The first stop in the Suru Valley

2 August - However, about ten minutes before my brand-new alarm-clock is to go off, I'm already up and in a few minutes I get to the crossroads where, as they had promised, I find the bus ready. They are loading it and so I can have breakfast with a cup of tea and a fried pouch of dough filled, I think, with a spicy vegetable and peas curry. The bus is crammed with people and goods alike. I admire the beauty of people around me, especially the younger ones, with pure lineaments and graceful traits. Two boys, who must be brothers, look like two little angels. The girls, from an early age with their heads covered by a light veil delicately placed on their hair, display features of rare beauty. I'm really surprised. The hands of older people witness to daily manual work.

At a stop I buy half a kilo of the small savoury local apricots. The taste of the fruit I gulp down matches the relish I savour as I proceed deeper into the Suru Valley, whose landscape gets increasingly beautiful, interesting and unspoilt, past the extensive military bases that garrison this sensitive border area. It's a Muslim valley inhabited by people converted to Islam only a few centuries ago, but I notice (as I did in Srinagar, incidentally) a certain degree of open-mindedness that is apparent from such exterior elements as the not too strict clothing etiquette or the possibility of physical contact between me and the women sitting on the public bus. Nothing you would even dare dream of in certain Arab Muslim countries.

I get to Panikhar just before noon and I realise that it will be really hard to continue the way up as I had optimistically anticipated. I would like to go on to Rangdum to break into two equivalent stretches the long way to the remote Zanskar region that lies a considerable 245 km away from Kargil, but more eloquently over 12 hours' uninterrupted drive on nearly always rough roads, entailing the passage over the Penzi La at 4,400 m.
I go for a desperate try, walking back from the village to the police post 5 km back and wait with the nice policemen for a couple of hours, then I must resign. It's not that much of a tragedy: I will try to get to Padum tomorrow in a single drive to make up. In fact I don't imagine yet how far from reality my hope can be... I amble back to the village and a boy informs me that I'll have to be at the police post as of 5 am if I want to find a car. This seems indeed to be my destiny.

I sit down at the village tavern for a snack and read a bit while a little group behind me is stooping over a newspaper in Urdu reading and commenting on the news. It's a typical venue, made of rustic timber and lit through the doorway and a window. The latter must be the only source of natural light during the harsh winter.

Then I walk about the beautiful fields that stretch to the river making the most of the farm land in the valley bottom made of fertile detritus, contrasting in their resplendent green or golden yellow of the ripe corn with the barren mountains above. It looks like a wonderful oasis in the desert, but if the gaze pushes just further, you can guess the outline of the huge Nun and Kun peaks, today somewhat shrouded by clouds, the two Himalayan twins of over 7,000 m with their respective glaciers and glittering snow layers, dangerously cleaving. I am here at 3,000 m, but I have come over the altitude sickness that I felt last night.