26 September, 2014

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

Srinagar-Kargil-Leh

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.



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Richen Dorjay said...

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