Monday, July 7, 2008

The Circle of Life: Chapter 4: Knockin' On Heaven's Door(Darcha-Leh) Part 3

Pang was a welcome relief for all of us. It's really nothing but a village of seven tents that are in business during summer and shut shop during winter. For us, it was nothing less than a life saver. I have never been so happy to see food in my life (Even though my friends will vouch for the fact that I'm a foodie). Nonetheless, the effects of the last night hadn't gone away completely. People usually acclimatize in comfortable hotel rooms; we had done so at the back of a bus. The area is again characterised by the appalling lack of toilets. I went up to a lady and asked her where I could use one, and she conveniently asked me to go use the river! Anyway, I went up a certain distance on the hillslope, to brush my teeth, and I stood with my brush in my mouth looking around for about 30 seconds before my lungs started to cry for air and I came back down panting like I had run ten miles. When I returned, Dhar was sharing his insights on the upsides to the events that had unfolded the day before. Dhar was particularly happy that the whole day went off without us spending a single penny! Of course someone forgot to tell El Snore-o that we'd nearly lost our lives!
After a quick breakfast, we hit the road again. Soon after Pang we hit a vast, flat plain(above). The desert was beginning to take shape. The flat plain seemed endless. We almost forgot where we were till we started our ascent towards our last and highest pass, Taglang La at 5600 metres. This time we all had our fingers crossed. No one really had any energy left in case we got stuck again. The view from the top was worth all the trouble. We could practically see the whole Pang Valley from the zero point on the pass. Taglang La is the second highest motorable pass in the world. It has the second highest temple in the world and until recently had the second highest toilets in the world. Now they just let you go under the open sky in the freezing cold with a great view to please the senses.(Above: The view from Taglang La)
After Taglang La, it was just a straight descent into the Indus valley which is quite truly God's work. Even the mountains look weird in their shape and cut out. At every turn, the mountains change their colour. The areas neighbouring the rivers are green which gives way to bare mountainsides till you reach snow. At Upshi, we got our first glimpse of the Indus, which quite frankly, is an event that occurs in few Indian lives. Just beyond Upshi, we got one other thing that we had been denied for the last two days-signal. And then, came pouring in, the phone calls from Delhi. One parent after another, all worried to death as predicted, and each had to be told a provisional and modified version of the experience of the last two days, to prevent further worry.
By three in the afternoon, we'd entered the gates of Leh. At Leh, reached four weary travelers, who may have been crippled in terms of body, but the eyes still shone as brightly as they did the day they had left Delhi. Leh, we're here to bathe in your splendour!

(Above: Divine forces at work in the Indus Valley, The first sighting of the Indus)

Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Circle of Life: Chapter 4: Knockin' On Heaven's Door Part 2 (Darcha-Leh)

It was around 3 in the afternoon when we reached Kangla Jal and halted. A few of us got off and noticed that there was a long line of trucks in front of us. We were by now quite used to this sort of a thing and so started walking off in various directions to find things to pass our time.
(Above: The deadly beauty of Kangla Jal)
There was, of course, the river accompanying us all along. The water looked fresh and clean, and some of us wet our parched throats. I managed to fill up a couple of bottles of water; there was no telling where I'd find water next. Having done that, I sat down by river side, simply hurling stones into the river, waiting for the jam to clear up. It turned from ten minutes to an hour, and I decided to inquire about the situation. The driver told me that about half a kilometer ahead, there was a river crossing about a 100 metres long. The road was practically inexistent. A few cars had tried to power through and got stuck mid-river. The jam was building up on the other side as well and there was nothing even the army could do. And then, it started to rain.
The rain did two things. One was that it brought in mud into the stream running right next to us, so the water was undrinkable. Not just that, it also raised the level of the water, so it was flowing right next to our bus, and further trapped the vehicles stuck at the river crossing. The flow was so swift, that everyone feared the vehicles would get washed away.
The hour turned into two. There was now, floating in the air, talk of having to spend the night in the bus. I had very serious apprehensions about this idea. We were at about 15000 feet and the air was already devoid of oxygen. Twenty people sleeping in a closed bus could very easily poison the air and end up killing each other. If we kept the windows open, it'd get frightfully cold. The driver suggested that we should cross Kangla Jal on foot and find some way to go to Pang 10 kilometers away, and spend the night there. Four guys, including Gussu and me, went out to scout this option. As we started walking towards the block point, it started to hail; and hailed like a hundred hail Mary's! The wind made the hail hit us square in our faces and anyone who has ever walked against a hailstorm knows how much that hurts! When we reached ground zero, the whole extent of the disaster became clear to us. The water was atleast shin deep and was gushing with mad fury. At this point, two vehicles were stuck in the water and efforts were being made to haul out another jeep out of the water. The jeep was hauled out. However, a tanker was still stuck along with a second jeep whose tyres had blown out, leaving it precariously poised on the brink of getting washed away(Photo on Right). This didn't look good. All of us decided that there was no way this stretch could be crossed on foot. I faced additional trouble in this display of bravery and machismo. I wet my shoes and socks and was freezing inside my own shell by the time I got back to the bus to deliver the bad news. A German lady on the bus had already fallen violently ill by that time. All of us just kept our fingers crossed, hoping against all hope that we'd go through. There were ideas of turning back, but there was no way to do that. We decided to bring in the reinforcements to spend the night. Every little piece of warm clothing was pulled out of our luggages and we prepared for a very hard night ahead.

(Preparing for the night)

In the midst of all this Manu and I made a few recon visits to the site to see if there was any progress and there was none. The most dismaying aspect was the fact that a lot small vehicles from the cities, with inexperienced drivers were trying to power through in a hurry, not allowing the heavier, more stable tankers to go through. These drivers got stuck in the water and then needed to be evacuated or hauled out, and ended up blocking the stretch further. A small group from our bus (after a long debate) decided to take the risk of walking across the water, and abandoned the effort after realising that it was an impossible task.
As darkness began to fall, and the water level began to rise, all efforts were abandoned and everyone dug in for the night, hoping that the level will recede by morning. The truck drivers were best prepared for the ordeal and we had at one point thought of seeking help. At this point, none of us had eaten anything for the last 18 hours. But the human spirit refuses to die. Knowing fully well that we were stranded, we began to break the ice in the bus and made the best of what we could. This led to us meeting, Milene and Natan, French and Israeli respectively, and enjoying a few great games of cards with them. Manu was a little alarmed by Milene, because he thought she had what he called "Crazy Eyes" (Manu has some fabulous theories I dare say).
Amongst all this, Gussu and I made the mistake of having a brief conversation with our driver who told us about the time it took him 11 days to reach Leh, the time 6 people died when they got trapped in the bus, and other such frightening times. Having got those beautiful words of encouragement, I decided to sleep for now, because I hadn't slept since 3 in the morning, I hadn't eaten since last night, and I didn't plan on sleeping at night.
A brief note on Dhar here; Dhar had been sleeping ever so soundly through practically the whole ordeal. He did wake up a few times to inquire about the situation and give his valuable opinion, and the card game with Milene and Natan (For where there are cards, there is Dhar), but thats about it. Such is the indomitable spirit of Abhinav Dhar (He snores too).
Manu and I found ourselves the long, backseat of the bus and somehow tried to fit there in various permutations and combinations (both of us are over 6 feet tall, so needless to say it was grossly uncomfortable). There was a fair amount of commotion in the bus as people got settled into position. Dhar the Indomitable found himself four seats and sprawled on them, soon to start snoring, much to the animated dismay of a British girl on board!
Altitude came back to haunt us. Manu and I, as I'm sure many others, had a severe headache and were having trouble breathing. We had opened our windows slightly so that we wouldn't asphyxiate. Asphyxiation (ass-fixation as Dhar and Manu put it), for obvious reasons, had been the buzz word for a few hours. Around 8pm, the lights went out in the bus and that was basically calling it a day.
I will confess this much, I was very scared that if I slept, I wouldn't wake up. My stomach was empty, my mouth was parched beyond belief and there was no water to be had till morning atleast, and by far the worst bit for all of us was the fact that there was no way to communicate our situation to our families who would've been worried sick in Delhi. As I desperately tried to sleep, Manu and I constantly jostling for space and rearranging so that it wouldn't be so uncomfortable, my head was filled with all sorts of thoughts. What if we couldn't get out of here even the next morning? What if some of us choked? If I ever got out of this...I would...whats the damn point? My head was filled with these thoughts and my pulse was racing, preventing me from sleeping for more than a minute at a time. The air felt heavy, every breath drew in less oxygen and somehow felt incomplete. You never realise the worth of the air you breathe till you don't have any. Manu had pried up his head and positioned it right next to the small gap we'd left open on the window. Then, it began to rain again. That really took the wind out of my sails for a while. The windows had to be completely closed for a while, which compounded my worry. When the rain stopped, we reopened the windows ever so slightly, and realised that it had become really cold. We were wearing every piece of warm clothing we had, and yet the feet were cold. Dhar would tell us next morning that he was wearing three pairs of socks and still feeling cold (albeit he was snoring pretty much all through the night). Realising that I had nothing else to do, I decided it to put on some music on my mp3 and calm my nerves down. I was feeling really cold and the absence of food or water made it worse. At one point I had started shivering.
The night was passed thus and the first signs of light became visible from my window. I was still up, though woozy, and was waiting for this one sign. Morning had come, and all of us had made through what was the worst night of my life. Manu also woke up and went down to ground zero to check how the place was faring. He came back delivered the good news to everyone. Sure enough, the water level had receded, the movement was about to begin and we would be out of here before long.
Inch by inch, we moved towards Kangla Jal. There were a group of drivers standing in the frigid water to bail out any vehicle that might get stuck. At this point, I have to mention again, the admirable fortitude and selflessness of the people I met along the way. Soon enough, it was our turn. The bus powered up, and everyone sat up with their fingers crossed. A prayer would have emanated from every lip on that bus as we crashed and swayed on the rocky bed, while crossing the river. One last groan from the engine, and we had powered through! We had made it to the other side! Loud applause and cheering erupted from inside the bus. The view on the other side was quite literally, to die for.
(A view to die for)

And now, atleast there would soon be food and water. And food and water there was. At Pang, on the other side of death, we had our first meal in 36 hours. And this once, we loaded ourselves for any similar event that might happen. We'll die some other day.

(First meal in 36 hours at Pang)

(To be continued)

Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Circle of Life: Chapter 4: Knockin' On Heaven's Door (Darcha-Leh)

On the 16th of June, 2008, the 20 odd people who filled up a bus, five Indians and the rest foreigners, were knocking on heaven's door. Why I borrow from Dylan is a question that has a two-fold answer. For one, Leh was heaven after all, and we were only about 160 kilometers away from it. And the second, and I don't know what makes me so sure that all of us would go to heaven, was that we were stuck in the cold without food, water, air or signal(Kind of sounds like the anti-thesis of that latest Reliance ad doesn't it?). But why we were where we were, is a story that needs to be told from the comic beginning.
When we woke up at 3.30 that morning in our tent at Darcha in the freezing cold, we were fairly upbeat. The day would bring about myriad new experiences and the first one was to happen immediately. For there was no toilet facility, however rudimentary. We had the river, the mountain, the open sky and cold that could pretty well seep through anything. And so Dhar and I went, scouting for a loo with a view on the bare and rocky mountainside, with a bottle of water and a torch. When we finally found a spot, one kept watch while the other obliged nature. And soon enough, everyone who was headed to the mountain for the same purpose had picked their spots and done their business. A cup of tea later, I was in the bus. And then we made an error that would prove critical as the events unfolded later that day. Thinking that we might encounter supplies later in the day, and that we'd had dinner late the previous night, we carried only a couple of packets of biscuit and a packet of wafers which we finished off instantly. As the bus made its move, snaking through the narrow roads, everyone began to drop off to sleep. I have a policy against sleeping when in the mountains, because as an avid photographer, I can't risk missing a single view, let alone that of the sun rising behind the picturesque mountains.
And taken for granted as it is, the sun rose and shed light on the sheer beauty and danger of the landscape at the same time. We were to cross three very high altitude passes that day, the first one being Baralacha La at an altitude of about 4,800 metres. I had moved to the bus driver's cabin to get a better view of the surrounding, and a better view it was. I watch as we turned steep corners, each one of them making me pray like hell, and as we drove though the water that was melting off the glaciers on top and gushing right across the road. The scenery around was more beautiful because it was so dynamic. At one point I just looked back and every hill slope was a different hue.
(Multicoloured mountains before Baralacha La)
As we approached Baralacha, it got cloudy and we began to see placid, green pools of water where the river almost stagnated. The whole area gave you a very other-worldly feel. As we went further up, the air also got thinner and became harder to breathe. What made it even harder was the beauty of the place that quite literally made you hold your breath. Baralacha was a breeze and within about two hours after that we had reached Sarchu. (Just after crossing Baralacha La)

Sarchu is the last outpost in Himachal and this is where Ladakh begins. Its nothing but a conclave of hundreds of tents pitched up for tourists who want a mid-point overnight halt. Its also probably one of the many scenic open air toilets that we encountered!
We then moved on from Sarchu and hit a block within about an hour. We reached a bridge which had broken down and it would take about an hour to repair it. Unperturbed, the five desi's as I will now call the five Indians including me on board, decided to indulge ourselves in a game of poker on the bus rooftop! When I climbed up to the roof, I was surprised to find that I was panting like crazy. The altitude and thin air were beginning to make their presence felt. Whats more was that the sharp sun was literally scorching any exposed skin. (Poker on top of the bus)
After the bridge was repaired, we headed towards our second high altitude pass called Lachlang La at an altitude of over 5000 metres. To get to this spot, one has to cross what are called the Gator Loops. They're a series of 21 looping, switchback roads that take you from the river bed to the pass.

(The Gator Loops)

On crossing Lachlang La, Leh looked like it wasn't far away now. But the altitude began to give everyone problems. Headaches, dizziness, and weakness began to afflict almost everyone. And then, as we descended into a gorge just before Pang, with its beautiful, towering, red mountains, we hit the big one...

(The red gorge of Kangla Jal near Pang)

(To be continued)

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Circle of Life: Chapter 3: Monastic Failures (Keylong-Darcha)

Having got up the next morning, with that oh-so-good feeling that we'd actually start our final leg towards Leh that day, we had an oh-so-good breakfast, and the sun was shining for now.

(The Oh-So-Good sunrise at Keylong)

Last afternoon, when we had checked in, we had spotted and inquired about the three ancient monasteries that surround Keylong. It so turned out that one was about 15 kms away, the other about nine, and the third was about three kilometers away. The third one seemed like an easy bet. We decided to pursue this one for the three odd hours we had till our bus from Manali would arrive and pick us up en route to Leh. And then reality dawned. It so happens, that three kilometers on a mountain is a different ball game altogether. Whats more, the high altitude made the simplest of tasks difficult and cumbersome, let alone climbing a steep slope to a monastery. Gussu and Dhar fell away with exhaustion as Manu and I started the long, steep and dangerous climb to the monastery. The slope kept getting steeper by the minute and for good measure, some loose gravel was also thrown in. At this point Manu and I realised that it wasn't so much going up, as coming down that was the problem. A short while later, a breathless Manu also stopped and decided to wait for me for about half an hour. The top still looked a fair distance away, but I laboured on. I went on for about another 20 minutes and at every turn, a new bend appeared on the other end of the mountain. The road just never seemed to end. It was about then that I decided to abandon the attempt and go back down. As I clambered back down the steep forty degree slope, a sure footed shepherd with his sure-footed sheep crossed my path, smiling away at the poor city boy's plight! I was stepping very carefully as the the downhill path was literally flooded with loose gravel that I could easily slip and slide on. Around ten steps into the cumbersome procedure, the shepherd decided to ask me why I was "limping". It took a few minutes to explain to him how us city folk don't have their feet and can't walk on mountainsides to save our life! ((Right)First failed monastery attempt)
As we got off the mountain and started walking back to our hotel, we happened to notice very deep chain marks on the road. As we headed further up, we got a first glimpse of what was going to come our way on the road to Leh. The river had washed away a part of the road, preventing some trucks from crossing and an earth mover had been called in to move rocks into the river's path. Those were the chain marks we had seen a few minutes back. After having seen the action on the sidelines for a while, we decided to get some excitement ourselves. We voted to cross the river on foot. The first dip in the water was paralysing. The icy water sucked the breath out of all of us as we stepped into the water. An arduous fifteen minutes later we had all figured out a route to the other side and crossed over. Relieved, and excited we headed back to our rooms to wait for our bus, and then Gussu darted in with the bad news.

(Crossing the frigid river as trucks wait for the road to be rebuilt)

Apparently the bus that was supposed to pick us up had got stuck exactly where we had the previous day and wouldn't reach for a while. The day then passed in random tom-foolery as we passed time by playing rather animated games of dumb charades. One case in which Dhar had to portray "Pocahontas" was particularly interesting. Since Gussu didn't know the movie, the name was morphed into "Poke-Haunt-Ass". I leave it to your imagination as to how this was enacted!
We began to worry only around evening, when the bus hadn't turned up till 6. We didn't have a hotel for the night, and the bus driver's phone was out of reach. A few frantic calls later, we heaved a sigh of relief, getting to know that the bus was at last report a few hours away. Manu and I decided to make an attempt on another monastery. We climbed for about an hour and were still far away from the Shasur Monastery when we saw a small black spot hurtling down the road, about a thousand feet below. For some reason, we immediately recognized this little black spot as Dhar and playfully started calling out to him. Dhar seemed rather perplexed. He couldn't spot us but he could hear his name and kept turning around. Soon enough though, he caught our eye and signaled from a distance for us to hurriedly get off the mountain. Following his cue, it was Manu's and my turn to abandon our second monastic attempt for the day and hurtle down the mountain. By the time we got down, a distraught Dhar was waiting impatiently for us. On arrival he informed us that the bus had actually managed to turn up before time, and while couldn't make it to Sarchu that night, we'd still make it to Darcha, about 40kilometers away. What followed was a scary two hour ride in pitch black conditions, right next to a raging river that would've washed us away, had a single stone slipped from that narrow road. The interesting bit was that we were four of only five Indians on a bus of about 20 people. Just goes to show the travel mentality of the quintessential Indian traveller eh?
So there we were, at 9 in the night in Darcha, which is practically the middle of nowhere by the river. The only place to stay are two adjacent dhabas with only beds and no toilets! A "room" with tarp walls and a tin roof with one double bed was ready for the four of us! One Maggi, a video, and a game of poker later, we were off...for the next day we would leave at four for Leh. Will we reach Leh the next day finally?? No, as it turns out!

(Our "room" in Darcha)