Chapter 6:The Open Road

June 2-June 4th

Photo by Cammy Andrews.
I rent a motorcycle, a 180CC Bajaj Pulsar, strap my oversize pack to the backseat, and take off into the desert mountains. My friend Vaibhav told me about a village of Aryans, that was somewhere in this direction. When I stop for lunch, I ask and the waiter doesn’t know. The road varies in quality from pristine, newly paved asphalt with crisply painted line to an unrecognizable dirt path.
The Mighty Indus river

Don’t stop here, more story and images inside —>>

I love the open road, the long empty stretches on the high plateau with no other traffic. I mostly keep the throttle wide open, but at this elevation the small engine struggles to go faster than 60 kmph on mostly flat sections. In comparison, my 150CC Pulsar gets to 100 kmph without much effort at sea level in Bombay. The brown mountains fly by, snow-capped peaks in the distance, and cattle, goats, and horses graze on the sparse grass. The pack on the back somehow makes cornering easier, forcing me to lean into the curves. I still am not completely comfortable making sharp turns, but as I go on, I get better.

By the time I reach Alchi, after some 65 km and two and a half hours, I am dirty and tired. I take the first guesthouse I find and sleep for a bit. I look out my window to find a quaint old village with a donkey pen, a central grazing and watering hole, traditional blockhouses proudly waving Tibetan prayer flags, and the ruins of an old palace of the ruling family skirting the side of a rocky hill top by religious stupas.
The scene outside of my guest room window.


I seem to be the only foreigner or tourist in the guesthouse, or even the only one in this small village. I follow the maze between the houses to the east of a cliff overlooking the river valley, the skinny green poplar trees breaking the monotony of the monochrome brown hills, the rice crop almost florescent in its stark contrast, and bright yellow flower patches completing the color scheme. I climb the rocks higher and reach the stupa, ruins of mud bricks covered in a white plaster to see the rest of the beautiful valley. In the distance I can see the rest of the village surrounding the famous Alchi monastery.

As good of place as any, I guess

I decide that it’s a good idea to climb down the backside of the rock instead of going down the way I came up. With my first step down, my bag catches on the rock and flips over. Something goes hurtling down, bounces off the rock and lands with a distinct thud. Maybe 20 feet below, my 50 mm lens sits taunting me. “Why’d you leave your bag unzipped, hotshot?” I climb down and find the lens looking to be intact, with no visible maladies, so I tuck it back safely in my bag, and zip it shut.

Off in the rice fields, I see workers wearing colorful clothes that contrast against the bright green. As I point my camera I hear “No, no, no,” from an old woman adjusting the flow of amazingly intricate, but incredibly simple watering can system. They stuff clothes and rocks at the intersections to affect the flow. The women really do not like being photographed, which is very frustrating for a photographer.

Construction workers build the foundations of a house, placing each granite rock, mixing the simple sand and water mortar by hand. I take out my 50 mm lens to do some portraits and I find that it will only fire at f/1.4 and even then, the focus is off. At any higher aperture, it loses communication with the camera for some odd reason. Splendid. Guess I’ll be paying the Santa Cruz Canon Master Repair facility a visit soon.

First shot taken with my now broken 50mm lens. Sad.

This is the furthest distance it will focus

Lying in bed journaling, I see the tops of two foreigner’s heads bob into view from my second story window. The local women laugh and make faces with the couple, encouraging them to dance. I casually run into them as they photograph a boy in front of his house and find out they are a couple from San Diego, CA. They tell me about the amazing murals inside the monastery (I never end up getting to see them, the monastery is closed the one time I try). We go to the other side of the village for dinner and chat till well after dark. I walk the 15 minutes back in complete blackness. Any time I hear another body approaching, I jovially say, “Julay,” their multi-use greeting, to hide my nervousness of their approach.

I take a quick breakfast in the morning before mounting my motorcycle and take off to explore the surrounding villages. I turn the bike down an empty road that parallels the teaming river and the “main” road full of traffic, but in seemingly worse shape. I fly over slight rises and valleys, leaning into curves, enjoying the freedom of the road.

The road begins to break; the natural overpowering the man made. A mountain creek fully wins its battle, flowing proudly where the road should be. I back up and take a run at it, fully soaking my feet in the resulting splash. Around another bend, road workers reconstruct the existing surface while more workers build a water trench twenty feet up the hill. When I pull out the camera the workers get excited. Everyone wants a photo. The foreman writes his address and requests I send some of the photos. Photos of the road workers will follow later in a photo story

Valley of Mangue

I reach Mangue to find the road abruptly ends. On the map, I can continue on to more villages, but the road just disappears into massive piles of stone. An old man hobbles over and requests I follow him. He leads me through the steep maze of the village to the courtyard of a Tibetan temple. He disappears and returns with a set of keys to unlock the inner chambers of the temple. A statue of Buddha sits in the dark, surrounded by small religious artifacts and intricate murals on the walls.

The village school of Mangue is requesting volunteer English teachers. If you’re interested I may be able to get you connected.

I had hoped to continue on to more mountain villages, but without the road this is impossible, so I have to return to the main road. The weather starts to turn as I leave the village; the wind threatens to blow me over and raindrops pelt me in the face. I decide to try and find lunch in Saspol, just across the river, to wait out the weather. I enter the town and ask for a dhaba or restaurant. Everyone looks at me like I’m dumb. Why would they have a restaurant? For that I have to go 25 km. The weather quickly gets worse as I scour the village for any safe place. At least I can go to my guesthouse and get food and shelter. I turn to go back and suddenly, I can’t see. Somehow, my left lens of my glasses fell out without warning, bouncing on the road behind me. I stop and search the ground, covering the bad eye so I can see somewhat clearly. Old men gathered across the street watch this comical spectacle. I ask a nearby shop for a screwdriver to tighten the screw that secures the lens, and then hurry back across the river with the wind screaming by to my guesthouse. By the time I get back, my clothes are soaked and rain drains onto my face through my helmet.
Ladakhi woman carrying firewood

A ram left outside to bear the brunt of the heavy weather

I ask for a menu in the lunch hall in the guesthouse. No menu, only dal rice and beans. Two Israeli girls just finishing up their lunch tell me it’s completely worth it, the dish is delicious. They just got into Alchi, walking the few kilometers from the main road after taking a bus from Leh. I am no longer the only one in the guesthouse.

I take a nap waiting for the weather to clear. When I wake up the sun is shining, but I’m not feeling like going back out on the motorcycle. I sit in my window for a bit and draw the scene before me. I hear some women yelling and laughing and I see the Israeli girls surrounded by villagers, tugging at them. They see me sitting in the window.

After dinner I find Mia, one of the girls, in the garden. “What were you doing in the window?” she asks. “Drawing.” “Can I see it?” “It’s nothing, really. Just line sketches I like to do.” I show her the sketch in my journal. “Do you do anything else creative?” she continues to ask. “Besides photography? Well, I write some music.” “Oh, my friend has a travel guitar. We like to sing together. You should come join us.” I play a few of my songs then we flip through her songbook and sing classic American rock songs like Hotel California. They seem to have a better grasp on classic American rock than I do, playing me some songs I’d never heard before.

The morning’s blue skies promise good weather for the day, but in the mountains, you can never tell. I eat a quick breakfast before packing up my motorcycle, balancing my pack precariously and snapping one of the elastic cords in the process. Clouds loom in the distance, threatening to make my trip back to Leh a wet one. The road oscillates between impeccable surfaces to hardly resembling a road. I enjoy some of the long sections of good quality tarmac with very little traffic, feeling the curves moving fluidly through the folds of the arid mountains. I would not want to be stuck here with no transportation. The desert is not a friendly place.

Along the way I stop and photograph teams of road workers, digging and moving large rocks by hand. Men and women work here while children not old enough to walk play in the dirt beside the construction. They come from Bihar and Nepal to work during the warmer months; they come and endure backbreaking manual labor. These things in the west are done by machines, not by human hands. But getting the proper machines here proves difficult.

I climb down into the pits to photograph them at their work before they break for lunch. An older woman waves me over, sitting on the lip of the pit amongst the torso sized granite stones. Laid out in front of her are plastic bags and thermoses. She hands me a white porcelain teacup with blue etchings on it filled with milk tea. Other workers come and sit around us. The begin ruffling through the plastic bags, pulling out multiple food dishes and flat breads. “Take some. Have it!” “I don’t want to take your food. I can get some very easily.” “No, eat. You must.” They hand me this amazing flat bread that I have no idea what it is. It was sweet and delicious. I ask what it is. “Bread.” Thanks. It’s not the typical Ladakhi bread, which is also delicious but very different. They “force” me to eat their chapatti and veggies, despite my pleas of not wanting to take their food. Finally, after my captors think I’ve had enough they let me go. (It’s funny watching the people staring at me from the passing SUVs while I eat with the road workers) Again, these images will be part of a photo story on the Road Workers of Ladakh

The weather continues to deteriorate as I grow closer to Leh. I take a side road to a village between the grasp of two mountains, but because of the impending precipitation I turn back and keep going towards Leh. White flakes begin falling from the sky and hitting me in the face as Leh comes into view. Viraj and Vaibhav are hanging out at GraviT Cafe, and greet me as I come in. My motorcycle adventure is over.

Don’t stop here, read the last chapter, “Finale”.