Friday, April 22, 2005

Juley… Random Ramblings While Loitering in the Back of the Beyond

Juley… Random Ramblings While Loitering in the Back of the Beyond

What follows is an account of my travels in the Himalayan desert regions of Ladakh and Spiti Valley. It is an adaptation of a letter I was writing someone. The accuracy of the text is only limited by the imagination and distorted by the intentions of the author. Inputs have been taken from many sources in these, ahem, chronicles (sounds important, doesn’t it?). The consistency of the acknowledgements is limited by the extent of my memory. Apologies sought on account of the same. I only thought of writing this once we’d crossed Manali. There wasn’t anything worth writing (more particularly, to get impressed) about in what came before. I mean what can I tell you about Chandigarh, or worse, who wants to read about how painful it was to reach Bandra Terminus on a particularly wet and baleful day? This and the fact that I noticed that I kept forgetting where I’d been and what I’d seen- at least, not to the detail that I’d like to remember. More importantly, may be some day if this gets published and makes me pots of money (unlikely), which I manage to spend (likely), then I can write a prequel covering that bit. Wishful thinking. Guess I am drifting.

Juley, incidentally, is an omnibus word in Ladakhi meaning hello and the like.

August 2003

Manali onwards.
The date is July 17, 2003 on the Manali – Leh highway. It’s a Thursday for the likes of me, who are used to the living for the weekend lifestyle. We have just crossed a small settlement called Marhi at 10,886 ft. It’s a restaurateur’s economy. I mean, its mainly a collection of twenty odd tenements which exist for the sole purpose of feeding worn out tourists in exchange for a disproportionate amount of currency. Since such dishonesty needs to be moderated with a dose of piety, there is also a temple in the vicinity. This temple gives away the origins of the settlers. They are definitely not locals, but from the plains. The road from Manali to here has been berserk. It is very foggy and quite damp. However, the views all along have been breathtaking. Beautiful mountains, carpeted with alpine vegetation, patches of rock, wafting clouds and a slow, unhurried summer rain. The pace is consistently slow, broken by humans, mules and potholes appearing out of nowhere. The radio is churning old Hindi songs. The effect is quite haunting.

We have been travelling for four days now. Started from a very damp and soggy Bombay. First stop at Chandigarh, then Manali and now we are on our way to villages in the little explored Spiti Valley. The hills have made me lazy, so the writing will be intermittent. Nobody is really talking too much. May be it’s the lack of familiarity or more likely, the serenity of the view. I am tense with anticipation. I have heard so much from the few people I know who have been here. Just can’t wait to find out what’s true and otherwise. The road has gone insane and if I don’t stop writing, I will have to go the same way.

We are a group of twenty travellers headed ultimately to Ladakh. But seriously, in this trip more than at any other point of time, the fun is in getting there and not being there. The group itself is quite diverse with ages ranging from 25 to 59 and professions including photographers, bankers, biscuit packers, travellers and counsellors. The organizer, Atmaram Parab, is a serious adventure seeker. If half his stories of near-death experiences on such expeditions are true, then he definitely owes his lineage to a combine of Marco Polo and Rasputin. On the other hand, his planning and experience are responsible for making this exotic experience affordable for a low budget-high aspirations traveller like me. From Leh the plan is to fly down to Srinagar. Poorti, a co-traveller, and I are trying to convince some people to risk a road journey via the potentially life-threatening sectors of Kargil, Drass and Sonmarg along the Line of Control with Pakistan.

For me, this journey is not just a holiday. For some time now I have been producing bits and pieces of writings, always yearning to produce that magnum opus. But the lack of a theme, time and patience has kept me from completing the numerous attempts. The random writings, here and there, the hallmarks of my obscure double life, have long ceased to satisfy me. Like any other debutant author, I am plagued by two problems- first, the lack of a satisfactory plot, and second, the impossible desire to be able to produce a masterpiece on the first attempt. Over the last three years themes attempted include, the dark side of single life in a metropolis, a ghost writer getting dangerously involved in the life of his subject; and dreams and despair of growing ups and grown ups. Each time I have abandoned the subject after fifty to hundred pages. Lack of time, motive and satisfaction. So when this holiday was proposed, I decided to go about finding my words during the course of the travels. There is no plot to create, no conversations to weave, no characters to turn into heroes and much less, villains. No dilemma as to where to start and how to end. No marriage, no death. Just the turn of events, a narration of how they unfold and fall back in place. Just what happens along the road, and the way it makes me feel. Everything that has ever held me back from completing the books I have begun, now fades.

We are stuck on the highway. There has been a landslide some ten cars ahead of us. God only knows how long we will be stranded here. I am writing. Sonita, the counsellor from Delhi, is collecting mountain flowers, and the rest are trying to figure out where the clouds are headed. The group of budget travellers are comparing notes on where they’ve been and how they’ve gotten along so far. The road has been cleared. The process is simple. Big boulders and the doctor prescribes some dynamite followed by some bull-dozing. Small ones, you can leave the dynamite out. When I told you about reasons for stopping did I mention glaciers and waterfalls? Dirty brown glaciers and pristine fresh waterfalls, some of the larger ones causing some serious surf and spray. There’ll be more, I am told. Incidentally, Rohtang La, the first of the many passes on our route, is a disappointment. Lots of tent restaurants, lots of eager touristy crowd, very little snow and completely unexciting. When I got back home and told Ma about it, she was equally upset. There is a bit of family history here. Some ten years ago, Ma and I had duped the rest of the family and sneaked up to Manali on our own. We never got to Rohtang because, well, we ran out of money. Since then, Ma has been pining to see it.

Stopped by landslides again on the way to Spiti. This is just beyond Gramphu where we have gotten off the main highway. The road is unpaved and very gravelly. Those with the irritable bowel syndrome are complaining and its not just that particular part of their anatomy which is running loose. The rain is no longer lazy. This has to count among the most phenomenal places I have seen, a phrase which I am too use many times over the next few days, hopefully. There is this huge waterfall. The water is icy cold and there are these huge boulders blocking the road. The regulation dynamite is out. Boom… and everyone scurries for cover. Then a bit of bull dozing and hey, we have a road. The wind is very chilly and there are blown bits of rock and ice everywhere. The convoy has now begun to move, struggling slightly over the newly formed stretch. It is here that Poorti and Kamlesh (the biscuit packer) decide to sit on top of their Sumos against the wishes of our drivers- Jeevan, Kumbh and Dava. I hope I have spelt the last name correctly. But then names are proper nouns in any language. Kamlesh was to regret that decision for the rest of the trip.

You know, I almost feel that I have died and am born again. Everything looks so new and amazing, that I can only imagine myself to be a child. I am taking it all in slowly, with the amazed eyes of a child. Oh! How I wish I was a mountain goat and could amble down the mountains with this ease. We are running along the feisty Chandra river. Almost level with it. We are driving towards its source, the Chandratal. Occasionally, we stop to let a herd of sheep go past us. The starkness of the bass relief is broken by patches of wild mountain flowers- a thousand colours in a million blooms- like a carpet on a stony rock face. The mountains, ruthless, clearly display millennia of weathering. A bridge appears out of nowhere, again blocked by a herd of mules. Crossing it, we enter the deciduous settlement of Chhatru. We have travelled 120 kilometres today and we have 108 more to go before we halt for the night at Kaza. The tent eatery is right next to the Chandra River. A walk along the river is well deserved, while the mistress of the establishment scurries about to conjure a meal for us. The air is fresh, as if is home made. Its so quiet, except for the roaring Chandra, that it seems like a sin to talk. Everyone wears a child-like expression and its understandable- I don’t think anyone’s ever been to a place quite like this. Since we have been on a momo-eating spree, we are slightly disappointed that Mrs. Dolma could not arrange some for us. However, a very tasty meal of rice, lentils, aubergine curry and red kidney beans is on its way. Some ad hoc shopping is being done- mittens, caps etc.- stuff that someone forgot to pack.

Have come quite a distance now past Chhatru and Kunzum La at 14,500 ft where we had to sing and dance to keep ourselves from dying from the cold. There are these sudden changes in altitude which is now getting a bit painful. The stark aridity of the region still amazes me. Ice and snow are more readily available here and I haven’t seen any plant more than 2 ft in height all day. Miraculously, the mountains change colours every kilometre and predicting the next shade is an interesting guessing game. Sometimes the brown of the rocks, the grey shale and the white snow. Not the most vibrant of shades, but definitely no less intriguing. Somehow it reminds me of Helm’s Deep and Two Towers in the LOTR. We are running late. An accident and one of our jeeps getting lost are mainly to blame. We are almost one day late, but then our first view of a herd of wild yaks is almost irresistible. Now, we are driving along the Spiti River, a much calmer cousin of the Chandra, bordered with mountains in Eastman colour. Delays have made us bring the night halt closer by 70 kms. We are now stopping at Lossar- the first permanent settlement that we have seen since Manali. There are no paved roads here. Been like this for almost half a day. This road was never made, its just a consequence of use. Have to stop writing since I am missing out on the view.

July 18, 2003, Spiti Valley

Its 6 AM in the morning, way past our intended departure time from this dozen hut hamlet in the heart of the valley. We are headed to Ki (a monastery) and Kibber (which illegitimately claims to be the highest village in the world at 4205 mts.). It should be something- if we ever manage to get going. Last night we stayed at Lossar- a village at 12000 ft. There is one school and some fields along with the huts I mentioned earlier. The school has two teachers- one teaching art (who fines 50p for every missed class) and the other for everything else- for classes 1-8. So much for division of labour. Had a glorious nigh time meal at Hotel Samsong. This hotel has about 5 rooms with a common bath and the other one nearby has about 3.

The Spiti River along the road up to Kaza, the erstwhile administrative capital of Lahaul Spiti, is much more violent. The valley itself is narrower and often one comes across gorges. There is no such thing as vegetation here though there have been feeble attempts at afforestation and cultivation. The efforts involved are mind-boggling. However, the prettiest are these bushes bearing small clutches of pink mountain flowers. They grow out of the mountainsides and their brightness seems to make up for the starkness of their surroundings. Almost makes one think what’s a girl like her doing in a place like this? It is mildly sunny today and we can’t resist frequent stops to soak in the sun. No one seems to mind the fact that we are almost a day behind schedule. Am writing on such a stop. We have a group of photo enthusiasts with us. We are carrying a dozen SLR cameras among other equipment and that should give you an idea on the level of the enthusiasm. At the slightest hint, cameras are out, mounted on tripods and soon a smattering of jargon comes out- I am not getting the required depth here, or the composition isn’t rich enough. I am just lazy with the camera and hoping their photographs are half as good as their words. We move, only for 5 minutes before the cameras are out again. The landscape has changed. You really cannot blame these guys. It’s just too beautiful to be left behind. Everyone wants to take a part of this home. We are now in flat plains and the valley has gotten wider, the hills have gone back by a distance. A word here maybe on how the Himalayas were formed in the first place. In the Jurassic Age, there were two separate landmasses, Laurasia and Gondwana, which drifted towards each other, ultimately colliding and giving rise to these mountains at the point of inflexion. The Himalayan Range boasts of Asia’s most spectacular mountain ranges- the Hindukush and the Karakoram, as it neighbours. These three intersect at the Pamir table top, often referred to as the Pamir Knot for this very reason. It has three ranges in the HP-J&K belt: the Pir Panjaal, the Dhauladhar and finally the majestic Great Himalayan Range. Along the east, in Uttaranchal, the mountains are called the Siwalliks. Further east the ranges which run through India are called the Lesser Himalayas. The farthest extremities of this range are flanked by the Arakan Yoma in Burma. But why am I wasting your time and mine? I guess you know this already.

At 4205 mts. Kibber, the world’s highest permanent civilian settlement, is remarkably well provided for. At the time of our visit it boasted of a fairly prosperous looking farm, fed by advanced irrigation systems, cable TV, a high school and a couple of hotels. Telephone lines are there, but they often don’t work. Some 80 smart houses having 700 inhabitants make up for the rest. We spoke to Chhering Dolma, a hotelier, who refused to sell loose cigarettes but was otherwise quite forthcoming with general dope. These people are no strangers to their semi-celebrity status and are always ready to smile and pose for the camera. Forgot to mention our last stop at Rangrik for breakfast where Pradip took over the kitchen and fed us excellent omelets and noodles. Mutton there, like in Bombay, costs 120 bucks a kilo and is sold in far more hygienic conditions. Next stop was the Kibber monastery- ancient, looks it and that’s all. Nothing really to write home about.

The group is quite bourgeoisie but there is a lot who are very enthusiastic about photography. I have decided to call them the Picassos. I think we’d have finished a hundred rolls of film, 200 slides and 50 odd cartridges before we are through with this trip. We are stopping just about anywhere, clicking away, mounting cameras, and filming the works. There’s Umesh, who is a professional photographer, and a few very good amateurs. They are teaching a bunch of budding Picassos. There’s this guy from Delhi who can’t believe that my aim and shoot camera is still working when in fact he is carrying three SLR cameras for the same frame. His justification is that these sights just cannot be left to the functioning or otherwise of any single camera. I am getting slightly bugged by the frequency of the stops. As I told Ulka, the oil baroness, this seems more like a photo safari than anything else. I guess we’ve really gone overboard on the way back from Kaza. All the collective dissenters have been packed and sent in a different jeep. The rest who stayed back are having to suffer a million stops. I am hoping that their photographs will turn out really well and I can get a few prints of my own. I am not in the best of spirits myself and the cracks in my otherwise pleasant facade begin to show at times. Had left a friend behind in Mumbai in some sort of professional-emotional turmoil. Knowing how much my services were required back home, makes me kind of distraught. Try to make up for it by calling up from wherever I can- army camps, villages, small towns the like. Phones are rare and those with long distance facility are rarer still. So I am always in a hurry to get to a town like Kaza where I can call. But I know it really isn’t good enough. Kaza, incidentally, was a disappointment. A town whose first experiment with make-up went bad and its been left like that ever since. At the time of our visit Kaza was the base for the shooting of a Hindi film. This is the first one ever to be shot in the Spiti Valley.

July 19, 2003, Spiti-Leh-Manali Highway

The night was brutally cold. There were no clouds in the sky to retain the heat radiated from the land. I have been given the job of waking everybody up and its some sort of a joke since nobody cares about waking up and at most times neither do I. Still, it needs to be done and I am proud of what I have achieved today, despite myself. We have managed to leave Lossar at 4 AM to head to Chandra Taal- the source of the Chandra River. At this hour, more than ever, this place is heavenly. The lake itself is middle of nowhere and I remember some one once telling me that the road to nowhere can be quite an experience. Actually, there isn’t a road to Chandra Taal. You can either walk down (9km) to it from Kunzum La or really punish your car up some serious gravel along a 14 km patch and cut down the walk to 4 kms. The final 4 would also have been motorable if not for a landslide and a stream which chose to lose its way. There are lovely views of the Batal glacier and lesser-known cousins all along the way to keep your mind off the gut wrenching drive. The walk itself is uneventful but for a short climb that leaves you terminally breathless. Phenomenal is not the word to describe the lake. The view of its green waters, rich in minerals, is breathtaking. Sachin and I were the first to reach and enjoyed the splendour in solitude for a good hour before anyone else turned up. The lake is in the form of a crescent about 12 km long. The walk along its periphery is the best thing you can do here unless you decide to pitch tents and stay overnight. However, just sitting on the banks and soaking in the sun and the lavish sight of the reflections on the lake surface can be quite an experience by itself. The tents here are serviced by a solitary haberdashery, housed in one itself. The small gutter like stream flowing westwards from this lake turns into the feisty Chandra River and so it flows till Tandi near Keylong where it meets the Bhaga River forming the Chenab flowing westwards into J&K and Pakistan. There are absolutely no tarred roads in the Spiti Valley. On the way to Chandra Taal, there is a lovely (only to look at) stretch of road which dissects a gravelly riverbed. The otherwise bone-crushing drives are not much to write about. The entire valley lives in this eternal state of depravity despite the opulence of the views on display. The difficulty in access in part explains it. There have been numerous plans by the state administration to carry out afforestation and these are evidenced by the fading boards declaring them with the associated costs.

We have now left the Spiti Valley and its spectacles behind and entered Lahaul on the main highway to Leh. Khoksar is the first major town where all foreigners have to register themselves before proceeding. There is nothing in common between Lahaul and Spiti except the hyphen which conjoins them in geography texts. Lahaul is a land of promises kept- fairly populated, lush green mountain sides, advanced farming methods, tarred roads and obviously prosperous villages. We drove along the Chandra River till Tandi, its confluence with Bhaga- a magnificent sight with the deafening noise of the two wild things crashing against each other, and from there we have been driving along the latter. Bhaga is smaller but more tempestuous. The highway is in good condition living upto the reputation of being a world class motorway. Our 400 odd kilometre journey to Leh has been planned to over the next three days. The weather has been awesome, neither too hot nor too cold, just comfortable. I am convinced, now more than ever before, the entire idea is in getting there and not being there. We first stop at Keylong where my attempt to catch up with work fails since the only Internet café since Manali and for the next 370 kms is closed for repairs. This I am told by a French tourist who shares a similar agony. A beeline is made for the only STD booth and everyone is allowed only one call. Keylong is the district administrative centre and it is easy to see why Kaza had to relinquish this title to the more affluent successor. We even got a parking ticket here, just as if to prove the district administration works. It is a bustling little town with a very interesting layout. The main highway runs through a market while the actual town and bazaars are terraced on a step below. There are a couple of gompas nearby which we didn’t have the time to see, but I am sure the general diaspora in gaiety would not have spared religion and Ki would have been overshadowed.

Its 9 PM, somewhere between Jispa and Darcha on the highway. Our plans have gone a little awry since we cannot seem to find a place to stay for the night. We are moving from village to village looking for a tent, rooms, a dorm or anything that’s going to keep us alive till tomorrow morning. We have stopped to wait for one of our jeeps to catch up with us. The wind is absolutely gorgeous. There are mountains and forests all around. At Darcha, we have to compete with a Japanese contingent for the limited number of beds. So you can see the odds we are faced with. Their version of the green back is much more plentiful, if not stronger, than ours. Currently seated in a restaurant-by the day- hotel –by the night kind of place where its likely that we’ll get shelter. There’s some lovely music playing and it is decidedly nostalgic. Fortunately, its not very cold. Actually the weather is just fine. I can probably sleep atop the jeep. But thankfully, it never came down to that. We did get to sleep in the discarded parachutes which serve as tents. Ours is called the “Himalayan Dhaba, Near Darcha Signboard”. Woke up in the morning with the sounds of children crying and the same Hindi songs. My hair is all wiry and grime laced. So I decide to wash it under a running stream. I must be quite a sight – foaming shampoo on my head and running down my cheeks, middle of nowhere. It is quite uncomfortable and the water is icy cold, but then it really is worth the effort. But then, it’s a different date. So I shall stick to the rule of a new section for it. The weather today is awesome here in Darcha. We have a simple breakfast and set off. We will soon cross Barlacha La. It should be something. Actually, today we are crossing 3 heavy-duty passes before we retire for the day. The ascent and descent will definitely kill us.

Day 7.
A couple of heart-warming incidents on way to Baralacha La. First, a stop at the Patseo Transit camp of the Indian Army. Meeting the soldiers and getting to know their lives from such close quarters was an honour. They were equally happy to see us. Sushma, the lawyer, happened to remotely recognize someone from her neighbourhood and viola! That’s who it turned out to be. It was a touching moment. Moving further up, near a place called Zing Zing Bar, we came across a bunch of farmers cycling to Khardung La. These villagers from Nabha Tehsil in Punjab were quite apologetic that they were running behind schedule and couldn’t stop to talk. But then we went further up and waited for them, allowing them time to make up, and did we have a blast. Someone sang a song and then we danced. With strangers from a strange land, at 16,000 feet, breathless, unbelievable!

The Suraj Taal (now named Vishal Taal after a Kargil war hero) on the way to Baralacha La is a smaller version of Pangong. The waters are bluish green in stark contrast with the mountains which nestle it. The landscape is very arid and we have been continuously climbing for the past couple of hours. There isn’t even the occasional shrub anywhere anymore. And hey… I can see the “Baralacha La Top- You are at exactly 16,500 ft” board. Its just stopped snowing here and there’s fresh snow all around. Pristine white, flaky and silvery. It is just very new and different to the dirty chunks we’d gotten used to. It’s a swell place. A large table top in the middle of grand mountains in various shades. I think after this pass we have entered the Great Himalayan Range. It’s a little confusing. We never really did figure out where the Pir Panjal ended or where the Zanskar disappeared. The map in the Lonely Planet is not of much help either. But we have definitely gone past the glacier which is the source of the Bhaga river. So on this journey we have been with three rivers and traced two of them to their source. A nice feeling to know how it all began.

Curiously, all trucks, as Hemant just pointed out, bear Haryana number plates. We guessed that they all must have been carrying supplies from Ambala Cantt. for the army to stock up before the long and brutal winter sets in. Apart from the regular army, there is a sizeable presence of the Indo Tibetan Border Police here. A considerable amount of social infrastructure, where a society exists, is attributable to the army. The bases provide people with medical facilities, odd supplies, telephones, the roads are kept clean and accident free by them and I guess an over all sense of discipline prevails everywhere. In a place like this, I think that’s of utmost importance. I don’t know what the locals think about this, but I personally feel quite safe seeing a bulldozer waiting to clean up landslide rubble every 20 km or so. The village houses around the Spiti Valley are mostly made of handsome blocks of stone, painted white with lime, set in a staccato wooden framework. The top beam supporting the roof usually carries traditional motifs. The windows are large with no grills, probably to allow as extra sunshine when opened are mostly bordered in darker shades of blue. They taper slightly towards the top. There is a thick stuffing of small tied bundles of “safeda” twigs. This probably is insulation but could very well be firewood storage for a the winter months. Consequently, most houses have a low false ceiling supported by logs with thinner, more dense sticks act as cross beams. The low ceiling ensures a better rate of heat retention. The roof is predominantly flat, accessible by a strange ladder made of one log with wedges cut in it. Almost every house has yard to itself. This yard is dominated by a mast festooned with flags of a million colours. The locals scribe prayers on flags which blow wanton in the wind and hence these prayers reach the Gods.

The journey to Sarchu is long and may be now we can take some time out describe those glorious feathered friends of the region so far. Most birds here can be identified by looking for traits observed in their plain cousins- their walk, their take-off, their perch, their hop and so on. Again they carry some form of camouflaging which merges them either to the snows or the brown mountainsides. Pigeons, for instance, typically have a white feathers in their dovetail. Since there aren’t any trees here, these birds make thir nests in crevices in the mountains. We have just spotted a bird that can be safely called a certain skylark with a lovely crest. There are sparrows here too and they too sport crests along with the white bands on the dovetail. The wagtails here are probably cousins of those which are seen in Delhi in winters. This route is a part of the one taken by Siberian cranes and other migratory birds of central Asia. Here one can make an interesting study of these birds if one is equipped or can be content asking locals the legends of the local flavour - a large blue-black bird called the Taka.

We have stopped at the nomadic village of Bharatpur for lunch. It is about 10 kms down hill from Baralacha La . Alongwith the usual fare of chow-mien, lentils and rice, we are treated to Tibetian tea with butter, salt, milk along with tea leaves. However, considering my generally dyspeptic constitution (I was later to be diagnosed having the irritable bowel syndrome) and the laxative properties of milk, I have decided to give it a pass. Those who have don’t seem too pleased either. I guess this must be one of those tastes that grow on you. Like whiskey and wine. One thing worth noting is the penetration and hence the popularity of Maggi. We have found it in almost every restaurant we have been to since we left Manali. Here, amongst the people who gave the world chow-mien, it is a little sad to see that it is very difficult to get to eat the original stuff and we have to make do with the… well… quickie. One of our drivers, the hilarious Jeevan, is betrothed to the daughter of the woman who runs the shop. He is in terrific mood and the girl is visibly pleased at having him around. He is singing and dancing and mimicking recent matinee idols. We are told that the girl is not yet completely sold on him and consequently, these antics to impress her. There is a great family bonhomie. Seeing all this we are all in great spirits. Pradip, who has travelled extensively in the Himalayas, has picked up a local song and breaks into it at the slightest of opportunities- as he does now. The song goes- Neeli Chidiya Re, Pankhudi Lage (essentially meaning, Blue bird… wish I had had wings like yours). It is surprising to see that yesterday in the Valley, I was dead tired and irritable, while here at 16,500 ft, in the most arduous of physical conditions my spirits are on fire. Surely, the well-being of the human body is only restricted by the feistiness of the human mind. Unfortunately, the reverie has to be cut short. There is a stream a short way ahead which typically becomes unavailable after a certain hour of the day- a brutal reminder of the harshness of the environments these people inhabit. And we have to cross three passes before we get to sleep tonight.

We crossed the inter-state border at Sarchu around 2 PM. This region is completely under the Indian Army’s control. Sniper posts guard every bridge. Every little bend in the road had a watch tower. And every little landslide has an army bulldozer cleaning up the rubble. The drive to Sarchu was across a flat tabletop once we’d crossed Baralacha La. There are a number of pretty camping grounds all along and most of them are taken. Not that we are looking to stop any time soon except for strange photographic ideas like 360 degree banner shoots, which are ruled out on grounds of technicalities. Ladakh (as we see it now) is as dry as I have ever seen. Its also brutally windy and there are spirals of dust rising from the dry river and stream beds. The vegetation is predominantly moss and lichen and some blue, yellow and red flowers. Sonita passionately goes about collecting them. Picassos collect sights, I collect words and Sonita her flowers. To each, their own. After about two hours of driving through relatively flat terrain the 21 gata loops comes as a bit of a shock. There’s this place which has 21 blood curdling hair pin loops on one side of a mountain. They offer excellent views once you’ve made it to the top, only if you have anything left in your stomach to throw up. It leads to the desolate Nakee La- a pass at 15,557 ft. we have climbed about 5,000 ft in about an hour and the effects are showing. The signage is Spartan and we would have dismissed it as another warning and gone ahead if not the ever present Lata guarding the pass and the travelers to cross it. Its quite evident that the 10 year hiatus in commercial tourism in Jammu and Kashmir has left it bereft of such simple things. But perhaps it is the army influence who assume that you should have known it any case.

Next stop at Lalchunglung La at 5060 mts. We can now feel the impact of the altitude. This is the highest point in this journey to Leh. Breathing is definitely more difficult and I am almost wheezing from the cold and the thin air. We have lost track of one of our jeeps. We know that we will find it somehow but cannot wait since everyone is now a little worried about the bad weather. So we leaving in a hurry, telling the Lāta to watch out for our friends. Here we part ways with the Tsarap river, which has been with us for some time now. We now run along one of its smaller tributaries called the Kangla Jal. The river is feisty and along it there are these huge pieces of stubborn remnants of glaciers almost touching the river surface-refusing to melt or flow with the river. Occasional splashes keep these blocks of ice sparkling white and thus they are quite a sight. We are amazed by the gorges we see here. Hemant and I are planning a reconnaissance mission later from Pang, where we halt for the night, to capture some of these beauties. Pang lies at the end of this very, very dusty road but like everywhere else here there is a mystery involved. The road is very dusty and is technically called a sinking area. One the side of the road is a very dusty hill face, while on the other side a very solid rock face. The drive is uncomfortable but terribly fascinating. The river cutting through solid blocks of mountains is quite a sight. We have stopped many times to save these moments and on one occasion Hemant has managed a marvel. How I envy him and his magnificent cameras. Just beyond this stretch lies Pang which essentially is an assortment of five discarded parachutes which serve as eateries by the day and retiring rooms for weary travelers by the night. Pang is one of many such “Sarai” establishments which dot this highway in summers all the way to Upshi. We will spend the night here. As per very reliable sources Pang is the coldest place in our entire journey upto Leh. I somehow fail to understand the logic of spending the might in the coldest location of the trip, unless someone is on a real masochistic trip.

Half an hour later, and I have changed my mind. This is going to be a phenomenal place to spend the night by all standards. Let me try to explain what it looks like. Pang is in a vast opening just after the sinking area where it seemed that the hills were inching towards you from both sides. In a distance, I can see that the road again winds into two towering blocks of stone. There’s a grand river flowing in this widish patch. The tents are on the basin of this river. There is a large elevated plateau just off the highway where we wandered off. Apart from the now usual amazing (such a hackneyed word to use) view of the mountains, there’s also this littering of glorious mauve poppy carpet stretched as far as the eye can see, the continuity broken, at times, by a clump of lichen. Even in this fading sunshine it is something else. The tents are cosy and so are our hosts who joined us in an insane game of badminton in the wind. Soon its dark and the jostle for beds has begun. I am joining the melee. Having secured my place soon enough (after so many days on the road, I am quite good at this), I look for other forms of occupation. The radio is blaring and some form of dancing has begun. The poor locals are trying very hard to retain their original styles but its just not working. Pradip and company have completely ruined it and the dance form now vaguely resembles the form of aerobics often seen in Mumbai. As the numbers swell, people from other tents crowd around to watch this madness. The enthusiasm is too much to handle and soon we have a party going. Locals and tourists are all one in this festivity- taking time out from the daily struggle, to forget where we came from, and much less, where we are going.

Day 8:

Today we are scheduled to reach Leh. We have set out from Pang, delayed by the Picassos, who couldn’t resist the temptation of a last look at the poppy fields. We have to travel 180 odd kilometers and the journey promises to be very scenic. We have just entered the Morey Plains, just north of Pang. Get this: It is a serious stretch of flat table top after a short climb extending about 60 kilometres which terminate with the ascent to Taglang La. The plains are flanked by on the left by mountains of the Great Himalayan Range (perhaps) and gorges on the right. These offer a glorious view- the green of the plains against the dull arid rock face and sandy gorges of the river basin on the right. We expect to cover the this stretch in under an hour’s time unless the Picassos decide otherwise. It’s a great drive, living upto all its promises. I chose to perch myself on top of one of the jeeps. We were interrupted by flocks of sheep, herds of yaks and their herdsmen asking for cigarettes and water. The climb to Taglang La is treacherous and we all have to get down from the jeep to allow it to go up. The road upto this one (the second highest motorable road in the world at 17,582 ft.) is quite well maintained with only hints of recent landslides. The pass itself is a desolate spot with the guardian Lata being the only source of gaiety in the company of army trucks and oil barrels. There’s a sharp descent from here to Upshi, about 10,000ft. Looking westward, you can see the snow capped mountains of the Nubra Valley, not so far away. But its going to take us another week to get there.

The road gets arduous at times but is overall quite nice. There is a shortcut which basically is a bonecrusher of a descent crashing 18 kms into 1. Whew!! We chickened out on this occasion, but the next one was safely irresistible. It crashed on 7 kilometers into 1. We managed to reach the Rumtse transit camp of the 111RCC of the Indian Army, in one piece and straight away ran into the Sugar n Spice Restaurant which at about 16,000 ft. claims to be the world’s highest “idlly dosa” joint. However, it turned out to be a day of the week affair and on this day there was no such thing to be had. May be it’s a day of the week thing. We were served tea and fries. Rumtse is a serious camp, which has oil barrels and tyres stacked over a large field. Also there is this CSD canteen, a good place to stock supplies at discounted prices.

Farther down the road the landscape changes drastically for the better as one approaches the villages of Rumtse, Gya and Sassong. There are green patches of wheat and mustard fields. These are also the first permanent civilian settlements since we left Darcha in Himachal. There are lovely small – new and old- chortens dotting these fields, nestled against the magnificent mountains. Some fields are fenced and our drivers have advised us not to venture in and arouse the locals’ ire. Their fury would definitely not be misplaced. The villages look prosperous and make me wonder how this was made possible. Baroque houses not withstanding, this is definitely a feast to the eyes. Oh, it is just so lovely and as I write I wonder whether I’ll ever be able to convey how much it means to me to be here in one of the world’s most desolate spots, seeing humans, not just surviving, but also thriving in harmony with nature.

No diary on this sojourn can be complete without a word on the magnificent roads without which this would have been impossible. I know I will have to revisit this section, once we reach Leh, but somehow, I feel I am not doing justice by not dropping a word every once in a while. In Spiti Valley, the roads are, well mountain rubble levelled by generations of commuters. At places, the roads are just a function of shifting river courses, elsewhere decided by the path taken by mules for centuries. However, whatever little is there, is something to be preserved since the roads here stand testimony to the character of the place. While this road is maintained by the state, the highway from Manali to Leh is manned by Himank (111RCC) of General Reserve Engineering Force (GREF) of the Indian Army. While they deserve the most glorious of accolades, its noteworthy that the roads are actually made and maintained to international standards by labourers from Bihar and local Khampa nomadic masons. It is their struggle against all odds, which make all this possible. Yes, they are paid for it, but nonetheless it is a difficult way to earn one’s livelihood. However, most the most entertaining feature of the roads are the sometimes comical, often sick road signs littered all along. These definitely must be the figment of some bored colonel’s demented imagination. The feeble attempts at rhyming are funny and make for good reading when bored. Examples-
§ Handle my curves gently
§ He who flies at 90, Dies at the age of 19
§ Its neither race nor rally, sit back and enjoy Ladakh Valley
§ Safety on road, safe tea at home
§ There are 3 vices on the road- liquor, speed and overload
§ This is highway, not runway
§ Be Mr. Late but not Late Mr.
§ Highway is not the place to get high
§ Cat has nine lives you have only one

Back to the better things. Miru, a village, 13 kms from Upshi boasts of the ruins of an ancient Gompa up a small hill, surrounded by decadent chortels. It deserved a stop, but majority decided otherwise. A little ahead the road opens up and on stretching you see the Indus. The first view of the Indus and Ladakh valley is something I don’t have words to describe. Here, this river, the cradle of human civilisation, mind you civilisation- not settlements, and the feeling that goes with is indescribable. Now, more than ever before, I feel how a picture can say a thousand words and am painfully aware of my limitations in my chosen medium. There are dotting of small villages and vibrant green carpets, ploughed by Yaks, all along the banks of the Indus. At this point the river is at quite a fledgling state, but shows traces of greatness. On entering the village look out for the first grand Manilakhar (Tibetan prayer bell) about 200 mts on the right hand side of the road. According to our guidebook, the road from Upshi to Leh is “dull with some dirty army camps”. Well, what we came across, apart from the truly Spartan army camps, were a string of prosperous green villages. Of course, I am assuming here that any place, which can grow its own food, is prosperous. But if you had taken the path I have, then you would not find it too difficult to agree. Here the road at times runs parallel to the Indus. Elsewhere the road is lined with willow trees and every little patch is paintbrush green with a dash of mustard (yellow) fed by intricate canal networks spicing up things. We also noticed interesting ways of supporting fledgling tree trunks with cans of cold drinks and the like. Chortels and prayer bells appear almost out of nowhere. There are four major gompas on the way- the Thiksey, the Hemis, the Shey and the Spituk; along with the Central Institute for Buddhist Studies and the Mahaboddhi Meditation Centre at Choglamasar adding substance to an otherwise lively stretch. The roads leading up to them are very different and very interesting. We were to travel down this road again and again. Hey!!! We have reached Leh!!!

At 9000 ft Leh is a bustling town divided into two parts- Old and New town. The older part is where most tourists can be found. In character old Leh can be called the Goa of the North. Streets, cafes, shops teeming with foreigners and a smattering of (in comparison) over-dressed Indians; restaurants and cafes referred to as brasserie (like they do in old Paris), serving lasagne and frankfurter alongside the local Mok Mok and Thupka. Shops selling curios and antiques, mostly fascinatingly touristy, notices on display windows calling on people to fill up seats in an empty jeep headed to a nearby lakes and treks- the works. Sale of antiques and curios make up most of Leh’s GDP. There is ample scope for bargaining, with the shopkeepers and their families more than willing to settle for less then half the price on any given commodity. It must be said the stuff on sale is generally of very high quality. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the attitude of those involved in the sale process. But I guess there are lots of foreigners willing to get duped on some groovy Indian stuff and their sackfuls of greenbacks, to keep these butchers from doing anything about their attitude. It was a relief to find a number of STD booths, their signboards screaming ISD (STD, if you wish) and Internet Cafes. Surfing comes at a steep price of Rs. 2 per minute and the speed is nothing to write home about. Still, it is there and it helps, though calling up within India, is definitely a better option. The New Town boasts of handsome mud-brick, stone and mortar houses with wide McAdamized roads. There is a wide variety of vehicles- modern and archaic. Schools, hospitals and a host of “institutes”. Owing to the easy accessibility by road, people from as far as Upshi, including school children, come here for their daily chores. It resembles any modern habitat in terms of quality of roads and the signage along them. However, for the metropolitan tourist, all this hold little charm.

The Old Town square houses the Jamia Masjid, a 17th century mosque at the foot of Namgyal Hill, built as a return favour to Aurangzeb in lieu of services rendered during the siege laid on the kingdom by neighbouring Mongols. I guess it must have been a question of lesser evils. This mosque stands at the end of the main bazaar street and can be easily found by the towering spires and the assortment of shops in the ground level. On top of the Namgyal Hill are the crumbling Leh Palace and the Victory Fort built after an apparently successful resistance to Balti-Kashmiri invaders. Fortunately, no one extracted their pounds of flesh for this and thus the landscape of Leh needs to bear no other blemish. Turning left from the mosque you come across the famous food court, called the Connaught Place of Leh, which equals any modern city in terms of repertoire of the available cuisine. Bistros selling Italian pastas, English and French set breakfasts at brasserie - obviously indicative of the nativity of the clientele, selling alongside the local momo and the Thupka and many varieties of exotic teas. The famous La Terrasse and the German Bakery are also located nearby. Apart from the obvious variety on offer, the food is generally of very high quality. The polo ground, just south of the Leh Bazaar, is also an added attraction.

Leh is a very good base for onward journeys in Ladakh and the Zanskar region. Most shop display windows are cluttered with unlimited notices put up by tourists to fill up limited seats on safaris and treks to near and distant places. One can join a group of French college girls on their way to Tso-Moriri or Israeli students en route to the Nubra Valley. It can be a very good way of saving money and meeting interesting company. It seems the Japanese only want their likes for company and the same is true for the Dutch- or at least why would they put up notices in their own language? In Leh everything can be bought at only the slightest of premia- from fine underwear to the very best slide film. The only ATM, run by SBI, is adjacent to the mosque. Basically, here you can fill up very easily for the remainder of the journey. Most shops and establishments also have a “STD-ISD” booth, where you can also receive calls for a fee, and some have cyber-café. These open early in the morning and stay open till late dusk. Leh is no different from other hill stations that I have seen elsewhere in India in more than one way. The men here, as all such places, can be found idling away, doing nothing worthwhile, dressed daintily. They generally sit around street corners and outside shops- sipping tea and playing cards while the womenfolk and children “man” the counters at shops and restaurants. The few men who earn their own livelihood do so by driving tourists in and around Leh. This probably why the women do not resent their uselessness since their only profession takes them far away from home. Everyone is generally well dressed and surprisingly the men more so. Sporting authentic looking global brands which seem to have been bartered for an unsettled bill for services rendered to a spend thrift tourist looks like a good way of getting around about this part of the world. Elder men can be found wearing dainty suits belonging to the times when a certain Gregory Peck chased a nubile Audrey Hepburn around the streets of Rome. A fair mix of Muslims, Ladakhis and Kashimiris, along with migrants from all over the country brought in to help the women run shops, hotels and sundry establishments form the core population of Leh.

As in my other travels, I have been relying very heavily on guidebooks and their influence on my writing is but obvious. I like to travel informed though I often do not intervene with whatever little knowledge I possess unless I feel that the consequences might be outrageous. It is good to play along with the chicanery of the local businessman and then surprise him with an old trick or two when he’s almost had you. Back to my guide books. This time, among others, I am chiefly reliant on the Lonely Planet. I have often wondered that it is possible for someone to write their own travelogue by copying parts from LP and never really going there. But then again there is the question of authenticity. One cannot always rely on a guide book since they, like cartographers of yore, often make deliberate mistakes to spot fakes.

Today is the Gompa Day. I am not feeling particularly religious but then this has to be done. We are visiting the Hemis, the Tikse and the Shey Palace. Hemis is just at the edge of the Indus about forty-five kilometres south of Leh towards Manali. To get there one must get past the scenic villages and the military camp at Karu and then the next right turn up the small hill. Hemis is the oldest Gompa in Leh dating back 350 years and owes allegiance to the other Dalai Lama. There are colourful frescoes inside and a giant statue of the Buddha in a separate chamber. The courtyard is adorned with large thangpas (prayer flags). Hemis houses the largest Thangpas in Leh but they are open to public view only on certain days of every alternate year. Here we met some people from the Namgyal Institute who are working on restoration and documentation of Tinetan literature. We also ran into a young Lama aged 8 years who had been ordained for just over a month. Naturally, on the way back we plunged into a debate over the appropriateness of ordaining someone before he has had a chance to see and understand anything in this world. Is it fair? Should he not make such a decision when he is able to think on his own? For himself? Right, wrong, religion, life … difficult questions. So I asked our resident expert, the driver for his views on the same. His answer, with which I absolutely agree, was simple. We have developed a very Western way of thought. Freedom of thought, over emphasizing material pleasure, making one’s own decisions and individualism- these are alien to the Tibetan style of life. It is quite natural here that in a family of four sons, one is dedicated to the service of the Lord. Religion is not viewed as different from the normal life, but is very much intertwined as an essential social function. Joining the order is just like any other profession and one sees it as a means of earning a livelihood where otherwise the options available are extremely limited. Moreover the arguments of depravity do not apply here since one is not really missing out on much by not living a life outside the Gompa. God’s will plays an important role in the shaping of life in these regions- more so than most places - a good tourist season, more hospitable winters, fewer landslides and so on and hence the priest plays a very important role in keeping everyone happy.

From here to Tikse- about 30 kilometres towards the north. I am sitting on the road which leads upto the Gompa. The view from the foot of the steps is brilliant. A dry frugal brown of the desert turning into a lovely bright green- yellow of the Indus Valley before merging into a symmetrical desert on the other side of the river and the mountains beyond. There are small dots of chortels in the desert right upto the valley and then some more. The Gompa itself is lovely, about six hundred years old. The sanctum sanctorum houses a grand statue of the Buddha, much larger than the one at Hemis and a lot more discernable. The silence of the place was blown to bits by the Piccassos trying to fit as much as possible of the infinite lord into their finite apertures. However, it still remains etched in my mind as a breath taking experience. There is a library here which houses ancient Tibetan books, scrolls and relics. This was however closed for lunch during our visit. The seat of the Dalai Lama (this time the one everybody’s heard about), in the main yard is adorned with a beautiful tapestry and two grand flagstaffs. Here I got chatting with one of the many Israeli tourists I have come across on this trip. This nameless acquaintance used to work as a human resources manager before she decided that a second trip of India was due. Her last one four years ago had lasted a year and covered only the part south of the Deccan Plateau. This time it is the north and before some education in the US.

About five kilometres further north is the Shey Palace and Gompa made by the sons of Singe Namgyal in his memory in the year 1633. By now I am quite bored with this subject of our travels today, so this one’s description will be quite clinical. The sanctum sanctorum here houses a splendid gilded copper Buddha. The two Chapka Maylen, the religious protectors, stand on His either side. The walls are adorned with beautiful murals depiciting scenes from His life. Here as in other places one of the offerings to the Lord is of water in sevaral sets of seven metal bowls. Water is deemed to be the purest substance and hence a fitting offering to the Lord. Except for the hours of the prayers a single Lama mans the temple. This Gompa again owes allegiance to the Thukpa Drogse sect of Buddhists. There are many curios here- gilded copper samovars, horns, drums and so on. The monastery and the palace, which according to the Lonely Planet was being renovated in 1999, are still in the same state of repair. However, the sanctum sanctorum, albeit the decadent exteriors is exceptional and its cool interiors provide a welcome shelter from the harsh and unpredictable outside. There is a route, which leads right upto the top of the Palace, and promises splendid views, but I did not manage to find it. However, I did manage to find the most amazing set of prayer bells and a set of nauseating steps which lead down to the bottom of the hill.

I am now sitting in the Leh residence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. This is an impulse visit for which we can only thank Poorti. The girl takes a lot of flak but her enthusiasm is really something else. It lies at the end of a willow-lined path. The path is also laced with small bushes with a million blossoms in a thousand colours. The lane has painted Tibetan motifs all along the surface and I am wondering whether I could be pulled for stepping on them. It is the quietest and the most enchanting place along the banks of the Indus. The house is actually quite small given the significance of its occupant and is done with exceptional simplicity. We were given rounds of the halls, the personal quarters, the library, the meditation rooms and the private audience rooms of the His Holiness. Somehow his presence is everywhere. The life-size photograph of HH along with Gandhi in the dining hall has a quality about it, which is infectious. His famous laugh, with the head tilted backwards, is there in many a photograph and I can see why people speak so warmly of Him. Though simple, this house is kept spotless clean. Intricate woodcarvings adorn the walls, the cabinets, the ceilings and even the floor beneath your feet. The warmth of the caretaker of the house who showed us around was touching. We were shown rare Tibetan books in sets of 101 and 201, which are read by the Dalai Lama once every year. The serenity of the experience had a huge calming effect on me. The impatience which was the culmination of an over dose of Gompa hopping had disappeared. I can now realize how it must feel like to see His Holiness in person.

On the way back, we stopped to visit the Leh Palace. The jeep route to this takes you around the old town, up a dusty road. The decadence of an obviously splendid monument is appalling. Leh Palace, as it stands today, is nothing but a rubble dump- a hodge-potch of stone, sand and wood. How it manages to hold itself together is by itself a miracle. However, the glimpses of its grandeur can be seen in the inner chambers where ancient texts and murals stand testimony to a glorious past. However, even these are so ill –maintained for so long that the only explanation that the ignorant guide offered for the obvious lack of any upkeep was that these are not cleaned because the mere act of touching them reduce them to dust for ever. In an age where the Sistine Chapel and the tombs of Tutankhamen have been restored to their original glory, using new age technology as the life blood, such explanations are a grotesque reminder that we live in a different time-space coordinate. The walls of the palace keep crumbling every now and then, causing minor landslides- one of them on our way out which caused a Taiwanese girl to land in my arms. Well, I could have taken her out for coffee and then a drink… but but but… Back to the Palace- it definitely is worth a look for two reasons- one the spectacular views of the old and new sections of Leh and two a very nice cultural program which happens every day at 5:30 PM. Tickets for the same are priced at INR 100 though they are usually sold away at half the price once the show starts. We took a shortcut on the way back, which took us through the underbelly of Leh Old Town on to a street, which leads to the Jamia Masjid.

On this holiday, it is essential to use loads of sunscreen lotion. The abundance of ultra-violet radiation given the altitude and the lack of cloud cover make skin pigmentation a problem of nightmarish proportions. I am completely burnt in the face and my arms and I have no clue how long it will take to recover. Other health concerns are also due. Smoking is a no-no though I have indulged in it from time to time. The skin dries and cracks much faster than anywhere else and it gets every itchy at certain points of time. Alcohol hits you faster and harder, so some moderation might be due there as well. There are lots more, like sudden altitude syndrome, caused due to rapid gains and losses of altitude while travelling, which might cause nosebleeds in its milder form and death in some cases. It is extremely important to get acclimatized to the weather here especially if you have flown into Leh. This often means that the time you saved by flying in is usually spent in sleeping in hotel rooms. We are lucky in that respect, having driven up from Manali; we are in perfect condition to begin all our onward journeys around Leh right away. The diurnal changes in temperature are quite a bit owing to the lack of cloud cover. The hair gets wiry and sandy owing to the huge amounts of dust flying around which occasionally is visible as smoke columns rising up into the sky. Lots of shampoo, sunscreen, moisturiser and lots and lots of rest in between everything that you do is the mantra for this trip.

On the way down from the Leh Palace we have made friends with some tourists from Delhi. They are really a bunch of nice guys who do not indulge in the normal one-upmanship that is so common of Indians on such exotic holidays- Oh! You paid XXXX, I only paid XXXX-1, or I got to see so much more than you did. See what I mean. I have added these guys to the list of nameless faces that we have come across on thuis trip. We sat down with them at the town square and had some really good apple juice served in beer bottles and drunk from mugs. Then we took a short walk to the German Bakery and picked up some great breads and pastries. Finally, we stopped at the Prakash Bookstore- a great shop, stocked with the latest in periodicals and books. However, since the newspapers here are flown in from Delhi, the cancellation of the daily flight from there means that the local resident and tourist alike need to do without a fresh newspaper for the day. Returning to the hotel, I took my third bath in about ten days. I have lost count actually.

Well, well surprise, surprise… a vital bridge en route to Pangong has been washed away and we won’t be able to get there for the next three days, and since we leave immediately afterwards any further delay in repairing the bridge will mean that we do not get to see the lake at all. If that happens, it will be a great loss. And now, surely we will not be able to stick to the original plan of staying overnight at the lake. After a long debate, it is decided that we split into two. One group uses the spare day to travel around Leh, do some shopping, and visit some nearby villages. The other (much larger) group sets out to Lamayuru, a distant monastery on the road from here to Kargil. There are some decent sights along the way and it should keep us busy for the entire day. After the matter is settled everyone headed up to the rooms to catch some sleep. Each night we are sent to bed with warnings that waking up late could have disastrous consequences on the day’s itinerary and each morning I wake up and sit and wait for everyone else to ready themselves as the clock ticks way past the scheduled hour. Today, I have decided to go up and enjoy the moonlit sky. The night is my best time of the day. There isn’t much to do. It is generally quiet and it often means that I will be left alone to do what I want. As I sit up here at the terrace my thought waft across the dark skies to a million things. This is another good thing about the night- it makes you think of a million things. Yes, the day can be all that too but the night is special. From where I am I can see the distant lights of the Khardungla Pass which leads to the highest motorable road in the world. I can see the all the mountains that nestle Leh. There are willow trees all around me. Soon I am joined by some others. These guys finally decide to sleep on the terrace. Wishing them luck, I head downstairs to my room.

Day 9:
Lamayuru it is then today. That is where we are headed. It is a village about 100 kilometres east of Kargill, just off the road to Srinagar. Poorti and I are still looking for elusive numbers which will be required to let us get there, but it doesn’t seem to be coming. So we decide to make the most of this trip to Lamayuru. We keep driving along the most sensitive sections of the line of Control between India and Pakistan and the military presence in ominous. The road is in super condition. Leaving Leh, there are these long stretches of tarmac dissecting the desert right up to Pathar Sahib- a Gurudwara in the middle of the desert. Further on there are some small spooling bends and the road beyond Nimmu runs more or less along the Indus and behaves just like any other mountain highway- just in much better shape. A little further east from Pathar Sahib is the Magnetic Hill, which attracts any piece of metal to itself. To experience it, we parked our jeeps between the two white markers on the road, lifted the parking brakes and killed the engine. It was an amazing sight to see our large SUV pulled towards the hill, upslope for no apparent reason, against the wishes of the parking brakes. This is attributed to magnetic properties of the ferrite ores which abound in the nearby mountains and was discovered after a few air crashes and jammed navigational devices. Further east is the confluence of the Indus and the Zanskar rivers, just before the village of Nimmu. The difference of the colours, size and speed of the two rivers makes this a sight to behold. The two meet in a clear orb shaped like a Y. Naturally, much time was spent in trying to get this on film by the Picassos and hence I have the time for a short walk along the rivers. The Zanskar looks particularly fiery at this point of time. I have made a note of travelling again to this region to visit the Zanskar valley and leave via Srinagar. Up ahead lies the prosperous green village of Nimmu. At this time of the year (July- August) young Tibetan children can be seen running along the roads selling apricots to passers by. The road almost touches the river at times here. The Indus seems to have gained vitality post merging with the Zanskar and is much feisty and noisy than before and flows in nasty rapids. At short detours from the highway lie the ancient and interesting Gompas of Alchi and Likir. But I am not feeling particularly religious today and the thought of Gompa hopping fails to elicit any response from me. At about 80 kilometres from Leh is the army camp of Khalsi. Here the road splits in two- one headed to kargil (which we take) and the other branching out to Batalik, a very sensitive border region. Passport verification takes hours, but fortunately Indians are spared from this. We stop for a quick lunch at the Khalsi village. We are entertained by a huge crowd of locals who display the latest addition to their family a pair of pink eared identical twins from two different families. We also stock up on apricot since we are warned of the dearth of food in the roads ahead. A little further we part from the Indus and the main highway to move up towards the Lamayuru gompa. Just before the Gompa is the fabled Moonland which is actually a patch of mountains resembling the surface of the moon. There is a lot that can be written about Lamayuru, but then I am running out of patience and interest as far as Gompas are concerned.

It is about four in the evening and we are held up in a traffic jam- the highest one in the world at close to 14,000 ft. a truck has slipped off the road (I am told that our other group was responsible for it). There is an arm operation underway to rescue the fallen truck-, which apparently has been on for the last six hours. What wasted luck!!! I had been hoping to sneak in a call to office about something that just struck me but at this rate it is really going to take forever. ETA Leh is about 10 PM. People have gathered around to watch the spectacle of the rescue act. Poorti is interviewing the jawans, the Picassos are filming, Sonita has gone flower gathering, I am writing and Ulka is fast asleep. It is a pretty little village where we are stuck. There are lush green fields along the hillsides roped in by Safeda trees. The Indus is flowing somewhere close by and there are little stony brooks right next to where I am standing irrigating the green yellow fields. The road is, and has been lined with apricot trees which are laden with the fruits at various stages of ripening. The mountains are as bare as ever. The rescue truck is idling violently and it looks like the job will be done some time soon. But I am told that this violent coughing of the trucks has been on for sometime. Poorti has stepped into the dainty brook flowing past us. I am tempted, it has been a hot day, but I have noticed some Jawans relieving themselves in it, some what upstream. Since Poorti is already there, I believe it is pointless to let her in on this piece of information. Eventually, the truck did get pulled out and the road cleared and it took some very smart driving to steer us clear of the exactly 400 trucks ahead of us in the melee to make sure that we reached Leh, soon enough. We did stop at Pathar Sahib on the way back. Here, like in all Gurudwaras, we were feasted with some heavenly halwa. Brilliant stuff.

Day 10: The Land of the Gods: Nubra Valley
It is 6 AM in the morning and we are all set to depart for the northernmost frontiers of India- the Nubra Valley. This valley is the sunniest and greenest (Nubra in the local language, means green) part of Ladakh, nestled in the basin of the rivers Shyok and Nubra, a little beyond the Ladakh Range. To get there one must cross the Khardung La pass, which at 18,560 ft is the world’s highest motor able road. The prospect of being there excites me. Diskit, where we are camping tonight, is about a six-hour drive excluding allowances for photography. Today, we are sitting ducks for altitude sickness- we are going to climb more than 9000 ft in about 2 hours’ time and descend 6000 odd in the remainder of the journey. The usual morning hurry seems to indicate that no one’s bothered about that at all. Paresh and Poorti are the last to get ready, as always. He, because, of the extensive grooming that he undertakes before stepping out and she, because she doesn’t. Finally, all issues sorted, we head out of our hotels, to Nubra. Our first stop is some 14 kilometres away from Khardung La on the south side at South Pullu. The road here onwards is completely unmetalled. There is a convoy of about 50 army trucks, which need to be released before we can move. The air is getting rarer by the minute and whatever little is available, is heavy with carbolic smells of unburnt diesel. I can tell you, this is not the best of places to get stuck. We now notice some people who have decided to walk the 35 odd kilometres from Leh to Khardung La, while what seems a better option is to take one of the many buses up and walk on the way down. It is not too difficult either way, but the overdose of smoke and pollution can make it quite unpleasant. We have finally reached Khardung La. It is probably the ugliest and the most desolate place I’ve ever seen. An army camp, trucks all the way, barrels of oil, and oil spilled on the damp tarmac, a hidden Lata, and a very bare canteen. A mild snowfall has just begun, as if sensing our disappointment with the generally drab surroundings. The temperature’s around 7 degrees Celsius but the lack of cloud cover keeps the place passably warm.

I slept off after the pass and woke up only on reaching North Pullu. This is again an army transit camp, actually more like a place for convoys, and us, to halt for a bit of a snack. We have breakfast here, more momos, and some yak milk and I sleep again to wake up only at Khalsar which essentially is the first village of Nubra. It is time for lunch and we are told that since the Dalai Lama is visiting Nubra, there will be no meat served in any of the public eating-houses. We fancy a chance to meet up with the man with the golden laugh, but it seems unlikely. From here the road runs along the Shyok River past a sinking area and then for about 2 kilometres runs on a surprisingly flat silted river-bed. The road here splits into two- one leading to Siachen via Panamik and the other leading to the distant village of Hunder through Diskit. We decided on heading towards Panamik first and went all the way up to about 50 kilometres from the Siachen. This is the last point till which civilians may travel. From here one can make out the fringes of the Siachen Range. The road, lined with Safeda, berries and apricot trees, is quite well maintained except for a couple of plunges through the Nubra River. It is hard to believe that this tranquil can hide such a sinister war. Villages are prosperous looking. This time of the year, there are kids lurking behind every bush, throwing buckets of water on unsuspecting tourists, and shouting- “ SUMMER!!” Where there is wilderness, there’s just the road dissecting the lovely monotony of the grey and brown mountains and the sandy rocky stretch that before the grassy patch near the riverbed. And then sometimes a feisty brook rushes by, just so much as splashing about a bit and there are never any bridges. But there are these clumps of wild purple flowers growing in thorny bushes, which no one tends and that are probably what makes them the prettiest. There are mountain goats, rams, horses and mules walking by. We also saw tents along the banks of the Nubra River, so I guess this is also a possibility. It is much cooler here but the weather right now is awesome. The wind is blowing almost everything out of its way. It is a little cloudy, and there are spirals of sand rising up from the silted parts of the riverbed. Panamik, itself, was a disappointment. We had been promised centuries old and fabled hot springs with therapeutic properties here by the guidebook. But what we got were a) two pipes – one running hot water, the other cold (b) dirty shower rooms (c) hopeless conditions otherwise. To make matters worse, the army had taken over the place to wash their filthy sleeping bags – hundreds of them- and the whole place smelt of soiled armpits from a mile away.

From here we traced our way back to the huge dried basin of the Nubra and Shyok rivers. We are spending the night at Diskit, which also happens to be the district centre of Nubra. The view is smashing. Miles and miles of grey silt - unblemished, unperturbed. We could not resist a stop here and this time surprisingly along with the cameras out came a Frisbee, and believe it or, badminton racquets. Well breathless at this height can be fatal, but hey we were having so much fun that no one bothered. And we ran and ran, all over the sand, trying to catch the shuttle or the Frisbee, whatever came our way, as the wind played with us, against us, whatever its mood and by the time we left the basin of Shyok and Nubra was not the same any more. At least, for the time being. On reaching here, we found ourselves, after some tough searching, a camping ground. The Dalai Lama’s visit here has caused a serious shortage of rooms in hotels. Incidentally, we just missed a rare glimpse of the One with the golden laugh by minutes. Never mind, there was work to be done. The next couple of hours were spent in pitching tents and it was a kind of a competitive thing and everyone was quite enthused about making the best place to sleep in. I am sharing mine with Paresh and Pradeep, and both of them are very very particular about everything involving their respective dwellings for the night so I chilled out. We then set out doing touristy things in this northern frontier village. Diskit Bazaar is a bustling little congregation of shops and eating houses, quite a distance from where we are camping. So naturally, we were quite hungry when we got there. But there are crowds everywhere. A prayer meeting in the local school chaired by the HH himself has just broken up. People from all over, locals and tourists alike, their sins washed away, now throng the small market and devour whatever little its few eating-houses have to offer. Everyone’s dressed in his or her absolute super Sunday best. Arms going up, wishing everyone passing by- Juley!!! Finally, we got around to getting some food served and decided to stuff for the night- an early dinner for two reasons- its a long walk from where we are staying and second there’s no telling whether there’ll be any food left after we and the pilgrims are done with this round of meals. Diskit is a prominent village here, with a Kendriya Vidyalaya and a state run Urdu medium school; a Doordarshan relay tower, cable TV, a district computer centre and so on… other tourist attractions include a yak farm, anyone?

After this early dinner, we decided to do the campfire that we had been planning for so long. We broke furniture, discarded doors and windows, someone’s firewood… basically anything combustible that came our way. Soon we had a fire raging, and we got down to the usual singing. We had a great time; Pradeep pulled out his compendium of lyrics and soon there were requests on the house. Sometimes I get this feeling that he tries too hard. Everyone’s talents at singing began pouring out and it was quite a delight. This, plus the constant rhythm of a neighbouring brook had such an effect on the surroundings, that we soon had a whole crowd of onlookers who cheered everyone on. Soon, reluctantly, we fell asleep. Day breaks really early here. The market is bustling with people at half past six. There is another prayer meeting a little way further up from the market on a hill with a flat tabletop and again the faithful are headed there.

It is quarter past seven now and I am sitting alone on the road to Hunder. Everyone else has gone ahead to Hunder, while I have decided to stick to the original plan of walking from Diskit to there, partly. They should be joining me shortly. Rays of the sun are streaming in through layers of clouds. Here lies the fabled Himalayan Desert, complete with sand dunes, sand storms and camels. The sand here is a lovely shade of grey and the dunes, though not as large as their Thar cousins, are equally impressive. The rippled effect of the of the wind on their surface is really quite something. This desert is also home to the rare two-humped camel. I haven’t spotted one yet but there are supposed to be around eighty of them nearby. There is a deadly quiet here, no chirping birds, no swaying trees, nothing. Only the occasional bus carrying pilgrims to hear and see the Dalai Lama. Suddenly, I can see a shadow moving somewhere and hey… that’s a camel!!! Soon everyone else catches up with me and we decide to walk through the desert to a distant clump of really short trees. It is the forest, where all the camels apparently stay. There is also a road which leads right upto the edge of the forest. To enter the forest, one must cross a gully from the Shyok River. It is a lovely place and I would love to be here as long as I want. Which incidentally, is the case. Everyone is in the mood to spend a lot of time here and so we send a boy running to make us a meal in a shop (There are always these, like the one at Chandratal, shops here. They can predict the weirdest fancies of any tourist and be right there. Just there.) A little snack and then of course a bit of camel riding. These camels are much shorter and a lot hairier around the head, neck and breast than their single humped cousins. So I guess a fall is a lot less dangerous here. But then I have this mortal disgust, which extends to all animals, and I avoid the camel ride. Soon it really was time to leave. I must’ve gotten bored since we left everyone else to their camel rides and went back to Diskit for a half-decent snack.

The journey back to Leh was quite uneventful. I am not even counting a bunch of bare bodied (male) Gujrati tourists dancing in the snow in Khardung La – a very uncomfortable sight. Fat, ugly men with dollops of lard hanging from their torsos, wearing tinted shades, dancing about in an otherwise okay snowfall. One event on the way back was running into a middle-aged Israeli tourist near the sinking area just before Khalsar, where we had been stuck in a traffic jam. We plunged into a fairly serious discussion, my first in a few days, on the Holocaust, the formation of Israel, the early years, the current middle-east crisis and finally, the future of the greenback. Like me, he too had been travelling for two weeks and so our discussions on the current affairs was quite dated. And yes, while hurtling down to Leh from Khardung La, we ran across the boys on their cycles, who we’d met at Zing Zing Bar on their way up. Now they looked tired and burnt out and definitely depleted in numbers. Their supplies truck was also nowhere to be seen. However, this meeting made me really happy and I can confidently say that the feeling was mutual.

On getting back to Leh, we changed hotels- twice- once for worse and finally for better. However, this is our second last night in this town. We are almost done with our travels and some till this point of time, I hadn’t thought of it at all. The time has flown so fast, I have lost track of it. How many days has it been since we left that damp Mumbai metropolis, how many days we were at Spiti and now how many? But does it matter? I guess there still is some time for this end of travel introspection. Went out shopping with Ulka after we had finally settled into our new rooms. She took me and Poorti to this wily Kashimiri trader’s curio shop and I uncharacteristically ended up buying quite a few things. I did get to bargain, but not quite. However, I am really happy with my purchases. We slept early again, partly because of the lack of sleep in the last few days and partly because of Atmaram’s warning that any delay in the leaving tomorrow could mean that we miss out on seeing Pangong altogether. Yes, did I forget to mention that’s we’re headed tomorrow?

27 July 2003. New Delhi.
I am writing after two very eventful days. In fact, it is the multiplicity of the events and the stress invoked by them which has kept me away from writing. I have slept every minute since I got back to my parents’ house in New Delhi last evening. The journey from Leh to Pangong Tso (about 140 kilometres) is quite nondescript for most of the way. We had a slightly delayed start to begin with, and then Paresh decided to photograph the moon and I guess that set the trend. About 40 kms from Leh, Sagar figured that we had not carried out permits to visit the region. So he had to go back with some other people to fetch them. More such misgivings were to follow. The bitter cold near Changla La (17,000 ft) is something I hadn’t considered while dressing up myself. I am wearing sandals, like I have ever since my shoe broke just after Manali and never regretted. But today, my toes are blue and I am trying to keep them warm by wearing layers of mittens. The road once again on either side of the pass is treacherous and in terrible state too. Our jeep is also quite smashed after so many days of merciless driving. We have already changed oil filters twice. In the thin air here, this is often the first auto component to fail. These vehicles never last for more than two years, thereby keeping their rentals very high. Outside vehicles are not allowed, illegally, in Ladakh. Once you have hired one, even then you need to observe certain rules. The driver of an eight-seater SUV will not take more than five passengers. This is partly owing to the steep terrain, but I guess a large part of it is simple economics which I shall not ridicule my reader by detailing. The drivers are great at their jobs, but hey, they are not the best guys to hang out with. They are mostly reserved, often snooty, for no apparent reason, and do cut corners to hurry things past gullible tourists. This is in stark contrast to the ones we had in Spiti.

It had been really cloudy and the sun, when it did come out felt really great. That I should feel cold here, is quite surprising considering that just yesterday I was walking around in much the same footwear and a tee-shirt in the snow at Khardung La. I guess one of the reasons why I am feeling very cold here is that now I am quite tired. About 30 kms from Pangong or its nearest village Lukung, lies the military camp of Tang tse. Paramedical and communication facilities available here are free for civilian use. There are also camping facilities nearby alongside the Lukung River. There is a small war memorial and dedications along the way bear testimony to the bitter battles fought here during the Indo-China war of 1962. The most revered is the one in which Major Shaitan Singh and his men managed to retain control over some one-third of the lake itself. The firing range a little ahead is also named after him. He perished in that battle. After Tang Tse, the landscape changes to a lovely green. The road runs along endless meadows, with horses, mules and cows grazing, and a quietly meandering Lukung River. It is like any other grassland, except for the absence of the trees and the mountains at a distance- a very calm, picturesque setting. It is almost as if you will at any time come upon a family picnicking by the river on sunny day. The surprising green is also inhabited by a variety of birds and flowers, which naturally got Sonita very interested. In fact, the closer we go to the lake, the numbers and types kept increasing. We wanted to stop and do this and that, but the drivers kept pushing us back into the jeeps. This continues for about 18 kilometres when the river suddenly widens and almost resembles a swamp submerging the surronding meadows. This relative monstrosity lasts for another five kilometres after which the river is really a stony brook, just any other mountain stream. Streams from the mountainsides occasionally run over the road. About two kilometres from Lukung Village, there’s a major roadblock caused by the river itself. Our drivers tell us that the vehicles can go no further and the remainder of the two-kilometre journey to the Lake must be done walking. We crossed the practically dry riverbed and walked away under strict instructions from the drivers, who sounded more matronly by the minute to return by 11 AM. Since it is well past 9 AM and since we have generally not been offered advice which works to our bests interestes from this source, we shrug it off, once more. They later told us that the river gets impossible to navigate, by foot or jeep, when the nearby glaciers melt as the sun really comes up. We increasingly felt that we were being taken for a ride and in the absence of Atmaram (who went back with Sagar to get the permits, we never needed, remember?) had no way to validate their claims and generally were quite upset with him. The road goes all the way to _________________ about 10 kks east of Lukung, this being the last civilian outpost before the Indo-China border. If you get here really early, probably you can cross the river bed by any jeep and drive all the way down to Lukung even past the lake. Otherwise, you can take the path along the river below. For a part of the journey we walked along the paved roads before deciding that the unpaved one along the river would be definitely shorter. While walking the first look of the lake can be had after about a km. The small blue top sneaking from behind the hills is really a very refreshing sight. Otherwise the weather was getting warm and the air very thin and it made walking quite an exercise. The disparities in the fitness levels within the group were obvious. While Sachin raced ahead, Poorti and the Katarias lagged behind. The old men from the IT Group were also some behind them. I was okay, neither ahead, nor too far behind, but soon I was getting quite breathless, cursing myself for all the cigarettes I had smoked in spite of warnings from every one. A little later the lake disappears and while we kept walking there was never any sign of getting there.

At this point two vehicles carrying tourists raced past us and we knew we’d been had. On reaching Lukung, we were told by a sniper that the lake itself was a further two kilometres away. By this time, I was fuming. Surprisingly, so was Sachin, who has generally been extremely calm about everything around him. Atamaram, was also not around to offer advice. We had been walking for some time now without any trace of the lake and no one knew whose guestimates to trust on when we’d get there. There was also the fear of stories heard of tourists who got back to the place where we left our jeeps too late and weren’t able to cross the river till next morning. No one we came across seemed to be able to tell us a definitive time to return- our drivers had sent us off saying we’d have to return by 11, someone recalled Atma saying we should get back by 12, a guy at the sniper post said twelve should be safe, while one of the drivers kept mumbling something about 4 PM being good enough. The prospect of spending the night here, without food, without shelter, without knowledge seemed quite unpalatable. The guys from the IT Group and Umseh, gave up. They decided to wait there while we went up to the lake. They decided that they simply couldn’t take it any more. This is when Sachin lost it. He stopped in his tracks (he’d been the first one to race ahead when the drivers told us to walk it). We had been walking for a little over an hour now, at this altitude this was killing us, and we still had no clue when the ordeal would end. Everyone was slightly miffed at the drivers’ chicanery and that Atma hadn’t been around to help us at that point. Not everyone was young and, or fit enough to carry on like this endlessly. He did have a point and I can see some of us were sprawled on the ground, gasping for breath. Sachin, suggested, rather ordered, that we should all turn around and head back to our jeep. The air was getting extremely thin, we’d been walking for two hours, we had no clue how much longer it would take, the way back was all uphill and then finally the impending doom of the melting glaciers- and no one knew how bad it could get. However, this amounted to leaving this place without getting to see the famed Pangong Lake and there was obvious resistance to it. The most vociferous resistance came from Sunil, Poorti and Umesh. Ulka looked visibly upset. It took me a while to realize how serious things had gotten and soon they were almost at blows. The one person, who could have and should have stepped-in as the standby tour organiser, Paresh, simply walked past a very divided group, tripod in hand. Things got completely out of control with both sides making references to the inconsequent. We seemed headed nowhere. In Sachin’s case such a violent reaction seemed out of character, and it indeed was. At this point, the Katarias walked right past after enquiring what the debate was about, Sonita waving her hand said that having come this far she was never going to turn around. Hemant ran up a hill and shouted that the Lake was indeed very close. That settled things for the time being. However, we had lost precious time and some of us had a serious rethink and decided to stay back. Whoever had any steam left after that shouting match, ran left towards where we thought the Lake might be.

The lake itself was a luscious sight. It had moved away by about a kilometre. The first look was so refreshing that all our worries and differences were instantly forgotten. Also forgotten was the four kilometre trek, and the aches and pains in our legs from it. It was a beautiful shade of blue, probably ultramarine, with the stark mountains in the background. The swamp where the lake had moved away was home to a variety of migratory birds. Our guess is that these birds on their way to India from Siberia- the routine migratory path and stopped here for a drink. It was a grand sight and I have no words to describe my feelings. The lake stretches eastwards to China, spanning a hundred and fifty kilometres. The purity of its colour is something else and puts to shame the otherwise impeccable blue of the skies. Once again I feel at a loss for my chosen medium of expression. But what was most surprising was the fact that the lake is saline- now, the big question is how did such an immense salt water lake come into existence in the middle of these mountains. It probably is a remnant of the ocean which once separated the prehistoric land masses of Laurasia and GondwanaLand. In winter the lake freezes over and is a favoured route for smugglers to and from Tibet and China, who run their horses on it continuously for about fifteen days.

We had been at the lake for about half an hour when Atma arrived with everyone else. As soon as he got here he began chatting up the drivers of the other cabs that had managed to get this far and negotiated with them to take us back to the blockade. When some of them agreed (at a certain fee), he started asking us to head back and was faced with the obvious resentment. The place was just too lovely to leave this quickly. While most agreed, reluctantly, Ram and Poorti along with Paresh and Atmaram were left behind. In the confusion that followed, we completely forgot about the four who had stopped midway, off the road. On reaching the blockade, the seriousness of the problem was apparent. The stream was no longer a trickling toddler, but a fully-grown virile monster of a river. It was at least 7 to 20 metres in width at various points along its length and was flowing at a furious pace. Already a jeep trying to cross back to the safe side had got stuck in it. And the bad news was that it was only going to get worse till nightfall when the glaciers would freeze again. Our drivers on the other side looked extremely worried. We were worried too, but what was the option. We had to risk crossing the river or spend the night in the coldest place in all of India. It had to be done. A human chain was formed and the ablest of the drivers waded half way into the river. I was the second person to attempt the crossover. Took off my slippers and threw them to the other side. The stream kept swelling every time I looked at it. Every minute was precious. There was no time for fear. Sunil and I, hand in hand, stepped in. I had always considered him a little queer, but now there was no time for all that. The first thing that struck me on entering was how icy cold the water was. My feet were numb, almost immobile but still sensitive to the piercing pain of the cold water and the pebbles banging against my bones as the current swept them away. As a reflex action, I speeded up to get over with it, as a result colliding with Sunil, almost toppling both of us over into the water. It was a very bad decision since the quicker we moved, the quicker the pebbles under my feet shifted, mostly due to the immense currents of the water. I some how steadied myself, took deep breaths and flung myself into the arms of our drivers on the other side. I was safe.

By the time I recovered from the partial shock and looked around, there was pandemonium. The stream had now swollen to gigantic proportions, the current was deadly furious, and disaster was imminent. Till now only Sunil and me had managed to crossover. Some others had tried but failed with near fatal consequences. It had a dreadful effect especially on those still stranded on the other side. In hindsight, the fact that we were the first was one of the reasons why were able to do it. It hadn’t really occurred to us how dangerous it was. There was this large contingent of tourists, the ones whose men folk danced about at Khardung La the other day, who had a lot of women and kids with them. Most of them were in various stages of hysteria. The sheer tension was maddening, even for me. Their jeeps had gotten stuck on the other side and even if they managed to cross over it was unlikely that they’d be able to make it to Leh tonight. Their women and children howled and it caused severe confusion amongst us as well. Someone needed to take charge and quickly. By this time some of our own had managed to cross over. Sachin, Sunil and Prashant along with the drivers extended the chain. Given my size and weight, I was kept away from the rescue act. Slowly they were gaining control and did manage to get some people across. There were slips and some people- Ulka, Pradip and Sonita, among them, did fall into the water, but Prashant was waiting downstream to pull them out against the current, but on the whole we were getting there. Soon Hemant and Sagar joined the rescue act and every one of us was safe with minor physical and mental trauma. We joined the act to rescue the other tourists seeing that they were in definite need of help. We asked our drivers to focus their attention on this lot. But some of them seemed to be trying insane heroics, probably overwhelmed by the situation. This and the desire to send to safety their clothes and other belongings, seemed to indicate that their concerns were a little misplaced. We seemed to be rescuing more handbags and cameras, than anything else. It was slowing things down when time was all that mattered. However, we managed to get it all done. Whoever had gotten till here was safely transported to the safe bank. However, this time there were casualties. A woman was in trauma, another being resuscitated, a little girl, her ankle twisted badly, was howling. All of us were sitting at a distance, deadly quiet, waiting for the eight who were left walking back to get here. Parab, who was with them, was 59 years of age. Most of us wondered what would happen should he need to stay back.

Soon the first of the four arrived. By this time the stream was so alarmingly huge that it seemed like there was no way they would be able to cross it. Umesh was characteristically cocky about it, unable to figure out how dangerous it really was. They were really tired having walked uphill all the way but we had no option but to get them to carry on. Somehow they crossed over, and now all that we had to do was wait for the remaining four. It seemed like an endless wait. There was nothing to do but sit back, think, watch our clothes dry and wait indefinitely. By the time Atma and the rest got there, the stream was not navigable. The only option that remained was to walk down stream where the stream branched into gullies and somehow cross over from there. Even this, was half a chance. We used ropes and human chains again and they too managed to cross over with a few missed heartbeats for all involved. Atma’s feet were red and swollen and if not for the first aid from Pradip, he would have surely been maimed. After everything had calmed down we then redistributed ourselves and headed back home . Some of those whose cars were stranded could be taken back in our jeeps. The groups who would not return today, we left our food with them. Our drivers assured us that nothing life threatening would come their way. It would only be a little discomfort. Later on, there would be scapegoating and fault finding but that’s a different story and can probably go on for days. I guess everybody learnt their lessons today and that is all that matters. This, and the fact that all of us were safe and on schedule. On the way back our jeep broke down on the climb to Changla La and Hemant complained of severe pain in his ankle which needed to be attended by the paramedics at a camp but this seemed to pale in comparison with the events of the day. It is worth mentioning that only minimal photography has been undertaken today. Such was the effect of the events on everyone involved.

The next day I was up early. In fact some of us had stayed awake till very late discussing the events of the day. Today, we flew to Srinagar. After all our attempts (including notices on shop windows), we could not find enough people to undertake the journey by road. Moreover, I am by now a little tired of the travel. The flight was very short. There was almost no cruising, just a sharp ascent followed by one swoop down to Srinagar. The view from the window was breathtaking. The spectacular snow capped mountains on the way up and the welcome green Kashmir valley down. Srinagar is a beautiful city. During my very short break there I realized why it was such a popular tourist destination when it was still safe- the Jhelum River, the Dal Lake, lovely women, the vast Chinar forests, the Shikharas and the houseboats formed a quaint backdrop for the otherwise lazy Sunday morning city bustle. I made a mental note to revisit this city and dashed off to the airport to fly back to Delhi. The khaki presence in this city is an ominous reminder of the dangers that haunt this lovely valley. The airport itself is guarded like a fortress. There are layers and layers of security and one must provide adequately for security related stoppages. Before I left everyone else, promises were made to meet in Bombay, to exchange notes and pictures. But I guess that is not really going to happen, is it?

So, the safari was over and except for minor omissions, it has been adequately documented. It has been a gratifying experience in more ways than one. The sights and sounds, the people, Nature, in its myriad forms all made for excellent ingredients to a well-cooked broth. While we were all happy to get back home, I guess everyone was yearning for that much more. I think I have covered everything I could except for the huge human aspect of this all. The people on this trip were especially endearing even for me. Poorti for her infectious enthusiasm, Hemant and Sonita for their interest in the unusual, Ulka for her pragmatism, Atmaram for his experience, Sagar for his naiveté, the Picassos for their unflinching dedication to their vocation, Pradip for his many moods which led to some interesting moments. Now, there really isn’t much for me to say or do. I guess I will only have to trace my steps back home. First here in Delhi and then the silence which is my world back in the metropolitan din of Bombay. And when again someday, the mind grows wings, and the heart begins to flutter- some distant voice will sing- “Neeli Chhidiya Re… Pankhudi Lage”. And then I’ll miss this world and everything that was there in it and pine to return. Someday, I will.


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Blogger The Hermit of Wandering Thoughts said...

great travelogue... reminded me of my visit in Feb this year to the same locale

Lahaul & Spiti is simply amazing

7:20 AM  

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