26 September, 2014

The Ladakh Diary : Unforgettable , Beautiful & Unpredictable Paradise - Part 1/4

# A picture is worth a thousand words goes the cliche, we clicked 2500+. Now even if we do ditch 90% of them, we are still  left with 250 and that would be like going through a quarter of a million words. So if I describe the experience in a few thousand words and a few photos to accompany the write up,  would it still be considered an effort in precis writing ? Go figure. 

Holiday Destinations

There are holiday destinations & holiday destinations and then there is the Kingdom of Ladakh. Nothing that anybody tells you beforehand about it can ever prepare you for the actual experience. Believe me, we had serious information overload.

I do have a penchant for making absurd comparisons. Let us for one moment imagine that all holiday destinations in India are women. How can one describe the popular destinations like say a Goa, Mahabaleshwar, Kulu-Manali, Munnar, Ooty etc? They are that young woman, absolutely pretty; having a cheerful grin who welcomes you with warmth makes you comfortable in her company. One that you enjoy so much that eventually you take her to mom and tell her she’s it, the long sought bahu, give your blessings. These are the brides.

Ladakh, on the other hand is the wild, beautiful, sultry lover, with a cool smile that instantly turns you on, whose bedroom eyes promise exciting times. With her one shivers in anticipation on when would she scratch or bite, knowing fully well that she definitely would, in whose embrace, the rest of the world is forgotten, blip....What about mom?
Well... Who’s Mom... What about her?  In the company of such a woman, you would find yourself swearing that yours was an immaculate conception or you were dropped by a stork & you never ever had a mom. Ladakh is that lover, Moms n lovers don’t jell ...naahhhh, nevaahhh. 

Most destinations are tame, this is anything but that.

The Kingdom of Ladakh is India’s connection with the roof of the world, Tibet. It is a landmass with many unique features those that can very well be counted among the natural wonders of the world. Divided into two districts Kargil and Leh, this kingdom has the harshest climatic conditions found in all of India. It has some of the highest motor able roads in the world, in fact the first three Khardung La (18380 ft), Tanglang La & Chang La (17668 ft) passes are right here.  For five winter months of the year the Drass sector in Kargil district reports temperatures in the range of -50deg C which is the second coldest inhabited area on mother earth. A mere 2 degrees C temperature saw our urban group from Mumbai, Pune, Nasik, Thane, Bhopal and Hyderabad being reduced to kulfi...and as the wind chill brought it further down we found ourselves huddling inside the most clothes ever worn by us at a single time in our lives.

The biting cold here gave purpose and meaning to even those T shirts and shirts which had been lying in the cupboards unworn for years...the very objective towards which some machine somewhere had spewed them out was being fulfilled here. Clothing is important, layered clothing is the norm. If I were to take a poll on which of the three Bollywood leading men (The Khan trio) could be popular here, Shahrukh and Aamir would win hands down. Salman in his films habitually makes a shirtless statement and going shirtless is the constituent of a horror story in Ladakh. 

Story? Is it a story? Is it an account? Is it a memoir? Could it be a film? What’s so special about a trip like this that has even me confounded for words? Read on Ye, all those who have entered here and cared to tolerate this babble so far. They called it a leisure tour but it turned out to be a rip roaring adventure, the kind we simply had not bargained for. 

Someday in March 2014, Somewhere near a tollnaka in Mumbai, Mulund (E) 

The missus , her esteemed highness, the right honourable Lady Gauri makes a proclamation, “We are going to Leh- Ladakh on 15th of August for 12 days and you have been booked too. Did you hear me?” I had not.

I was recovering from a river safari trip of 4 days to the Sunderban natural park, West Bengal. I had been there with a group of birdwatchers.  Yeah there is a species of homo-sapiens that prowl the earth with high tech equipment, binoculars, cameras, telephotos and sundry other stuff to watch birds of the feathered kind. Whatever happened to the more interesting sport of using your eyes on a more interesting bird type; one that wears pencil skirts, churidars, tight denims and sari’s? My tastes as you may have realized are more avuncular & discerning, my birds are not found flying around trees, friends. I was still floating in that hangover hence this announcement did not sink in properly.

“Re-arrange your work schedule and should you refuse then be assured - Your Bum Is TOAST”. It sank in and how. Wow, the intent seemed quite solid and the repercussions did not augur well for the adipose tissue resting in my denims, therefore I dutifully mustered delight on my face knowing nothing about what lay in store ahead.

After this, I promptly forgot about it in the interim six months until August arrived. On 1st Aug 2014, I was prodded again; we are now 15 days away from our holiday. Hurried essential shopping later, packing for a trip is a process that is taken very seriously. The lady is careful, precise and orderly while my style is well more brisk and quick. She neatly gathers her stuff around, decides what has to go in and where...mine is more like, find stuff, decide the take-along stuff, and then me stuffs the stuff. It is a personal conviction that even my style has merit, but alas, never found the lady quite amenable to it; in our together trips she subtly always manages to get her way. Thank heavens for that (Would never admit to her, but I guess she already knows it).

The 15th August found me seated in the morning flight, gobbling Upma with absolute relish. A very composed soul mate sat beside me looking outside the window as we flew into Srinagar. Until this point in the narrative we were the sole stars, the absolute lead pair of our film, not having met anyone from the tour organizers or participants so far.  

Srinagar 15th-16th August 2014

Walking outside the airport with our baggage we looked out for the placard of our tour operator ‘Trekmates India’ only to find one squiggly scrawl stating ‘Mumbai travellers with Trekmates India’ held on by a stern looking young man. Asking them and assuring ourselves that they were the ones we said, Okay...here we are. The stars (Us! what’s so surprising, my thought process always remains totally filmy) had finally reached the set. 

We were asked to wait and silently we did while the others were searched, assembled and sorted out to be carted to wherever we were to go. Then quite as suddenly, the quiet of the Kashmir valley was thoroughly shattered; the sound of multiple voices in various pitches, all speaking together, loudly and continuously reached our ears. The chattering decibels akin to that of a 100 hens laying 100 perfect eggs at one time. A large group of young women led by a middling aged fit gent had joined us. The organizers Nilesh & Nilesh (Thomson & Thompson, from Tintin, not quite but in purpose they reminded me of the twins from the comic strip) counted 15 while some said 16 and the debate continued as we were hustled into a SUV for the hotel.

Srinagar was under curfew. Why? No one knew either and on asking our driver pat came the reply “15th Aug hai na” accompanied by a sage nod as if that explained everything. Further he added it is quite normal here. In Mumbai we are used to the sight of an odd fat assed policeman with his belly sagging over his belt carrying a stick and chewing pan while here on every second street we passed fit army men toting rifles, even the cops here looked fit if not clean. We were asked to take a circuitous route to our hotel and after reaching there, were allotted rooms by a curly haired young man with a naughty smile. The itinerary had said one night halt and the next day sightseeing in Srinagar. After freshening up we were to assemble for chai and an introduction. As we floated down the stairs we discovered the entire hotel had been allotted to our two tour groups. The entire cast and crew of our movie had been assembled.

The Filmy Briefing  :-) 

The basement dining hall had chairs lined up and almost all occupied by a motley crew of ladies and ladies, I put on my spectacles to look closer and in between could see a spare sprinkling of my gender. Jeez what had I landed myself into was the question uppermost in my mind. The organizers took charge and to my utter dismay came out with the ultimate unoriginal ice-breaker “Introduce yourselves”. The cackling coop from the airport turned out to be Dentists from Nair Hospital celebrating their pass-out far away from home, chaperoned by their destination guardian, who was himself a medico and the father of one of them. Here is one garrulous dude with a pitch to match was the first impression I got from right across the room.

It was a mixed group about 12-16 were bikers whose bikes had not yet arrived hence the next day was a logistical halt coupled with the sights. One set of working women and a few mom’s and then us misfits who neither were here nor there belonging to no group. Thus a natural culling out of the herd was achieved for our transportation ahead, the bikers and pillions would naturally go on bikes, one TT ( Tempo Traveler-Mini Bus) to the working women, one TT to the dentists and one TT to the misfits. A few smart ones had got themselves into the SUV.

Thus our full length feature film was divided into two distinct plot lines: One for the TT & the SUV which we shall narrate in real time and one for the bikers which would come to you as a flashback. Then again the main narrative as under would come from one TT’s perspective as the storyteller scriptwriter was surreptitiously placed in T1. 

The organizers began impressively by taking a disciplined line of approach, warning all of the area we had chosen for this trip and what would happen should this line be broken. Had they been able to implement it in the days to come would have straight away nominated them for the highest civilian honors was the stray cheeky thought that flitted in and out. I looked at the lady besides who manages me quite effectively. Marriage grants one a wisdom that however hard a man tries he will never be able to manage a woman ever and here were these five naive men who entertained hopes of doing that with about forty. All the very best to this optimism, I said to myself not even sharing this thought with my better half at the risk of inviting a frosty glance if not actual peril.

Slowly we started mixing around getting to know each other tentatively at first over meals and then in the bus. We would be travel companions over the next 11 days.
After a sumptuous breakfast we sat in the bus to visit the first sight, the Shankaracharya temple of Shiva ( Jyeteshwara Temple ) atop a mountain called the Zabarwan about 1100ft from the ground , known by the Buddhists as Pas Pahar and to the Muslims as Takht –E-Suleiman (The Throne of Solomon) . Climbing the steps up to it , the breakfast was digested quicker than one could say Chole Bhature...It was pristine above. In the early morning with the clouds below us and the city below the clouds the sight made up for all the initial hardship of reaching there. A mammoth Shivling sat inside. The original structure is said to have been set up about 370 BC and built up gradually in subsequent years.

Srinagar has a host of Mughal Gardens very famous ones too...they too have a curious history behind them. Babar when he came into India in 1526 AD missed the gardens of his native Samarkand and hated this barren countryside of India with people who had no concept of fineness. He and his lineage, the Mughals built gardens in and around Delhi, Agra. Jahangir, the fourth Mughal Emperor loved the valley of Kashmir and he would visit here with his queen Noor Jehan. For her he built the Shalimar Gardens full of Chinar trees, water fountains and flora planted with exquisite care by skilled gardeners. Chashm-e-Shahi bagh and the Nishat bagh have also been built in the same Persian style, large lawns to lounge with colorful flowers and roses planted to create an ambience of comfort for the senses. Holidays and festivals have these gardens full of people enjoying their free time, an action not seen in mall infested metros of the rest of India. 

We slipped away to visit “Mughal Darbar” a culinary temple found in the middle of the Lal Chowk market area. This place is famous for its Wazwan but one has to be seriously circumspect while one is ordering it here. The portion sizes are not just huge they are mammoth, so if the waiter suggests half a plate be sure to ask him do they serve quarter plates? We thought we were being cute when we asked for half a Wazwan for the two of us. What came to our table was enough to feed not just us but also our four kittens and two cats for a week. The Wazwan is a multi course meal that consists of Traem or a tray of rice quartered by Seekh Kebabs, two pieces of Tabak Maaz ( Ribs browned in butter), Safed Kokur or Chicken Kebabs and an apology of Paneer ( not present in a traditional Wazwan ). This was accompanied by three pots of gravy one containing Rogan josh (minced balls of mutton the size of tennis balls, two of them per gravy), Rishta, Goshtaba and Aab gosht...we had foolishly ordered for Rotis too. This was clearly a case of absolute miscalculation on our part but we braved through all of it wanted to sample all in some proportion. Had this restaurant been in Mumbai we could have carried the food back home in a doggy bag and lived happily ever after. Alas, this was not Mumbai and we had to send most of it back uneaten. Not a bad meal but simply too much meat and too excess a quantity.

The Dal Lake shikara ride is nothing to write home about but we did the touristy thing simply for want of a better thing to do here. We got to know a cute pair of seniors from our bus, Mr & Mrs Patil ( an ex-cop and his lady, they were the parents of one of the films directors, Nilesh Patil). The best part was drinking quawwah while the ride is on, that is one drink we quite enjoyed wherever we had it. After this we retired back to our hotel in preparation for a long ride early the next day.

 The first leg of the journey had begun , and the fun was just waiting for us.         Contd in Part2/4 ..Click here

The Ladakh Diary - Bye J&K , Hi Ladakh - Part 2/4

When nature calls , it yells , God only help you if there is no loo ... Anonymous


Early morning on being assigned our bus we found ourselves getting to know some of our co-passengers better. People adjustment in confined spaces is an art form and the process can have certain tough turns to negotiate before amicability is achieved. Luckily the issue did not persist and all of us got along fine with everyone who traveled in our bus. As we leave Srinagar the route took us along the shrine of Hazratbal. This shrine houses the hair of the prophet Muhammad and was in the news for being seized by insurgents and damaged in the ensuing gunfire. From the outside we could see it in various states of repair, still being carried out. Sonmarg is the last point that one passes through Kashmir before one embarks into Ladakh. 

As one enters the Kingdom of Ladakh
One starts noticing things are different and 3 things instantly hold our attention
• The awesomeness of Nature...very stark yet startlingly beautiful, 
• The Presence of the Indian Army and the difficult conditions it operates under and
• Maggi Noodles...it’s almost a staple everywhere, sustenance and comfort food rolled into one.

The journey to Kargil is through one of the toughest roads in the world, the Zojila Pass. The army and its subdivision the BRO (Border Roads Organization) is responsible for building most of the roads in Ladakh. However nature plays the spoiler and washes away most of the good work done through melting floes of ice or through landslides that carry most of the roads down the hillside. Then the work begins again. This battle with nature is ongoing and hence across one of the highest terrains in the world we pass through stretches as long as 40 kms that is almost no road. My respect for the vehicle drivers went up and was seriously worried for the bikers, some of whom were to do night driving on this stretch. One wrong move and you are flying through the air falling anywhere between 10000-14000 ft, chances of survival are less than zero and if by some miracle one does survive he/she would be so seriously mangled that they would wish they hadn’t. The road is often closed by the BRO to ensure safe passage in the nights and to clear fallen debris and these halts can take anywhere between 2-3 hours. We hit one such patch around the afternoon. Some got down from the bus to stretch their legs & answer some persistent calls of nature...the air had started to thin and the effect was palpable. But the absolute wondrous location had people whipping out their cameras and clicking away. The traffic trickle eased and we began the journey through the pass and then Drass...This town had been totally obliterated in the 1999 India Pakistan war by enemy shelling. It is now completely rebuilt. It seemed innocuous at first sight but one feels the chill as one goes through. In winters this sector is one of the coldest places on the planet, bare without vegetation, one wonders why and how people yet keep it inhabited. I like my warmth yet obviously there are loons in this world, who enjoy this Chills Thrill and no Frills existence, but I am being uncharitable here, they probably have no choice. We passed through the Tolo Ling pass and the War Memorial at Kargil that also houses a museum. More nature calls and millions of photographs later we started out and our vehicle listed to one side...jeez a flat Tyre. By then we had enough of the road, it was 7 pm and was waiting to hit the hotel bed which eventually happened after a couple of hours. The Zojila Residency was surprisingly a very good hotel and half of us were accommodated here. The next day was another long drive to Leh... another 200 kms.

Two Dentists per Leg (of the journey...before u start thinking naughty)

I was wary of cabin fever. There is every likelihood of people boxed in confined spaces over long periods developing a healthy irritation for one another and if it were not for the transient pair of dentists we may have hit it soon enough. Now this was an interesting arrangement, out of the 15 tooth fairies (read dentists) only 13 could be accommodated on one bus and two had to be shunted out to our bus. The first two sacrificial lambs were Nausheen Shaikh and Shraddha Kulkarni; the former had consumed two pills of unknown molecular parentage. Her face so petrified of the journey that she got bombed and slept on for a good six hours before she surfaced much later. It was only in the evening we knew that she could smile and prettily too. Shraddha was fun and kept the chatter on while her friend dozed off first in this direction and then in hat. For one moment I considered the possibility of her having consumed pills just because she was sent to this bus. Holy cow...were we so scary? Thankfully later the truth emerged about her road sickness and that the pills were for the condition.

The two who would come here obviously would not come by choice, it was a punishment posting. How they selected their sacrificial lambs (maybe they drew straws, maybe they dealt out cards, or those who farted more than twice were marked for transportation here to T1) was a mechanism we never found out. Dutifully at every long halt, two would reluctantly make their way into our bus and the outgoing two would be seen skipping out with a bounce in their step. If one is familiar with the tale of Bakasura in the Mahabharata our bus definitely was Bakasura’s cave which needed fresh dentists, continuously. These young ladies with their cheerful selves however ensured that the senior citizens in our bus did not become cannibals. I am being obtuse perhaps but in this fashion we got to know a lot of them and came back very impressed with the Nair college girls. All of them without exception were extremely smart, some were very saucy and cheeky, others were shy and sweet and their individual personalities lit up the atmosphere around, easing it brightening it and in their own ways pepping it up. The young have an energy which they are not aware of and channeling into it is a high.  I loved their company. Smart women are my weakness, look at the one I married and one would immediately know.

Reaching Leh was a stretch in time, the saving grace was the picture frame postcard that kept changing outside our windows at every turn. One need not be a skilled photographer with high funda equipment in this area, a point and shoot camera is good enough. God has ensured that every frame is already composed... all one has to do is click. Good light, bad light, over exposure under exposure pahhh...the frame shall only be good if not great. It was surreal, how can any place on earth be so beautiful and that too for miles together, confounded me then and fills me with awe now, as I recall that geography. 

The Chang-La Pass : One better be careful on this road

Over meals we were warming up to most of the group, saving the bikers. The bikers were the adventurous elite who never managed to make bus timings and hence were assembled and dispatched to their rooms well after we had settled in. We met some at breakfast; by this time all 68 people had started recognizing each other by face if not name and in the presence of strangers drew closer to each other, and naturally the group started to bond. We were told to pack one night’s essentials into a back pack and proceed to the natural park which contained the lake, however there was a rider, a bogey who was waiting for us in between; The Chang La pass.

We found ourselves in the Xylo this time as many others had also hired motorcycles at Leh to bike up to Pangong. We shared the vehicle with a lovely pair, Kamal & Sonia Khatri who had biked up to here but the rough ride had taken a toll and they needed this break. And then there was Tsering the driver, the true blue star of our show today... a total live wire if ever there was one. The members who had driven with him earlier called him the Jackie Chan of Leh. Behind the wheel his constant prattle of silly one liners ensured that our time was total fun. He knew the territory inside out and we were told that if Tsering is your driver then you would reach way ahead of time. The speed with which he started guaranteed a rocking ride and rocking it was.

This ride has the distinction of being the toughest stretch in our journey. Not only are roads here beset with mud and rock-slides, they are also full of fresh water springs that pass perpendicular to the rocky pathways in sudden short bursts ...and then we also had to encounter the Chang La; the third highest motor able road in the universe. (Did you notice how the tone goes up during the course of the write up from world to earth to now universe...the land and its barren wildness had started to play on our minds by then, beautiful it was sure but how terribly tough it was to negotiate through it was the hard lesson we were getting...and we were in a four wheeler. On two wheels this road was blue murder...sandy slippery, watery, rocky, rough and very dangerous. ) The Xylo navigated at startling speeds on flat lands before we hit the mountains and Tsering pointed out to a speck in the distance way above...Wo Chaang La hai...Z-turns, some totally blind started to make the stomach go queasy as we negotiated up the pass and two hours of an arduous ride later we found ourselves atop the highest point.

The Selfie Sally’s

We were cautioned to not spend too much time here...and then the fun started. Ten minutes of photographing later the head started to become heavy...the buses too had reached and our co-travelers the poultry farm from Nair started clicking selfies . Way before Ellen De Generes made the selfie legitimate at the Oscars, these girls must have known about it was my firm conviction. Had seen them at Srinagar doing the same in the gardens but here they seem to have gone berserk.

The most interesting observation that we had on was how assured and professional each one of them was at it. No sooner they saw a camera rise up in their direction, whether it was a cell phone lens, pro-cam or SLR...these girls automatically swiveled correctly, leaned back, pouts out, smiles flashing faces composed and yelled instructions through clenched teeth without moving a muscle on their face or shifting their pose...it was totally masterful.
I was awestruck. To give you an example : Shraddha Kulkarni ...stood on a rock arms flung back, flying away standing upright, a new age Kate Winslett in the reverse, wide gummy grin flashing at the camera yelling through the smile “Holy shiiittt thiiiisss isss really reaally cold...I told you all, we should have gone to Goa”...another Vidhi, I think,  kept reeling towards the bus “Hey guys something is happening inside my head”...the others were running helter-skelter. Have you seen broilers at feeding time when they open the coop door? Then you would know what I am talking about; spread out, flying in all directions, all with cameras,  posing near the sign of Chang La by turn...And then the air started having its effect...Tsering hurried us back in the Xylo and we were sniffing camphor for a long time till we came down. 

A Dangerous Paradise:
Nature was asserting its dominance of its invasion by showing us who was the boss.

Later we came to know that a few of our new friends Jayanth & Swamy had gone through a harrowing experience at Chang La and had to rush to the army barracks for help in Oxygen stabilizing. The two moms who accompanied us also suffered some and Gauri was totally reeling by the time we reached flat land.

Tsering took us to a quaint little non-descript luncheon place in a village off the highway and we were in for a surprise. The lady owner had such a pleasant smile on her place and warmly she served us one of the best lunches we have had in a long time. Simple nutritious fare made from vegetables local and fresh, It was a full meal of Chapati, rice, vegetable, dal and pickles...we had noodles too. As we looked around we found photos of film stars from shootings done who had eaten here. The team of 3-idiots and Tashan hogging hungrily in much the same way we were polishing off our food. Bless you Tsering for showing us this place.

Pangong Tso – Sapphire Serenity

Post lunch the ride began again and we entered the sanctuary that housed the world famous lake. Twisty roads and long turns later we saw a flash of blue on the ground way below. The lake was near here and the energy depleted here by the journey came back in full charge and we were resurgent again. We soon crossed a turn and it came into full view...it sure was a breath taking sight; totally worth it coming all the way.

 As we reached the campsite we found just one bike and pair ahead of us Sunil Sawant and Hinaa Mansuri who had rough ridden the path and were miserably tired, wet and lost till we got here. Three of us sat outside sipping chai and blowing smoke rings till the rest of the crew drove in nearly a couple of hours later. It was six in the evening, totally bright and bitterly cold. The wind was tearing at us chilling every bone making the exposed portions sore n numb. As we got into a tent allotted to us...all we did was huddle in and sleep, cuddled up for warmth. An hour later we found the sun had vanished and so had the lake...everything was pitch dark save the torch lights and the tuck tent where the food was laid out. A good meal later we retired...the younger ones wanted to have a campfire but we had no energy. The biting cold had ensured we stay in and we spent one of the most horrid night of our recent lives with a howling wind that made breathing difficult. The other thing was the dark...after lights out at 10 pm there was only pitch blackness.

Night Cricket at the Pangong Tso : Use Paper Forget Water

Imagine you are in a bitterly cold place. To counter the cold you have worn layers of clothing ( we had four to five layers on, Priyal, one of the dentists said she wore 8 layers, I don’t blame the lass ). So the stage is set...all around bitter cold and you packed up in layered clothing...then nature calls. You ignore the first few calls until it yells right in your ears and you have to answer.

Using a loo in the darkness is a challenge of monumental proportions. I held on for the maximum time till the pressure was unbearable. Then I rolled out of the bed from under the covers and the cold hit me like a physical fist. It was not funny, the exposed skin became numbingly cold, in the darkness I groped for the torch kept under the pillow and found Gauris nose instead. My numbed fingers scarcely noticed the difference and I pulled. Imagine you are in an uneasy sleep and something bitingly chill lands on your nose and pulls; the painful squawk that came was accompanied by a slap on my wrist. My hand was pushed away and in that it luckily landed on the torch...whew.

I switched it on to only find that Gauri had snuggled in deeper and gone back to sleep. I went in to the loo and located the pot; my batting pitch. To my horror I found that somebody was in the loo in an adjoining tent. The light from their torchlight had created clear shadows of a person sitting and letting go with absolute abandon. Hurriedly I shut my torch lest my performance also be as open to another’s scrutiny and judgement. I batted bravely in the dark. If one were to use cricket analogy, let alone the speeding ball that came ones way and zips past that unseen, here was I in a situation playing so absolutely blind that neither could I see the pitch nor the bat in my hand. I simply prayed to the good lord for straight shooting skills. I feel it only fair to tell that washing up after with ice cold water renders the adipose tender. One is in shock and total pain, clean yes but hurt. Hurriedly restoring the layers I tumbled back into bed after sniffing camphor a couple of times.

Daybreak, Sunrise and the beautiful Pangong

I woke up straight at 5.30am all fresh and bright. It was only to find that no one was as keen to see the sunrise over the Pangong Tso. I called out to Gauri but she was quite pooped yet and not fully surfaced hence left her and sat on a plastic chair with my camera. Soon I was joined by my bus colleague the good doctor Ashit Kadakiaa and for a long time we were the only two outside. He walked to the lake from one side and I from the other...the cold water was grey as the sun was not up yet...as it curled up and hit the shore in small wavelets it crinkled into icicles that broke up and were swept back into the water only to be brought out again. The science student in me tried hard to remember at what temperature does salt water freeze. It was many degrees below zero i smiled smartly and walked back...to have a chai and enjoy a leisurely smoke as the Sun hit the horizon.

The phenomenon is typical of snow capped mountains. first the sides light up like stage sidelights turned on by a dimmer switch. turned up gradually and in one startling moment there is a bright flash.  it almost has a sound so sharp , it was as if the Sunrise had hit the day with a clap...one instant it was all greys and the very next bright gold...the transformation of the lake was equally startling...from a muddy grey to a pure sapphire blue.Refraction sure is a funny thing.

This lake finds a quarter of itself in India while the rest resides in the Chinese territories....Just watching the cool calm blue waters in between sips of tea and curling smoke is a Zen experience. I just soaked it all in, after all who knows when one comes back here again? I had done the same nearly a decade ago while watching a man made wonder at Giza in Egypt,  the Pyramids. from my tiny balcony of the Mena House Oberoi hotel. This creation Pangong Tso though was all the makers, Gods hand in it was obvious, it was perfection. I had noticed a few chinks n kinks even in the Pyramids though very grand, here apart from the human incursions around, everything was sublime. No photograph can ever capture what the minds eye sees and the senses experience. Later in the day when we started back we did that too, the sheer touristy abomination of clicking our photographs on that backdrop. It is our profile picture so cornily filmy it has turned out to be. The pictures have come out wonderfully well but the credit is hardly ours or the expensive cameras that captured them…that perfect frame came pre-designed by the being above as he constructed this landscape.

Pangong Tso to Leh

The journey back saw us stopping and having a look at some fauna which we normally don’t get to see even in zoos, Beavers. They were fat n warm rodents who despite all warning boards to tourists to not feed them enjoyed their offerings with friendly relish…well nobody told the beavers not to eat.

Yaks and their families would suddenly make their appearances on road corners and the vales abounded with grazing horses, cattle, goats and sheep. They would cross the road with impunity by the hundreds and one had to give them their time as being natives they had the right of the way after all.

After a lunch stop we managed to reach the checkpoint outside of Leh where we waited for the Tempo Travellers to catch up. It was around four in the evening and the journey back seemed way quicker than what we encountered going forward, however a few of a our bus co-passengers had turned into full blown patients and Dr. Ashit had been kept busy rendering help and care. Our SUV then got turned into an ambulance to ferry those back to the hotel for a rest while we went back into the Tempo. We rejoined our old mates and were greeted by two new dentists who had joined in …both having the name Sneha. Our minds were reeling from remembering all their names in the first place and then they foist two girls with same name…Grinning broadly they by themselves solved the dilemma for us. I am Sneha Kothare and she is Sneha Gada well so it was Gada and Kothare…livewires both and needless to say loud. One plonked herself on the wooden box of the driver’s seat facing the bus under the pretext of motion sickness which by now we realised affected a quarter of the group. I rather suspected that her reason to sit ahead was to become a madaari and take charge of the proceedings in the vehicle. In a very boisterous and charming manner this one hogged the footage totally.  Dumb Charades was the order of the day. Our young companions Jayanth, Abhijeet, Prarthana, and the two Snehas dived into it along with the youngest of them all Dr. Ashit whose gusto in enacting some movies evoked instantaneous smiles from us. Our facial control was better hence only smiles and surprised laughter that never ceased to stop from the others. We loved him for his spontaneity, marvelled at his knowledge that he wished to compulsively share and were awestruck at his ability to talk and keep talking. Lata Mangeshkar’s interview came to my mind when she had been asked on when does she breathe while executing a glorious high pitched continuous taan? I had a similar question for our doctor at the copious amount of data that flowed out of his mouth in a continuous stream without him appearing to breathe. Some people are naturally gifted.

We visited two monasteries the same afternoon and not knowing much about Tibetan Buddhism which is the practiced religion cursorily took in the sights to find out more about it on Google when back. I am not too hot on religious places and visit as a tourist rather than a devout. We utilized this time in getting to know our new companions better and they were a charming and wicked pair. We had a good time simply bitching as we reached our hotel again called Pangong Hotel. The rooms were very nice as we checked in.

The next day we were to be off to the Pakistan border and Nubra valley. As we sat on the lawn of the Pangong Hotel sipping on chai our senior most companions Mr.  & Mrs. Patil joined us. We knew them now pretty well as we had done the shikari ride in the Dal Lake together. A small furry black cat got into our rooms and for its tiny size had a king sized demanding meow. We have cats at home and so do Mr & Mrs Patil hence the cat was drawn to us feline friendly humanoids is my feeling. That fur ball was simply hungry and it ate a full cracker biscuit before it took leave of us. Soon the bikers joined us and we got around to talking about the ride and incidents. Gada and her friend Digvi too strolled over from the adjoining hotel. Digvi another dentist had made a monumental decision to cross the line from the safe tempo on to a bike pillion and she was testing waters with the bikers was my guess. Dheeraj or Nilesh would be her pilots exactly who was not fixed up just then. And soon after freshening up we had dinner and retired to wake up even earlier the next day for the journey.

We had survived the journey so far and the land was growing on us as were the people in our group.

The Ladakh Diary : Khardung La - Nubra Valley , Natures Travesty Part 3/4

Fact is stranger than fiction and nothing can endorse this more than nature ... Unknown 

If we thought Chang La was high then Khardung La at 18400ft approx. was higher, in fact the highest motor able road on this planet. Fortunately the road to reach the valley was in a much better state than those at Zojilla or Chang la. Conditions though were not conducive along these mountains as each turn almost was a blind one; the tempo zigged while the road zagged. The body by then had acclimatized and we did not feel the shock or the strain of fighting a nameless enemy that we couldn't see like at Chang La. The photo ops continued on the way. This countryside was just as scenic as the one going on to Pangong. Today we had the doctor’s daughter Ritika and her pal Priyal along with us.

The local tour lynch-pin the man on the ground here in Ladakh for Mumbai Travelers and Trekmates India , Vishal was in our bus and his running commentary kept the information flow going on what we should expect ahead. The most interesting data nugget he shared was about Nubra. He said it was the largest town outside of Leh with about 250 houses and the valley was controlled by women ( well then , isn’t the world, what’s so surprising, well okay...at least my world is). They had laid out certain guidelines on tobacco and non-veg in Nubra valley and none would be available. This was an interesting tit-bit. Tobacco is not even sold on the way and if any vendor transgresses this dictate he is apparently fined pretty heavily. Second interesting bit was that no yellow licensed vehicles from outside of Leh are allowed on the road between Leh and Nubra so also Leh and Pangong, so my friends if you feel you would want to drive over in these parts, use your own vehicles and do not hire one from back home. Two reasons for this, one of course to protect local employment and second and more important one is that these roads being the way they are, you are way safer to have them navigated by a local.

This time the adventure bug hit the doctor and he chose to ride behind, to his ill-luck behind the most adventurous bikers of all here, Leelamohan. Adventurous is an understatement, our LM had a penchant for driving without a helmet as it interfered with his hairdo and he clicked selfies while riding the bike. On this tortuous road it looked like he was in a tearing hurry to be say hello to the lord personally; this was the rider chosen by Dr.Ashit. It was not without cause his daughter lost interest in the scenery around and kept nibbling on crackers with unseeing eyes…Priyal in her soft hesitant voice pointed out to her “Ritika, the crackers are finished, those are your fingers you are chewing, are they as good?”

Soon we passed the Nubra River, and we were 60 kms away from the most dreaded battleground on earth, the Siachen Glacier. In the distance Vishal pointed out to a road that led to it and another that lead directly to Pangong bypassing Leh, both he said are more fit for goats than human beings  let alone vehicles. Nubra town sure was bigger than most we had seen as a settlement. And here we were staying in another tent resort, but first for lunch. It was nearly 3.30 and the twisting roads had its impact on Mrs Patil who hurriedly said goodbye to everything in her stomach upchucking there on the grass itself where the bus was parked. Most people though arrived unscathed.

The Apple orchard which was one tent resort had apples and apricot trees abounding laden with fruit. We reached out and ate apricots fresh from the trees; the apples were a mite higher. Fruit from a tree is a novelty to us city dwellers and the taste of the juicy fresh flesh in our mouths was like manna. We were finishing up our lunch when the bikers arrived and the good doctor and LM had expressions that said it all. Cat had got the tongue of the doctor who otherwise belted it out nineteen to the dozen. He looked as if he had cheated death more than once on the way. Men get a peculiar look in their eyes having gone through such an experience. He had it in spades and we allowed him his space to find his own equilibrium. 

We were allotted a tent in the adjoining resort to Apple Orchard. I was glad to see huge sunflowers outside our tents and a bathroom which was bright and lit and a tent that had power for 24 hours. The blind batting of Pangong was not going to be an issue here. We had floodlights by that comparison  J . This was such a relief that I decided to test the turn of the pitch immediately. Virendra Sehwag could not have scored at the rate I did. Lighter now, I hit the ground with a jaunt in my step. I stepped out of the tent to inspect the place. It was rustic with apricot trees and a small badminton court marked out on the grass.

The buses would be ready for us in an hour to take us to the aberration of nature called the Nubra desert. Sounds funny doesn't it? Imagine we are 14000 feet above sea level, flowing along is the muddy Nubra river, we are surrounded by barren mountains topped with snow and what do we encounter…Sand Dunes and Bactrian (double humped) camels. I am sure the Sheikhs of Dubai would have got an inspiration to build their own ice rinks and aquariums in the desert after visiting this place. What man tries, nature already has “Been there & done that”. We had a great time in the desert, walking along the sand dunes watching the camels and the tourists and then the tourists on the camels…I was also curious whether I would see a camel on a tourist, but alas…that is a sight I did not come across. Trigger happy Prarthana was busy clicking away till her camera battery died on her, the dentists, the doctors and all perched precariously on the camels was an interesting sight however that’s an experience we gave a miss. The camels all said and done were small and not quite like the Arabic or Rajasthani camels, tall and rugged. These looked so sweet that had Gauri or I rested our posteriors on their backs, we just may have been the tourists that I mentioned who would have to carry the camels on our backs.

Their dining room even had a small collection of books for the guests. Dinner was with the bunch of boisterous bikers while watching pro-kabaddi on TV eating a local specialty which was more like Dal –Dhokli of Gujarat or Varan-fala or chhakulya from Maharashtra. Desert was an interesting sugared apricot in lemon syrup. Arvind Jadhav and his wife we knew from the bus but his two classmates we got introduced to here. Sunil Jawane had a school is one person Gauri and I got talking to. It had grown dark and there was a campfire now. As is the nature of campfires, the fire rises and the heat hits the group. Dheeraj Patil fished out his camera and clicked some of the best pictures I have seen on this trip. Instinctive understanding of a medium, oneness with the technology and infinite patience are the hallmarks of a superlative photographer and he was an artist with the camera. His two partners Sunil Shinde & Jeevan Chougale kept the prattle  going. Dumb charades were the order and all had a good time. Suraj Shinde the official team leader came out with a capital suggestion that created one of the most hilarious moments in the group. He had every member in a couple sing to her /his better half and hence the seniors were done away with first. When the freshly engaged Jeevanhad to sing a song to his fiancee, instinctively he sang “Bilanshi naagin nighaali, nagoba dulaaya laagla”and this brought the house down totally that his performance was recorded by his pals to be shown back at home.

A Genuine Find : The Tibetan Kitchen, Leh Market

The drive back to Leh was without incident again and we had a full evening free for us and the next day was rest. We had decided to skip the meal at the hotel as we wanted to try the local fare at Leh. We started to ask around. The five different people we asked around all told us the same name “The Tibetan Kitchen”. We went about finding it. It is situated right at the end of the main Leh market. Another curious thing that happened to us in Leh was, we were walking around and felt it was someplace in Maharashtra, quite a few tourists from other groups heard us talk in Marathi and started conversing with us , some were from Pune, Yet others from Mumbai, a few from other parts. A lot of other places we go to has Gujarati. Now the people from Gujarat are great travelers, we had quite a few in our group. This though was one place in India where the tourist from Maharashtra beat the Gujarati tourist in sheer numbers. Gauri reasoned it out to the passion of the tourists from our home state to be more adventurously inclined with trekking and climbing forts, all of which is available in plenty there. Sound it was the reasoning.

Gauri and I are foodies; we are not fussy but serious. Food when we are fine dining has to be authentic and done very well. For this we have a few simple litmus tests for restaurants in places unknown. First of course is our own sense of sight, it has to be clean, well lit and well laid out, offering enough privacy for each table ( hygiene is important). Second we check out the number of locals in the place. If the number equals that of tourists then we are satisfied that the place has merit, if there is waiting even better. The third we check for informed service staff on the items served in the menu. In his absence we order the cheapest local dish on the menu and assure ourselves. As we were shown to our table in the garden after waiting for a few minutes the smiling senior waiter came over and he recommended Vegetable Thukpa half portions for each, two plates of momos ( 6 pieces each, one veg and one chicken) and we had to try the house specialty, the river trout. We had a beer to start off the meal. As we sat in the cool evening, we realized how blissfully content we were and yes this was also the first peaceful time away from the group without any time line restriction. In Srinagar we had to be back before a certain time and half the fun of a meal is gone when you are watching a clock.

The beer arrived and as we sipped through and discussed about this and that serving dishes arrived for the momos. The momos by themselves were superbly done, nearly transparent pouches with enough filling to satisfy the bite. The accompanying sauces were soy , mustard and a vinegary hot dip which was absolutely delicious. With six momos inside us and the beer settling we were content. Then came the thukpa , which is basically a noodle soup with vegetables thrown in. The stock has to be just right here so should the quantity and proportion of the noodles and veggies, to make it a meal. This was simply superb. When a restaurant makes a great soup we know we are in safe hands. 

We now had expectations for the main course that was to come and the platter came in with a whole fish, pan fried sizzling on a bed of chopped salad veggies smelling divine. The fish itself was about a foot in length, fleshy and about three inches in width. The skin crackled crisp and the flesh inside was perfectly cooked and juicy, the light spicy marinade going superbly with the fresh water fish. Leisurely we went thru the whole thing, talk stopped as mouths got busy...it was the best meal we have had on the trip so far and we simply prolonged it.

Later we returned back to the hotel in the dark making a few sundry purchases in the market. We are not great shoppers but we had some in our group that we have observed were made for the market. Our busmate Vibhuti had a craving of having to shop and her glee at finding a market or stalls near any place we went too was a thing to see. Among the others, yes among the dentist girls we noticed Nausheen the girl who was our first companion, the one who slept was a champion. Shopping and creating time for quick raids into the market is a fine art and both Gauri and I realized that here was a master of the craft. She would bundle up three or four of her companion into one rickshaw or enthuse them enough to get to a market and they would land on the unsuspecting locals with the precision of Fokker Dive bombers used by the Germans in World War II. The squeals of delight as they returned victorious with bags full of their spoils of the raid was a sight that never failed to tug at our lips. It was pure pleasure watching their happiness. No, we never mentioned it or acted curious, we simply enjoyed watching them enjoying. The sight of happiness is a mood lifter and they kept us up and cheered. 

We truly at this point were totally unaware hence unprepared for the adventure awaiting us.    

The Ladakh Diary : Drowning & Resurrection : Part 4/4

The authentic expression of freedom and living is in the resolute confrontation of death ... Martin Heidegger

Circa : 24th Aug 2014

Today was a free day and the bikers had decided to care for the bikes. Their tired pillions had decided to take it easy. Some of them had spent a large portion of the night in spiritual upliftment and there was just no chance of them waking up in time. There was river rafting in the Zangskar River and we were asked whether we would like to join and we enrolled. The push was mine though the better half was scared and sceptical. She had company in one of the noisiest of dentist girls in that group with the most mobile face we had seen. In a span of three and a half minutes she had pulled off seventy two different expressions that it was difficult keeping track of each one, and yes, finally encouraged her to join us too. 

The morning saw us and a few petrified faces getting onto a bus. We were thirty of us and the spot was some forty kms away from the Leh market where our Hotels were.

Excited we reached the station where we had to sign off disclaimer and no-liability forms that would protect the tour operators from any mishap in the event it happened. This intensified the petrifaction of the already petrified am sure but now it was almost too late to turn back. We were told that it is a 17 kms paddling stretch that passes through four rapids and nearly 10kms of it is free flowing calm waters. The Zangskar joins the Indus and it flows into Pakistan; Some information that got gathered into our tiny minds. We had never rafted before and my better half is scared of water. Going with professionals was one way of making sure that her fear gets knocked out of her. I do swim pretty well and water is my element but knew if push came to shove this skill would be of little use in the currents. We were given rubber body suits to wear as the water would be very cold, well melted ice is cold. Then there were shoes and a helmet. 

The organizers loaded the inflated rafts onto their tempos and loaded the other gear and we were off to the spot from which we would begin the ride that would end here. Time wise it was expected to be about two and a half hours. We started sweating inside the body suits on the bus and as the road wound around to the spot we saw the water foaming and gushing up. The river was not all tame as it looked (incidentally, rivers are never tame).

At the embarkation spot we were strapped into PFD’s / Life jackets ( personal flotation devices),a helmet and given a tough polymer paddle. Instructions on how to hold the paddle, rowing calls, back front, what to do if you fall in the water and all of these commands were cursorily heard. Then the guy dipped his helmet into the freezing water and poured it on him and every single one of us shivered with horror. Then he dipped the paddle into the water and splashed us with it, brrrr it was chilling cold. Then we positioned us into the raft steered by one Pavan (The Wind). Every single raft had on the steerage one of the professionals and our rowing would only add speed and momentum. There was also one single kayak that would accompany us bobbing, weaving in and out to aid us in rescue as a backup.
Shall we start Pavan yelled and seven of us got into position. Sana and Hinaa the twin sisters having rafted before were on the bow right and left first. Behind them were I and Sneha Kothare, behind me was LeelaMohan the biker with a death-wish and alongside him his companion Dr. Ashit Kadakia, Gauri was near the stern with Pavan. The ride started in a very non-descript manner and within a minute found myself dipping in the paddle and rowing forward. Up above the cliffs Nilesh Patil our team leader had parked his bike and was waiting with his zoom lens screwed on capturing the moments. Never in my wildest moments though that we would be the absolute stars of Nilesh’s photo-shoot. ( Photos credit of the rafting shoot is to Nilesh Patil - Trekmates ) 
We were the first raft in and on the steerage Pavan had us pointed into a rapid and all hell broke loose. The first rapid was by far the most fierce of all the rapids we would encounter and here were we, not even properly begun paddling nor got the hang of it. We found ourselves being tossed along with our raft first left then right without any respite and then up and down and in a swivel turn that lifted the raft straight vertical. All major instructions flew out of the head. i being second in line got caught in the vortex and was thrown right away from the raft straight down into the river as it capsized upside down. The chill water that was just splashing about us till a few minutes back had taken complete charge of me. The paddle had slipped away from my hand and as I looked up, saw the surface of the water and sunlight some seven odd feet above me. Quickly the swimmer instinct comes to the fore and whipped up to the surface. By the time had gulped in enough air the foaming water caught me and tossed me back right in and away yet again. This happened a few more times before I realized that had crossed three rapids in this fashion. Looking around saw Sneha holding on to her paddle while I was being swept away way past her at a pace I could not control. Then the instructions came to mind, and swiveled onto my back with the feet downstream holding onto the jacket. I only hoped that Gauri had got picked up early along with all the others. Looking around I could see no one, not a raft, no Sneha, no one and thought to myself now this is it. Flow buddy, flow with the hand you have been dealt. I held onto the life jacket and kept flowing downstream at a significant pace. For one moment thought that would flow all the way to Pakistan now and then the Raj Kapoor movie came to mind Henna, and thought like the hero maybe a Mandakini would come to my rescue. Even in god’s hands, stripped off all control, flowing in the river, filmy thoughts come to my mind, I totally laughed out loud and felt better for having done it. The whole thing was now getting to me as it had been some time since I was floating. While one is completely inside the cold water it does not disturb you as much as when one is partially in and partially out. The wind and the cold water had numbed the exposed skin of my palms and one foot was paining too. Lifting it in the water I noticed that had lost a shoe too. When does simple numbness turn to pain? That is the time zone I had come to and it was just then heard voices. I turned my head to see in the distance a raft being steered towards me. Wow, the relief was enormous; somebody actually had noticed that I was gone. A few minutes back I was dreaming of Mandakini and now felt it would be simply wonderful to just see Gauri wonlee. The raft was now upon me and a paddle was stretched out and I got pulled up. As the water dripped out of my body suit, did not realize how tired that short sojourn had made me. It took me about five odd minutes to get my breath and equilibrium back. As I asked about the others was told all had been picked up and you were the last one in. They banked the rafts to the side and we were sent back to our respective rafts. Gauri left our raft to prefer sitting in the one she had been rescued in.

All of us got to paddling back. All of us wet, wiser and having more respect for the river inside which we had gotten into. The paddling kept me from getting cold and it was curiously beneficial, tired though I was kept at it, all of us. Quite just as suddenly we hit a calmer patch, three of our companions jumped in again. There were just three of us ( Dr. Ashit, Sneha Kothare and I ) with Pawan now and I was mildly irritated at having to row while these individuals floated off.

As we rowed on ,two people from the other boats floated by us; Ninad Arul, the engineer n candid photographer and Sunil Vaggu, the cheerful marketing man & biker. Soon we were at the finishing point where the Indus joined the Zangskar. We got out of our wetsuits and back into our clothes. Sunil and I wandered off to one side to enjoy a smoke and a chai. It was heavenly just reflectively sitting there blowing circles after having gone through what we had. Boy, I almost had lost Paradise. 

Hot food was waiting for us. Lunch never tasted as good as it did that day, simple fare though it was and soon after relaxing a bit we got back into our bus. We had a stop-over at the Army museum at Leh. Where ever one encounters the army here in these parts, one can’t but help coming back impressed and reflective.

The army is omni-present being a border province of India which is natural. The condition that the army operates under with what little in terms of qualitative support is truly praise worthy. This museum houses many of the captured weapons from the war with Pakistan in 1999 and a soldier guided us through not only them but also the equipment they use when posted on glaciers. Siachen glacier is the world worst battle ground and both the armies face some of the toughest conditions known to mankind, ice, snow, uncharted mountains and inclement weather that changes within minutes. Here we bought some souvenirs for people, mugs and the like. We were shown a film on Ladakh and post that we retired back to our hotel, depleted of all activity surges we may have had.

The next day was the beginning of the return journey and we managed to pack ourselves completely. Again the picturesque journey back to Kargil began. We stopped at a village called Alchi to visit a monastery called the Alchi Gompa. Gauri and I had been charmed by the village of Alchi and its market that had tonnes of the same curios lined up in stall after stall. We decided to give the Gompa a miss and settled ourselves in one of the bakeries and gorged on sugared croissants fresh out of the oven with hot sweet n bitter coffee. The sustenance energized us for a mini shopping expedition and we ended up buying what we always buy, bells n cymbals with the sweetest sound one can hear. We have loads of this stuff yet we buy more. Call it a fetish...Ghantaa you say??? Ok ... Ghantaa !!! Half of the group had not the energy to get down from the bus and were whiling their time staring into nothingness, much like the Buddhist monks or were randomly clicking shots, some of them when we see them now have turned out quite superb. Soon we started back for Kargil.

This time the order of residents was reversed and we were accommodated with the bikers at the other hotel Caravan Serai, the oldest hotel in Kargil. It is a peculiarly located hotel on a circuitous path through the town and up a hillock that overlooks all of Kargil. The terrace looks onto a few points that are the border with Pakistan. On the way here we had seen signs that said “The Enemy Is Watching You” and it seemed like a reality here. This place is paradise sure but the being above balances everything out and people here have a slice of natures magnificence but also live under the hanging sword of Damocles, the enemy beyond a hill. Drass in 1999 had been bombed out, Kargil came on to the larger Indian consciousness only because of the war. What a way to achieve attention? Would anyone want that? But the people here are friendly and the service in the hotel was more than satisfactory for where we were. Reaching provisions is in itself a tall order here and then from it to provide hospitality is a huge challenge and these guys did it with aplomb. The day next would have us at the Kargil war memorial. We sure were looking forward to it.  

Kargil to Srinagar – The last leg on the road 

After a sumptuous breakfast we again got into our buses to head back towards Srinagar. We had two stops to encounter before that, one being the Indian Army War Museum at Kargil and the other was the Lamayuru Monastery. 

Indian Army Museum: Kargil

We had our eyes opened up at the Leh Museum already and the respect for the army now was bordering on wonder and worship. We had passed this place on our way to Leh and then we had cursorily used it as hygiene and feeding stop. Today the whole objective was different. This expanse once you enter the compound is divided into three main areas vertically divided as you stand with your back to the main gate looking in.
What grabs your attention is the tallest flag post one can ever see and the gentle wind blowing the Indian Tri Colour infusing one with a natural sense of pride. How do flags do this, is a wonder? Straight down is a walkway to the flag post. On the left is the cemetery for war heroes and there parked is a MIG fighter for display. On the right is the war museum and a helipad along with the pantry and a counter for curios. 

We were shown in and directed from the various personal mementos of soldiers who laid down themselves in the service of the country, the models and of various mountain points that were captured by Pakistani army when they sneaked in 1999; and the 28 days Kargil war which was won decisively by the Indian army in July 1999 at the cost of many casualties on our side. Outside in the parade ground, a jawan in a clear majestic resonant voice recounted the war and its progression. As he pointed this way and that we realized that we were standing in the actual war zone as he pointed to one mountain peak after another. The pride in his voice and its poignant tale that it told was moving and brought a hard lump in my throat. This was the ultimate sacrifice, for your soil, your motherland. The army personnel are awake braving bullets such that we sleep in peace. One feels instantly humbled and set me thinking on the mindset of a serviceman and what makes him opt for such a life. We moved to the cemetery and saw rows upon rows of soldiers honoured for their sacrifices in all the wars that have occurred, the headstones conveying a solemn story all on their own. The curio centre was kept busy by our group who purchased everything from army jackets to caps to T shirts and the like. 

A very solemn group sat in the bus and our bus got stranded outside the climb to the Zojila pass again. This time we were stuck at such a scenic locale that one bus and all the bikes clicked some of the most dashing photographs ever on the ride. Even the most bashful posed like veterans and struck poses that would have given a tough ride to professional models. As we ambled out in the open a chill wind blew into our clothes and it was two in the afternoon and getting distinctly uncomfortable after a while. It was a picturesque spot though and the wait was no problems save for the fact that we were hungry. Soon the awful zojila opened up and we snaked our way down in the able hands of Afzal. 

Lamayuru Gompa

The next stop was the Lamayuru Monastery and it is a seriously scenic outlier in the way it looks over the neighbouring countryside. Its high up and thankfully the buses go right up to its base from which there is a winding pathway upto the Gompa...beautifully serene, the fun part was in seeing the young lamas in the making, moving about in their cute little robes and bald heads smiling cheekily as kids would from one place to another. The Lamayuru houses a school and residential quarters like all monasteries. Sneha Gada joined us and showed a devout spiritual side of hers, by entering into a dark creepy cavernous section of the monastery and standing with folded hands eyes closed mobile face serene. As Gauri clicked a few shots then she realised that she had been the subject and the faces came back on. She was a sport though :-) 

As we approached Srinagar it was with trepidation. There was some tension around Jammu regarding militant activity and it was likely to have spread to Srinagar. We could see the army presence increasing and it made perfect sense to return back to the hotel straight before any curfew gets declared and we were caught out on the streets. Luckily we passed the slightly sensitive areas around Hazratbal too without incident. The trip had ended. Now each of the people here in the group kept lingering about trying to prolong the inevitable...the parting. Aiyyo, parting can be such sweet sorrow said some filmy poet. People had different departures some were leaving early the next day; most of us were on the 2 o clock flight while some were to travel the day after the next. 

I would not bring into this write up how at Srinagar airport one gets frisked a zillion times , they scan your bags  ten million times and ask you to open it for the inspection of whichever uniform at any point to expose your soiled linen to public scrutiny. Mr & Mrs Patil, Rupali Ambale and us were the passengers travelling together in the vehicle to the airport and all of us suffered this indignity in some fashion. We picked up some dry fruits at the airport and I waited for my Upma on the plane. How much have we eaten on this trip and that too vegetarian is something that surprised me, we don’t normally do this. Dr Kadakia had noted down numbers of people in his diary and used the spare time on the airport to note down some numbers into the phone. We were all on the same flight to Mumbai and the poor girl who came to sleep in the seat next to me, Sneha Kothare had to suffer non-stop chatter along with my Upma. As the flight landed and we collected bags to say goodbye to the group, sitting in the taxi we were slightly numbed. This hangover is going to last a long time....

 I was asked once, what according to me was a great trip? 

It never ever is about a destination...it is a journey, an experience lived, the friends one made along the way and the memories created. Photographs may fade, words written may  recede from ones consciousness, but a journey completed, always leaves one a better person than the one who started out.