CHAPTER III - NUBRA

In order to visit Lower Nubra and return to Leh we were obliged to cross the great fords of the Shayok at the most dangerous season of the year. This transit had been the bugbear of the journey ever since news reached us of the destruction of the Sati scow. Mr. Redslob questioned every man we met on the subject, solemn and noisy conclaves were held upon it round the camp-fires, it was said that the 'European woman' and her 'spider-legged horse' could never get across, and for days before we reached the stream, the chupas, or government water-guides, made nightly reports to the village headmen of the state of the waters, which were steadily rising, the final verdict being that they were only just practicable for strong horses. To delay till the waters fell was impossible. Mr. Redslob had engagements in Leh, and I was already somewhat late for the passage of the lofty passes between Tibet and British India before the winter, so we decided on crossing with every precaution which experience could suggest.

At Lagshung, the evening before, the Tibetans made prayers and offerings for a day cloudy enough to keep the water down, but in the morning from a cloudless sky a scintillating sun blazed down like a magnesium light, and every glacier and snowfield sent its tribute torrent to the Shayok. In crossing a stretch of white sand the solar heat was so fierce that our European skins were blistered through our clothing. We halted at Lagshung, at the house of a friendly zemindar, who pressed upon me the loan of a big Yarkand horse for the ford, a kindness which nearly proved fatal; and then by shingle paths through lacerating thickets of the horrid Hippophae rhamnoides, we reached a chod-ten on the shingly bank of the river, where the Tibetans renewed their prayers and offerings, and the final orders for the crossing were issued. We had twelve horses, carrying only quarter loads each, all led; the servants were mounted, 'water- guides' with ten-foot poles sounded the river ahead, one led Mr. Redslob's horse (the rider being bare-legged) in front of mine with a long rope, and two more led mine, while the gopas of three villages and the zemindar steadied my horse against the stream. The water- guides only wore girdles, and with elf-locks and pig-tails streaming from their heads, and their uncouth yells and wild gesticulations, they looked true river-demons.

The Shayok presented an expanse of eight branches and a main stream, divided by shallows and shingle banks, the whole a mile and a half in width. On the brink the chupas made us all drink good draughts of the turbid river water, 'to prevent giddiness,' they said, and they added that I must not think them rude if they dashed water at my face frequently with the same object. Hassan Khan, and Mando, who was livid with fright, wore dark-green goggles, that they might not see the rapids. In the second branch the water reached the horses' bodies, and my animal tottered and swerved. There were bursts of wild laughter, not merriment but excitement, accompanied by yells as the streams grew fiercer, a loud chorus of Kabadar! Sharbaz! ('Caution!' 'Well done!') was yelled to encourage the horses, and the boom and hiss of the Shayok made a wild accompaniment. Gyalpo, for whose legs of steel I longed, frolicked as usual, making mirthful lunges at his leader when the pair halted. Hassan Khan, in the deepest branch, shakily said to me, 'I not afraid, Mem Sahib.' During the hour spent in crossing the eight branches, I thought that the risk had been exaggerated, and that giddiness was the chief peril.

But when we halted, cold and dripping, on the shingle bank of the main stream I changed my mind. A deep, fierce, swirling rapid, with a calmer depth below its farther bank, and fully a quarter of a mile wide, was yet to be crossed. The business was serious. All the chupas went up and down, sounding, long before they found a possible passage. All loads were raised higher, the men roped their soaked clothing on their shoulders, water was dashed repeatedly at our faces, girths were tightened, and then, with shouts and yells, the whole caravan plunged into deep water, strong, and almost ice-cold. Half an hour was spent in that devious ford, without any apparent progress, for in the dizzy swirl the horses simply seemed treading the water backwards. Louder grew the yells as the torrent raged more hoarsely, the chorus of kabadar grew frantic, the water was up to the men's armpits and the seat of my saddle, my horse tottered and swerved several times, the nearing shore presented an abrupt bank underscooped by the stream. There was a deeper plunge, an encouraging shout, and Mr. Redslob's strong horse leapt the bank. The gopas encouraged mine; he made a desperate effort, but fell short and rolled over backwards into the Shayok with his rider under him. A struggle, a moment of suffocation, and I was extricated by strong arms, to be knocked down again by the rush of the water, to be again dragged up and hauled and hoisted up the crumbling bank. I escaped with a broken rib and some severe bruises, but the horse was drowned. Mr. Redslob, who had thought that my life could not be saved, and the Tibetans were so distressed by the accident that I made very light of it, and only took one day of rest. The following morning some men and animals were carried away, and afterwards the ford was impassable for a fortnight. Such risks are among the amenities of the great trade route from India into Central Asia!