Leaving behind the cacophonous traffic jams of Srinagar, the road climbs up, clinging to the side of the crumbling mountain range that we’re following into the heart of Ladakh. Deep below us a large base camp of tarpaulin tents is being erected in preparation for the Amarnath Yatra, an annual Hindu pilgrimage to a mountain cave where Lord Shiva is embodied in the form of an ice stalagmite. Kashmir’s troubles grow and wane unpredictably, and the faithful haven’t forgotten the massacre of pilgrims that marked the beginning of the new millenium, the terrorist attack the year after that, and another the year after. But faith precedes fear and hundreds of thousands of Hindus will again walk the mountainous 40-kilometre trek to the shrine of Shiva, the Destroyer.
This hardscrabble landscape of a high altitude desert reaching towards the Tibetan Plateau has been my own godless pilgrimage, which began seven months earlier at the southern tip of India. Once the crossroads of major trade routes, the closing of the Tibetan border and the militarization of the region have turned Ladakh into a remote pocket of desolate beauty and epic proportions.
The arch of colours wrapping itself snugly around the mountain feels like a welcome home. It’s three days after my twenty-fifth birthday and three days before I meet the man who will later become my husband.
II. The Bosphorus Strait, Turkey
I’m standing at the edge of Europe, looking eastward at a rainbow arching over Asia, on my way west over the Atlantic.
This morning everything trembled and shook as we tried to land, down and then up again, circling above the airport. The plane went awfully quiet, the Congolese woman sitting across the isle gripped her armrest so tightly that the tips of her fingers turned white under the scarlet nails as she prayed to her God, and I wished I had more to believe in than the safety statistics as we rumbled so very high above the ground in a glorified sardine can.
In Istanbul it’s cold and drizzly, a wonderfully subdued day. I walk from the Hagia Sophia towards the sea and follow the shore where the water is dark and moody and the wind relentless. By tomorrow I’ll be in Argentina, in the madness of a new city, a new language, a new university, yet another apartment hunt. But for now all I have to do is walk along the edge of Europe, looking eastward at a rainbow arching over Asia.
III. El Bolsón, Argentina
We stop at a half-abandoned camping ground behind a roadside restaurant after a long day of driving, having passed the famous lakes up north, which were far too similar to the Alpine scenery back home to convince us to linger. We stopped for lunch in Bariloche, where tourists pose with Saint Bernard dogs in front of faux-wooden cottages. Here one still hears rumours about Nahuelito, the resident lake monster whose legend is bolstered by the dinosaur fossils found in the area, but it’s the terrestrial monsters that leave an unpleasant aftertaste. Peron’s hospitality and the area’s alpine scenery provided familiar surroundings for Nazis escaping the aftermath of the second world war and a popular conspiracy claims that Hitler himself settled here with Eva after faking his own death and hitching a ride on a secret submarine.
Two hours south down the famous Route 40, and we’ve exchanged the Nazi vibes for El Bolsón, a snug little hippie stronghold since the 70’s. Nestled comfortably between two mountain ranges, it’s a non-nuclear zone, a self-proclaimed ecological municipality and possibly the only place in Argentina where a vegan wouldn’t starve.
We won’t be stopping for long. Tomorrow morning we’re heading for the deep south, where the groaning glaciers meet the desert, but for tonight we’re sleeping here, hiding from the rain under a leaky corrugated roof and with a rainbow to keep us company.
In three weeks I’m returning to India, back to the start.
As the daughter of globe-trotting journalists I filled my first passport with stamps from five continents before losing the last of my baby teeth, and at eighteen I emptied my piggy bank and went to explore the world on my own. Since then I spent about three years travelling – the first solo trip to Asia at eighteen was followed by an overland trip from Iran to Indonesia a few years later, plus a couple of shorter trips fuelled by my SCUBA diving addiction – and the rest working towards my degrees in anthropology and global studies, which gave me a great “grown-up” excuse to move first to Berlin, and later to Buenos Aires and New Delhi. These days home is somewhere between Vienna and my mum’s kitchen in Ljubljana.