National Geographic : 1978 Mar
managed to drag it to a halt. Farther down I had my own brush with disaster. "Rock falling!" It was Nawang Tongspon, my Ladakhi friend and interpreter, on the trail above me. I saw the dark speck, an accidentally dis lodged stone, growing larger and bounding right for me. Suddenly, striking an outcrop, it exploded into a fusillade. Leaping to dodge the deadly fragments, I missed the narrow path and found myself slipping toward the cliff's edge. Clawing at the sharp rocks, I wrenched myself to a stop just in time. I nursed my bruises at the hospitable hearth in Sonam Paljor Ezangs' kitchen at Achirik village (pages 340-41), our first prolonged halt on a ten-day trek through central Ladakh. We sipped cupfuls of solja, tea heavily fla vored with salt and yak butter, while Sonam pressed me for news from the outside world. His children, who hid at first sight of the strangers, peered shyly from outside the circle of firelight. I supposed from the general as tonishment in the village-some three days' march from Ladakh's capital, Leh-that few outsiders reach these remote precincts. "Indeed, you are the first," Sonam said, "and we are honored." His wife nodded and refilled our wooden cups. "Oh, I have visited Leh," Sonam continued, "and seen foreigners there, in the bazaar. Soldiers especially-from faraway India. But not to speak to, of course." I explained that we hailed from an even more distant land: America. * "Amer-ka? Amer-ka?" Our host savored the word. "But tell me, just where is that?" Geography and Politics Isolate Region Given the rigors of Himalayan travel, it is small wonder that for centuries Ladakh's lost valleys lay outside the world's mainstream, that much of its hinterland remains uncharted. Some 200,000 people-about half Muslim, half Buddhist--dwell in this mountain-girt region (map, below). An independent mon archy off and on for more than a thousand years, it served as a caravan crossroads for merchants from neighboring Tibet, Kash mir, and Chinese Turkistan. In 1947 the Ladakhis, absorbed by India, escaped the cultural purges that befell their 335 Her wealth arrayed for all to see, a young government worker from the capital city of Leh displays a headdress of rough-cut turquoise stones. At one time an autonomous kingdom of 117,000 square kilometers (45,000 square miles), Ladakh was divided between India and Pakistan in the late 1940's. The Ladakh district of India was split once again when the Chinese-Indian War of 1962 ended with the desolate region of Aksai Chin firmly in Chinese hands. O KILOMETERS 100 0 STATUTE MILES .100 .