I wondered what people felt or experienced in their first out-of-country experience. Today, I was going to experience one.
Abu Dhabi, 15 Nov 2015 0900 GST
As the Boeing 737 flew over the Arabian sea and then over the North Eastern peninsular tip of Saudi Arabia, it gave a lovely but a strange feeling. I loved watching “Untamed Africa” on Discovery channel in my school days. The charm of the African continent always lured me, The sand dunes of the Sahara to Masai Mara. This was still Asia, but close to Africa!
Flying at 35,000 ft. the air was very clean, even down below things looked pretty neat. The almost red sandy brown color of the dunes glowing in the early rising sun was the astonishing. The barren brown was sometimes dotted with some dwellings. Further west, Oman and the mountains of Fujairah, the plane slowly descended for its approach to Abu Dhabi. The houses down below were neatly carved in a very geometrical grid like fashion. They too replicated the hue of the environment. None of the houses had any stark bright color, but an earthly shade of dusky browns and creams. Each one of them having a small yard ahead bordered with palm trees. As I stepped out on the aero-bridge, the outsides seemed vast, eternally golden brown. The airport having turfed greens along the taxing route to add a little dash of artificial vegetation.
We were up early and Koncho, our driver called right at 6.30am. Before 7 we were already on the road in yet another Innova ride. The road to Pangong is first down south of Leh and then travels eastwards. Its a fairly long journey for the Ladakhi terrain, around 160km through the tough mountains. Our last bike ride experience had ensured that we let go of any idea of traveling to Pangong on the bike. The bike owner had said the road passes through Chang La another high mountain pass and there are no petrol pumps till you return back, so fuel has to be carried on the bike. With our great experience the other day, Innova was a much comfortable choice.
Our first stop was at Karu, a junction where the road from Leh heads down south towards Manali. Koncho said the petrol pump was the last one enroute to Manali, next one would be only after 350km in Himachal Pradesh. Our road however moved eastwards, after a heavy and delicious breakfast of Aloo parathas by a non-ladakhi woman. I guess she was from HP by the looks of her high cheek bone, frosted rosy cheeks and blue eyes which weren’t narrow.
Soon enough the road started climbing upwards and the tarmac converting itself into globules of white rocks. As we climbed higher we overlooked Sakti, a village where our nodding Padma had gone visiting her natives, they too called it गांव. The road worsened, he said few days back there was a rainfall, due to which a lot of sand, stone and soil had come down from the hills and uprooted and spoiled the road. The nature of the soil and rocks was very lose, you could disturb the balance by a minuscule force. Climbing up, I asked Koncho what do the locals do when the tourist season is over, he replied many go down “South” (He always referred Ladak as North, नॉर्थ के लोग) while others like him drove trucks, cars for the Army as even the army’s drivers weren’t skilled enough to drive on the treacherous, slithery, icy single-laned roads on the mountains. Continue reading Leh Ladakh Trip: Pangong Lake→
Sleep didn’t seem to come. Even after last day’s ride which was tiring, I kept waking up every 2 hours or so. Around 3am, I felt I was struck with viral fever, my body was aching, sleep wasn’t coming by and I wasn’t just feeling good enough. Somehow time just passed, wriggling in the nice warm thick soft cotton blankets. I kept hearing Siddarth wakeup, sneezing he was choking ’cause of his heavy cold. Kept muttering something loudly, only guy who seemed to be dozing was Sourabh who had got the injection for Altitude Sickness at Bagso.
We made a grave mistake last night by booking bikes to roam around Leh, to Alchi, Likir Monastery, etc. We again had to climb almost a km. up hill for breakfast on the Fort road. I was feeling nauseated, even though hungry I couldn’t eat more than a single Cinnamon bun. Tea was just for taste and gave it away to Sourabh. Already feeling tired, all of us, somehow picked up the bikes, me with Siddarth on Bullet 500 and Sourabh riding alone on Avenger.
It wasn’t even 20kms or so that I noted Sourabh was dragging behind a lot, Somehow we stopped near Nimmu for the confluence’s snap in the late morning. He complained his bike wasn’t in a great condition so was he. Ahead while I was riding easy waiting for Sourabh to catch up, Sourabh came roaring from the back halting us to stop.
नही हो रहा है ! उल्टी जैसा लग रहा है, मैं नही चला पाऊंगा, मैं लौटता हूं
We were close to a military camp and asked a jawaan if he can rest by the road side, he suggested to go little ahead in Bhagso in the Primary Health Care clinic. At the clinic, the Dr. gave him an injection and asked him not to ride the bike, we decided we’ll move ahead and on our way back get Sourabh back around 4pm till then he would sleep and rest. Sourabh was dizzy with headache and nausea when we left him in the clean, beautiful ground + single floored govt. clinic. Continue reading Leh Ladakh Trip: Roaming along, Alchi, Likir, Leh→
The driver enquired in the morning. The body seemed to be little deprived of sleep, even though there wasn’t any city late night social occasion or last moment code or presentations. A slightly heavy head since last evening seemed to have reduced but lingered there. We moved for Leh by 7am, climbing over the Suru river’s tributary – the Wakha river. Had a small breakfast of Ladakhi roti and tea and headed to Mulbekh’s Buddaha. A small monastery on the Kargil – Leh highway. The chill in the air was evident, every single person in around covered head to toe. Breeze was a constant companion here.
We crossed multiple passes, amongst them a 3700m Namikila top. The landscape continued to be barren and naked. At times resembling the overflowing thick skin of fat fawn colored Neapolean mastif. We stopped for Army Cafe to fill the voids with momos and tea. The Cafe actually run by the army, was manned by 2 jawans both from Maratha infantry. A big silhouetted Shivaji painting adorned the door of the cafe. Further ahead Fotula (4100m) had to be crossed which took us into Lamyaru Monastery, one of the largest and oldest Gompas in Ladakh. It was here that I had a first hand experience of the clay-baked walls of Ladakh.
The lunar landscape of Ladakh became so devilish yellow looking after Lamyaru, that its actually a tourist attraction – The Moon Land. The fawn colored thick skin changing to sulpher yellow colored clay with even softer self holding capacity.
We had our lunch by 1.30pm at Khalsi in a Punjabi Dhaba, a scarce resource in this part of the world in orchards of Apricots and Apple. After snoozing off in the vehicle for long, we halted on a flat land where the driver told that this a very long straight road. After a few snaps and some more drowsy minutes we stopped at yet another flat road.
ये मेगनेटिक हिल है
The Magnetic Hill, he put his car on neutral and demonstrated how the car is being pulled uphill on slight slope. Unable to comprehend on whats really going on, we felt its pointless to just assume the magnetic nature of the place and we headed further ahead overlooking the Gurudwara, to Leh.
Leh’s entry is marked by the Indus’ tributaries. One such is Zanskar river. We stopped on a ghat which overlooked the confluence of the Zanskar and the Indus rivers which continued ahead as Indus. After the confluence at Nimmoo Leh welcomed us with a barrage of Military camps and postings. These gave away for a more civil traffic on the roads, with shops, hawkers and hordes of cabs. We settled for a home stay on the Fort Road. It was close to 5pm.
In the night we walked up the Fort road almost a kilometer to a restaurant for dinner. Along the way we also booked a Bullet and Avenger motorbikes for our next day’s trip to Likir, Alchi and other close by sight seeing. The climb had left us exhausted ! Leh’s high altitude and this kilometer long climbing road made us pant ! It feels strange to just walk a few meters and feel exhausted – that’s high altitude’s low oxygen showing off!
… the broker kept intervening our bargaining with the cab driver/owner for the Srinagar-Leh trip. “the owners” was a hint for us to not demean the guy since he was the owner of the cab and not just a rented driver. Finally the deal was set for ₹12K for Toyota Innova with an overnight halt at Kargil. Post the bargain another fellow followed us for a shikara ride, Mr. Young Noor Mohd. The “Young” in the name not different from the English one. However the shikara fellow was well in his late 50s, a slim short, with creases on his forehead typical of a hardworking labourer in the high altitude villages and towns of Himalayas. The shikara moved along the weed infected Dal lake of Srinagar into the thin pleasantly cold air, the surrounding mountains, hills overlooked the valley with a parental care. Next day we had to cross these parental protection and get into the harder terrain, where the altitude changed so dramatically that even the grass, let alone the trees and plants ceded to grow.
30 Aug, 2015
Next day as the Innova rolled through the winding turns of Srinagar’s streets dotted with Army jawans, the ever so beautiful Poplar trees on the sides bore a perfect foreground for the picturesque backdrop of the Deodar, Cinar, Birch trees hills. The hills completely covered by the silk green velvet grass. Indus / Sindhu welcomed us for a tea stop near Wayul. The blue-green-gray cold water flowing downhill right from Leh, our destination. The gray pebbles, rather almost white teasing Indus to play along its journey to Pakistan.
En-route was Sonamarg, almost 2 hours from Srinagar, The ‘meadow of gold’ has green hills, with trees only on the higher reaches of the mountains. A breakfast of paratha and Kashmiri-roti – which resembles Tandoori-roti (although smaller and thicker) and tastes halfway between tandoori-roti and a Naan. The driver, Mr. Javed Mohd. had a नंकीन चाय or Kashmiri tea, a pink colored pungent liquid made out of milk, black salt and other spices.
Further ahead we moved past the start of the route to Amarnath Shrine. Soon, we were at the dreadful Zojila or the Zoji Pass. A rocky pass with white sand and rocks. The road eroded to the basics, with just rocks, sand and grains collaborating to form a partially forming a road. Horizontal, climbing, lose with rocks and pebbles and extremely dusty. The width of the road at times only wide enough to accommodate a single vehicle. If trucks came from opposite direction, either of them had to reverse on that terrain to get back where little more land was available to ply. The green, silky mountains had changed into a completely rocky feature with only hints of Our driver showed us the “India Gate” a vertical column of stone on the right. This marks the start or the end of the rocky pass. After we were in a partially tarred road on a flatter ground, but yet overlooking the rocky intimidating mountains. A big sign over the road welcomed us at Zojila (Alitude: 3517m) and into Ladakh.
Ladakh means the “land of high passes” in the local Ladakhi or Bhoti language. “La” means a pass, so Zojila is “Zoji Pass”. The name very evident for the traveller in Ladakh. No ride / drive longer than 20km misses a high pass watched over by sometimes soulful other times angry rocky hills.
Another 2 hours of drive led us through more barren land and mounts into the war zone, Dras. Javed stopped for lunch and showed us the Tiger Hill a taller and distinguishable conical feature amongst 100s of other rocky cliffs. A small board invited us into the second coldest inhabited place, Dras. Post lunch the stop was at Kargil war memorial not very far away from Dras. A typical military curated, paved, marked, beautified roads led us to the memorial. Where a jawan asked us to walk through the “विजय पथ” and assemble at the briefing point. Here he gave a 15-min long briefing about the war and the memorial, shouting loud into the cold breezy open desert. For many even walking along was a arduous task, this guy continued with dedication and thick voice emitted right from the depths of the stomach.
Kargil town was just an hour from that place. We found a hotel and went to see PoK (atleast thats what we thought). However we were taken higher into another local hill, climbing for almost 30min to a place called Hundarman. Where the driver stopped and pointed us to a far off village with just over 15-20 huts.
वो पाकिस्तान का गांव है
A small river flowed through the base of the hills, further north, the river divided the countries. The village was around 2-3 km away from that place. The climbing road too had signs of “Warning: mines ahead” which ensured atleast local tourists didn’t get too nosy. The road continued even further up into the mountain where there were few Indian families living and primarily occupied by bunkers of Indian Army.
We experienced the treacherous conditions in which the Indian army is functioning. Where every single step is an effort for the common man, the jawan parades, runs, climbs and kills.
As the journey finally came to a halt with the AI 668 touching down on CSIA we had travelled well over 3800 kms in total out of which 1100 kms were on the bicycle and the other distributed over bus, rail, ferry and flight. I wonder what did we get out of the journey ? To start with I wouldn’t forget some of these…
In Kerala, while we travelled early morning typically during the early school hours around 8:00am, It was wonderful to see kids boys and girls alike packed in their school buses or walking in a long file on green grass to get their daily dose of education. I remember Surya saying he was so happy to see kids trot to school unlike his state of UP. The schools too were fairly well established. Most of the boys out stretching their hands to high-five us travellers, perhaps a sense of adventure they enjoyed by doing that while girls just stared from the corner of their eyes and giggled. No religion stopped them from getting their share of education.
Just as kids, all travellers along the road were equally perplexed by two cyclists carrying a small back-pack along. Doesn’t it feel good to enjoy a brief chat with a total stranger who asks you about your native, the road you travel and then finally wishes a warm luck from his heart? At times motorcycle riders used to travel alongside us and kept talking. Near Ankola a rider almost kept chatting for 5 minutes covering well over 2-3 km, in Kerala a random rider would start in Malayalam and after acknowledging our reactions would promptly start in English.
Travelling always takes you along some beautiful places. And its at these places you wonder that all the slogging we do at our work in cities is for a peaceful life. While travelling through Padukere road near Malpe, the residents of that road had a narrow land strip of 20km to themselves with sea and back water bordering it and a small lovely cottage for their dwelling amidst coconut trees. I wonder if the richest could afford such a peaceful luxury in the urban jungles. Life completing a full circle over here, with the natives enjoying their daily chores in the surroundings.
The joy of discovering a new town everyday! Every single moment on the trip we ended up looking and experiencing something new. Every evening when we headed out after our wash into the new town / village we’d experience the similar but still a different vibe of the place. Even in urban Mangalore, we discovered the special taste that people had for “Gobi Manchurian” which further down south was intact as a vegetarian delicacy – though the name of the dish getting corrupt to “Gopi Manjuri”. The entire southern India’s effort to keep their waters clean was astounding, no where from Goa to Kanyakumari did we find plastic bottles or bags or filth floating in the water, they kept it clean as their own surroundings. The love people had for southern cinema, especially the male actors – they were worshipped! Leave aside Rajni sir, even newer entrants like Surya had fan following and fan-clubs in villages with their posters. Southern India has a special liking to worship. Once I found a poster of Paul Walker with bold lettering – Always Remembered ! That place was a car garage!
Most of our journey was through Kerala, it wouldn’t be wrong if I could call this a Kerala trip. In Kerala people love fruits, every corner you’ll find neatly decorated and arranged fruit shops. And its these fruits that we loved through out our journey. I must’ve had over 20 Pineapple juice glasses and addition to it was Black Grapes, Mosambi for Surya and our ever-green Sugarcane juice. Sugarcane was like our recreational drug – every time we had it on a hot, sweaty day, It gave us an instant high. Bananas – I generally dislike bananas, but I found them as best source of early morning diet. It was definitely on this trip that I’ve really understood the importance fruits and the flavour along with colour that it adds to the life.
Every new day that we started, we were apprehensive of the road, the people, the route, whether we’d have a problem with our cycles… But as the day followed the negative thoughts moved away and we absorbed the moment as it was. By the end of the day it gave you a sense of victory that we’d travelled around 100km unscathed and joyous.
There is obviously more to the trip but somethings are left best to be experienced hot and first hand rather than reading it on your cool office bay.