11:07 p.m. — Walking in a flashlight beam along the mani wall outside Lamayuru.
The mani wall is about four feet high, four feet wide, made of stacked stones and covered with flat slates on which ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ is carved in Tibetan script over and over again.
The wall seems endless.
We’ve already been walking for twenty minutes and there’s no end in sight. Om Mani Padme Hum, Om Mani Padme Hum, over and over again to eternity.
It must have taken lifetimes to build such a wall…
As we walk, the darkness around us is absolute.
There are no lights in the faraway village, no cars on the road, no rivers nearby, no streams, no wind, no plants, no insects, no moon, no life. The surrounding mountains are black and dead, indistinguishable from the black space above them except that they hide the stars.
Everything is silent.
M- and I walk through this darkness for almost an hour, sometimes switching off the flashlight to fully soak it in. We walk until it seems we’ve gone too far, that no matter how far we walk the mani wall will never end.
We decide to turn back.
Somewhere along the way I say, You go ahead, and step aside to urinate.
“Be careful,” M- says. “They believe deities live in the ground near a mani wall and that if you pee on their homes they’ll curse you.”
I step a little more to the side of the road and continue to pee.
The following morning we strap our gear to the bikes and resume the ride. Soon we enter an area that looks like the surface of a yellow moon.
The shapes of the rocks, formed from eons of almost no rain and endless wind, are impossible not to stare at as I ride, not easy to do on such winding, bumpy roads. So I ride very slowly, trying to take it in.
Around two mountains, down dozens of switchbacks to the clean, white-blue Indus, we ride from one strange uninhabited expanse to another. We pass through stark and steep mountains, through narrow gorges and wide canyons, through wastelands of sculpted stone.
On one isolated stretch we come upon a crew of dusty Ladakhis hunched over with handbrooms, sweeping dirt off the highway.
As I ride on, I watch M- in my rearview mirror. She stops to talk with them. I pull over and wait for her to ride up.
“Why are they sweeping the highway?”
“The Dalai Lama is visiting a village near here in a few days.”
“So they sweep the highway?”
“Yes, they sweep it because he is coming.”
“But as soon they sweep it it gets covered in dust again.”
“All the same, they sweep.”
We ride on. We ride on and on, hour after hour, lost in the landscape.
All of it together is almost enough to make me forget my ongoing motorcycle problem, but as soon as we begin climbing to altitudes over 4,000 meters, the problem reasserts itself. My motor begins powering down until little gas can get to the engine, at which point it can’t accelerate out of first gear and goes no faster than 6 miles an hour, a leisurely bicycling speed. I have no idea how to fix it and the nearest mechanic is more than 160 kilometers away.
This is only one of the many problems we’ve encountered over the last few days: flat tires, broken spokes, scorched spark plugs, a broken headlight, a broken taillight, continuous internal electrical problems. The shoddy welding on the luggage racks is also beginning to come apart.
Still, nothing deters us. Nothing can darken our mood. Whatever happens, all we need do is look around at the land and we are refreshed.
We ride on under the clear sky through air as dry as chalk, making the lips crack and the hands become reptilian. At times we pull to the side of the road and cut the engines, just to hear the silence, a silence so deep and vast it swallows the mind. Sometimes we scream out over the canyons, listening to our voices echo back from many directions.
Then we continue the ride.
As my sun- and wind-burned hands grip the handlebars, I try to imagine what this alien land must have looked like to those who first wandered here millennia ago. What restlessness could have driven them to such an empty, celestial place?
Back in Mulbeck, a monk told us that during winter the temperature can drop to -60? Celsius. What do you do in such weather? M- asked him. I stay in my room day and night, he said. In bed, under blankets, with no electricity and no stove for heating.
For those seeking to withdraw from the world, there are few more isolated places.
Daydreaming, I notice too late the loose gravel on the road as I round a steep switchback and my bike slips out from under me, catching my foot in the luggage rack. I land on my stomach, my helmet smacks the gravel and with the bike on top of me I slide to a stop.
The first thing I realize is the gasoline spilling out. I cut the engine and try to crawl out from under the bike, but it’s impossible. The enormous weight is entirely on my ankle and the bike won’t budge. I can’t even to lift my head to see if any cars are coming. On the ground where I am, pinned like an insect, gasoline leaking all over me, it would be easy for a car to round the curve and run me over. I groan and strain with all my strength, but the bike is too heavy.
Suddenly, I hear M-‘s frightened voice shout Joshua! and a car door open and shut. The bike lifts off me and I roll over to find M- above me and a stranger walking the bike to the side of the road.
M- helps me up and I limp over to my motorcycle to check my leg. My ankle is bruised and some of my toes are bleeding, but I can still operate the footbrake without too much pain.
Ten minutes later we’re back on the road, my ankle throbbing as we drive the few miles left to Basgo gompa, an ancient monastery isolated on a hill overlooking the vast and barren valley. There being no doctor until Leh, it is useless to fret over my ankle.
M- helps me limp up the hill.
Within, the complex seems abandoned – just wind passing over the stone staircases, not a soul in sight. We circle the old, deteriorated stupas and walk the empty corridors seeing no one until we enter the gompa, where we find a lone child monk banging a drum and chanting prayers loudly to himself below a 10-meter statue of Maitreya Buddha.
After about ten minutes he stops drumming, bows his head to the ground towards Maitreya and asks us to pay the gompa maintenance fee.
A few minutes later, after speaking with the groundskeeper in the larger gompa, we find out the boy lives there alone. A boy lives in each of the two gompas, the groundskeeper tells us. Together, they have two thousand-year-old monasteries, as well as the nearby fortress, all to themselves…
We crawl on our motorcycles and ride on.