Jeremy Clarke Jeremy Clarke

Low life | 8 September 2016

In the high-altitude desert was an oasis of willows, poplars, apricot trees, wood stacks and wheatfields

Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir

  This morning I was woken just before daylight by the clear ‘ting’ of a meditation bell. The owner of the house was attending to his religious devotions in the little private chapel across the courtyard from my room. He is an ‘Amchi’, I’ve been told, which is a Ladakhi word for the village herbal-medicine man and astrologer. I’ve been staying at his house for two days, acclimatising to the thin air and doing nothing much except looking out of the window at the turbulent confluence, below the house, of the Zanskar and Indus rivers, and at the mountain ranges beyond. I’ve encountered the Amchi just once so far. We passed on the stairs. He was wearing a clean green khaki shirt, pressed trousers and a leather Stetson hat. His mahogany Mongoloid face was hard as nails yet compassionate, if that is possible. I said, ‘Julee’ (Ladakhi for hello, goodbye, please, thank you, yes, no and how are you?). With a stony face, he said, ‘Julee, Julee, Julee,’ which might have been my week’s ration of greetings delivered in one go to save us both time and energy. After breakfast, I was taken for a drive in the countryside. It was dismally cold and raining. I sat in the back seat, the guide sat in the front passenger seat. The driver spoke only Ladakhi. He drove us over a girder bridge then followed an immaculately smooth tarmac road which ran above and beside the Zanskar river. This lovely road ended abruptly after a few miles. After that we were bumping along a boulder-strewn mountain ledge a hundred feet above the foaming river and no curb or barrier. Progress was painfully slow. A road sign said, ‘After whisky, driving risky’. Another, further on, said, ‘Mister Late better than Late Mister’. All around was high-altitude desert canyon: rock, rubble and sand, basically.

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