When I reached the Mumbai airport late on Friday to board the 4 a.m. flight to Leh, I was as excited as a kid. I was finally going to the state, marred by controversies in the recent years, termed as the “heaven on earth.” My destination, though, was far from the valley caught up in the turmoil. I was so excited that I was the first one to board the flight.
I dizzied up from my nap as the morning light started to show up, and then suddenly woke up to startling views of snow-capped mountain-tops, barren lands shadowed by clouds and glaciers. The aeroplane was passing over the Himalayas. It was a view of a lifetime. (Scroll down to the bottom of this post for a link to all the photographs from the trip, including these.)
After descending to Leh, I had a mild nauseatic feeling due to the sudden change of altitude and oxygen-level. However, it was fine after a while and I found my way to the camp-site of the Youth Hostels Association of India. After having breakfast and getting introduced to some of the other participants, I went off to sleep. Sleep and rest for the first few hours are crucial for the body to acclimatize to the low-oxygen atmosphere. So I spent the rest of the day interacting with our field director, the volunteers as well as the other new participants.
The next morning we were transferred to the higher base-camp in Lamayuru. After being given an orientation about the bikes by the field director, Sumit, we chose our respective bikes and gears. These would be our companion and friend for the next few days. And then we went for an acclimatization ride. It was while coming downhill, after reaching the destined watch-tower, that I was lucky not to be caught up in what could be a dangerous accident. The right shoelace had got tangled with the chain, and with each roll of the tyre, was getting further tangled. This sharply pulled my right foot, and it was also difficult to break the speed at which I was coming down. Somehow I managed to stop with the help of my left foot. Thankfully, Sumit was coming down behind everyone, so he stopped to help me. It was difficult to untangle the lace, but then a simple suggestion by him, to reverse-pedal, helped in solving the problem. I learnt that in times of trouble, I should not panic but make a conscious effort to think calmly. It was getting dark, and we came down the rest of the distance to the base-camp while chatting about cycling in Mumbai.
Life in the camps was not easy. We had just enough space in the tents for so many people, and then there was the additional burden of the only toilet (read: commode with a tent around it) with no lights or running water, scarcity of water (only two tanks of water for the entire three batches of participants, officials and cooks) and strict timings for food. The food was great. We had fun. We shared our food and ate in a big circle, cleaned the utensils together and chatted away the entire time, like long-lost college friends who had grown up together.
For the next four days, we literally committed to doing the bare necessities of life. We ate, we peed and took a dump (in the dark), we slept, and we cycled. And cycled we did. The views were magnificent. There were some tough terrains, with steep climbs, narrow roads and a lot of traffic (both ways). One of us had a cramp in the back the very first day. When we had all stopped for lunch by the Indus river right opposite to an apricot garden, he had to take a long rest to be able to get back on his feet. People carried on with physical discomfort but sheer determination.
There were times when I could see a long stretch of the road and a gradual slope would assist a slow roll of the bike– at those times, I would just have a mild touch on the break and take in the amazing view all around me, till whatever distance I could see, as the bike went in its own pace. Moments of pure bliss.
On the first day of the ride, we stopped at a rock art gallery in a small village called Dorkham. The old man in charge invites everyone to his drawing room and gives them a treat of fresh apricots from his garden, a variety of dry fruits including dried apricots, and tea– either “butter tea” or “Ladakhi tea”. Amongst 20 participants were one guy who was mad about apricots, and this place was for him: heaven. Afterwards, we also visited the rock art sanctuary and witnessed ancient rock art dating back to 2000 years: drawings of horses, deer and leopards on black rock, and inscriptions in Ladakhi, Tibetan and even Chinese, and even fingerprints of ancient man.
On the second day of the expedition, after lunch, there was a 17 Kilometer stretch of ascent that I decided to do on my own. I knew that this last bit would be tough. So I wanted to move out of the pack and do it alone. In between, there was a scarcity of water and I was filling up my bottles at every possible stream. One of them didn’t look too clean but I didn’t have any other option. The going got so tough that I had to literally stop every 100 meters, gasping for breath. The road looked steep and winding, and there was a lot of traffic both ways. Some turns were sharp and narrow, and also there was a lot of gravels and stones on the road. In other patches, development work was going on. On top of that, in spite of stopping a lot and waiting to see if any of my batchmates were behind me, I could not spot anyone. At times this was frustrating, but I carried on. When I was subsequently reaching the “land of the Moon”, named after the craters that resemble those on the Earth’s only satellite, I felt overwhelmed with emotions. The traffic had significantly reduced as well. Sumit, transferring from Leh on his bike, passed me and informed me of a fresh-water spring a mile ahead. Quite a few trucks stopped to talk at length or slowed down to say hello. I did my bit by saluting and waving at all the army trucks passing, and stopping to let the convoys go. The cheerfulness of the army-men at the wheels, the tourists passing by in jeeps and ‘Travellers,’ the locals shouting “Jullay!” (Hello) or “Bye…” and their genuine smiles, and also the support and cheering of the labourers of the BRO (Border Roads Organization) made the tough terrains easier. I seeped in the surroundings, breathed in the fresh air. As the journey was coming to an end, I met a group of shepherds who came and talked with me and lauded the effort that they knew had taken to come all the way up from the plains. That brought tears to my eyes. The atmosphere was surreal, there were unseen birds singing away to their own glory…
The third day involved a lot of climb in the initial half, so we took our own sweet time. One of us had a speaker in which he would start his playlist and if you synchronized your ride with his, that would be a great company. Anyway, we reached the base-camp at Heniskot around 5 in the evening and then left towards a village called Kanji. The road was amazing. Great chunks of rock pillaring on both sides, and the Indus running along it. We stopped in the middle, had snacks, and came back to the base-camp, not bothering to go all the way to the village. There are times in life when you should just breathe it all in. With great company, these times are worth remembering for the rest of your lives.
The fourth and last day, we were supposed to cross the Fotula pass on the way back to Lamayuru. This is the highest point on the Leh-Srinagar highway, at 13479 feet. Two of the 20 had started early and gone ahead, and I got news that they had already reached the pass and gone down to Lamayuru. I had started a little late but caught up with the others, and again, I wanted to do this part alone. I had minor pain in my left shoulder, and my thighs had been aching since morning. I had sunburn on my arms from the three days of the ride, despite the sunscreen. My nose was red with blood-clot from inside, which I noticed on the way, and the skin above it was falling off. It was very dry and the wind was very cold, the Sun was also hot and direct. I had to lie down for 10 minutes, moisturize my nose from inside, and tape it from outside to prevent any blood-flow. As I was getting nearer to the pass, the wind was getting gutsier and the oxygen levels were becoming significantly lesser. I stopped every kilometre, but once I realized it was only 2 kilometres to the top, I carried on no matter what. The views around were magnificent: snow-capped peaks and vegetated hills surrounding them. When I finally reached the top, signalled by the colourful flags, there were two tourist jeeps descending to the other side of the pass, and not a single soul anywhere near me. The feeling was amazing.
Soon, my mates started reaching the top one by one. We cheered on those who were reaching. We had a lot of fun, shot videos, took selfies and posed for the camera. Some of them had taken a detour, a “kachcha raasta” [a gravelled shortcut], and for them reaching the top was a real challenge. Anyway, all 18 of us plus the volunteers and the leaders gathered there, and spent some blissful moments, before deciding to do the final 16 Km descent towards Lamayuru.
I would like to especially thank all my batchmates, the volunteers Sumeet P and Sampada, the technical man Tiwari-Ji, and our field director Sumit, for helping me with my issues (and sharing your sandals!), giving me company and making those days easier and truly worthwhile.
After getting transferred to Leh, I did local tourism around Leh and then a visit to Pangong Tso. I had a good time sharing the taxi-ride to Pangong with a few strangers and getting to know about their lives. We spotted a lot of wild animals on the way, especially horses and buffaloes, and occasionally a few yaks. There were also groups of tamed animals being led by shepherds from one meadow to another, run over by streams. The sunset and sunrise at Pangong Tso were mesmerizing.
Almost a week after returning to Mumbai, I have almost healed from the water-blisters that appeared on my sunburns right after reaching, but am still dealing with a bit of fatigue. Everything we really need to survive is available easily. People mind their own business, life goes on in an atmosphere where no one seems to care about the others. Life up there was very different. All our time and effort went after getting done the very basics of life, but we lived together: we travelled, ate and slept together. Each moment passed in thinking about the next, but I was at peace with the world. We not only cared for each other but also lived amongst the genuine smiles of absolute strangers, the genuine gratification from a simple smile and a heartfelt “Jullay!” Kids would line up for the “one-touch” of our hands, they would come and smile and hang around and stare at us just to look at us if we stopped– that was their way of greeting us. Some would push the cycles to show their gratitude. The smiles were so genuine, that it brings tears to my eyes to write about how much I miss them and long to go back. I will especially remember the full-moon rise behind the mountains one fine evening right after dinner. Ladakh, truly, is heaven on earth.
Update on 22nd March 2018:
I want to see your skies again. I want to witness the smile on your people’s faces, a smile that exposes the entire set of teeth they have. I want to hear the song of the songbird that forever hides behind your mountains — arid, deserted, yet beautiful. I want to hear the “Jullay” of your children and clap their hands as I say so, too. I want to marvel at the oases that spring up in the middle of nowhere, the stupa-s that are built out of stones, the monasteries where life reverberates. I want to stare, and stare, and stare — at the humongous rocks that carve out deep gorges for the rivers to flow. I want to see those marvellous wild horses in grasslands watered by narrow streams, wild and carefree. I want to witness the magnanimity of the Indus that gives our motherland its name — roaring in its glory, creating oases on its wake, livelihood for those born into the heaven that is you. I want to see your skies — untouched by pollution, supporting cotton-clouds that roam around its vastness. I miss you in your entirety, Ladakh. I truly miss you.