4 February 2006
The Nastiest Ride
The ride back from Panamik to Leh was one of the toughest of the entire trip.The intense heat from the sun melts the mountains of snow by the roadside, and by the time we reached there in the evening, the World's Highest Road had morphed into the World's Nastiest.
It was deja vu from our ride on the World's Second Highest Road... lack of energy, fatigue, beaten up bodies, icy water in the boots, stiff icy winds, piles of loose rock and a gushing stream on top to ride on... it was all that and worse. I can't quite explain how it felt. Disorientation is too soft a word. We shut everything out of our heads. It was just survival. We didn't think that we were on a trip, doing all these wonderful things... everything seemed trivial. The scenery whizzed past us like a blur. I only remember the soft yellow light from the setting sun reflecting off the surrounding snow slopes and giving us the most beautiful, softest natural yellow lighting imaginable.
This time, we didn't stop to feel the World's Highest Whatever, we didn't give out our widest grins to the camera - heck, we couldn't even hold a camera in our hands. Fingers, toes, cheeks, nose, ears - everything was frozen numb. We just wanted to reach Leh. Alive. Nothing else mattered. There could've been a fortune lying nearby, or the hottest babe on earth parked by the side of the road, and we couldn't have cared less. We had our horse-blinds on.
When we reached the first army camp on the climb down from Khardung La, we didn't need to think before barging into the canteen. Our instincts completely over-ruled our minds that evening. The warmth inside that four-walled confinement cannot be explained. It was the warmest warmth we had ever experienced. We didn't keep count of the number of parathas, omelets and chais we downed... Joy was extremely displeased when he was served an omelet when he'd asked for a half-boil (a.k.a bull's eye). We were just grateful that someone is nice enough to feed us at 18,000 ft., but Joy is so used to blemishless customer-service in the tea-shops in Aynavaram and Vikkivakkam that he couldn't hide his irritation with the omelet. He held it as if it were a dead rat and said "If he doesn't have the knowledge to make a half-boil, he should admit it! How can he do this to me?" For Gopal and me, it was just an excuse to down another omelet. Joy never ate anything that day. I think he has enough reserves of everything to hibernate through a Siberian winter.
So we rode on, engulfed by pitch darkess, with only our headlamps glowing for as far as our eyes could see. I'll never forget that ride. I sat tight behind Joy, holding on to dear life as he showed off his dare-devil night-riding skills.I think he felt like he was riding a bike in some video game... he'd push the limits, take sharp, reckless turns... like if something went wrong, he could press 'Esc' and select 'New Game' or 'Restart'. During one of the innumerous bends, Joy slanted the bike so hard that the enfield's foot-rest hit the road and the bike jerked violently... madness. I bet if anything had gone wrong that night, we'd have been pretty darn close to The End.
But we survived to tell the story... and reached Leh late that night. After much struggle, we found a decent room, ate like we'd not seen food for a week and crashed like we'd not slept since we were born. We were just happy to be alive, and fortunate for all the little things that made the trip happen. We're just lucky. We don't even realise how much.