyone’s gear.  I will always have the pictures in my mind though.  How do you forget the sight of the only road for miles deep under a raging river?  How do you forget seeing the drivers surveying the land, trying to figure the best route to lay rocks for a road?  How do you forget seeing 20 people knee deep in mud, trying to lift or push a SUV out of it?

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