Leh, 10 May 2009
The lips are parched. Skin has peeled off from most of what still looks like a nose, leaving behind dark blotches. The face has been painted in various shades of black, brown and red – mostly black. Both legs have scar-marks, minor ones. I am sitting in my hotel room in Leh when I should actually have been in Bhubaneswar. Ah, I have a story to tell. Today is a Sunday. The story started nine days ago, on a Friday.
Friday – the story about a funny flight captain
I landed in Delhi last to last Friday. It was late in the night. I headed to Neelabh’s place. He was already back from work, by the time I reached. We stayed awake the entire night – well, most of it – and then took our early morning flight to Leh – the only town with an airport in the Ladakh region of Jammu & Kashmir (India).
The captain of the flight was funny. He kept announcing about landmarks such as some famous mountain peak, some well-known valley or some popular river that could be seen down below. The announcements in themselves were not funny as such. They were informative rather. What made his announcements funny was the fact that, all the landmarks that he mentioned were visible only to the passengers seated on the left of the aisle. Each of his sentences would begin with “if you look to your left…”. So what would happen is, every time he made an announcement, all the right-seated passengers would jump off their seats and fill up the aisle, trying to peep out from the windows on the left. This happened once, then twice, and then again and again. It was all okay till the flight started descending.
When it was announced that we were about to reach Leh, the seat-belt fastening signs were put on. All of us fastened our seat belts. And lo – the captain made yet another announcement – “if you look to your left…”. And yes, once again most of the the right-seated passengers (threw open their seat-belts) and filled up the aisle. The air-hostesses got really mad this time and somehow, after quite an effort, managed to get them back to their seats. I have this feeling, they murdered this leftist captain after landing. The passengers loved the captain though – definitely those seated on the right! Neelabh and I were seated on the right. We didn’t leave our seats even once. Our sympathies were with the air-hostesses.
Things in Leh took off quite as planned. We soon had a hotel room to stay in, and a good looking red coloured Royal Enfield (Bullet) Thunderbird to ride on. I should tell you something about Thunderbirds though. I think the only good thing about them is that they are gorgeous-looking; when it comes to power and performance, they pale in comparison with other Bullet models like Electra or even the regular 350 ones. But then, as you would come to know soon, the bike that we rented, though less powerful than what I would have loved to ride, never really failed on us during the entire trip – good enough when you are riding on rough roads that lack any kind of support system in case of malfunctions.
Saturday & Sunday
In spite of the occasional sunshine now and then, Leh was mostly cloudy and cooler than I had expected it to be. I especially missed the clear blue sky that had taken my breath away when I had been to this place for the first time in late July three years ago. I remember how a friend who once lived in Mumbai and then went over to US for higher studies (where she still is) and whom I had never met in person, had told me she would come along with me to Ladakh when I would go there again. Here, I was in Ladakh again and she was nowhere. She was the last girl I had any sort of romantic connection with and after her, all I have done is read books and seen places.
We slept for most of Saturday. On Sunday, we slowly drove in and around the town, taking pictures of each other and the surroundings, especially whenever we found good light. In other words, we kept acclimatizing for two days. Let me tell you a li’l bit about this acclimatizing stuff, in case you don’t what it is. If you already know all about it, just skip the next paragraph, will you?
Leh sits at about 15,000 ft (above sea-level), so the air is very thin. What makes the air thinner in most of Ladakh (when compared to places of comparable altitude) is the lack of vegetation and greenery. Here you find only barren deserted hills and mountains everywhere. They look majestic and all that but the lack of plant-life (except during summer in some of the valleys) leads to less oxygen in the already thin air. Therefore, for the first few days of your arrival, you are bound to feel slightly sick. This is the reason why one needs to do nothing but breathe easy for a day or two after arriving in Leh (especially if you are flying in). That’s acclimatizing for you – pretty much. You can ask Neelabh about this couple that had too much of sex on their first day of arrival in Leh and then died. I never bothered to verify the story but it’s such a funny yet “tragic at the same time” story that I tell it every time I talk about acclimatization.
During our dinner on Sunday, Neelabh and I got talking with a German lady. We told her we wanted to leave for Tso moriri the next day and from there to Pangong, the day afterwards. Pangong and Tso Moriri are two famous and beautiful lakes of Ladakh, 180 kms and 240 kms from Leh respectively. ‘Tso’, means a lake in Ladakhi by the way. Anyway, so the German told us she had tried going to the Pangong lake too, but had not been successful. Why? We asked her. Because she could not find enough junta to share a taxi with her, she explained. When she heard about our motorcycling plans, she cautioned us that the weather was going to be rough for the next 2-3 days. I assured her that the sun would shine.
Next morning (Monday), we left for Tso Moriri. We never reached Tso Moriri. The sun didn’t shine much for three days.
Monday – when Chang La fucked us up.
While on our way to Tso Moriri, it soon occurred to us that we had missed a turn and were now headed to Pangong instead. This was just the beginning of the screwing-up of our plan. After this wrong turn, we could never follow our original plan.
As far as this missing of the turn was concerned, we didn’t mind it much. We had anyway planned to go to Pangong from Tso Moriri, so now we would first see Pangong, and then leave for that other lake. Not a big deal, we thought. We would be proved wrong.
There are two passes on way to Pangong from Leh. The first one can be ignored. It is not too high. The second pass however, rises above 17,000 feet. It is the Chang La (‘La’ in Ladakhi means a pass; Ladakh pretty much means the land of passes). As we approached Chang La, temperature dropped quite a bit and we could see snow all around us, but thankfully not on the road. The closer we approached Chang La, more grew the snow level, eventually covering the road itself – first just a sprinkling but soon getting pretty much “on your face”. Biking became difficult, especially because we were two people on one bike that was loaded with our luggage as well. We somehow manged to reached Chang La. The real shit started after Chang la though!
After Changla, there was goddamn fucking snow everywhere. The road was full of it. I had seen so much snow only in Sikkim before that (my first time). But in Sikkim, I had been inside a jeep, secure from the cold, a luxury that I didn’t have here on my way to Pangong. Soon, things got so bad that even jeeps and SUVs were unable to run on that road – skidding left and right. We were kind of scared. Shall we return, we wondered? That German lady was right may be! But amidst all the confusions and self doubt, we found something inspiring that encouraged us to carry on and not give up.
There was a guy out there on that rough terrain, a local dude, who carried on in his LML Vespa! He was the only reason we decided not to turn back – if he could drive on snow, so could we – on our rented red Thunderbird. We didn’t think much about the fact that this dude must have had done this a hundred times. He belonged to Leh, to Ladakh, to snow. We didn’t.
For me, it was outright impossible to drive with two people on the bike, so Neelabh had to walk for most part. Even with just me driving the bike, the bike kept falling down. When the bike was up and running, it was not running just on two wheels but on two legs as well – my legs. That was the only way I could move ahead with the bike, with my shoes skidding on both sides of the bike, trying to keep it stable. Trying to balance the bike like that, driving on snow at such a high altitude caused much exertion. I had to keep stopping every few hundred meters to pause. It went on for few kilometers but finally we made it. We were too tired, too exhausted, too cold, too sun-burnt, too dead to go to Pangong. We found the first village (Tangste) that had accommodation and with a massive head-ached we crashed off. We were sure the headache would go away when we get up later in the evening. When we got up later that evening, the head-ache was still there – and as powerful as it was earlier. It took us that entire night’s rest in Tangste to recover. We felt alright when we got up in the morning though.
Tuesday – when we finally got to see Pangong
Pangong was only thirty kilometers from Tangste village. The road to the lake was more or less good and the territory mostly plain. But occasional spread of white sand did make driving a tad difficult, if not impossible. We had faced snow. And now we also faced sand. Neelabh drove this time. We reached the lake finally. I wished the German had seen it – this lake was so surreal. Everyone must see the Pangong lake, it’s that good.
Not much had changed since my last visit. The sky could have been bluer and the sun shinier but even in the clouded air, Pangong lake looked beautiful, royale, pristine and more than that – a symbol of our victory. We sat down besides the lake, fagged and clicked the flying gulls. The birds looked like angels and we felt like Gods.
After a while, we returned to Tangste and slept for another night in the village.
We left for Leh in the morning, only to face more snow on the road than what we had witnessed two days ago. This time however, there was no decision to be made. We HAD to return and that we did.
Leh was warm in the evening. It felt good. We were not sure where to go to the next day. Tso moriri was still on the cards but suddenly it appeared too far away. A holiday is not just about taking tough roads and feeling good after surviving the toughness. A holiday is also about being lazy. Next day – Thursday, we decided to be lazy. We took the road to Srinagar.
A holiday is not just about taking tough roads and feeling good after surviving the toughness. A holiday is also about being lazy.
Thursday – when we took the road to Srinagar. But never really reached Srinagar.
It was a smooth road, one of the best that I had seen in Ladakh. The road did lead to Srinagar but reaching there had never been our intention. We wanted to drive only upto Lamarayu, about 140k from Leh. There’s a nice monastery there. It was a slow drive on a good road under a sunny sky and we loved every bit of it. We loved the drive so much that after a while Lamarayu didn’t matter. The road ran more or less along the Indus river. The river looked gorgeous with its metallic green water. The rocky hills all around the river were eye pleasing. Fluffy cotton like clouds flew in all directions in the clear blue sky. We had a blissful time overall. This became one of those journeys where the destination didn’t matter. Such journeys are real journeys. We were glad we undertook it together.
There is another famous tourist destination in Ladakh besides Tso Moriri and Pangong. It is a valley called the Nubra Valley. To reach Nubra Valley from Leh, one has to cross the highest motoreable pass in the whole of India, may be in the whole of earth. It is called Khardungla. Khardungla is at an altitude of about 18,300 ft.
After our struggles in Chang La we were not left with enough enthusiasm to face anymore snow. We expected more snow and worse road if we were to cross Khardungla. After all it was more than 1,000 ft higher than Changla! Everyone whom we asked about Khardungla, advised us not to try it on bike; ‘the weather is not great’, we were told. On Friday, we left for Khardungla – on bike.
I am too tired to write anymore. I will rest today (yes I am still in Leh) and will probably write some more once I land in Delhi tomorrow.
Delhi, 11 May 2009
I am sitting in the newly refurbished Delhi airport. It’s past 2 pm, as I type away this post. I am hungry too but food can wait (the only thing that I’ve had since morning was the breakfast they served in the Leh-Delhi flight). We were supposed to land in Delhi yesterday itself. But that didn’t happen and I spent most of yesterday writing this blog. What happened yesterday was that the weather in Leh turned kinda rough and remained so for several hours. First they kept on postponing the flight but finally I guess they gave up. They came and told us – the passengers, that we would need to try boarding the flight the next day (which is today). Fortunately, the weather was fine today morning and though there was some delay, Neelabh and I managed to reach Delhi eventually. Neelabh must be home by now. I have to travel to Bhubaneswar of course (where I work). Before I board my connecting flight, let me wrap up this story that I started writing yesterday. So where were we? On road to Khardung La, ah yes (three days ago).
Friday – the ride to Khardung La
Our plan was to drive only as far as there was no snow on the road. In case snow would start only a little before Khardungla, we could always park the bike and simply walk down to the highest point in the pass. This was our plan. We were lucky. There was hardly any snow on the road (though I wouldn’t say the same for the two sides of the road). Khardungla might have been at a higher altitude than Changla but it was way easies to reach there, all because of the almost clear road. Finally we were there on our bikes – on what they say is the highest motoreable road in the world. We felt on top of the world.
The extreme dryness of the air, the direct rays of sun (whenever they fell on us) and the exposure to snow had by this time not just tanned us but played a bad experiment with our facial colours. We were trying to get used to our new looks that I described in the opening paragraph. No amount of sunscreen or Vaseline or moisturizer really helped us. I wonder how long it will take for my face to turn back to its normal self.
Saturday – the ‘supposedly’ last day in Ladakh
Saturday was supposedly our last day in Ladakh. We had come to know about some local festival a day before. For lack of anything better to do we planned to give biking a break on the last day of our amazing Ladakh trip. We went out on the streets of Leh and shot the brightness and energy of the festival instead. It was a colourful procession that started not very far from where our hotel was, and went on to a Polo ground. The Ladakhis were celebrating because it was Buddha Purnima. Buddha Purnima is a big day in Leh and other Buddhists dominated regions of Ladakh.
It was a bright sunny day and we were not alone in chasing the innocent looking lamas (Buddhist monks) with our cameras – several firangs were with us, happily clicking away – just like us – the festive moments, the bright colours, the moving statue of Buddha, the traditionally dressed up young and old Ladakhi women and the million school children who followed the procession all the way upto the Polo ground. Saturday seemed to be a perfect ending to our trip with all the livid flavor of local culture thrown at us so beautifully. It’s another thing that Saturday could not really be the ‘end’.
Since we didn’t do much yesterday (after our return flight from Leh never took off), I guess it is time to end this short (:P) and sweet story of two friends who went to Ladakh to have a blast (which they did) but came back black and red and with visibly damaged skin. This trip goes down as yet another unforgettable memory of my life where I tried something new, felt good about it and lived on. Before I end, Delhi is so fucking hot. Time to board my flight to Bhubaneswar now.
Bhubaneswar, 12 May 2009
I am alone once again, without friends. I lost my cell-phones in this trip, they slipped off somewhere and I could never find them. Bhubaneswar is hotter than Delhi. The girl from Mumbai (who went to US) left a comment on the previous post. I wonder if she did that just because she thought I had met with some accident in Ladakh or she also remembered about our plan to go to Ladakh together. The tan is going down slowly. The blotches are already gone from the nose. Scars that were registered on legs when bike kept falling down (taking me down with it) still remain. They will go away too – soon, just like so many of them have gone away. Suddenly the entire trip looks like a dream. The girl from Mumbai looks like a dream. Tota who commented on my blog after centuries looks like a dream. I wish I could sway my arms and bring them all right here, close to me. There is no one.