26 September, 2014
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.
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.