We waited apprehensively in the dusty scrub. Light luggage, sun bleached clothes and some rolled up chapatis for lunch. The road was empty, save for an old tin can rustled by the wind beside us. Then suddenly our worries evaporated as a beautiful orange behemoth came trundling along towards us, thumbs were out and smiles were wide, it stopped and we hopped in.
The truck was lovingly decorated inside and out, a myriad of swirling patterns, peacocks, and head wobbling goddesses, tassels and tinsel and the ubiquitous and all important ‘blow horn’ in huge letters on the back. The cabin was spacious and cushion filled and after some initial small talk our hosts invited us to lie back and relax, before embarking on the first twelve hour leg of our journey. The driver was a pinnacle of calm and solid nerves; he seemed to instill complete trust in us, despite navigating dirt roads etched three hundred meters high into the mountainside. Our minds wandered to the rivers carving away the rock so far below, to the immensity of the barren walls of earth that make up the roof of the world.
We eventually arrived at the half way point, a truck stop and campsite dwarfed on all sides by endless tundra. Our quiet, hospitable drivers would sleep in their truck, and after profuse thanks they proposed that we could ride with them again tomorrow if we met them at 5.30am.
We didn’t. We woke up at about seven to find almost all the trucks gone, and a sinking fear of being stranded on the high plateau, creeping in. We pleaded with the last vehicles, and as luck would have it a chirpy driver’s assistant insisted we join them. We were saved! We chucked our things in the cabin and set out on the road again.
However, perhaps aided by the missing contents of two empty whiskey bottles rattling around the floor our host talked almost nonstop. We were mildly concerned, but the driver seemed sober enough, there weren’t as many huge drop-offs today and with a fourteen hour road journey ahead of us what choice did we really have. We had a good drive; we stopped for tea and sips of barley beer in an isolated yurt, cooked magi noodles together on a flame stove that wobbled precariously as we hurtled along, and survived the corners of a section of switchback road that tumbled down the mountainside like spaghetti.
But this story has a sad ending. As we were nearing Leh they became increasingly peculiar, talking of huge fines for carrying hitchhikers and continually slowing down. Maybe it was paranoia but when you’re in a stranger’s cabin on a lonely road its best to err on the side of caution.
We snuck out while they were at a checkpoint, flagged down another truck and arrived in Leh at dusk, just as the last rays of the sun painted the crumbling monasteries and mountains a deep hued red.
Tips for hitchhiking
• Bring a map with you – it’s one of the most important pieces of equipment you’ll need
• Find out whether hitchhiking is illegal in the area you’re travelling
• Be prepared not to get picked up and have a plan B
• Carry supplies including food and water
• Keep warm with layers if you’re going to be hitching in colder climates
• Always travel with a friend – particularly important if you are female
• Take a note of the vehicle registration before you get in
• Location is important – try petrol stations, border crossings and laybys
• Avoid trying to hitch in an area that is illegal for a vehicle to pull over
• Use the right gestures – the thumb isn’t always right