Travel

Finding the sublime on the highest mountain passes in the world, in Ladakh, northern India. By Robert Dessaix.

Wondering heights in India

On the road to the mountainous Khardung Pass.
Credit: Gita Mehra / Flickr

The sublime is hard to come by these days, I find. There’s Beethoven (not Mozart), but I’m talking about landscapes. Where can we still find the “agreeable kind of horror” that gripped Joseph Addison in Switzerland 300 years ago? Alaska, for instance, is too horrifyingly wild, while Switzerland now looks too agreeably picturesque. New Zealand is much too nice and everywhere else is far too flat.

There is still one place we can find it: Ladakh in northern India. As I discovered this autumn, Ladakh is still utterly sublime.

Even flying into Leh, Ladakh’s tiny capital, is agreeably horrifying: if the pilot so much as sneezed you’d smash into a mountainside. Swooping lower among the glaciers and lifeless brown escarpments, you suddenly find yourself skimming over a ribbon of fields and gleaming monasteries, and then you’re down. Or as down as you’re going to get for a while: at 3500 metres you’re already on a level with Lhasa. For a day or two you may feel odd. Some of the more spiritually inclined sense the onset of ecstatic non-being. Others take Diamox.

There’s nothing sublime about Leh itself. Like most small Indian towns, it’s a higgledy-piggledy, traffic-clogged dump. For centuries, Silk Road travellers and explorers changed donkeys here on their way from Chinese Turkestan across the highest mountain passes in the world to India. Sir Aurel Stein, for instance, the celebrated Hungarian-British archaeologist and looter of Chinese antiquities, had several frostbitten toes amputated here at the Moravian Mission in 1908. The prosperous-looking mission is still going strong, its yellow school buses careering wildly around the narrow streets, although the success in religious terms of Bohemian Protestantism in Buddhist Ladakh is hard to judge.

Nowadays, Leh has little to offer the modern traveller except a clutch of hotels (mostly “eco”, meaning the electricity keeps going off), a German bakery and views of mountains you know will be sublime once you get in among them. Kashmiri shopkeepers, each more dashing than the one before, line the main streets, trying to seduce you into buying outlandish gewgaws you won’t know what to do with once you get them home. There’s a mini Potala (the former royal palace) you can wander through on one nearby hilltop and a gigantic stupa funded by the Japanese on another rocky outcrop, but not a lot else – and there’s never much to do at a stupa once you’ve admired it, however gilded and grand it is. The bazaar is colourful in a grubby sort of way, but unremarkable. The current king lives in a splendid new palace across the Indus valley in Stok. After a day or two in Leh you can see why.

There’s little that’s sublime about the surrounding villages, either, where you might find yourself time-travelling pleasurably in one ancient monastery after the other during the first few days of your stay. (Best not to go too high too soon.) Once you step inside one of these unutterably beautiful, towering lamaseries – all sheer white walls, tiny brown wooden windows, and brilliant yellows, reds and greens – you’re in mediaeval Tibet, not India, you’re being literally transported, you can’t remember who you’re supposed to be or why you thought it mattered. There’s usually nobody else about – a monk or two in maroon robes, perhaps, a Japanese pilgrim, a Ukrainian bikie, but often just you.

Inside the various temples themselves, lit by butter lamps, in the presence of rows of carved deities, paintings, frescoes and thangka scrolls, you may feel serene, mystified, numbed or even, after standing in silence before your eighth or 18th or is it 80th Sakyamuni Buddha, Maitreya Buddha or Buddha with a Thousand Arms (which is not just a dance performed by the China Disabled People’s Performing Art Troupe, but an actual deity, or at least a bodhisattva), on the verge of unhinged, but you will feel at the very least altered. Wherever you are – in Thiksay, for example, just outside Leh, in Likir on the road to Srinagar, or in Hemis, the wealthiest of the monasteries – you will certainly feel astonishingly, bewilderingly far from home. And isn’t that the point of travel? But you will not yet feel in the presence of the sublime. Down in the Indus valley among the fields of barley and wheat, the horror will not yet have struck.

For your first taste of the sublime, you need to head up the narrow side valley behind Leh towards the Khardung Pass. In just minutes you’re above the town and its poplars, zigzagging up the side of the valley into a silent world of brown rocks. Above you – terrifyingly far above you – appear the dazzlingly white peaks of the Karakoram Range. You feel simultaneously melancholy and elated. The road is a narrow, potholed, icy goat track, constantly being churned up by military convoys. There is no guardrail between you and the precipice yawning inches from the wheels. BETTER SLOW THAN THE GRAVE BELOW, says the sign. Or SAFETY ON ROAD, SAFE TEA AT HOME. In the face of death Indians are great punsters. I felt less borne upwards towards the pass on this, one of the highest motorable roads in the world, than sucked up into the airless wastes above.

The higher we go, the more jubilant, yet despairing I feel. Why despairing? It’s the only word that comes to mind. Sixteen thousand, 17,000, 18,000 feet … it’s snowing, there are vast glaciers everywhere I look, I can never reach them … yet somewhere out there are unseen snow leopards, jackals, ibex, blue sheep and marmots – lots of marmots, whenever you stop you hear a marmot squeaking. Yet all I can see is snow and rock. I am thrillingly unhoused, yet snug. I am nothing, I am the whole world. The desolation is complete, the rapture not just beyond words, but thought. This is what abandonment means.

At the pass there are prayer flags and hot black tea. And views north towards places I am forbidden to go. This is sublime.

On the way back down we pass some Dutchmen from my hotel, by no means young, who are cycling up to the pass. It takes them two days there and back. And out there somewhere, even higher, I know there are dozens of other Europeans trekking. What a fake I am, sitting up with my driver in this four-wheel-drive. The faux adventurer – that’s me! But I don’t care – we do what we can do.

Two days later I set off for Pangong Lake near the Tibetan border: another dizzying pass as high as the moon, more brown stony deserts (so many browns – red-browns, black-browns, yellow-browns, brown-browns), more walls of ice, more marmots – and yaks this time as well – and more Indian tourists, because in 3 Idiots the Bollywood heart-throb Aamir Khan met his heroine here. The road, which the driver called a “dancing road” because of the way it made the car leap and twist, was the most sickeningly dangerous I have ever been on in my life. At any moment, it seemed, we might execute a grand jeté into the void. SPEED THRILLS BUT OFTEN KILLS just doesn’t cover it, nor does DRINKING WHISKY CAN BE RISKY.

Yet there is no English word for the kind of beauty that burns away your soul when you gaze upon it. In fact, it’s not beauty at all: Edmund Burke was right when he argued that beauty is no part of the sublime. The sublime belongs to a different aesthetic order. Where I live it can barely be imagined.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 1, 2014 as "Wondering heights". Subscribe here.

Robert Dessaix
is a novelist, essayist and journalist. His latest book is What Days Are For.