When I had told about my biking plans to Subbu, he had the following advice for me: “leh mein jo screw gira hai dhoond len[a] iss baar“. I was going to Leh for the third time and he was very sure I was nuts.
On 4th October 2009 – a Sunday, I returned from Leh to Bhubaneswar. I was sitting on the guest-house couch when Pratap brought a steaming mug of coffee for me. I switched on the TV as I took the first sip. It was the NatGeo channel. An American dude was driving a car over the highest motorable road in the world, over the Khardung La! He went all the way to the Nubra Valley and then he returned to Leh. When the show ended, I looked at Pratap, grinned and declared – I was here today morning. He looked at me, offered a wry smile which told me he still didn’t understand how I had managed to burn my entire face merely with sun-rays. He took away the empty mug from me and disappeared in the kitchen. I closed my eyes and ran the last few days inside my head.
Last Monday, in Rumtse, God sent two friends to give me company. The same day, the three of us managed to reach Leh. The next day – Tuesday, happened to be the first day after the start of my biking trip when I did not have to touch my bike. We roamed around in the small town, checked out the Leh Palace, ate and drank. The day went perfect until finally, in the evening, a bad news ruined it. I realized in the evening that my plan for the next four days had been fucked.
The next day – Wednesday, I was to leave for the Nubra Valley (while House and Kapoor were to leave for Kashmir). Nubra Valley was 150 Kms north of Leh and to reach there one needed to cross the highest motorable road in the world – the Khardung La. I had been to Nubra Valley on a bus back in 2006, during my first visit to Ladakh with family. Back then, sitting inside that two by two J&K state transport bus, I had seen two middle aged firang cyclists, one man and one woman, riding their red coloured beasts over a killing climb on their conquest of Khardung La. I had never seen mountain-bikers before. When I saw them, I knew I had to do mountain-biking some day. Over the years, that desire got lost somewhere. The depressions of IIT, the confusions of life, the problems with girls, the limited time to travel and less limited money – all of these made me forget about the bikes and the mountains. But suddenly, two years of IIT and one year of job later, one fine day things fell in place just like that. Suddenly I had everything I needed to fulfill the long lost desire: physical strength, time and money. Thus began the amazing journey from Manali to Leh (with of course a warming up session in Indore :P) and with my successful arrival in Leh, without one single accident – not even a single flat tire, there wasn’t anything more left to be accomplished. But the thing was, there was no way I could have spent time alone in Leh for the next four days, that too without my only two friends. This is exactly why, even after having cycled so much, I had come up with a plan. A plan for the next four days. The plan was simple: reach Nubra in the first two days and return to Leh in the next two. Of course, this also meant doing the Khardung La twice but who the fuck was afraid, haan?
So yeah, the plan was simple and yet it got fucked up simply because this travel agent who was supposed to get me the permit that was needed for visiting Nubra, failed to do so by Tuesday. He told this to me in the evening and I cursed him because I had given him ample time! He promised he would get the permit to me the next day.
When I got up the next day, I found that it wasn’t just my plan that gotten fucked up. House had suddenly fallen sick in the stomach. So Kapoor decided to postpone their trip by a day. Though I felt sorry was House I was happy that I had company again. Once again, we roamed around in the small town, ate and drank. Later that day, I got my permit finally. By evening, even House was feeling better.
Finally on Thursday, I left for Khardung La (and as I found out later, House and Kapoor managed to leave for Kashmir after as well – a few hours after me). I had an altered plan this time: do the Khardung La, and roll down the other side to reach whatever village came first, stay in the village the next day, and on the third day, cycle back to Leh. Once again, the plan was simple. Once again, it got fucked. You would get to know how.
Khardung La was a full forty kilometers from Leh and 100% of it was uphill taking one up from an altitude of 3.6k (11,800 ft) to 5.6k (18, 400 ft). I don’t know if they were the beer sessions of the past three days that I felt a little weak that day, but weak I did feel. I Â kind of also missed House and Kapoor. But then life ain’t about missing people or things that aren’t around you. Life is about enjoying the presence of people and things that are around you.
Many a times I felt like turning back. At one point, I felt so weak that I slept atop a rock for like half an hour. Reaching the top took away every ounce of energy from my body and almost all of day. It was five in the evening when I was finally at the top.
It was only when I reached the top that I finally noted that Khaltse was the nearest village where I could find accommodation on the other side of Khardung La and the road all the way to Khaltse was a complete downhill. There was just one problem – Khaltse was 55 fucking kilometers away. This also meant that, if I rolled down and stayed there, then to be able to return to Leh, I needed to climb up 55k uphill in a single day. Suddenly it looked like a bad idea. I had already cycled over one of the most amazing roads in this world, self-supported. I had already cycled all the way to the highest-motorable road in this world. It was absolutely pointless to roll down 55k to reach some random village when I couldn’t even go all the way to Nubra valley. It made little sense. And thus I decided to head back towards Leh. The first and the last accident during the entire trip happened before I could make it to Leh.
It was seven in the evening. The sun had set but the moon shone. The moon was even brighter than what it had been during the Pang-Rumtse struggle. Besides the light of the moon, and that of the stars, there was no other light. The road was going down and down. I was rolling down at a not-so-slow speed. I could not spot a not-so-small pebble lying in the centre of an otherwise perfect tarmac. The front wheel hit the pebble. The bike jolted. I lost balance. I was hurled off the bike. My chin banged hard the cold asphalt. The bike fell all over my legs. I went cold. I felt blood trickling from around the chin and flowing over the neck. I went so cold that I couldn’t move for at least a minute. It was quite an effort to crawl out from under the bike but finally I did. I didn’t want any truck to run me down. I pulled the bike to the road-side. Once secured from the risk of being run down, I sat down next to my bike, looking up the sky. It hurt if I tried to bend my neck. It hurt if I moved my jaw. The blood was still dripping off the chin. The temperature felt like dropping every second and I found myself shivering inside my clothes. I kept sitting and waited to feel strong again.
Finally I got up, took out some cotton from my bag and pressed it against my skin to stop the blood-flow. I sat down again and started contemplating on my next move.
I knew I wasn’t cycling till the sun rose over the horizon. Leh was good 20k away and if I continued rolling down in the dark, an accident like this could happen again. I recalled the power of love between the moon and the werewolf that had carried the werewolf safely to Rumtse. I wondered what went wrong tonight. And then I realized that nothing really had gone wrong. True love has always made people bleed. The werewolf was bleeding, the moons’ love was true.
As I sat down that night, holding pieces of cotton against my chin, shivering in the cold, I saw a bottle of Mountain Dew lying on the road. The bottle had fallen off from one of my bags when the bike had fallen down. Earlier that day, while climbing up, I had to pick up MD from the only stall between Leh and Khardung La simply because I had run out of the water that I had, and MD was the best substitute that the guy at the stall could offer. The right hand busy, trying to stop blood from flowing, I picked up the MD bottle lying on the road with my left hand and emptied it. It tasted good and finally I stopped feeling cold.
An open flat area was soon found, where I spread my sleeping bag and slept inside it for the rest of the night. The air remained cold, but as the night grew older, I started to like the chill. It was a crazy cold night that I spent empty stomach and wounded. And yet, I liked everything about the night.
It was only when I had checked in a hotel in Leh the next day that I got to inspect myself in a mirror. A small chunk of flesh and skin had disappeared from right below the chin and it looked ugly and gross, especially with several wavering white strands ofÂ cotton that had permanently mingled with the mess of the wound. This time my I imagined myself to be Akshay Kumar from the latest Thumbs Up commercial where he gets himself and is car burnt and all that “kar liya boss, kar liya – Khardung La kar liya“.
I had checked into a new hotel this time – one which had an apple tree inside. The room came cheap for 200 bucks a day. For the rest of the two days in Leh, I kept reading books purchased from local book stores and kept meeting and speaking to random strangers. I met Jai, an American who had been a Sadhu in India for many years. He must have been over 50 years old. His hair and beard were long and flowing like that of most Sadhus except that they were curly white and golden. He wore a Rudraksh and a saffron Kurta and loved throwing away crisp biscuits to local street dogs. Jay and I talked about religion and Durga and Sadhus and Swamis and Paramhansa and the Kumbha Mela. Then there was this old French guy called Bruno. He was a devout disciple of Maharaji. He told me his Guru’s greatest teaching: God lies inside you – peace lies inside you. Everything that really matters is inside you.
One evening, on my last day in Leh, when the owner uncle of the apple tree house saw me reading ‘Into Thin Air’, sitting in his courtyard, he said to me “what is this beta? Go out, roam around. See more of Leh. You can read the book even when you are gone. Hai ki nahi“? I closed the book, roamed around and then later in the night, sat in a roof top bar, all alone and sipped Kingfisher. I wished House and Kapoor were there and I didn’t have to sit alone on my last night in Leh. And then I thought how it is so important sometimes to lose friends to realize how important they are.
The flight to Bhubaneswar the next day was via Delhi. An old (Indian) man at the Delhi airport, who was behind me in the boarding-pass issuing counter, had a look at my t-shirt. I was wearing a dark blue t-shirt that read ‘Manali to Leh’ near the chest and www.vatsap.com near the tummy, with a picture of a mountain bike in the centre. I had ordered this t-shirt in a shop in Leh, where they could produce any design you asked them, using threads and sewing machine. So this old man saw my t-shirt and then had a look at my packed bike and asked me if I was coming from a Manali to Leh cycling trip. I smiled at him and nodded. It was my moment of glory. I could see everyone in the queue, staring at my burnt out and scarred face in that kind of awe that touches you at the very core of your heart.
Throughout the first week after the trip, every day while I sat in office, I felt like a soldier who loves fighting at the front-line but has been called back to the head-quarters to sit inside a safe shelter and do intellectual paper-work. I had managed to put myself in such a different world – a surreal world – a world that had an aim, a purpose, an overflowing smile of strangers and sweet memories of the loved ones who weren’t there with me but whom I remembered one after another, every day. It was a good trip. And like all good things in life it ended. I didn’t bike or run for a week after coming back. Then I tried running and it hurt so much that I could not walk for two days. And then I ran and ran till the legs gave up and I was back on track.
When I don’t run, I read books. When I don’t read books, I read porn and masturbate. When I am not jerking off, I login to Facebook and share videos, “like” other’s updates and update my own status messages once in a while even when the updates don’t mean a thing. When I get bored of all this, I close my eyes and go back to the Himalayas and every time I do that, I feel good about life and everything else. One day, I am climbing the Mount Everest.
PS: This is how I looked when I returned to Bhubaneswar finally