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)

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