Sunday, October 31, 2010

Déjà vu- Chapter 5- Then There Were Two (Nubra Valley)

Travails of grad school have almost ensured the death of my blog, and with it, my travelogue; but every story, regardless of whether anyone reads it or not, deserves an ending. This story is etched in my memory like it was yesterday, and so I shall labour on till I bring it to its rightful conclusion. Bring it on grad school! Now read on...

I had a similarly named chapter in The Circle of Life, primarily because in every trip, something changes when the number reduces to two. I am yet to reach a level of understanding that allows me to articulate what this something is, but something changes. The morning of the 25th of June saw the departure of Manav and PP, leaving Mohsin and me as the final two survivors of this trip. Of course, Khalid would join later with his friend Balli, and double up that number yet again. Enough about numbers though, the thing about being just two travellers in Ladakh, is that one gets to meet a larger number of strangers in the shared cab rides. Mohsin and I were quite excited about the idea of visiting Nubra; I personally was very excited about crossing Khardung La, the highest motorable road in the world.

A rainy and gloomy morning welcomed the two of us, something that seemed rather out of sorts in Leh. We got ready and hurriedly headed to the crossroad near our hotel where the familiar face of Jigme stood with his familiar car. Two new faces, however, had also materialized. These two gentlemen, would be our co-travellers for the next 36 hours. One of them was Himanshu, a doctor from Chandigarh, and very little will be said about him in this post, and even less in a very flattering tone. The other gentleman, however, was a very interesting person to be travelling with. Enter, John Vass, the travelling septuagenarian. I only realized John's age a few hours later as we sat and discussed war (where he shared experiences as a kid in the second World War) in the heart of the Nubra valley. John had been travelling for the last five years, from country to country, spending all the money he had earned for the past forty-odd as a Company Secretary in England. On this leg, he had started in South-East Asia, moved up via Thailand and Myanmar, gone into Tibet and finally landed in Ladakh. His future travel plans were even more interesting. He was planning to go to Indonesia in three weeks and then finally land up on one of the islands of Vanuatu in the Pacific Ocean. John seemed to like the hermit way of life, constantly seeking to get away from civilization. Even on this trip, his plan was to stay on for a few days in Nubra and trek around. Those plans would be thwarted by a surprise obstacle, but I'll get to that later. For now, we were slowly motoring up the mountains to Leh's north, under a constant, sharp drizzle. As we climbed further up, towards South Pullu, the checkpoint on this side of Khardung La, the laws of nature had taken their course and the rain turned to snow.

(Above: Clockwise from top-left: A snowy drive to Khardung La, at the Khardung La zero-point, Jigme on a frozen floor, North Pullu)

It was snowing quite heavily as we drove right up to the zero-point at Khardung La. The floor of the local Army cafe had frozen over in places. Jigme, the frisky man that he is, proceeded to perform an impromptu moonwalk on the frozen areas of the floor as we bought some supplies. The toilets, the highest in the world, were outside, and by now filled with snow. Khardung La is at an altitude of 18,380 feet above sea level. This is the highest a car can go anywhere in the world. This road is also a key supply route for the army to get supplies to the soldiers posted at the Siachen glacier, which is the highest battlefield in the world. More soldiers die in Siachen because of the cold, than due to enemy firing. On moving further, we found that the road had narrowed considerably and we soon ran into a bottleneck, as two trucks tried to pass each other in the distance. Mohsin and I decided to take a walk while the traffic jam abated, and were pleasantly surprised at how well acclimatized we had become to high altitude. In the last four days, we had traversed the three highest motorable passes in the world. The traffic jam eased out soon, and so did the snow; so the sun was out by the time we reached North Pullu, the check-point on the other side of the pass. North Pullu also offered us a glimpse of the valley of the Nubra river in the distance. As we drove down from North Pullu, it was really hard to miss the Grand-Canyon-esque structures that the Nubra river was creating. Of course, it wasn't as grand as the natural landmark in the US, but one could think of this as a scale model of the same. The drive down was smooth and swift, and following a quick lunch where John was given a short tour of Indian food, we were at a fork. Right ahead were Diskit and Hunder, and to our right, across the bridge on the Nubra river, was the monastery at Sumur. Right next to the bridge, was also the conjunction of the Nubra and Shyok rivers. We took the right and drove to the Sumur monastery.

(Above: Left to right: "Grand Canyon-esque" structures, main prayer hall of Sumur monastery)

The Sumur monastery is located on the ancient silk route. In fact, the route at the base of the mountain is vaguely visible from the huge courtyard of the monastery. The drop in altitude was apparent; we didn't puff our way up the hill and we certainly weren't puffing as we marched into the main prayer hall at Sumur. Then followed a small guided tour of Mahayana Buddhism, courtesy Jigme. He explained to us, the meaning of the murals of the Buddha and the parables painted on the walls of the monastery. Not all of it made a lot of sense, which leads me to believe that Jigme didn't know a whole lot. Mohsin would concur on that line of thought. The visit to Sumur was short, given that there really wasn't much to see. We piled back into Jigme's car. The plan was to head to Hunder and spend the night there. We headed straight back for the fork and took the other turn. We headed straight down the flat road leading to Hunder, crossing a bunch of small waterfalls on the way. We also crossed the monastery at Diskit on the way, but that was something we had planned to visit the next morning. I was staring out of the window at this point, but one of my ears was recording a rather interesting conversation between Himanshu and Jigme. This is how that conversation went:

Himanshu: Can everyone become a Buddhist monk?

Jigme: Yes, everyone can. Even you can.

Himanshu: But if everyone becomes a monk, where will everyone stay?

Jigme: Err...

(5 minutes later)

Jigme: Look! That's the statue of Buddha Maitreya.

(Everyone looks towards a giant statue of Buddha Maitreya

Himanshu: Who is he? Isn't the Buddha someone else?

Jigme: We believe that this world order will be destroyed and a new world created. Buddha Maitreya will be the Buddha in the new world order.

Himanshu: But if the whole world is destroyed, that statue will also be destroyed!

Jigme: Err...

Needless to say, that conversation Mohsin and me entertained right until the point where we began to see the sand dunes at Hunder. We stopped the car and got out to look out over the valley floor, and we found that this was a really strange place. In the same field of view, we could see greenery, mountains, water, clouds and grey sand dunes. Hunder is an amazing combination of many different kinds of landscape. We drove into the village to look for a place to stay, and after looking at various places, we finally chose a homestay run by Sonam and his family. The family had Sonam, two children and the grandparents; supported by one Mr. Sharma, originally from Uttar Pradesh. Sonam's wife lives with their third child in Srinagar, where she is working as a teacher. The family, like most other families I had seen in Ladakh, lives close to the earth. They grow their own vegetables and fruits and have some animals for milk, meat and butter. This, aside from the day job that everyone has. The remoteness of this area would become apparent to us, as we incessantly tried to contact people, barely 300-500 kilometers away, without success most of the time. Having exchanged pleasantries with the family, we realized that the sun was beginning to set, and now would be a good time to hit the dunes in Hunder. An interesting feature of the dunes are the two-hump Bactrian camels. Originally thought to have been brought in from Central Asia, there's a fair number of them here (most of them domesticated) and are used to offer camel rides to interested tourists. Mohsin and I weren't really fond of animal rides, so we decided to explore the grey sands on foot, unintentionally ruining some photographs of an American photography group that had probably paid through its nose to get photographs of what it was convinced was "Real India". John headed off in a different direction, and group clown Himanshu decided to take the two-humped camel for a spin. The sand dunes themselves are rather interesting. If you were to look at the sand closely, you would find a very wide range of colours, which from a larger distance appears grey. The dunes are also pretty high, some going as high as 50-100 feet. There wasn't really much to do aside from sitting on the sand and reminiscing about the trip that was already behind us, now that it was just the two of us left. That being said, there was still over a week to go before we would go back home.

(Above: Clockwise from top-left: Everything in one place at Hunder, two-humped Bactrian camels, tea at Sonam's house, on top of the dunes)

By the time the sun had gone down, a happy and hungry bunch headed down to Sonam's, where a meal of garden fresh vegetables was being prepared for us. By now the two of us were getting used to the warm hospitality of the Ladakhi people. A big part of their hospitality is the butter tea, to have less than two cups of which at any time (and there are about 10 such times in the day) is considered rude. Ergo, a giant flask of butter tea was drained amongst the four of us (John refrained from "rancid" butter tea) as we sat there chatting about Ladakh, and life in remote areas. At this point, the moon began to rise from behind the mountains that bound Hunder. The clouds, the moon and the shadow of the trees that blocked parts of the moonlight, created a very scenic set-piece, one that I refused to not photograph. Himanshu would also join in the action, with his fancy D-SLR set on the automatic mode. Living close to the earth was quite an enriching experience. Fresh food has a different flavour altogether. We retired early that night; for one we were quite tired, and everything else aside, there was really nothing to do.

(Above: Left to right: Night at Hunder, with Sonam (white hat) and his family (gradma missing in action))

We woke up to a bright sunny morning (and you guessed it, more butter tea). Sonam's father was busy beating fresh butter to serve to with our morning bread. John materialized from his cabin after a while, and looked worried. An old sinus infection he had picked up in China had resurfaced, derailing his plans for a longer stay in Nubra. He decided to leave with us for Leh. A sumptuous breakfast, and a few bright and smiley photographs later, we were on the road again. Our first stop, was the monastery at Diskit, that we had crossed the previous day (also the scene of a great conversation between Jigme and Himanshu). Jigme gave us another quick lesson in Buddhism (which, again, I suspect was utterly erroneous) whilst we puffed up the steep steps of the Diskit Monastery. The whole area was undergoing renovation in preparation of the Dalai Lama's visit in July. From the main prayer room of the Diskit Gompa, we got a stunning panoramic view of the Nubra and Shyok Valley, with the statue of Buddha Maitreya in the foreground, followed by a vast expanse of flat land and then the towering mountains in the distance. Unfortunately, the upper levels of the statue were closed because of renovation, but we did manage to get close enough to it to admire the sheer size of this colourful creation. About half an hour later, we were driving on the road back to Leh, smack in the middle of the Enfield India Himalayan Odyssey. The Himalayan Odyssey is an annual Enfield motorcycle rally that usually tours Ladakh around June-July. This was a pretty dispersed set of over hundred bikes. At North Pullu, where we had to wait for a substantial period of time, so that the army convoy coming from the other side could pass, Mohsin and I engaged one of the participants of the rally, Harsha, in conversation about his journey so far, the intricacies of Tamil politics and other sundry things. Over a smoke, he told us about his struggle to get across Khardung La two days ago, where he'd nearly been frostbitten. Towards the end of that conversation, Harsha was joined by Inayan, his friend from the south whose biggest contribution to my life has been to teach me a word in my own mother-tongue that I wasn't aware of- I still educate people about toasting drinks with the word "Magilchi" ("happiness" in Tamil). Soon it was time for all of us to leave North Pullu and we bade farewell to Harsha and Inayan, two more eccentric additions to this story.

(Above: Clockwise from top-left: The view from Diskit, riders from the Himalayan Odyssey, just below the Khardung La zero-point, Leh and the Stok range)

We were slowly labouring our way up the steep roads leading to Khardung La, flanked on three sides by Enfield bikes and on the fourth by a steep and unpleasant drop into the Nubra valley. A blockage near the throat of the pass gave Mohsin and me some more time to walk around in the snow and admire the view. It was bright and sunny as we crossed Khardung La, as opposed to the previous day, when it had been snowing. In the bright, clear sky, we got a great view of the Stok range that forms the western wall that bounds Leh. The highest peak in the Stok range, the Stok Kangri was also clearly visible. Right after we crossed Khardung La, we were also finally able to get through to Khalid- well, not really, he seems to really love being at the market (more on that later). A quick half hour long descent followed and we wheeled right back on to the Upper Tukcha road where Ifti's assistant was waiting for us in the office of Snowfield Tours and Treks.

We parted ways at the Snowfield office. Mohsin and I would leave for Kargil the next morning, John headed his own way, and I would receive an email from him about three weeks later, telling me that he was on a remote island in Indonesia.This was also the last time we would see Jigme, who had been such a great friend to have around during our travel through Ladakh. Mohsin and I spent a relaxed evening, and made another trip to our favourite, "World Garden Cafe". The night came with its own sense of melancholy for me, a return of that sense of déjà vu, because I wasn't too happy about leaving Leh the last time around either. But there was more to look forward to. Khalid was waiting in Kargil and had plenty of places to take us to. For now though, this was the end of Leh; or at least that's what the plan was.

(Above: One last picture with Jigme and the white Qualis)

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