30 November 2005
After bidding goodbye to the-highest-everything (from telephone tower to toilets), we left Khardung La. Riding down-hill under the early afternoon sun, admiring the walls of snow adjoining the road, little did we know what it held in store for us during the ride back the next evening... anyway, that comes later.
We had our by-now-accustomed dose of icy water flooding the boots, and mini-snow-slides blocking the road... the sun was out, and we were getting our skin burnt and toes frozen at the same time. Someone said (jokingly, perhaps) that Leh might be the only place where you could suffer a frost-bite and sun-stroke at the same time. So we were rather pleased to settle for skin-burn and frozen toes.
The check-posts on either side of Khardung La are called North and South Pullu. Our permits were checked, and we had tea while our dripping socks and boots were left to sunbathe.
We rode on, thoroughly enjoying the late-afternoon ride under the sun... the road was very good and empty. We passed by this village called Khalsar where heard the army test-firing its artillery... we could see clouds of dust rising from not far away. The walls adjoining the road had been used for target-practice once upon a time, so they looked heavily cratered, reminding me of the battlefields in movies like Lakshya.
We were riding alongside the Shey river which had these sandy beaches for boundaries. We rode on, to find more sand, and suddenly there were rocks and pebbles scattered in little sand-dunes on either side of the road for as far as our eyes could see! Welcome to Nubra!
Nubra Valley is the northern-most part of India. It also happens to be a proper sandy desert at 10,000 feet! There are sand dunes, Bactrian camels (with the double-hump) and even wild horses! We'd never seen anything like it before. We opened up the throttle so that we could reach the bigger dunes in time for sunset.
While Gopal and I raced into the desert like mad men, with the camera and the handycam, Joy sat not far from the road, soaking in the 'northern-most' stat, completely calm and impassive, as if he was sitting in the corner tea-shop in downtown Villivakkam.
We walked in for a kilometer, without realising it, and then we panned around to see the stunning beauty that surrounded us. We had the sand-dunes stretching out till the road, beyond which, the massive Martian mountain slopes take over. As we admired the out-ofthis-world rock-formations, out of nowhere, a waterfall gushes out of the cliff. Amazing. Further down on either side of the brown slopes, the snow-capped peaks reflect the golden evening sun. Just when we thought nature couldn't throw anything more at us, we were greeted by a little stream - a few metres wide - bang in the middle of the desert, with little thorny shrubs and slightly bigger trees crowding up to form a wide patch of greenery. Oh, and the dry bed of an oasis, which looked like a gorgeous set tiles. Oh, wait, there was also an ocean on one side, with a beautiful beach, with hippos surfing... ok, just kidding!
It was a sensory overdose. Just when we'd think that we'd seen it all, something amazing would come and sweep us off our feet... that was like the underlying theme of the trip.
We were surprised and delighted to find a group of (four) wild horses crossing the stream. Because there is nowhere to hide, we approached them slowly, but obviously couldn't help getting noticed. They became alert, slowly moving out of the water as we got closer. I removed my boots and crossed the stream, which had the softest bed of sand imaginable. The sand seeped in between my toes, giving this heavenly sensation, and my feet would sink close to a foot into the sand. It was scary at times.
So I crossed the stream, and ran after horses... my stupid brain didn't realise that I was no Jesse Owens, or that the horses were no Joys. So I ran, with my lungs pleading for more air, until my head started spinning and stars appeared in front of my eyes... sometimes I'd be within filming distance of the horses, trying to get the handycam out, with my hands shaking unsteadily, only to see the horses jog away in effortless two-metre strides... turning back every now and then to tease me. The horses would prance around to dry their feet - boy! Was that spectacular or what! I just stood there, holding the handycam, my mouth wide open.
They looked so serene and beautiful in the wild. I can't believe people bring every animal on earth into zoos.. they should just let them be. It's like my neighbour trying to teach her dog how to shake hands with people... and screaming at it if the poor thing can't understand what's happening.
Anyway, back to Nubra... my knee, which was bruised at Khardung La that afternoon, was throbbing with pain, and my lungs were threatening to burst out... the horses had gained too much distance and I suddenly realised that the sun was setting fast... it was close to 7:30 in the evening and I was a good 2 kms from the road. I crossed a dozen sand-dunes, to catch up with Gopal, who got some awesome photos... unfortunately, I haven't got them scanned yet, so I can't upload the slr snaps as of now. Anyway, Gopal gave his by-now-customary 2 min accented speech, on desert ecosystems. We joked around, made fun of Joy, whom we'd not seen for a couple of hours then. As we trekked back, sliding down the dunes and hopping over the brittle tiles of the Oasis bed, we felt like we'd experienced something special that day. It was, in a way, like our first picnic in school. All the excitement, the sense of discovery, the fulfillment ... it all came back.
The sun was almost down, it was past 8 when we shared our experiences with Joy, squatting in the middle of the road, pondering over our new-found benchmark for the 'lonely planet'. So we took out the guidebook, cranked the pulsar alive and switched on the headlamps. As I read out the section under 'Hunder' and 'Diskit', we sat there, with darkness engulfing us rapidly, wondering where to crash for the night in that godforsaken place.
21 November 2005
Just that this happened to be the World's highest - Khardung La. 18,360 ft. The rest of the stats can be read off that picture. Pretty amazing that we have a road this high. And what's even more amazing is that they manage to keep the road open every single day! It's perhaps the second most important road (in my not-entirely-educated opinion) in this country, after the Kargil-Drass road which borders the Line of Control. This happens to be the only overland route for supplies to Siachen. The army guys have thermal bunkers... beds crammed in the sides, with sleeping bags, warm clothing and other utilities lying (or hanging) all over the place. It really felt like entering a home. When a handful of people sit inside, the place feels tight... everyone is close to everyone else, there is a sense of warmth and togetherness, which I think is more important than we tend to assume. I'll never forget the voice of one of those army guys (the one in the picture below), or his eyes... I developed a much deeper understanding of loneliness, hope and guts.
Gopal went crazy with the camera... spent two minutes filming himself from different angles, from as far as his hands would extend... the usual accented talk... sharing his knowledge on the world's highest road, which were, not coincidentally, neatly stenciled on the huge yellow stone. Occasionally, he'd get tired of filming himself, and turn the camera at Joy and scream "Say 'hi' to World's Highest Joy!"
The World's highest road didn't give me any special high. It looked beautiful, just like the world's second and third highest roads the preceding week. The tag of the world's highest or tallest or strongest or whatever doesn't really sink in. I was telling myself that this was IT, and that I was supposed to be on a special high... but just the knowledge of being on the highest road didn't mean much to me. Joy, on the other hand, loves these highest/deepest/fastest tags... like just reading the suffix 'est' is enough to get him excited. For example, If I tell him that Congo is beautiful, he would probably look at me and yawn. But if I tell him that it's the Most Beautiful or No.1 Beautiful place in the world, he'd say "Machi, does Indian Railway have a train to... cuz I can use my free pass. I could take you along, for FREE (he'd pause and think of a deal)... in exchange for those boots."
We were joking how Joy would eventually get employed with the UN (his dream job) and open some merchandise store for aiding relief or something, called "The UN-fair deal shop"
This Punjabi army guy was kind enough to take us on a little hike up the snow slope adjoining the road, to this stone-shrine... not to our surprise, we saw Buddhist prayer flags fluttering merrily near the shrine.
There was just mountains and mountains of fresh-snow... white as it gets, with the bright sun reflecting off the slopes, and the cloudless, stunning blue sky contrasting beautifully with the white snow and the brown barren slopes.
While hiking up to the shrine, my right foot slipped into a little crevasse and I hurt my knee. It's amazing how much a little bruise on the knee could hurt so much when the air is thin. The throbbing pain just wouldn't let go. I sat there clutching my knee in pain, while Gopal was happily filming my agony.
Then I wondered how these guys defend the country at these heights. These guys must've overcome things like pain and disorientation early in their lives. Imagine running at these altitudes, fully loaded with supplies and weapons... running to save your life and to defend the country, while countless millions sit and watch television in the comfort of their homes, completely oblivious to what these guys go through. Too bad what these guys do isn't so romantic, or telivised... or maybe it's just that people don't want to face reality and see the truth. We're making heroes out of moviestars, cricketers... it's a shame. How many of us remember the names of Param Vir Chakra Awardees? Or what they did - for us. Something's gotta be wrong somewhere.