There are some drives you do. You know you can and look forward to that long road trip. And then there are some drives that you wouldn’t. Not for lack of wanting to, but because you know it requires certain skills, none of which I have. Ladakh is one of those places.
Thankfully, as part of the package, I had a driver through our five-day stay in Ladakh. From the moment he picked me up at the airport, right to the moment when, five days later, he dropped me right outside the airport, once again.
Since we were all going to entrust our lives in the hands of the driver, it made sense to start off on a positive note and build a warm relationship. And nothing works better than sharing a few smokes together on the journey, along with the odd chai at any of the highway restaurants. And that is what I did through my five-day long stay in Ladakh.
Drive with views
In those five odd days, I also realised that sitting next to him turned out to be both a blessing and a nerve-wracking experience.
A blessing because, as he drove on the narrow roads, sometimes paved, but mostly dirt, you get to see Ladakh in its raw beauty, mile after mile. With views like this in front and sides of you, it can feel like a sensory overload. From mesmerising lakes and clear blue skies, sweeping valleys or vast arid planes with barren mountains acting as relief, a journey through Ladakh takes you through all these, and much more.
And yet, there were lots of nerve-wracking moments too. Times when I literally had my heart in my mouth, never ever sure if one small miscalculation on the part of the driver would see us tumbling down those ravines, to be remembered years later as a mere statistical number.
But thankfully, nothing untoward happened. Sometimes, watching him skillfully navigate the vehicle on some of the roads was as fascinating to me as the panoramic views outside as we drove on Khardung – the highest motorable road in the world, Chang La – on the way to Pangong Lake, Taglang La – with its hairpin bends that will get you giddy if you aren’t ready for it.
By the end of my stay in Ladakh, I’d gotten to know the driver quite well, so much so that, on the last evening, after we had seen and done what needed to be seen and done and dropped everyone at their respective hotels, he invited me for a cup of tea at a small local tea shop somewhere in Leh.
Eager as ever for a kadak chai, what I didn’t expect was to be treated to a glass of Kashmiri style noon chai. Also called pink tea, is made with gunpowder tea (green tea leaves that are rolled into small balls) and is unique to this region. It gets its colour thanks to a pinch of baking soda that is added to it.
If I was expecting a slight sugar buzz, what I instead got was a salty aftertaste. It wasn’t what I was expecting and is an acquired taste.
Chai is chai, no.