A 3.30am alarm call wakes us, disgustingly tired. A very sleepy-looking taxi driver is waiting outside to wind and wend us through Delhi’s maze to the airport, the legendary Himalayas our destination.
The flight to Leh, Ladakh begins in darkness, but within minutes the sun is rising over a fleece of fluffy white clouds stretching north to the instantly visible mass of the world’s highest mountain range. Our plane draws closer until their rocky tips peak and trough like whipped-up meringue directly below us, past the wings and out to the horizon, as far as the clouds will let us see. We sit mesmerised, our tiny, inferior human-selves gazing over cloud-filled valleys and snowfields dominated by ancient snow-capped giants, the whirr of the plane a measly soundtrack for what lies below.
Leh, Ladakh itself sits at around 3505m above sea level and touching down at such altitude can be quite a shock to the system. The neighbouring desert-like mountains form walls to the north, east and south and roads leading out count themselves as the highest motor-able routes in the world. In Universe terms, we’ve barely made a dent, but the Earth’s atmosphere feels significantly closer up here. I look at the fading morning moon, the rural landscape and feel noticeably nearer to space.
On arrival we make our way through the rubble-strewn streets to the Old Ladakh Guest House which has warm rooms and a rooftop terrace with jaw-dropping, panoramic views to the ruins of the Leh palace and surrounding peaks. Feeling short of breath and weary, we fall asleep at 9am and rise at lunchtime, by which point the cold morning (6 degrees) has been replaced by a sunny, hot, clear-sky day. Our bodies unacclimatised to life at such height, show their disgruntlement in the form of banging headaches. Our room has an ensuite…bucket shower, which we douse ourselves in before plodding (this pace is all we can muster) into the small, quiet town. Alleyways brim with interesting artisan crafts punctuated by turquoise jewellery and unassuming, respectful people – such a contrast from the crazy hustle of Delhi. Even though we’re on the Indian side of the border, the vibe is positively Tibetan.
We while away the afternoon, eating momos (a kind of dumpling) with vegetables and cheese for lunch which takes hours to arrive but is tasty when it finally does. Prayer flags flap in the breeze as we drink, sketch, read at a roof top terrace in the sunshine, surrounded by ornate rooftops and glorious views. Late in the afternoon, as the shadows start dripping from the haystacks, we search out a cheaper guest house for the next night, picking one with a vibrant flower garden, quiet, rural feel and a room with views that fall across fields and rice paddies to the dry rising massif of snowy Stok Kangri.
The sinking sun leaves us contemplating this beautiful, remote, peaceful place in the light of a blindingly bright moon.