You have just crossed the Jogila pass and as the cold wind drives the chill right through to your bones, you look around. To your right are rows upon unending rows of snow covered mountains. With snow so thick that not a patch of bare rock or soil is visible. The mountains stretch gleaming white as far as the eyes can see. As you turn around, to your left are mountains so barren, that the small shrubs seen clinging to precarious perches seem a physical impossibility. Not one patch of snow, no matter how small, can be seen on those mountains. Just the unending browns and the dark reds of dry parched earth. Then you hear a tiny gurgling sound. To you right, just beside the road, bubbles a small stream. The water is the clearest and brightest blue, and you are tempted to dip your hands into the stream just for a sip of the pure mountain water. Reflected in the little puddles by the side of the stream is the clearest, bluest sky you have ever seen. Not even a wisp of cloud. And a blue so intense, that you wonder if any other blues were actually possible. A blue is no blue if not the blue of that sky. Eventually you tear your eyes from the stunning vistas surrounding you and look to the road. A road so smooth and so clear that it invites you to step on the accelerator and leave the cares of the world behind, and you do. Welcome to motoring wonderland.
The four wheel drive seemed pointless. The taxi had the worrying knack of going sideways just at the bends in the road where the drop to the valley floor was the deepest. The ice on the road didn't help either. And when the taxi skidded to an undignified halt in Drass, a small town some 40km from Kargil, I desperately stumbled out and blindly made my way to the nearest tea shack. Having had nothing to eat since the previous day afternoon, and seeing a kind of bun on sale, I gobbled it down. It was surprisingly tasty. Unexpectedly found in the second coldest permanently inhabited place on this planet. I hurriedly gobbled some five of the tasty buns and bundled myself into the taxi. It was far too cold outside. Slowly, the little stream by the side of the road turned into a strong gushing torrent, and little by little, the snow covered mountains disappeared. The sandy browns of the barren mountains became the dominant colour, the deep blue sky providing the only relief for the eyes. The taxi eventually came upon an ancient steel bridge over the Suru river, crossed it and entered Kargil. I requested to be dropped off at the JKTDC office. Which was a kilometre up a steep hill from where the taxi actually dropped me off. As I entered the compound of what appeared to a small collection of rooms high above the actual town of Kargil, I found no office. Only a lone and weather beaten caretaker. He pointed to a distant building a couple of kilometres down the hillside, saying that I had to book rooms there and come back with the receipt. All this carrying my bag on my back.
The tourist officer was a quiet man. As I went in, preparation was in full swing for the imminent visit by a local minister. He looked up from his busy work and asked my why I had chosen to come to Kargil in the winter. He told me that all the water pipes had frozen up and there would be no running water in Kargil till spring. Satisfied that I was prepared to put up with these discomforts, he asked me what my plans were. I said I planned to stay in Kargil for a couple of days, spend one day heading up the Suru valley and maybe visit Mulbek. The chamba, or the statue of Buddha, in Mulbek was described as being carved with "esoteric Shivite symbolism". On reading that description, there was no way that I could not visit it. After which I planned on going to Leh. The officer thought for a moment and suggested that I spend just that day in Kargil, take the drive up the Suru valley early the next day and head to Mulbek directly. There was a tourist bungalow there, where I could stay, and catch the only bus to Leh the day after at an early six in the morning. It seemed like the perfect plan. Dumping my bag in the room, I headed to the bazaar in search of a taxi to drive me as far up the Suru valley as possible. I finally found a driver willing to take me as far as Sankoo, and drop me off at Mulbek by around three in the afternoon. The only catch was that we had to depart before six in the morning. Having agreed on a price and the time to leave, I headed up the road leading away from Kargil. On the way I passed by a huge tear in the hillside through which the floods of August had entered Kargil and caused much damage. As I climbed higher, the town slowly came into view. A tiny town clustered around a bend in the Suru river, surrounded by the mighty and beautifully desiccated mountains. I was hungry again.
Wanting a local delicacy, it was the thukpa I was after. I asked the caretaker of the bungalow where I would get good thukpa. He gave directions to a sort of shady place near the councillor’s office where he promised I would get good thukpa. I reached the place and found two hotels matching his description. I entered the first one, and asked for a thukpa. He said he didn't have it. I went to the next place and saw in the back the noodles for the thukpa getting prepared. I asked the fellow, when it would be ready. He said it would take time, and recommended that I come tomorrow. But I was headed to Mulbek tomorrow, I replied. He thought for a while and said that the thukpa would be ready in two hours. He promised. Very well. I went back to the room, put on more layers of clothing and killed time watching the sun set over the mountains. After exactly two hours, with the freezing temperatures outside, I walked down the steep kilometre from the room and went to the hotel where the thukpa was waiting for me. I arrived at the place and found it dark. It was then I realised that though he had said that the thukpa would be ready in two hours, he never said anything about hotel being open so that I could eat it. The hotel was shut tight and padlocked. I had to settle for dal and rice at a nearby place.
The taxi the next day was driven by a very talkative Mr Rizvi. The drive in the early morning sunshine was perhaps the best so far. We stopped first at the imambara in Tresporne, which was conveniently closed. I had seen the interiors of the place in some photos and wanted to take a look myself. As it turned out, the caretaker had left for the week to a village about 20km from Tresporne. We headed on. Stopping now and then to take pictures, we eventually ended up at Sankoo, where the chamba was precariously located. And trying to get a good look, I tripped and fell into a freezing stream that flowed beneath it. Which was uncomfortable. And my shoes were thoroughly soaked. At about midday, Rizvi invited me to his home and fed me a very tasty combination of naan and tea. Rizvi's grandfather was preparing for a trip to Karbala in Iraq, and the the whole household was busy making preparations. We left as the afternoon approached and after a dusty drive, arrived at Mulbek. The tourist bungalow was a small building located at the end of the village. And it appeared I was the only guest in a few months. Rizvi and me exchanged byes and I headed off to take stock of the "esoteric Shivite symbolism" of the chamba there. Finding it esoteric enough, I decided to take a small hike up the surrounding mountains. From the very top, I could see far down the road leading all the way to Leh.