I have never quite managed to travel along a windy road without throwing up. I started at age 3 and have remained consistent ever since. My road trips bring back fantastic memories including my ex-husband holding back my hair while I vomited across Mpumalanga, a girlfriend passing me toothpaste as I threw up through Uganda and this time, my fabulous driver Tashi giving me water and mints on every Himalayan vomit stop.
The road from Leh to Pangong Lake is brutal. It’s magnificent, and every corner – and there are many hairpin corners at extreme heights – are accompanied by an ‘oh my fucking word.’ The Himalaya are rugged, stony, rocky, enormous, overpowering, overwhelming, magnificent and harsh. They come with signs that say ‘Beware shooting rocks’ and ‘Careful, Avalanche area.’ They come with snow, ice, wind and glaciers, and of course, very high altitude.
And they come with incredible beauty. All of a sudden there’s a golden glow on a jagged shard of rock. The snow glistens. Or there’s a patchwork green valley below. Way below. And sometimes, there are carpets of flowers. Sometimes, locals having picnics. And sometimes such steep drops that if your driver takes one wrong turn you’re at the bottom of the valley and somebody’s glad you’ve taken out insurance.
But the drivers don’t take wrong turns and you never need that insurance. These drivers know what they’re doing. They know when it’s all become a bit much and you need a cup of fresh ginger tea. Or when you maybe need a bowl of noodles. They know when to smile, when to put on music and when to focus on the road ahead.
They know you’re going to struggle and maybe shed a few tears. And they are there for you.
They understand vomit stops.
They also understand the Indian army. At one point we had to pull to the side on a teeny, icy patch of potholed road, waiting for a good sixty army trucks to hurtle by. They know to tell you not to take pictures of the Indian army as their massive force make their way down the road, and they know you’re going to take pics anyway.
They know not to discuss politics. It’s just too complicated. Or dangerous maybe, to talk about what’s going on. It looked to me like India was preparing for war. Or are already at war. Kashmir. Pakistan. China. We were so close to all these areas of conflict. It was a bit weird to be a traveller marvelling at the beauty when the guns are at the ready too.
Driving on these roads in a little Toyota is also interesting. In South Africa, people drive 4x4s just to mount the pavement. On this, the second highest road in the world, a small Toyota is perfectly fine. Or a motorbike. And I must say, I quite often wanted to ditch the car and jump on the back of a bike. But I didn’t, because of loyalty to my driver and because of safety and because I’m 58 and I’m going to do Ladakh on the back of a bike when I’m 60.
I would go back to Pangong Lake, the world’s highest salt water lake. It’s a place of surreal beauty. And exquisite stillness. But it gave me anxiety. Because after Pangong, we had to go back down the mountain.
And I knew I would likely vomit again.