30 November 2005

Subra in Nubra

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.

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