Thursday 25 May 2017

Could you write a winning travel story?

The ‘Irish Independent’ is looking for Ireland’s next top travel writer. So get to your keyboards and tell us about your latest trip. You could see your story in print and win a pair of return flights courtesy of Aer Lingus to any of their destinations in Europe

This evocative piece by Catriona Rainsford, an award-winning travel writer who drifted to India three years ago, should whet your appetite

Far from time

Far away, following the jolting caravans of painted trucks to the south, you reached another world. He had seen it with his own eyes, though not for several years now and the contours of the memory were already starting to blur. But he remembered its wooded hills and wide, sluggish rivers, its tangled streets and chaos of traffic. Most of all he remembered its time. Down there nothing was certain, and everything had to be done quickly in case tomorrow never came.

There were clocks whose scowling faces tutted reproachfully at every wasted second, dates that had to be kept, and people who walked fast with their heads bent forward as if chasing the days that time had stolen.

"Time is movement," I said. "If every particle in the universe stopped moving, time would not exist."

He smiled. In Ladakh there were only two times: open and closed.

In open season the warm breath of summer melted the snow from the high passes, clearing the roads through the empty spaces in the roof of the world to the villages and monasteries beyond.

In closed season the frozen jaws of the Himalayas clenched down on Ladakh, their icy teeth severing the one road out of the mountains and leaving the whole region marooned in the sky.

Now it was open, and I moved between seasonal camps where truck drivers and tourists could warm their stomachs and soothe their rattled bodies with chai tea, lentil curry, and salty omelettes wrapped in chapatis. This one was just a few large white tents, round with pointed roofs like circus tops, staffed by velvet-tempered Ladakhis like the man who spoke of time.

I asked him about closed season, when no one came up and no one went down.

"Isn't it frightening? To be trapped all winter in a world so small?"

A look of confusion crossed his face. "Ladakh is not small," he said. "Down there it is small."

He turned to stir a pot which breathed clouds of cinnamon steam into the air and did not try to explain.

The night draped soft and heavy across the camp, sprinkled with the tiny noises that emphasise quiet rather than break it. The low purr of a generator, the clink of a spoon against metal. Murmured voices, words too hushed to be distinct. The tent was lit by one bare electric bulb, struggling bravely against the weight of the emptiness outside.

On benches around the side sat thin-shouldered truck drivers, hunched protectively over their food and stuffing it under their moustaches with calloused fingers polished in grease. They smoked herbal cigarettes from which undulating spirals of smoke uncoiled themselves to mingle with the smell of spices. They mostly fixed their eyes downwards, but every now and again they would look up at the entrance of the tent, where, beyond the circle of light cast by the opening, the blackness of the night was absolute. Then they would shiver and draw their jackets tighter around their shoulders with a defensive air, as if trying to keep out more than the cold.

I passed the night in an adjoining tent, veiled from the first by a heavy curtain. Empty of furniture, it contained nothing but carpets. The carpeted floors rose seamlessly into the carpeted walls in a warm cave of geometric patterns. I slept deeply, cradled in the dark richness of their colours.

In the morning, I climbed. I chose the highest of the peaks surrounding the camp and scrambled upwards until the rock fell away on the other side, stripping the view bare to the horizon and leaving nothing between me and the sky.

The mountains rolled away from me in motionless waves of light and shadow. Their sand-coloured backs burnt ochre in the sun and rose to glint gold at their frozen crests, before diving into purple in the troughs of the valleys. They stretched on in every direction like ripples on the surface of the ocean, continually diminishing until the furthest were no more than indistinguishable crinkles on a steely blue horizon and those beyond were swallowed by the curve of the earth.

Overhead, clouds loomed like Zeppelins, huge and uncomfortably close, in a sky so saturated in blue it seemed to sag under the weight of its own colour.

Nothing moved. Nothing breathed. The silence reverberated off every timeless rock and sung itself back with the intensity of music. I stared until my head spun with the vastness of it, and understood.

Ladakh is not small. Down there it is small.

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