Part 1: The Offer*
The candle flame flailed wildly back and forth, painting half his face in fluttering orange. The rest of him was swallowed up by darkness- power across the whole town had gone out out, surrendering to the deep, wet night. Beyond our guest house’s narrow porch, rain was coming down in slobbering lashes.
His eyes bore a worrying glassy wildness, perhaps encouraged by the twin bottles of vodka and apple juice which flanked him on either side and occasionally met in the middle, poured together into a mug. He spoke in a prim and plummy accent, and talked of tennis at great length- Wimbledon, one of the few things from England that he remained passionate about even after three years in India. I listened with mild interest, and waited patiently for him to get back to the topic I really wanted to hear about. The man’s name was Clive, he claimed to be a photographer of some repute, and -just like me- he wanted to go to Leh (pronounced “Lay,”) the capital city of Ladakh. He was also, quite possibly, a crazy person.
Ladakh (the name means “Land of High Passes,”) is the place to go in India once the monsoon starts nipping at your heels. It’s a high altitude desert in the far, far north of the Himalayas- far enough north that it technically counts as part of Kashmir, though it has none of that region’s associated troubles. Long regarded as one of the last enclaves of untouched Tibetan Buddhism, the area has been growing steadily more popular with tourists since the Indian government opened its airport to foreign travelers in 1974. Still, located 3,000 metres above sea level, it’s not the easiest place in the world to reach. Flying in means spending three days on your back recovering from altitude sickness- and it’s cheating, because you don’t get to see much en route. The more interesting way to get there is overland- a long and brutal drive from Manali. It can be done in twenty hours. Clive wanted to take two days, to provide plenty of time for photographs. The road, he assured me, was one of the most spectacular journeys in the world, and not to be rushed. He was putting together a jeep of like minded travelers who might value a leisurely pace, and he was offering me a place on it.
I thought about what the Australians said.
There had been four of them, staying in the same guesthouse as us. The first time they saw Clive, it was with a certain alarmed recognition- a reaction he entirely failed to notice. ‘We met him in Delhi,’ they later told me. It seemed that Clive had been claiming to be a Bubba King, ranting incoherently about signing a book that didn’t exist, and randomly claiming that complete strangers were part of his “PR team.” I might have dismissed this as idle gossip, except I’d already noticed the man barking like a dog in mid-conversation for no reason at all, and telling people over dinner (with conviction and a straight face) that the world governments were conspiring to cover up an invasion of extraterrestrial noise called The Howling.
‘Just don’t give him any money or anything,’ the Australians whispered. I wasn’t planning to, at least not up front. On the other hand, Clive had a legitimate looking website, and there were mentions of his name on Geo, National Geographic and BBC wildlife documents scattered across the ‘net. So maybe he was crazy, but he seemed like the legitimate kind of crazy. Maybe three years in India had just driven him a bit mad. Either way, he seemed to know the road to Ladakh really well, and he was offering a comfortable, guided jeep-tour of all the most spectacular spots. I watched him carefully in the candle light; trying and failing to size him up. I was reading a dog-eared copy of Heart of Darkness at the time, and I couldn’t help thinking of him as my own personal Colonel Kurtz, promoting the riches of up river- or, in this case, up road.
It would have been easy to say no. I had already paid for a ticket on the nice, official twenty hour minibus. A good backpacker is mindful of money; I wasn’t likely to get a refund, and missing the bus would be two thousand rupees thrown away.
But the minibus would be no fun, doing most of its journey at night, and I wouldn’t get to see much on the way. Plus- and this was the more important thing- I’d never know whether or not the photographer was also crazy.
I decided to get in the jeep.
*In telling this mostly from my at-the-time perspective, I reserve the right to be occasionally wrong and massively misleading.