By Michael Buckley

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It’s only a matter of twenty-five miles from Mulbek, but there is a very different kind of energy here. ‘Salaam aleikum’ is the new greeting. The town has several mosques and a heavy military presence because Kargil sits right near the border with Pakistan. My map shows an old trading route that cuts across from Kargil to Skardu, but it has not been used since 1948, when Pakistan was partitioned from India. It is a short distance directly through the mountains to Skardu, one of my key destinations, but I have to cycle on a huge loop right through the Indian plains and the Punjab to get there.

And cycle to a place called Uletokpo, which has a small lodge for travellers where I can leave the bike while I hike off towards Rizong Monastery. On the way in I pass an orchard where two woodcutters are operating a huge handsaw to slice up a treetrunk. They work in time to a lilting song with counterpoint harmony – back and forth, question and answer – an entrancing refrain. Rizong is a fantastic sight: an entire monastery constructed in levels on a sheer rock face. The name means ‘mountain fortress’, and it is the ‘newest’ Geluk monastery in Ladakh, built 150 years ago.

I trudged along the trail. The landscape was exuberant and I stopped to take pictures as the sun came out with blinding force as it reflected off the snow. This was more than chilling out; it was a trip to the freezer. In the distance a caravan of packhorses was dwarfed by a massive peak of snow, ice and rock. Zoji La was stunning yet dangerous. One half of me wanted to stay and look longer, bewitched by this icy domain, but the other half told me to hurry on before the sun climbed higher and loosened the snow.

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