The alarm went off at 3:47am. The sky was still enveloped in nighttime shades of dark blues and blacks, and the usually bustling city of Leh was quiet, save for the occasional barking of dogs in the distance. We silently packed, in a groggy and cranky morning-stupor, and then made our way towards the taxi stand, shuffling amongst closed-up shops along the empty streets. A Ladakhi taxi driver offered us a ride, replying “free,” when we repeatedly asked him how much. With that answer, we loaded up our packs and jumped in, relieved from another two kilometers walk. When we arrived at the taxi stand just prior to five am, our driver suddenly changed his mind, now asking for a hundred rupees. We gave him fifty, called it even, and joined the local Ladakhis waiting for taxis. We waited, and waited, and still there were no signs of taxis—only a few cars and a handful of stray dogs wandering the street. In the meantime, more and more Ladakhis showed up, and as the number of people increased, so did my anxiety about not getting a ride.
Finally, when taxis began to arrive, people swarmed towards the vehicles to grab seats. Utterly confused and too groggy for aggression, I meekly asked a few drivers for seats and was turned down each time. During a lull in taxis, a Ladakhi man engaged us in conversation about how his mother and sister were going to Diskit, and offered to help us find a taxi. Sometime past five-thirty, a taxi arrived at the gate and paused. Our new Ladakhi friend went up to him, and as they discussed, I looked up at the monastery sitting above Leh palace and tried manifesting a ride, seeking the help of some buddhist deity. Either they heard me, or our new friend did; we piled our things onto the roof shortly thereafter.
Relieved and reinvigorated, we hopped in the very back, where we faced sideways, squished between two Ladakhi men, for six long hours along the world’s highest motorable road. The drive was incredible. Eleven of us were crammed into a mid-sized jeep, which hugged the curves of the mountain tightly, navigated over missing patches of road that were washed away by melted snow, twisted sharply around hairpin turns, and slowly climbed upwards. The higher we went, the colder it got, and I cursed myself for not wearing warmer layers.
At the first police check point, we handed over our permit and passports to find out that we were supposed to make copies of the permit for the police to keep. We batted our eyelashes and informed the men—in broken Ladakhi—that no one had told us silly Americans anything about copies, and after a few minutes of deliberation we were on our way again, winding another twenty-four kilometers up to Khardungla–the world’s highest pass. After a bone-chilling ascent teetering along rocky cliffs, we passed over the 18,380 foot pass and descended into Nubra Valley.
While the area surrounding villages near Leh look like barren, mountainous deserts of rock and sand, Nubra Valley seems to hold more greenery; thanks in part to its wide streams, flowing out of the glaciers and into the villages, which then empty into the Shyok River, running West through the valley.
It felt good to be in a village again, with the vast fields of barley and mustard seed spread across the valley. We swiftly found a room with large windows that overlooked the moonrise each evening, with Diskit monastery sitting high on the mountainside, as if it naturally sprouted from the rocks one day when the Ladakh and Karakoram ranges collided atop the Tibetan plateau.