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Saturday, 17 September 2011

Leh Laddakh: Heaven truly is a little high! Part 2

"The core of a man's spirit comes from new experiences"
- Into the Wild, Christopher McCandless

"Be gentle on my curves"
- One of several funny road-signs laid out by Himank, Border Road Organization, India
        We all were sitting inside the car; combined heat of 6 people working with the car blower to keep us protected from the thick cover of snow on the outside. A mild dizziness was spreading in our heads - the 5300m high Himalayan pass - Tanglang la making its presence felt. We were going around foggy turns, when suddenly the car stopped with a jerk. As we lowered our windows, grizzling sound of several trucks came for the outside. We were stuck in a deadlock - the path was not wide enough for even one vehicle to pass by, and the queue of trucks was long at the other end. Left with no other choice, our driver drove us desperately into the thick cover of snow to make way. The trucks slowly went past, their engine grumbling like a cocky old man...
    ...As their voice faded into distance, we tried to hit the road again which was when our fate slapped us. The tires obstinately refused to grip on the thick ice, beginning to endlessly skid, while the soot from the exhaust pipe started to gather on the snow. Four of us got out. We first pushed from back. Nothing. Then from front. Nothing: the car just wouldn't budge. And here's the thing about being at a height of 5300m (Delhi is at 300m, Mumbai at 0 m) - air density goes for a toss, literally, and thus pushing a car out of snow might leave your lungs screaming in madness that they are not spartan. Eventually, we picked up a few large stones to dig and clear the snow around the tyres - one final push and the car jolted forward.
         "It was awesome man", we said to each other getting in the car. After a while meek muffled sounds came about, all resonating:  "May I have a Disprin please?"

NH 21, or the Manali Leh route is maddeningly beautiful. We drove by a thick cover of snow at every pass we crossed, even at this time of the year, August, when one expects it the least! All passes enroute are easily above 5000m except for the famous Rohtang pass at 4000m which is just beyond the Manali valley. But that too was covered with a blanket of snow. Before you underestimate Rohtang because of its short stature let me tell you that it's the haughtiest of all the passes en route. Loose gravel washed down from the mountain side often combines with fresh rains to form such a potpourri of quick sand that everything that sticks its foot in it - gets stuck! We had to wait roughly 7 hours to cross a stretch of 50 damn meters. And around 200 travelers were stuck on the Rohtang the night before - having to sleep in their cars with freezing temperatures outside. Ever wondered what the name 'Rohtang' means in Tibet: you won't be surprised, it means: "pile of corpses!"
        As you are almost nearing the top of the pass, you are first required to cross the 'Rani Nala'. It is nothing but a stream that flows over and under the road leading to the pass. As you drive towards it in a large U - you observe from a distance that road cuts through a large piece of rock, perhaps the size of a football field, looking as if it's ready to slip and crush you. Only when you actually cross the 'nala' you realize that the rock is in fact made of solid ice!

Khatron ke Khiladi ? - on the way to Rohtang Pass

On this road, you come across bizarreness in plenty. Having heard so often about it, driving across the 40-50 km long and probably as wide - 'More Plains' at a height of 4500m, was still surreal. Valleys too are low lying piece of land between mountains, but they are never flat. This land was flat for as far as your eyes can see and the surrounding mountains were as far as they can ever be on this route. As we went from these plains to gentle folds of mountains - we encountered some of the most absurd and beautiful rock formations that we'd ever seen. In all our readings about this route - the mention of these structures was so scant that it skipped from our memory, and on seeing them a wave of excitement surged through us. However, the most bizarre were the hundreds, if not thousands, of rivers and rivulets we came across during our journey - all having originated from massive glaciers and all taking the most uncanny and unnecessary turns as they played along - as if doing it entirely and only to prove a point about themselves.

Surreal Dancing at 4500m, More Plains - Check!

For me, however, the highlights of our Manali - Leh journey were two places: first being the 'Zing Zing Bar' - having seen the road signs declaring it from the yonder valleys, I waited in anticipation counting the decreasing distance and wondering in amazement as to what it could be. "It possibly couldn't be a smoke hazed bar", I thought as we inched towards it...but I refrain from spoiling the climax for you; and second a place called 'Darcha', located at a short distance from Keylong where we had stayed overnight. As we were settling in our car after a heavy breakfast at a small cafe in Darcha, the owner, an old Laddakhi gentleman with an uneven gait and mien walked to us despite the drizzle and told us a few things about the route. And then he bid us farewell with such piercing half toothed smile and twinkle in his eyes that I was awestruck at first and when his unwavering smile did not fade, I was thoroughly moved. So was M who was sitting next to me. As we drove on, I wondered in amazement how such simple thing can strike a deep chord within you, and my thoughts went back to a poem by Gabriel Okara which I had read during high school:

"Once upon a time, son,
they used to laugh with their hearts
and laugh with their eyes:
but now they only laugh with their teeth,
while their ice-block-cold eyes
search behind my shadow" 

In Laddakh we got and gave 'hearty smiles' in plenty. After having spent 3 days on road and one day driving besides the Indus on NH 1, we spent our next day at Pangong Tso located near the Tibet border, where we stayed with a cheerful ladakkhi 'achhi'. On our 6th day - we drove from Pangong towards the Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir boarder, crossing Khardung-la (~5500m) which is among top 3 highest motorable passes in the world. Without doubt, we had to do something to make it memorable. Danced, we already had. Frisbee, we already had played. Push ups - we'll save for later...

"Wasn't it C's birthday a few days ago?", M put forward an argument. All eyes turned towards C with a single malevolent motive in mind, which was wrapped in a nice selling package:

R: "C, man, imagine you getting bumps on the highest motorable pass in the world!!!"
J: "It is going to become a living legend. After your you-tube video gets famous; everyone
      is going to come here and bump their birthday boys!"
N: "Yeah, man, this might even be named as C-bump la from Khardung la!!!"

"Well alright", C reluctantly agreed, less from the fact that we'd tickled his vanity but more for we're trying so hard to make him agree. And then there was a show-down, while the Indian Army looked on, faintly amused.

Contented, we drove towards the Nubra Valley: a somber depression of green nesting blissfully under the warm lap of Karkoram ranges, quenching its thirst from the Shyok and Nubra rivers - the latter fed directly by the Siachin Glacier. While the sun spread its final colors on the hovering clouds, a giant statue of Buddha became the prominent feature of the landscape. Situated near the monastery at Diskit, we looked at the statue, straining our necks; darkness gathering behind it.

"Develop the heart. Too much energy in your country is spent on developing the mind. Develop the heart"
14th Dalai Lama

Next morning, we again rose early, at 4:30; and were already at Hundar in an hour. As the Sun rose from the surrounding mountains and began to peep through the clouds - full view of the place danced in front of our eyes: there were sprawling sand dunes with a small river flowing besides them, some trees and quite a bit of lush green tufts growing on the river bank; the village of Hundar to our back and huge mountains surrounding us at a stone's throw with snow clad tops rising just behind them. Moon too had stayed to greet the very first visitors of the dunes. Feeling quite at loss of words we just said "bah!"
      Apart from rolling in the sand, and doing high jump competitions - I hope you all know that it is a cardinal sin to go at such place and not play frisbee! Cheer up - dunes are better place to play it than either beach or grass for you can jump all to your pleasure and be reminded about your adventure for days at length, for every time you'll put your hand in your pocket - some bit of Nubra sand with come along.

As the Sun stares, we mark our way...on the sands of time

By the time we left the dunes, the sun had started to shine bright, and the first of the double humped camels had just arrived. Thankfully, we felt a mild sense of joy as we left, "we had just missed the tourists!"

Crossing the Shyok river at Hundar and passing a dried river bed from Khalsar on a well metaled straight road at around 100kmph- we headed towards the hot water springs at Panamik, sharing our route with the one that also goes to Siachin glacier. The first board which declared this sent a chill down my spine - "Siachin Glacier 180km". I had heard so many times about it; and then I was near the very place! In fact the first thing I did after coming home from Laddakh was to read about Sino Indian war, Kargil War and Siachin glacier. We had been near to all three places - NH1 leads to Kargil and Dras sector, Pangong Tso was close to the area of Sino-India conflict and then there was this road to Siachin: the highest battlefield in the world at a height of around 6200m. Come to think of it - forget fighting, even trying to breath is a strain there...
      My readings of these wars spoke to me about outright atrocities, frozen deaths, height-is-might strategy, first movers advantage, crooked but effective policy of settling border dispute by war, importance of settling war through talks before they became full-blown, international opinion - strong in words mute in action, frail borders, and strategic importance of roads, airstrips, forward posts, communication devices, weapons et al - but the entire experience of being to those places insinuated an understanding as to why, in spite of their futility, wars are still fought! Long ago, I had posted letters of Capt. Vijayant Thapar of Kargil war here. Quoting from his letter to his parents:

"If you can, please come and see where the Indian army fought for your tomorrow"
- from 16,000 ft

I have saved writing about the second day of our trek for the very end - because that was special. On our 9th day - we started from Rumbak at around 3800m and had to climb steeply to a height of 4700m in 2-3 hours flat! Rumbak was a great cultural experience and it was our first squat over the famous dry Laddakhi toilets. If you haven't heard of them - they are large rooms equipped with a small window for light, a shovel, some dry compost, a hole in the middle and compost down below the hole: you're required to take your tissue paper along and use the shovel which is there in the room to throw some compost down the hole once you're done. Not only it is very efficient way to manage waste - but a pretty interesting, er.. experience, for us 'urbanized' people. However, going in them was an adventure: I always wondered if I were to fall in the hole and shrugged as a similar scene from the movie 'Slumdog Millionaire' would flash in my mind.
     Reluctantly bidding Juley to the place, we started our climb which was not much of an up-down kind of scenario which is common during treks: it was just up-up-up....

When someone decides to let you stay in their house - show a gesture more respectable than money!

I had decided that while on the steepest part of the climb I was not going to stop until fatigue hits me, which never happened, but oh! the feeling of lifting one feet and planting it ahead of the other, straining under the load of a heavy bag, wanting to open your mouth and gasp endlessly, and to end it all by just falling flat on the ground, but to instead drag yourself on, enjoying the perspiration as if you're doing something great, but profusely cussing at the thin air nonetheless...
     Surprising ourselves, we reached the pass: Stok la pretty quick. The views that presented themselves on the other side of the mountains suddenly brought everyone out of their trance, energy slowing spreading back in our body. As we sat down to nibble our lunch, everyone began recounting how they made it to the top, some even saying "I am never going to do such a thing again...", only to break off in a smile, for sure as hell - trekking is addictive!

खुदी को कर बुलंद इतना  की हिमालय की छोटी पर जा पहुंचे
और खुदा खुद तुमसे पूछे ..."अबे गधे अब उतरेगा कैसे?"

Going down, we took a shortcut to steeply descend 1000m in roughly an hour, almost running down on a 45 degree slope. Though it is dangerous to run or walk fast while going down, this path allowed us to go in giant steps without any fear, for our feet would firmly grip in the loose sand. We went down tightly squeezed among barren mountains so beautifully jutting out of nowhere and everywhere - standing like brothers in arm, that we cried indignantly as to why our movie directors need to go anywhere abroad to shoot anything of grandeur, only to immediately thank God that they haven't reached here so far - else everything would have become like Pangong Tso with zillions of people hoarding up!
   Once you go to such enchanted places, all alone, you almost feel as if you own them. Of course that's a frivolous possessiveness to keep; however, what saddens me is the fact that as soon as the human sets his foot, he starts leaving his filthy marks behind: most disconcerting of all being wiping out the wildlife and littering plastic.

And thus I end my magnanimous show by pleading two urges to you: one, don't buy stuff made out of endangered animals. For a lot of wool products, no animals are harmed - but for some very precious ones - rare species of animals are hunted. Such products are also often banned. Make sure you educate yourself about these things before you go.
    Secondly, please don't throw plastic while you trek - it is going to lie there forever, and also please pick up any plastic you see enroute otherwise it is going to lie there forever. Include garbage bag for this purpose as a part of your 'essential trek items'. Led by our guide Wangchuk - we collected a bagful of plastic that day. I hope next time you go, you do the same.

Even though this 'love at first sight' will end up in a short stormy affair 
-  flying from Leh to Delhi is another 'must' experience!



  1. too simply wont stop make me pity myself!!

  2. i knew my taking the new lens was a success when i clicked 3 pics:
    1. The Manali cottage-on-the-road pic
    2. The Rumbak homestay pic
    3. The Urban Legend, by the lake

    All were taken at f1.8 aperture

  3. Dude, don't forget the polarizer!

    Bhupesh, so do come along the next time! Though fitting you in the car would have been a problem this time :P

  4. N, I see you're good with gathering trivia during travels and write well too. Thought of travel writing as a profession?

  5. S, Thanks!

    As a profession. Umm. Nah.

    But travel-writing professionally, as a hobby - yes, thought of it! But never-ever tried to do anything about it - would be fun / challenging I guess: where to begin?

  6. Begin with more travel, and hence more writing. From what's on top of my head, visit and read his blog. He's one of my fave travel writer.