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It was unusually cold when we started early morning for Pangong Tso from Leh. We were all in multiple layers of woolen clothing, but there was one person in our group who was quite comfortable in a simple black leather jacket. He was our driver, Illiaz Hussain, our driver for the trip. We had started at 6am and came back at about 8pm, and so we all interacted quite a bit with him during the trip.
'So where are you from Illiaz?', I asked him on our tea stop at Hemis.
'Its a place called Drass, midway to Kashmir Valley', he told me with much pride. Drass is one the coldest inhabited part of India, and in winters the temperatures can dip to as low as minus 46 °C. Though Drass is at an almost similar altitude as Leh, the mountains around are as high as 16,000 to 21,000 feet. No one knew about Drass till the Kargil war in 1999, but now it has a reasonable presence of tourists in summers.
I have actually been to Drass and had also slept overnight there on a road trip in the state using public transport about a decade back. I don't have any memories of the town except for sharing a bed with more people, but never complaining about it due to the warmth it brought.
He smoked as we talked about Drass, and the local life there. All this while he took puffs from his cigarette and I was constantly tempted to ask him for a drag. I let the moment pass...
Our bus was filled with photography enthusiasts, and we wanted to stop at almost every beautiful place and he always happily obliged. However if was only much later when one of our friends, Anirban, got lost at Pangong Tso that he actually lost his cool. Abhinav and I went looking for him along with Illiaz in the bus, and I could see how upset he was about losing precious daylight hours.
I decided to sit in the front seat on the way back and we chatted quite a bit, primarily about women and marriage. He was only ninteen, but had so many stories to tell about his friends from his village who feel in love and ran away, and how he was an active accomplice due to his driving skills. For me it was a way to open up with him and learn more about his village and culture. He told me that he belonged to a rather special race in the region, one which claimed a direct lineage to the original Aryans. For centuries they have retained their unique culture and due to this intermarriage between different groups was not encouraged. But things were changing now.
'Maybe I will marry a Ladakhi girl', he said and gave a mischievous smile.
As we closed in on Leh, it was completely dark and Illiaz new visibly upset being late.
'Just like you are tired, I am tired too, and also very sleepy. I have to drive to Manali early tomorrow morning and need to catch some sleep before that.'
He made perfect sense but being in the front seat, it became my foremost duty to keep the conversation going now to keep him awake. We took a short-cup after Shey, and the road turned mountainous once again and there was no streetlight to aid us. It did feel scarify and I was quite keen to reach back home and sleep. At one point we almost smashed into an unlit lamp-post, but I saw it before he did and we were saved.
About an hour later later we reached Leh, tired yet happy. I was completely exhausted simply by sitting next to the driver for the part five hours of drive through the mountains, but what about him? Do we even give it a passing thought?
Before we parted I made a quasi-promise to visit Drass on my next trip and stay with his family/ friends in his village. He thought it was a mad, but perfectly feasible idea :)